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A tautly plotted novel of adultery and betrayal.
“The day our child was conceived, someone else arrived. She was there as the cells fused, like a ghost.” In a moment of giggling chaos, Richard and Lelia sleep together while getting dressed for a holiday party. Arriving late and still flushed, they barely register a slight, drab woman who, like a shadow, threatens the happiness they’ve achieved. Their reality slowly shifts: Mysterious fragments of a story about a troubled child appear on Richard’s e-mail. A friend...
A tautly plotted novel of adultery and betrayal.
“The day our child was conceived, someone else arrived. She was there as the cells fused, like a ghost.” In a moment of giggling chaos, Richard and Lelia sleep together while getting dressed for a holiday party. Arriving late and still flushed, they barely register a slight, drab woman who, like a shadow, threatens the happiness they’ve achieved. Their reality slowly shifts: Mysterious fragments of a story about a troubled child appear on Richard’s e-mail. A friend confides his adulterous affair, and Richard voyeuristically hangs on every detail. Richard grows more ambivalent about the approaching birth of his child; he becomes distracted and remote, and Lelia suspects another woman. In her loneliness and longing Lelia makes a surprising decision that nearly destroys the life that she and Richard have worked so hard to create. Told with astonishing clarity from both Richard and Lelia’s points of view, Sleep with Me is an extraordinary tale of obsession and desire that takes hold, body and soul, and doesn’t let go until the final page is turned.
The day our child was conceived, someone else arrived.
She was there as the cells fused, like a ghost.
We had fucked, my love and I, moments before going out to dinner. In a hasty, clothes-off scramble as we changed, we had collided for the sake of romance, aware that we didn't have time, and that the best sex occurred with self-imposed urgency. We spent twenty minutes laughing, protesting, tripping over gussets, bellowing curses at the inevitable gathering lateness. How pleased we were with ourselves as we glanced sly-eyed at each other in the taxi, one snorting and hushing the other while we called mid-journey to lie about our lateness.
'I'm full of you,' said Lelia.
I twitched. Though limp and spent, I felt myself stirring again. I saw swarms of tadpoley cells diving through crevices. I didn't know which one would swim fastest, like a little medal-winner.
The taxi came to a halt outside the house, and we bundled in, still sex-dazed. We were rudely late. I worried that my skin would smell of her as I kissed our hostess, Catrin. I could still taste her scent in my nose. Catrin's boyfriend MacDara came over and shoved me a bit, and I nearly laughed at him in comradeship - the double delight of conveying sex afterwards to your friends - and because it was almost Christmas.
'Come in then, you old bastard,' said MacDara. He turned to Lelia. 'Hello.' He hugged her. 'You look great,' he said.
The guests were already a little inebriated on Christmas champagne. My other closest friend from college was there, beside someone I knew slightly, and there were four strangers - a couple and two other women. We were introduced. I cannot remember her: can't recall the first sighting of her, was entirely oblivious to her. We were all happy to reach the end of a year marked by the increasing disappointment of being in our thirties without the wealth or fame we had imagined for ourselves. Time was running out. Reality was finally dawning. However, the New Year would bring a magical sprinkling of fresh chances, of course, and here was Christmas Eve's eve. We drank quite a lot, until the ice sneeze of champagne bored through Lelia's juices in my nose. She looked fucked still, her dark eyes off-centre, her movements fluid. I nudged her, raising one eyebrow and smiling at her to hint at this. She scratched the back of my neck in passing, and I leaned against her and breathed in the scents of her hair.
We became happier. MacDara and Catrin, being richer than the rest of us, always provided. There were grilled things oozing olive oil on ciabatta which required more champagne, and then red wine to go with the Parmesan, and then inevitabilities in the minor smug-arse world we had somehow embraced without meaning to: rocket, and more Italian bread, and a risotto starter, all semi-familiar from the same cookery books everyone used.
Digression. The ghost was there. I didn't even hear her name.
I was in my bubble. Lelia and I felt passion reignited, we who had only been together four and a half years and sometimes couldn't be bothered to have sex. The glow of our recent activities bled into the glow of alcohol, and I loved her because she was beautiful. I loved her despite myself, despite my patchy relationships CV, my tired neuroses and all the little trip-wires laid across love. She filled me, between sporadic rows and sudden irritations, with a kind of fury of devotion.
I was barely aware of the ghost at all. She was some face in a group of ten. Did she speak that night in her curious catching voice? A little, probably. I dismissed her as dull without even forming a conscious opinion. The others were too highly coloured: the glow of Lelia; uptight old Ren from university; blustering MacDara; his girlfriend Catrin. They were so familiar, I knew their every tic with wincing recognition. The only hook on my memory, slight as a Velcro claw, was a vague recollection of her in the hall, speaking to Catrin before we all left. Something about her, or what she said, made me feel a flicker of protectiveness towards her, as though she needed to be helped.
That first sighting was repainted and lingered over so many times later; but at the time she was a blur. A slick of grey. Nothing. Beware of mice.
To start at the beginning, of course, my name is Richard Fearon. I grew up with liberal parents and four siblings near the Cornish coast. It was a wild childhood, fraught in all its freedom, which filled me with excessively urban concerns. I came to London as soon as I could, quietly ashamed of my rural comprehensive school education, to start my brilliant career.
My early twenties were dedicated to fevered bouts of work and masturbation. I reviewed endless novels; I interviewed countless hysteria-ridden authors; I threaded lowly hack work with attempts to become a full-time biographer, my ambition always ill-matched to my haphazard working methods. So I worked and wanked, and fell for largely unsuitable women. Disturbed, rumpled goddesses were seduced from their heights by my exhausting inventiveness. Usually married or unavailable, they spread their joys and casual torments over what was essentially a safe life, leaving me lonelier than I was as a semi-virginal boy.
It was a history of infatuation that only the years cured, and which, by the time I was in my early thirties, spread behind me in a garish sick pattern. Others had squatting and clubbing and dodgy adventures in Thailand to teach them. I, too secretly square or apprehensive, too obsessive at heart, had glamorous old prima donnas. I spent as much time fantasising about their funerals as I did about sex: my starring role, distraught and furtive at the cemetery, avoiding the twitching-jawed husband.
But eventually I turned quite sensible, because, having grown beyond all that, I met Lelia. It was the greatest piece of good fortune. When I was in limbo, resisting the divas and expecting very little, I met the one I wanted.
The day after supper at MacDara and Catrin's, I decided to do a little work, purely in order to soothe my conscience over Christmas. It was afternoon by the time I lumbered into my study and sat myself in front of my computer. The crackle as I went online hurt my hangover. I punched at the volume button. There were a couple of work messages, a few group greetings from friends, and a jangling Christmas card sent by MacDara that I couldn't be bothered to activate. I opened the last email.
I was frightened, all passion spent until I was a hollow girl of glass. I wore my calico chemise, my veins pulsing blue and secret beneath. My petticoats were porous as canvas. Blood would seep into them unless I was very precise.
'What?' I grunted out loud. Irritated, I hit the PgUp and PgDn keys, but there was no more information. The entail was sent from a Hotmail address that gave no clue as to its owner.
'Lelia!' I shouted.
'Yes?' she said, after a pause to indicate resistance.
'Please. Look at this.'
A kiss landed on my head with the warmth of breath in a cold room.
'Exactly. It gives me the creeps.'
'What is it?'
'I don't know.'
'What do you mean?'
'Well-' I said. 'I don't bloody know.'
'Shhhhh ...' she said in my ear.
I edged my head away. 'Sorry. Hangover.'
'Such a grump. For God's sake don't turn all strict and horrible at Christmas.'
'Only if you require punishment.'
'Yes, well. So why don't you just email back and tell them to bugger off? Then do some work.'
'Yes,' I said. 'I'11 just reply Fuck off.'
'Do you want a mince pie?'
I pressed Reply. I read the email again. It almost affronted me, as though I had touched a stranger's dirty clothes. Who are you? I wrote in a rush, and sent it. Oddly embarrassed, I deleted my reply from the Sent file, and then from Trash.
Lelia brought in a mince pie on a chilled plate and a cup of tea, steaming in the cold.
'Stop pretending,' she said, and kissed my cheek. 'It's so annoying. Do some work if you're going to do some work. Or-'
'You know I won't enjoy myself completely unless I do an hour or something.'
'Yeah, well, you know me too well.'
'Did you tell the lunatic to luck off?'
'Yes,' I said. I hesitated. After years of game-playing and strategies with others, I could never lie to Lelia. 'No,' I said. 'I wrote, Who are you?'
'Oh, you idiot!' said Lelia, indignation followed by amusement rising in her voice. 'What a creep. It's probably some bearded man who sits in internet café all day getting turned on by writing as a girl. He probably smells like a tramp. He'll be back to you in minutes.'
'Probably.' I grabbed her by the waist.
'Come on,' she said, her funny, melodic, posh little voice - more precise than mine would ever be, full of North London girls' schools - blowing into my ear. 'Pretend to work for an hour if you have to, then come back to me.'
Christmas was our honeymoon. We were celebrating not yet having a child - or being together in the time before it happened, if it ever did. The mutual misunderstandings and bouts of exhausted snapping that periodically erupted during our working lives were soothed within hours of the start of the holiday by a sense of romance. We would trawl up to Golders Green to see Lelia's mother, but then we were free to spend our time in a shared tent of coats and books and flirtation alone in Pâtisserie Valerie and the Pollo, to wander through the Great Court, and end up in the Bar Gansa or the Coffee Cup. However many plans we made to discover the East End or see some Shakespeare, we somehow trod a known path between Soho and Camden and further into North London.
With Lelia, I chatted far into the night, the most obscure observations liberated by darkness, barely expressible notions hinted at and then pounced upon by the other in recognition. Our conversation was enchanted at those times, running, oiled, into the early hours, so that talking to her was like talking to a better version of myself: our thoughts meshed in counterpoint, and sex was unnecessary, incestuous, and an immense effort. And then, without sex, we grew fractious and distant, and we were obliged to argue and misunderstand each other for a while, minefields springing into life and misery in the air, until, in her subsequent obstinacy, I caught a whiff of the raddled old goddesses who had once kept me erect, and insecurity activated my lust.
That evening, after I had written a sketchy paragraph with a few notes beneath it as an uncomfortable salve to my conscience, I cupped her buttock, slapped it, and told her I wanted to fatten her up. I grabbed the car keys. The old car hiccuped and juddered into life, and we drove to Marine Ices to eat multi-coloured ice cream under strip lighting on the night before Christmas.
'Get mango so I can have some too,' I said.
Lelia's lips parted slightly.
I sensed someone glancing at me from a lower section of the restaurant.
'Get your own,' she said.
'I want yours.'
I turned round. There was no one. Only a couple eating pizza and a girl reading a book.
'I'll see,' said Lelia.
This is my Lelia. A glowing creature, moody, anxious yet deeply sweet-natured. She is, above all, altruistic, though she indignantly and quite earnestly denies it. She falls into full-blown bouts of misery and vicious self-castigation as she fails to match up to her own elevated standards and exhaustingly insists that I join her in perceiving the source of her despair. Her moods make me want to bellow in frustration. When she emerges, she is that glorious, stubborn, extrovert self, a bright and chatting beacon in a room, with her arcane adoration of fashion, her honey-milk skin, her eyes bright brown moon-tilts. She makes me laugh. She lets me get away with very little.
She was born a clever, worried girl; an only child striving to achieve. The daughter of an Indian doctor, now dead, and an English classroom assistant, how my poor Lelia drove herself through her modest childhood to succeed: a neat little North London bluestocking with her independent girls' day school assisted places and her strict notions of morality. She is beautiful, yet she knows it only in fragments perceived obliquely, because her beauty needed to grow beyond spectacles and overworn clothes, beyond the chunky little girl my viola-curved love once was. The loveliness bloomed in front of me, her face refining itself into a matching tilt of eyes and cheekbones as her late twenties tipped into her thirties.
When I met her, I knew her. Two souls recognised each other and came together. It was an uncanny sensation, in which all time was lost. When a fortnight had passed, we were confused; for surely time had slipped, and we had known each other for months and years? I wanted to absorb her and protect her from the first day onwards. She came to live with me the following week, both of us shocked by such precipitation, yet knowing it to be inevitable.
We ordered ice cream.
'How gorgeous,' she said. 'Five whole days to ourselves.'
'A little holiday. Let's do fuck all.'
'OK. Except lie around in our dressing-gowns and eat.'
'Let's decide we won't even clear out the bloody cupboards,' I said. 'Just wolf down tangerines.'
'Oh, Richard,' said Lelia, flicking my wrist. 'We said we would.'
'OK, OK,' I said. 'Only joshing. But let's promise to do it in two hours flat, drunk, stuffing ourselves with mince pies.'
'Whatever you want, Richard,' said Lelia with exaggerated tolerance. 'I'm going to the loo.'
I stacked the menu on the table with a satisfying box sound. It caught the strip lighting. I wiggled it to play with splashes of reflection, like a child.
It was a flat greeting, delivered quietly behind my shoulder, only the faintest indication of surprise lifting the word. I turned. The girl who had been reading at a lower table stood beside me, her expression closed except for a slight smile.
'Hello,' I replied automatically.
'Oh,' she said, glancing to one side. 'It's Sylvie.' She paused. 'We met - Ren's friend MacDara-'
'Oh yes. Of course.'
Fragments of the previous evening flitted through my mind: the low lights of MacDara's, all that food; the wine, still trailing a hangover through my bloodstream. I attempted to recall the faces that had merged at the end of the table. This one seemed unfamiliar under the bright lighting of Marine Ices. Then I thought I caught a fleeting memory of her, talking in the hall, though I wasn't certain. What a rude smug bastard I was, I thought, with my own little circle, a circle gathered and refined after years and years in one place until it was self-supporting, and I could barely be bothered to meet anyone new. Yet once, newly resident in London, I had been so lonely. I felt sorry. I wanted to apologise to this reserved person alone at a table, who had remembered me and said hello.
'Sylvie,' I said.
'You didn't remember,' she said quietly, levelly and her mouth moved into a smile. 'Did you?' Her voice had a catch in it, a faint sweet cloudiness at odds with its quietness. She glanced at me for a flickering moment.
'It doesn't matter,' she said calmly. She looked at her book on her table. The fact that she was out, alone, on Christmas Eve struck me. Her book lay beside a single glass of water, the pages weighted open by an unfinished bowl of pasta, and, glancing at her - her grave, steady gaze, her reserve, the austere design of her clothes - I realised that she must be new to London, or socially unpractised, or simply solitary. She looked very young. She was plain to the point of invisibility.
'I - have something to read,' she said, following my eyes. She had a slight accent: something indefinable and not quite English. 'I mean, something I must,' she said simply. 'By tomorrow.'
She smiled at me.
'Tomorrow is Christmas,' I said.
'Yes-' She paused.
I nodded. I smiled at her. 'Of course,' I said.
She was silent.
She stood still. She was so quiet that I became awkward, trying to fill in the conversation instead of enjoying my own contrasting self-assurance.
'Well, I should go and finish it,' she said then, and looked at her book again.
Excerpted from SLEEP WITH ME by Joanna Briscoe Copyright © 2005 by Joanna Briscoe. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted June 25, 2010
I really thought I was going to like this book. I tried so hard to like it and I couldn't. Instead, I hated every second of it. There was nothing about the book that I could like, the writing style and the author's language were highly unlikable, the characters were heinous but the worst was the plot as it was simply atrocious. I finished the book only because of the kind of person I am, I can't just drop a book no matter how much I don't like it, and like I said, I hated every single second of it. I don't think I have ever read a worse book. I would not suggest this book to anybody.
6 out of 7 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 19, 2013
I don't know if it has ever taken me so long to finish a book. Very slow, not very captivating. Ending left open to interpretation. I checked out the e-book from the library. Would not suggest paying for it.
5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 19, 2014
This is a very unusual book. I hated it but kept reading it because I wanted to see what happens next. It rambles,
the characters are not very likeable, it's incredibly dark, and in parts rather perverted, but it kept me reading, and I don't finish books I'm bored
4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.