11th July 2015

The Turtles


I’ve been trying to get to sleep my whole life.

Last year, I tried yoga. I tried Bikram, I tried Ashtanga, I tried Kundalini, I tried Iyengar, I tried Jivamukti, I tried Hatha. That’s just some of the yoga I tried. I stretched, I sweated, I rattled my muscles, I went with friends, I changed my outfit, I gave up lattes, I drank raw spinach, I stood at the back and memorised twenty six neurotic postures, I lay at the front and flattened my spine towards a new kind of freedom. But whatever I did, whatever I tried, I couldn’t get anywhere near it.

I would sprint home and twist the blinds, choke the room with heaving vanilla, play some ethereal chimes or a mindful voice drenched in eight hour promise, read something hurried or subterranean to wear my wired mind down, change the sheets, the pillows, the duvet from duck feathers to goose, the lampshade made of paper to a silk emerald hue that some hotels swear by for exceptionally jetlagged travellers, but at 3am with your thoughts still leaking, where would that respite be?

I’d be laying on a bed in a Norwegian cabin surrounded by pine and betula. If you looked out you’d not see the forest at all, because of the polar night. And if you listened, you’d never know it was out there, the waterfalls frozen mid-flow. No revellers, no rhythm, no taps from next door. Absolute torture.

I mean Bergen was beautiful. Those blue black fjords running up the coast, spilling out over to Russia and it boasts some breath-taking views. I loved the Fløibanen funicular and the shop on top of Mount Fløyen with the chiselled trolls and Viking horns that cost more than a car, where they let you pose for photos in them, if you ask nicely and buy a cinnamon swirl to go with your cappuccino for £12. But pretty much the whole time I was there, I was trying to get some sleep. Crisp pure air, immersed in nature. That’ll fix you, they said.

There was a girl at school named Tasha and her Mum was always asleep. That meant she couldn’t work. It was well-known on the estate that Tasha’s Mum wouldn’t get out of bed. Alright for some, my older brother said. Her Dad worked at the carwash where my brother worked weekends.

Since there was nobody at home to clean, because her Mum had caught MS before any chance of a sibling, and the dog needed walking, and it was her only bit of company and her Mum needed a wash and didn’t like foreigners snooping, Tasha didn’t sleep. At lunch we shared twilight tales that rose up from the streets.

We had R.E. last thing on a Friday and our teacher was a shrivelled up nun who despised Tasha for some reason, presumably because her Dad chased after women with Sunpat legs.

Once, Sister Josephine, who knew how Tasha struggled with words, and sat her alone like a leper, told us to open our bibles at a passage by a gang called the Ephesians then called her up to the front to read.

My heart plunged into my plimsolls and I thought about what I’d do if she picked on me next, if it was me about to lose my tongue, but I knew I’d be fine. The Argos catalogue taught me how to handle big, strange words.

I had barely started skimming the passage to see how bad it might be, barely got to the end of its second line, when someone at the back shouted Sister, Sister, Look!

I spun and saw Tasha’s hair spread sideways, her head like a lopsided melon, her Twiglet fingers locked and lapped into a tiny pillow. I watched her purr and a movie of memories flashed out before me. I wasn’t concerned, I was furious. Tasha had fallen asleep.

Many years later, booze kept me company, but London let me down next. Soho may be swollen with woozy hopefuls just before midnight, but those bodies stumble into the tube, the same area reduced to a sprinkling of stony mavericks come 2am. No late-night screenings, no Chinese food, a handful of kebab houses shutting up shop. Even Greek Street’s Trisha’s bolts its bright blue door by 4am. I gave up and slummed around buses on the lower-rent lively fringes, watching fluorescent workmen roll into a peripheral blur of fleece.

The sky was ink black by the time I landed in New York, full of possibility. I tried out acupressure as it melted to indigo, I ate popcorn on the Staten Island Ferry with a group of braying students as it turned navy, I took the subway out to Freehold in time for Springsteen’s sunrise, I watched it burst into cornflower as I made my way over to Other Music and loaded up on albums, arranging them by REM potential at a 24-hour shop counter in Williamsburg where a designer-clad Latino refills your 64-ounce beer cup for $7.99. I prowled pharmacies for breakfast, trialling a different concoction each night, doubling, quadrupling the dose with cheap wine to give it a bit of a push.

Melatonin, Benadryl, Unisom, Valerian, fifty Xanax from a grey-bearded Columbian hustling outside Milano’s. All perfectly legal.

One night I took so many, bioluminescent turtles lit the ceiling, flying above in instinctual formations, glorious swooping gesticulations as if I’d come home after a very long time and they’d really missed me. The strain flew off my retina and the rest of the morning was wonderful. I drifted down to Scotty’s and celebrated with Silver Dollar Pancakes.

For five months, I stayed in bed and moved my soul around the city, a succession of sensations muting the volume on my thoughts, one pill halting the barrelling freight train loaded with self-doubt, another bringing a locus of untouchable creativity, two more unplugging the banal click-clacking of everyday needs, snorting the next one incubated lurid sexual adventure.

Every night I’d look for them, but they never came back. I finally got a boyfriend and the chemical riot in my brain was replaced by a razor-sharp spotlight containing nothing but him. We spent the evenings in my room, having sex, talking, him sleeping, me reading. He taught me how to drink like a raging Texan until we shut down bars, but nothing felt the same alone with the walls at 3am.

I still miss those turtles.

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