High up in a tower, that shadowed all the neighbouring towers, Sleepy-Head lived alone with her mother. Sleepy-Head had a body that was spindly and sallow like the stem of a plant deprived of light. Looked at one way, her features were incongruous with the delicate, oval pallor of her face. Look again and you might find yourself thinking differently. Whilst she had a bump on the bridge of her roman nose and a small gap in between her two shiny front teeth, she had lips so ripe they may have tasted of cherries and eyes like hot cocoa. Her appearance mattered not to anyone beside herself, however, as for as many of her thirteen years as she could remember she had had only her mother, Wide-Awake, for company and apart from a few windows looking out of their home on the thirty-seventh floor, no other experience of the world beyond.
Sleepy-Head ached to go outside so she could encounter for herself the taste of the wind; the sound of wet grass; the smell of laughter. Her mother proclaimed it to be too treacherous a place for her to enter as yet. With Mother Wide-Awake it did not matter from which angle you gazed upon her crags and creases; her looks were as cold and gravelly as her character. Despite her mother's view, Sleepy-Head continued to ponder the question of how people left the tower in the hope that one day soon she would too.
Sleepy-Head had once believed that people must be able to fly, for she had watched the way birds travel on their wings and although she could not fly herself, she knew flight was possible. Lately, she watched people from her window as they appeared from the bottom of the building and observed that although she still did not understand how they made it there, she could no longer be certain that people flew.
She began to lie awake in her rickety old bed, concentrating on the sounds beyond the confines of her room. Sometimes she heard other people's babble below her and from them she learnt a great deal. But more often she heard the grumbling, growling and moaning of a curious being on the other side of her wall. She had become accustomed to its snaps and groans. There was a rhythm to them; the growls raised and lowered, culminating in the clunk of jaws closing. The creature could not be malevolent, she reflected, as she often heard people conversing with it. This, she realised, was how people travelled up and down the tower.
Every day Sleepy-Head cleaned the house from top to bottom, not having the courage to stand-up to Wide-Awake who would appear suddenly at the same time in the evening and inspect her efforts. No matter how hard Sleepy-Head grinded, by the next morning her labour would always be undone and the house as dirty as ever. One day, she waited until just fifteen minutes before her mother was due to arrive home before beginning her chores: She frantically embarked on her cleaning. Wide-Awake arrived to find Sleepy-Head beetroot-red in the face and soiled with dust. Removing her coat, Wide-Awake scuttled a finger along the mantle-piece.
Sleepy Head faked a long, wide-mouthed-eye-rolling yawn and exclaimed, ‘Oh, Mother! I certainly have been working hard in your absence, I’m just about ready to fall asleep upright!
Wide-Awake exhaled sharply and began to scrutinise the inside of the oven. She stood up straight and looking around the rest of the room announced, ‘Why, I have never seen the place so clean! You must have worked yourself nearly to the death doing all this.’
She kissed her daughter’s cheek, which sent a chill down Sleepy-Head’s back, and stroked her hair with a skeletal finger, smiling all the while. ‘Would you like to stay up and eat with me or are you going straight to bed?’
‘Oh, to bed, to bed,’ said Sleepy-Head, ‘and sleep well, Mother!’
Without changing out of her sooty clothes, Sleepy-Head wriggled under the bed-clothes and lay with her mouth covered, suppressing her delighted giggles. She tried to adjust her eyes to the darkness.
From the lights that danced before her a figure seemed to emerge dressed in white and then fell away like an ember. Beyond the wall she heard the comforting sound of the creature purring and burping.
Later that night, when she was sure her mother would be asleep, Sleepy-Head crept from the house for the first time ever. She tiptoed down the tunnel and found herself face to face with the creature she had spent so many years listening to through the wall. As if by magic, its jaws began to open with a recognisable clunk. Knowing that she had no choice she stepped quickly inside the creature’s mouth, hugging her arms around herself. Her stomach churned and her skin prickled hot-cold with sweat at the anticipation of what laid below.
Overwhelmed, she sank down and squatted on the sticky floor. She stretched her thin cotton dress tightly over her knees and began to chew furiously on her fingernails.
The descent was painfully slow: she willed to be plummeted to the ground. Then suddenly lights were flickering and the grumbling began to lessen: the creature was resting. Sleepy-Head jolted up from her squatting position, the jaws opened obediently to display a tunnel much like the one that had led from her home. Noticing greasy paper-bags and drinks cartons littering the floor she asserted this was not the same tunnel she had just come from. Uncertain as to the creature’s mood she crept away from its mouth and down the tunnel towards a large window. To her amazement she saw things she had never seen so distinctly before.
She saw vivid green and the carefree blur of children. She could not tell quite how far away they must be but they seemed so much closer than before and she could not wait to embrace it all.
Sleepy-Head thrust open the window with only a small amount of difficulty and with a soaring sense of expectation and elation greater than any she had ever felt or would ever feel again, manoeuvred herself onto the ledge. Fear was far, far away and so she jumped: her arms held out wide as she descended; she felt her dress billow up and flutter at her sides like wings. A man below her looked up at what he thought must be a bird.