Despite living next to one of the busiest roads through town for more than a year, my flat was always very quiet and tranquil, sort of like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, but without the difficulty getting in and where instead of a man who changes out of his suit and into a pair of red underpants in order to gain superhuman strength, there resides a man who changes into a suit to feel better about himself. The only sounds that would typically be heard in my place were the faint ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece or the siren of an ambulance in full throttle, and nobody can really be too annoyed by the inevitable passing of time.
It could have been any regular Monday night when the silence was broken. I had gone through my usual nightly routine of cooking dinner followed by doing the washing up, which always takes longer than the actual eating of the meal, no matter how few utensils are used. I spent some time thinking about my shirt and tie combinations for the rest of the week whilst browsing Netflix, before I finally settled on going to bed. I had started reading Bill Bryson’s book The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid the night before, having rented it from the library the previous Friday, and I was hopeful of finishing the first chapter. Ordinarily I am capable of reading more than 29 pages in a sitting, but I had become distracted by the return date sheet on the first page when I noticed that I was the first person to have taken the book out in more than a year. I tried to keep reading on but every time it was the same thing: I went back to the loose sheet and examined the dates again and again. People had been renting the book fairly consistently for more than fifteen years, and then no-one had for a year. All I could think about was why they had stopped reading this particular book, and question why there was a tomato sauce thumbprint on page 21.
I was in the bathroom brushing my teeth whilst trying to avoid making eye contact with my reflection in the mirror when I heard it for the first time. The chirping sound was dim and distant to begin with, as though a small bird had somehow made it into my impenetrable fortress and was trying to alert me that it wanted out. I ignored it and carried on readying myself for bed, though the sound was becoming louder and more pronounced. Soon I became aware that the chirping was originating from just over my left shoulder outside the bathroom, on the ceiling, inside the smoke detector.
The battery in my smoke alarm shared some of the properties of the book I had been trying to read, in that it was difficult to get into and it hadn’t been taken out in more than a year, since before I had moved into the flat. I had never even considered the possibility that the battery might one day need changing, and of course, it was in keeping with the way of life that the thing would be nearing the end of its lifespan at eleven o’clock on a Monday night, when I didn’t have a spare battery and all of the shops had closed for the night. I finished getting ready for bed against the backdrop of a chorus of battery chirping, resigned to the fact that it was going to be this way until the morning.
From my bed the sound of the battery wasn’t so incessant when it was muffled behind a closed door, almost sounding like a bird which has woken up too early and sings shyly, because it still wants to sing for the love of it and demands to be heard, but it is careful not to waken everything else so early. With the battery still crowing in the hallway, I nestled my head into my pillow and tried with all of my might to ignore it and get some sleep. Gradually over the next hour the sound of the beeping was becoming louder and more irritating. The beeps were coming faster and closer together, making them increasingly difficult to forget about. Before long I was lying in my frustrated sheets thinking about the beep test we were forced to undertake in around the first or second year of high school. In this physical examination, teenagers were expected to run between two points which were marked by cars, with the object being that you had to reach the car before a pre-recorded beep sounded. You would continue to run back and forth between the cars, with the beeps blaring closer together each time, until you could no longer run. At the time I wasn’t sure if they were testing our physical endurance or our resistance to torture, and even now I still can’t decide.
I was probably curled into the fetal position as the beeps continued to sound in the hallway and the dread I had felt years earlier returned to me. On the day I took part in the beep test it was a misty and damp morning, in either spring or autumn, they were both the same. I could see myself standing four or five kids from the front, watching these wet, exhausted souls sprint from one car to the other, anxiously knowing that I would have to take my turn soon while secretly hoping for a fire alarm or some other kind of minor emergency. I was reminded of my hairy teenage legs, as hairy as they were when I was thirteen as they are at thirty-five. The beeping continued, growing louder and louder. In my mind I was getting closer to the front of the line. The cars were being brought into view. Everyone in the entire year was about to see me run. Eventually I had had enough and I got out of bed in search of the stepladder. It was a minute after midnight.
With a screwdriver in hand, I scaled to the summit of the stepladder. Even from the very top, the Victorian era ceiling in my flat was difficult to reach, particularly when I was barefoot and in boxer shorts, which has surely been nobody’s attire of choice for household DIY. As I examined the screeching device overhead I noticed an inscription on the cover which advised that it would be in the interest of my safety for me to turn the smoke alarm off at the circuit before attempting to remove the cover. I swivelled 180° on the ladder to the circuit board behind me, which I opened to discover that the smoke alarm was on the same switch as the lights. It seemed like an awkward design quirk, even more so when it left me in complete darkness whilst semi-naked on top of a stepladder at five past midnight with a screwdriver in my hand and a persistent beeping emanating from the smoke alarm.
After a minute or two spent pondering the thoughts of the person who would be responsible for writing up the results of my post mortem should the situation have gone any further awry, I located my phone and used the torch to guide me to the slot at the top of the cover. Amidst a flurry of chipped paint which was falling around me like confetti in a bleak parade, it was becoming clear that the only screwdriver I owned was too big for the slot. By now the battery’s chirp had taken on a childish taunting tone and I was left in a position similar to just about every scenario in my life: hoping for the best. I was feeling hope in the way that I often walk towards a crowd of people who are huddled at a traffic light waiting to cross the road. The cars continue to move past, one after another, and it begins to feel as though ten minutes must have passed. Eventually it becomes obvious that nobody in the original group of pedestrians had pressed the button, and they were all simply hoping that the traffic would stop. The lights at Argyll Square are particularly bad for this phenomenon.
As a last resort I used a kitchen knife, which turned out to be the perfect size for making an entry into the slot. It was one of those knives with a three-inch blade that has no immediately obvious purpose, though in this case it was the ideal tool for removing the cover of a smoke detector. Although the sense of relief and achievement was quite a heady cocktail, it wasn’t until I was back on the ground with the alarm in my hand that it occurred to me that the idea of removing the battery from my smoke detector at night would be like when you are drunk and you think it is a good time to clip your fingernails.
When I thought about it, it stood to reason that if my smoke detector would start beeping at 11pm when I don’t have a replacement battery and nowhere is open, and if the alarm would share the same switch on the circuit as the lights in my flat, and if the only screwdriver I owned would be too big for the job of unclipping the cover, then the night I removed the chirping battery from the alarm would be the night there would be an unexplained fire in my flat.
I decided that I wanted the solitude of sleep more than I feared disaster, and I safely reattached the alarm the next day with a new battery. After that I was sleeping peacefully for the rest of the week, and by the end of it I was even dreaming. In one unconscious scenario, it seemed that I was a part of a group of three people who had joined an indoor running club in Glasgow, along with my friend who specialises in constructing sandwiches and a guy who was short, skinny and geeky in appearance. In the real world I had never met this guy and didn’t even know for sure that he existed, but in my dream he was an excellent runner and easily won our race. During the run I was aware that I was being chastised by my friend for cutting corners around the track in a crude attempt at cheating, and it was this scene that stuck in my mind when I awoke in the morning.
Naturally I wanted to message my friend to tell her that she had appeared in my dream, and naturally she was eager to find out the meaning behind my attempt at cheating to win a race in the dream. According to her internet research, a dream featuring running represents a desire to escape reality, while cheating in a race could be an indication of stress. The response was a lot heavier than my expected reason for the dream, which was that I was still disturbed by the beep test.
In one of those strange twists that life often throws up, such as finding that your smoke alarm and lights share a switch, my friend and I ended up forming a team at a quiz later that evening. The family-friendly quiz was being held to raise funds for a primary seven school trip to Ardentinny, which it turns out is much closer than I thought it was when I was in school wondering how they could afford to take pupils to one of those far off places where the government only ever send people to go to war.
I arrived shortly before the scheduled start time of 7pm, and when it was nearing ten past and I was halfway through my pint of lager, I was beginning to wonder if I could suffer the ultimate indignity of being stood up at a children’s quiz and being forced to compete as a solo participant. She arrived shortly after with the rest of our team, which my friend named The Dream Team. Although I am quite sure that it wasn’t intended as a pun on my nocturnal vision, it was nice to think that it could have been.
The Dream Team went on to triumph over the other nine teams in the quiz, though our win was probably largely owing to the knowledge and sobriety of our ten-year-old team-mates. It felt good to experience success for a change, even after everyone around me was winning bottles of wine or champagne in the raffle while I won two different prizes of bath soap. But more than the victory, it was a relief to know that I hadn’t been subconsciously craving an escape from reality or suffering from stress over a battery, a high school beep test or any personal trauma. It had been a false alarm.