Ancient and stuffed with horse hair, smelling of dust. Or the boat in the storm, the centre of our intimate lives. A boat is how we imagined it, as kids. My sister’s white metal-framed bed was a ship, and we would reel our teddies in from the sea, the survivors of a wreck, to heal them with the etch-a-sketch. The dog would enter the room and we’d sneakily allow him into the boat, and cuddle him to us. His ears would be down, knowing he wasn’t allowed.
A bed can be a fort, and a nest. I still sleep with pillows all around me, in my arms, between my legs. But I can’t cuddle through the night; I’m too claustrophobic. Sometimes I wake from a nightmare and I must wait until the paranoia subsides until I can step off the bed and down.
Beds are behind closed doors. Except those beds I glimpsed at Ballindalloch Castle, where the inhabitants supposedly lived, behind velvet ropes. Their bedside tables were stacked with hardcovers. Here was a bottle of Sprite, half-empty. Each room’s colours were seventies garish. I didn’t buy it. The rooms smelt of damp – unlived in – blankets merely shaken out once in a while, the carpet vacced.
On the bed in our old apartment – a third-hand ensemble, its mattress mysteriously tinged with rust – my love and I had sagged into one another. And one time we woke to find tiny beetles all over our pillows.
The new old bed – it was better, but it carried the presence of sleepless nights, depression, and grief, from its last owner. The sadness at times welled up in me through the sheets. I thought we could counter it, though, over time. Making love, laughing, drinking whisky, spilling cracker crumbs throughout the sheets, books strewn across it. We could not.
Beckett’s Malone wonders if perhaps he should take all his possessions into bed with him. ‘Would that be of any use? I suppose not.’ He’d have his photograph, his stone, his hat, ‘so that they can’t get away’. He’d have a scrap of newspaper, perhaps in his mouth. Camus’ Meursault finds a scrap of newspaper beneath his bed. He reads it over and over again until it becomes the whole world.
Once, as a child, I dreamt I had a flavoured ice block under my pillow, a Zooper Dooper. I woke with a mingled sense of hope, fear (that it had melted) and then disappointment – that common emotion upon waking.
John Bayley’s bed was the centre of his married life (though not his partner Iris Murdoch’s), covered with the novels he was reviewing for the Spectator. Other possessions were strewn about the house because Iris had a great fondness for bits and bobs. The bed was Bayley’s, and he luxuriated in it during a long illness, conceiving the idea for his novel The Characters of Love. In the ‘wide high Victorian bed with a carved oak frame and a great soft almost soggy mattress’ that they bought for a pound, he felt ‘secure… and protected from the world’.
Indeed, sometimes when we are at work, or just out of the house, we think of our beds, made or unmade, accepting our bodies down into them. It is all we want in that moment.
Life is created on beds, and we hope we will die in bed, when we are ready. Not too early, like Marilyn, who had earlier been lying there on the telephone, the white cord twisted around her fingers. The sheets probably smelt like spilled champagne, and beneath that, ground barbiturates. Maybe she was ready. But the world was not.
I’ve always wanted a canopy bed. I slept on one once in Bali, king size. It’s hard to go back from that. But the sounds of monkeys and chickens kept me awake, staring at the delicate white netting.
In Romania it was the dogs. In Paris it was the sun. He and I were so jetlagged we were in bed by 10pm, our legs aching and cramping from walking up spiral staircases with the fluid still pooled in our swollen ankles. In that affordable bed we ate cheese and tomatoes and stale croissants. We never did know where to find the good ones.
In London there was a squashed room with a strange large en suite that made us feel off-kilter, as though it were not meant to be a room at all. And then there was the hostel where our single beds sat end to end. I remember waking and looking at the almost empty bottle of rum through thick, sandy eyes. Perhaps there are no good beds in London.
There is no point talking about Spain because I will want to be back there now, lying next to him in the afternoon. Not napping, because I don’t nap – it makes me feel too strange and disoriented – but soaking up the Malaga sun, sipping cheap wine that comes in a box and eating a mandarin. The pillows in Spain, though, they are tubular and hard. I had to pound them flat, like unwelcome bugs.
As a child, I don’t remember often waking my parents but I do remember mornings in bed with my Nanna, my sister on the other side of her, counting all her spots and wrinkles. It was the most joyful and exciting event, to be cuddled up so close to her, with her sweet talcum smell, before we’d get up and eat All-Bran with powdered skim milk and a layer of sugar.
Breakfast can be even better when it is taken back to bed, and eaten between the sheets. Or even brought in by someone else, like the pancakes a good friend once surprised me with on a hungover Christmas morning.
I’ve learnt that staying in bed longer in the mornings, on writing days, can be beneficial (hungover or not). The sleep-in maintains that dream state a little longer, so it rolls on into the day. Edith Sitwell apparently said, ‘All women should have a day a week in bed.’ A dream, that we could be allowed more dreaming. Or allow ourselves.
Sometimes we remember someone else in our bed. Maybe not splayed and haloed by hair as in a Franco Zeffirelli film, but with their back turned to us, breathing in sleep. We remember slipping a hand across their hip to their belly and pulling them in. Or we remember not doing it.
There’s a Seinfeld episode where George tries desperately to poke his feet out from the sheets and blankets of a hospital-cornered bed in a hotel room. He writhes and seethes, trying to get that sweet relieving air to his hot feet. It’s a feeling I know well. In bed we fume at small things, not just hot feet but the silly things we’ve said, and the emails we have to send tomorrow. Sometimes there’s a crack of light from the blinds, or a TV on somewhere.
Sometimes a deeper concern wells up. A wrong turn we took. A painful desire. It throbs in the shadows of the room.
A bed contains all this; all that is small and large. It contains us.
Image credit: ▲ r n o