On this day, the perforated white lines of the highway gleam with new vigour, their conspiracy to fade into the tarmac thwarted overnight. On this day, the cars are bright and well-behaved as Christmas baubles. On this day, a misplaced witch’s hat tumbles into the path of traffic, is removed by a kind citizen in a blue Renault, is squashed minutes later by a white Honda. On this day, this day only, Ray’s Outdoors offers half-price lanterns, binoculars, and multipurpose picnic tableware. On this day, thirty-six people walk into Bedshed, and, in hypnotic unison, at a moment agreed upon in another life, they each select a bed, remove their shoes, and slide beneath the covers. On this day, thirty-six people lay themselves to rest.
They are young and old, plain and beautiful. Some of them have partners. Some of them have pets. Some of them are vegetarians, blood donors, or born in the month of March. Some of them have not changed their internet banking passwords in over thirty days. Today they have gathered in one place and have one important thing in common.
On this day, the land contracts in the heat of its guilt. The space between objects becomes thinner, only slightly, but just enough. People brush against each other with irregular frequency; they misjudge the gap between themselves and passing bodies, in aisles and thoroughfares all over the city. In these unwanted moments they must look at each other, eye to eye, close enough to recognise the other’s tenuous veins, trembling highways of blood. On this day, things seem just that little bit more precious, just that little bit more worthy of note.
At first, the Bedshed employees follow the manager’s recommended protocol for customers who become too comfortable in the display models. This is not an unusual occurrence in Bedshed – nobody is, after all, better in the bedroom. The initial script is, ‘How do you like this bed, Sir/Madam?’ It is to be spoken authoritatively yet tactfully. The employee is not advised to engage in physical contact with the customer. That’s the next stage. If the customer fails to respond, the recommended action is a gentle hand laid on the customer’s shoulder or upper arm. The script is, ‘Excuse me, Sir/Madam, is everything okay?’
The Bedshed employees manage to advance all the way to the Call Security stage of the protocol, but by now it becomes apparent that the protocol was not designed for an event of this scale. The thirty-six sleepers are immovable. The store manager calls for paramedics, and they arrive in their blue uniforms to quest beneath eyelids, decipher murmuring pulses. Soon their protocols, too, will fail.
Outside, the sun is bright as a camera flash; the cars multiply, coalesce in a mass of reflective surfaces, burnished interfaces to alternate realities. On this day, the vinyl banners of special offers beat exuberantly in the wind, bearing complex promises distilled to their simplest versions. The eyelets glisten, wink. An Audio-Visual Specialist from JB Hi-Fi hurries out to the road to prop up an insufficiently weighted yellow sign that has, again, toppled over.
On this day, all the cash registers in the city decide to ring up every purchase for $0.01 less than the retail price.
The air is twitching with signals. Next-of-kin notifications, calls for back-up. The media are arriving at Bedshed, but citizen journalists, as always, have beaten them to the scene. They document and disseminate. Their efficiency is profound. They, too, are distilling a complex message to its simplest version.
On this day, the commercial business parks shimmer with benevolence, poised like gods or giants. They oversee the road, the cars, the humans bristling with mortality. Even the Bedshed building, enfolded in a giant lilac doona with tasteful striations, seems all the more lifelike and cosy.
A red Nissan Patrol pivots out of a car wash and onto the highway, dripping and gleaming, like a shirtless celebrity in Vanity Fair.
And now, the relatives of the thirty-six sleepers begin to arrive at Bedshed. They are, each of them, discouragingly uninsightful. They can’t imagine why their loved ones have installed themselves here. They were not privy to any plans of a mass slumber party at Bedshed. The relatives are adamant that this behaviour is highly uncharacteristic of their loved ones. They don’t know any of the other sleepers or gathered relatives, and they insist that their sleeping loved ones don’t know them either. The discussion devolves into a feedback loop of aggressive questions. Everyone else presumes that the other parties know more than they do.
This is all especially frustrating for the store manager. It is very difficult to appear understanding when you really don’t understand what is happening at all.
Some of the relatives, watching their sleeping loved ones, are bitten by a strange anger. They slap cheeks and arms; they shake shoulders; they shout full names and commands into unyielding faces. Some of them even clap, just a single loud clap in front of their loved one’s eyes, as if they will snap alight like a sound-activated lamp. Paramedics will feel awkward and unhappy watching all of this, but will only intervene to restrain those relatives that try to drag their loved one out of the bed. The sleepers are not to be moved, the paramedics intone. No one knows what will happen.
Outside, on the highway, each passenger who notices the trampled witch’s hat identifies with it completely.
Attention turns to the particular beds that the sleepers have chosen. Perhaps there is some coded message to be found. For the sleepers have not necessarily chosen a bed that maximises their comfort. A tall woman is squashed into a child’s dinosaur-shaped bed. A man with an orthopaedic back brace rests on the Cloud Nine Classic Touch, apparently ignoring the superior Feel-the-Difference Advanced Support model one aisle over. But no secret message comes forth.
Instead, there is something about the randomness of the sleepers’ choices that the store manager finds vaguely offensive. As if it doesn’t matter whether a bed is the bed for you. As if the beds are indistinguishable.
On this day, all the devices in the city synchronise a glitch, a single hanging pixel in the same position of every screen, just to keep things interesting.
At McDonald’s, new crew members relieve the lunchtime personnel of their duties. The queues inflate with customers, oblivious to the changeover. They crane their necks to study the menu. An enterprising manager sends an envoy of crew members to Bedshed, carrying complimentary fries and refreshments, and now everybody must scrape together some gratitude: the paramedics, the police detectives, the Bedshed staff, the relatives, the media. They sit in the car park so that the store won’t fill up with the smell of brown paper bags spotted with grease.
On this day, the late afternoon is more of an ambience than an event. The day remains just as hot, just as contracted. It is only the light that changes, the shade of the sky, apricot and mellow. The cars on the highway slowly curl into sepia, and the coloured traffic bulbs seize their moment, shining like glazed cherries.
Slowly, the paramedics and the police begin to thin their numbers. The media nominate watchers for their vigils and then they, too, start to recede. The relatives ripple with alarm. Is the event becoming less important? Is everyone giving up? Who is going to solve this crisis? Is this a crisis? What did they do to deserve this? Because they don’t deserve this. They are good citizens. They pay their taxes. They give way to buses. They do not steal their neighbours’ unsecured wifi. They do not line up in the express checkout lane if they have more than twelve items. It is fitting, even poignant, that each of the relatives experiences this moment of anger and heartbreak with very much the same synchronicity as the sleepers laid themselves to rest. They are one in indignation. They are good people, damn it.
The store manager takes some time out in the children’s section of the store. It is a more serene place here, with only a few sleepers and their hovering relatives. Semiotically, too, it is serene: unlike their adult counterparts, these tiny models are not as feverishly endowed with trademarked comfort technology and elaborate psycho-demographic targeting. The children’s beds have simple Christian names. Chelsea. Samantha. Damian. Harley.
Outside, the streetlights are coming into their own. They shine with an earnestness that this highway has never seen before. On this day, the transition to night-time is more affecting for those who watch it happen. There is nothing private about the sky; it doesn’t hold back. Tonight, with pain, clarity, and conviction, it gives the performance of its career.
The relatives insist on sleeping at Bedshed too. They want to be there when their loved ones wake up. The store manager says okay, but you’re not allowed to move any of the beds. We still have to do business tomorrow. This is a business, you know. So the relatives each select a bed closest to their loved one, remove their shoes, and slide beneath the covers. The manager turns off the lights. Outside, on the highway, the perforated white lines divide the road into the suggested segments, but the lanes are optional; it’s all optional. That’s what perforated lines mean, when you distil their message down to its simplest version. Everything is optional, held together by fragile consensus. Everything is hardly anything at all.
The relatives settle in. It’s as if they’re preparing for a transatlantic flight. They adjust their mattresses. They buckle away their possessions in bedside drawers and built-in storage compartments. They hand their rubbish to the store manager. They remain still in the passing beam of the security guard’s flashlight. They assume sleeping positions. If they are well-situated, they take up their loved one’s hand, softly, in their own. There are so many people breathing in this place. They are not sure where they are going. They shut their eyes. They wait and they wait and they wait. They trust that the bed they have chosen will go the distance – that it will transport them, through their small, flickering dreams – and deliver them, to a brand new morning, in comfort, safety, and style.