Have you, on hearing the story of the princess who felt a pea through 40 feather mattresses, ever thought that she was, well, a bit of a wet blanket? One measly dried pea through all that padding and she wakes up black and blue with bruises? ‘I can’t tell you what I’ve suffered!’ she quivers in an 1846 English translation from the Hans Christian Andersen original.
Ah, but you don’t know the whole story. Go back to Andersen and you discover it was three peas. Poor princess. Now I understand. Imagine fidgeting in the night, feeling a lump under the mattress, and rolling over to the cool side of the bed and finding another pea — dastardly pea — and curling up miserably at the foot of the bed only to discover a third pea-hummock. Imagine looking down from the height of 40 mattresses and finding that the Queen has taken the ladder away so you can’t even try one of the palace’s 27 spare rooms, or the billiard table, or a soft-looking bit of marble floor. No wonder she didn’t sleep.
I am in sympathy with the princess because I, too, am a bad sleeper. I, too, wake from two hours’ rest on the coir matting in the sitting room, warp and weft printed into my cheek, and tremble across the breakfast table: ‘Black and blue. Can’t tell you what I’ve suffered.’
I toss, I turn, I throw off the quilt, kick out the hot-water bottle, turn the pillows, wriggle bed socks off or on, fluff the duvet, count sheep, count my breaths, count to 100, 1,000, 10,000. I make hot milk, dab temples with lavender. I try the sofa. I try the floor. I listen to a Nigel Slater audio book. ‘Tunnock’s Teacake… Sunday roast… Blackpool rock.’
Somewhere between ‘Dairylea Triangles’ and ‘Farmers’ markets’ I fall asleep. At five I am awake, exhausted, and without even a prince’s hand in marriage to show for it.
By day, I press my nose to the windows of mattress shops as other women do displays of chocolates or handbags. They have such lovely names; names that promise so much: And So To Bed, Dreams, Silentnight, Savoir. Doesn’t that last sound like someone just dropping-off and starting to snore? Savoirrrrr…
Would a new mattress, new linen, new goose-feather pillows make the difference? In the shops I stroke 500-thread-count sheets and squeeze eiderdown duvets and lie down in my coat on £3,000 mattresses. Would these turn me from ugly insomniac duckling into immaculate Sleeping Beauty swan?
One other detail from the Andersen story. After the princess has proved herself — ‘for it was quite impossible for any one but a true princess to be so tender’ — she is married to the prince and the three peas are deposited in the national museum.
You can still see them now, says Andersen, if they have not been lost. The princess, blast her, peas safely behind glass, sleeps happily ever after.