I barely sleep. I am restless, nervous, and, anyway, sleeping seems a waste of time. Somebody has called me curious, so that is what I tell myself as I lie in the dark and stare at the ceiling: I don’t sleep because I am curious. I will, in time, understand I was merely alert — what does being alert become? I will always wonder. Instead of sleeping I read, I play, imagine, dream, listen. I pull the curtain aside and watch the night. I watch the lights come on in neighbouring apartments then switch back to blankness. I watch cars streak up or down the driveway, catching fragments of radio songs. I watch the sky and think about space. One night, feverish, I convince myself a thief is walking through our small flat. The slap-slap-slap of his sandals against the soles of his feet will be audible to me forever. I talk myself into confronting the burglar: I leap out of bed, call out to my mother and run through our home turning all the lights on. The burglar dissolves in the light and I refuse to believe no-one is there.
It can’t go on, I have to find a way to sleep. I try to sleep on things, with things, and I find ways. I sleep, for a long time, on a tiny toy pillow in the shape of a red bus. I sleep with no pillow. I sleep with the window open, in all seasons. I sleep with the window closed, in all seasons. I want to be a comic book hero and at the same time I decide I am going to the moon. In an inverted logic, I wear an astronaut’s air-tanks — a backpack that fades in the rain — during the day and a Superman cape to bed. Norma, a neighbour, hears about this. Another neighbour tells her, in lightness, for a laugh — the things that kids do, can you imagine? But Norma worries — she is a worrier. She appears at the door to tell my mother of her concern while I stand behind her, the cape around my neck, over my shoulders. Norma says I could choke and die in my sleep and I don’t want to die in my sleep. I stop wearing the cape to bed and this is how I don’t die and soon my air-tanks fade and collect holes and become useless.
Norma is married to George. George does an odd thing: he collects dolls. Odd for a man, worse, it seems to me, for a man of his advanced age. Their flat is full of dolls of all shapes and sizes, as if it is a doll museum. But sad dolls, forgotten dolls, nightmarishly clustered together. Dolls that are not, I can tell, for playing. Norma crochets dresses for them, slipping them over their stiff limbs like they are her own grandchildren. And it is George’s collection, not Norma’s. In the future, when I think of George, I will think of him as being ancient, of him grinning and being well-dressed but also of being damp among his dolls, wet like a netted eel.
But, no, my favourite place to sleep is on the lounge in the living room. If, as an adult, I must return to my mother’s home, that is where I will sleep — that will be my exile bed. The cold first touch of the worn leather that becomes a slow, warm hug. That becomes sticky under my thighs and arms in the summer months. It is the comfort it offers that eases me into sleep, but it is also the presence of the fish tank next to it that glows like my personal aurora borealis. Looking into the tank is like looking through a window into another dimension. In some ways, that’s what it is: the fish are dumb, ignorant, not bound by gravity, not ruled by night or day, not of this world. This is the memory: of this fish tank, of the fish within, bobbing around their mercury-thick planet while I doze off. The filter buzzes, a decorative diver at the bottom of the tank holds a liquor flask that, when it fills with air, he lifts to his mouth and swigs, sending bubbles shuttling to the water’s surface. The fish kiss the diver’s mossy helmet. Angel fish, guppies, neon tetras that glimmer under the fluorescent light like jewels. They eat, full bellies visible through their scales. They hide in a plastic neon desert rock. They shit, they swim. One or two fish decide they don’t like the others sharing tank space, so chase them away though there is no away. An atomic-green aquarium weed swells under the light; my mother prunes it by reaching into the tank and dragging out clumps that, brought into our reality, turn slick like witch hair. A world inside the world.
Hands hard and strong that know the feel of things. That know the shape, I can tell. Soft t-shirts from Big W and shorts, a smile showing gold teeth. The room dim, cool air settling around my bare ankles — a secret oasis in the ceiling. Of particular interest to me is a small cabinet, like the kind you’d find in a dollhouse. In its tiny plastic drawers are screws and nails, like petrified insects, one a variation of the other. Nuts and bolts and door hinges that can be made to flap like butterflies. Metal scraps, pulled from the earth. Things to cut myself on. Things to draw blood. Magnets and their quiet miracle. A vice: turn this this way and it closes, turn this that way and it opens. Spanners and hammers and screwdrivers, all aged and weary with rust. All used to create something, to build this wide, simple world.
An awareness of the nautical, the vague knowledge that comes with it: a captain’s hat, sinkers, fishing rods. Anchor motifs like upturned crucifixes, which, too, are pinned to walls throughout the house. Somewhere below our feet is a model of a boat. In the boat is a bottle of scotch. When the bottle is removed, the boat plays a song like magic. My grandfather drives tugboats. Awkward boats that putt-putt-putt across the water. The presence of the nautical; the ocean isn’t physically here, but it is around us, as if the tide is, for now, out.
On a cluttered table in my grandfather’s attic workshop is his project for me: wires, limbs, a head, of sorts, with lights for eyes — a robot. This is the memory. The new millennium is coming, only a decade away. Air-tanks, space food sticks, the things of Soviet dreams. Where he’s gotten the robot from, or how, or why, I don’t know, but it is, once made, to belong to me.
The gold-toothed smile of mischief, that’s what my mother calls it. I will see its twin in the smile of my father, the teeth not gold but missing, while he sits propped up in the hospital bed he will die in. The gold-toothed smile of adventure. My smile, too — maybe.
A sad time arrives. This isn’t the memory. Not being sad, but sadness settling around me, like a visitor here for the holidays — like the tide is in. My grandfather drowns in the harbour. He works on the water but hates it — maybe he hates it because he never learns to swim, or he never learns to swim because he hates it. Somebody finds him like that, in the morning, drowned. The rings are slipped off his fingers, the chain taken from around his neck, and given in a small plastic packet to those still here. Because you have to give these things to those still here. They pull him from the water — that’s what they say — but I don’t see it. Even though one day I will have his ring, and even though that’s what they say, he stays down there. He is never pulled from the water — I don’t see it. The water still has him, the harbour fish kissing him on his mossy forehead.
Tristan Foster is a writer from Sydney, Australia. He is an editor at 3:AM Magazine.
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