FICTION: Why can’t Elleman sleep?

Leipzig to Berlin to Klaipeda to Karlshamn to Stockholm to London.

Elleman spends six weeks in a safehouse in Ladbroke Grove, learning English from the Daily Mirror and Sexton Blake magazines.

At first, he thinks his insomnia is a stress response. London sounds different to Leipzig, smells different; he misses church bells and Bach on Sunday mornings.

The interrogators keep strange hours, too – a man and a woman, he with a moustache and pipe, she limping and fine-boned. They ask him questions at dawn, at midnight, on rainy afternoons. He draws organisation charts, picks faces from catalogues of mugshots and surveillance photographs – Henschke, Tiepelt, Brosig, all of them. He reproduces schematics from memory.

Windows on a London apartment block.

The first time a full twenty-four hours passes without a minute of sleep, he doesn’t notice. He moves from bare bedroom to bare bathroom to bare sitting room as the grey day comes and goes. When night falls, he shaves, startled at his own red-flooded eyes in the mirror. He puts on a clean, new English shirt and a new English tie in moss green. Then he goes to the window and watches the street.

Red buses, black cabs, Ford cars with impotent fins. In the orange circle of the street lamp he sees pretty girls in short skirts, men in pinstripes, then, after midnight, only vagrants and slow policemen in black overcoats. Dawn comes, with drizzle.

‘You didn’t sleep last night,’ says the woman. She offers him a French cigarette. Elleman notices her smell: garlic and mothballs. ‘Not at all.’

‘Didn’t I?’

She pushes a photograph across the kitchen table.

He blinks, eyelids scraping over eyeballs like fine sandpaper.

‘You’re watching me.’

‘Why can’t you sleep?’

Elleman looks at the photograph and feels his soul slide sideways. He doesn’t remember standing there in the bay window like that with his mouth open in a scream.

She shows him another picture, then another.

‘Ten o’clock, two o’clock, four o’clock…’ says the woman.

‘Pills, perhaps?’ says Elleman.

A silent scream.

The pills don’t work. They make him drowsy and upset his stomach, forcing him to sit for hours in the claustrophobic toilet with its stained copies of the Picture Post. But still no rest.

This time, he catches himself screaming and realises there is no sound, or at least not one his ears can detect. He wonders if the dogs can hear him, or the foxes under the brambles in the railway cutting.

The street light flickers, triggering a feather-edged memory of what he knows, somehow, to be the Soviet military hospital at Wünsdorf.

‘But that’s strange,’ he says to himself. ‘I’ve never been there.’

Birds fly above a rooftop.

‘Let me make you some coffee,’ says the woman. She grinds a fig with the beans and presents it in a dainty cup she has brought in her handbag.

‘It’s how they do it in Vienna,’ she says.

‘When can I leave the apartment?’ asks Elleman. ‘Some air might help.’

‘I’ll need to discuss this with my colleague.’

After three nights and days without sleep, the memory of Wünsdorf gains substance – or perhaps the hallucination becomes more vivid: he is on his back under swinging lights, squeaking wheels beneath, amid the stink of pickled cabbage and vodka sweat. Someone says, in Ukrainian-accented Russian, ‘We’ll crack him open like a boiled egg.’

An institutional telephone.

‘Dr Elleman,’ says the woman as she presents him with another Viennese coffee, ‘I should be delighted to take you for a turn on Wormwood Scrubs.’

‘Not Hyde Park?’

‘The Scrubs will be safer.’

The streets on the way are dirty and the terraces have aggressively blank, haunted gaps where strange weeds grow. As the breeze touches his face, bringing with it a little of her sweet bedsit perfume, Elleman imagines he hears a voice speaking imperfect German: ‘We must aim for maximum effect.’

‘When do you think I might start work?’ he asks as they cross a wide, quiet road. ‘I miss the laboratory. And work will help me sleep.’

‘There’s no chance, I’m afraid,’ she says. A sympathetic smile, a pat on the arm. ‘You’ve failed clearance.’

Elleman feels the scream rising. He opens his mouth to let it out and vomits, then collapses. A car pulls up and before he knows what has happened, two men in overcoats and small brown hats have thrown him onto the back seat.

‘Queen Alex, I think,’ the woman says to the driver.

At the hospital, they make him sleep. Not pills but injections – the nuclear option. His brain and body shut down.

A twin-bladed helicopter in flight.

When he wakes up it feels as if a century has passed. He knows at once he is outside, lying on the ground. He sees soft grey sky and hears gulls crying. He sighs with pleasure at the cool air flowing over his skin and stretches, shudders, smiles. There is grass beneath him, and sand.

‘I’m afraid we couldn’t get it out,’ says the woman. He rolls his head from one side to the other trying to locate her. She is sitting on steps leading up to the passenger door of a twin-rotor helicopter. She is smoking.

‘Hmm?’ says Elleman.

‘The thing the Russians put in your head. We couldn’t get it out. It sent the Geiger counter crazy. You’re a dangerous man to be around.’

She flicks away her cigarette end and waves a hand. The rotors begin to turn.

‘You didn’t know?’ she shouts, holding her hair back to stop it blowing into her eyes.

He blinks.

‘I’m sorry,’ she says.

She retreats into the helicopter and closes the door. It judders and lifts, kicking up grit, then howls away. For a moment, there is silence – no gulls, no people, just distant waves.

Elleman sits up and looks down at his hospital gown. His head does ache. It does feel heavy. He notices a sign in red –  LIVE FIRE KEEP CLEAR – and realises they have placed him at the centre of a great painted target.

Then he detects, far away, the sound of an Avro Vulcan beginning its bombing run.

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