The Ocean at The End of The Lane and Childhood

Beautiful cover

Beautiful cover

This weekend I read one of the pot luck books I picked up from the library – The Ocean At the End of The Lane by Neil Gaiman. I like choosing books I don’t know, just because I recognise the title or author or just because I like the front cover (and the library is much cheaper than all the books I’ve bought in book shops using the same method and have then never read!)

This ticked the last two points – I have heard of Neil Gaiman (I follow him on Twitter even) and I was intrigued by the cover. I first came across Neil Gaiman when a friend bought me one of his Sandman graphic novels as a teenager. Then I loved (although was creeped out by) his Doctor Who episode The Doctor’s Wife.

The Ocean at the End of The Lane is the first novel of his I have read. It creeped me out, too. Just one bit in the middle which I made the mistake of starting to read at bedtime. I had to switch to a Georgette Heyer and skip three pages in the morning.

It’s an interesting book, simply but compellingly written. It recounts an event from the childhood of the forty-something protagonist, which he recalls after revisiting his childhood house and a farm at the end of the lane. The telling of childhood was fascinating; viewing the world through the eyes of a seven-year-old. It also made me think a great deal about the difference between being seven thirty-odd years ago and being seven now. I kept thinking Oh he wouldn’t have been left to roam free like that, surely? And then I realise that I was, as far as I can remember. Certainly some time before I was eight (when I moved north – my childhood is bisected by that move) I roamed the fields, climbed trees, visited friends’ houses on our estate, all without taking much notice of where my parents were.

I like this cover too

I like this cover too

My memories of childhood are almost non-existant, apart from one or two key events. The book recreates that fluidity of childhood and memory with great authenticity. It also made me wonder what my children will remember. It’s so different now: their lives are recorded through photographs, video, school reports with images, social media, parents’ blogs. So many aides to memory. There are probably fewer than fifty photos of me between the ages of 0 and 16 in total. I can take that many of my chidren in a day.

Is it a good thing? Maybe we should be able to rewrite our childhoods, change our recollections at will. Like the protagonist in the novel, maybe our childhood memories are not entirely accurate, and maybe that’s necessary. Maybe we don’t want to be reminded of every tiny detail. Our lives are really only stories we write in our mind, with heroes and villains. The truth, as revealed by endless photographs, is bound to feel much more ordinary.

Mind you, all our photos are stored digitally. There’s a strong chance they’ll degrade over time and the children will only be able to retrieve fifty images in thirty-odd years time. And perhaps that will be just as well.

Tidying Futility: 2013 365 Challenge #181

Playroom Carnage: We're taking Baby Annabelle to France

Playroom Carnage: We’re taking Baby Annabelle to France

I have taken to saying / tweeting lately that Cleaning with children in the house is like trying to paint a boat that’s still in the water. Utterly pointless.

Dragged myself out of bed this morning to tidy up, after a night if calpol and cuddles for fever boy. (Fever broke at 4am) I found craft sand all over the playroom after Daddy and daughter craft last night, so cleaning had to start there.

After ninety minutes of sorting, tidying and hoovering I found the playroom floor. It looked lovely.

Then Saturday morning TV ended and the children decided they wanted to go on holiday to France. They packed bags and babies and buckets of other junk (they’ve watched Mummy pack too often!) and the cushion corner became their car. I’ve been reading recently about the importance of play for the sake of play, and that mess is good. So, I am turning a blind eye.

Sometimes it takes effort to do nothing. No one said it was easy to be the parent you want to be. Lord knows I don’t manage it very often. But for now I’m off to hoover the lounge, and then LOCK THE DOOR!

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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“I, Jeffery Philip Westwood, take you, Kim Louise Jenkins, to be my lawful wedded wife…”

Claire stood next to her best friend and tuned out the familiar words. It was the first time she’d been part of a wedding, although she had attended a few. It felt different, standing at the front, with the registrar so close. She was almost scared to breathe, in case she interrupted the ceremony. Gazing at the side of Kim’s face; her eyes sparkling, her lips quivering in a smile as she locked eyes with Jeff, Claire thought she could set off a firework and the bride and groom would be oblivious.

Her shoulder-blades itched. She could feel Michael sitting behind her; could sense his eyes boring into her back. It wasn’t hard to imagine his thoughts, as she stood this close to an altar. Although they’d never discussed marriage, the fight that had ended their relationship gave her a pretty good idea where Michael’s desires lay. People didn’t want children without wanting the full family experience.

The formulaic exchange of promises droned on. Claire recalled the awful night, four months ago, when her rosy view of the future had ended. When she’d realised how desperate Michael was for children. Their discussion had confirmed for her how equally-desperate she was not to have them. There hadn’t been anything to say after that.

And now, my best friend is married and with child. Wouldn’t Michael have a field day, if he knew. Resisting the urge to look behind her, Claire squared her shoulders and prayed for the weekend to be over.

*

The sun hovered low on the horizon. Dinner had been survived, and the free alcohol was going down a storm. Claire stood in the corner of the terrace, watching groups of friends mingling and separating in a slow, elaborate dance. Laugher echoed on the breeze, and through the people, the occasional flash of cream silk showed the bride at the centre of things.

Kim had managed to persuade some high school friends to turn up with their drums and guitars, and live music drifted out from the great hall. Claire had sent Michael for drinks, glad to get away from his pervading presence. Now the chores were done, he had taken to standing behind her shoulder like a bodyguard, scaring away anyone else brave enough to attempt to approach for a chat.

Claire mused that it would have been infinitely preferable to have come alone, and feel like the awkward spinster, rather than have the dark cloud of her past literally following her around, raining on her parade.

She felt a touch at her elbow and turned to see Michael holding out a glass of champagne.

“Have they run out of gin?” Claire frowned. Champagne made her giddy. What she needed was good, hard liquor.

Michael looked awkward for a moment, before saying, “Tonic. They’ve run out of tonic.”

It was clearly a lie. Claire sighed, the pent-up frustration of four months gusting forth like a hurricane.

“Enough, Michael. Stop trying to control my life.”

Michael’s head jerked back, as if she had slapped him. “I’m not trying to control anything.”

“Then why bring me champagne when it’s obvious they have plenty of gin and tonic. This is a licensed bar, not a village hall party. Are you hoping I’ll get drunk and you will get me horizontal? You can scrap that idea right now.”

Michael’s eyes hardened. “That’s not fair, Claire. You asked me to come, and all you’ve done is avoid me. Now you’re acting like I’m your father one minute, and some oik in a bar trying to get laid the next. I am none of those things.”

“Then stop acting like it. What happened, Michael? We used to work, once. What went wrong?”

“Nothing.” He took a step closer and she unconsciously stepped back, avoiding his outstretched hand. “Nothing went wrong. We had a misunderstanding, that’s all. I still love you.”

His words made her shiver. “If you do, then leave me alone. Please. I’ve moved on, Michael.” She wanted to add, I’ve out-grown you, but managed to hold her tongue.

“Is it still about the baby? We can talk about that. We never talked about it properly.”

“There was no baby, Michael, except in your mind. I was late for my period, that’s all. I wanted you to reassure me I could do what I needed to do, if I was pregnant. And you went all doolally on me, practically picking the baby names and decorating the spare room.” She glared at him. “I wasn’t ready for happy families, not then, not now.”

“But, I thought… All that time with Sky.”

“You thought, because I had fun with my niece, I was ready to be a mother? That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? You want to start again?”

He didn’t respond, but the shift in his expression told her she was right.

A boiling heat rushed through Claire, darkening her vision and causing her hands to tremble. “Get the message, Michael. I am not interested.” Her voice rose. “I do not want a baby. Kim can go ahead and have one, if she wants. Get married, have the happy ever after, but not me. I’m not ready for that kind of responsibility.”

“Kim’s pregnant?”

Michael’s voice rang out across the terrace, just as the band finished one song and were about to start another. His words caused a hush to fall across the assembled guests.

Claire felt the world close in. Me and my big mouth. She turned, seeking out Kim in the crowd. Her friend stood several feet away, her face white. Claire took a step forward, apologies on her lips. Kim gave her a furious stare and swept away.

Dropping her arms to her side, Claire prayed for the world to end. Of course it was a secret. Now her Director knows, everyone knows. How much trouble is she going to be in? She’s never going to speak to me again.

Michael reached out a hand, whether to blame or reassure her, wasn’t clear. She shook him off, and ran from the terrace towards her car.

***