The opening of The Sleep Watcher, the new novel by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, published by Sceptre in April 2023.
I have never returned to the town. I rarely say its name, only that I grew up a few hours from London. I left before I turned seventeen.
All along the coast there are gate towns – Ramsgate, Margate, Sandgate, Westgate-on-Sea. These are openings in the high, hard cliff s of this island, gates to the water or to the land, depending on your perspective. Then there are the raised headlands – Beachy Head, Minehead, Portishead. These offer the gift of sight.
Our town was neither a head nor a gate. It was a ripple. The town bent towards the sea before rising up again cliffwards. Our cliff s were not famous, and their sides were lumpy and jagged. Tide markers raised their bald heads along our streets. There were three churches, one of which had been converted into a cafe. The local paper bemoaned arsons by suspected youths, but otherwise crime was low.
The sea is now a train ride away but sometimes I see a gull making its white-bellied way through the air to pilfer from our bins or perform some other bastard behaviour. Yesterday I saw two, one swooping after the other in brutality or romance. I told myself I would tell you what happened in that town.
I started wrong. Do you remember? It was while we were making dinner at your flat. Your knife shuttled through the onion. You were blinking back acid tears. Maybe I felt braver because you weren’t looking at me. I mentioned the town and added almost casually, Do you know, while I was living there I stopped dreaming?
Who can blame you for the reply? Other people’s dreams are always boring. I didn’t argue that this was not a dream but an absence. Instead, I gathered onion peel, swiping the husk into my hand.
I have to try again. It wouldn’t be fair to wind myself around your life before I tell you what happened in that place. It’s not a thing I have perspective on, even twelve years later. The memories are salty and humid. Perhaps you’ll say I was barely out of childhood and that my mistakes were understandable. I hope that afterwards you will still want to pack your stuff , for me to box mine, and for us to conjoin our lives. Or maybe you’ll never be able to knot your fingers around mine. Because when you see my hands, you’ll remember the damage they’ve done. You’ll decide I’m not the sort of person you want to live with after all.
While you have no time for dreams, you’ve always had time for books. Whenever I borrow one from your shelves, I trace the graphite underlinings and marvel at your careful attention and the luck of your students. So I thought I’d try to write you one. Or something like one anyway. An account with a beginning, a middle, an end. Perhaps not everything is quite accurate. There is no one I can check with. I am almost sure that I have not made anyone kinder or crueller than they were. Although it was long ago, I remember that year more clearly than I do last month.
That summer, my mind separated from my body as completely as an egg cracked from its shell. The splitting began in those hazy days just after exams were done when everything should have been easy.
I’ve always avoided the subject of childhood or given you generic answers. I owe you the facts.
I had two parents – M and F. The woman who birthed, bottled, and raised me was never Mum or Mummy. She was M. Shortened from Mem, the sound my baby lips supposedly made when looking into the moon of her face. My father was named by default. F, said like Eff . Kit and Caterpillar, the names they called me, were not on my birth certificate. We lived under pseudonyms. Leo, my brother, was the only one who kept his true name.
F found it easier to sing than to speak. On the weekend, he was in an indie rock band that played local venues and sometimes weddings. Weekdays, he stitched together freelance programming work. He was good with computers but not with business. There was often a skim of stubble along his jaw. He wore thick black jeans and jumpers in colours like mustard and mint. He cut his hair himself, in our sink, and you could tell. His curls were the pale brown seen on men who were once angel-blonde boys. Indeed, his mother had named him after such an angel. Though he didn’t look like one anymore, he could name all the angels in the Bible and most of the apocrypha. Music and angels were his great loves. He would have said they were the same thing – a purity missing from most of human life.
M stood very straight and so appeared taller than she was. She worked as a therapist specialising in the problems of teenagers. I sometimes wondered if she’d worked with anyone I knew. Her office was in a larger town about six miles away. A screen on her laptop blocked peeping from the sides. The one time she had revealed a client detail was when she explained why she had stopped working with adults – He was stressed because he realised his wife and lover had their periods in the same week. He was frightened they’d synchronised, like they both knew something he didn’t. That’s when I realised adults weren’t for me. She dressed in the colours of the sea – blues, greys, shady greens – as if trying to become part of the local landscape. Although strangers still asked, But where are you from? My grandmother was from Japan and something of that distance showed in M’s face.
The thing about parents is they’re both deadly dull and your first maps of how to live. Mine were no different.
We lived in a terraced house that was part of a line of houses that snaked away from the sea. We’d moved there five years before, when I was eleven, from a larger town inland. At sixteen, I was neither a local nor a stranger. I had friends at school but only one I trusted – Andrew. When he wasn’t around, I joined in the games all the girls played. Men watched us that year, on the pier, on the street, in the shops, wherever we went. We sucked orange Calippos by the bus stop, licking the fluorescent juice off our fingers, looking straight into the eyes of pitiful adults with hair growing out of their ears.
I had decided I would lose my virginity to Andrew because he had long-fingered hands – almost but not quite like a girl’s – which held even the most gnawed pencil with grace. Also because he was my closest friend. I hadn’t told him this decision. I was enjoying having a plan.
Losing my dreams was not a milestone marked in the book M bought about Your Body’s Natural Changes. Still, it happened.