Pillow Talk

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Published: 30 March 2024.

by Gerry Gaffney

Line drawing of a neural network

They’d been married for seven years when Denise began talking in her sleep.

Or maybe, thought Arthur, she’s talked in her sleep before and I didn’t hear her because I was asleep. Seems unlikely, though, she’s a good sleeper. Always envied that, deep in the waters of, whatever it is. Lethe.

Her speech had the cadence and intonation of normal language, but it was meaningless.

“Dlln,” she said, “Five oh end arbel. Enay?”


“You were talking in your sleep last night.”

“Oh. Really? What did I say?”

“I don’t know. Seemed like nonsense, couldn’t make head nor tail of it.”

“I don’t remember doing it.”

“Do you often talk in your sleep?”

“You’d be better placed to answer that,” she laughed.
“I never heard you. Have you done it before?”

“Not as far as I know.”

“What were you dreaming about?”

“Don’t remember.”


A few days later Denise talked in her sleep again. Over the following weeks it became more frequent until it seemed that during most nights she was having conversations in her dreams.


“It’s called somniloquy,” he told her.


“Talking in your sleep.”

“Oh. From the Latin.”

“Yeah, I guess so. Probably.”

“Does it bother you?”

“No… It wakes me up sometimes but that’s okay.”


Denise and Arthur were busy people. With full-time jobs, a dog, a mortgage and the usual social commitments, they didn’t often get to spend all that much time together. Arthur commented that Denise conversed more with her dream partner than she did with him.


One night a name and even perhaps a phrase emerged during Denise’s sleep-talking. “Shane,” Arthur thought he heard her say, “We can’t.”

The rest was nonsense.

Over their usual hurried breakfast, Arthur asked, “Who’s Shane?”

“Shane Who?”

“I don’t know, you were talking to him in your sleep.”

“Must be my secret lover,” she said, laughing.

“Hmm,” he grunted.


One Friday night Arthur recorded Denise’s sleep-speech.

He played it back to her in the morning. She half-listened, seeming distracted.

“Does it make sense?” he asked.


“Doesn’t ring any bells about your dreams?”

“Nope. Does it bother you that much, my sleep-talking? I can try taking a sleeping pill or something, or you can get earplugs.”

“No, it’s okay.”

“Or you can sleep in the spare room.”


Over the course of the next few weeks, Arthur used a voice-activated app to record Denise’s words. He felt a little embarrassed and didn’t tell Denise what he was doing. He turned the recordings into a single audio file, almost half-an-hour in all. He thought he could make out the name “Shane” in quite a few instances. There were other repeated words or phrases, but as far as he could tell they were nonsense.


At work in the staff room one lunchtime, he played part of the recording for some of his colleagues.

They thought it was funny, and tried to offer interpretations for him.

“Most of it isn’t English words,” someone pointed out.

“She spent a few years in Estonia as a teenager.”

“Have you played this to her? Maybe she can pick up some Estonian words.”


“Have you told her about this recording?”

“Well, no.”

“That’s a bit unethical, don’t you think? My husband would be furious if I played his dream-speech to a bunch of his creepy workmates.”

“Does he talk in his sleep?”


“I’ll tell you what you should do,” said Patrick, their IT support guy. “Run it through an AI for an interpretation. But to be honest, it sounds to me like you’re getting a bit obsessed.”


Using an AI seemed like a good idea to Arthur so one evening he uploaded the full clip.

“Can you transcribe this voice recording?” he asked the AI.

The AI’s response was instantaneous.

It displayed its interpretation of Denise’s speech, but most of it was flagged as unintelligible. The AI added that “Much of the content does not appear to be in English. Consider whether to specify other possible languages.”

“Some of it might be in Estonian. Try again.”

The AI did so but there was only a marginal improvement.


Arthur reported his lack of progress to Patrick.

“You know,” said Patrick, “AIs are all very context-dependent. Did you tell it that it was sleep-talk?”


“Tell it that. Also, get it to cross-reference against her other content.”

“What do you mean other content?”

Patrick hesitated.

“Is your wife okay with you doing all this?”

“Of course,” lied Arthur.

“Give it a link to whatever socials she’s on, professional publications, sporting memberships, anything that can give the AI context for what you want it to figure out. You could also tell it to work on the assumption that the language is not English or Estonian or any known language. Then it’ll start doing some fancy analysis, Rosetta Stone and whatnot, looking for the most common words or terms or whatever linguists divide stuff up into. You know, most frequent phrases and where they occur in relation to others.

“Actually it’s a really interesting project. Let me know how you go.”

“I will.”

“Is your wife as interested as much as you are?”

“No, she’s happy for me to run with it.”


In fact Denise was increasingly annoyed about what she called Arthur’s obsession and constant comments about her sleep-talking. She refused his request to keep a dream journal.

One day she repeated her suggestion of sleeping in separate rooms.

Actually, thought Arthur, it sounded more a threat than a suggestion. He decided not to mention sleep-talking again to her.


As Patrick had suggested he gave the AI pointers to various social platforms that Denise used, her LinkedIn profile, a Facebook group and some other forums she used. He also asked it to look out for references to someone called Shane.

“Describe the nature of the conversation,” he told it.

This time there seemed to be a very small delay before the AI responded.

“The transcript is my best effort based on an incomplete source. The identifiable languages are English, Estonian and French, but mostly a proto-language that is not documented. I have extrapolated its meaning based on vernacular probability.”

The transcription that followed still had big gaps where the input was unintelligible. However, it now contained whole sentences. Many were humdrum:

“Where is the supermarket?”

“I need a hair appointment.”

“The gym timetable is online.”

One sentence, repeated in two different places, caught his particular attention:

“Shane, can we get together again?”


Arthur wanted to know who Shane was. He tried to think about nights when he and Denise had been apart. His work and hers took them away from each other from time to time. But he couldn’t pin anything down. For days he mulled it over before finally confronting her.


She was not amused. She said he’d recorded her without her consent, given an AI access to her data without her consent and made an accusation based on the assumption its interpretation was authoritative.

“You’ve given an AI a strong bias and a leading question, and then you take its output as gospel? How can you be so… so… fucking stupid?”

He wouldn’t back down, and started to quiz her about nights she’d been away.

“How about the Design conference in Wellington?”

“Jesus Christ, Arthur,” she said.


Six months later Denise was having coffee with her good friend Marianne.

“You seem relaxed. Have you finally got rid of Arthur?”

“Yeah. That was an undertaking. I should probably have done it years ago.”

“You didn’t know he was going to turn out to try to be controlling. And crazy.”

She paused and sighed. “It’s a pity. He always seemed so nice.”

Denise laughed. “You can have him.”

“Oh God, no! Do you think he would have turned out like this if it hadn't been for that sleep-talking business?”

“Who knows? I don’t know if there’s any point looking for root causes. If I hadn’t been talking in my sleep it wouldn’t have happened. If Arthur wasn’t so insecure and jealous it wouldn’t have happened. If that guy at work hadn’t suggested using an AI it wouldn’t have happened. But something else would have happened.

“I’d have had to get rid of him eventually I think.” She sipped her coffee.

“And are you getting together with your secret lover?”

“Don’t you start gaslighting me! You know there is no secret lover, although Arthur had me half-convinced there must be.”

“Actually,” said Marianne, I want to introduce you to someone I think you might really like. A furniture-maker, very easy-going. Handsome, blonde, single. Interested?”

“Well I’m not after anything serious but sure, why not? What’s his name?”

“Shane,” said Marianne, “believe it or not.”


Copyright © Gerry Gaffney 2024