By Jane Hyphen
The bedtime ritual, that’s what she called it, just a bit of organisation, a bit of tidying up before bed. In truth it was a monster, silent, insidious, omnipresent like a shadow in her room. It had never asked to be fed but she’d fed it nonetheless. As the weeks and months passed by she’d gradually given into it more and more and now it was bigger than she was.
Her small neat bedroom was an ever increasing set of hazards, risks, liabilities, they whispered to her, not in words but in a form of desperate, chaotic energy. Objects which were quite innocent represented great danger. The disorder around the room appeared to her as a precipice, the impending sense of danger invoked a sort of frenzy of mental convulsions which refused to abate until order was restored.
‘Just get to bed Ruth, we don’t want to hear all that messing about again, you’ve got school tomorrow!’
It was difficult to hide it from her parents but she felt she did a pretty good job of disguising just how cruel it had become and how exhausting it was keeping up with its endless demands. Physically it was draining but emotionally it tied her in knots, the panic she felt as she asked herself, have I done it right, have I forgotten something? Often she’d turn on the light hours after she’d gone to bed just to check that everything was still in place.
The length of the ritual varied according to the perceived threat but once an element of the ritual was implemented it was set in stone and it couldn’t cancelled. For example the opening of the window and rubbing her hand along the underside of the external sill to check for insects had been part of ritual for eighteen months or more ever since a wasp erected its nest there. The main problem was that the number of elements kept increasing, five minutes had increased to twenty and now to almost an hour, excluding getting up and putting the light on to do checks and double checks.
It was difficult to pinpoint the exact trigger which started the bedtime ritual or her ‘habits’ as her parents called it dismissively but she believed it began with a witch doll which her older brother bought her back his Scout’s trip to Wales. It was a wicked looking thing which she kept attached to her pinboard. Her father had said to her, ‘Be careful with that witch it might be cursed.’ Shortly after that one of her teachers had died of a heart attack suddenly whilst on a walking holiday, Mr Owen. It had been a big shock for the school.
There was something about the way the witch stared at her. She felt or rather she knew that if she didn’t kiss it’s hideous face goodnight that something terrible would happen to her or a member of her family. Kissing the witch’s face made her feel dirty and so to feel clean again pressed her forehead into a small ebony crucifix which hung on the wall; it carved a groove into her forehead as she inhaled the woody scent but it made her feel pure. This awakened the angels who would then inhabit her room during the night but they expected certain standards; no debris on the carpet, a perfectly neat bed with no creases. Ornaments on her shelf would be removed, the base wiped with a cloth and then returned to their place with a bang, almost hard enough to break them but not quite. There followed by some prayers, ones which she’d invented to protect friends and family members, sealed in place by some strange licking of the metal bed frame, just in a particular place, the cold metal tingled on her tongue.
Then there were her exercises, sit-ups, sixty to be precise, recently increased from fifty then a prolonged touch of the toes, feeling her hamstrings pull tight, inducing a bit of pain. Next the angles of her doors had to be fixed in place, the bedroom door and her the wardrobe door, always left open in case she trapped any spirits and angered them. These doors had to be open at forty five degrees, halfway to a right angle, she positioned them by eye but nevertheless very accurately. Finally there was a series of general checks, to ensure there were no gaps whatsoever in the curtains and nothing under the bed, nothing was ever under the bed but she still had to make sure. Rubbing the palms of her hands along the carpet to check for crumbs.
Then she lay in bed with the bedtime lamp switched on, her heart racing. The faces in the floral patterns on the wallpaper stared at her. Often at this stage she became breathless and sometimes she reached a fever pitch of angst so that she would almost lose consciousness in a sort of anxiety climax. Her stomach churned as she asked herself over and over again, is it safe to turn out the light, to go to sleep?
It was like she was holding back a wall and when the pressure became too intense she would dig her nails into the flesh in her stomach and twist. There was a permanent mark there like a love bite but this monster didn’t love her, it was a parasite, it robbed her of time and energy. Instead of winding down at bedtime she went to sleep thoroughly wound up and often had nightmares. The thing was she knew she had control, control over her family’s safety and if she didn’t do the ritual properly then she was conceding that they would come to harm, she was inviting it.
Her hand would hover over the light switch, at least when her eyes were open she could see readily that everything was in place. Once her eyes were shut things might move or she might not have done everything right or forgotten something. In time the stress hormones were replaced by sleep hormones and the urge to let her eyelids drop was overwhelming. She fought it, fought in it the closing stages of wakefulness, fought it in her dreams. The conflict made her feel nauseous.
Her mother would often find the bedside lamp still on when she came to check on Ruth. She would run her hand across her daughter’s forehead and turn out the light. As she left the room she sometimes upset the angle of the door. Ruth would wake up with a sinking feeling, the angle of the door was wrong so she felt she must carry out further rituals to protect herself. Maybe some sit-ups before school, some handwashing and extra prayers but mostly she tried not to let the monster seize her morning. However she knew deep down that she must keep up with its demands because the consequences were unthinkable. It was an exhausting but small sacrifice to keep everyone safe from harm. After all isn’t that what everyone wants to be safe from danger, to live their lives without fear, to be free?