I’m down south in the big city, staying with M. I didn’t sleep well on my first night here. Last night was different, who knows why. A change of place usually doesn’t bother me, but I lay sleepless, aware of the night noises, quite different to those back at home. “You might hear the urban foxes,” M. told me as she bade me goodnight, “there are lots around. They screech, can sound like wailing children.” I didn’t hear them. I tuned into the chug of the washing machine (or was it the tumble dryer?) on the other side of the wall, its rhythmic spin matching my spinning thoughts as I mentally reviewed the day. There were some footsteps outside and what sounded like a wheelie-bin being pulled down a side yard. Clicks of the radiator slowed like a dying metronome as the heat went off, and still, no foxes. A raw blare of a car alarm startled me. I wasn’t sleeping but it had roused me from deep relaxation and left my heart thudding with its sudden severity. I checked my phone; it was around midnight. The alarm was silenced as quickly as it started, peace returned to the street. As always, almost as soon as I had given up on sleep, it came, or at least it must have, for moments later I looked at my phone and it was 4.30am. This time I hadn’t been woken by noise, but an agitating dream. If there is anything less likely to get you back to sleep at 4.30am, it is the pursuit of sleep. I listened; still no foxes. But there were flights – low fuzzy growls in ten-minute intervals. I thought about the geography of North London. Stansted? Luton? No idea, I would look it up in the morning. I wondered how many people on those flights were sleeping, or had recently been woken from their transatlantic slumber by cabin crew offering coffee and plastic wrapped carrot cake. 5am fodder for a befuddled body clock, no thank you. The birds had started a lively chorus. On the odd occasion that I wake early I’m always surprised just how much of a jump the birds have on dawn – an hour, maybe two. And, as the quality of the darkness began to dilute a little, I worried about how sluggish I would feel throughout the day with my dearth of sleep.
‘Une nuit blanche,’ the French call it – a white night. I think it’s a better term than our simple ‘sleepless’, for it speaks of the loss of darkness; darkness that we need to devour in order to replenish and sustain us. Undercover of darkness is when all of the sinister twists and turns are supposed to be taken. And if they are not sinister, then they are sad and lonely, like the scene painted by Edward Hopper in his iconic ‘Nighthawks’: three customers leaning over coffee cups in a late night diner on the corner of a deserted street. Is the woman in the red dress having an affair with the man beside her? The painting has a clandestine feel about it, or is it just forlorn?
As children we learn that darkness harbours danger. Maybe you have a child (or you are that grown up child) who craves the security of a nightlight. But, as I lay with the promise of dawn beckoning too soon, I thought about the comfort of the dark, the night noises it holds, and how we need not fear all that goes clunk in the night. The omniscient Shakespeare uses the frightening and monstrous Caliban in ‘The Tempest’ to reassure us about the noises of night and how we might wrap them around us as a cloak of contentment rather than a transporter of terror.
“Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices,
That if I then had waked after long sleep
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.”
Lord Dunsany, an Anglo-Irish writer and dramatist who was a contemporary and friend of Yeats and Lady Gregory, also had a beautiful turn of phrase about the night: “Be open to the night. Shapes loom out of the darkness, uncertain and unclear: but the hooded stranger on horseback emerging from the mist need not be assumed to be the bearer of ill. The night is large and full of wonders.” I hope that sleep rarely deserts you when darkness falls, but, on those nights when it runs and hides, lie and listen to the wonders of the night. It’s safe in the darkness.