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When you have very few zzzzs in your sleep bank, when those resources highly prized in American poetry – of the inner variety – are in short supply, when you have been paying a lot of hospital visits and you start your day two or three hours before light because sleep has become a lost art, like sock darning or carousel-barking, life can take on a surreal air. Activities that are usually water off a duck’s back make you feel as though you’re drowning. Minor irritations morph into disappointments of the first order. A tiny mishap can give you the heavy sense of foreboding, of the vast machinery of fate closing in on you, as though you are a character from the pen of Thomas Hardy.
So it was on Friday. It was 4am. Some new friends I like a little more than perhaps I should were coming round in 16 hours. There was no time to lose. I wanted things not just to be charming and enjoyable; I wanted memorable. I wanted spectacular. I wanted historic. I hoped the evening would lead to great international treaties of alliance. I wanted everyone’s hearts to be smashed to smithereens (in a good way).
Wanting something too much is a very familiar feeling. Love. The last potato. It is a hard look to carry off with great dignity, and my dignity is very important to me.
It all started with the rhubarb. When the rhubarb I had ordered was delivered, it wasn’t that lavish flamingo pink I was expecting; it was a dullish green streaked with intermittent nervous Barbie references. It had nothing magnificent about it at all. I telephoned the supplier, appalled to hear a slight catch in my voice.
“I am so disappointed with the rhubarb,” I said. “I have special people coming. I wouldn’t be happy to serve it. Everything’s ruined. Um. That’s it really.”
I almost expected the woman to say: “My dear, I am glad your life has been so free of stress and incident that a slightly inferior coloured rhubarb seems to be more than you can bear” but, instead, there was a pause. I felt her eyeballs roll. I thought for a second of a play my sister Esther once starred in called I Didn’t Know Celery Could Kill You and wondered if there was a follow-up about rhubarb. But then the woman said, “I’m really sorry.”
I wasn’t expecting that! “What style,” I thought, “what verve.” I resolved to let her off the hook and simply buy some more. I turned to look at the rhubarb and it already seemed a bit pinker than I remembered. Was it actually blushing for me?
I then made a batch of raspberry macaroons, something I can usually do so well that people don’t believe me and search the bins for tell-tale green boxes. I made the jam to be piped inside them while they were in the oven. We could all have some for breakfast, I thought. But, instead of shimmering little discs complete with that all-important lip, what emerged were sorry looking specimens resembling granular king prawns. I was shocked. They were so out of character.
I made another batch. They were better but nothing to write home about. I had 90 average and worse macaroons before me. I was so tired I was seeing little withered pink threads in the air. “This is like a bad scene in a book written by me,” I couldn’t help remarking.
As the day progressed, my hopes soared and my culinary achievements plummeted. All the food I made looked a little bit disgusting. At 2pm a new obstacle presented itself. My house was all wrong somehow. Could anything be done to make it look, well, cosier?
I busied about; I broke some weighing scales and cracked a mixing bowl. I sustained an impressive paper cut. I even burnt some salad. There was nothing for it: I got into bed and picked up my old university copy of Hardy’s poems. I read a poem I love called “The Turnip Hoer” that my father used to read to me. In the poem a modest labourer rescues the local duchess, saving her life when her carriage goes awry. He is so moved by her grace and delicacy that he is ruined for his ordinary life. “You are not so nice now as you were before,” says his wife wryly. In the end he turns to drink and is run down by a train.
I shook my head at the poem. “I refuse to believe you say anything profound about my identity,” I told it.
Then I slept. I slept for three hours. What wondrous medicine was in that rest. In my dream, all the pinks were the right pink. And when I awoke everything seemed fresh and lively, and all the tension had changed from something ruinous into a lovely kind of stage fright …
More columns at ft.com/boyt
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