I looked in the mirror and laughed. Where was my phone? I had to take a picture. My hair and face were covered with sticking plasters, holding sensors in position. Just below my chest was a black box into which were plugged perhaps thirty wires, attached to my head, neck and other parts of my body which seemed to have no connection to sleep.
Lying in bed, it was hard to get comfortable, all the bulky connectors preventing me from lying in my usual foetal position. I lay, listening to the sounds of the hospital. There was a low hum from a fan somewhere, and outside, far off, a car door slammed in the quiet night.
Then I was awake. All was silent. I looked at my phone. 2.13 a.m. I needed to go to the toilet. Fortunately, I was free to do so. Other patients had additional wiring that meant they had to use a plastic container kept in a bedside cupboard, an NHS Economy Unisex Urinal Bottle. I wondered if they were ‘on camera’ whilst using it.
In the corridor, I could see lights on in the main lab and, through gaps in the blinds, white-coated technicians poring over screens of data. I wondered if they were tracking my toileting visit at that very moment.
“How did you sleep?” asked an attractive young woman the next morning. She still had wires attached to her head.
I gave a wry smile. “Awful, I kept waking up. From about 2.30 I worked on my computer for an hour.”
“You aren’t supposed to get out of bed!”
“Well, no one told me. What about you?”
She turned a heavy grey bracelet on her brown wrist. “Oh, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t sleep! And I look awful with all these wires sticking out of me.”
“Actually, you look lovely,” I said, feeling okay about it. There was something natural about her, no airs and graces.
She laughed with perfect white teeth. “Thank you!”
“What’s the bracelet?”
“It’s magnetic, for arthritis.” She told me her name was Maria and she was from Brazil. She’d worked as a weather presenter on a local TV channel there, but now she lived in London.
“This breakfast’s nice,” – or something like that – said a man with a speech impediment. I noticed his fingers were thick and stubby, the nails bitten short.
The toast was soggy, the butter hard, and everything pre-packed. “It’s OK,” I said.
He got up and left. Only Maria remained at the breakfast table. “You don’t have to wait for me,” I said.
She smiled. “It’s OK.”
“Well, you didn’t sleep well,” said the sleep doctor.
I was back in my room, a small, sparsely-furnished cubby hole, like a fourth-rate hotel.
“I know, I had to work on my computer for an hour.”
“Yes, we saw. You weren’t supposed to get out of bed.”
“No one told me.”
He was white, tall and thin, and spoke with a foreign accent. He told me my chronic fatigue was down to drinking cups of tea after 6 p.m., drinking alcohol and looking at my phone and computer within an hour of bedtime. And they paid this guy?!
Every hour a buzzer would sound. Maria and the others suffered from insomnia. They had to spend the morning trying to sleep every time the buzzer went and would be awoken twenty minutes later if they succeeded in getting the slumber they were so desperate for. Cruel.
I took a shower in a room full of warnings then lay down and crashed out for two hours.
My brother phoned to see how I’d got on. He told me how he’d signed up for a writing course. He was going to write a novel, probably be famous. Dave was hard to interrupt once he got going. When he rang off, I realised I hadn’t actually had a chance to tell him about my night.
Outside, the man with the speech impediment said something to me, I suppose it was goodbye. I smiled and wished him well. Then Maria appeared with a young man. “Hello, this is Mike, my husband.” I felt briefly jealous, but like her, he had a friendly, natural demeanour. Maria gave me a small, black book. “This is for you.”
It was a bible, destined to bring me the redemption that maybe she thought I needed. “Thank you.” I smiled at her, and then we turned and went back to our different lives.
Featured in the book, Flash Friction: To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. III: 72 Little Stories
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