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Things that go bump in the night

Between 1 January and 1 October this year I slept in at least 19 different beds. It was not, I hasten to add, a case of being, as Hamlet put it, ‘In the rank sweat of an enseamèd bed/Stew’d in corruption’—my wife occupied the other side of every one of them. Not bed hopping, just bed lobbing.

This multi-mattress story came about because, like the Bedouin of story and legend, we have never been still in 2004. Travel is, of course, highly instructive. But enlightenment comes from many sources when you journey to different lands and other cultures: from architecture , bazaars and marketplaces; from chance encounters, new friendships; from butchers and cabbies and barmen in small dusty villages; and, we gradually realised, from the serial occupancy of beds …

When you ask for a double room in Italy, you are offered, with a sort of presumptuous prudery, a matrimoniale. In a posh hotel this might resolve itself into a familiar Queen or King-sized double bed, but in most establishments a matrimoniale is two three-quarter beds pushed together to make a very generous double. Since there is no sheet large enough to cover such an area, each of the two components of the matrimoniale is individually swathed, with the result that a daunting plain of white linen is divided by a fault line where the beds meet in a vain attempt to pretend that they are not separate. Normal nocturnal restlessness often results in this crevice widening to consume an inadvertent leg or arm. Like quicksand, these gaps react to struggle and resistance by swallowing foreign bodies ever more enthusiastically.

The broad, creviced bed is not solely an Italian phenomenon. It’s just that Italian nomenclature gives it a moral flick that other nationalities don’t bother about. In rural Bavaria, for example, my carefully rehearsed ‘Haben sie eine dopple zimmer fur ein nacht, bitte?’, not only produced the deflating, Oxford-accented English reply, ‘Yairs, I fancy we can help you there’, but also failed to trigger any interest whatsoever in our marital status. Nothing different about the bed, though: it was familiarly broad and cracked down the middle.

Forced by an emergency to hire what the French call a gite (a shack to us) in a charming Provençal village called Joucas, we discovered with great joy a standard, unbifurcated double bed. Unfortunately, however, it almost filled the room from wall to wall and front to back. No sooner did you enter the room than you were on the bed. It was like living on a trampoline. And far from acreages of linen, there was none. There weren’t any towels either. So we were prickled and scratched and sandpapered all night under shaggy blankets that an army surplus store would have knocked back with disdain. In the morning, having showered our tortured bodies, we had to dry ourselves on a T-shirt, the choice of which, hers or mine, was established by the toss of a coin.

Easily the most challenging of our nocturnal stops was a monastic cell with two minimalist bunks squatting opposite each other and rammed up against the walls. Mattresses about two inches thick laid over slats that the ravages of time and heavy sleepers had buckled into bumps and ridges promised long wakeful nights. Overhanging bookcases awaited the incautiously raised head. When I tried to push these iron juggernauts together I discovered they were bolted to the floor, but not before I’d torn a tendon in my arm with the dogged effort.

No place for romance, this one. Connubial bliss could only be initiated by the kind of explicit, unmistakable enquiry you thought you’d long since left behind in the crass days of your gaucherie. In any case, this overture, even if successfully managed, produced such hip and shouldering against the immovable wall and such cranial attacks on the jutting bookcases, that the whole enterprise dissolved in laughter and farce. Considering that it took great concentration for only one person not to fall out of these slim couches as sleep overcame caution, it was sheer hubris to expect two people to cohabit there, let alone contemplate more complicated intimacies.

Absolutely the biggest bed awaited us in a lovely little hotel called Angel’s Home in the old city in Istanbul. In a spacious room, a broad, stylish bedhead gave the impression of one huge bed such as a harem in the city’s distant past might have been proud. Plump pillows and bolsters rose from its smoothed surface like a mountain range. Investigation, however, revealed the incriminating flaw down the middle: this was two double beds conjoined. Even more than usually, one’s sleeping partner was so far away she was but a deeply breathing rumour in the night and could be contacted only by mobile phone or prior appointment.

‘What is a man/If his chief good and market of his time/Be but to sleep?’ asks Hamlet. Fair enough. I admit that what we learned from our 19 beds across the nocturnal world probably didn’t amount to much more than a few enforced positions undreamed of in our philosophies. The rest is silence.

Nevertheless, I should point out that I’m writing these chaise longue musings on the morning after the recent federal election and that from my point of view—I speak for no one else—bed looks like a good proposition. Hibernation actually, for at least three years. 

Brian Matthews is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Victoria University.



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