Pillow talk

The column He can't kid himself any more, Howard Jacobson is no longer young. And the ear that has been a good friend for 50 years is turning traitor in the night
  • @Independent
I am older than I thought. Yesterday a street corner evangelist handing out booklets entitled It's Never Too Late refused to let me have one. It's not as though he could have missed me in the universal panic to grab a copy. You know what people do when they see an evangelist: they remember urgent business and increase their pace. Not me, though. If It's Never Too Late I want to hear about it. Yesterday I even put my hand out. But he wasn't interested. He took one look and decided I didn't merit the investment. Never Too Late for some, but definitely Too Late for me.

The sad thing is, I fancied I was managing to stave off old age. I play at being old, of course, pausing to look at retirement villages when I'm out driving, whistling at ladies in their eighties, sending off faxes to the organising committee of the International Year of the Older Person wondering why we can't have two years, given how long everything takes us. But it's only bravado. I can afford to pretend I'm old because in fact I'm young.

Change that "can" to "could". It's Too Late to go on pretending. I'm the real thing.

It's not only the indifference of the evangelist that has persuaded me of this. I've been noticing strange changes in my behaviour recently. I become self-conscious in the company of anybody not yet 40. I try not to be too friendly in case they think I'm currying favour. Sad bastard. Nor to be too unfriendly in case they think I'm cantankerous and bitter. Rancid old fart. If I listen too eagerly to what they say they'll think I'm trying to relive my youth through them. If I feign boredom with their prattle - which isn't all that feigned - they'll think my interest in the living is wavering and my every second thought is of the grave.

I don't know how to be old, that's the problem. Nobody teaches you. When it comes to being young you get all the assistance in the world. Everybody's giving you advice. Not like this, like that. Not like that, like this. But when you're old the people who could help you are all gone. That's the bit you're not prepared for - that you're going to have to do it unaided, by instinct alone. But what if there is no instinct for being old? What if old age is precisely the death of instinct? Where does that leave you?

Suddenly, for example, I don't know where to put my ear when I'm trying to get to sleep. How can this be? I've had an ear - I've had two ears, come to that, both perfectly good, both even rather shapely I've been told - for over half a century. Hitler was alive when I first got an ear. The Chinese were not yet Communists. That's how far back we go, my ear and I. And not once in that time have I had to wonder where to put it. You lie down, you close your eyes, your ear accommodates itself to you, and you fall asleep. Or you do when you're young. Ask a young person to list his top 10 personal inconveniences and I bet his ear won't be among them. Become old, though, and your ear is an unmanageable appendage, a living hell, on some nights so cruel a torment that you would gladly get into a clinch with Mike Tyson and let him chew on it to his heart's content.

No matter how you negotiate your pillows your ear is now forever in your way - big, hot, swollen, slippery, as impossible to sleep on as a pea if you happen to be a princess. Even supposing you can get the temperature down with ice, it won't lie straight, but folds double, bending at the corners like a parcel of finger-food at a book launch, a crispy vol-au-vent of crushed gristle and cartilage. Or it scrunches up under you, on an inexorable roll, like a lady's nightie on a sticky summer's night. Does that date me? A nightie? OK, so it dates me. I am old, I am old. I remember nighties. I remember pyjama parties, come to that. And I cannot find anywhere to hide from my ear.

Be thankful Proust never lived long enough to know the excruciations of an ageing ear. How many more pages would that have added to the great adventure of nodding off?

Notice that I am not describing dysfunction. If only. I believe I could live with the discomfort of my ear if it were a failing organ. What do I want to hear anyway? Natalie Imbruglia? But from all that should accompany old age I now authorise you to remove another consolation: there is to be no respite from the ear as far as hearing goes either. Let's say you do succeed in getting it to lie flat and still for half an hour - then what? It starts picking up the commotion inside your pillow. Listen! What was that? The goose feathers squeaking. And that? The man-made fibres rubbing up against one another, in synthetic pain. Once upon a time, when the world was young, the only question as to pillows was how many and how soft. Now you have to be certain you have silent bedding.

That's where I was going when the evangelist refused me - to buy new pillows. "Never mind how I am," I told the assistant. "Never mind how my day has been, never mind how my day will be, never mind whether I collect Air Miles, never mind the duration of your guarantee - I won't be alive that long anyway - just sell me a fucking pillow that's got nothing to say for itself."

I watched her make the sign of the nutcase to another assistant. No doubt they get a lot of them in a bedding department. Sad bastards. Rancid old farts.

I gave her the sign of the ear back. Your time will come, sweetheart. Your time will come