The Ocean at the End of the Lane(15)


by Neil Gaiman

The operator did not come on. The dialling tone continued, and over it, Ursula Monkton’s voice saying, ‘Properly brought-up young people would not even think about sneaking off to use the telephone, would they?’

I did not say anything, although I have no doubt she could hear me breathing. I put the handset down on the cradle, and went back into the bedroom I shared with my sister.

I sat on my bed, and stared out of the window.

My bed was pushed up hard against the wall just below the window. I loved to sleep with the window open. Rainy nights were the best of all: I would open the window and put my head on my pillow and close my eyes and feel the wind on my face and listen to the trees sway and creak. There would be raindrops blown on to my face, too, if I was lucky, and I would imagine that I was in my boat on the ocean and that it was swaying with the swell of the sea. I did not imagine that I was a pirate, or that I was going anywhere. I was just on my boat.

But now it was not raining, and it was not night. All I could see through the window were trees, and clouds, and the distant purple of the horizon.

I had emergency chocolate supplies hidden beneath the large plastic Batman figurine I had acquired on my birthday, and I ate them, and as I ate them I thought of letting go of Lettie Hempstock’s hand to grab the ball of rotting cloth, remembered the stabbing pain in my foot that had followed.

I brought her here, I thought, and I knew that it was true.

Ursula Monkton wasn’t real. She was a cardboard mask for the thing that had travelled inside me as a worm, that had flapped and gusted in the open country under that orange sky.

I went back to reading Pansy Saves the School. The secret plans to the airbase next door to the school were being smuggled out to the enemy by spies who were teachers working on the school vegetable allotment: the plans were concealed inside hollowed-out vegetable marrows.

‘Great heavens!’ said Inspector Davidson of Scotland Yard’s renowned Smugglers and Secret Spies Division (the SSSD). ‘That is literally the last place we would have looked!’

‘We owe you an apology, Pansy,’ said the stern headmistress, with an uncharacteristically warm smile, and a twinkle in her eyes that made Pansy think perhaps she had misjudged the woman all this term. ‘You have saved the reputation of the school! Now, before you get too full of yourself – aren’t there some French verbs you ought to be conjugating for Madame?’

I could be happy with Pansy, in some part of my head, even while the rest of my head was filled with fear. I waited for my parents to come home. I would tell them what was happening. I would tell them. They would believe me.

At that time my father worked in an office an hour’s drive away. I was not certain what he did. He had a very nice, pretty secretary, with a toy poodle, and whenever she knew we children would be coming in to see him, she would bring the poodle in from home, and we would play with it. Sometimes we would pass buildings and my father would say, ‘That’s one of ours.’ But I did not care about buildings, so I never asked how it was one of ours, or even who we were.

I lay on my bed, reading book after book, until Ursula Monkton appeared in the doorway of the room and said, ‘You can come down now.’

My sister was watching television downstairs, in the television room. She was watching a programme called HOW, a pop science-and-how-things-work show, which opened with the hosts in Native American headdresses saying ‘How?’ and doing embarrassing war whoops.

I wanted to turn over to the BBC, but my sister looked at me triumphantly and said, ‘Ursula says it can stay on whatever I want to watch and you aren’t allowed to change it.’

I sat with her for a minute, as an old man with a moustache showed all the children of England how to tie fishing flies.

I said, ‘She’s not nice.’

‘I like her. She’s pretty.’

My mother arrived home five minutes later, called hello from the corridor then went into the kitchen to see Ursula Monkton. She reappeared. ‘Dinner will be ready as soon as Daddy gets home. Wash your hands.’

My sister went upstairs and washed her hands.

I said to my mother, ‘I don’t like her. Will you make her go away?’

My mother sighed. ‘It is not going to be Gertruda all over again, dear. Ursula’s a very nice girl, from a very good family. And she positively adores the two of you.’

My father came home, and dinner was served. A thick vegetable soup, then roast chicken and new potatoes with frozen peas. I loved all of the things on the table. I did not eat any of it.

‘I’m not hungry,’ I explained.

‘I’m not one for telling tales out of school,’ said Ursula Monkton, ‘but someone had chocolate on his hands and face when he came down from his bedroom.’

‘I wish you wouldn’t eat that rubbish,’ grumbled my father.

‘It’s just processed sugar. And it ruins your appetite and your teeth,’ said my mother.

I was scared they would force me to eat, but they didn’t. I sat there hungrily, while Ursula Monkton laughed at all my father’s jokes. It seemed to me that he was making special jokes, just for her.

After dinner we all watched Mission: Impossible. I usually liked Mission: Impossible, but this time it made me feel uneasy, as people kept pulling their faces off to reveal new faces beneath. They were wearing rubber masks, and it was always our heroes underneath, but I wondered what would happen if Ursula Monkton pulled off her face, what would be underneath that?

We went to bed. It was my sister’s night, and the bedroom door was closed. I missed the light in the hall. I lay in bed with the window open, wide awake, listening to the noises an old house makes at the end of a long day, and I wished as hard as I could, hoping my wishes could become real. I wished that my parents would send Ursula Monkton away, and then I would go down to the Hempstocks’ farm, and tell Lettie what I had done, and she would forgive me, and make everything all right.

I could not sleep. My sister was already asleep. She seemed able to go to sleep whenever she wanted to, a skill I envied and did not have.

I left my bedroom.

I loitered at the top of the stairs, listening to the noise of the television coming from downstairs. Then I crept barefoot-silent down the stairs and sat on the third step from the bottom. The door to the television room was half open, and if I went down another step, whoever was watching the television would be able to see me. So I waited there.

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