by Pip Williams
Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her [reason], she [fantasy] is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels.Francisco de Goya, epigraph to Capricho no.43
– And breathe out.
As you read this, I’d like you to imagine you’re hearing my voice saying it. If you don’t know me, and haven’t heard my voice, it’s fairly deep, on the more RP end of the spectrum, and with a very slight lisp.
Put in your headphones (you’re listening to me through headphones, I should add), and turn the volume down so my voice is barely perceptible, barely audible. It could be someone on the street outside. Or one of your housemates on the phone. Or it could be in your own head.
I hope you are somewhere comfortable and (breathe out, sorry) are feeling relaxed. Perhaps you’re sitting at your desk, on a lunch break; or on your sofa, scrolling away with a coffee and a nice biscuit. Perhaps you’re tucked up in your bed, with your reading glasses on, and the bedside lamp lighting up a side of your face. Lovely.
Perhaps you even get a bit sleepy reading this, and that’s ok. Just let your imagined version of my voice guide you through. Relax. Keep breathing in and out.
I’m glad if you’re feeling a bit sleepy, actually. It’s nice, isn’t it? About two weeks ago I had a really bad attack of insomnia, which troubled me, as I’m usually a pretty talented sleeper. It lasted about a week, and during that time I genuinely believe I did not sleep at all. After a day of feeling exhausted and listless, I would finally lie down and turn off the lights, and then proceed to stare at my ceiling for about four or five hours.
I would try reading, I would scroll through Twitter, I would focus on my breathing (I hope you are still focusing on your breathing, by the way, in and out, in and out, don’t make a thing of it, just tune into it), I would listen to podcasts. All to no avail. On a good night I would maybe conk out for a couple of hours before my alarm went off, but it never felt like sleeping as such. Maybe just like I’d stopped paying attention for a bit.
Make sure you are sitting comfortably. Think about where you are holding tension. Where your centre of gravity is. Breathe out.
As any insomniac will tell you, you can’t leave sleeplessness in the bedroom either. You will then spend the day following in a sort of weird fug, your head hot and your eyes furry, a vaguely hallucinatory state of befuddled misery. You are overwhelmingly tired, yet you dread the thought of your bed.
It is in this state that fiction podcast/audio drama The Sink (written by Kill The Beast/SpitLip alumnus Natasha Hodgson, and available on BBC Sounds) exists.
Breathe in and out maybe four more times. I’m just going to talk for a bit now. I’d like you to imagine that we are near to each other, in a room with nice candles that smells of something comforting and a bit sweet. You feel comfortable and cared-for.
“Something’s rotting. There’s a bad smell in your brain.”
The Sink starts out as a relaxation tape of some kind, narrated in reassuring, yet inscrutable, tones by Alice Lowe. It then evolves into a sort of dreamy sketch show, based around your various strange dreams, and with the intention of “scrub[bing] out your brain” and examining your subconscious. Someone has an encounter in a forest with a stricken fun-runner, dressed as “Sonic the Hog”. Someone has written a book so large it can’t be picked up, and his wife is hiding in it. Two men dissect a childhood memory about a man coming to their school with birds. Except maybe that’s not what happened, exactly. And so gradually the series morphs once again into… well, I don’t want to spoil that. But its slow transformation from surreal sketch show to something much twistier, darker and more complex is genuinely dazzling and, in the end, deeply moving.
The easiest point of comparison is Chris Morris’ woozy 2000 sketch show Jam, and, like Morris, Hodgson has a wonderful talent for eldritch similes (“Your dreams are heavy lovely boys”), and shares a penchant with Morris for mining the darker end of human experience for laughs. But The Sink is much tighter and more intricate than your average sketch show, and plays its cards daringly close to its chest for quite a long time.
In fairness, it does work beautifully as just a sketch show- as said, the turns of phrase are inspired and the scenarios wonderfully bizarre, pitched somewhere just, only just, outside of your daily experience (a woman stopping someone in the street to ask who provides their sand; an overly competitive father at an egg-and-spoon race with a special spoon). But frequently the sketches dissolve and decay like memories, they trail off, repeat themselves, bleed into each other; a seemingly innocent sketch about a doctor mispronouncing words turns into something genuinely heartbreaking; a sketch about someone trying to explain snakes and ladders to people who’ve never heard of it stalls totally, grinds to a halt, and transforms into a nightmare. Phrases are repeated and refracted until they are under your skin and become inexplicably, viscerally unsettling (it’ll be a long time until I stop hearing “Scarecrows aren’t for scaring people, madam” in my dreams). Simple set-ups turn into complex and tense scenes, changing pace and tone in a bracingly weird way, and at a moment’s notice; a sketch about a mermaid-phobic wife trying to convince her husband not to shower keeps stopping and re-starting, taking up about half of episode 5, and is reminiscent of Caryl Churchill at her most experimental.
And throughout is sown the idea that the sketches are distractions, distortions, that your brain is using them to conceal some deep, buried horror. You notice repeated images and themes; birds, fires, swimming pools. Something forms, vaguely, just outside your peripheries. A memory from childhood, lost friendship, the bird-man…
As Lowe’s hunting voiceover repeatedly states, “Sometimes it’s better if what’s chasing you catches up.”
It is produced to perfection by Andy Goddard, mixed to hover just between inside and out, real and imagined- I listened to it mostly while out walking and frequently found myself wheeling round and checking over my shoulders, deeply hoping that the calls, shouts and caws I was hearing were in my headphones and not at my heels.
David Cummings’ gorgeous music adds to the somnambulant effect, (somewhere between Angelo Badalamenti and someone’s memory of a Cocteau Twins song) and contributes a sense of desperate, heartfelt yearning that in early episodes feels pleasingly incongruous with the material, and by the final episode is almost unbearable in its poignancy.
What it feels most like is the inside of your own mind, like the disordered and troubled thoughts that meander through your subconscious as you stare at your ceiling at 3 in the morning; that melancholy mix of half-remembered songs, jumbled information and agitated, nagging memories. Sometimes it’s funny; sometimes it’s plain odd; sometimes you can feel your brain trying to remind you of something you’d rather forget.
How are you getting on there? Still breathing? Still feeling relaxed? Maybe you’re dozing off by this point, and that’s good, just let yourself sink into whatever surface you’re sitting on, keep breathing; think of your thoughts like a stream, just flowing through your mind easily and without bother.
If you’re still awake, why don’t you take off your shoes, if you’re wearing them? Why don’t you get a jumper or a blanket? Maybe you’re just not comfortable. It’s important to feel really comfortable, really safe and relaxed. You are worth that, after all.
I remember hearing Jake Gyllenhall say in an interview once that the purpose of art was to “disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed”. Much as The Sink is genuine nightmare fuel, a slippery and eerie dive into the subconscious, the quality that stays with me the most is actually its warmth. It is massively bizarre and disconcerting, and parts of it are truly chilling, but ultimately I found it deeply moving and, in its own odd way, very comforting.
As any insomniac can tell you, one of the worst qualities of sleeplessness is an abiding feeling of loneliness; that you are the only person in the world still awake, that something is being denied to you that everyone else is enjoying. You rise depressed and anxious, the rest of your day seemingly at odds with the rest of the world, and you wonder what is wrong with you. There is, then, something comforting about The Sink’s hand on your shoulder in the dark, a grim nod of recognition for anyone who knows what it is to lie awake, sleepless and alone, scared of their own body or mind. There is comfort in its recognition that the mind is knotty and often inimical to us, that the world is frightening and strange, and it is not unusual to feel trapped, as in a nightmare, or in a situation you have no control over. The sketches are absurd, sure, but frequently they point towards things we could all recognize; a sketch about a teenage girl trying to shave her legs in the bath and finding something very different growing out of her is immediately relatable to anyone who was ever a self-loathing teen; likewise a sketch that seems essentially to be about a man copulating with a giraffe, which actually explores quite delicately the transaction of intimacy and the strangeness of desire (though it could, of course, just be about a guy fucking a giraffe).
Hodgson’s rendering of the everyday strangeness of the world is, in fact, very beautiful, and a balm to anyone who sometimes feels unmoored by this strangeness. The evocation of a British childhood, of people who visited your school with animals, and the “swirly chalk snail” of the playground, are gloriously realised, and the description of falling in love as being “the last moment you’ll be alive” is pretty extraordinary.
Ultimately it strikes me as a piece about trauma, and the past; how the brain processes it, how we hide from it, and how we can take ownership of it. Lowe’s narration is filled with images of chasing and running, of things you are not looking at directly and things you are trying to ignore. There is of course a horrific element to this, and it is this tension, this image of an unknown, faceless terror on our trail that gives the series its eerie, unnerving thrust. But, as Lowe repeats several times, “If it catches you, it gets to scare you”. If what’s chasing us catches up with us, then we have a choice; we either live in terror, letting it scare us, forever distorting and hiding from our own experiences; or we face it, and own it. After the nightmarish soundscape of the previous episodes, the series ends with a long monologue that goes some of the way to explaining things, scored by Cummings’ aching music. No rabbit holes or tricks or distortions here, just one person’s experience, one person’s trauma, narrated at length and with honesty. All the pain of childhood anxiety, the loss of innocence, the strangeness and terror of life, of all those “dark and wet inside their skin”, given its space to breathe, and given the release the character, and indeed the listeners, have been waiting for. It is a stunning piece of writing, a beautiful reflection on how a person handles a traumatic event, and how they can begin to leave it in the past where it belongs.
Every episode ends with Lowe saying “You’ve done so well!”- initially somewhat insincere, patronising, but by that final episode, like everything else, massively moving. We have done well. Everyone running from something, everyone hiding, everyone awake at night and alone in the dark- “You’ve done so well”.
For what is horror after all but the admission that sometimes the world is beyond our control, and sometimes all we can do about that is scream?
And sometimes the hand on your shoulder where previously there was none, or the cries in the dark, or the voice at your ear, is not terror, but company. Not disturbance, but comfort.
Aw, look at you. Fast asleep now. You look very peaceful. You do a nice little smile when you’re asleep, it’s very endearing. I hope I’ve been a comfort today. Lord knows we need to find it where we can, in this day and age, whether that’s in the strange voices in your headphones or writing about them.
So from me and the voices- breathe out. Relax. Sweet dreams. I’m not feeling tired quite yet, so I might stay up a bit longer.