It’s in the middle of the night, when we should be asleep and aren’t, that the world seems at its most ugly and challenging.
And it was in the middle of the night that to Luisa her husband also seemed at his most ugly and challenging.
She hated herself for thinking it. He was so capable, so diligent. A highly-regarded hospital consultant, a carefully loving husband and father. But at night this fine-tuned and fastidious man snored like a suffocating hog. The bed would tremble as his slackened mouth emitted rattling gusts of air at ten-second intervals. And then he had the gall to wake refreshed and go off to work with reminted enthusiasm.
And she would remain in bed, her nerves still jumping. Just go away. I want to listen to the silence of the bedroom.
When they were young, she’d found the little eruptions rather comical and could give him a shove and he’d be silenced. But with age, the volume had increased, and she would seek refuge in the children’s beds, hiding her face in the sanctuary of their napes. The din reached her even there, and it seemed more an affront at such a distance.
Only once did she bring it up the following day.
“Everyone snores!” he’d exclaimed. “Cope with it. You know my sleep mustn’t be disturbed. Lives depend on it.”
But she couldn’t cope with it. The children weren’t keen on bunking up anymore. Industrial earplugs merely weakened the volume, resulting in a kind of on-off tinnitus, and, as for sleeping pills, she discovered that waking sharply from a deep, chemical sleep was even more disorienting than from a light, natural one. That’s when the evil thoughts arrived.
“I’ll kill him,” she reasoned one night as the mattress vibrated.
But how? She couldn’t bear bodily emissions and she knew nothing of poison and wasn’t strong enough to smother him.
His mouth fell open and provided the answer: She’d drop something into it. People choked on fishbones all the time. She pictured him turning blue, clutching at his throat, and wondered how this image didn’t particularly rattle her.
He was partial to peanuts. Who was to say he hadn’t craved one in the night?
Luisa located a bag of nuts in his jacket pocket and returned to his side. His face was like a death mask, waxen in the half-light. She could hear spit gurgling in the base of his throat as the next breath was building. On cue, his mouth snapped open. She dropped a peanut in, as though she were planting a daffodil bulb.
He inhaled and abruptly he sat up, his eyes wide. He spat the nut across the bedroom, and—for no apparent reason—flung his arms wide to each side. This knocked her off the bed, bringing her head into resonant contact with the bedstead as she went.
And so sleep came—somewhat violently—to Luisa at last.
It was during a startling tribute that Luisa awoke. Slowly she recognized her husband’s voice: “She’s very precious to me. We’re devoted to each other. She’s my everything.”
He grabbed her hand. “I’ve no idea what made me lash out so wildly in my sleep. I won’t be able to live with myself if there’s any permanent damage.”
Then she heard the fragile croaking of her voice: “There’s no permanent damage.”
“Luisa,” he cried. “Oh, thank God.”
He was by her side at once, his colleague shuffling away. Emotion after emotion passed across his face and she realized how thirsty she’d been for his love. Because he did love her—that was wonderfully evident—and she loved him and always had. She hadn’t really wanted to kill him. He would never have choked on that nut. (She couldn’t quite look him in the eye when she recalled the nut.)
“What do you want?” he asked. “Something to eat?”
“I want to sleep. For a long, long time.”
He beamed, indulgent. “Of course. I’ll see to it that you’re not disturbed. Now hurry up and get better and come home to me.”
Luisa slept for hours and hours. Her grateful brain bathed in the regenerative process and her reddened eyes were soothed in the darkness under their lids. Her heart calmed and her nerves slithered from their knots. She was oblivious to the hospital, patients coming and going, her husband in and out, checking on her progress.
She slept through the arrival of lunch and dinner and the changing of the nursing shifts. She slept as patients chatted with their visitors, who streamed out just before bedtime, and she slept through the toilet visits and the medicine-taking and the snatched goodnights of her ward-fellows—and then she woke. Suddenly. The world was reeling and so was her fuddled head and her heart was beating so fast she reached out to steady herself. Something had shocked her. A gunshot, it sounded like, or an explosion.
The ward lights were low. There were twelve beds in two facing rows, hers in the middle. Each contained a sleeping patient. She reached for her watch: 2:30 in the morning. And then she threw it in the air, because a blast so loud, so unexpected came at her from her left. And now another, just the same as the first, but from her right. And then it came again, a vicious rasping sound, this time from across the aisle. And another from the dark corner. All so similar, all out of sync, spine-tingling detonations going off around the room.
All of them snoring. Every single patient. The room alive with it, the air angry with it, her heart sick of it. Eleven mouths reverberated slackly, and there was nowhere for her to go.
Bibi Berki is a writer and journalist based in London. Her novel, The Watch, was published by Salt Books in 2022. She is the co-founder of Tempest Productions, which makes original audio dramas and podcasts.