When did you last look under your bed? This question may embarrass those who use the space under their bed to store things for which they can’t otherwise find a place. Odd shoes, empty suitcases, the occasional book: such domestic detritus, covered in the dust of years, lurks under the beds of many of those for whom Marie Kondo, the Japanese tidiness guru, is no more than a name, rather than an ideology. People who store things under their beds rarely bring themselves to take too close a look at what is there.
But some people really do look under their beds, and may do so fairly often. For many of these, the practice of peering nervously under the bed is a hangover from a childhood fear of the monsters known to inhabit such regions. More realistic children, of course, may prefer to check the space under the bed for lions, or other entirely zoologically plausible possibilities.
But whatever the under-bed fauna, in the normal course of events, children grow out of such fears, coming to understand that the likelihood of finding a lion in their particular postcode is slight. Even so, the possibility that there is something there may be sufficient to prolong the period of Unterbettwachsamkeit well into the adult years.
Finding something untoward under one’s bed is, of course, a potentially traumatic experience. There are those who say that it simply doesn’t happen, but it does. Many years ago I had a conversation with former neighbours in Botswana who had given a home to my cat when I left the country after living there for a year. When I revisited Gaborone, I called on them to find out how the cat was doing. He was fine, they said, although he – and they – had recently had a somewhat unsettling experience.
This is what happened. The couple had gone out for dinner and had returned to find that the front door of their house had been forced. They called the police, who searched the house and concluded that the return of the householders had seen off the burglars. My friends then tidied up and in due course retired to their bed. The cat, however, seemed very disturbed and spent some minutes on their bed pacing up and down, extending and retracting his claws. They put this down to feline post-traumatic stress disorder: no cat likes an unannounced intruder.
They switched out the light and were drifting off to sleep when the bed suddenly began to move up and down beneath them. The burglar, who had hidden there when he heard them return, was struggling to escape the weight of the mattress pressing down upon him. He eventually managed – and rushed out of the room into the night. The cat had sensed his presence but had been unable to communicate this to his owners. A dog would have managed, of course, but cats are different.
Having a burglar under one’s bed must be everybody’s perfect nightmare. It is the reason, I suspect, why, when staying in hotels on book tours in the United States, I always look under the bed when I move into a room. In my view that is simple prudence. Ex abundanti cautela more or less sums it up. The Unites States, for all its merits, is not a particularly safe country, and it is perfectly possible that your hotel room may harbour a psychopath. One of these hiding places could well be under the bed, or even one of those walk-in cupboards where they keep the complimentary towelling bathrobe. Violent criminals love those cupboards and the bathrobes they contain.
Of course, I feel vaguely foolish when doing this – who wouldn’t? – but I believe that it is better to be safe than sorry, and to locate any intruder before you turn out the lights. Alfred Hitchcock, I believe, would have understood.
McCarthyite America gave us the expression “reds under beds”, used to describe the paranoid view of those who believed that Hollywood’s studios were riddled with Trotskyites. Trotsky, of course, advocated entryism, and what more obvious form of entryism is there than going into a room and slipping under the bed? Reds under beds is clearly a metaphor, but recent reports have suggested that the metaphor bears more relation to widely encountered practice than one might imagine.
These reports come from hotels where members of the Momentum Group have taken to staying while on political business. Many people are unaware of the fact that many of those in Mr Corbyn’s circle do not sleep on top of the bed when staying in hotels, but sleep under the bed. This, for some reason, is their preference. It is also very considerate of hotel management and staff, as their beds never need fresh sheets and can be let out again within minutes of their departure.
This habit of Momentum members is yet another example of how popular expressions such a reds under beds may in fact be more literal than metaphorical. Metaphor reflects reality as much as it shapes it. But there are limits: those who sleep under the bed as opposed to on top of it, are not necessarily of the left, or, in demotic parlance, red: other reasons may play a part. But one might nonetheless ask: what explains this strange preference of the left for sleeping under the bed? That’s the really interesting question, for an answer to which I suspect we shall have to wait. If you find somebody under your bed, do not engage. Creep out of the room. There are other rooms, other beds – and other metaphors too.