Friday, June 1, 2007

The Small Hours

Times are, in life’s long sojourn, when there are good reasons to stay up until the dawn chorus and the coming of a new day’s light; I think you know what I mean. Well, eye infection, neuralgia and general anxiety disorder aren’t one of them, though strictly speaking I should say that my anxieties are of a particular rather than general nature and hardly a disorder. It’s just that at three in the morning almost everything can seem like a disorder. It is the hour of the Lord of Misrule who whispers in your ear that there is trouble ahead and things can only get worse; I think you know what I mean. So up you jump, saying bollocks to the Lord of Misrule, disturbing the cat who asks nothing but to be left sleeping on the landing outside your bedroom (or at the end of your bed, depending on what takes her fancy), you make yourself a cup of the very best Ceylon tea (unbleached bags, organic, the best), a couple of slices of wholemeal toast with butter and Marmite and, if you are really in the mood for sticking two fingers up at life, the universe and everything, you light a cigarette (preferably Marlborough Menthol, a mysterious manifestation as you are no longer a smoker) and go against house rules by smoking it indoors. Tomorrow you will apologise to Him Upstairs sleeping for the stale tobacco smell but although it is light it is not yet tomorrow. It is not today or yesterday either. Anything goes. The cat, who thinks she is your soul and probably is, blinks herself awake and pads around in the wake of your footsteps. It has thrown the routine whereby she comes and sings you awake in the morning, but whatever you do is ok by her.

In the small hours, things happen, heat up, cool down, become wonderful or terrible. Or nothing happens, and you wake up to the night side. I once worked in a hospital psychiatric unit. Night shifts were when you came up against the true soul-life of the people there, staff as well as patients, the line was sometimes thinly drawn in the witching hour when there were no schedules to structure us, no meal times, doctor’s rounds or occupational therapy. The sectioned schizophrenic who hovers around the nurses’ station is just a girl called Mary Ann who loves a boy called Ivan and waits for him to come and fetch her away from this terrible and lonely place, this life. The charge nurse is homesick for St. Lucia and steals amphetamines to keep himself awake, barbiturates to get his head down. He makes himself some porridge with syrup and shakes his head. This life. The full-time insomniacs push draughts around a chequered board and smoke (times were) in the day room where there is permanent Radio One, you can’t switch it off and we all know the advertisements by heart and join in with the jingles, and in spite and because of it all we keep each other company in the small hours where nothing happens, until something happens – a scream, an “incident,” an emergency admission, to break the night and bring on the day, and real-time kicks in.

Keeping watch in the small hours, one’s thoughts (the doors) become a bit unhinged; but once I stayed awake all night just to watch the sun come up, to catch the moment of first bird and light. It seemed to me, at that moment with the night vision still on me, nothing short of miraculous. You can’t, though, go through the day with your eyes seeing nothing but doom or glory. You’d go mad, or become a prophet, or a poet like Christopher Smart with his extraordinary Jubilate Agno. Now there’s a thought.


NMJ said...

Signs, This is lovely writing, did you really post at 6AM? Makes me want to stay up all night.

NMJ said...

Ah, I see you are an hour behind, you must've posted at 7AM, that is not quite so alarming. My earliest poss anything is 11!

Reading the Signs said...

Thank you, but nmj, I really was up in the very small hours - went back to bed again for a bit but had to get up to be somewhere for 10.00.

Anna MR said...

Mme Signs, Holder of the Triangle of Truth and Beauty and Wisdom - I want this in print so I can carry it with me. Very enjoyable writing.

3AM is known as suden hetki, the moment of the wolf, here in Finland. The term says it all, I think.

Anonymous said...

Wow, you in the wee hours of the night/morning is better than most of us at high noon. This was lovely.

I know this is going to sound strange, but in that first paragraph, I could hear the silence. Literally hear the silence.

Reading the Signs said...

dear anna, the suden hekti moment of the wolf is perfect and I recognise it at once. Also, my spirit name, if I had one, would most likely have wolf in it - it keeps cropping up. Spooky.

goodthomas, I was just going to say something very daft about Buffy the Vampire Slayer but I won't, I won't. Small hours are better than high noon for such as we :)

Words are such strange carriers, I do believe you!

cusp said...

What a fantastic piece of writing. It's so evocative.

I was up until 3.30ish on Thursday night/Friday morning. We were doing shifts! The dawn was just breaking and our cockerel crowing as I schlepped back to bed. It was an extraordinary night with a deep bright moonglow. I hate being awake at that time but love the light of the moon.

I too worked in a psych. unit at the end of the 70s and your description brings back so many memories, especially the smoky Day Room and the night staff from all over the planet; strange starey- eyed conversations in multiple accents and dialects with a whispering chorus of moans, groans and snoring.

Your post sounds potent with doom. I hope things are working themselves out.

Reading the Signs said...

cusp, I seem to be very good at doing doom - it's not actually how I feel most of the time, though (or do I and it has just come to feel normal?) - but, you know, the moment of the wolf. Good to know you were also keeping watch. Well, someone has to.

Mellifluous Dark said...

Perfectly captures the quiet world of the insomniac, dear Signs. Quiet but so very noisy, in one's pained head, at least.

I wish you better sleep soon.

PS: At least you didn't go and watch the live feed of Big Brother. That would have been very bad indeed.

Reading the Signs said...

Thank you mellifluous dark - what do they call you for short btw? I wondered about "mel d" but thought it would sound too much like the spice girls.

The thought of being up in the small hours with BB is just too dreadful for words! Could be used as a kind of behavioural (aversion) therapy, I suppose: either go back to sleep or watch BB. That is a thought.

Mellifluous Dark said...

Signs, you can call me MD, Mell D, or Imelda (ask The Periodic Englishman)...

I must add here that I have not watched any of the live feed of That Programme. None.

Just wanted to make that clear.

But, yes, it may work as aversion therapy. If you're really lucky, the twins will be on and you'll be asleep within seconds.

Mellifluous Dark said...

Right then, Signs. You're blogrolled. Just so you know, like.


Don't blogroll Signs, Mellifluous Dark, it will merely encourage her. I have it on good authority that she is just about to do a post on Dr Who - and nobody wants to see this happen.

RTS, Signs, Ms Sensuality - hello. Everything can seem like a disorder at three in the morning, that's probably true. I prefer to think of it as merely a different kind of order, however. The senses may very well be dulled by fatigue, but a certain sharpening occurs, nevertheless.

All actions, however small, are stripped of their normal daytime backdrop - with its noise and brightness and sense of just so and the unruly clamour of others. I like deep night time. The vast majority of people on my side of the world finally shut up and sleep - and that feels a little bit fine. At last, order.

You like Marmite?

Kind regards etc.....


(Incidentally, this was another astonishingly excellent piece of writing - I am weak for the mood you created)

Reading the Signs said...

Mellifluous, are you really going to take the word of a gentleman who cuts half his face off?

Lemoncili, sir, Marmite rocks - so watch it. I will overlook your disparaging allusions to the Doctor on account of the flattering remarks at the end. I do also like what you said about the different kind of order, yes.

Mellifluous Dark said...

Signs, no, I can't. I won't. You're rolled whether or not TPE likes it. I'm still reeling from the fact that that half-faced man hated Larry the Lamb. I can vaguely remember it but 'hate' is such a strong word for a little sheep.

Perhaps TPE's dark side is showing. Hmm.

I may have to consider my position.


You may have to consider your position? That sounds faintly threatening. I like it.

Not so sure I like Half-Faced Man as a name, however. Although, regrettably, I must admit it made me laugh in a sort of pained way. I'll maybe find it properly funny later - I'm just not quite ready yet, that's all. It definitely scored a beautiful direct hit, however, and I always appreciate that skill in an enemy, Mellifluous Dark.

RTS, hello. You're very welcome for the compliment - a pleasure to give, really, and you make it stupidly easy to do so.

But hey, just you steady on, I'm a Marmite lover and always have been. The stuff is legendary, and I'm actually pretty prepared to get into a fight with anyone over it (if needs be). Don't you be jumping to the wrong conclusions about me, RTS. I am, and remain, Marmite Boy.

(please don't ever call me that)

Moving up to the good doctor now, Signs, but happy to blether in any space with you (and the other one, I suppose, Ms Dark) at all times.

Kind regards to everyone here...


Incidentally, the part about the psychiatric unit made me feel rather hopeless. Strangely enough, the reference to permanent Radio One was the fatal blow. It is soul-destroying to hear this stuff incessantly played in hospital day rooms, I know that for a fact. It is like a form of slow and unendurable torture, offering no escape and next to nothing in the way of hope.

Reading the Signs said...

Dear Mr. P.E. I am very glad you put me straight about the Marmite and that you are prepared to stand up for it. I do love it as much as it is possible to love a savoury brown spread that comes in a glass jar (glass, the plastic one won't do).

I know what you mean about the Radio One but the strange thing was that the sheer surreal awfulness of it all contributed to a kind of camaraderie between us all. There were times when the boundaries became so blurred it really didn't signify any more who was patient and who was staff - and there were people there who I swear must have done me as much good, or more, as I ever did them. I just stopped short of doing the full RMN training. So glad I didn't, it would have been quite wrong.


Marmite comes in a plastic jar/container, as well? That's disgraceful. Are you absolutely sure about that, by the way? I've never seen it packaged in anything other than the glorious glass jar. Why would Mr and Mrs Marmite tinker with such a perfectly presented thing?

Part of the joy is in the familiarity of the jar (I'll maybe need to stop this quite soon, because I feel I might say some stuff about Marmite which seems too loving, bordering on the strange altogether.) But the glass jar is king.

My girlfriend hates Marmite, and this makes my love for her a teeny tiny wee bit incomplete. How could I give myself fully to such a person? Doesn't make sense.

I'll tell you something else that is packaged perfectly - Lyle's Golden Syrup. That green and golden tin is beautifully fixed and reassuring. Also, I'm rather fond of the small, predominantly red tin of Royal Baking Powder.

Enough already. Sorry, I am going wildly off track.

The Radio One thing. I can definitely see that the awfulness of this permanent and dementing soundtrack in such a place would engender a kind of closeness amongst the victims.

There is a line crossed at some point. Extreme and incessant and inescapable awfulness becomes near indistinguishable from a happy "madness" somewhere along the way. I think this is maybe why some people laugh in the face of adversity.

And perhaps it is the root cause of the blackest humour - always my favourite kind - I don't know.

Anyway, bad things, the worse they get and the more inescapable they seem, often just end up being painfully funny and life-affirming once the point of no return has been passed.

People would often laugh together in bomb shelters during the war, for example, and any glimpse of Jewish humour, passed through the ages from the bowels of hell, makes me feel privileged to hear it - and has always struck me as being beyond magnificent.

I'm not for a moment suggesting that Radio One constantly blaring out in a psychiatric unit is a comparable suffering to The Holocaust/Shoah - just that the same reactions of defiantly improbable camaraderie, and the willingness or the need to find the funny side, kick in at some point and help lighten the burden (for many people). I think it's rather beautiful, really. A very useful defence mechanism, in any event.

I think I know what you mean about the blurring of the lines between patients and staff. In such a loopy ship as the one you sailed, I think it is probably natural for such a blurring to occur. Pretty disconcerting when it happens, though, to say the very least.

I always have my doubts as to whether the mad are actually mad, in any case. I think they maybe just have different ways of processing (and dealing with) information, and other people need to call this behaviour mad, because it scares them to see it.

Obviously, if someone is going to start harming others then a tranquilising dart may be called for - and a swift shackling thereafter. It's just that I often think that sane people are mad, really mad, and this makes me mad, in turn.

The line is so perilously thin that it scares me quite badly. One of my worst fears is to be locked up in just such a psychiatric unit, with my freedom hinging on my ability to show that I'm sane, not mad.

Honestly, lovely Signs, I feel that this task would defeat me. How can you ever prove such a thing? Especially when the strange, cruelly indifferent and differently biased behaviours of the notionally sane make you mad?

Yes, I know the feeling of the lines being blurred and feel sure that most sensible people do, too. Or is that, in itself, just mad?

Why would it have been wrong for you to continue your training?

Anyway, I just lost my response upstairs in the Doctor Who post - that made me properly mad, let me tell you - so I've been rambling on in here like a loon, releasing some nervous energy.

Sorry about that. I'm going for some calming soup (yellow pepper and courgette - yummy) and will head on upstairs after lunch. Try not to be too frightened.

Kind regards, a (glass) jar of Marmite and some other stuff, from me to you....


Liezl said...

Trying this again Signs. My last comment appeared to go through but hasn't shown up. Let me know if you can read this!

Reading the Signs said...

Reading you loud and clear, liezl!

Mr. TPE, there is indeed a plastic Marmite and, I have to tell you, a plastic Tate&Lyle's golden syrup - an abomination, I know, but there it is, this is what we have come to. Some people may think we are concerning ourselves with trivialities, Mr. P.E., but we who read the signs know better.

No, I wouldn't have been good as a RMN; too thin-skinned, you see, at the time and saw too much that I perceived as being unhealing for the people who came in as patients - though I do remember that one or two of the staff were wonderful, gifted and caring though many had just lost it, or were burnt out, or never had it in the first place.
There was one gentleman there, a patient (and himself a psychiatrist) who was convinced that I was Princess Margaret (I don't look like her) and nothing would shake him of this conviction. We had the most bizarre conversations, quite interesting, but he did become agitated because I wouldn't acknowledge my royal identity. I often wonder what happened to him, and others.

Anna MR said...

My, Signs, TPE - trust you two to have become all interesting again, here, downstairs, on the sly. Unhappily, I don't have anything interesting to add (except maybe that there's that tin of mustard powder - yellow, mustard yellow, what the hell is the make of it again? - which should also be considered iconic, particularly if I could remember the name of it). I would like to think you don't run off just now, though, because I would like to join in on the loony bin talk once I've organised my thoughts on this.

Also, Signs, it has come to my attention that you used to sing the Tiree Love Song with a Glaswegian ex-husband - I have left a request over at NMJ's to hear you do it, with or without the aforementioned ex. Now, at least, you can't claim you didn't know.

xx one each


Fine move, Anna MR - I was rather hoping to hear her sing it, too, since stumbling upon her revelation at NMJ's. You have her cornered now, Finlander, no two ways about it.

Signs - for some absolutely unknowable reason, I have been unable to post on your Doctor Who bonanza (again). I'll keep trying, obviously, because I'm keen to move in an upstairs direction, but it is starting to annoy me most fiercely.

Anyway, I'm simply not prepared to believe your outlandish claims concerning plastic Tate&Lyle's golden syrup containers. Do you take me for a fool, Ms Sensuality? No-one in their right mind would tamper with the sturdy tin from heaven. No way. So that's enough of your wild talk, okay?

Incidentally - what happened to Liezl? She seems to be having the same problem that I'm having over at Doctor Who. (hello Liezl - bad luck, it's sensationally annoying, isn't it?)

"Some people may think we are concerning ourselves with trivialities....but we who read the signs know better."

Quite right, Signs. Those people that feel mere trivialities are under discussion here - those people, Signs, are mad.

Is the yellow tin of mustard Anna MR refers to maybe made by Colman's? Colman's mustard. It sounds strange to me, but it is the only name that springs to mind. Certainly I know the thing she means.

(Anna - I reach out for it every time because the way it looks pleases me and because it seems familiar and, I don't know, just part of things, really)

I can see what you mean, Signs. I wouldn't find it easy being around people who didn't seem to be doing the best for those in their care.

Wait. That sounds wrong. They were doing their best, of course, it's just that you didn't see this as being necessarily the most helpful or healing approach. Is that fairer?

Either way, I hear you loud and clear. I think I should maybe find this unbearable - although some might say (with justification?) that the only thing to do in these circumstances is stick around and try to make things better. (Personally, I disagree with this)

Before I forget - how are you doing today? You seem a wee bit sad, if you don't mind my saying so. (I remember ages ago saying something similar about the mood a post of yours gave off - you slapped me down like a squealing wee pig, but I take a while to learn from my mistakes. Okay, you didn't slap anyone down, but it sounded quite funny to say that you did - to me, anyway)

Conversations with people who are "in another place" are often fairly rewarding. I enjoy the imaginative leaps that "mad" people make in their troubled minds. The fact that this psychiatrist gentleman felt sure you were Princess Margaret merely seems like an interesting conversational aside to me.

Obviously, as a carer, you could never have done such a thing, but I would have been tempted to acknowledge the veracity of his convictions. Maybe this would have calmed him down? And where on earth would his madness lead to next? Once it has been established to his satisfaction that the person he is talking to is, as he suspected, Princess Margaret - what then?

This is probably one of the many reasons that I would have been perfectly hopeless in such a capacity. I would have wanted to roll with their madness, tease it out, dance with it, allow them free reign to be just as mad as geese. In fact, I may well have been tempted to out-mad them.

What happens, for example, when two schizophrenic people meet? Who do they talk to? Are they thinking - or being told, maybe - gee whizz, that other guy is as loopy as a fish on skates, or does everything just seem in order?

Like I say, this is why I usually find myself on the other side of the psychiatrists desk. Best just leave the healing to the professionals.

Kind regards and Anti-Shingles chants,


(Anna - big heap regards to you, too x)

Reading the Signs said...

hey, Anna - do you really want to hear me sing the Tiree love song? And in the company of real Scottish folk too? Anyway, hello.

TPE, hold everything, are you saying your comments get swallowed up and disappear? I think Liezl had problems with this. I tried to find somewhere on Blogger that would give me a clue what I should be doing about it.

Any suggestions appreciated.

Just put up new post and feel very tired - so see you anon. Lovely to see you both, make yourselves at home.

p.s. I am not fibbing about the plastic syrup jars.

p.p.s. Colman's also rocks.

p.p.p.s. and Worcestershire sauce.


That's exactly what I'm saying, Signs. It is freakishly aggravating. Write comment/post comment/wait a few seconds/then blankness. No trace of the comment, and the only sounds that fill the air are those of perfectly foul swear words.

Take it easy,


PS. You are fibbing about the plastic syrup jars.

PPS. Colman's does rock, yes.

PPPS. And Worcestershire sauce, too.


PPPPS. So just you watch it.

Anna MR said...

SIgns - it's not right that you should be feeling so unwell. I am coming over as we speak to sort it all out. I threatened your ME once, but this shingles shit doesn't even deserve a threatening warning. It's going to get it's sorry ass kicked.

TPE - hello. Your various mail programmes seem to be playing havoc, not just your commenting-on-Dr-Who-postings programme. Just so as you know.

xx one each

Anna MR said...

Oh argh perkele and caramba, that previous comment of mine has an apostrophe on the "it's" where it shouldn't.

How fu*king dreadful is that. Signs, kill me, please.

PS I can't see anything too much the matter with the person you mentioned...?

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