And so to bed.
The average human being spends between half and a third of his life in bed, dreaming the night away, sick, or awake but having a well-deserved lie-in. Some of us have teasmades that brew us a fresh cuppa first thing in the morning while others enjoy breakfast and bed. Orange juice, toast, full English. Crumbs on the sheets; we’ll clean those up later but first, another ten minutes reading the paper, listening to the radio, reading Jackie Collins. Ah, bed. Where would we be without it?
Growing up, my bed acted as both punishment and refuge. Well, when I say punishment I mean the kind of thing kids think of as punishment. To children, everything good in life happens in darkness, after bedtime. As a kid after waking from a bad dream and stumbling downstairs I’d find my dad watching V or Blake’s 7 while mum, sat opposite, studiously knitted a chunky jumper. Late nights were special treats best typified by stays at my grandparents’ chilly old home: the living room’s seventies lighting was dim and they certainly never watched science fiction, but for supper when I stayed there my granddad would walk to the Benbow Street chippy and return with chicken and chips. Being more expensive than cod, haddock or plaice, we never had chicken and chips at home. I remember how the crisp batter seemed to meld with the bones; how, brittle, they’d both snap as I chewed them, and swallowed them together. Chicken and chips were a special treat I’d only ever have at my grandparents house, late at night.
“All right. Bed time.”
But we’d troop upstairs nevertheless, I to my room, my sister to hers.
My nephews and nieces all share a room and a bedtime, which I think is a little cruel considering the eldest child – Kayla – is so many years older than her youngest sister Maddie. Like I used to be, she’s somewhat reluctant to go to bed at the end of the day, especially during summer months when the sun refuses to set and the sound of sprinklers and outdoor soirees drifts in through the open window. But, unlike me, she bargains with whoever’s watching her in an attempt to wring another hour or so from the day.
“We’ll just watch this movie, okay? Just one more show, then I’ll go to bed – deal?”
She hasn’t quite gotten the hang of bargaining, and doesn’t realise she’s in no position to make the rules.
“No, you’ll go to bed NOW!”
As hormones kick in and childhood gives way to teenagerdom (or as I in my old age like to think of it, late childhood) bed starts looking less like a punishment and more like a cocoon. I’d always sought solace in my bed, reading by lamplight beneath the covers (and what’s that burning smell? Oh, it’s nothing – just my duvet cover charring where it rests against the lightbulb) trying to build forts in the crawlspace under it. I’d hide beneath my mattress playing with glow-in-the-dark Matchbox cars until I got too heavy and the bed became too small and my dad rebuilt it for my teenaged years as a box-spring bed without any room to hide beneath. Never the handiest of men he nailed the fabric onto bare wood; splinters sometimes erupted through to snag the bottom of the mattress and after scant use the cross beams were clearly evident between sagging material. It wore through early, but that was my bed for many years to come.
Beds make for interesting status symbols. They can’t be worn around your neck or driven to work; they only people likely to see them are yourself and anyone you invite home with you. Your bed would have to be in a pretty bad state of disrepair for some sloshed would-be conquest to turn her nose up at it.
“Come on baby,” you mutter against her neck. “Come to bed with me.”
And even though she’s unsteady and has to squint to focus her vision: “That’s not a bed,” she says. “That,” – and here she points, her finger wavering until she finds the object of her disdain – “is bricks.”
And yes, it is bricks: Bricks with a mattress and a quilt on them.
“It’s orthopedic,” you protest, but she’s gone, pausing only to leave some lunch vomited on the doormat on her way out.
I saw a lot more of other people’s beds as a kid than as an adult – and no, funny guy, that’s not because I was an easy lay back then. I’d go around to my friends’ houses, play with their toys and games – set up Mousetrap just to watch the mechanism work, that kind of thing – and most of the time their bed was just a bed: nothing more, nothing less. Occasionally, though, a friend would have something exciting: they’d have a bunk bed, or a bed with a desk and workspace beneath it, or sleep in something that looked like the Batmobile.
“Your bed is so cool!” I’d say, and the kid would shrug and set about choosing which of my Battle Beasts was worth swapping for. I would have loved to have had a bed I could only reach by climbing a ladder. I would have swapped all my Battle Beasts for one – even the one with a water emblem on its chest plate, the only water Battle Beast any of us had ever seen.
To him, it was just another bed.
Recently someone on my Twitter list was talking about her and her partner’s new bed, and how she’d traded up from a four-poster. Traded up? From a four-poster? What, did she find an eight-poster bed?
I have to wonder if beds are simply more meaningful to women. While I, and I’m sure many of you reading looked enviously at the racing car – and yes, Batmobile – beds in the Argos catalogue there are no stories traditionally told to small boys that revolve around beds. We have no mythologies attached them except in things like Thunderbirds or Wallace and Gromit: beds that flip over and feed us directly into the cockpits of spacecraft and the like, which even in all our man-baby mentality we realise is a dream we’re never likely to realise.
For women it’s different. Girls are brought up with stories of beautiful princesses who don’t slay dragons or fly around the cosmos but brush their golden locks in magic mirrors and recline in fairytale four-posters. I’m sure my sister would love her own four-poster bed; my wife certainly would.
“Look at this hotel!” she says while planning a lifetime of future holidays. “Look at the beds! Aren’t they amazing?”
“It says here that the hotel doesn’t have any electricity or running water,” I say, reading over her shoulder. “The locals are in a perpetual state of civil unrest, people are shot on the streets for leaving their homes after curfew, and Dracula sometimes steals into your room in the middle of the night to suck your life essence, leaving you a dessicated, walking corpse.”
“But the beds, they’re beautful! We have to go there.”
Shopping for beds as an adult is like bluffing at poker. You’re not going to show me your bed and I’m not going to show you mine, but we both hope our bed is the best, and will raise the ante to ensure as much. We buy modular bolt-ons, draws and nightstands that affix to the bed’s sides, a better mattress with more springs, a comfier headboard, and a mattress topper made from that NASA-tested foam they built the international space station from – and then we swap it all out for a water bed and spend the next year trying to even out the pressure on both sides so it doesn’t feel like one person’s sleeping in a ditch while the other’s sleeping on Mount Everest.
And the sheets! As a kid I thought a Star Wars bedspreads was as cool as sheets came; today I’m more interested in thread-counts and whether or not the cotton comes from Egypt.
“It’s Egyptian cotton!” my wife told me while window shopping for pillow cases.
“You mean, there’s a curse on it?”
“I mean it’s super duper soft. It’s like having silk sheets, only you don’t slip off them during the night and end up on your ass on the floor, crying and wondering how you got there.”
“Nothing. Egyptian cotton!”
Sometimes I wonder how I got to this point. I tend to like a firm bed with just a little softness on the top. I’ve spent a lot of time sleeping in ways other people would find untenable, like the years I’d wake with my pyjamas in tatters and bloody welts down my side where bedsprings had uncoiled and stabbed me in the night; or sleeping with my wife in a single bed so narrow I curled up on the wooden surround, my bottom overhanging the long drop to the bedroom carpet. Frequently she’d tell me we needed a queen, a king or a princess – and aren’t those names loaded with little girl romantic symbolsm? If the bed people marketed to men they’d call them extreme monster beds, or laser hyper-mattresses.
What happened to the days when the most exciting thing a bed could do was spring from a recess in the wall? What happened to the days when I’d have chosen a sleeping bag over any bed, instead of getting bogged down in designer, artisan-crafted hypoallergenic space fabric? What happened to the days when I used to wake to find my kidneys tangled up with my duvet, where my mattress’s errant, sharpened springs had performed impromptu surgery on my abdomen while I slept?
Er, on second thoughts, bring on the thread counts.