William sits in the sturdy chair at his wife’s bedside, and watches her sleep. She has her own room, of course – and it is usually a comforting and restful place for William to be. He finds the doctors and nurses to be attentive; quietly respectful of his position. He has come to expect it now – this certain deference.
William thinks back to when they were younger – to the early days of their marriage, when the children were babies. The long and unsatisfactory days he spent working to support their family, punctuated by the disproportionately short nights of intermittent sleep and restlessness. He thinks back to how Nic looked in her twenties and thirties – breathless and frayed mostly, but beautiful too. William thinks now that he should have told her – even if only once – just how amazing she seemed to him then. It was a time at which she would have been grateful to hear it too. There was a vibrancy about her in those fleeting years that he wished he had been able to emulate. They say that youth is wasted on the young, but William feels that the heightened sensitivity that comes with the autumn years is something that is wasted on him now. He could have done with it when he was younger and so, he feels, could Nic. Forty-nine now, William wonders what quality of life his wife will have when the doctors finally decide to turn off the machine.
‘It’s still too early to say,’ they’d told him. ‘Her body needs time to repair itself first – then we’ll see.’
And what could William say in response to that? After all, wasn’t it entirely his own fault that she was here at all?
The children come and sit with her on Sunday afternoons. Back from university – both with proper jobs. They’ll be starting families of their own soon, he thinks. Connor blames him, William. He sits there in silence, reading the Sunday paper through gritted teeth. Abby browses the supplements, and chats through the contents for Nic. Who’s getting married, who divorced. Which celebrity has a baby, which a bump, which is crusading a new diet plan. Abby has convinced herself that Nic can hear her. She misses her mother – misses chatting to her about uni, and jobs, and boys. Connor reads his paper, and tuts – he misses his mother too, but he knows she cannot hear him. One day soon he will stop coming all together, William thinks – and maybe that will be better for all of them.
William remembers how he got the idea. It was one of those flashpoints in life; when the neural pathways fuse together to fire a conscious connection. He knows he read somewhere a long time ago that it has been coined a moment of ‘fuzzy logic’, but it didn’t feel ‘fuzzy’ to him at the time – it was an instant of perfect clarity. He had been watching the film about Margaret Thatcher – the one starring Meryl Streep. Carol Thatcher was getting her mother ready for bed, the dementia noticeably beginning to take hold. William had remembered reading how Margaret Thatcher, at the height of her power, had famously survived on only five hours sleep a night. And it had seemed then that the two thoughts could not co-exist in his consciousness without collision: the elderly woman struggling with dementia, alongside the iron lady at the core of British politics; steadfastly surviving on only five hours sleep a night. Two apparitions of the same woman hurtling towards an inevitable singularity – the immovable object and the unstoppable force – both encapsulated within the same iconic figure. Both condensed and magnified; free ranging and hazardous; careering and spiralling through the confined spaces of William’s paradigms. And then that moment of impact, when the pathways crashed and the connection was fired. It had all seemed so ridiculously obvious to William in that instant, that he still found it hard to comprehend why no one else had ever come to the same conclusion before him.
It was hard to find people to listen to him at first. After all, what were his scientific credentials? An insurance salesman from the East of England, with a subscription to ‘New Scientist’. Not much of a scientific pedigree was it? But then he had found Hugo, and he did have scientific credentials – all be it slightly unconventional ones. William had not singled Hugo out specifically. It was simply that Hugo was the only research scientist in the country to even deign to reply to the hundreds of emails William had mailshot out.
He’d visited Hugo at the lab for their first meeting; they’d sipped tea together and shared histories. William had thought he’d be nervous, but Hugo had a way of making other people feel superior. It was a long time before William would come to realise that this was a point of strategy for Hugo; disarmament by stealth. They were on to their second cup of tea. Hugo tipped in his third spoonful of sugar and, as he stirred, he had looked up at William very seriously and very slowly, and said ‘So then, Mr Harris, tell me all about how you plan to cure dementia.’
William’s premise was simple and, with Hugo’s backing, it was not long before his ideas became mainstream. They spent a long time on the radio and chat show circuit when they were just starting out. They would sit on easy chairs round coffee tables – William outlining his plans while Carl or Fiona or Debbie listened politely. Hugo grinning manically, the studio lights bouncing off his ever expanding bald patch. The makeup girls would try and powder it down, but Hugo always refused – gently batting them away with a smile and a wave. Sometimes they shared a twin room in a hotel on an overnight stopover and, fascinated, William would watch Hugo massage coconut oil into his scalp before he went to sleep. Hugo was convinced that coconut oil was a wonder drug; he used it for everything. William thought he was crazy, but then he reminded himself that it was this unconventional and almost insanely optimistic part of Hugo that had allowed him to buy into William’s theory in the first place.
Of course most people did think they were crazy to begin with, but still they listened. Dementia was becoming a huge problem; the government was desperate to find a solution – and fast. The cost of care was placing an ever increasing demand on the economy, and no one liked to think about the alternatives – least of all the politicians. Every household in the country had at least one elderly dependant by this time, and this figure was set to rise exponentially. Birth rate was declining; only the very wealthy could afford to support both parents and children alike. William had presented a solution to the unsolvable puzzle; the answer to the unspoken question; the response to the unthinkable thought. People wanted it to be true, they were ready to believe it was true and, in the end, that in itself was enough to give his idea credence.
William and Hugo were treated like minor celebrities on the government strategy groups; consulted on every point of reference. Treatment plans and care pathways had to be fine-tuned and adapted; tailored to suit the needs of the young as well as the old. Bespoke programmes would need to be developed to focus not just on treatment, but also on prevention. William took it seriously, but then he knew they were running scared. Almost from the outset, rumours had been circulating that William and Hugo were intending to patent the idea and sell it west side of the Atlantic. It was ridiculous – they weren’t in it for the money. For the first time in his life, William had a purpose beyond himself and his family – he was building a legacy, not a fortune. But still the money did come – along with the New Year’s honours, and the after dinner engagements, and the emblematic doctorates.
And now it was live; it was working. The pilot programmes had been so successful that the government had fast tracked to full implementation, pushing though unopposed in an extra recalled session of parliament. Sleep Induction Clinics (or SICs, as they would quickly come to be known) were springing up everywhere. Some were attached to existing hospitals, but these didn’t even come close to satisfying demand. Neither did the newly created state funded SIC infrastructure programme – though it did provide a very welcome boost to the flagging economy. Polls indicated that the SIC rollout was the most publicly supported government initiative in nearly a century – and Simon Webster was the most popular prime minister since Churchill. All of this from a William Harris brainwave.
Of course the programme did have its detractors – not least of all Connor. But then, what else would you expect from a philosophy graduate? Nic did not have to participate – they could have bought her out of the programme – but she believed in it; believed in William. No NHS SIC for Nic though – she was in the top private SIC in the country; as would William be when his turn came. William had decided to put it off for the time being; until the rollout was fully completed. Not everyone had that luxury of choice.
It was alright for the youngsters – they didn’t have so much sleep to catch up on. It was widely accepted now that the reason babies sleep for so much of the time is because they are banking brain power for the future; stockpiling mental alacrity and laying down stores of cognisance. It was thought that this accumulated excess lasted well into adolescence. Beyond that, further sleep deprivation needed to be accounted for – either in advance or in retrospect. Many twenty-somethings booked into SICs on a monthly basis; one weekend in four to counteract any sleep lost during the month. For this group, SICs were the new spas.
Treatment plans for the over 40’s were more problematic, and more so with every extra decade of life. Beyond a certain point, you were increasingly likely to die before the doctors had even begun to think about waking you up. Some much older patients opted instead to wait it out; entrusting their SIC admission to relatives when the dementia began to take hold. For this demographic, SICs had overtaken care homes.
It was the young parents that William sympathised with the most though. Balancing the needs of their children now against those of the adults they would yet become. Many in this group could see no alternative to a kind of SIC relay, passing the baton of weekend childcare between them. Even the newly divorced and separated were forced to collaborate in this respect.
It was hard for William to come to terms with the wasted years. Not the years when the children were young – at least there was a purpose to the lost time then. It was the wasted seconds and moments he thought about the most; the gradual accumulation of time on credit; the payday loan meal of chips that would later need to be repaid one thousand fold. The late night brainpower squandered on flickering screens and fractured arguments with Nic over money and the kids. Spats over long forgotten missed anniversaries, and any multitude of other petty grievances. It all seemed so obvious now – the brain as a battery with a finite lifespan. Sixteen hours on, eight hours off – as susceptible to the fry of insufficient and irregular bouts of charging as your average mobile phone or tablet. Of course it would not go the full distance if we sucked all the juice out of it in one go.
Now when William and Hugo did the chat show circuit, things were different. Many young people revered William as a kind of visionary, a prophet almost. This was the generation that had been given a chance to change before things went too far; this was the generation that would make full and conscious choices about every moment and every second of their life. No wasted hours for them, no middle aged regrets to look forward to.
But still it was there – that little nagging pre-conscious thought in the back of William’s mind, pecking away at the back of his own brain. It wasn’t that they were sleeping their lives away – though this was a fair criticism of the SIC programme in many respects, as Connor never missed an opportunity to tell him: ‘I’ll sleep when I’m old,’ he’d said. ‘Let them turn the machines on then if they want to – I’m not dreaming the best years of my life away.’
But it wasn’t that – it was something else; something that William could not yet name . . .
William sits in the sturdy chair at his wife’s bedside, and watches her sleep. Though comfortable, the chair has been designed for occasional use only. It has not been manufactured for one man to sit in evening after evening, day in day out, week in week out, Sunday afternoon after Saturday.
‘My back will give out before my brain,’ William thinks.
And just then, before he has the chance to flip the reflection over, he experiences the second biggest brainwave of his life.
William takes his sleeping wife’s hand in his, raises it to lips slick with silent tears, and kisses each of her fingertips in turn. Though he does not cry for himself, neither does he cry for his sleeping wife. He cries instead for the future brain of her broken body.