The Bed Reptile

Colin McGinn

He had been asleep for seven and a half hours. He had lain in a dark room, wedged into a cotton envelope, breathing and twitching, his eyes periodically making saccadic movements under their lids. The time had passed slowly. He had done very little during those quiet hours. Once or twice the monotony had been broken by the languid swelling of his male part. Yet, despite this inactivity, there was no sign of boredom or discontent: to lie prone was living enough. Soon, however, it would be time to ascend into consciousness and light. Now he was in the transitional stage, the time of vividly remembered dreams and dimly glimpsed reality. His mouth opened and his shut eyes blinked. The skin on his forehead bunched into a frown of concentration. He had an intent look.

He was dreaming of a hill. It was like no hill to be found in reality, but it was not an unrealistic hill. It might be described as an ideal hill. The hill was symmetrically shaped, as though it had been designed by a geometer. It had a bulbous convexity, and was not much narrower at the top than the base (its base was not very clearly visible in the dream). Instead of tapering at the summit, the hill was shaped into a sort of platform of barely perceptible curvature. It was as if the hill contained a plane. But the most conspicuous feature of the hill was its colour: it was very very green. Its green was the colour a child aims for – but never achieves – in painting grass with the brightest green to be found or mixed. The land on the hill was divided into sections by many hedges and fences, thus qualifying the homogeneity of the whole. Trees were artfully disposed on the hill’s slopes. The weather on the hill was warm and calm. The dreamer longed to climb the hill, which he beheld in the middle distance. He yearned to lie on its grass and explore its terrain. Framing the hill was a piercingly blue sky, bluer than any sky ever seen from earth; it was flecked with traces of white cloud. The sky gave off an impression of great depth and distance, its intense blue seeming to condense the infinite space that stretched out beyond the hill. The hill luxuriated in its sky, absorbing its warmth and light. The dreamer gazed at the hill in its surrounding sky and felt himself entranced by the sight of it. No presentiment of loss disturbed his tranquillity as his eye wandered over the hill’s outline and drank in its colour.

The dream could not have lasted for longer than a few seconds. It was interrupted by the beep-beep-beep of his electronic alarm-clock. His eyelids lifted and the mythic hill was gone. Its image remained, however, and the waker made a conscious effort to retain the colour and form of his vision. But they were fading quickly, along with the dreamer’s unconscious epiphany. He realised that he would never encounter such a hill in reality. He felt sad and duped. He switched the alarm off by leaning over and pressing a button. It was 8.30. He lay back and closed his eyes again. He felt the warmth of the bed merge with the warmth of his body. He basked in this warmth, a bed reptile. Ordinary reptiles derive their warmth from the heat of the sun. In the morning they wait for the sun to rise and send its rays through space to their cold slow bodies. What must a lizard feel as the sun’s rays heat its tepid blood and its body regains its mobility and strength? It must be like coming back to life, like rebirth. A lizard must love the sun and its warmth. A bed reptile shuns the warmth of the sun: it gets its warmth from sheets and blankets. The bed reptile is a deep-sheet fish. These creatures love the soft clasp of bedclothes, as the lizard loves the sun’s rays. But as the lizard cannot tolerate the sun as the day advances, so the bed reptile must eventually loose itself from its bower and venture forth. It cannot stay in bed for ever.

It was half an hour before this particular bed reptile was impelled by hunger to rise. He stood up, put on his dressing-gown, and waded through a cold and vortiginous river of air into the kitchen. His feet incompetently negotiated loose rocks and pockets of quicksand on the river-bed, and his half-closed eyes were smitten by harsh light as he crossed the curtainless living-room. This was not familiar terrain to the bed reptile. He put water into the kettle and plugged its tail into the wall. Then he transferred a thousand granules of instant coffee into a cup. He balanced in the sharp-edged kitchen and waited for the kettle to exhale a funnel of translucent white. His portable envelope permitted the busy air to take the warmth from the skin of his lower legs. He poured some of the dangerous water into the cup, taking care to avoid the kettle’s hot breath. An arctic blast escaped from the refrigerator door as he stooped for milk. The clumsy carton pitched rather more milk into the cup than he desired. He hurried back to the bedroom, bearing his cup of coffee. The bedroom seemed darker than before, and stiller. The sheets were still warm, though not quite warm enough to return his feet to their earlier thermal condition. (It was as if a malicious cloud were preventing the full force of the sun’s rays from reaching a cool reptilian body.) He sat upright in bed and sipped his coffee, the sips growing larger as the coffee cooled. Drinking it was a task requiring concentration and some expertise. But it was easier than the ingestive feats performed each morning by a regular reptile; easier than swallowing a whole insect – skeleton, intestines, eyes, wings. That must be a labour, a trial. The bed reptile had only to perch the brim of his cup on his lower lip and make twenty sips. As he emptied the cup, he stared blindly into the gradually lightening gloom, thinking of the day before and the day to come. He now felt fully awake, the hill seeming more and more like something he had once seen in a children’s cartoon.

His mouth began to feel coated and fungal. He got out of bed for the second time and put on yesterday’s socks. Thus protected, he stepped into the adjacent bathroom. After the sharp edges of the kitchen the hard surfaces of the bathroom seemed almost soothing. The bathroom furniture – sink, toilet, bath – was accusingly white, setting a stringent standard of cleanliness for the creature using it. He stood over the stern toilet-bowl and trained a yellow jet of surprisingly hot urine at the enamel. A proportion of it hit the pool of water at the bottom directly and produced there a fleeting ganglion of bubbles. He then sent his urine on a long journey, destination the sea, by flushing the toilet. He turned to the sink and reached for his toothbrush. It was white, with splayed bristles like slept-on hair; in the hole at the base of the handle were collected the ancient remnants of past teeth-cleanings. He ran the tap over the brush and forced some toothpaste from its malleable metal tube onto the spread bristles. Leaving the cold tap running, he commenced to clean his teeth. Now this was real work. The toothpaste quickly began to foam and discolour, gobbets of it dropping into the sink to be ferried away by the running water. As he worked at the fissures separating his teeth, brushing fondly and mechanically, he watched two small flies swooping menacingly around the sink, occasionally settling as if to catch their breath. He felt disgusted by their tiny detailed bodies, little pieces of sinewy snot decorated with eyes and mouths and noses. They had made their home in the scummy aperture of the sink’s overflow: here they slept and scavenged, here they reproduced their kind and died. Until, that is, the sink should happen to become too full of water some day. The invisible beating of their wings was unnervingly noiseless at a distance of two feet. Every now and then one of them would fly uncomfortably close to the teeth-cleaner’s face, causing him to draw back slightly. Eventually, the bolder of the two, attracted by a new and warmer aperture, cruised close to his lips, which were prised apart by the shaft of the toothbrush. Reflexively, he spat. The adventurous fly escaped the full force of the blast, avoiding the dollops of toothpaste and saliva which spattered on the wall behind the sink. It speedily flew to the comparative safety of a nearby towel. The spitter resumed his brushing, his eyes now fixed on the sink’s foul aperture. He rinsed his mouth with water and then dried its outside on the towel, shaking it first to release the fly cowering within its folds. His lower legs were cold again. He contemplated shaving, but decided to return to bed.

Instead of acting as a source of warmth, the bed had now become a syphon of warmth: it took what remained of the warmth in his legs and gave nothing in return. He lay supine and closed his eyes, hoping vaguely for the reappearance of his hill. All he perceived, however, was the blackness of his eyelids and the random flux of colours generated by the perpetual whir of his brain. The bed reptile felt like a man lying face up. His form had undergone a change, and the cotton envelope no longer made a perfect fit. Sleep was well out of reach. His mind turned to the day of space and consciousness, of time and action. The deep-sheet fish was floating involuntarily upwards toward air and light. He could not stay down in the watery darkness for ever. His eyes opened, greedily extracting from the gloom such information as could be discovered there. His bowels began to murmur and churn. He felt hungry. After a few more minutes, he swivelled out of bed again and put on his clothes. For a moment the bed reptile felt like a dog wearing a jacket – encumbered, foolish.

He pulled back the curtains and peered into a uniformly grey sky. Angular brick buildings prevented the sky from resting on the horizon. There was distance everywhere. He decided to go out for food – a loaf of bread. His bowels would have to contain themselves till he got back. He slipped on his shoes, entombing his feet in leather. His feet now made a noise as he walked. He clacked to the door of his flat, stiffening himself for the rough streets. As he turned the lock he felt the weight of his body bearing down on his vertical legs, he sensed balance and timing. Amphibiously he emerged into the alien air. With only a second’s hesitation he pulled at the new air, like a confident turtle moving from sea to shore, from one element to another. He descended the stairs without incident and prepared to go out into the street. He felt watchful and tender. The street was as cold as a fridge as he stepped out onto the unyielding pavement. A steady breeze separated hair from hair and made him conscious of his vulnerable face. His senses were now working to their maximum, receiving and sifting. A bird flew above him, high and fast. As he crossed the wide road he felt himself to be stunted and malformed, like a bird born with crippled wings. He felt stiff-jointed, slow-moving, precarious. He felt like an animal bred to live its life in a bed, now forced out of its natural environment. He was out of his element. It would be another fourteen hours before he could return to the comfort and safety of his natural habitat.