No 100 - 1985
‘Half our days we pass in the shadow of
earth; and the brother of death exacteth a
third part of our lives. A good part of our
sleep is peered out with visions and fantasti-
cal objects, were in we are confessedly de-
One Sunday morning after the war, I was lying in my bed when I heard my father shuffle across the landing into the bathroom which lay just behind my bedhead. Before he turned on the water (so did he mean me to hear?) he muttered, ‘Bloody Bitch - gone to church - and taken the car with her’. Unfair, unfair, how could she have got to church - a good five miles away - without the car. But as I lay there I knew that this was no comment on my mother’s church-going or on her early rising but rather on her not lying down - beside him - in a bed.
It was many years since it had been established that my parents had separate bedrooms: it went back to days before the war when we lived in quite a different house and where my parents had that big room with its own bathroom and those big twin beds pushed together. But then also, across that landing, they had, or rather my father had his ‘dressing room’. Some mornings I remembered seeing him shuffle over there. They were Victorian born, were both my parents, so that room in itself was not surprising in a middle class house - only the use it was put to.
I had graduated (this again way back before the war) to my own adult bed and separate bedroom. There I lay then in what seemed a huge bed which you could crawl into and totally disappear. I awoke one hot summer night to find I had disappeared in this way and lay buried, sweating, half suffocated and a bit panicked till I pushed my way out beyond the bed and out of my bedroom and into the passage - not crying but making enough noise to rouse my unsleeping father who emerged - this in the middle of the night - not from the bedroom but from the dressing room.
‘I got stuck in my bed,’ I said.
‘It’s the middle of the night,’ he replied and took me back and, no doubt, put me back into my own bed.
I was sufficiently curious in the morning to ask my mother - my father long gone to work - why he was banished to that (very high, I remember) bed in his dressing room. My mother, startled, made some reply:
‘Oh, my snoring’ - she did snore - ‘keeps him awake’. But even then at the age of five or six I knew that the noises of the night do not flush a lover from his bed. Thence to the next house where two beds were still kept in one room but one of them, I fear was never used and then the move to a final home where there were those two clear separate bedrooms each with its single bed.
But with the war my father sent me to safety. I would have preferred of course to stay, having no fear of wars, but plenty of strangers, strange rooms and strange beds. I was away then to the single iron-framed beds favoured by the poorer sorts of boarding schools. There were people, of course who would share them with you.
“I say, Ursula,” begged her chum Lesley, “May I come into your bed, so that we can talk without disturbing the others!” And talk they did:- ‘Suddenly Lesley’s strong impulsive arms were wound tightly round her and Lesley’s voice with a break in it exclaimed: “Don’t be such a dear idiot! Of course you’re wanted especially by me”.’ These friendly schoolgirl beds are not like the ones I encountered. Although we crossed indeed from one bed to another and when we lay in rows with partitions between the beds, hands, strong young male, hands would force their way under the partition to reach out strongly for one’s body, one’s flesh. I reached back from my single bed yearning for something more than sleep; not blaming but wondering if, in dismissing me, my father had wanted me to experience the nature of separation.
Alone, I have spent many years in beds - single beds - and have slept alone in double beds, even in king sized beds. Single beds beyond those cold iron ones, include bunk beds, bean bag beds, couchettes, air mattresses, sofas - my feet in a chair, and the places one has lain which don’t really justify the name bed viz a mat on a concrete floor of a school in Heraklion. South African prisoners (so Breytenbach tells us) call this ‘sleeping camel’ because the skin on the hips eventually becomes calloused. Helen Suzman may have been responsible for getting these wretched prisoners beds and the prisoners referred to her as Auntie but in a way she was and is more of a father to them.
There have been beds too, which I have slept in, which themselves have made some attempt to provide you with something more than sleep. Like the bed in the Chicago motel which when fed a quarter would shake and rattle like a washing machine so you awoke tossed and spun. Or beds accidentally shared with friends who had not purposed to share the night together. Peter and Edwin each lay sleepless on the outer sides of their beds for fear they might touch but Tony when I shared with him (used no doubt to sharing on Cheetham Hill) lay untroubled beside me. I lay rigid, sleepless, till dozing at last I was awoken by his movement and tensed again as he rose up beside me, slid open the window above my head and peed out of it into the night. Alone I prefer the narrow beds like that which Wellington campaigned in which as a lady commented to the great man was so slender one could not twist in it.
‘When it’s time to turn over, it’s time to turn out.’
To the days then (which I think my father sought) when the beds I slept in were shared. The rushed hopes of youth when we lay on a bed so narrow that I slept with an arm propped on the ground to stop me falling Out while you lay compressed against the wall. And the secret beds we have shared; that night when we entered the wrong room and I hid behind the door while you encountered the ancient lady who told you of the shape and state of her heart.
And there have been those occasions when seeking a shared bed, at the penultimate hour one has been dismissed with a ‘I’m sorry love, but I can’t make love in snatched hours in a narrow bed’. That sort of dismissal leaves one creeping out into the night forced to trace a path through dim corridors, past stiff fire doors to a narrow room with again a narrow bed on which one is forced to lie without the succour of love or friendship.
(One could here, in parenthesis, talk of other beds. Beds of Alabaster, Beds of Agate, beds of Antimony. All the rare beds. Or again perhaps the more mundane beds - asparagus beds, water-cress beds (down by the riverside), once a whole bed of radishes. My father liked these vegetable beds well enough, would even work at them a little but liked best to clean them out and burn their waste on a slow fire he tended all day. Forgetting botanical beds we could together view the bed on which an ancient printer will lay his lead to set up the text of this tale.
And then there is the issue of historical beds. I have already animadverted on the beds of the Good King Rene of Provence who if one believes history even lay chastely beside the Maid of Orleans. Or I could invoke the famed lover’s beds and record how the Gods abandoned Anthony there:- At midnight, when suddenly you hear an invisible procession going by with exquisite music, voices, don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,… Or I could even record something in song: ‘By night on my bed I sought him whom my soul loveth.’)
There have been solidly purchased beds - double beds not those wooden twins my father must have ordered from somewhere like the Army and Navy Stores around 1930 but first a cheap wrought iron model with a flock mattress. It stood square but not firm, the mattress moulded itself into lumps and the soft metal legs slowly sprayed out and slowly from the heights we were lowered to the ground.
Those beds which do duty in the day as couches we seemed to collect. The first was an unwanted gift, a subsidiary part slid out from under the main springs and a doubled out mattress attempted to correct the difference in height between the two sections, but it failed and we lay on two platforms one above the other arguing the night away as to who was the superior. That all might be described as pillow talk. But when my father came to stay it was the bed on which he - alone of course - was accommodated.
There is the noise of beds - unique to the bed and not to its occupants. One drummed its head board against the wall and to stop its deathly rattles and to prevent it boring a hole in the wall it was eventually covered with layers of cloth. Those beds made with curiously coiled springs spoke a language of their own twisting their way into your conscience and your conversation. There was a great continental bed that spoke in the middle of the night like a big bass drum as a board snapped and we were once more deposited on the ground. There were melodious beds and there were mournful beds, there were beds which spoke with a sound of menace.
You could try moving the beds around. I noticed you doing this. Changing lovers you moved your bed. It used to stand just inside the door so you could rush in and flop on it and grab some instant sleep. Although as you said you needed your sleep you changed its position and hid it behind the door. It became a Surreptitious Bed which one could slink onto unobserved and without, you said, making the slightest change in one’s life style. It was just somewhere to hole out until the weather changed. You could go further and actually move the beds from one room to another, changing the purpose of the rooms and the purpose of the beds.
All the time you could say the beds were getting harder. There was indeed the hard-up bed bought at an Oxfam shop but it had a twisted spring and had to go in the end like all the others. So it was time to go for something that made no attempt to massage the limbs or assuage the spirit. It was not a bed to sink into but rather something on which the surgeon could operate. It was a bed that certainly gave nothing to you but rather took what it could. Still it was a bed on which two could lie - at a pinch.
All this time while I speculated in beds, my father was getting older. Did he speculate or conceive of all the uses there were to a bed? To be sure he was still a light sleeper: something disturbed him in the night - maybe he was up still searching for an errant son. He would rise, don a few clothes and then begin to tramp round the house. When one roused oneself and came to him, he would accept that it was the night, return to his bedroom, strip off the old cardigan he had put on over his night clothes and seemed to settle himself peacefully enough for sleep again. But if one lay down oneself one would be disturbed in five minutes when he rose again to pursue his nightly marching. It was easier in the end to leave him circling the house than to try and explain to him the real purposes of the night.
My friend Taner took a personal interest in these nocturnal wanderings of my father and saw in them a desire to be back in the drudgery of his working days in an office. It was true he saw them as nothing else but drudge but Taner believed that nevertheless he missed his years of commuting on slow trains and that he woke to his Bradshaw and began to dress for a past journey. It was a possible explanation but I doubt myself if that was what the old man was really looking for on those nocturnal ramblings.
Came the night, came the day when he rose no longer from his bed but lay washed up beyond the tides which had carried him to and fro for so many years. The doctor called daily, not attempting too strenuously to oppose the course of these events, but merely to ease them with some minor remedies.
‘Why don’t you,’ he said to mother, ‘offer him a little brandy?’ This she did, choosing to give him the little sips he was prepared to take not from a glass but from an egg-cup - perhaps there was some obscure symbolism in that. My father had always been proud of his ability to speak French and liked to borrow phrases from that language but even I was startled when on one of those latter days he replied to a kindly enquiry about his well being from the doctor with the phrase ‘Comme ci, comme ça.’ He turned his head a little restlessly but then stilled and closed his eyes on us. He seemed at last to lie there at rest knowing that there was a need for sleep.
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