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29 October 2023

Insomnia leads me to The Moonstone, and unexpected wisdom

A growing store of worries, including a friend in distress, means less sleep. But at least I’m getting some reading done.

By Nicholas Lezard

I’m tired. Like many people I know, I haven’t been sleeping too well. What with one thing and another. The latest addition to my worries is what has been happening to my friend N—. You might remember her: the last time I mentioned her, in August, she was in Soho with me with a person she described as her partner, a diminutive and scary-looking gnome of a man who claimed to be ex-SAS and out of whose BMW N— strongly advised me to get, hinting that if I didn’t, he’d drive me to a lonely place and do bad things to me. I didn’t need to be told twice.

As it turns out, P—, the “partner” in question, has done bad things to her instead: he has broken her jaw because she spilled some curry on his foot. He is currently in police custody and I really hope they throw away the key. N— sent me a couple of photos: one of her with her broken jaw, and another of an electricity meter reading £0.07. For a few seconds I thought this represented her electricity usage, like my meter; then I twigged this was a pre-payment meter, and that 7p represented her remaining credit. She didn’t ask for money but I sent some anyway. She’s very religious (I use the Bible she gave me to prop up the screen of my rickety laptop) and was one of my few non-Jewish friends to call up and ask how I was doing after the 7 October pogrom by Hamas. As it turned out, she was in even more tears than I was. It meant a lot. The phrase “heart of gold” sometimes gets thrown around carelessly but it applies squarely to her. Meanwhile, her phone is either out of juice or credit or both so I don’t even know if she’s received the messages saying I’ve given her some dosh.

Anyway night-time insomnia means daytime naps and those mean dreams of startling vividness and realism. My children feature in many of these for some reason, and for a reason slightly easier to fathom they are all the same age they were when I was ejected from the family home. I miss them rather a lot. I roll my eyes when I see mothers blubbing on social media about their babies going off to university. I’m sorry if that sounds harsh but since 2007 I could only see mine on alternate weekends, and anyway your lot will be back in December with a laundry bag the size of Gibraltar, and when they graduate they’ll be with you for ever unless the economy picks up and rents go down, neither of which are actually going to happen.

I tried to arrange a meeting with all three of them by saying I had an important announcement to make. This has got them guessing. “Have you knocked someone up?” asks the eldest. “Chance would be a fine thing,” I reply. As it is I have no such announcement, I just wanted to get their attention because trying to see all of them at once is like trying to herd cats. And, yes, admittedly, I wanted to mess with their heads a little bit. Of course this isn’t a trick you can play very often, or more than once, and in fact I hope that by the time
I do see them next (Thanksgiving at their grandmother’s, a three-line-whip event) I hope I still don’t have any Important Announcement to Make, because at my age Important Announcements are almost invariably bad news.

Night-time insomnia also means getting more reading done. A few weeks ago I said I was finding Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone rather hard going but that mood has passed and now I think it’s one of the best novels ever written. It’s narrated by an idiot but that’s all part of the fun and sometimes he has moments of clarity. At one point a maidservant kills herself or is thought to have (no spoilers please, I haven’t finished it). The narrator writes: “The horror of it struck at me, in some unfathomable way, through my own child. My girl was just her age. My girl, tried as Rosanna was tried, might have lived that miserable life, and died this dreadful death.”

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And then, a few pages later: “People in high life have all the luxuries to themselves – among others, the luxury of indulging their feelings. People in low life have no such privilege. Necessity, which spares our betters, has no pity on us.” I think of N— and the circumstances and choices that brought her to a bleak seaside town to have her jaw broken by a vicious little shit. I really mustn’t grumble. The seaside town I live in is not bleak and my flat might not be big but it is cosy and with the binoculars a lady from Durham gave me three years ago I can now see in the dusk the lights of a small boat sailing slowly, east to west, along the Channel. For some reason it is unbearably poignant.

[See also: The internet man is coming and I am anxious]

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This article appears in the 01 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour Revolts