Picturing the fence is the easy part and the first few sheep are relatively obliging too. Of course, it’s never as smooth as in the comic strips – they don’t leap lithely over the fence, they clamber over it awkwardly, sometimes emitting Maria Sharapova grunts, and it’s always disturbing when the underside of their bellies scrapes the top of the partition. But at least they do what they're supposed to; they make it to the other side and then disappear from view at the left of the screen. The trouble begins with the next lot, which plain refuse to jump or climb. One of them makes a half-hearted attempt, falls back on the side whence it came, and gives up immediately and fatalistically. This becomes the cue for the rest to give up as well, and then they just linger about looking stupid, like sheep will. It upsets my sense of equilibrium to see so many sheep on one side of the fence (and because more keep entering the frame, they eventually pile up one on top of the other) and none at all on the other.
Because the fence-jumping is clearly not working out, I home in on the sheep in the crowded part of the picture and study their individual features. Naturally most of them are versions of the sheep I have personally known or known of. The solicitous matron sheep in Babe. The dumb things I saw up close at a sheepdog-training demonstration in Scotland a couple of years ago. A neighbour’s pet ewe, which she kept in her garden, and which appeared on that TV show hosted by Maneka Gandhi. Sheep are not creatures with great personality, you can dwell on their faces only so long, and so my thoughts soon drift to include other manifestations like sikandari raan at Karim’s and those delicious haggis balls you get in Edinburgh.
Somewhere in my mind is the dim awareness that dwelling this hard on the sheep defeats the purpose; that the correct way to lull myself to sleep is to think abstract-sheep thoughts, not specific-sheep thoughts. But by now I’m too far gone. Other references, fragments of sentences crowd my mind. The lambs were screaming, intones a hollow-voiced Clarice Starling. Meek and obedient you follow the leader/down well-trodden corridors into the valley of steel, sings David Gilmour. Who fleeced Mary’s little lamb? One morning I awoke and the sheep was gone, blubbers the Sheep Professor in Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase. It was then that I understood what it means to be ‘sheepless’. The sheep goes away leaving only an idea.
And next thing I know it’s 3 AM, and it’s like Chandler says in that Friends episode, “I can’t sleep because I’m thinking there are only four hours left before I have to get up. And then I can’t sleep because I’m thinking there are only three hours left. And then…”
Does the sheep-counting technique work for anyone else? Or am I trying too hard? If there are better ways (apart from drinking yourself silly every night), please do let me know.