Like a surreal and highly caffeinated version of The Big Chill, Jonathan Coe's new novel follows four students who knew each other in college in the eighties. Sarah is a narcoleptic who has dreams so vivid she mistakes them for real events. Robert has his life changed forever by the misunderstandings that arise from her condition. Terry spends his wakeful nights fueling his obsession with movies. And an increasingly unstable doctor, Gregory, sees sleep as a life-shortening disease which he must eradicate.
But after ten years of fretful slumber and dreams gone bad, the four reunite in their college town to confront their disorders. In a Gothic cliffside manor being used as a clinic for sleep disorders, they discover that neither love, nor lunacy, nor obsession ever rests.
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The House of Sleep
By Jonathan Coe
Vintage Books USACopyright © 1999 Jonathan Coe
All right reserved.
It was their final quarrel, that much was clear. But although he had been anticipating it for days, perhaps even for weeks, nothing could quell the tide of anger and resentment which now rose up inside him. She had been in the wrong, and had refused to admit it. Every argument he had attempted to put forward, every attempt to be conciliatory and sensible, had been distorted, twisted around and turned back against him. How dare she bring up that perfectly innocent evening he had spent in The Half Moon with Jennifer? How dare she call his gift 'pathetic', and claim that he was looking 'shifty' when he gave it to her? And how dare she bring up his mother -- his mother, of all people -- and accuse him of seeing her too often? As if that were some sort of comment on his maturity; on his masculinity, even ...
He stared blindly ahead, unconscious of his surroundings or of his fellow pedestrians. 'Bitch,' he thought to himself, as her words came back to him. And then out loud, through clenched teeth, he shouted, 'BITCH!'
After that, he felt slightly better.
Huge, grey and imposing, Ashdown stood on a headland, some twenty yards from the sheer face of the cliff, where it had stood for more than a hundred years. All day, the gulls wheeled around its spires and tourelles, keening themselves hoarse. All day and all night, the waves threw themselves dementedly against their rocky barricade, sending an endless roar like heavy traffic through the glacial rooms and mazy, echoing corridors of the old house. Even the emptiest parts of Ashdown -- and most of it was now empty -- were never silent. The most habitable rooms huddled together on the first and second floors, overlooking the sea, and during the day were flooded with chill sunlight. The kitchen, on the ground floor, was long and L-shaped, with a low ceiling; it had only three tiny windows, and was swathed in permanent shadow. Ashdown's bleak, element-defying beauty masked the fact that it was, essentially, unfit for human occupation. Its oldest and nearest neighbours could remember, but scarcely believe, that it had once been a private residence, home to a family of only eight or nine. But two decades ago it had been acquired by the new university, and it now housed about two dozen students: a shifting population, as changeful as the ocean which lay at its feet, stretched towards the horizon, sickly green and heaving with endless disquiet.
The group of four strangers sitting at her table may or may not have asked permission to join her. Sarah couldn't remember. Now, an argument seemed to be developing, but she did not hear what was being said, although she was conscious of their voices, rising and falling in angry counterpoint. What she heard and saw inside her head was, at that moment, more real. A single, venomous word. Eyes blazing with casual hatred. A sense that she had not so much been spoken to, as spat upon. An encounter which had lasted -- two seconds? -- less? -- but which she had now been replaying, involuntarily, in her memory for more than half an hour. Those eyes; that word; there would be no getting rid of them, not for a while. Even now, as the voices around her grew louder and more animated, she could feel another wave of panic swell inside her. She closed her eyes, suddenly weak with nausea.
Would he have attacked her, she wondered, if the High Street had not been so busy? Dragged her into a doorway? Torn at her clothes?
She raised her mug of coffee, held it a few inches from her mouth, looked down at it. She stared at its oily surface, which was shimmering perceptibly. She clasped the mug tighter. The liquid steadied. Her hands were no longer shaking. The moment passed.
Another possibility: had it all been a dream?
'Pinter!' was the first word of the argument to catch her attention. She willed herself to look across at the speaker and concentrate.
The name had been pronounced in a tone of tired incredulity, by a woman who was holding a glass of apple juice in one hand, and a half-smoked cigarette in the other. She had short, jet-black hair, a prominent jaw and lively dark eyes. Sarah recognized her, vaguely, from previous visits to the Cafe Valladon, but did not know her name. She was later to find out that it was Veronica.
'That's just so typical,' the woman added: then closed her eyes as she puffed on her cigarette. She was smiling, perhaps taking the argument less seriously than the thin, pasty, earnest-looking student sitting opposite her.
'People who don't know anything about theatre,' Veronica continued, 'always talk about Pinter as if he's one of the greats.'
'OK,' said the student. 'I agree that he's overrated. I agree with that. That's exactly what proves my point.'
'It proves your point?'
'The British postwar theatrical tradition,' said the student, 'is so ... etiolated, that --'
'Excuse me?' said an Australian voice next to him. 'What was that word?'
'Etiolated,' said the student. 'So etiolated, that there's only one figure who --'
'Etiolated?' said the Australian.
'Don't worry about it,' said Veronica, her smile broadening. 'He's just trying to impress us.'
'What does it mean?'
'Look it up in the dictionary,' snapped the student. 'My point is, that there's only one figure in postwar British theatre with a claim to any kind of stature, and even he is overrated. Massively overrated. Ergo, the theatre is finished.'
'Ergo?' said the Australian.
'It's over. It has nothing to offer. It has no part to play in contemporary culture, in this country, or in any other country.'
'So what -- you're saying that I'm wasting my time?' Veronica asked. 'That I'm out of tune with the whole ... Zeitgeist?'
'Absolutely. You should change courses at once: to film studies.'
'Well, that's interesting,' said Veronica. 'I mean, just look at the assumptions you're making. For one thing, you assume that just because I'm interested in the theatre, I must be studying it. Wrong: I'm doing economics. And then, this whole conviction of yours that you're in possession of some kind of absolute truth: I ... well, I find that a very male quality, is all I can say.'
'I am male,' the student pointed out.
'It's also significant that Pinter is your favourite playwright.'
'Why's that significant?'
'Because he writes plays for boys. Clever boys.'
'But art is universal: all real writers are hermaphrodite.'
'Ha!' Veronica laughed with delighted contempt. She stubbed out her cigarette. 'OK, do you want to talk about gender?'
'I thought we were talking about culture.'
'You can't have one without the other. Gender's everywhere.'
Now the student laughed. 'That's one of the most meaningless remarks I've ever heard. The only reason you want to talk about gender is because you're scared to talk about value.'
'Pinter only appeals to men,' said Veronica. 'And why does he appeal to men? Because his plays are misogynist. They appeal to the misogyny deep within the male psyche.'
'I'm not a misogynist.'
'Oh yes you are. All men hate women.'
'You don't believe that.'
'Oh yes I do.'
'I suppose you think that all men are potential rapists?'
'Well, that's another meaningless statement.'
'Its meaning is very clear. All men have the potential to become rapists.'
'All men have the means to become rapists. That's hardly the same thing.'
'I'm not talking about whether all men have the necessary ... equipment. I'm saying that there isn't a man alive who doesn't feel, in some murky little corner of his soul, a deep resentment -- and jealousy -- of our strengths, and that this resentment sometimes shades into hatred and could also, therefore, shade into violence.'
A short pause followed this speech. The student tried to say something, but faltered. Then he started to say something else, but changed his mind. In the end, the best he could manage was: 'Yes, but you've no evidence for that.'
'The evidence is all around us.'
'Yes, but you've no objective proof.'
'Objectivity,' said Veronica, lighting up a new cigarette, 'is male subjectivity.'
The silence to which this magisterial remark gave rise, longer than the first and somewhat awestruck, was broken by Sarah herself.
'I think she's right,' she said.
Everyone at the table turned to look at her.
'Not about objectivity, I mean -- at least, I've never thought about it like that before -- but about all men being basically hostile, and how you never know when it's going to ... flare up.'
Veronica met her eyes. 'Thank you,' she said, before turning back to the student. 'You see? Support on all sides.'
He shrugged. 'Female solidarity, that's all.'
'No, but it's happened to me, you see.' The faltering urgency of Sarah's voice caught their attention. 'Exactly what you're talking about.' She lowered her gaze and saw her eyes reflected, darkly, on the black surface of her coffee. 'I'm sorry, I don't know any of your names, or anything. I don't even know why I said that. I think I'd better go.'
She stood up to find herself boxed into a corner, the edge of the table pressed into her thighs; squeezing hastily past the Australian and the earnest student proved a clumsy business. Her face was on fire. She was sure that they were all watching her as if she were a madwoman. Nobody said anything as she made her way to the till, but as she counted out her change (Slattery, the Cafe's owner, sitting bookish and indifferent in the corner) she felt the touch of a hand on her shoulder, and turned to see Veronica smiling at her. The smile was diffident, appealing -- very different from the combative smiles she had been turning on her opponents at the table.
'Look,' she said, 'I don't know who you are, or what happened to you, but ... any time you want to talk about it.'
'Thank you,' said Sarah.
'What year are you in?'
'Oh -- you're a postgrad, right?'
'And are you living on campus?'
'No. I live up at Ashdown.'
'Oh well. Maybe we'll bump into each other anyway.'
'I expect we will.'
Sarah rushed out of the Cafe before this friendly, frightening woman could say anything more to her. After that dark and smoke-heavy interior the sunlight was suddenly blinding, the air fresh with salt. Shoppers trickled through the streets. It would have been the perfect day, normally, for walking home along the cliffs: a long walk, and most of it uphill, but worth it for the sweet ache in your limbs when you arrived, the feel of your lungs distended with clean, thin air. But today was not normal, and she didn't like the thought of those many lonely stretches of pathway, the solitary men she might glimpse approaching in the distance, or who might be sitting on one of the benches, watching her brazenly as she hurried past.
Writing off the cost of a week's suppers, she took a taxi, was home in no time at all, and then lay in bed all afternoon, the numbness refusing to abate.
ANALYST: What was it about the game you found so disturbing?
ANALYSAND: I don't know whether 'game' is exactly the right word.
ANALYST: It was the word you chose yourself, just a moment ago.
ANALYSAND: Yes. I just don't know if it's the right one. I suppose what I meant ... [chat] ...
ANALYST: Never mind that now. Did he ever cause you physical pain?
ANALYSAND: No. No, he never really hurt me.
ANALYST: But you thought that he might hurt you?
ANALYSAND: I suppose it could have been ... at the back of my mind.
ANALYST: And did he know that? Did he know that you thought he might hurt you, one day? Was that in fact the whole point of the game?
ANALYSAND: Yes, I suppose it could have been.
ANALYST: For him? Or for both of you?
Sarah was in bed again by the time Gregory got back from his drink. She had been up, briefly, in the early evening, to put on her dressing-gown and pad downstairs to the kitchen, but even there she had remained nervous, and oddly susceptible to shocks. The kitchen itself was empty, and she could hear the sounds of an American soap -- Dallas, or Knots Landing -- coming from the TV room down the corridor. Thinking that she was alone, Sarah opened a can of mushroom soup and poured the contents into a saucepan. Then she lit the cooker, which stood in an area of its own, around the corner, hidden from the rest of the L-shaped room. She stirred the soup with a heavy wooden spoon, finding this activity unexpectedly restful. She stirred three times clockwise, then three times anti-clockwise, over and over, watching the patterns form and slowly fade into the sludgy mass of the soup. Absorbed in her task, she was startled to hear a male voice saying, 'So where do they keep the coffee around here?' and she let out a short, high scream as she wheeled around.
The man came round the corner, saw her and took a step back.
'I'm sorry. I thought you knew I was here.'
She said: 'No, I didn't.'
'I didn't mean to scare you.'
He had a kind face: that was the first thing that she noticed. And the second thing she noticed was that he appeared to have been crying--quite recently, in fact. He sat down at the kitchen table to drink his coffee, and she sat down opposite him to drink her soup, and as she was pulling up a chair she glanced across at him and could have sworn that she saw a tear inching down his cheek.
'Are you all right?' she asked. They didn't get many first-years at Ashdown, but she wondered if he had just arrived at the university, and was already starting to feel homesick.
It turned out that this was not the case. He was in his third year, studying modern languages, and had moved into Ashdown only yesterday. What had distressed him was a phone call from his mother, who had rung from home a few hours ago to tell him that Muriel, the family cat, had been killed that same morning -- run over by a milk float at the bottom of the front drive. He was clearly ashamed to be showing so much emotion about this, but Sarah liked him for it. To save him further embarrassment, all the same, she changed the subject as quickly as possible, and told him that he was not the only one to have had an upsetting day.
'Why, what happened to you?' he asked.
It did not occur to Sarah until later that it was surprising to have found herself talking so frankly to such a new acquaintance, someone whose name she had not even, at this stage, troubled to find out. None the less, she told him all about her bizarre encounter on the street with a complete stranger who had glared at her and called her a bitch for no apparent reason. The new resident listened attentively as he sipped his coffee: striking, Sarah thought, just the right balance between concern (for he seemed to understand how traumatic the incident must have been for her) and a more lighthearted note of reassurance (for he encouraged her, at the same time, to laugh it off as the outburst of some pitiable eccentric). She told him about the conversation she had overheard at the Cafe Valladon, how it had turned to the subject of misogyny, and how she had felt compelled to join in.
'It's a very live subject at the moment,' he agreed. 'There's a big anti-feminist backlash going on here.' He told her how the university's new Women's Studies Department had been vandalized recently: someone had broken in and spray-painted the words 'Death to the Sisters' in foot-high letters all over the walls.
Sarah was enjoying talking to this man very much, but had started to feel tired. Sometimes she was subject to a sort of tiredness which was extreme, by most people's standards, and once or twice had even found herself falling asleep in the middle of conversations. She didn't want anything like that to happen here: she was too anxious to leave a good impression.
'I think I'd better get back to bed,' she said, getting up and rinsing her soup-mug under the cold tap. 'It's nice to have met you, though. I'm glad you're moving in. I think we're going to be friends.'
'I hope so.'
'My name's Sarah, by the way.'
They smiled at each other. Sarah ran a hand through her hair, taking hold of a clump and tugging at it lightly. Robert noticed this gesture, and remembered it.
She went up to her room and slept for an hour or two, until Gregory woke her by coming in and turning on the overhead light. Blinking, she looked at the alarm clock. It was earlier than she had thought: only ten-fifteen.
'Home already?' she said.
He had his back towards her, putting something away in a drawer, and grunted: 'Looks like it.'
'I thought since this was the last night you were all going to be together, you'd stay out late. Make an occasion of it.'
It was the beginning of the autumn term, and Gregory had come down from his parents' house in Dundee merely to collect some belongings, to see some old friends, and to spend a few final days with Sarah. They had both finished their undergraduate degree courses in July. Later that week he was due to start at medical school in London, where he would specialize in psychiatry. She was staying on at the university for another year, to train as a primary school teacher.
'Busy day tomorrow,' he said, sitting at the end of the bed, tugging off a shoe. 'Got to make an early start.' His eyes flicked towards her for the first time. 'You look done in.'
Sarah told him the story of the man who had abused her in the street, to which his initial response was: 'But that doesn't make sense. Why would anyone do that?'
'I suppose I was a woman,' said Sarah, 'and that was enough.'
'Are you sure he was talking to you?'
'There was nobody else around.' Gregory was preoccupied with a knotted shoelace, so she prompted: 'It was quite upsetting.'
'Well, you don't want to let these things get to you.' The shoelace untied, he felt for her ankle and squeezed it through the bedclothes. 'I thought we'd gone beyond this. You're a big girl now.' He frowned at her. 'Did it really happen?'
'I think so.'
'Hmm ... but you're not sure. Perhaps I should write it down anyway.'
Gregory sat at the dressing-table and took an exercise book out of the top drawer. He scribbled a few words, then sat back and thumbed through the pages. His face, reflected in the mirror, betrayed a pleased smile.
'You know, I was so lucky to meet you,' he said. 'Look at all the material it's given me. I mean, I know that's not the only reason, but ... think of the lead it's going to give me over all the other guys.'
'Isn't it a bit early to be thinking in those terms?' said Sarah.
'Nonsense. If you really want to get to the top, you can never get started too soon.'
'It's not a race, though, is it?'
'There are winners and losers in the human race, just like any other,' said Gregory. He had put the exercise book away and was taking off his shirt. 'How many times have I told you that?'
Rather to her own surprise, Sarah took this question seriously. 'My guess would be between about fifteen and twenty.'
'There you are, then,' said Gregory, apparently quite satisfied with this statistic. 'It applies to everything, as well -- even accommodation. I mean, you'd scarcely credit it, but Frank's going up to London in a week's time, and he hasn't even found himself somewhere to live yet.' He laughed incredulously. 'How do you account for that kind of behaviour?'
'Well,' said Sarah, 'perhaps he just isn't lucky enough to have a father who's in a position to buy him a flat in Victoria.'
'It's Pimlico. Not Victoria.'
'What's the difference?'
'About twenty thousand pounds, for one thing. We chose that location very carefully. Convenient for the hospital. Excellent neighbourhood.' Appearing to sense an unvoiced contempt on Sarah's part, he added: 'For God's sake, I would have thought you'd appreciate it as much as anybody. You're going to be staying there every weekend, aren't you?'
'Well I assume so.'
'You know I'm going to have to prepare lessons and things. I'm doing lots of teaching practice this term. I might be busy.'
'I can't see that preparing a few lessons is going to take up much of your time.'
'Some people don't have to work hard. I do. I'm a plodder.'
Gregory sat down on the bed beside her. 'You know, you have a serious self-esteem problem,' he said. 'Has it never occurred to you that it's largely because of your low self-esteem that you never achieve anything?'
Sarah took a moment to digest this, but couldn't find it in herself to get angry. Instead her mind went back to the scene in the kitchen. 'I met one of the new people today,' she said. 'His name was Robert. He seemed really nice. Have you met him yet?'
'No.' Gregory had undressed to his underpants by now, and he slid a hand absently down the front of Sarah's nightdress, resting it on her breast.
'You haven't spoken to him or anything?'
He sighed. 'Sarah, I'm leaving tomorrow. I'm going to live in London. Why would I waste my time getting to know people I'm never going to see again?'
He removed his underpants, climbed on top of her, and then pulled down her nightdress so that her breasts were fully exposed. He took hold of her nipples and began to tweak them simultaneously. Sarah examined his expression as he did this, trying to remember where she had seen something like it before: his brow was furrowed with both impatience and concentration, much as it had been the other evening while she had watched him twiddling the contrast and vertical-hold knobs on the television downstairs, trying to get a good picture for News at Ten. That, she recalled, had taken him about two minutes, but less than half that time was up before he took her tiny wrists in his hands, pinned her arms to the pillow behind her head, and entered her swiftly. She was dry and tight, and found the sensation uncomfortable.
'Look, Gregory,' she said, 'I'm not really in the mood. In fact, I'm not in the mood at all.'
'It's all right, I won't be long.'
'No.' She took a firm hold of his hips and stilled their rocking motion. 'I don't want to do this.'
'But we've had the foreplay and everything.' His eyes were wounded, incredulous.
'Get out,' said Sarah.
'What -- of you, the bed, or the room?' His confusion seemed genuine.
'Of me, initially.'
He stared at her for a second or two, then tutted to himself and withdrew gracelessly, saying: 'You can be so inconsiderate sometimes.' But he remained on top of her, and she knew what was coming next. 'Close your eyes a minute.'
She stared back at him, defiant but powerless.
'I spy? With my little eye?'
'Gregory, no. Not now.'
'Go on. I know you like it really.'
'I do not like it really. I've never liked it. How many times do I have to tell you that I've never liked it?'
'It's just a game, Sarah. It's about trust. You do trust me, don't you?'
'Let go,' she said. Both her hands were enclosed in one of his, and were still pinned to the pillow. His other hand was now hovering above her face, the first and second fingers extended, getting closer to her eyes.
'Come on,' he said. 'Show that you trust me. Close your eyes.'
The tips of his fingers were now so near that she had no option: she closed her eyes as a reflex action, and then screwed them tight. Soon she felt the pressure of his two fingers against her shielded eyeballs -- gentle at first -- and she stiffened, a familiar terror stirring inside her. She had developed a method of dealing with this sensation, which involved emptying her mind of all ideas relating to the present moment. Time, for Sarah, was halted as Gregory crouched over her, and if her thoughts turned towards anything at all, it was towards what seemed (for now) the distant past: the very beginnings of their relationship, when she had so enjoyed his company, before they had become locked into this pattern of self-perpetuating quarrels and weird bedroom rituals.
How had they managed to get from there to here?
She had a vivid recollection, still, of the first time she had met him, during the interval of a concert, at the Arts Centre bar. She had not intended to go to this concert, but ticket sales had been extremely low, and the box office staff were reduced to the expedient of handing out free tickets to passers-by shortly before it started, in order to make up the numbers and spare the visiting performer from embarrassment. The programme consisted of J. S. Bach's The Art of Fugue, a work of which she had no previous knowledge, performed on the harpsichord in its entirety. The only other person in Sarah's row was a tall, gangly student, his dark hair cut into a severe short-back-and-sides, sitting bolt upright in his chair, wearing a tweed jacket, an old school tie and a yellow waistcoat with a fob watch, who listened to the music with rigid concentration and once or twice sighed loudly or clicked his tongue in exasperation for no apparent reason. Since he seemed to be taking no notice of Sarah, it was a great surprise when he came to sit at her table during the interval, and an even greater surprise when, after a strained silence of perhaps two or three minutes, he suddenly addressed her in a clipped Scottish accent with the words: 'Preposterous temp; in the eleventh contrapunctus, didn't you think?'
They were the most peculiar, least comprehensible words that had ever been spoken to her: but they did lead to a conversation, of sorts, and that in turn led to a relationship, of sorts. In all her five terms at the university Sarah had never had a boyfriend, and her social life, such as it was, tended to consist of the occasional rowdy evening out with large groups of friends who had never (she felt) invited her wholeheartedly into their circle. To be asked out to dinner by Gregory, to accompany him to the cinema or theatre, was for a while a new and blissful experience. Most often they went to concerts, and if she noticed that Gregory's tastes in music showed a marked tendency towards pieces that were dry, academic and emotionless, she did not allow it to bother her. Not, at any rate, until she discovered that these same qualities characterized his lovemaking.
Sarah lost her virginity to Gregory, about six weeks after he had started taking her out. It was a difficult and painful experience, much as she had been expecting; what she had not been expecting, however, was that all their subsequent encounters would be equally lacking in pleasure. Gregory made love with the same cool, intelligent efficiency he found so admirable in the most rigorous of Bach's keyboard exercises. Tenderness, flexibility, expressiveness and variations in tempo were not among the items in his repertoire. The best that Sarah could expect -- the best she had to look forward to, after several months of these couplings -- was the moment of post-coital fatigue, when Gregory, his performance executed and his energies spent, would sometimes speak to her in a cajoling, intimate way she found untypical and delightful. It was on one such occasion that he had asked her an unexpected question.
They were lying in bed together, deep in the middle of a still, airless night, hotly entwined, her head on his shoulder. And Gregory had asked her, seemingly from nowhere, what she thought was the most beautiful part of his body. Sarah had looked up at him in surprise, and told him that she wasn't sure, she would have to think about it, and then he, much to her relief (because she couldn't, to be honest, think of any part of his body that was especially beautiful), had said, 'Shall I tell you what is the most beautiful part of your body?' and she had said, 'Yes, tell me,' but for a little while he had made her guess, and they ran, giggling, through the obvious possibilities, but it was none of those, and finally she gave up, and then Gregory had smiled at her and said, quietly, 'Your eyelids.' She hadn't believed him at first, but he had said, 'That's because you've never seen your own eyelids; and never will see them, unless I take a photograph' (but he never did take a photograph), and so she asked him, 'Well, when have you become so intimately acquainted with my eyelids?' and he answered, 'While you were asleep. I like watching you when you're asleep.' And this was the first intimation she had had, the first hint, of his liking for standing over people in their beds, looking down on them as they slept, something she had regarded as interesting at first, the sign of an enquiring intelligence, until she began to wonder, in the end, whether there wasn't something sinister about it, fetishistic almost, this desire to look down on people as they lay helpless, unconscious, while he, the watching subject, retained full control over his waking mind.
It was harder to get to sleep after that, knowing that at any point in the night he might climb out of bed and stand over her, watching her sleeping face by moonlight. (And that was before she had further aroused his interest by telling him about her dreams, her dreams so real that she could sometimes not distinguish them from the events of her waking life.) But she got used to the idea, as she supposed one gets used to most ideas, and her awareness of Gregory's watchful presence did not unduly disturb her sleeping patterns for several more months (or was it weeks?) until she awoke screaming, in the early hours of one December morning, from one of her recurring nightmares about frogs. This one concerned a man-sized frog which had been squatting by the side of the campus ring road as she tried to hurry by: it had croaked horribly at her and then fastened on to her eyelids with the twin ends of its forked tongue, one on each eye. Sarah had struggled to wake from the nightmare but then began to cry out in even greater panic as she realized that, even though the dream was over, the sensation of pressure against her eyelids wasn't going away: there really was someone, or something, fastening on to them. She tried to open her eyes but found that she couldn't. Something was obstructing the movement of her eyelids. Then the obstruction was removed swiftly and she opened her eyes to find Gregory sitting close beside her, his face bent intently towards hers, his hand -- with first and second fingers outstretched -- suspended in the air only an inch or two from her eyes.
'What the hell were you doing?' she asked, about ten minutes later, when she was fully awake, her breathing and heart rate had returned to normal, and she was convinced, finally, that there were no giant frogs in the room with them. 'What were you doing back then?'
'Nothing,' said Gregory. 'I was just watching you.'
'You were touching me,' said Sarah.
'I didn't mean to wake you.'
'Well then, you shouldn't have put your bloody fingers in my eyes.'
After a pause Gregory murmured, 'I'm sorry,' very softly -- meltingly -- and squeezed her hand. Then he leaned forward and kissed her. 'I didn't mean to wake you,' he repeated. 'I had to touch them. It's incredible ...' in the half-dark of the bedroom she could sense his smile '... there's so much life going on behind your eyes when you're asleep: I could see it. And I wanted to touch it: I could feel it, in my fingertips.' He added: 'I've done it before, you know.'
'Yes, but ... it frightened me. It felt so real.' Meekly accusing, she said: 'You were pressing quite hard.'
He smiled again. 'Yes, but you do trust me, don't you? Not to hurt you.'
She felt her hand squeezed, her wrist stroked. 'I suppose so.'
'I suppose so?'
The weight of his wounded silence was too much to bear. 'Yes, of course I do. But that's not really the point, is it?'
'I think it's very much the point. What did you think I was going to do to you?'
As he said this, he brought his hand close to her face again. Her eyelids closed of their own accord, and he pressed against them with his fingertips.
'I spy,' he whispered, 'with my little eye. You're not scared now, are you?'
'No,' said Sarah, doubtfully.
Then he pressed harder.
And that was how it had begun, the thing they came to refer to as 'the game', and which became more and more closely associated with their lovemaking; until they began to play it (or rather Gregory began to play it, for Sarah was never anything more than his passive accomplice) not just post-coitally, but even during the act itself; so that it was not uncommon for him actually to reach his climax while lying on top of her, poised above her face, his first and second fingers pressed ever more firmly, ever more testingly, against her closed eyelids.
All of which Sarah remembered now, in the few instants she lay beneath Gregory tonight, as he adopted this position for one more time. For the last time, as it turned out: because all at once, possessed by a spirit of rebellion and a physical strength which surprised them both, she then let out a thin, final shriek of 'No!' and heaved Gregory away from her, so that he rolled off the bed and crashed naked to the floor.
'Jesus Christ, woman!'
Sarah got out of bed and pulled her nightdress back on.
'What the fuck was that for?'
Now she took her dressing-gown from its hook on the back of the door and struggled into it, wriggling to find the sleeves. Gregory knelt beside the bed, winded, cradling his forehead and struggling for breath.
'Are you going to answer me or what?'
Sarah opened the door wordlessly and ran down the corridor towards the bathroom. She locked the door and sat on the toilet and wept. She rocked back and forth for several minutes. Slowly the crying and the rocking came to an end, and then she washed her face in cold water and looked at herself in the mirror. Her eyes were red-rimmed, and her mouth was set in an unfamiliar, resolute line. She began to rehearse the appropriate phrases.
Gregory, I'm sorry but I've had enough.
I think it would be better if we didn't see each other any more.
This just isn't working, is it?
I think we should just try to be friends from now on.
Strangely, once she had composed the speech in her mind, she found herself looking forward to delivering it: or rather anticipating, with a faint, timorous glow, her sense of satisfaction at having upset at least one of Gregory's most firmly rooted assumptions. In five minutes' time, she told herself, it would all be over: and it seemed suddenly incredible that a relationship which had dragged on, now, for more than a year, bringing in its wake most of what she had learned about happiness but also -- and more and more, in recent months -- a good deal of frustration, could be brought to an end in a few moments, with a handful of well-chosen sentences: consigning her to -- what? -- freedom, presumably, the freedom to pursue other, more successful friendships (the names and faces of Robert and -- to her passing, unexamined surprise -- Veronica presented themselves for a moment). But that was all speculation: in the short term she could foresee nothing beyond simple emotional obliteration: a vacuum of feeling: blackness. And yet even this prospect had started to look inviting.
Blackness enfolded her as she eased open the bedroom door and stepped inside. Blackness and silence: not even the sound of him breathing. She felt for the light switch but thought better of it. Instead she cleared her throat and said, faintly:
The bedside light came on immediately and he was sitting up and staring at her, his arms folded, his pyjama jacket buttoned up--as usual--to the neck. Before she could say a word, he had already embarked upon a short, articulate, expressionless monologue.
'I have only one thing to say to you, Sarah, and I am going to say it now, as quickly and as kindly as possible, in order to spare you pain. Your behaviour tonight has confirmed a suspicion which has been growing in my mind for some time: a suspicion that you are -- not to put too fine a point on it -- far from suitable as a partner with whom I would feel comfortable sharing the rest of my life. Consequently I feel obliged to inform you that our relationship is at an end, as of this precise moment. Since it is now too late for me reasonably to expect you to make alternative arrangements, I will permit you to share a bed with me for this night and this night only. My position on this issue is not open to negotiation and now that I have made it clear, I would only like to remind you that I have a long car journey ahead of me tomorrow, and I expect that you will allow me, on that account if no other, an uninterrupted night's --'
-- and here he turned off the light --
Excerpted from The House of Sleep by Jonathan Coe Copyright © 1999 by Jonathan Coe.
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