Episode 18: Twenty-one
References and resources
The Goon Show is one of my favourite radio programs of all time, if not the favourite, and it’s still a riot. If it was released today as a podcast it would be an absolute hit. Featuring the comic genius of Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, and Harry Secombe, each episode is a barely-held-together piece of hilarious insanity (partly an insight into the mind of Spike, who created it). The episode I mention in my intro is the first one I ever listened to: Lurgi Strikes Britain.
Chasing Charlie is a disturbing but compelling (and relatable, alas) story of how vile conman Charlie cheats women out of their money and dignity, and how a gutsy, smart PI, Julia, tracks him down. Listen on Apple Podcasts.
Remember ELIZA? Well, ChatGPT is like ELIZA’s great-great-great grandchild. Highly evolved, and with answers that don’t just reflect back what you just said. And the results have everyone talking – and reacting: Buzzfeed fired 180 staff when it decided to use ChatGPT to write content instead of real live human beings. If you haven’t had a play with ChatGPT yet, check it out.
This episode’s stories
Those Aren’t Pillows by Matty
He Saved My Life by Peter
Bedtime Stories by Mercedes
Something Iffy by Lainie
The last time we had a conversation in the bedroom by Anonymous
Little Jerk by Ed
How to Be Good in Bed by Edie
Lingerie and Layering by Tom
First things first. I acknowledge the Traditional Owners and Custodians of the lands on which I live, work, and record Pillow Talking, the Bunurong and Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. I recognise their connection to and care of this land, and thank them for the space I share with my family. I pay my respects to Elders past, present and still to come, and extend that respect to all First Nations people who are listening.
Please keep in mind that Pillow Talking contains adult themes and sometimes strong language, so use your discretion for where and how you listen, and who you listen with.
Close the door and dim the lights. Let’s talk. I’m Violeta Balhas and this is Season 2, Episode 18 of Pillow Talking – Stories about the stories we tell each other when there’s no one listening. In this episode, TWENTY-ONE.
Hello, and welcome to the 1%! 1 per cent? And this is episode 18? But it’s called 21? What the heck’s going on?
Well, as they used to say on the Goon Show, “Sit down and let me tell you a tale”.
Get any group of podcasters in a room, or even a podcasting sub-Reddit, and the talk invariably turns to our challenges and woes:
How do I get listeners?
My platform is crap.
Finding guests is hard.
Do I really need to edit? Editing takes so long! And I don’t know how to do it!
I hate marketing on social media. Bloody algorithms!
The podcasting field is so crowded – how can a newbie get traction?
And so on.
The subtext of all of this is that, surprise surprise, podcasting takes actual time and effort.
This isn’t altogether a surprise to people with a creative background – creatives know that there’s very little in the creative realm that doesn’t take time and/or effort if it’s going to see light of day outside your own room, whether that room is a writing room, painting room, music room, craft room, podcasting room, whatever room.
Still, it’s a long haul, and it takes serious commitment. Which I’ve learned firsthand. Keeping my hand on the wheel of the two-door compact that is Pillow Talking has taken serious white-knuckling through the potholes of the first season. Shane’s illness, moving out of our home of 15 years, COVID, long work hours, and just the day-to-day. There are brilliant podcasts that started off at the same time Pillow Talking did that are now gone, or on hiatus indefinitely – heartbreaking. Of course, if you have convinction in what you’re doing you remember why you started, why it’s important, and keep on doing the do, but then you remember that your podcast is one of 2 million podcasts out there.
But. That brings us back to those numbers.
Jake McNeill, from the Creative Hackers consultancy, said this:
“There are 2 million podcasts.
90% of podcasts don’t get past episode 3. That’s 1.8 million who quit.
Of the 200,000 left, 90% will quit after 20 episodes. That’s another 180,000 gone.
To be in the top 1% of podcasts in the world you only need to publish 21 episodes of your podcast.”
[Sigh] Thanks, Jake.
This is how I started 2023: with the idea that success wasn’t in crawling up to the top or even quarter of the way up a mountain of 2 million, but in being one of 20,000 podcasters who didn’t quit.
I loved that idea so much that it made me go back and count how many episodes I’ve released. Not just the season episodes, which we know is 18, but the bonuses as well. And guess how many there are? Yep. 21.
21 eps down, making Pillow Talking one of the 1 percent.
It’s worth celebrating, and seeing this is the start of a new year, I thought, what better way to celebrate than with some of my favourite stories from the last 21 episodes?
Now… I don’t want you to think that this is a cop-out episode. When I sat down to list my favourite stories, and also the ones I knew were your favourites, the ones I narrowed it down to would have given me an episode 5 hours long. So I had to trim it, and trim it, and trim it. It’s taken weeks. I procrastinated like a pro. I’d look at it for five minutes with a glassy look in my eyes and then get up to go to the kitchen for yet another cup of tea. I stress-ate my way through chips, sunflower seeds, and the last of the Christmas panettone. And when I finalised the list and realised that I’d probably change my mind about it the next day, I felt like flinging myself out the window because I was just so sick of myself at that point. We’re on a single story so I couldn’t seriously hurt myself, but still – it’d sting.
In other words, it was hard. And although this list includes a few stories that are absolutely not-negotiable, it omits a whole bunch that I wish could be there, including some of the stories from this season, which I absolutely adore, like Toulouse, in episode 13, and Asleep in Oak Park, in Episode 16. I’ve narrated 72 stories, and for this episode I’m only narrating 8. I don’t want to chuck any more percentages at you – but you can see that’s not very many.
Is 21 a landmark birthday in your part of the world? Over here it is, even though voting and being able to drink alcohol legally happen at 18. But 21 is still a deal. When you turn 21, you feel like you’ve arrived. But a decade or so down the track you realise that the arrival was just a stopover. Your brain was still developing and still had a way to go before it settled. There was a bunch of stuff you thought you knew a lot about, but life has taught you you didn’t know as much as you thought.
Likewise, this 21st episode is a lovely landmark, but it’s more of a symbolic one. Pillow Talking has a long way to go, and so have I. Thank you for joining me so far. I hope we can go the rest of the way together.
So let’s get started, shall we? The format for this episode is a little different but you know the drill.
Ssh. Let’s listen.
The first story is actually two stories. Or two sides of the same story. When this one was published, I was absolutely inundated with DMs on social media, text messages from friends. Maybe it was the times, or maybe it was just the story, and the people in it. Even though the pillow talkers weren’t in love per se, this is a love story in the truest sense.
From Episode Three, Kissy Boys, it’s: Those Aren’t Pillows and He Saved My Life.
Everyone has a special coronavirus story, and this is mine. It’s weird and wonderful and I can only tell it from my point of view although I’m hoping, and actually working on, my fellow pillow talker telling his side.
Peter is my housemate. I’ve known him for a long time. We went to high school together and although we weren’t close, we had several classes together and were mates. When I came out as gay, it wasn’t any kind of a deal to him, even though it’s a pretty hazardous thing even in this day and age in the country town we’re from. Years later he told me about the guys he’d “touched up a bit” when he heard them making fun of me behind my back.
We ended up going to the same uni, and as luck would have it, in rooms next to each other in the Halls of Residence. That’s when we got close. We were both country boys, didn’t know anyone, and we were a taste of the familiar. But it was more than that because the more we got to know each other it felt like we were twins separated at birth. After a year we decided to pool our resources and move out of the Halls of Residence into our own place. And that’s where we’ve been ever since. Other flatmates and live-in girlfriends and boyfriends have come and gone but we always stayed.
When the Stage 4 coronavirus restrictions hit Melbourne, it was during one of those periods when it was just Pete and me. If you haven’t lived through Stage 4, I have to tell you: it’s brutal. We weren’t allowed to have anyone over, we weren’t allowed to go outside a 5km radius, there was a 9pm curfew, and we could only go outside to get exercise for an hour a day. And this went for almost three months. Pete, a serial monogamist, was between girlfriends and my fears of coronavirus were way bigger than any desire I had for a hookup. We weren’t allowed to travel into regional Victoria to see our families, and I missed my mum’s and my sister’s birthdays. Peter missed being there for the birth of his first nephew. It was rough.
We still got along, and most of the time were OK with each other, but a pall descended on our house. We were depressed. Despite having each other, we were lonely. We were craving family and other friends, other kinds of connection. It wasn’t long ago but just remembering it makes me feel a little sick inside. I’m sure we were all traumatised in some way.
So this is the backdrop to the thing that happened, which is that one night while I was sound asleep, I woke up to the unmistakable feeling of someone getting in bed next to me. It was the middle of the night and I groggy from sleep so there was this surreal feeling to it. I froze. Without turning around, I knew it was Peter. I waited. Nothing happened. I could tell from his breathing that he wasn’t asleep, and he could probably tell from mine that I wasn’t, either. And I didn’t know what to say or do, because this isn’t where the story turns and I confess that it was the moment I’ve been dreaming about all my life and it turns into an iso version of Brokeback Mountain. We were like brothers.
So we just lay there, not saying or doing anything, and eventually the feeling in the bed changed and so did Peter’s breathing. He was asleep. And after a few more minutes wondering what the fuck, I was asleep too. When I woke up in the morning, he was gone, and when I saw him in the kitchen for breakfast it was the same as usual, so I started thinking maybe I’d imagined the whole thing, or it was one of those dreams that you swear is real. And although I had a niggly feeling I shrugged it off.
A couple of nights later, it happened again, same as before, except he was a little closer to me on the bed. Not spooning, but close. And I was awake for an hour trying to work out whether I was awake or dreaming. If I was awake, how could I tell I was awake? The circular thinking drove me insane. In the morning, he was the same nonchalant Peter and what was I doing on my iPhone while drinking my coffee? Googling how to wake yourself up from a dream or nightmare.
Sure enough, a few nights later it happened again. And I did what Google said to do and tried wiggling a finger or toe. The article had said it would be difficult because of dream paralysis, but even the slightest movement I could manage would wake me up. Well, there I am in bed and I can move not just a finger but my entire bloody arm. I could have flagged down a cab from two blocks away in the middle of Sydney during Mardi Gras. It was obvious I was awake.
Also obvious to me was that this was happening because Peter needed human contact, and this was how he felt he could have it. Of course, I needed it too. Once I worked it out, it was a massive relief, and I welcomed it. But in the morning it was always the same: he was gone by the time I woke up, and in the kitchen it was as if it had never happened.
But then one day I got a text really early in the morning, when Peter was still in bed with me. It would have been 5.30am. It was one of those texts you dread, that begin with everything is all right, BUT. I read it and went, “Oh, fuck.” And as if it was the most natural thing in the world Pete goes, “What’s wrong?” I told him that my dad went to hospital with a suspected heart attack, and suddenly we’re having a conversation like we always do, but this time we’re in bed together.
That changed the routine completely. A couple of times a week he’d come into my bed and we’d literally sleep together, and then wake up together, and we’d each grab our phones and read up on the news and remark to each other about the coronavirus numbers or the latest deranged thing Trump had done or said. It was easy, it was comfortable, it was comforting, and just so nice. We really needed it.
However, we never talked about it outside the bedroom and I just thought he’d be ashamed of it, or at least really embarrassed. There are forces at work here beyond us. As a gay man I could have talked about this with my gay male friends, but it would have been completely different for him, a straight man, telling his straight male friends. Even for someone as chill as Pete it wouldn’t be easy.
So I didn’t think about it.
We were so happy when restrictions lifted a few weeks ago. Still couldn’t go to regional Victoria to see our families but we could meet friends in the park – 10 of us in total. So we decided to have a Candy with Candy party. We wanted something to make us feel like kids again – give us that feeling of comfort and fun and being carefree. We found a park that has a building with a nice smooth wall and someone had a battery-operated projector. We took folding chairs and an obscene amount of chocolate and lollies and we all settled down to watch a John Candy double feature: Uncle Buck and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles – our favourites. It was fantastic. So much fun. And we hadn’t seen each other in months so of course we talked all through the movies, stopping down and then for our favourite scenes, like Uncle Buck’s giant hotcake and MacAuley Culkin’s “I’m a kid, that’s my job.”
And then one of the best bits in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. The “Those aren’t pillows!” scene, where John Candy and Steve Martin wake up spooning after sleeping in the same bed all night. And everyone’s laughing when Peter puts his arm around me and goes, “Just like us!” and gives me a sideways squeeze. Only a couple of our friends noticed, and they kind of looked at us, but Pete just shrugged and grinned, and went back to watching the movie.
It was just a few seconds, but it was like the world stopped for me. I nearly burst into tears. That little moment meant everything. Knowing that he wasn’t ashamed, that he would openly talk about it, meant even more than those nights when it felt like we were all each other had in the whole wide world.
My friend and flatmate has been nagging at me to write my side of the story for a few weeks. I’ve decided to give in, although I won’t give him the satisfaction of knowing that. He’ll find out when he hears this. I don’t know whether he used his own name when he submitted his story, so I’ll just call him M.
I don’t think there’s that much to tell, but inside my head I can hear M’s voice: “Don’t write it like one of your work emails!”
My work emails are famously straightforward. Bullet points where possible and if they’re longer than 100 words, it’s time to call a meeting. But I’ll do more than 100 for this, although it’s hard.
M. loves to spin a yarn. He’s good at it. He would have given lots of detail. So I can’t think of what to add about the time that we started “sleeping together”. But one thing he wouldn’t cover is what was going through my mind when I decided to get into bed with him, because I never told him.
Stage 4 was really tough. I did my best to keep busy and go for a run every day and eat healthy, but in my mind I was suffering. I can’t say whether I was lonely, depressed or anxious. Maybe it was some of these things, or none, or all of them at once. What I can tell you is that one night I was in my room and I felt like I was falling into a dark, bottomless pit where no light could get in. Like there were Dementors in the room with me. I couldn’t feel hope in the future. It was more than a belief: in that state, I KNEW I would never feel happy and carefree again. I started to wonder what was the point.
Somehow, and I know it’ll sound like I’m bullshitting, I heard a little voice in my head telling me I needed to be with someone. That I must not be alone. And I batted the voice away like a fly. But it kept coming back.
So I started thinking. Who? There was literally NO ONE to be with. Was it literally, though? Because M. was just a few doors away.
No, no, no.
Because it’s weird.
Because it just is.
M. and I have been mates for 15 years. Best friends for a big part. I trust him. One time I came back from Bali with the worst Bali belly and he washed my bed sheets. You don’t need the details, you just need to know he washed my bed sheets when I had Bali Belly.
So I just did it. Went down the hallway and got into bed with him. In his room, the pit didn’t seem so deep and dark, and I slept properly for the first time in weeks. One of our friends recently asked me if I was scared when I got into bed with M. I was. But not for me, for him. I didn’t ask for an invitation. I was in his personal space. That’s a huge deal and he had every right to kick me out.
By the way, I do know the subtext of my friend’s question. She didn’t say it, but it was “Was I scared M. would think I was making a move.” I told her to grow up.
I know I’m supposed to be telling a story about our pillow talk but I don’t remember anything in particular except for one time when M. got me talking about movies I loved when I was little. We were watching clips on our phones and showing them to each other and it was great. It started a Friday night tradition of watching one of these movies. Jumanji, Space Jam, John Hughes stuff. It’s where we got the idea for our John Candy party because both of us love him.
Those Friday nights feeling like a kid again kept the Dementors away. They probably saved my life. But more than probably, I know for a fact that M. saved my life by letting me have those nights in his room.
I’ve never told him this but I will say it now because I know he’ll be listening. He loves getting the last word in but this time it’s my turn. I deserve it because of all the nagging.
I love you, buddy.
I received this story round about the same time that I was listening to the podcast Chasing Charlie, and it sent me down a rabbit hole of romance scams. Being the victim of any kind of scam is traumatising, and I’ve learned that there are now counsellors and psychologists who specialise in the effects of being scammed. But romance scams are a breed apart, and this story, told with such candour and vulnerability, really helped drive home what’s at stake.
From Episode 9, That… Is Ill-advised, it’s: Bedtime Stories.
People look at a woman my age and think, no wonder. But they don’t realise that social media isn’t new anymore; and the Internet has been around for decades now. For a professional woman like me, I know my way around a computer – it’s not like I’m on Facebook because my kids signed me up so that I could see pictures of the grandkiddies. And I’m an intelligent woman who’s been around the block once or twice, and thought I could take care of myself. But the whole thing started so slowly, and I know this sounds strange, so reasonably.
I was a member of a women’s travel group on Facebook. Travel is my passion, and I do it in style – the kids always joke I’m spending their inheritance but they’re happy for me to be enjoying life, particularly after their stepfather, my loved and much-missed husband, died. And that’s where I met Asha. She always replied to my posts and she and I shared the same sense of humour, a love for the same places and cultures, and we both loved to eat our way around the world and recreate those flavours in our kitches. When she asked to be my friend, I didn’t think twice about it. She was an engaged online friend and I liked her.
One day I got a friend request from someone called Gregory. I don’t accept friend requests from strangers but I saw that he was a friend of Asha’s so I sent her a message.
“Gregory’s wonderful. A gem of a man,” her reply said. “Going through a bit of a rough time and looking for new friends. He probably fell in love with your wit on one of my posts – and of course your gorgeous face. He’s only human! LOL”
Gregory was an engaged friend on Facebook too. When I posted a heartfelt tribute to Mary Tyler-Moore on my page after she died, as the poster girl for us professional women of a certain age, he sent me a private message.
“My sister is mourning Mary too. If she was as influential as for you as she was for her, I’m thinking of you and sending you a big virtual bear hug.”
And so began our messaging. My friends told me to be careful. You don’t know him, and there are so many scammers nowadays. But I didn’t listen. If he’d messaged me every hour, or started sweet-talking me straight away, my alarm bells would have gone off. But he didn’t – he wasn’t doing anything that my friends said a scammer does. Still, he messaged often – three or four times a day. One night at about 7.00pm I get a message written all in upper case:
“HELP! A FRIEND OF MINE WENT FISHING AND BROUGHT ME A LIVE LOBSTER TO COOK! NOW IT’S SITTING IN THE SINK LOOKING ACCUSINGLY AT ME AND I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO!”
I typed out an answer but the situation sounded desperate.
“Can I give you a ring? Or you ring me?” he asked.
I agreed. And so began our relationship on the phone.
He seemed like a wonderful man. Interesting. And interested. He really wanted to know all about me, and was such a good listener. He told me about himself, cautiously. Bits at a time, but always more. It took him a while to open up but eventually he revealed the reason why he had such few friends on Facebook: he’d spent the last 20 years working as a senior in the Sydney offices of a well-known, multinational accounting firm, and that’s where most of his friends were. He’d lived for his work, he said – it had cost him his marriage and a proper relationship with his children, and now he knew what was important and wouldn’t make the same mistake again. Now he didn’t work there anymore and those friends had gone by the wayside, so he also now knew what real friendship meant. He said this with profound sadness and bitterness. It was intriguing. But he wouldn’t tell me more.
We started talking a few times a day. I’d get a phone call from him at the market in the afternoon, “I’ve bought myself three juicy lamb chops. What are you having for dinner?” “Have you gone for a walk today? You know the chiropractor said it’s good for you.” And eventually at night, “I’ve been thinking of you.”
It got intense. I would go to bed when he did, and he’d ring me and deep and soft would say, “Want a bedtime story?” It was erotic and very, very emotional. I told him all kinds of things about myself – things I’d never imagined myself sharing with anyone else ever again. I trusted him.
And he trusted me, he said, which is why one night he told me his story: he had uncovered something very, very dodgy at work and had blown the whistle. But instead of being grateful to him and protecting him, the executives closed ranks. They found some excuse to let him go. And spread enough rumours about him to make him persona non grata among all his colleagues – his so-called work friends. And he was certain that he’d been blacklisted, because he hadn’t even been able to get a callback, let alone an interview for the jobs he’d applied for.
And this was the clincher:
“But I don’t care,” he told me. “I’m going to go back where I came from and start working for a small firm, or just strike out on my own. Even if I lose the house, I’d rather have my integrity.”
I know it’s crazy. I know we’d never met in real life. But I fell in love with him. His hard-won wisdom of the important things in life, his principles, and of course the friendship and the late-night conversations that set me on fire. And you know what else is crazy? He never asked for money. I offered it to him.
He refused. Absolutely not, he said. I was wonderful, and he’d be fine. Besides, he said, he cared about me, and it was crazy, but he thought he was falling for me, and he couldn’t jeopardise the only good thing in his life.
I couldn’t believe it. My heart was pounding. I told him I thought I was falling in love too. And that I would never hold this over him.
“Let me help you. Just enough to tide you over for a couple of months, until you get a job.”
He sighed and sniffed. Was he crying? Thank you, he said, thank you. How much would it take to keep the wolf at bay for two months? $10,000. It wasn’t nothing, but I knew it was a fraction of what he’d been earning, and I was happy to give it to him. No – lend it to him. He insisted it was a loan.
From that point on, I was all in. We were in love! We started making plans for me to come up to Sydney to visit. He said he was getting the spare room ready: there was plenty of room in his house and he didn’t want me to feel pressured in any way. But I knew what would happen – what I wanted to happen. I couldn’t wait.
Here’s where God or Providence or sheer dumb luck stepped in. I was contacted by a woman called Denise, who wanted to ask me questions about Asha. I was a bit wary, but I didn’t have anything to hide, so I told her we were friends who’d met online. She asked me if involved with a friend of hers called Michael, or Jonathan. And here’s where the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I told her no, but there was a Gregory. She said, “We need to talk”.
You can probably guess what happened next. Our stories were different, but they bore the same hallmarks: he was thoughtful, a good listener, understanding, a good friend, and also told very sensuous “bedtime stories”. It was emotional on every single level. He never asked for money – in each of the three cases, we had offered it to him. Each scenario for him needing money was different, though, and that made me question what Denise was saying.
But Denise was firm.
“Have a think about what you told him about yourself. And have a think about what Asha knows about you,” she said.
Gregory knew I was passionate about staff advocacy, I’d had roles in this in my career before and there are few things that make me angrier than staff not getting a fair go. He knew that what I missed about my husband was the talking and companionship. And Asha, well, she knew enough about me to feed to Gregory – or whatever his name was – the key information. She knew about my lifestyle, and could have easily guessed that I’m very comfortable in life; she knew my interests, my sense of humour and the things I responded to.
Denise’s “Michael” had a story that perfectly matched what she was about perfectly, as did the other woman’s “Jonathan”.
I couldn’t believe it. I mean I did, I just didn’t want to. I couldn’t believe the sophistication of it. Getting to know us so profoundly so that we would fall so hard, and know which buttons to push. And the patience of it. Even though it was still relatively early days, it had been a couple of months, not the fast-and-furious whirlwind that romance scammers are known for. This was slow, steady, and deliberate.
Denise had a hunch: that they were many of us, all at once, providing a steady stream of money, so they were able to take their time. Which is why she was contacting Asha’s most recent friends from the last few months privately and discreetly, one at a time. I was the third victim she’d found.
Denise asked me to continue with Gregory as I had been – she didn’t want them to catch on. I had no idea how I could. I felt sick. Absolutely devastated. I needed to talk to my closest friend about it, the one who would understand and make it all better… but that person was Gregory. How pathetic is that? I told him I had a sudden work trip – it was an emergency and I’d be very busy fixing it, but I’d get in touch when I got back.
I actually went and stayed in a hotel. I didn’t know any more that Gregory was actually in Sydney, but he knew where I lived (he’d sent me flowers), and I imagined him checking and discovering that I was home. I was an absolute mess. Obsessively checking Facebook, checking my phone for messages from Denise. And suddenly, a couple of days later, Asha’s Facebook account was gone – just like that.
I rang Denise. Someone must have told them, she said. But she’d found three more women involved with this man.
We had a group chat. The six of us varied in age, cultural background, and socioeconomic status; one of us was actually married; one was on a pension, one was quite wealthy. The smallest amount one of us had given him was $5,000; the largest, $60,000 (and no – it wasn’t the wealthy woman who had given him this amount). He’d gone missing on four of us at that stage.
We couldn’t work out what we had in common. Not at first. But we started talking often – it was like group therapy. Eventually we worked it out: we were all strong, intelligent, independent women.
So why had none of us had said anything to Asha about this? Why had most of us not told our families? Why it taken Denise to shake us out of this trance? All of us, posting comments on Asha’s Facebook wall and living our lives, never mentioning even a brass razoo of what we’d given this man, even after he’d disappeared from the lives of four of us, in a great conspiracy of silence.
Well, here’s a bedtime story for you – a scary one, this time, because I bet it flies in the face of what you believe, possibly about yourself. That when a strong, intelligent, independent woman is cheated she doesn’t turn her fury and disappointment on the cheater; he’s a liar and a cheat but it’s not his character she’s judging. Oh, no. She turns all that inward. The fury and disappointment are all aimed at herself. She should have known better: how could she be so stupid, so blind? She can’t speak, because the shame clutches her throat and takes away her voice. And when the cheater gets away with it scot-free, he is getting away with a lot more than what you think.
There’s a term in Spanish that’s used a lot – “verguenza ajena”. It’s when you feel embarrassed, but for someone else. Vicarious embarrassment. The kind of thing that used to make me want to drawl under the coffee table when watching an episode of Extras, or 3 Non-blondes. And that was this story. Which, as much as it gave me severe verguenza ajena, I had to see through to the end – and loved it.
From Episode 8, The Third Person, it’s: Something Iffy.
Short story, that makes me laugh and get creeped out in roughly equal amounts.
I was on a first-time Zoe date with a gorgeous woman who invited me home. Let’s call her Zoe too because I’ve forgotten her name and I always think of her as Zoe because it was a Zoe date. Anyway, I’d definitely got lucky, or so I thought. She had a nice apartment, and when we got inside a dog came to the door to greet her – it was one of those tiny ugly dogs that look like a wind-up toy someone left too close to the radiator. When we got to the bedroom the dog followed and took up its position in a tiny pink-and-gold sofa in the corner of the room, and that was fine. I call myself a crazy cat lady and totally get the whole pets-having-run-of-the-house thing.
Zoe and I get into it and it was nice. It was afterwards that things got weird. She calls the dog over (it was something like Miffy, or Biffy, or Tiffy – something iffy) and it jumps up onto the bed in a single bound like a circus flea. Also fine. Like I said, my cats have run of the house and whether or not they’re allowed on the bed they end up there anyway – they’re cats. She’s holding the dog and starts talking to it – baby talk.
Not so fine. I like women. I don’t like girls. The whole baby doll thing is a huge turn-off to me, but OK. It’s not so bad. But then she starts replying to herself in baby talk as the dog. You know the kind of thing – kind of bouncing or jiggling the dog to the rhythm of what she’s saying. And then, as the dog talking baby talk, starts trying to have a conversation with me. In the third person.
“Woz dat nice for Lainie? Would Lainie like a dwink?”
It was weird.
Not just that, but I didn’t know who I was supposed to look at. The woman, or the dog?
I don’t remember what I did – probably both. Kind of laughed it off, trying to be, you know, “fun”.
But it kept going. And I was getting more and more creeped out, but trying to keep a smile on my face. Eventually the woman-as-dog-talking-baby-talk made a proposition for us to have sex again, and that was it. I made some excuse and got the hell out of Dodge.
When I was a block away I rang the friends who knew about the date, told them what happened and we laughed until we cried. To this day it’s impossible to be out with them and not hear “Would Lainie like a dwink?” at least once.
Sometimes a story says volumes without saying much at all. This is one of them. As simple as it was, it was haunting, and I think about it, and these pillow talkers, often.
From Episode 11, Ritual, it’s: The last time we had a conversation in the bedroom.
We used to pillow talk, at the beginning. Sometimes before or after lovemaking, sometimes not. But time replaced it with routine. Night in, night out, the little actions that punctuate our methodical journey to the end of the day became absorbing enough to blot out the more unpredictable night-time talk.
This is how it goes.
One of us turns off the telly.
I do a walk around the house with a basket we keep for the purpose, picking up toys that have been left underfoot or in unlikely places like the laundry or the dog bed. Quietly I slip into the children’s room and soundlessly empty the basket there. I check that the children are all right, that they’re properly covered and neither freezing from being uncovered, nor roasting from being completely buried under the duvet. I do this even though I know she’ll be in later to do the same.
She takes the detritus from the lounge room to the kitchen. These are the post-dinner, post-children’s bedtime things that didn’t make it into the dishwasher. Sometimes wine glasses, but usually two tea mugs and a small plate that always holds a precise number of biscuits. Four if it’s Hob Nobs or Digestives (my favourite), or two if it’s caramel wafers (hers). She washes these by hand and sets them on the rack to drain.
I let the dog out into the back garden for a final wee and a sniff. From the back door, I survey it all, make sure nothing is amiss, then check the gate and make sure it’s locked, although I know I locked it earlier. I don’t know why I do these things. I have done them since I was 12, and now as then, they make me feel calm.
I can hear her upstairs, padding from one of the children’s beds to the other. Every now and then I’ll hear a murmur from one of them as her kiss rouses them from their sleep.
I brush my teeth, get into my pyjamas, and get into bed.
In our bathroom she “performs” her night-time skin routine. Back at the beginning this used to just involve removing her makeup with a baby wipe, but these days it involves eight steps. Expensive steps, she often complains, but won’t hear of it when I tell her that it doesn’t matter: we’re all getting older and you can’t keep wrinkles at bay forever.
Then in bed, I read. Sometimes I re-read: I do like to revisit an old, favourite book now and then.
Next to me on her phone, she checks her work Outlook for emails and meetings the next day. Then she checks her social media, sometimes chuckling at something she scrolls past. Then usually she’ll say goodnight and go to sleep. I’ll finish my chapter and turn out the light.
Not this night. This night she doesn’t say goodnight. I finish my chapter and she’s still sitting up. She says she wants to talk. For the first time in years, she wants to have a conversation in the bedroom.
So we talk.
And that’s the last time we have a conversation in the bedroom.
They grow up so fast, don’t they? That’s the saying. Well, you know, sometimes when you’re in the thick of parenting, it can’t happen soon enough. Sometimes. Even in my empty nest I remember those days like they were yesterday. And I remember the creativity you needed to get through them. Even if the creativity wasn’t exactly expert-approved. Again – sometimes. Like for this dad, who found salvation for his pillow talk in a small screen.
From Episode 8, The Third Person, it’s: Little Jerk
Three years in, my wife doesn’t regret choosing to be a stay-at-home mom, but she does miss certain things. The biggest, or the one she mentions most often, is adult conversation. I’m like, “Honey, I’m an adult, and I’m right here” but my words are like the traffic outside – she’s learned to tune them out. And I get it. Our adult conversation isn’t the kind of adult conversation we used to have, where we talked Big Ideas and the state of the world and our chequered pasts and important stuff like which three covers of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah should the world keep before removing all the rest from all existing media and the collective consciousness? These days, we talk a lot of crap. I mean literally. Specifically, our son’s. It’s amazing how much of a couple’s time a child’s bodily secretions can take up.
It’s all that little jerk’s fault.
Don’t get me wrong. I love him and all, but he’s still a little jerk and I think on some level he gets this and would flip me the bird if his fine motor skills were up to it.
Here’s an example. Sunday, the one day his mom and I can really sleep in – there’s no work, there’s no activities, no insane breakfast get-togethers (worst idea ever, by the way). He shuffles into our room like a miniature version of The Dude, climbs into bed between us, cuddles up to his mom and goes back to sleep. I don’t even get a look-in here. Totally ignored. So you see what I mean. If he wants to keep sleeping, why not do it in his own room? And if he wants to cuddle his mom, why not go to the other side of the bed so we can both get at her? Like I said: little jerk.
It occurred to me that the minute we get up and start our day, that’s when life as responsible adults with a kid hits us full force and the opportunity to connect as a couple and have that adult conversation my wife is craving gets smashed to itty bitty pieces. The one time we could have is that Sunday morning in bed when there’s no rush to get up. If it wasn’t for that little jerk.
I had an idea.
My wife took really seriously the whole idea of limiting screen time for our kid. If not having screen time for the first 18 months of life is good, she figured two years would be better. And even after that she’s been super, super strict – no more than half an hour a day. She didn’t introduce him to the iPad until a few months ago, and oh my God – you’d think he was seeing sunshine or eating ice cream for the first time. He’s obsessed with the thing. Or he would be, except that he’s only allowed on it for half an hour at a time just once or twice a week. But that was all about to change, and so was our bizarre Sunday love triangle.
Sunday morning I woke up early. I crept quietly out of our room and into our son’s room. He was just waking up.
“Hey, buddy,” I said softly, and gave him a morning hug. And the iPad.
I went back to bed. My wife kept sleeping. She eventually woke up with a bit of a start, asking where our son was. I told her he was still sleeping, and yes, of course I’d checked in on him. Wink wink.
So we talked, in soft voices. I’d actually brushed up on some of those conversation-starter questions that are peddled to people who are desperate to throw successful dinner parties, whatever the hell those are – it’s been so long since I’ve been one I can’t remember. I felt a bit stupid and I was sure she’d see through my ruse, but I acted as casual as I could and asked her one of these questions and before too long we were talking. Like – really talking. And she was laughing and thinking about stuff and it was just great. Just us. For like an hour, and then she said something like, “I could use a coffee” and I told her I’d get it. So I got up, got the coffee, got the iPad off the kid, who miraculously didn’t scream for it, got the kid, and came back into the bedroom with coffee and kid saying, “Look who I found?” and then we had some nice time together in bed, the three of us.
I’ve kept this new routine for about two months now. My wife doesn’t suspect a thing. And when I bring my son to the bedroom with me, he has magically not mentioned the iPad – not even once. Maybe he’s not such a little jerk after all. Maybe he’s a genius. Just like his old man.
At the time I’m recording this, ChatGPT has taken the world by storm. It’s the end of human writers! They all say. Well. As I’ve always said, to my writing students, on my live talks on the Wisdom app, to anyone who will listen, all the stories had already been told. But we’ll keep on telling them, and they’ll remain fresh, because what differentiates the stories is voice. Voice is individual. It can make the same archetypal story sound completely new. And it is.
I actually asked ChatGPT to write me a Pillow Talking story. I said, “Tell me a story about a couple in the bedroom, who are discussing a book they have read.”
Here’s the story ChatGPT came up with:
Once upon a time, there was a couple, John and Jane, who were lying in bed together. They had just finished reading a book, and were discussing it.
“I can’t believe how much this book made me think,” said John. “The way the author portrayed the characters and their struggles really resonated with me.”
“I know what you mean,” said Jane. “I felt like I was right there with them, experiencing everything they were going through.”
They talked for hours about the book, discussing the themes, the plot, and the characters. They both agreed that it was one of the most thought-provoking books they had ever read.
As they talked, they realized that the book had brought them even closer together. They had never had such a deep and meaningful conversation before.
“I’m so glad we read this book together,” said Jane.
“Me too,” said John. “I can’t wait to find our next book to read and discuss.”
They fell asleep that night feeling more connected than ever before. The end.
Another word for voice, in the writing and storytelling sense, is personality. And I don’t think ChatGPT’s stories will be winning anyone over with their voice, or personality, anytime soon. But voice is what won me over with the following story. Not much happens, but the pillow talker’s personality pulled me in from the first few sentences. And I could absolutely relate when her husband talked about missing the characters in the book they were reading. Something I’m unlikely to feel about John and Jane.
From Episode 4, Reading in Bed, it’s: How To Be Good, In Bed.
My husband has two habits I directly attribute to his being sent to boarding school at a tender age: he gets chatty at bedtime, and doesn’t like it when I ignore him.
There are many horrors he’s told me about of his time away at school and one doesn’t like to think too often about the effect that combination of parental neglect and institutional abuse has on a daily basis on supposedly functional adults – including too many in Britain’s halls of power. But of his few fond memories one that stands out is of the furious, furtive whispered conversations after lights out, attacks of muffled giggles being particularly dangerous for the real attacks it could provoke from the masters or seniors.
My childhood, on the other hand, was completely different. Bedtime for me, an only child, was a solitary, peaceful and thoroughly welcome affair, accompanied as I always was by a book. I always took myself to bed because come nighttime, there was nothing that could keep me from my bed and my book. My parents were ever-present and affectionate in their batty, somewhat absent-minded way, and where they were neglectful was in the more sober parental duties, for example celebrating rather than berating if at the breakfast table on a schoolday I confessed I’d been up until 5am because I just had to finish my latest book.
So you can see how this would have been a problem when he and I got married. We went to bed and if there were no other activities forthcoming, I wanted to read, he wanted to chat. And he wasn’t a reader, or at least not the kind of reader I am.
Out of all the things I imagined would cause trouble in our relationship, out of all the advice my mother could have given me this was completely unexpected. (More unexpected than when she tried to give me the facts of life talk before I got married at 28, bless.) Not to mention flummoxing because there were no books or agony aunts that could help with this particular dilemma. It was such a trivial thing on the outside but on the inside of both our bedroom and psyches it was positively gargantuan.
My friends were no help. I couldn’t just tell my husband to naff off like they suggested. It wasn’t just a boarding school habit, but how he acts when he feels like I’m ignoring him. He doesn’t sulk or get cross; just gets like an increasingly hyperactive puppy, dancing around me figuratively speaking, until I pay attention. This complex is courtesy of both of his parents but his mother in particular and although it’s not a conversation we’ve ever had of course it’s blatantly clear to me, the person who knows him best. My eventual compromise, which I never told him about, was this: bring bedtime forward by half an hour, have chat time, and then when he’s asleep, have reading time.
This worked well until I started reading How to Be Good by Nick Hornby. From the first page it was so compelling and hilarious that I was finding it positively torturous to put down. From one day to the next, postponing reading time in favour of chat time became unacceptable. My thinking was that being a good wife who had always put reading after her husband’s needs for years would stand me in good stead. It didn’t. Particularly since the novel is so bloody funny. I’d be laughing uproariously while simultaneously having to field incisive questions from my husband like, “Good book, is it?” and “Funny, is it?”
After a few nights of this I was quite desperate. In that desperate state – possibly unconsciously once again thinking of his parents and the bedtime stories they’d never read to him – I asked him if he’d like me to read him a bit. To my surprise, he agreed. And loved it. And asked me to keep going. Before long both of us were laughing. Although I was a few chapters in at that stage I started from the beginning, and for the length of this novel I instituted a temporary ritual where instead of having chat time together/reading time alone, I read out loud. There were nights when we literally had tears streaming down our cheeks. Nights when in what was surely a flashback for him we had to stifle our guffaws so we wouldn’t wake the children, who have their own ways of attacking parents when they’re in bed. It was wonderful and, I thought, a singular event.
The night after we finished the book, however, my husband was uncharacteristically quiet in bed. He was sitting up, and staring into the middle distance. I asked him what the matter was.
“I miss them,” he replied.
“Who?” I asked.
“Them. The people in the story.”
He meant the characters in How to Be Good. I could have hollered for joy, because then I knew he understood, he understood my relationship with reading, which is more than a relationship with the words but with the worlds inside a book. He even called the characters “people”! I fell in love with him all over again.
So I started a new ritual, where I read to us in bed. It’s not every night, because we still keep our old chat time together/reading time alone ritual, but say every three or four books I’ll pick something that I think the two of us might like, and we’ll do that instead. It wasn’t even a compromise – it’s a new thing entirely that both of us enjoy. And in a way that is, as our daughter would say, so meta, it would be a thrill to have this little story of ours read out loud back to us, maybe even in bed.
The last story is another one that prompted a rash of DMs and text messages. Once again it’s about love, and the simple ways we can show that love, and I know it’s a cliché, but damn – isn’t that what life should be all about?
From Episode 6, Red, it’s: Lingerie and Layering
I went to bed with a woman in sexy red lingerie, and woke up with a woman in a ratty 80s T-shirt.
It wasn’t the first time I stayed over at Beth’s place – it was a while later, when we were exclusive and on our way to falling in love.
“What’s this?” I asked, holding the edge of a sleeve and giving her a “Please expline?” look. The fabric was a muted pink, but you could see that once upon a time it would have been hot pink. In the middle was an abstract design featuring geometric shapes in what were once bright blue, lime green, and purple.
“It was my mum’s,” she said simply.
I already knew about her mum, who died young after a horrible illness and left a young family. But we hadn’t talked talked about it yet. Although Beth was a girl when she died, she was the oldest and still old enough to remember her well. She would have seen her mum wasting away, and suffering. But I didn’t know this for sure yet. I was waiting for Beth to tell me when she was ready, but I figured this thing of changing from sexy red lingerie into her mum’s T-shirt while I was asleep was something important.
I took her in my arms and we lay there. And then I noticed something else.
“And the perfume? It’s not your usual. It’s sort of… old for you.”
“It’s my mum’s too.”
She told me the story of the T-shirt. It features in her favourite memories and photos, of the last great family holiday at Great Keppel Island, before her mum got sick. One tough day, missing her mum after she died, she dug out the T-shirt and took it to bed. It still smelt of her mum’s perfume – of her, before she got sick. But it wasn’t long before the T-shirt stopped smelling like her mum and started smelling like Beth, which is when she went back to her parents’ room and swiped her mum’s perfume.
Squirting it onto the T-shirt was OK, but too strong. She kept trying. No matter how little perfume she used it didn’t quite smell right. Then in one of her Dolly magazines she read about something called “layering”, which isn’t anything to do with wearing lots of clothes one on top of the other or something to do with cake, but something you do with perfume. If there’s a fragrance you love, you don’t just use it as a perfume: you use the soap of that fragrance in the shower first, then when you get out of the shower you use the lotion, and then you put on the perfume. It’s a whole production. But still not quite the production of looking after her mum’s T-shirt, which she perfected over the years.
Here’s what Beth does: she takes soap of this fragrance, and grates it with a special grater she keeps for the purpose. Then she dissolves these soap gratings in warm water and uses it to wash the T-shirt by hand. After she’s rinsed it, she puts it in the clothes dryer with a Chux cloth she’s sprayed with the perfume. Once it’s dried, it’s smells just right.
“That’s weird, isn’t it?” she asked.
“I don’t know what’s weird or normal,” I replied. “Both my parents are still alive.”
“So do you mind?”
“No,” I said, and I meant it.
And so it went on, even after I moved in. But eventually I noticed she was wearing it less. Then the times that she wasn’t wearing it became more than the times she did, and then she stopped altogether.
I was fine either way, and didn’t ask her about it. But one day she caught the worst flu – I’ve never seen anyone so sick. And I’d never seen her sick before so how she acted was new to me. She was all Ms Independent and insisted she didn’t need looking after, and she was determined that she was going to take some cold and flu tabs and go to work. There was no ordering her to bed – you don’t order Beth to do anything. But I knew what to do: I told her that going to work was unfair to the rest of the team. That did the job, and she went to bed, grumbling all the way. But of course she fell asleep straight away and while she slept, I knew what else to do. I snuck in and found the T-shirt. And the soap. And the perfume. And I grated the soap by hand, washed that T-shirt, and put it in the dryer with a cloth that I sprayed with the perfume first.
I took it, still warm from the dryer, to the bedroom where she was asleep.
“Here. Put this on.”
The room was dark and I think she smelt it before she saw it. She immediately grabbed me in this death hug, and I think there were tears but it could have just been that she was extra snotty because of her cold. But it didn’t matter because she put the T-shirt on, and also let me look after her until she was better.
Layers are for cakes, for clothes when you’re going out on a cold day, for fragrance, and I think also for grief, and for the little things that caring couples do for each other that build love on love day after day.
Pillow Talking is produced, narrated and edited by me, Violeta Balhas, from stories by you, the listeners and pillow talkers. Music is by Radovan Jekic. Additional production and mastering is by the amazing Marc Teamaker.
A special, heartfelt, moist-eyed thank you to all the pillow talkers who allowed me to use their stories once again. They are, in alphabetical order:
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And that’s it for tonight!
On the next episode of Pillow Talking, I Remember. Stories that are all about the memories, whether they’re floating around the bedroom now, or reminding us of bedroom conversations past.
Until then, please take care of yourselves. And each other.