I get undressed with good intentions: find whatever book I’m currently wading through, read until I feel sleepy, then put down the book. I check my phone to see how much time I have before the alarm goes off – six hours and eight minutes – then switch off the light, snuggle down and give my mind permission to drift away.
But the act of moving has scared away the sleepy feeling and so I lie there in the dark, and within seconds I start to wonder if this is going to be one of those nights, those long, tortuous nights of wakefulness that stretch on forever. But I can’t allow myself to think like that, because thinking about it brings it on. Speak of the devil and he shall appear, apparently. So instead I force myself to focus on something else. What was good about today?
Many of the events of the day – good and bad – are replayed in a loose, almost random order, some of them more than once, some of them with rewritten outcomes. I should have said this, I should have done that, next time it happens I’ll… but I know that’s not true because that’s not how life works. Next time the exact same situation comes up I’ll remember thinking this and I’ll be so astonished by the coincidence that I won’t react in the way I’m planning. I’ll be thinking, “Wow, I predicted this! And I even remember thinking then that I’d be thinking this now!”
So, no, let’s drop a tree-trunk across that particular line of thought because that’s going down the predestination route and I don’t want that. I’ll end up half-convinced that it’s my thoughts that are steering the universe, and that way lies madness.
Nevertheless, the thoughts shuffle around my brain like the carriages on a kid’s train-set. Simple paths, a closed system, rarely doing anything unexpected – or going anywhere different. New information or new ways of thinking are to be shunned: they upset the rhythm and that raises the anxiety and increases the production of adrenaline or dopamine or something. Can’t remember which is which. Gets the heart racing and keeps you awake, anyway. You can’t sleep if you’re anxious, and anxiety about not being able to sleep is the worst. A self-fulfilling diagnosis. A vicious circle. What’s round and dangerous?
Human beings need an off-switch. A button that puts us into stand-by mode, like on a computer. Or sleeping pills that work to the nearest half-hour, something like that. You take a six-hour pill and you fall asleep within, say, thirty seconds, and six hours later you wake up. Of course, the pill wouldn’t shut you down completely. It’d be proper sleep, because you’d need to still be able to wake up to answer the phone or the doorbell or if the house was on fire.
I become aware that I’m still awake so I turn over onto my left side. After a few minutes I sense a tiny fold in the sheet directly under my thigh. It’s barely noticeable, but I know that soon it’s going to feel like I’m lying across a broom-handle. I should move. Shift about a little, but now there’s the risk of a foot accidentally moving into the Dreaded Cold Area. Don’t want that. That’d snap me back to full wakefulness quicker than anything. So I don’t move. I’m cosy now, aware that I’m slowly, steadily, sliding towards sleep. Blankets pulled right up, it’s like soaking in a warm bath, the water up to my neck, perfectly still, no noise, no movements. Just warmth and comfort and peace, and even the gentle dripping of the tap doesn’t disturb the calm: it enhances it. The exception that proves the rule. I’m not sure I really know what that means, but it’s something that people say a lot. Isn’t it one of those mangled sayings, like “the proof is in the pudding”? It should be “the exception that proves the existence of the rule,” right?
Still, what does it mean? Are there any actual examples of an exception that… No! No, not going down that tangent, that diversion that’ll get me all worked up and force me to get out of bed and go look it up, like that time I couldn’t remember the name of the actor who played John-Boy on The Waltons. Richard Thomas. Should have been a huge star but he was never able to shake the John-Boy image. Didn’t he audition to be Luke Skywalker? Maybe not him, but I know William Katt did. He went on to star in The Greatest American Hero. Loved that show. Bet it wasn’t nearly as good as I thought it was back then. Nothing ever is. All the shows that we thought were great when we were kids… most of them were rubbish, but we didn’t know any better. We didn’t have anything to measure them against. Nostalgia is a waste of time. Looking back at how things weren’t. Wagon Wheels were bigger. Summers were sunnier. TV was amazing. It’s all wishful thinking. You can’t go back again and if you could, you’d hate it.
Time passes and it’s like moving house. You keep the good stuff, ditch the stuff you don’t want or need. That’s the way it should be because the past wasn’t rosy and cosy. It was being bothered by swarms of horse-flies at the beach. It was panicking because I didn’t know how to do my homework and didn’t have any way to ask. It was being afraid all the time. Afraid of spiders, of strange dogs, of the horrors that might be lurking in the dark. It was feeling sick every Monday morning and being ashamed because my friends got better presents at Christmas. It was girls I liked but couldn’t talk to and bullies who’d kick my school-bag around the yard like a football. It was feeling utterly powerless and tiny about everything. The past was embarrassing haircuts and bruises that I could never remember the cause of and a pain in my thigh like I’d been shot with poisoned bullets: an agony beyond anything anyone else has ever experienced in the history of forever and then I realise that’s just my exhausted brain processing the sensations of the fold in the sheet beneath me, and I turn over onto my right side.
Life is better now. Sure, the world seems scarier and always on the brink of some disaster but that’s just because there’s more reporting of the news. There’s not more stuff happening, not really. We just didn’t hear about it before. The good news isn’t reported as much as the bad because it’s not sensational enough. The news channels have to be entertaining, not just informative. They tell us what’s going on, yeah, but they’re going to focus on the spectacular. Have to keep the viewers from changing the channel at any cost.
So the news is all about celebrities and sports and earthquakes and political scandals and it barely mentions scientific advances or acts of altruism unless there’s a way to jazz it up with fireworks and bunting. I know that no matter how bad it seems, we’ve been to the edge before and not stepped over into the abyss. Individually, people can be cruel but collectively the human race has a strong will to survive. We just won’t permit thermonuclear armageddon. It’s not in our nature to be actually self-destructive, just virtually. It’s like some horrible vacation spot: we talk about it all the time, but we’re never going there. Maybe focussing on the potential negative outcomes helps us to avoid them?
Maybe it’s a good thing, this culture of horror we’ve created where we’re conditioned to accept that the media will feed us disaster after disaster with pounding regularity, a constant stream, relentless, a never-ending drip-drip-drip of negativity like a tap that we just can’t turn off, steadily adding to the flow of misery, the gushing stream of ignorance, the surging river of helplessness, the unstoppable raging tsunami of…
I whip off the blankets and swing my feet out onto the floor, blearily pad barefoot into the bathroom. I can’t see a thing but I’m a grown-up now: I’m not afraid to pee in the dark.
A minute later I’m lying down once more, pulling the blankets back up and all too aware that I’m now fully awake again. Before I completely settle down I once more check my phone to see how much time I have before the alarm goes off.
Six hours and two minutes.
It’s going to be a long night.
Bio: Michael Carroll is the author of about thirty books, including the acclaimed New Heroes series of superhero novels for the Young Adult market. He currently writes Judge Dredd for 2000AD and Judge Dredd Megazine. Other works include Jennifer Blood for Dynamite Entertainment, Razorjack for Titan Books (co-written with artist John Higgins) and a series of Judge Dredd e-novellas for Abaddon Books. A self-confessed expert in self-confession, Mike lives in Dublin, Ireland, with his wife Leonia and their ungrateful imaginary children Tesseract and Pineapple. He is currently studying for a master’s degree in illiterature and a mistress’s degree in fidelity. In his spare time he worries that there are still actual grown-up adults who don’t eat the crusts on their bread. Visit his marginally awesome website at www.michaelowencarroll.com