Life Without Sleep – an excerpt

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.


The Great White


Snow sifted down outside. It sifted past the third-floor window where a headphone-clad Emilie sat sketching, oblivious to the white flakes, and to the raised voices of her parents in the room next door. It sifted past the upturned, bearded faces of the old twins in the apartment below, who clung to each other, rapt. It sifted past José’s forgotten, frostbitten herbs resting on a windowsill that had not been lit from inside for weeks now. And it sifted down to the square of patio where Marc’s shadow fell, which, unmoving, belied the speed of his fingers spidering across the keyboard.

Muted sounds: the ding of a tram, a metal whisk in a glass bowl, a dog’s bark; all muted by the soft, perfect snow.

As if powered by the hood of silence, the slideshow in Marc’s mind had gathered speed until he had thrown his pencil aside and advanced to his computer, previously a fearful thing, a threatening thing, but this evening a channelling thing, a converter of these flying, fleeting images into words—into solid, sellable words.

For too many months the milky square of the computer screen had stared at him: empty months. Now, its white glow made him a silhouette, and he sat, unmoving apart from his fingers.

No movement above, either, but dust motes settling in the snow-light on José’s abandoned guitar. Further up, the twins turned their faces to each other, one mooning dreamily, the other a gawping mug. High upstairs, sobbing; but also the slick of a page turning, the scratch of a pen.

The falling snow seemed to change the building into a chimney, outside noises dampened and those inside amplified; and in amongst the funnelled, flicking pictures, Marc’s neighbours, too long ignored by him, began to solidify into crystal focus.

His hands worked furiously; a frenzied silkworm spinning lines, embroidering the zipping images into a digital tapestry—not to be unpicked this time but to be anchor knotted, preserved. A matrix unspooled before his eyes: black on white, a reflected negative of the fine-spun snowflakes drifting down beyond the glass.

Suddenly Marc stopped, the silence broken. He cocked his head. A sad, gentle melody had begun to tremble in the gaps between the floorboards, and José was lulling along to the tune in his wistful voice. The twins, hearing their musical friend back after all this time, forgot the snow for a second and why he’d been away and grinned at one another, each clutching the other by the elbows as happiness spilled out of them in noiseless laughter. Above them, Emilie raised one headphone to enjoy the silence of the flittering snow, but instead heard her father crying, and let it snap back into place.

Marc sat back, flexed his wrists, and in the middle of that great white canvas, that pristine, terrifying, optionless Big Empty, he could see a tiny germ greening its way through the crust.

This story was written as an inspiration piece for Mash Stories, a short story competition which gives writers 3 random key words or phrases, and a 500-word limit, to create their best pieces of flash fiction. The key words for this piece were: happiness – mug – converter.


Powder and Perfume

A grainy Saturday morning, and yesterday’s newspaper flaps past the dented metal doors of The Cockpit. The hour is early – not too early for a green-jacketed dog-walker huddled in her collar, but not yet time for the suit in the alleyway to turn away from pissing against the wall of the club and head home.

An hour passes.

Traffic starts to sound in the nearby streets, an alarm clock of sorts. The main doors crack open. Girls emerge, tottering to their taxicabs, ushered home by minders who know nothing of chivalry. They exit one by one: sallow, young, worn, smiling. They go by names like Jazz, Honesty, Chardonnay, Hope, and they look tired.

Men follow, still rubbing their noses and sniffing. Ties loosened and eyes staring, they scramble: tuxedoed cockroaches. In a few hours a couple of them will spoon cereal into their toddlers’ mouths, present their wives with bouquets to mask their own stench.

And right about now, Gina should appear out front, her cat-eye sunglasses her only defiance against the daylight. Stepping out into fresher air, she’ll cock her head on one side and light her cigarette.

The boss is the last to leave. He closes up, chain and padlock, and lapel fur bristles against his five o’ clock shadow. He pats himself down, chest pockets full of wads thanks to the girls, and beeps his Mercedes open. He nods through the windscreen at Gina as she crosses the road in front of him, but she doesn’t nod back. Instead, she strides off, fourteen blocks to her bedsit, where she’ll shower until the water runs cold, then collapse on her saggy mattress. If she dreams, she’ll dream about her son. Usually she dreams of nothing at all.

By the time Gina wakes again, the sun will have cast its low arc across the sky. She’ll smoke at the window, right elbow resting on her left hand as she watches the street below. She’ll sniff disdain at the orange film in the half-a-can of baked beans, but will upend it anyway onto butterless toast and hope that a minute in the microwave will be enough. Then she’ll dress in the same black uniform as yesterday, paint on the same black eyeliner, and make her morning journey in reverse.

Back at The Cockpit, the girls are getting ready for the biggest night of the week. One straddles her friend at the makeup counter, deftly sticking false eyelashes. Another stands topless, hip jutting, brandishing her blow-dryer like it’s a gun, and maybe she wishes it was. Gina pokes her head into the dressing room and the girls turn and wave, coo greetings. Gina smiles grimly at the powder and the perfume in the air.

“Tonight’s the last time I do this,” she mutters at no one in particular, and ducks back out to serve punters at the bar.

“S’what she said last week,” grins the girl with the gun.

This story was written as an inspiration piece for Mash Stories, a short story competition which gives writers 3 random key words or phrases, and a 500-word limit, to create their best pieces of flash fiction. The key words for this piece were: honesty – blow-dryer – cockpit.



Daniel is poised on the edge of the flat roof. His view down – way down – comes to an abrupt end some ten metres below with a smooth expanse of freshly set black tarmac.

“Daniel!” His mother calls, the only one left to stick by him. “Come away from there, darling.” Her cry is plaintive, scared; pathetic. “Please.”

He looks back at her, but it is a brief glance, and meaningless. His attention returns to the ground below, his vision spinning with an almost intoxicating desire to fall… to fly. Another cry from his mother, and he is wrenched sharply from that lulling, tantalising possibility into a jagged-edged place of fear and dread.

“Please, Daniel.” She sounds exhausted.

But it’s like the time – although he was too young to remember, really – his devout aunt had taken him into the Notre Dame Cathedral during the Vespers service. They’d crept in late, and she’d told him to be silent, but that nasty urchin lurking inside of him had wanted out, and he had let forth an inhuman wail at the top of his lungs, lapsing into a fiendish giggle as she dragged him out by the collar, blushing under the glares of the congregation.

It’s like the time he’d just reached out and run his hand up the branch of the monkey puzzle tree in his nana’s back garden, even though he knew why it was called that, knew it would hurt. He does remember that, remembers watching the blood ooze up through his skin, hoping the urchin was satisfied with these ruby jewels he held out in his palm.

And it’s like the time on the beach, when he dropped the rock on his father’s sleeping head. He really should have known better at that age, but always, always, there was the urchin that inhabited him, his whiny demands derisive, relentless until Daniel eventually gave in. His father’d gone to hospital for that, and Daniel to his room for a month.

A breath susurrates coaxingly around him.

Jump, whispers the urchin.

Daniel thinks how odd it is that the urchin’s whisper is only that, a whisper, yet it can drown out his mother’s pleas, which should be deafening from the terror and love in them.

Jump, murmurs the urchin.

Approximately ten years from now, in a flash of clarity, Daniel will remember this moment suddenly, and look up from the passage he is reading on the theory of relativity, out onto a calm expanse of impeccable lawn dotted with zombies and their minders, and wonder if there is an answer in it for him.

In twenty years, Daniel will find himself vomiting into a cracked toilet bowl, the result of participation in yet another drug trial for which he did not entirely, not explicitly, give his consent.

Jump, hisses the urchin.

Jump, mocks the urchin.

And Daniel jumps. In that brief, beautiful moment between sky and earth, he exults in the bliss of the silence that fills his ears.

This story was written as an inspiration piece for Mash Stories, a short story competition which gives writers 3 random key words or phrases, and a 500-word limit, to create their best pieces of flash fiction. The key words for this piece were: monkey – cathedral – relativity.



‘And don’t forget,’ mum was yelling on her way out, ‘you both have appointments at the dentist on Friday!’

‘Just go, already!’ we yelled back in unison from either corner of the house. We heard the door slam, then calm slowly descended as the dogs and the dust settled.

‘Don’t forget,’ I grumbled, heading downstairs, ‘Half-bowl morning and night for Hector, full bowl for Hutch—’

‘—but only in the morning.’ Drew met me in the hallway – my twin, non-identical but still able to complete my sentences, and not just those drummed into us rote-fashion by a mother leaving on the trip of a lifetime.

‘Blah, blah, blah,’ I added for good measure. We laughed at her, though really we were proud: last year, the news of her disease had transformed her. Where others would have crumbled, she became a fearless explorer. She’d already travelled to The Yukon to witness the aurora borealis; now she was on her way to Arizona for the American Astronomical Society’s Annual Meeting, telescope in tow. Her flight to a Nagano observatory to see the Andromeda in a few weeks would complete her Trio, and then, she said, she would settle down and deal with her final months in a more conventional manner.

Her example was impossible not to follow: insistent, infectious positivity. We’d grown up on it, but last year she’d lit the nitro and really kicked it up a gear. At only fifteen, we’d been praised by the doctors for our outlook. But to be honest, now it was mostly her meticulous planning that was holding us together: there was simply no time for misery.

*     *     *     *     *

Later, the kitchen TV was droning the early evening news while we messed around with dinner, a die-hard habit from when granddad was still with us.

‘Where’s the appointment card?’ Drew asked me. He was at the fridge, leafing through the thousands of notes and reminders stuck to it.

‘No idea,’ I replied absently, following recipe instructions with a floury finger.

‘Need to know what time on Friday.’ He always was the more organized one.

…continues on whether Russia’s democracy—’ sound from the TV cut suddenly.

—We’re just getting news in of a train crash near Heathrow,’ a familiar news anchor’s face appeared. I froze mid-stir, looked across at Drew to see that he, too, had paused to stare at the TV. I went cold as footage of a mangled train rotated on the screen. The reporter was talking over pictures of a battered, shredded tube of metal, bent up unnaturally like a broken bone poking through skin.

Drew cleared his throat, tried to speak. ‘Where did mum put her itinerary?’ His voice came out much more quietly than usual.

We looked at each other. Then I dropped my spoon, and we were scrabbling through the papers on the fridge, emptying drawers, frantically trying to find the detailed plan of her journey that she said she’d leave us.

And just then, the telephone rang.

This story was written as an inspiration piece for Mash Stories, a short story competition which gives writers 3 random key words or phrases, and a 500-word limit, to create their best pieces of flash fiction. The key words for this piece were: Andromeda – democracy – dentist.