A Story for Our Time: Sleep.

Once I accidentally stayed up all night by getting stuck in the secret place

We didn’t mean to go to sea, and today I am not feeling so well. It’s a kind of non-specific not-wellness, the kind when you can’t quite put your finger on it but something is out. Of course it is made worse by the motion of the ocean. The gentle rolling of the waves improves most things, because it’s almost like being on a slow swing. I remember tales of people who had been at sea for a very long time, and when they returned to land their bodies became confused and they had a kind of motion sickness, as if they are still at sea. I am really hoping that doesn’t happen to me when I finally reach land, if I ever do.

Is it pointless to think about things that are not happening and may never happen? Perhaps I am just forward planning, so maybe it is purposeful pointlessness.

I have done plenty of thinking about the present moment. I have inspected all the areas of the boat, I have tidied, rearranged and tidied again all the cupboards. I know exactly how many planks comprise the deck, I know how many stitches there are in the mainsail, I know how many times my feet and hands fit from one end of the boat to the other. I have even counted all the hairs on my head. I have explored all the possibilities of now. So that just leaves me with staring at the sky, staring at the sea, waiting for sunset, sleeping, thinking about the past (only recommended in a good mood) and imagining a future.  I could sing a song, or write a story perhaps (oh hang on, I am doing that already, and by the way I didn’t really count my hair).

Sometimes I stay up all night. This is something I used to really enjoy doing before I had children. I can remember times when I stayed up all night just to see if I could. It’s much more fun staying up all night with other people. About twelve years ago I had a friend with whom I frequently stayed up all night playing music. Not long after we met we discovered that it was really fun to play music together and for some reason we could not wait for a more appropriate time to play, we needed to play all of the music we knew to each other immediately, and this meant staying up all night, pretty much every time that we saw each other. It was a bit like the 1001 nights, only without Scheherazade or the scary sultan.

I sang all the songs I knew, all the songs I had written, and played all the tunes I had ever learned until there was no more left. To give you an idea of how many that is I once went on a five hour journey with another friend and sang the folk songs I knew from the start of the journey to the finish without stopping or repeating myself and I still didn’t run out. Sometimes I wonder if the reason I can’t retain information very easily is because I have filled my head with music. Of course it’s nonsense, but it is a nice romantic way to think about my forgetfulness.  At some point we must have got through all the music we knew and so we started again and went through it all a few more times, then we taught each other new stuff.


All of this I did on very little sleep, whilst being a mum. When I got up in the morning to take my kids to school my friend slept. I think I must have become fed up with this arrangement in the end. I think I was also at university as well at the time, so I must have interspersed these musical nights with nights where I had to stay up all night to write essays. I wonder if I slept at all, it was a time where I couldn’t stand to waste time sleeping, I am sure I was extremely frayed around the edges.

There have been other times when I have stayed up all night to watch the sun rise. The time that sticks in my mind the most was at Avebury stone circle, I had spent the night with a bunch of witches in a dried up river bed, sitting around a fire wondering how sensible this was, when at last it started to get light and the spookiness of the whole occasion got to my friend and I and we ran away. We ran as fast as we could in the direction of Silbury Hill, when we got there we ran directly up the steep side (she pushed me a lot of the way), and then we collapsed at the top, hearts thumping in our chests, just in time to watch the sun rise. I can still see it in my mind’s eye, it was the summer solstice and we were alone in the first light of day, washing our faces in the dew, which of course made us utterly beautiful to this very day (kind of glad I don’t have a mirror out here).

Another time I accidentally stayed up all night by getting stuck in the secret place. I think I was about fifteen or sixteen and I was at a friend’s house in Oxford. It was the most fascinating house, it still had its Victorian wallpaper and strange lights that hung down in the kitchen leaving most of it in darkness, I can remember trying to prepare food in there and not being able to see it at all, it was remarkable that I still had all my fingers afterwards. I stayed the night quite a few times at this friend’s house, and often slept in a bed in her front room which had a strange horsehair mattress and absolutely no structural integrity, I used to wonder if I would be swallowed by it in the night, and I would wake up either perched on the very edge trying not to be eaten, or else disappear down inside the softness and dream of marshmallow pillows.

Anyway I digress, the secret place (which I think I can mention now as she doesn’t live there anymore) was a little narrow room that ran the width of the house, it had a blue sky, and grass and flowers painted up the walls. To get into the secret place you had to go into a bedroom and through a tiny hatch in the wall. This was fine and all very well if there was nobody asleep in the bedroom, but one night we went into the secret place but the lodger came home and went to bed and we were stuck in there all night. My friend was adamant that we could not risk waking this lodger by going back through the hatch, and as there were no beds in the secret place we had to stay up all night looking at the blue sky and listening to Bob Marley’s Satisfy My Soul on repeat.

When I stay up all night here I simply lie on deck watching the stars. There are millions of stars out here in the dark, they go on and on forever, until the dawn comes galloping across the sky like a team of bright sun horses. The stars in the dark never cease to enchant me, and to enrich my heart. Even though I intellectually know that they are distant luminous balls of gas, I don’t really believe it. To me they are points of light in the sky that represent the magic of life, the universe and everything. I wonder would it be darker on planet Earth at night if there were no stars at all? I am glad there are stars, they are my friends, and I need them out here.

It is a strange thing what one can get used to, I expect that if and when I find land and return to my ‘normal’ life that I will miss being out here alone. I wonder what ‘normal’ life is; I don’t see how it can ever be the same again. Everything has changed, I have changed, I am not the same person I was three months ago, loneliness has altered me. I don’t suppose I am as different as I feel, but I probably look completely wild. I used to love getting home from a festival where I had gone a bit feral, and seeing myself in a mirror for the first time in a week or two. I would see my lovely brown face complete with tide marks and smudges, my hair with strange bits of nature tangled in it. It always seemed a shame to wash it all off. I looked like a different person, and I was, I was me with a whole load of new experiences etched into my being.




Wild Horse photo by Christine Mendoza on Unsplash (What has this photo got to do with this story?).

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