I haven’t been sleeping. I haven’t been sleeping and that’s why I’m wearing a hat. Ian is staring at me. I don’t normally wear hats. I’m waiting for it.
‘What’s with the hat John?’ he says, ‘Cold?’
‘No, no. Just a new style, that’s all.’ This is a lie.
‘Right you are,’ he says.
I like Ian. I wouldn’t say he’s my best friend, because I’m thirty-seven and when you’re thirty-seven you don’t have best friends, but we’ve known each other long enough. Despite the fact that I have a BA in Art History from the University of Sussex and Ian left school when he was only sixteen, he still earns three times my salary. At least he did when I was working. He smells of Hugo Boss and turpentine, and has stubble you could clean your boots on.
Ian and I are in the pub, either side of a well-worn table we’ve sat at many times before. I think you’d like the place. Esmé liked it, anyway. It’s the kind of pub that has a cat. A lean and striped tabby; one you might see picking its way across the bar like a thief, through the glasses and bottles, or stretching itself out across the wooden floor, moving for no one, challenging you with the knowledge of its one-time place with the Gods. I mean, the pub doesn’t actually have a cat. In fact, I remember hearing something about the landlord being allergic, but what I’m trying to say, is that it was the kind of pub that would have a cat.
Ian pushes himself away from the table. ‘I’m going for a slash,’ he says. ‘Christine’ll be here in a minute.’
Christine is Ian’s wife. Or Ian is Christine’s husband? I’m never quite sure which way round that goes. Christine’s job has something to with auctions and antiques. I don’t know exactly and I’ve never asked because I’m not really interested. I feel the change in pressure behind me as the heavy pub door opens and closes. It’s her. She’s wearing an expensive-looking flappy scarf that doesn’t seem to want to stay still. She waves at me from the doorway. Christine is one of those people who are clever enough that they can act stupid, without having to worry what people think. Apparently, she’s very attractive.
‘Hello, Johnny love.’
She also likes to call me Johnny.
‘My Lord, what on earth is that thing on your head?’ she says, sitting down. ‘Please don’t tell me this is your new look.’
‘No. Just a little cold, that’s all.’
Perhaps I should elaborate on this hat situation. Actually, it’s really not a big deal. A few hours ago, using a cordless Bosch PSR 1800, I drilled a 1cm-diameter hole in the top of my head; slap bang in the middle of the frontal bone. Now, I know what you’re thinking: why the frontal bone, as opposed to the parietal or occipital bone? Well the thing is, you can’t see the parietal or occipital areas of your own head, can you? To be honest, I’d been meaning to drill a hole in my head for a while, but just never got round to it. Perhaps it was the thought of another sleepless night. Perhaps there was just something about that particular episode of Bargain Hunt I was watching. Did I mention I haven’t been sleeping?
‘Anyway, how are you Johnny love? You look terrible.’
I forgot Christine was here. She’s staring right at me, her head tilted slightly to one side. She reminds me of my old dog, and being reminded of my old dog, of course, just reminds me of Esmé.
‘Do I?’ I say. ‘Well, to tell you the truth…’
‘You’ll never guess who we saw last night.’
I don’t fancy my chances of guessing correctly, so I just keep quiet.
When I can’t sleep at night, I like to watch documentaries. Space, science, that kind of stuff. I think it’s the voices; always authoritative, always calm. Sometimes, Esmé and I would watch them together. I remember once, after there’d been some problems, about which I have no intention of going into detail right now, she’d told me how beautiful it was that the tears of a child were really made out of stardust. I pointed out that this would be equally true of its faeces. She was crying. I said something about intestinal worms.
Christine is still unfurling her scarf. She looks like she’s wresting a cobra.
‘Do you remember Robert?’ She says. ‘Robert Bowman? My old boss at the auction house?’
‘Sure.’ (I have absolutely no idea).
‘Johnny.’ Christine somehow manages to drag my name out into three syllables. ‘Don’t fib. You don’t remember, do you? Robert was at my parents’ New Year’s party last year. Mid 50s, tall? Has a salt and pepper kind of charm to him? Oh Johnny, you’re useless.’
‘You two not ordered yet? I’m parched,’ says Ian, sitting down and fastening his flies.
‘I’ll get them,’ says Christine. ‘Ian, tell Johnny about last night. He can’t even remember who Robert is.’
‘You know him,’ says Ian, swivelling toward me. ‘You met him at that New Year’s do at Christine’s parents’. That old bloke with a dodgy grey beard. Smarmy looking, bit of a twat. Loaded by all accounts.’
‘Oh yeah, I remember.’ (I still don’t). I’m not really listening. I’m thinking about how badly I underestimated the differences in pressure between the inside and outside of my skull. I’d just assumed that, because there were no arteries or veins, it would be a nice clean pop, just like cracking a coconut. The half-second before I managed to plug the hole with my finger was long enough to turn the settee from vanilla to raspberry ripple. And just then, as I was sitting there like that little Dutch boy who saved a town, Ian turns up from nowhere, shouting through the letterbox about going to the pub. A moment later and I heard the key in the door, that same key that I’d agreed to give him a few months ago after there’d been all that trouble, and in a panic I picked up the nearest thing I could find to plug up the hole: a blue and yellow, foam earplug (I mentioned that I hadn’t been sleeping, right?). I jumped to my feet, pulled on this old woolly hat, the one I’d wear when Esmé and I used to walk the dog, and then here I am, half an hour later, sat in the pub being handed a lager and lime by Christine.
‘Did you tell him yet?’ she says, reaching across the table with a pint of Stella.
‘I’m doing it now babe,’ says Ian.
We wait for him to put down his drink and wipe away the lager from his top lip. He makes a face like he’s going to belch, but doesn’t.
‘You’re so slow! Let me tell him, Hun’
‘You’re the boss,’ says Ian, getting to his feet. ‘Anyone want some peanuts?’
Christine focuses in on me. ‘So Ian and I went to the White Horse last night,’ she says. ‘Typical gastro fair; all rather dull. People think all you have to do to get a Michelin star is put pigeon on the menu, and say crème anglaise instead of custard. Anyway, so in walks Robert with this twenty-something trollop on his arm…’
Ian is talking to the barman. The barman’s name is James or Jeremy or something. He’s leaning on the beer pumps like the captain of a ship. He has big arms; big cuddly gorilla arms. They’re the kind of arms which could wrap around you so tight, you wouldn’t hear a thing. You could fall asleep in those arms. Eiderdown and beaver pelts; chinchillas and silk.
‘…big plastic boobs, an Instagram filter for a face. I mean, he’s almost 60. It’s just embarrassing.
A bag of peanuts land on the table in front of me. ‘She tell you about the girl yet?’ says Ian.
‘That’s just what I was doing, Hun,’ says Christine, standing up. ‘You tell him what happened next; I’m off to the ladies’.’
‘Fair play to the guy. He may be a bit of an arse, but pulling a tidy piece like that at his age?’
When you’re a child you never have problems sleeping. You just shut your eyes and that’s it. It’s only when you get a bit older that it all starts to change. It’s thinking that does it. Too much thinking. I was hoping that drilling a hole in my head might help with all this. You see, trepanation, to use the technical term, releases the build up of pressure in the skull and allows the brain to pulsate in time with the heart. Just like when you were a kid, before your fontanelles sealed over. Just like when you were an innocent.
‘…and Christine waves at him because, you know, he used to be her boss,’ continues Ian, through a mouthful of peanuts. ‘She couldn’t stop laughing. Well, you know what she’s like.’
There was this documentary I watched the other day: The Origins of the Universe. Did you know that for the first 300,000 years there were no galaxies or stars? None at all. I try to imagine myself in a universe without light, floating in the primordial gases, lost in a fog of hydrogen and helium. The cosmos as a womb. Then I remember the narrator saying the temperature of the universe at that time was about 3000 degrees Celsius, and I feel the sudden need to take my socks off.
‘…mate, are you even listening?’ Ian has finished his peanuts.
‘Yeah, of course,’ I say.
Christine sits down, picks up a beermat and begins brushing peanut salt onto the floor.
‘You don’t look too good,’ Ian says to me. ‘You’ve barely touched your pint.’ To Ian, not drinking your pint is a definite red flag.
‘I’m just a bit hot,’ I say. ‘That’s all.’
‘Take that stupid hat off, then.’
‘Yes, for God’s sake, please remove that eyesore,’ says Christine. ‘I didn’t want to mention it Johnny, but it actually smells.’
‘Don’t touch it!
‘Johnny! Let go of me.’
‘For Christ’s sake John, stop being a prick.’
Before I can stop him, Ian has ripped the hat from my head, and with it the little foam earplug; a blue and yellow supernova spinning in space. Then, like a freshly tapped barrel of beer, my head rebalances the pressure between inside and out; all over the table, the floor, and most of Christine’s scarf. Having already lost quite a bit of blood and cerebrospinal fluid earlier, it doesn’t take too long for the flow to turn to a trickle. It is difficult at this stage, however, to gauge just how much of a relief this is to anyone. There’s a man standing by the fruit machine screaming for Jesus; Ian has fallen over; and the barman, James/Jeremy, has just been sick in the tips jar.
I feel like I should apologise, or buy everyone a drink, or blame it on the government or something. I stand up, feeling as I do so, perhaps unsurprisingly, rather light headed. Just as I’m about to explain how badly I’ve been sleeping lately, and how, if you really think about it, none of this is actually my fault, I feel in my head the beginnings of the faintest vibration. Yes, it’s definitely there. A tremble. A flutter. A pulse. And then, as I look up at everyone, I feel for a moment like we’re all bound together somehow, like we all share the same canvas, like we’re all caught in the dusty light of a Caravaggio. Esmé liked Caravaggio. One final drop falls from my head and lands with a perfect plunk in my lager and lime. ‘Don’t worry everyone,’ I tell them. ‘I think everything’s going to be all right, now.’
© Chris Thomson