‘Sleep It Off, Lady’ by Jean Rhys

’You know Letty, I’ve been thinking a great about death lately…’

Old Age…

Another late story from another great writer unafraid to look old age squarely in the face, ‘Sleep It Off, Lady’ opens with its elderly protagonist, Miss Verney, confessing to her friend, Letty, that her thoughts have started to take a morbid turn. 

Her friend tells her that this is “quite natural. We old people are rather like children, we live in the present as a rule. A merciful dispensation of providence.” But Letty is voicing these platitudinous assurances from the relative comfort of being “only sixty-three and might, with any luck, see many a summer” whereas Miss Verney, being “well over seventy, could hardly hope for anything of the sort.”

And so we follow Miss Verney into her final months (then weeks, then days) as trivialities grow to all-consuming tribulations: her unwanted garden shed, her fear of the rat she has seen in the garden, her loneliness and frustration at having to rely increasingly on others as her health continues to fail. Until, finally, one morning she wakes up “feeling very well and very happy. Also she was not at all certain where she was. She lay luxuriating in the feeling of renewed youth, renewed health and slowly recognized the various pieces of furniture.

‘Of course,’ she thought when she drew the curtains. ‘What a funny place to end up.’

First published in The New Review. Collected in Sleep It Off Lady,André Deutsch 1976, and The Collected Short Stories, Penguin 1987

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