By Alice Franklin
The city could not sleep. It tossed and turned, whined and wept, paced and panted, smoked and drank. Nothing worked. The city—once a million strong—was fast becoming a million weak. It had been days.
The consequences of the city’s sleeplessness were, at first, innocuous. Shop assistants gave back the wrong change but then corrected themselves, commuters missed their trains but caught later ones. Writers littered their work with forgivable typos.
But four or five days into the city’s sleeplessness, the accidents started. Cyclists swerved, cars braked, and children looked up—all a fraction too late. And it was this—the spike in the death toll, the teeming burns units, and the strain on the roadside assistance organisations—that compelled a group of experts to investigate, all of them arriving pumped full of optimism, degrees, and proven track records.
At some point, my employers decided the story was sufficiently newsworthy. They reluctantly sent me, one of their reporters, to observe and record and document.
By the time I arrived, things had gotten out of hand. The city was expressing peculiar personality traits. The punctual arrived late, the opinionated expressed no opinion, the pedantic stopped giving a shit. The long-distance psychologists—amongst those too scared to come—speculated distantly that the city was losing its sense of self. I disagreed. It was true that there was a lot of losing going on—the daredevils losing their nerve, the idealists losing their hope, the religious losing their faith—but the city was not losing its sense of self. The city was losing it. Gentle irony was interpreted as callous sarcasm, birthday celebrations were forgotten by the celebrants, and the socially dexterous sent emails to the people they were writing about rather than the people they were writing to. Heads pounded relentlessly, limbs ached terribly, nausea festered intolerably, and everyone was getting fat.
I was unsure how to go about my research. I worked tirelessly, sleeplessly, but ultimately pointlessly, interviewing insomniacs, palm-reading scientists, photographing star signs, and barking with the dogs.
Within the week I had sent off a report stating that while sleep might eventually overcome sleeplessness, it was far from inevitable. In a dramatic conclusion based on no evidence at all, I suggested that insomnia would drive the city to its death.
A week later, my boss wrote back, confessing that she hadn’t liked my report, which was not unusual. The day would come where we would all narrate the apocalypse, she said, but it was too inconvenient for that day to be then. There were elections coming up, she pointed out.
In the end, the paper ran with a story that explained how the city was suffering from a mild case of mass hysteria, and that sooner or later it would pass, and when it did, normal life would resume.
After the story broke, the city’s shop assistants, writers, cyclists, children, punctual, opinionated, pedantic, daredevils, idealists, and religious all breathed a collective sigh of relief. Mass hysteria had never killed anyone except that time it killed a lot of people in 1518, Strasbourg. There was, the city concluded from a two-inch article based on nothing, very little to worry about. So, with this in mind, the city tucked itself in bed. The moment its head touched the pillow, the city was asleep: dreaming dreams of running, dancing, and sleeping itself to its death.