The boy with the watch for a heart

I have trouble sleeping sometimes. Well, most times, actually, unless I’m drunk or just back from a holiday or I’ve been crying or something. Actually, the holiday thing, not a guarantee. If I slept, like, 3 hours on the plane, I think my body thinks that passes for a full night’s sleep, and so no matter how shattered I feel, if I’ve had that tiny sleep, that’s me screwed and sleepless for the next however many hours. Like, however long the day is. Or at least, until some deeply inconveniently early time – like, 8 o’clock or whatever – when going to sleep would result in me waking up hella early. It’s a pain in the dick.

But anyway, yes. Trouble sleeping. The slightest bit of light will get right on my wick. I actually have an eye-mask – like, an old ladies’ eye mask, except I managed to find one with a sort of bloodshot zombie eyes design on the front – but it’s too tight, the elastic’s too tight, so I can’t wear it when I’m going to sleep, just in the morning if the light wakes me up and I’m bleary enough to put it on and fall back asleep without the tightness bothering me. So, it’s not just the light, but the physical feel, the tactile sensation as well. I can’t go to sleep if either of those aren’t right.

And sound. Obviously. Sound’s a big factor, though for some reason I have less problem with music pumping out from the flat downstairs’ party than I do, say, birdsong or road works. Maybe because I can establish a pattern with the music, learn to anticipate it, incorporate it into my own biorhythms or whatever. The birdsong and the pneumatic drills and whatever, they’re random and unpredictable, so I won’t be able to fit them into my trying-to-fall-asleep acceptance of the situation. Wave sounds and rain are ok too. I really like falling asleep – or trying to fall asleep, anyway – listening to rain.

And the watch. I have this watch, an antique-style pocket watch – solid silver, I think. I was gonna tell you it came from my grandfather who died in the war or something, or from some old musty shop in a lesser visited part of town where the owner – probably an old Chinese guy, thanks for the casual racism, Disney, or whoever made those movies – told me some mystical story about the watch’s origins and why it always stops at 5.08pm or whatever. I thought those lies might make the whole story more interesting, but the truth is, my friend Jamie gave it to me as a thank you for being his best man at his wedding. It’s monogrammed with my initials on it. Everyone in the groom’s party got one. (With their own initials, not all with mine, obvs.) Jamie has a bit more money than sense.

Obviously, I’m not going to wear it out everywhere – or anywhere, really, because I don’t wanna lose it. Even if I don’t get much (or in fact any) daily use out of it, it was still a lovely gift, with a lot of automatic sentimental value – best friend, wedding, etc – so yeah, I keep it in the house. I’m not much of a watch-wearer anyway, never mind pocket watches. That’s what phones are for, right?

So it hangs on the shelf – I’ve got this shelf above my bed I’m very proud of, made from the busted-up side panel of a Welsh dresser I found dumped in the street, cut to fit then supported on these two black wrought-iron brackets that I think were maybe more intended for hanging baskets full of flowers outside picturesque Devonshire cottages, you know? Anyway, the watch hangs from one of the wrought-iron brackets, the one right above my head. The other bracket, above my girlfriend’s head, that’s all choked up with her shit, necklaces and keys and stuff, so I keep the watch sort of suspended from the bracket on my side, the chain coiled and wrapped around the little – I wanna call them curlicues? – the little twists and decorations on the bracket. In the right light – or maybe the wrong light, I’d be better saying – it looks like an incomplete Hangman drawing, the bracket forming the gallows and the chain forming the rope and the noose, and the watch itself being the head of the guy who’s hanging, with no body or anything. God, Hangman – it’s one of those things that you don’t realise at the time, until you think on it later, how fucking morbid it is – and this is a game we teach to children. Like, what the hell? File that away with Roald Dahl and fairy stories and ring-a-ring-of-roses as heinous, black-hearted shit we inflict on children, then wonder why they go and shoot up the school or whatever. Yeah, blame it on rap music, why don’t you. Forget the obvious date-rape context of Sleeping Beauty. Forget that Hansel and Gretel straight up murdered an old woman. Forget that kids learn this stuff at the same time as they’re learning how to think.

Anyway, sorry, I got side-tracked there – the watch. It ticks. Obviously. (‘Obviously’ as in, yes, it’s a watch, of course it ticks, but also as in it ticks in a very obvious way.) And the first night I got it home – or rather, it would’ve been the first night I hung it up, cos the first night I actually got it home I would’ve left it in my waistcoat pocket and collapsed into bed and passed out – see what I was saying before about being drunk leading to a good night’s sleep. Anyway, the first night I hung it up, I thought the ticking was gonna drive me nuts. I stared at it, dangling above my head, thought about wrapping it in a pair of socks and sticking it at the bottom of my drawer or something – which is I think what Yossarian or someone recommends in Catch-22, because they have a hard time sleeping as well and they want to smother someone else’s watch – but then I figured it’d still be there, audible, or just on the edge of hearing anyway, and I’d have to get up again and move it to another room and then I’d forget where it was and lose it, plus I was already in bed and didn’t want to have to go through the rigmarole of getting up and moving it, twice, once to the sock drawer then once out of the room, so I just lay there and stared at it and hated it a bit and then finally tuned it out and went to sleep. I mean I guess you could file it under the category of repetitive noises that I could learn to anticipate a la loud music, waves, etc, but something about it just stayed on the edge of irritation. Maybe because it’s a smaller thing I theoretically could change – like, the loud music and the waves, I couldn’t really do anything about them (well, I could go and ask them to turn the music down, but who wants to be that guy?), so there’s no point getting worked up about them, but I could do something about the watch, and the very fact I wasn’t doing something meant it stayed annoying. Like how an itchy foot might be less annoying than an itchy nose, because an itchy nose is more easily within reach, and why don’t you just scratch the fucker?

And it was like that for, I dunno, at least a week. I’d get into bed and the lights would go off and Judy would turn over on her side – the watch never bothered her, by the way, she sleeps like a log – and I would lie on my back and stare upwards (only til I start to get sleepy – then I have to turn onto my side, so I don’t snore through the night. Ok, when I said she sleeps like a log, she still wakes up when I snore and nudges at me until I roll over onto my side, which stops me snoring.) and there would be this fucking watch, and I’d think, ‘ah, shit, I still haven’t dealt with that, I can’t do it now, it’ll disturb Judy, and besides, I should really get to sleep’ – and then I’d re-run through all the reasons for not getting up and putting it somewhere else (the socks, the loss, the regret), and then eventually try to start thinking about something else, and then eventually fall asleep. All the while acutely aware of this incessant little tickticktickticktick sound above my head.

And then, I dunno, after that week sometime, I came up with this character for the watch. A little boy – a sort of very rough-drawn stick figure, a Tim Burton-style creation, with wiry little hairs and a very circular head and a nondescript blob of a body and single lines coming out for his arms and legs. Sort of like the 7-Up guy, though I can’t remember if he maybe had thicker legs and arms. But this kid, this little boy, he has the watch for a heart. (I know – very Wizard of Oz.) Just his regular, stick-drawn arms and legs and body and head and so on, but with this real-life silver watch in his chest, where his heart would be. Pinned there like a medal.

This isn’t even a truthful representation of what he looks like – his body’s the wrong shape or something, I can’t figure it out. That’s how much I suck at drawing.

The kid seems happy enough with the watch, or oblivious to it at least. Like, to him, it’s normal: why would he react to having a watch for a heart if that’s all he’s ever known? He doesn’t really do much, as far as I’m aware – I don’t have pre-written adventures for him or anything like that, he just kind of floats in the ether and provides a focal point for me to hone in on while the rest of my bodily senses – sight (my eyes are closed), touch, taste, etc – all shut down, or whatever it is happens to your senses when you go to sleep. He’s just there, being himself, quite content, this little watch ticking away on his chest. He’s not sleepy or anything – it’s not like he’s yawning to make me yawn (although, funny story, I can’t even type the word ‘yawn’ without starting to yawn – that’s four times inside the last 30 seconds, and twice more in the edit). I guess what I’m getting from him is he’s relaxed, and the whole ticking thing, it’s not something he’s worried about or letting the stress get to him or whatever, so it’s not something I need to worry about either.

It’s been really useful though, because what started I guess as just a coping mechanism for not getting all stressed out about the watch, has turned into this way of rationalising – or I guess de-rationalising and re-contextualising – any other noises that would normally come at me out of nowhere and distract me as I’m trying to drift off to sleep. Like, if the fridge kicks in – that’s just him taking a breath, or it’s the sound of him raising his eyebrows or something. (The sounds don’t have to be the actual sounds someone would make, they just have to be related to something he’s doing.) If a heavy truck goes by outside, that’s him running his fingers through his hair. (He develops things like fingers as and when they become necessary – they’re not in clear focus the whole time.) If there’s music coming from another flat, he might tap his foot to it or slightly sway, though he doesn’t get himself worked into a hyped up dance frenzy about it or anything – it just becomes part of his scene (or, I guess, my scene) rather than some external element that he/I can’t control, something that’s intruding into his/my consciousness.

Am I the boy? I don’t think so. Maybe he’s my inner child or whatever, but I don’t feel any especially strong connection to him, or at least I don’t right now, writing about it – maybe I do in the moment, as it’s happening. Right now though, I just think of him as someone who’s just hanging out, and I can observe him and take… not comfort, not solace exactly, but I can see how chilled out he’s being and take that on board as a helpful, healthy way to be (as far as that goes in terms of falling asleep, anyway). It’s not even like he’s being demonstrably super-chill, like you’ll look at someone on the beach and be like, ‘god, they’re so chill, they’ve got zero stress in their life right now’ – it’s not like he’s some paragon, some exemplar of chill, he’s just average, every-day, not letting shit get to him but not making a big deal out of it either. He just is, you know?

Anyway, I’m sleeping better now, as a result, I imagine. It’s handy to have a focal point. I know sleeping’s all about losing focus, to an extent – sort of losing your grip on the reality of the waking world around you – but by focusing solely on him, I can sort of allow myself to lose focus on the other things, you know? And then it’s just him, and the darkness, and then after a while, it’s just the watch, and then… that’s it.