I spunk an inordinate amount of time on the Internet, Internet, and during that time yesterday when I could have been writing a book or cooking an actual meal so as to nourish my body with something other than a cashew/raisin snack pack, I saw a picture of two writers – Neil Gaiman and Audrey Niffenegger, illustrious guests of the Edinburgh Book Festival – donning the mask of a secret underground game I’m not entirely sure they knew the rules of. It’s a game that has been in my family for some time, introduced by a man from Essex who has been living in Australia for so long that his accent now sounds like an Australian doing a lamentable impression of a man from Essex. Here is the photograph – and the masks – in question:
The game is known as Dambusters. To play Dambusters you must first and foremost put your flying goggles on (see above). You then hum or sing the theme tune to the 1955 film The Dam Busters, with a gusto regardless of talent and reliant mostly on your state of sobriety, as you and your squadron take turns circling an empty pint glass (here being “the dam”) in the middle of the sitting room floor (“Germany”). You then take aim and deposit the collection of coins (“bombs”) you’ve had carefully clenched between your buttocks (“hatch doors” of the “bomb bay”) as you flew in. BAH bah BAH bah BAH BAH BAH BAH BA — clink!
I’ve been playing this game at parties and in secret since about 1996. Like children who take up an instrument and actually practice it I am, as you can probably imagine, pretty good at it these days. If it were a violin I had practiced perhaps I’d be included in the Proms. I’d say I rank about an Air Marshal, one down from the Chief due to being on reserve for some years on account of breaking that pint glass of Mum’s with a particularly catastrophic 50p.
I once used this secret skill of mine to break a silence that had fallen for an excruciatingly extended moment over the table at a dinner party to which I had been invited. And it is here, Internet, that I advise you not to take this knowledge I have just blessed you with out into the real world. Let it stay here, at the pub, or in your head, or in the early morning practice hours in your bedroom before your housemates complain of a strange ka-CHINK! noise, the mystery of which has been driving them insane for days. Do not take it to a dinner party to alleviate an awkward situation because it will subsequently result in nothing but an awkward situation as you zero in on your target borrowed from the hostess’ glassware, and you’ll wonder, just for a second, as you proudly look up with your mask on, your knees bent, and your bottom hefted aloft – you’ll question, as the last BAH! of the iconic theme tune tumbles regrettably from your mouth – you’ll speculate as to whether those grimaces and gurns are truly the faces of some totally impressed dinner guests. Do not confirm your wonderings by asking them to join your squadron.
Another time I was a guest in someone’s home I happened upon my host being fitted for a sleeping mask for his sleep apnoea. It looked like a WWII gas mask, all rubbery and uncomfortable, and I said as much, helpfully, while filling the kettle for a cup of tea. The sleep doctor was introduced to me mostly as a way of ignoring the unhelpfulness I had just dumped into the centre of the room. What followed the perfunctory introduction was total silence excepting the gentle hiss of the as-yet-unboiled kettle. I filled that silence with some smart words in this particular order:
“So uh. Sleep doctor, huh. You must come across some pretty odd stuff.”
“Um. You get a lot of sleepwalkers?”
“I sleepwalk. I sleepwalk quite a bit.”
“Well, there are some medications that can be prescribed for that. So, anyway –” he says, turning back to his masked patient whose nose doesn’t quite fit into the rubbery nose pocket, “I’m going to go. I’ll give you a letter for TSA – it shouldn’t be any hassle to travel with. And if your wife has any objections or questions just tell her to give me a call.” And he left in what seemed like an unnecessary hurry, as I poked at my teabag with a spoon.
Days later I got a phonecall from the sleep doctor. He was worried that he hadn’t seemed concerned enough about my sleepwalking. I told him that was fine, it was just something I had said in the kitchen as a way of alleviating the blush in the bits of my host’s face I could see over the rubber mask. He said, No really, he could come around tomorrow and discuss the sleepwalking in detail. I said, No really, it’s no problem. He said, “About noon?”
Cut to: about noon. The sleep doctor opens up his briefcase and asks me about my sleepwalking. I tell him how I used to have to safety pin my pajamas on to stop myself undressing in the night. I tell him about the time I woke up with a tiny green apple in my bed, a kind of tiny green apple that can’t be bought in a shop but can only be scrumped prematurely off a tree, though there were no apple trees for miles. It didn’t have a bite out of it, though I do occasionally find the remains of attempted and half- or entirely uneaten meals in a disastrously messy kitchen: elaborate salads with sundried tomatoes, olives, and cheese, with balsamic vinegar footprints leading back to my bedroom. I tell him about the time my boyfriend woke up because he heard scratching noises in the bedroom, which the bedside lamp revealed to be his girlfriend (me) attempting to tear posters off the walls in the dark with a clawed hand and a snarl. He said, deliriously, “What… what are you doing? Get back in bed…” and trailed off as he watched me flee the room and open the front door, making to escape the flat and run through the streets of Brixton on a freezing cold February 2am, wearing nothing but black business socks and a terrifying expression. I’m apparently physically stronger in my sleep and have dished out the occasional black eye to myself and to others, but he somehow managed to bundle me into the bathroom and keep me locked there until I came to: cold, bewildered and remembering nothing. I’ve deadlocked my front door ever since.
I tell the sleep doctor about the time I woke up with soil on my hands, under my fingernails and smeared on my face like in Pet Sematary. A look around the house revealed that I had been digging in the potted palm tree in the bathroom, gardening – a thing I have never done before, not even consciously.
“So if you’re okay with it I’d like to have a look inside your mouth,” he says. “Sometimes with somnambulists, especially tall ones, we find that they have a specific disorder which can be characterised by having an especially high or long palate. Do you mind?” I shake my head. “Okay say aaaahhhhh—“ He clicks his flashlight on.
He proceeds to list roughly six “not entirely” serious or life threatening syndromes with which I may be inflicted, and writes them down for me, illegibly. He asks me if my parents do it. I say I’d rather not think about that. He says he means sleepwalking. I tell him about my brother and sister sleepwalking, and about that probably very interesting period of our lives when we were all living at home and bumping into each other in the night. My brother pissed into our kitchen bin, the white one with the toilety flip-top lid. My sister tried to sit (that’s sit) in the vegetable drawer of the fridge. One morning, she woke up covered in chocolate.
He asks when the most recent incident occurred, re: me. I tell him it was just the other night. I was sharing a bed with my friend as a way of paying for only one hotel room, and in the dead of night, apropos of nothing, I grabbed her wrist and stared at her through a sheet of long, messy black hair like some horrific apparition in a Japanese film. I mumbled something about thinking she was on the other side of the bed, rolled over and forgot it happened.
The sleep doctor scolds me. I should have warned her. “In fact, there are some hotels in America that actually stipulate in the contract that if you’re a sleepwalker you should let them know. Let the hotel know, I mean, so that if they find you walking the halls in the night they know not to worry or just gently direct you back to your room. The hotel also wants to know so they can put you on the ground floor.”
But I didn’t actually want to know about how seriously deranged I was, or how during my next visit he would enroll me in a course of sleep analysis so I could be rigged up in a hospital bed with accelerometers all over my body to monitor my movement. I know what I do. I want to know what other people do. “The boys at work all thought that stuff about me trying to escape in the night was my attempt to set the groundwork for an alibi should I ever actually murder my boyfriend. Has anyone ever killed anyone in their sleep?”
“Oh yes, many times. Very sad. There was a guy who actually got in his car, drove an hour to his in-laws’ house and stabbed one of them to death. He came to covered in blood and was immediately apologetic and horrified.”
“And there was a professional footballer who acted out a football game in his sleep. He crash-tackled a wardrobe, woke up concussed. It really shook him because he lived on the 5th floor of an apartment block and the wardrobe was right beside a huge open window. He thinks if he’d aimed maybe a foot to the left he’d have been on the sidewalk. Hence the ground floor hotel thing.”
“So comparatively I’m doing okay.”
“Well, uh. So I have a pile of literature here that maybe you’d like to read. I mean most of it is written for the benefit of practitioners so maybe it’s a bit heavy but I have it here for you if you’d like it.”
He hands over a pile of papers about an inch thick: There’s Somnambulism or Sleepwalking, page 91 from Lippincott Williams & Wilkins’ Primary Parasomnias: A Review For Neurologists; Chapter 94: Non-REM Arousal Parasomnias – Epidemiology and Risk Factors from the Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine, 5th Edition, plus Sleep/Wake Transition Disorders from same; and finally Overlapping States, a decidedly top-notch Venn Diagram of the Narcolepsy Triad, along with about nine other regular line graphs of sleep phases and whatnot.
“…And if you have any questions or any new sleepwalking incidents do let me know. Here, I’ll give you my email address. I’m bad at checking my email at work so I’ll give you my home address… And my home number is this but if it’s an emergency you can get me on my cell here.”
He’s jotting all this on the top of the pile of what is potentially seriously wrong with me.
“So. I know this may sound weird but do you – do you want to come in my plane? I have a plane. I can do acrobatics – loop the loop and stuff. Do you want to come flying with me?”
“Go flying with you?”
“Yes. Want to see a picture of my plane?” I barely get a chance to answer him before he started flipping through photographs on his mobile phone. “Here it is in the hangar. It’s from the ‘60s. My loop the loop is pretty awesome.”
I tell him it’s nice, but I will only get in his plane if we can wear flying goggles and hum The Dam Busters theme tune. He asks how it goes and I say, well.