The Cure for Sleep: Impossible Objects
Season 3, 005: Tell the story of an object in your home (or one you remember from childhood) which holds great and uncertain emotional power...
Welcome to Issue 5 in Season Three of The Cure for Sleep on Substack: this long-term companion project to my memoir of waking up, breaking free and making a more creative life. It’s a place where you can explore your own most important memories in the company of others who are also interested in the art of life-writing.
I’m writing this month’s edition in the weeks after my mother’s death and graveside service. As well as being wrapped in the blanket I made in the ten days spent nursing her, Margaret Annie Dunn was buried (as she wanted to be) with one of two brown handkerchiefs belonging to her great lost love: a man she put aside in error in her 37th year and missed ever afterwards.
Those handkerchiefs are among several objects of compelling and uncertain emotional energy I’ve placed throughout The Cure for Sleep, having always been fascinated by the way things so often carry the weight of our longing to have to and to hold. To possess. To make sense of our place in the world, our value in it. Or to keep close a person gone beyond us, in life or in death.
The two objects I invoke from my own past in the book - and which recur then as motifs, as metaphor, at key points in my adult life - are the Weather House (a barometer in the form of a Swiss Chalet) and a willow pattern plate. In both cases, these objects are part of how young-me handles desire and discomfort once my father has left home, and my mother develops severe OCD:
The Weather House…
My favourite toy these days? What was it? Go fetch. I ran away, animal-glad to be released from the cold stone seat and dark bramble hedge behind it. My cautious habits cast aside.
There it was behind my rubble of egg boxes and other mud-pie making stuff. House within a house. Smelling of the soap scraps I’d collected from a wooden shaving bowl in among the heap of leavings. Pink smell of violets, now more dear to me than the man who had reappeared, bitter with smoke and engine oil. I rushed back and handed it to him.
‘A toy, I said. Why bring this?’ My father frowned at it, but my words came pouring out, a snowmelt, now I’d been asked something I could answer. Because how I loved them, the little man and wife who were always there when I visited! What care I took collecting the best seeds and petals to push in through the lady’s door so she could bake a cake! The amount of little twigs I snapped into tiny pieces so the man could keep the stove going!
I did not say it had been my whole body’s wish – hands, heart, tummy – to make them come out at the same time, and how many hours I spent trying until I learned that they could not and would never. Nor did I tell him about lying stiff and wakeful beside Mother in the double bed at night, willing myself small enough to sleep inside the chalet with a bed of my own, able to wriggle when I needed, with the man there to check for noises when they came. None of this I spoke aloud, but what I had said was too much. Father’s voice got loud.
‘This isn’t a toy.’ He took out a small yellow-handled screwdriver from his overalls. ‘It’s a barometer.’ I reached for it and was pushed away, my skin prickling like it did when Mother pulled a jumper full of sparks and static over my head.
‘It’s broken.’ He put the screwdriver away and left the back of the chalet hanging off. I began to understand what would happen next, but was too short, too slow, to stop him.
Could only look, mute and useless, as he hurled the man, the wife and their house far into the thick, thorned hedge.
The Willow Pattern plate:
[Mother] began to rise earlier and earlier, exhausting herself – and me, hearing her – in a forensic daily dust and hoover of our every square inch. We’d always lived to a fixed routine, but the new household rules were stricter still. I left too many sticky marks (even though she had begun to wipe my face and hands between each bite of food) and so was not to touch, any more, objects from the mirror-backed china cabinet I’d press-ganged as companions: cheerful yellow coffee cups; willow-pattern serving plate that thrilled me with its story of two escaping lovers who turned into birds at the water’s edge to escape their families.
It’s a sign of how much I have always trusted objects over family relationships that those ‘cheerful yellow coffee cups’ are on a shelf beside me now as a write: a wedding-day gift to my parents who divorced before I was four, still giving me comfort now they are both dead and I am almost fifty. Strange and a slightly tender to admit (as so many of our stories are).
your invitation to write
In 300 words or less, tell the story of an object in your home (or one you remember from childhood) which holds similar great and uncertain emotional power...
Use the comments field below this post on Substack to submit your words.
write with me at Arvon Lumb Bank…
27 November to 2 December 2023
RESIDENTIAL WRITING WEEK: NON-FICTION
Bodies of water: writing through the senses
It’s a special feeling to have been invited to tutor on this week-long residential at Arvon’s Lumb Bank - former home of Ted Hughes, near the gorgeous town of Hebden Bridge (home now to many more acclaimed authors, & with a thriving arts scene).
Like many aspiring writers, I travelled to the area in my early 20s to feel the landscape which was so fully part of Hughes’ poetry and also Plath’s. And so it’s moving to be invited there now as a tutor, in what will be the month after my 50th birthday (proof that while we can’t all be prodigies like Plath & Hughes, the writing life takes many other equally satisfying forms).
If you’ve been saving up for an Arvon course for a while now, I’d love it if you’d consider choosing this one.
Water has long been a rich motif through which writers can explore the interplay between private and public embodied experience, internal and external landscapes, ‘the geography closest in’, as the poet Adrienne Rich puts it, and the geography of the wider world around us. Many of the most-loved recent works of memoir and narrative non-fiction take us into exhilarating physical and emotional territory, as well as being philosophically and politically stimulating, via bodies of and in water – from Roger Deakin’s iconic Waterlog onwards.
Join Tanya Shadrick and Miranda Ward – authors with a shared love of swimming and psychogeography – for an immersive, water-themed week of embodied writing that will help you bring your whole self to the page. Using workshops, readings, outdoor sensory exercises and one-to-one tutorials, you will learn how to take readers on deep dives into personal experience and important landscapes of all scales in a way that has them resurface with their skin and senses singing – whether you want to write about, around, through, from or to the water, or are simply inspired, challenged or moved by water to write.
Guest tutor: Malachy Tallack
Prices & concessions
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Desire, time, longing, friendship, regret, faith, promises . . .
There are now hundreds of thought-provoking true tales on these themes and more in The Cure for Sleep story archive.
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