It’s not entirely soul destroying, being kept awake at night.
Some nights, I actually get up, out of bed, and catch some Masterchef reruns, or silently, secretly watch a fox selecting his spread from Restaurant Renard – that is, the bin bags out in the street below. From time to time I even open Escoffier’s Guide culinaire and attempt to absorb some of the man’s genius. If I’m desperate to send my eyelids drooping towards blissful, elusive sleep, I’ll reach for the Delia – double-daring insomnia by introducing the additional factor of a language barrier to the old crone’s always-slightly-off-target methods – although once I misguidedly picked Carême off the shelf and was awake for days.
Some nights, if you can believe me, I’m pretty sure I do sleep. Those nights, dawn just appears, rather than gradually poking its nose over the horizon, and that’s when I reckon I’ve been to the land of Nod.
Most nights, though, I just wait. For what, well… that depends on what comes.
A few months ago, old Alphonse upstairs passed away. I was awake when he fell out of his bed above me for the final time. His muffled cry jolted me out of a plan I’d been hatching to set up a tiny restaurant in my dining room, the cottontail-end of which involved keeping rabbits on the roof of our apartment block so that I could serve a delicious beery-gamey stew in the autumn months: I’d call it ‘Hopsalot’ or something equally amusing. I held my breath; usually what followed the thump of his body hitting the threadbare rug at the side of his bed was a lot of scrabbling, humping and grunting as he pulled himself off the floor, but this time, there was just a kind of tapping, and then silence. I sighed, and reached for the phone.
I suppose it was five weeks later that a youngish man came and knocked on my door. I was halfway up the ladder Christelle had loaned me in return for the promise of some madeleines at the weekend, despite the fact that, along with driving and working as an air traffic controller, climbing ladders was precisely the kind of thing my doctor had advised me against. I was busy cleaning tomato sauce off the ceiling because Fabienne from across the hall had lost the lid to my blender when she borrowed it for guacamole last week (even though she ardently refuted this impropriety), and apparently trying to cover the opening with one’s palm was not an adequate alternative.
‘Come in!’ I called out, knowing the door was off the latch and my knees weren’t what they used to be. Wasn’t I expecting Léonard, for his afternoon Darjeeling? I glanced down at the space on my left wrist where my watch should have been before I realised I’d put it on my right that morning; it was only 11am.
I heard someone clear their throat as the door shifted open. I started to climb down, but with my back to the unknown the shiver of a slight panic rode up my spine, and the ladder seemed to warp and melt beneath me. I missed the last rung, swinging wildly for a second before being caught under the armpits by my mystery guest. I found my footing, pushed my glasses back onto my nose, and turned to see the man. I’ll never forget that moment. He had been sporting a vaguely amused, vaguely concerned expression, but as his regard fell on my gazpacho-spattered apron, his eyes seemed to light up. It was as if he was starving, and had just been promised a seven-course meal. I’m telling you, he stared at that tomato pulp like he wanted to make love to my apron, or at least suck it clean. I blinked at him.
‘Hi,’ he smiled, holding out his hand for shaking. ‘I’m Noah. I’ve just moved in upstairs, and I wanted to introduce myself.’
I smiled back, mainly because I couldn’t help it. If Alphonse – boiled-potato, bread-and-butter, milk-and-porridge old Alphonse – had to go, better that he be replaced by a foodie than anyone else. Noah meant we were approaching critical mass in the apartment block.
This is an excerpt from my short story, Life Without Sleep, a darkly comic account of the world through the eyes of an insomniac.