• 27 . 04 . 11
  • In which an attempt to conquer my circadian rhythm goes wrong.

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Night Watch

Ok, so the bus to Abu Simbel leaves at 3:30am, which means we need to be awake at 3am, so we should try to get some sleep no later than 9pm and preferably 7.
Well it’s 5:30pm now and I’m already pretty tired, so I might just go to bed now. It’s only 10 hours till we have to be awake anyway. I’m sure I can sleep through.

Slowly coming awake in what feels like pitch black, with You’ve Got The Touch by Stan Bush soundtracking my ascent into conscious thought, I realise that it hasn’t worked out that way. Refreshed, but cautious and determined not to open my eyes, I try to work out what time it is based on how I feel. The air-conditioner hums away in the corner, the air dry and my lips cracked. I attempt to feel groggy, in case I need to fall back asleep quickly. 2am would be fine. I could just read a little until the appointed time. Midnight or 1am would be more difficult, with no real time before I have to wake again, but 11pm would be ok. More than enough time to get in another REM cycle. It can’t be earlier than 11pm because aside from the humming aircon, dry cracked lips and You’ve Got The Touch looping in my head I feel really good and I never feel this good after less than six hours of sleep.

The aircon is failing against the warm Egyptian air. I rearrange the blankets to be orthogonal to my body, letting some of the heat escape from my chest and toes. I struggle for some minutes to find the optimal angle to lay the blanket across my prone form so as to balance warmth and cold. In England the optimal angle is usually a parallel duvet, straight up and down, thoroughly covering the body, in winter tucked into on all sides by rolling first left then right and half-bunching it under you. In Australia, never less than 10° from straight, a full-covering doona being a sure-fire invitation to a sleepless night. I lie pondering this and try to extrapolate an optimal angle for the blanket based on the relative temperatures of England, Australia and Egypt, taking into account the strength of aircon, which still hums in the corner. There aren’t enough data points for a reasonable regression, so it’s back to trial and error.

My eyes are shut, but my mind is open for business. The problem of ascertaining the time won’t go away. I try to push it to the back of my mind, but in pitch black, behind closed eyelids with only the hum of aircon, a looping You’ve Got The Touch and the problem of the optimal angle for bed linen, there’s not much else to push it behind. An occasional siren resolves itself from the soundscape.

The bed is ostensibly King Size, but in the way of a King Size Twix. Two singles pushed together and covered by a patchwork ensemble of sheets of various sizes. The mattress is firm at my head and soft under belly. My blanket machinations have pulled the sheets away, half-peeling the wrapper, and I can feel the scratchy mattress underneath my elbow.

I have to know what the time is. Opening my eyes is certain to wake me up entirely and I’m still suffering from the delusion that I’m asleep. I test-open half an eye, cracking my eyelid for a split second to gauge the ambient light. It’s almost pitch-black. The door to the balcony is solid and is letting in only a crack of light around the hinges. It’s dark, a good sign.

I open my right eye fully, letting the pupil settle on the right dilation. Besides the balcony doorway, there are three sources of light. The aircon, humming in the corner, glows a neon red 27°. Another green light whose source I can’t make out. The green that signals my MacBook Pro is fully charged. Another good sign. It was nearly empty when I fell asleep at a self-delusionally early 5:30pm.

I have two watches. The first, a Tag Heuer Aquaracer, was a present upon graduation from university. It is a steel bracelet watch, with a dark blue face, and lines, not numbers indicating the intervals. The date counter replaces the 3. There is a 12 numeral. I have had it seven years and replaced the battery once. When the battery approaches the end of its life, the watch starts incrementing the seconds in batches of three, as if staggering like a man on his last legs. Of key importance in situations like this: the second and minute and hour hands phosphoresce slightly in low light. In reality, with lines marking the intervals not numbers and no phosphorescence on the dial, it is of limited value, but sometimes you can make out the time by using the white of the date counter to orient the face in the dark. The soundtrack switches to Hands of Time by Groove Armada. I sent that watch home so as not to lose it while travelling the world. It has sentimental value.

The watch I am wearing is a decidedly less visible black Tissot, again set on a steel bracelet, but with numerals at 3, 6 and 9. The date counter sits above the 6. The day counter is displayed below where the 12 numeral would be and above Tissot 1853. I always look at my watch when people ask me a question about the day. This is the first watch I’ve had where the answer is actually there to be looked at. It was a present for my 29th birthday and is a kinetic watch, powered by the movement of my wrist. I wear it on my left wrist, so it has to be content with ambient movement. It has no removable battery and never runs down while it is being worn. The somnambulant and semi-conscious manipulation of blankets and scratching of elbows has helped ensure its charge tonight.

The aircon momentarily splutters and chokes before resuming its incessant buzz. The second hand of the Tissot moves in a smooth, continuous fashion, with three micro-increments for every second. Never coming to rest, not jerking from one slice of time to the next. It reminds me of the giant Speedo clock above the pool at the recreation centre where I took swimming lessons as a child. When I hold it up to my ear and listen intently, the movement rings like a small bell. If I sleep gecko-style, with left arm bent at the elbow and resting under the pillow, with right arm straighter and more outstretched past my ear, like a swimmer doing front crawl, with my left ear resting on the pillow and face turned away to the right, breathing under my outstretched right arm, I can hear the watch ringing, three times a second, amplified through the pillow, the malleus, incus and stapes. It sometimes wakes me up.

I’m not a good swimmer. I get the breathing all wrong when I have to think about it.

I like the Tissot, but it doesn’t have the same value to me as the Tag Heuer. Its hands are steel and invisible in the gloom. I try to orient it so that the face catches some of the minimal light in the room. My eyes are open now and pupils fully dilated. This is as clearly as I’m going to see without invoking a sleep-destroying overhead light source. The time remains inscrutable. I accidentally look directly at the bright green LED, source unknown, and night vision collapses. The black face laughs at me, mocks me. The second hand ticks inaudibly beneath the hum of the aircon. Another siren sounds. Hands of Time begins again. No-one to blame.

Light or no light, I’m not going to be able to sleep until I know what time it is. My psyche demands answers, even when it’s not convenient. I ponder other ways I could mark the time. I idly think about smashing my watch against the wall, causing it to stop, so I’ll know what time it was, CSI-like, when I wake up fully at 3am. I still labour under the illusion that I’m not fully awake. I think of the candle and time puzzle, where burning the candle at both ends lets you know when 45 minutes has elapsed. Or was it using the candle to burn string? It would depend on how long the string was of course. The original question without answer.

The best thing about an iPhone is that you can get answers to your questions immediately, whether in a pub, on the john or walking down the street. No need for endless, pointless, unsourced debate. It might also be the worst thing about the iPhone. No time for wondering, no mystery, no more pondering. The downside of modern instant gratification. I wish I hadn’t drowned my iPhone in the Dead Sea. The screen would be garishly bright in this room, even with semi-contracted pupils and half-destroyed night vision, but at least I’d have the answer.

I have to get up. I’ve known it for the last however minutes that have elapsed. In truth, I knew it as soon as I awoke to the repetitive melody of You’ve Got The Touch. I rise slowly, testing the floor with my feet, carefully avoiding the MacBook Pro lying next to the bed. The blankets fall back on the bed, optimal temperature balancing arrangement destroyed. The floor is cold, tiled, but the air is warm. The struggling aircon buzzes audibly in the background and indicates 26° in neon red. Another siren sounds.

The bathroom smells faintly of mold. The hum of the aircon is partially dulled by the door, which I close so as not to wake Emily. I feel for the light switch and close my eyes. A resigned sigh and a click. Fluorescent light floods the room and my world goes red as the blood vessels of my translucent eyelids are viciously illuminated. I look down at the floor and blink my eyes rapidly, trying to adjust the sensitivity of my eyes without subjecting them to too much brightness all at once. The tiled floor is salmon, with black and white veins. The grouting is old, grey and crumbling.

I finally look at my watch. It is 9:30pm. The day counter displayed below where the 12 numeral would be and above Tissot 1853 says Wednesday. Still Wednesday. 9:30pm. I suddenly feel fully alert and correspondingly tired. I sit for a moment and think, considering the absurdity of the situation. 9:30pm. I get the urge to write something. I fetch the MacBook Pro. There’s no point fighting it. I’ve proved that already tonight.

I turn the MacBook Pro on wearily and bathe in its matte luminescent glow. I know I won’t be able to sleep until I’ve committed something on some subject, magnetised the disk, rearranged some bits. The second hand of the Tissot ticks inaudibly below the dulled hum of air conditioning and the occasional siren. I begin to type.