Everyone starts out imaginary. Kids wonder how it would be if they were a parent and they imagine having a kid of their own. Caring for that pretend tiny human plants a seed that grows over the years, wrapped in hope and dreaming, until they make it real. Everyone starts out imaginary.
Not everything alive gets born, though.
Firstly, let me introduce you to the kid. You might like him. I ought to apologize for the decor first, we’re going back to the 1970s and that means a lot of brown and orange. Fabrics, ceramics, the damn stuff is everywhere. Did you people use up all the other colours during the 60s? Anyway, here he comes. Short trousers and excessively sensible shoes mean his knees are continually in a state of repair. Quite a lot of his world is asphalt or concrete and he’s five. No sense of balance. He falls over a lot, mostly over those shoes. Laces, man, who thought those were a good idea for small kids? Not that he cares. At this age he’s a smiling tousle haired enthusiast about everything.
Do you remember being this age? I don’t, obviously, but from what I gather practically everything is interesting and exciting. All the simple things – like grass, and rivers, and rocks, and sunlight – are awesome to be around. The kid here loves all of it. He loves people, too. They talk and he listens. The adults don’t think he is listening, because he’s five, but he is. Absorbing information and processing away like a…well, let’s be honest, like a rapidly developing neurological system that is trying to make sense of the world around it. The other day he figured out that parts of one multiplication table give you parts of a different multiplication table and the discovery made him so happy he tried to tell as many people as he could find. His sister, a couple of years younger than him, wasn’t impressed but she’s still at the stage of being amazed by her own toes. No one older than him was impressed either, because they already knew, but it started something in that developing mind. He thinks knowing stuff and finding stuff out is the best thing ever.
So there he is. A little shock of dark blond hair in a pair of shorts running around watching the world, completely fascinated to be here and laughing a lot. Of course that’s going to change. I wouldn’t be here if he was going to stay like this. Shall we skip forward?
A year later and he’s in primary school. Poor kid is an August baby, so he’s the youngest of the class and it turns out he’s got an immune system that loves to learn just as much as his brain does, which is great if immune systems learned by reading or being told stories. However, this one seems to love lassoing the nearest strain of something infectious and dragging it off for interrogation, which has unfortunate effects for the kid. He catches everything going. Particularly tonsillitis. You ever catch tonsillitis? It sucks. Your throat becomes dry and scratchy and swells up, while at the same time it becomes painful to swallow. If you drink to ease the dryness, it hurts. If you don’t drink or eat you get sicker, so you have to do both. It’s a recipe for being miserable. Now, many kids today would relish the thought of a week off school on the couch in front of the TV, but welcome to the special hell of 1970s Britain. Only three TV channels and they don’t broadcast before noon.
Actually, that’s not strictly true. Before noon, there’s TV For Schools. This is made up of programs which are specifically crammed full of educational content, largely science based with some history stuff thrown in for variety, most of it pitched at kids who are 12 to 16, with some first and second year college material too. So, because Mum has her hands full with the smaller kid and because he’s a well behaved child who does what adults tell him, he can be left on his own with Lego and TV For Schools making noise in the background. Unfortunately, you put a hungry brain down in front of this stuff and don’t give it a sufficient quantity of Lego, it learns what the TV is trying to teach it.
What do you mean “Why is this bad?”
OK, I’ll show you. Our kid’s name is Charlie. Watch your head on the narrative as we shift perspective.
The playground was bounded on three sides by the vast open field where you were allowed to go at lunch times but not at break. Charlie sat on a concrete planter staring at the field. His knees were still healing from a recent fall, the fascinating scabs still too raw to be picked off, so he was avoiding the usual running around slapping people type of games. He was wondering, in a distracted way, why the field was only available at lunch times and curious as to whether grass needed to rest. Close by, a small knot of kids from the year above him were having a serious discussion about babies.
“My sister,” said the largest, an unfashionably short haired boy in an equally unfashionable purple knitted tank top, “said you can get a baby if you have a boyfriend.”
His peers thought about this.
“But I’ve got a boyfriend,” said a girl with glasses and an Alice band in her dark hair, “and I don’t have a baby. Do you have to do something special to get one? Is there a shop?”
Purple tank top shook his head.
“No. My sister says the boyfriend puts his finger somewhere hairy.”
Charlie turned and looked at the little group. They were getting it wrong.
“My dad has hairy armpits” volunteered a boy in a green shirt, “is that what you mean?”
“Yeah,” said purple tank top with sudden expertise “that’s right.”
“No it’s not,” said Charlie and frowned because everyone was looking at him. “It’s nothing to do with armpits.”
“Well what is it then, if you know so much?” The girl with the Alice band was irritated, possibly because no one cared who her boyfriend was.
Charlie thought for a moment, marshaling his thoughts and squinting as the sun moved from behind a cloud to warm the playground. He took a breath, and told them.
The headmistress’s office was smaller than Charlie had imagined. The carpet was beige and all of the furniture was made of wood, which felt slippery to the touch and smelled of wax. He looked at the plant near the window, which seemed to be sagging despite the soil it rested in being dark and damp. The bookshelf was full of books with long titles and there were pictures on the wall but they weren’t of anything interesting. Just adults who were pretending to smile. He was sitting to one side of the room while his Mum sat before the headmistress’s desk. The headmistress sat on the other side. Charlie kicked at the air and passed the time wondering what he’d done wrong.
“What surprised us was the language he used,” said the Headmistress. She was all slacks and cardigan which was slowly turning into a bobble farm around the arms, and her spectacles were on a chain. She looked like she’d started out kindly and ended up being constantly pursued by something hungry. Charlie’s mum looked horrified.
“Oh don’t say he was swearing!”
“Oh no,” said the Head, “it was all technically correct. He used the medical terms for all the relevant body parts. We just weren’t aware that he knew them. Or that he’d already asked questions about this sort of thing.”
“He hasn’t!” said Charlie’s mum, starting to become flustered. “We haven’t said anything at all to him. I have no idea where he got this from! How are the other parents?”
“Answering some awkward questions,” said the Headmistress. “Frankly, I don’t think they were expecting to have this sort of conversation for a good few years yet. Honestly, I wouldn’t worry too much about this, I’m sure it will all blow over. Let’s just hope this is the only surprising thing he’s learned. Take him home, try to find out where he came by such a detailed breakdown of human reproduction and we’ll see him tomorrow as normal.”
But it wasn’t normal. News like that gets around.
“Why do you know posh words? Why don’t you talk like normal people?” It should have been the standard playground negotiation about which side Charlie would be on in one of the endless variety of running around games. He’d done what everyone else did, stood in the little huddle of people who tended to play together, but neither side wanted to pick him.
“I do talk like normal people.” He didn’t know any other way to talk, couldn’t tell the difference between how he spoke and how anyone else spoke.
“That’s not what Miss says,” said a smaller kid dressed largely in brown. “Miss says…” but he was interrupted by Purple Tank Top.
“Anyway, we’ve got enough people so you can’t play with us,” he said and this rapidly became the consensus. It might have been an awkward week but, as luck would have it Charlie came down with his old friend Tonsillitis the following day and missed another week of school.
And this is where I come in. Jump to the living room floor and the predictably brown carpet, on which Charlie has spread Lego, which he’s staring at while he lays on the couch. The couch is also brown. It has layers of brown over brown, in different shades. The effect might be like an entirely brown tartan if it were anywhere near as visually soothing as tartan. It’s not. Luckily, it’s comfortable and Charlie doesn’t care what color things are. He’s annoyed because he can’t work out what to build. He’s good at cars, but he’s built several of them and they aren’t fun any more. I settle down on the carpet and look at the pieces on the floor in front of me.
“You could build a plane.”
Charlie perks up at that.
“I don’t know how to build planes,” he says, but his brow furrows and his eyes narrow. He rolls from the couch onto the floor and digs around in the smooth plastic bricks before tentatively snapping a couple together. They suggest a shape, so he adds to them.
“Who are you?” He’s not even looking at me, but he’s simply accepted my presence and seems content to run with my arrival.
“I don’t have a name. You could give me a name, if you liked.”
“Not good at names” says Charlie. He remakes the little conglomeration of bricks until he’s happier with them.
“That’s OK,” I tell him, even though it isn’t, “what do you think I look like?”
Charlie looks directly at me for a few seconds. Score!
“Like a person. But made of smoke. So I’ll call you Smoke.”
Score! A name!
“That’s a good name. Thank you.”
“What’s wrong with this plane?” I look.
“Where does the pilot sit, Charlie?”
He nods and rummages around for a piece of clear plastic. The result of his efforts doesn’t look all that much like a plane, but it’s a start. He looks at the plane with a critical eye and remakes it. The second version is better and this seems to please him.
“What else can I make?”
“How about a house?” I suggest and the afternoon passes smoothly and quickly.
A few days later, Charlie is leading the assault on the base of some killer robots who are intending to hollow out the Earth and install something in the middle. He’s not clear on what. It doesn’t matter. We, along with a squad of crack troops that only Charlie can see, have been advancing across the small green space out front of his house. He’s going tree to tree, staying in cover because if the killer robots see you…well, the clue is in the name. He pauses, and sneaks a look around the slender silver birch. He’s exposed for only a second, taking in as much detail as he can. Then he turns, sits with his back to the tree and waves me forward. It takes me a minute to get there.
“There are guards,” says Charlie “and they look this way a lot. So we have to be careful.”
“Can they see us now?”
“Don’t be silly” says Charlie “we’re behind a tree.”
“Sorry, sir,” I say, and salute.
“I’m going to run for the hedge” he says “and when I’m safe you follow me. Then we shoot the guards.”
Charlie’s parents are not rich, and not big on gun toys at the best of times, so we’re miming our weapons. Charlie is particularly fond of machine guns, or at least the sound they make, so I’m expecting him to pop up over the short privet hedge and hose down the killer robot guards which are somewhere close by.
“Sir!” I say, and salute again. Charlie nods, hefts his gun, gets to his feet and after a tense moment he sprints to the hedge. He crouches behind it, his pose modeled closely on that of a small plastic toy soldier he owns, and waves me forward. I sprint, and drop beside him. He stands, and I wait for the thunder of machine gun fire. It never comes. Instead, Charlie steps off the green and onto the pavement just looking off down the road. After a moment, I stand and step next to him.
About a dozen yards away, there’s a group of kids his age in the back garden of a house across the street. Kids he knows. Charlie’s home street is like a donut, a ring of houses around an island of slightly larger properties in the middle. The ring is a terrace, the houses in the middle – where the hole would be – are detached and some of their back yards are visible from the street. Yes, that’s complicated and also not my fault. I’m not a town planner. In the back garden, the kids are seated at a decorated table. They are eating and drinking. One or two of them notice Charlie, who waves. They don’t wave back. He stands there for a moment or two longer, then abruptly turns around and goes home.
“I’m sure they just forgot,” says Charlie’s mum, who understands the situation but has dishes to take care of and a meal to prepare that two small children will happily eat, in addition to feeding her husband who is on his way home from his day job in London.
“But I go to school with them and I live over the road,” says Charlie in his slow, logical, thoughtful way.
“Well maybe there wasn’t room for everyone they wanted to invite,” says his Mum, moving around the kitchen doing at least three things at once. She stops, sighs, smiles at her little boy who is wearing his most serious face. “Maybe next year you’ll be invited.”
Charlie nods, although he can’t imagine there being a next year. That seems like a very long way away. However, that seems to be all the answer he’s getting from the adult.
“I’m going to play in my room,” says Charlie. He does. Although sitting on his bed and staring at the wall might be stretching the definition of “play.”
“They don’t like me,” he says.
“Well, it’s not the worst thing that could happen. Is it?”
“I don’t know, Smoke. I don’t know what the worst thing is.”
“Some things are lots worse than missing a party. What would it be like to not have a mother? Or a sister?”
“It’d be quieter without a sister,” says Charlie, “but everyone would miss her.”
“She’s bound to get more interesting eventually,” says Charlie.
“Well, in the meantime you’ve got me. I’m not going to forget you, or ignore you,” I say and it gets me a look from under frowning eyebrows.
“Thanks, Smoke,” he says.
We’re in school a few weeks later. The day has been the usual mix of lessons. Charlie is a reader, something I’m encouraging because it helps with his visual imagination. I mean, Smoke is a nice name and all, but one day I’d like to have a face with actual features. He and a two other kids are top of the class for this stuff, and I’m pushing for him to read more complicated material. That sets him a little aside from his classmates, gives him a reason to feel good about himself. The teacher is talking about how elephants used to be used to carry wood, but they aren’t any more.
“She’s wrong about that,” I whisper. “Remember what was on the news last night? Right at the end?”
“Should I tell her?” He’s very trusting. The kid next to him shoots him an odd look, which Charlie fails to notice.
“Yes. Then everyone will see how bright you are, and they’ll know the truth about elephants.”
He raises his hand.
“Miss! That’s wrong, miss. They are still used for carrying things. In Sri Lanka, Miss.”
This is awesome.
You can hear a pin drop in there. Every other kid is looking at him and what they’re thinking is, “Who the hell do you think you are?” Only not in so many words.
“Well, Charlie, I think you’ll find I’m correct.”
“No, Miss. I know I’m right.”
This is gold. If he’s wrong, he’s the idiot that corrected a teacher incorrectly and everyone will look down on him. If he’s right, he’s still the idiot who corrected a teacher and the teacher will never admit it. So the kids will still look down on him. Either way, we’re going to see another visit to the Headmistress in the near future.
The teacher is sending everyone else home, but she’s asking Charlie to hang back for a minute. A lot of the kids are talking, laughing and pointing as they leave, which is all to the good, but what’s this teacher about?
Slowly and carefully, she’s explaining to Charlie that you shouldn’t contradict adults.
“Even if they’re wrong, Miss?”
“How can you be sure if they’re wrong?”
Charlie chews his lip for a moment. He looks like he’s trying to work out what to say next.
“Well today, Miss, I know about the elephants because they were mentioned in the news last night and my Dad likes to watch it when he comes in.”
The teacher is young, and still in that frame of mind where the minds of children are important and developing and need to be nurtured – she’s right, of course – but this still matters to her. I think she might be quite taken with the apparently serious minded little boy in front of her.
“I see. Well, how about in future you come to me after school if you’ve noticed anything you think is wrong. Would that be better?”
“Yes, Miss,” says Charlie, who is used to adults saving face like this.
On the walk home, I prod Charlie.
“Why did you correct her? We could have got out earlier.”
“She was wrong,” says Charlie, “and we’re supposed to be there to learn.”
“You’re clever,” I say, because he likes being clever. “Do we have time for a game of something on the way home?”
Charlie grins and mimes drawing a pistol from his pocket. There’s an alleyway between the back of the school and the path home. It’s clearly a prime location for an ambush, so we spend a few minutes enacting a buddy-cop drama. We’re moving from one side of the alley to the other, watching for bad guys lurking in the New York style fire escapes that no one has in the UK. Charlie can see them clearly, though. He’s coming along nicely. At this rate, I could have features within the month!
Of course it doesn’t run all that smoothly. Kids develop at different rates, so I have to give him the occasional prod. Like when his mother drops him off in the back garden while she visits with a friend who has kids the same age. For any other kid, this should be awesome. They have a tree house. Instead, we stand at the bottom and look up.
“How do I get up there?” Charlie doesn’t mind heights any more than any other kid, I’ve just been teaching him to be careful. I think the current phrase is “risk averse.”
“You climb” I say. He looks up.
And there we have it, the sixty four thousand whatever question: How do you climb a tree?
“You know, I’d show you if I could,” I say and shrug helplessly. Charlie ignores me, which is frankly a little galling. All he needs to do is focus and pay some attention to making me a little more solid, maybe giving me opposable thumbs instead of these mittens he’s equipped me with. I have put in a lot of hours on this kid and I’m not seeing nearly the return on my investment I’d hoped for.
There’s movement above and another kid – Alan, I think – sticks his head over the side of the tree house.
Charlie shrugs. “How did you get up there?”
Alan looks confused. “I climbed.” Alan grins. “Don’t you know how to climb a tree?”
“No,” admits Charlie, “am I supposed to know how?”
“Everyone knows how!” says Alan. He looks at the expression on Charlie’s face, which is two-thirds confused and one-third hurt, and throws my little buddy a line. Not literally. Wouldn’t matter. He can’t climb ropes either. I’ve watched. There are less amusing ways to pass time.
“Look at the bottom of the tree. There’s a little branch stump thing you can put your feet on. And there are more higher up. It’s like climbing a ladder,” says Alan. “You just keep moving your hands and feet up to the next thing. Try it.”
What Alan doesn’t know is that Charlie isn’t sure how to climb ladders either. I spend a minute or so watching him peer at the base of the tree, looking for the stump.
“Are you going to help?” he asks me.
“I’m not the one who needs to climb the tree,” I respond. I watch him hunt for another minute, and then he finds where his foot is supposed to go. Then I get to watch him figure out what to do next. He mistakes a hand hold for a foot hold, then gets himself in a little knot over where he’s supposed to put his foot next. He starts over, gets a little further this time.
“This is a lot of work to go and sit on some planks nine feet off the floor,” I mention as he works out where the third foothold is. He doesn’t say anything, just concentrates really hard on getting his hand to the next place to grip. He’s about two feet off the ground at this point, and struggling.
“Get someone to lift you up” I suggest. Charlie drops to the ground. For a moment, it looks like he’s going to take the suggestion seriously.
“What’s the matter?” The disembodied voice of Alan floats down. Charlie looks again at the tree.
“I don’t get how you…” he starts, and stops. “I’m not sure where…” Another sentence dies part-said. He looks up. “I’m going to the bathroom!” he says, loud and confident, and then disappears inside. By the time he comes back, the other kid is down from the tree.
It bothers both of them, but they don’t talk about it and the rest of the afternoon is subdued to say the least. I make up for it by encouraging Charlie to try his uncertain hand at finishing a model Spitfire he was bought and he makes a fair stab at it. The harder he concentrates on making the image in his head real, the better I feel.
It still takes months to get fingers. Months! And then this happens:
Charlie’s house backs onto what should be a paradise for kids. It used to be a clay quarry, it’s now woodland and grass ringed with an exciting series of little cliffs that a kid could scramble up or down. It’s full of interesting stuff to investigate. Charlie spends a certain amount of time there hitting things with sticks, while he imagines he’s got a lightsaber or a sword. There’s long grass to thrash at, cow parsley to cut in half with a swipe, and generally speaking no one to disturb the ever more complex imaginary scenarios I help Charlie construct for himself. Today he’s preparing to cut a swathe through Imperial troops, standing at the entrance to a small copse of hawthorn trees. It’s darker in there, so clearly a place given over to the Dark Side, and I can practically hear the snap and hiss as his lightsaber ignites, even though he’s holding a stick.
“What are you doing?”
Charlie turns around, so in the moment that he remembers to turn the lightsaber off before he gets all the way round, and blinks at the girl standing on the path behind him. She lives a few doors down from Charlie and is about a year older. Her name is Nicola. She’s taller than him, has hair down to her shoulders and has hard, green eyes. Nicola is a girl firmly rooted in the real.
“Nothing,” says Charlie and catches sight of the stick in his hand, “much,” he finishes.
“You’re always on your own,” says Nicola. She moves closer. “Don’t you like people?”
“Yeah?” says Charlie, who is already starting to wonder what she wants.
“Well why don’t you have any friends?”
“People don’t like me,” says Charlie, staring at the floor. “I don’t know why.”
“I do,” says Nicola “would you like me to tell you?”
“How about ‘No’?” I suggest, but he’s not listening to me. It hasn’t occurred to Charlie that there’s information he doesn’t need. I should have done something about that.
“Yes please,” he says and, ah shit, he means it. Look! Look at that expression! That’s his “waiting for input” face!
Nicola considers this for a moment. “You talk to yourself a lot, and you talk to things that aren’t there, and you know strange things and sometimes you talk like things on the TV,” she offers.
Charlie nods. “If I stop doing those things, people will like me?”
“Probably,” says Nicola. “I probably will. Do you think I’m pretty?”
Charlie closes one eye and tilts his head to one side.
“Yes,” he says. “I think you’re pretty.”
“Good,” says Nicola, and she goes away. Leaving me and Charlie together.
“I change school next year,” says Charlie.
“It’ll be different. New people. Everyone I know now is going to St. Ced’s. I’m not.”
“Where’s this going, Charlie?”
“You can’t come,” he says, the ungrateful little shit.
“You can’t come,” he repeats. “All the time I’m talking to nothing, I’m talking to you. People think I’m strange because I talk to you. Well, I don’t want to be strange. I want people to like me. So you can’t come.” Can’t you just hear the gratitude in that? Kids today.
“Oh really? After all this, suddenly I can’t come? I have stood by you and spent time with you when no one else would. You need me.”
“I noticed you just standing there,” says Charlie. Is this little bastard trying to stare me down? Look at that! He’s actually trying to glare! I’m reasonable. I’m calm. But enough is enough.
“Without me, you’re nothing,” I hiss, “just a lonely little boy who has no idea how to make friends. The weird kid, forever on the edge of the playground pretending to enjoy being by himself. Well, you owe me, you miserable little…”
He stabs me. The thing in his hand is a stick. The thing in my torso is a hissing, humming incandescent blade from a galaxy far, far away. I don’t understand how he could do this. Not to me. How has he done this?
The boy looked at the stick he was holding and dropped it. He stood quietly for a moment, staring fixedly at something on the grass in front of him and then turned his attention to the retreating figure of the girl. If he ran, he could catch her up pretty quickly and there was something nagging at him. Without a backward look, he set off after her. The afternoon air was full of footfalls and the most important question he had ever asked.
“Hey! Nicola! Why does it matter if I think you’re pretty?”
Born in England, David Webb tried to identify his ancestral roots by having his DNA tested. The lab results came back accompanied by a note reading simply “oh dear.” He lives somewhere in the middle of England, where his tendency for sarcasm and his crippling addiction to tea pass without comment by the general population. He likes reading and writing, history, science fiction and things that are silly, neatly combining all of these by venerating (as all Brits surely do) Doctor Who. He recently acquired a Bowler hat and is not afraid to wear it.