My neighbour let me into her nightmare. Or was it a dream?
The old lady next door told me about something that happens at night, so I wanted to hear it for myself
“It’s Esmeralda that worries me,” said the old lady at the lift. “What I heard her do in the middle of the night – it just doesn’t seem right.”
The old lady’s name is Doreen and she lives in the apartment next to the apartment where I’ve been staying. I see her waiting for the lift and we get to chatting. A while back she read an article about the importance of getting a good night’s sleep, and this has been the principal subject of our conversation ever since.
“I want to get my eight hours a night,” Doreen likes to say. “I don’t want to end up like my mother.”
Doreen’s mother grew old in a time before precise diagnoses, but she was generally recognised to be suffering, Doreen says, “from a case of extreme doolally”. She would wander the corridors of her block of flats, knocking on doors and asking the residents if they had seen any spies. They all said no, an obvious lie confirming her conviction that she was the only non-spy in the block.
We have discussed the latest studies suggesting a link between diminished sleep and a higher risk of dementia, and Doreen is taking steps. She updates me on her various stratagems: warm milk; soothing music; no TV for three hours before bed. She tried some cannabis oil provided by her son who, between you and me and for reasons unrelated to the cannabis oil, sounds like a bit of a no-goodnik, and she quite liked that. But the thing that works best for Doreen is a sleepcast.
You press play on the sleepcast when you’re in bed with lights out, and a soothing voice talks you through various scenarios, complete with pleasing sound effects. The “Sleeper Mountain” sleepcast has a genial old-timer welcoming you to his campfire. “We sure do like it up here on Sleeper Mountain,” he drawls as the fire crackles and crickets chirp and occasionally, softly, a friendly owl hoots.
In “Midnight Launderette” you’re alone in a warm, clean launderette with the sound of washers and driers peaceably humming and spinning, and you can snuggle down in a bundle of warm, clean laundry, smelling the warm, clean smells. Outside, the occasional late-night car goes purring past. (I was going to make a joke about lying in the bundle of laundry, breathing in short pants, but I won’t.)
“You should try it!” she said. Doreen is a great believer in the sleepcast, but I wasn’t so sure. When I was a very young fellow lying in bed in the half-comforting, half-scary dark of my room, I would listen to story-records on my little record player. One series was designed to help children read – there was a storybook, and the exact story was being read on the record for you to follow along. “You’ll know it’s time to turn the page,” I still hear the narrator instruct, “when Tinkerbell waves her magic wand … like this!” The sound of Tinkerbell’s magic wand was a small silvery bell.
I had other records as I grew older – Superman and Batman and Mighty Mouse, which I can still recite word for word in the original accents – and later I would lie and listen to the serials and shows of Springbok Radio. Sometimes I became scared listening to Squad Cars and had to creep to my window to make sure no miscreants or malfeasants were lurking outside. I took to sleeping with a penknife under my pillow for a while, but I always listened all the way through. Sometimes I’d be sinking into pillowy sleep like a drowning man, fighting to stay awake to hear the end. There’s no way a sleepcast would put me under. I would want to hear what happens when you’ve been in the midnight launderette for an hour.
Apparently there’s no actual storyline to the sleepcasts, but there are slow, languorous descriptions, which is almost the same thing to me. As long as there is some aspect of Sleep Mountain still to be revealed, I’m being told a story. Are there fireflies on Sleep Mountain? Do coyotes ever come padding past in the dog hours of the early morning? Do the washing machines in the midnight launderette stop with a ping or just a slow, rumbling sigh? I must know.
But Doreen had a problem. One sleepcast location is “Cat Marina”. There’s a gentle lapping of placid water against the wharf and the cooing of gulls. The lines and rigging of the yachts tinkle gently against the masts. The ropes around the bollards slowly creak and sigh.
“Hey there,” says a chap with a voice like stretched-out warm saltwater taffy. “Thanks for joining us for tonight’s tour of Cat Marina. It’s a great place to visit. Great if you love boats or, you know, cats.”
Because – listen to that! Those sounds of purring and sleepy mewing! This marina is filled with cats, and boy do those cats know how to relax. They’re all sleeping and drowsing and lazily stretching and padding about. Doreen loves cats so Cat Marina is her favourite, and she’s usually fast asleep by the time she’s been introduced to the second or third cat, Quincy, or Kimchi, or Lucy Mui. But the other night she seemed to wake from her sleep and in her drowsy, muffled state she heard the old salt stroking and petting a cat called Esmeralda, and then something very alarming happened.
“What happened?” I asked, but Doreen was too disturbed to precisely say.
She can’t listen back to find the place, because every time you listen to a sleepcast it subtly changes. Things happen in a different order; sometimes things that happened before don’t happen again, and new things happen. She’s trying to persuade herself it was a dream, but it troubles her and now she can’t go to Cat Marina again because she’s too worried that Esmeralda will break bad.
“Maybe you’ll listen?” she said. “And tell me if you hear something strange?”
I settled down in that afternoon on the sofa to give it a listen. It was quite comforting, like being young again, with that perfect combination of being alone but in the company of a kind voice telling you a story. I knew I wouldn’t sleep, because that’s not how I respond to stories, and because I had a mission to accomplish, and I wasn’t even tired, although I have to admit the water against the pylons of the dock really does have a soothing rhythm, and listen to the pennants flap lazily in the breeze and those cats do have the right idea on a hot afternoon and I don’t know exactly when I drifted off on my nap, but when I woke I heard the old salt talking to Esmeralda, and here’s where I don’t know if I did wake up or if I was dreaming that I woke up, a dream that was primed by Doreen, because as I lay there, eyes closed, it was revealed to me that Esmeralda the cat was not a cat at all but some sort of alien creature impersonating a cat, with razor-sharp teeth and barbed-wire tongue, and each night she feasted darkly on one of the other cats and one day when the cats were finished, she would come for the people.
I must have drifted off again, and only much later when I’d woken and was pottering around did I remember what I heard. But did I hear it? Did I? Did I?!
I ran into Doreen at the lift this morning, and she asked me if I’d listened yet. I told her that I had.
“And?” she said. “And?!”
I avoided her eyes and told her I wasn’t quite sure. Maybe I would ask another friend to listen to it for me.