Sleepless (ii)

Al was a good talker. He seemed genuinely pleased to be able to air his views, albeit only to a camera that was not particularly sympathetic towards them. That was a lucky state of affairs, because Lois was far from her usual conversational dexterity. Her questioning was languid, flopping out of her mouth without thought or planning. She caught herself drifting off frequently during the answers. Had she been awake enough to care, she would have been furious at herself. An agile, slightly malicious interview was part of the show’s winning formula. She needed to be taking everything in, laying traps, leading the guest along whilst fanning the viewer’s incredulity. She was going to hate cutting this one together.

Fortunately, Al was able to carry the segment on his own. He spoke at length on his hatred for sleep, the softness of his voice gaining a little heat as he did. He talked about how it disgusted him in all ways. It was physically repulsive, a sweaty, snoring, drooling monument to the failings of the human form. He detested being caged in a body that required hours of inactivity before yielding control to its owner – a profitless tax on his time and liberty. He railed against dreams, sickened by the thought of having to submit, powerless, to the whims of the subconscious, an uncaring master that would just as soon trap its subjects in nightmare as gift to them a pleasant fantasy (only to take it away when the eyes crawled open). He described how, as a child, he would try many and varied methods to escape the horror of sleep. Each defeat along the way remained a scar in his mind, a point of shame and anger to be ruminated over but never discussed. It was in his early adolescence that he found a way, but that was all he would share on the matter. Thus liberated by this unknown method, he claimed (with open pride) that he had not slept in the decades since. In living free from an otherwise universal tyranny, he believed that he had in some small way transcended the general squalor of the human condition, being thereby free to delve into hitherto unexplored realms of art and intellect. Sleep was the shackle, the limiter, a flaw propagated by the powers-that-be, through methods however mundane or however mystical. On this point he presented a dizzying array of competing theories, all apparently of his own construction. Be it psychological indoctrination at the hands of the illuminati or genetic seeding at the hand-like appendages of cosmic interlopers, the gist was consistent throughout.

It was, in many ways, the same old shit. Another lonely, imbalanced person who’d ‘found the truth’. Seen through the lies of some oppressive force, attained a rarefied state of knowledge, and so lost his place in society at large – just as that force would like it. There was a vague but massively powerful enemy, there was a hidden truth, and there was the superior, rogue mind who had found it. She had interviewed hundreds of conspiracy theorists, pseudoscientists, cultists. Most of them were quite forthcoming with their secret lore, and so she’d been led down the same roads many, many times. Al was giving her a whirlwind tour of familiar territory (although, mercifully, not stopping to point out the synagogue). Still, she felt that something was different. He was better spoken than most, more charismatic once in full, lunatic motion. At the same time, his rhetoric did not feel rhetorical – it lacked the stink of artifice that so often lingered about these people. She wasn’t buying in, of course, but she did find herself believing two things. Firstly, that Al was probably too compos mentis to be a hoodwinked believer, roped into the crackpot fold by the words of others. Secondly, that he was also not in the hoodwinking business. His belief was sincere. It was extremely rare for somebody this far afield to fall into neither category.

Or perhaps that was just the fatigue talking. And talk it did, veering from murmurs to outright roars with little regard for the fact that she was trying to work. She had moved beyond heavy limbs into light ones – fuzzy, tingling shapes in freefall that allegedly belonged to her. It was thus with no small measure of joy that she brought the interview to a close, once it seemed that they had enough to work with. Al met the end with a mixture of disappointment and condescension, presumably upset at losing his audience to something so petty as nightfall.

Al refused to have sleep anywhere within his house, but gave grudging permission for it to occur in his back yard. They pitched a tent. He was entirely happy for them to film more during the night, giving them explicit license to come and go as they please. It wouldn’t affect him too much, after all. He’d just be painting, reading, communing with the world serpent – whatever it was he did in all those privileged hours. The brevity of their time here did mean that they were unlikely to get the money shot of him sleeping. All he had to do was tough out one night, which was hardly a spectacular feat of wakefulness. A shame, but the episode would be functional without it.

With the blinding speed of the truly exhausted, she set an alarm, cocooned herself in a sleeping bag, and prepared to claim her well-earned rest.

It didn’t work.

Perhaps she had dragged herself into a thoroughly unwanted second wind. Maybe the depth of the rural night was too much, too heavy and stifling a blanket for her flimsy urban sensibilities. Certainly, there was a disquieting sense of place. There was also a disquieting sense of grime and nasality coming from Tom’s end of the tent. Al had not been entirely wrong in his contempt for the less savoury aspects of sleep. Whatever the cause, she was awake, and she lay awake for some time. No amount of internal screaming, scrunched eyelids or deep breaths had any effect. The battle was lost. She had no choice but to continue, against all common sense, to wade through the fatigue.

Cursing all the while, she rustled up a flashlight, a camcorder, and a semblance of composure.

She took a moment to appreciate the sheer darkness of the outside – then it was back to work. Shining the light beneath her face, she recorded what amounted to the introduction to a low-rate found footage film. Some whispered nonsense about going back in to get a better look at Al’s life by night. It wasn’t a fantastic piece of improv, but that didn’t matter much. Her viewers were hardly expecting the Upright Citizens Brigade. She did a good enough job of selling the atmosphere, and the footage would do the rest. Everybody was a sucker for infrared.

The walk to the house felt longer than it should have. Part of that was dramatic timing, of course. And part of it was the night. Everything feels bigger after sunset.

It was pitch black inside, too. A true nightmare of a place, all creaking and crawling, air writhing with dust. Enough for a lick of sweat and to feel your heart beat, even for a seasoned veteran of this kind of nonsense. She took a few more ‘creepy house’ shots for good measure. The door to the basement looked picture-perfect in grayscale, complete with the yawning of distant floorboards. That would definitely make the final edit.

There hadn’t been any human stirring from the floor above – any noise would have shot right through this quiet. Whatever Al was doing, he wasn’t moving much. She’d need to get some candid footage (or, more likely, stage some). She moved as lightly as she could, and painfully slowly. Not that there was any need for stealth. Her footsteps simply felt intrusive, a vibrant invasion into this otherwise moribund soundscape. They didn’t fit.

She found him, as expected, in the ‘bedroom’. A muffled oil lamp in one corner cast warm, amber splashes into the air, providing enough light for shapes but not for details. He was at the easel, dabbing away at a piece of canvas almost entirely covered by shadow.

“No more light, please. You’ll ruin the painting.”

He spoke with the calm and patience of somebody ticking off a social box, reciting a line he had known was coming. She obliged, placing the flashlight on the floor before entering.

“Mind if I film?”

“Be my guest.”

“Alright.” She yawned. “Good.”

He went back to his brushes. She leant against the wall, gingerly, for fear that it might collapse, or groan, or be host to something unsavoury. The footage was dull, tremendously so. A man slowly applying paint to canvas is not compelling viewing, even if that man is insane. Still, she kept the camera trained on him for far, far longer than needed. Drowsiness was overtaking her again. Having missed its cue in the tent, it was now hurrying, flustered, back into position. Her eyelids were floating downwards, her brain drifting feebly in and out of pre-dream kaleidoscopes.

“I suppose you’re tired?”

“Yeah.”

“Didn’t you sleep in the tent?”

“Couldn’t.”

“Funny. I suppose you see that as a bad thing?”

“The worst.”

“So, you must see what I mean? Wouldn’t it be better not to need it?”

“Sure. Having to sleep is bullshit. Not sure why you care so much about the act itself, though. Bit odd.”

He frowned, the creases on his face gaining cavernous depth in the dim light.

“Maybe. It always seemed obvious to me.”

“Well, I should probably make another attempt at it. Any last stuff you want to get on camera?”

Al paced, muttering below his breath with increasing speed and (hushed) intensity.

“You alright?” She asked.

“Turn the camera off. I have something to show you, but you mustn’t film it.”

There was a compellingly demented strand in his tone, some prosodic turn that promised something interesting if followed. She put the camera down. You didn’t have to get a shot of everything – sometimes, a little mystery was just the twist you needed. Her viewers wanted to gawk at the strange and the spurious, but they also each harboured a secret little kernel of belief, of suppressed deviance. The trick was to reach out and touch it without them noticing.

“Alright.” She said. “Let’s see it.”

She boarded the return flight the next night. Another red-eye. Familiar tortures resumed their operations – sterile in-flight air to parch her lungs, screens to scorch her eyes, long hours to test her sanity. This time, at least, she was wide awake. Her mind buzzing with ideas, she reached for the laptop. Her life was about to get much, much more interesting.

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