The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Page 2Neil Gaiman
It felt like a bad joke.
I propped open the kitchen door, so the cat could get out. Then I went up to the bedroom, and lay on my bed, and cried for dead Fluffy. When my parents got home that evening, I do not think my kitten was even mentioned.
Monster lived with us for a week or more. I put cat food in the bowl for him in the morning and again at night as I had for my kitten. He would sit by the back door until I, or someone else, let him out. We saw him in the garden, slipping from bush to bush, or in trees, or in the undergrowth. We could trace his movements by the dead blue-tits and thrushes we would find in the garden, but we saw him rarely.
I missed Fluffy. I knew you could not simply replace something alive, but I dared not grumble to my parents about it. They would have been baffled at my upset: after all, if my kitten had been killed, it had also been replaced. The damage had been made up.
It all came back and even as it came back I knew it would not be for long: all the things I remembered, sitting on the green bench beside the little pond that Lettie Hempstock had once convinced me was an ocean.
I was not happy as a child, although from time to time I was content. I lived in books more than I lived anywhere else.
Our house was large and many-roomed, which was good when they bought it and my father had money, not good later.
My parents called me into their bedroom one afternoon, very formally. I thought I must have done something wrong and was there for a telling-off, but no: they told me only that they were no longer affluent, that we would all need to make sacrifices, and that what I would be sacrificing was my bedroom, the little room at the top of the stairs. I was sad: my bedroom had a tiny little yellow washbasin they had put in for me, just my size; the room was above the kitchen, and immediately up the stairs from the television room, so at night I could hear the comforting buzz of adult conversation coming from below, through my half-open door, and I did not feel alone. Also, in my bedroom, nobody minded if I kept the hall door half-open, allowing in enough light that I was not scared of the dark, and, just as important, allowing me to read secretly, after my bedtime, using the dim hallway light to read by, if I needed to. I always needed to.
Exiled to my little sister’s huge bedroom, I was not heartbroken. There were already three beds in there, and I took the bed by the window. I loved that I could climb out of that bedroom window onto the long brick balcony, that I could sleep with my window open and feel the wind and the rain on my face. But we argued, my sister and I, argued about everything. She liked to sleep with the door to the hall closed, and the immediate arguments about whether the bedroom door should be open or shut were summarily resolved by my mother writing a chart that hung on the back of the door, showing that alternate nights were mine or my sister’s. Each night I was content or I was terrified, depending on whether the door was open or closed.
My former bedroom at the top of the stairs was let out, and a variety of people passed through it. I viewed them all with suspicion: they were sleeping in my bedroom, using my little yellow basin that was just the right size for me. There had been a fat Austrian lady who told us she could leave her head and walk around the ceiling; an architectural student from New Zealand; an American couple whom my mother, scandalized, made leave when she discovered they were not actually married; and, now, there was the opal miner.
He was a South African, although he had made his money mining for opals in Australia. He gave my sister and me an opal each, a rough black rock with green-blue-red fire in it. My sister liked him for this, and treasured her opal stone. I could not forgive him for the death of my kitten.
It was the first day of the spring holidays: three weeks of no school. I woke early, thrilled by the prospect of endless days to fill however I wished. I would read. I would explore.
I pulled on my shorts, my T-shirt, my sandals. I went downstairs to the kitchen. My father was cooking, while my mother slept in. He was wearing his dressing gown over his pajamas. He often cooked breakfast on Saturdays. I said, “Dad! Where’s my comic?” He always bought me a copy of SMASH! before he drove home from work on Fridays, and I would read it on Saturday mornings.
“In the back of the car. Do you want toast?”
“Yes,” I said. “But not burnt.”
My father did not like toasters. He toasted bread under the grill, and, usually, he burnt it.
I went outside into the drive. I looked around. I went back into the house, pushed the kitchen door, went in. I liked the kitchen door. It swung both ways, in and out, so servants sixty years ago would be able to walk in or out with their arms laden with dishes empty or full.
“Dad? Where’s the car?”
“In the drive.”
“No, it isn’t.”
The telephone rang, and my father went out into the hall, where the phone was, to answer it. I heard him talking to someone.
The toast began to smoke under the grill.
I got up on a chair and turned the grill off.
“That was the police,” my father said. “Someone’s reported seeing our car abandoned at the bottom of the lane. I said I hadn’t even reported it stolen yet. Right. We can head down now, meet them there. Toast!”
He pulled the pan out from beneath the grill. The toast was smoking and blackened on one side.
“Is my comic there? Or did they steal it?”
“I don’t know. The police didn’t mention your comic.”
My father put peanut butter on the burnt side of each piece of toast, replaced his dressing gown with a coat worn over his pajamas, put on a pair of shoes, and we walked down the lane together. He munched his toast as we walked. I held my toast, and did not eat it.
We had walked for perhaps five minutes down the narrow lane which ran through fields on each side, when a police car came up behind us. It slowed, and the driver greeted my father by name.
I hid my piece of burnt toast behind my back while my father talked to the policeman. I wished my family would buy normal sliced white bread, the kind that went into toasters, like every other family I knew. My father had found a local baker’s shop where they made thick loaves of heavy brown bread, and he insisted on buying them. He said they tasted better, which was, to my mind, nonsense. Proper bread was white, and pre-sliced, and tasted like almost nothing: that was the point.
The driver of the police car got out, opened the passenger door, told me to get in. My father rode up front beside the driver.
The police car went slowly down the lane. The whole lane was unpaved back then, just wide enough for one car at a time, a puddly, precipitous, bumpy way, with flints sticking up from it, the whole thing rutted by farm equipment and rain and time.
“These kids,” said the policeman. “They think it’s funny. Steal a car, drive it around, abandon it. They’ll be locals.”
“I’m just glad it was found so fast,” said my father.
Past Caraway Farm, where a small girl with hair so blonde it was almost white, and red, red cheeks, stared at us as we went past. I held my piece of burnt toast on my lap.
“Funny them leaving it down here, though,” said the policeman, “because it’s a long walk back to anywhere from here.”
We passed a bend in the lane and saw the white Mini over on the side, in front of a gate leading into a field, tires sunk deep in the brown mud. We drove past it, parked on the grass verge. The policeman let me out, and the three of us walked over
to the Mini, while the policeman told my dad about crime in this area, and why it was obviously the local kids had done it, then my dad was opening the passenger side door with his spare key.
He said, “Someone left something on the back seat.” My father reached back and pulled the blue blanket away, that covered the thing in the back seat, even as the policeman was telling him that he shouldn’t do that, and I was staring at the back seat because that was where my comic was, so I saw it.
It was an it, the thing I was looking at, not a him.
Although I was an imaginative child, prone to nightmares, I had persuaded my parents to take me to Madame Tussauds waxworks in London, when I was six, because I had wanted to visit the Chamber of Horrors, expecting the movie-monster Chambers of Horrors I’d read about in my comics. I had wanted to thrill to waxworks of Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf-man. Instead I was walked through a seemingly endless sequence of dioramas of unremarkable, glum-looking men and women who had murdered people—usually lodgers, and members of their own families—and who were then murdered in their turn: by hanging, by the electric chair, in gas chambers. Most of them were depicted with their victims in awkward, social situations—seated around a dinner table, perhaps, as their poisoned family members expired. The plaques that explained who they were also told me that the majority of them had murdered their families and sold the bodies to anatomy. It was then that the word anatomy garnered its own edge of horror for me. I did not know what anatomy was. I knew only that anatomy made people kill their children.
The only thing that had kept me from running screaming from the Chamber of Horrors as I was led around it was that none of the waxworks had looked fully convincing. They could not truly look dead, because they did not ever look alive.
The thing in the back seat that had been covered by the blue blanket (I knew that blanket. It was the one that had been in my old bedroom, on the shelf, for when it got cold) was not convincing either. It looked a little like the opal miner, but it was dressed in a black suit, with a white, ruffled shirt and a black bow-tie. Its hair was slicked back and artificially shiny. Its eyes were staring. Its lips were bluish, but its skin was very red. It looked like a parody of health. There was no gold chain around its neck.
I could see, underneath it, crumpled and bent, my copy of SMASH! with Batman, looking just as he did on the television, on the cover.
I don’t remember who said what then, just that they made me stand away from the Mini. I crossed the road, and I stood there on my own while the policeman talked to my father and wrote things down in a notebook.
I stared at the Mini. A length of green garden hose ran from the exhaust pipe up to the driver’s window. There was thick brown mud all over the exhaust, holding the hosepipe in place.
Nobody was watching me. I took a bite of my toast. It was burnt and cold.
At home, my father ate all the most burnt pieces of toast. “Yum!” he’d say, and “Charcoal! Good for you!” and “Burnt toast! My favorite!” and he’d eat it all up. When I was much older he confessed to me that he had not ever liked burnt toast, had only eaten it to prevent it from going to waste, and, for a fraction of a moment, my entire childhood felt like a lie: it was as if one of the pillars of belief that my world had been built upon had crumbled into dry sand.
The policeman spoke into a radio in the front of his car.
Then he crossed the road and came over to me. “Sorry about this, sonny,” he said. “There’s going to be a few more cars coming down this road in a minute. We should find you somewhere to wait that you won’t be in the way. Would you like to sit in the back of my car again?”
I shook my head. I didn’t want to sit there again.
Somebody, a girl, said, “He can come back with me to the farmhouse. It’s no trouble.”
She was much older than me, at least eleven. Her red-brown hair was worn relatively short, for a girl, and her nose was snub. She was freckled. She wore a red skirt—girls didn’t wear jeans much back then, not in those parts. She had a soft Sussex accent and sharp gray-blue eyes.
The girl went, with the policeman, over to my father, and she got permission to take me away, and then I was walking down the lane with her.
I said, “There is a dead man in our car.”
“That’s why he came down here,” she told me. “The end of the road. Nobody’s going to find him and stop him around here, three o’clock in the morning. And the mud there is wet and easy to mold.”
“Do you think he killed himself?”
“Yes. Do you like milk? Gran’s milking Bessie now.”
I said, “You mean, real milk from a cow?” and then felt foolish, but she nodded, reassuringly.
I thought about this. I’d never had milk that didn’t come from a bottle. “I think I’d like that.”
We stopped at a small barn where an old woman, much older than my parents, with long gray hair, like cobwebs, and a thin face, was standing beside a cow. Long black tubes were attached to each of the cow’s teats. “We used to milk them by hand,” she told me. “But this is easier.”
She showed me how the milk went from the cow down the black tubes and into the machine, through a cooler and into huge metal churns. The churns were left on a heavy wooden platform outside the barn, where they would be collected each day by a lorry.
The old lady gave me a cup of creamy milk from Bessie the cow, the fresh milk before it had gone through the cooler. Nothing I had drunk had ever tasted like that before: rich and warm and perfectly happy in my mouth. I remembered that milk after I had forgotten everything else.
“There’s more of them up the lane,” said the old woman, suddenly. “All sorts coming down with lights flashing and all. Such a palaver. You should get the boy into the kitchen. He’s hungry, and a cup of milk won’t do a growing boy.”
The girl said, “Have you eaten?”
“Just a piece of toast. It was burned.”
She said, “My name’s Lettie. Lettie Hempstock. This is Hempstock Farm. Come on.” She took me in through the front door, and into their enormous kitchen, sat me down at a huge wooden table, so stained and patterned that it looked as if faces were staring up at me from the old wood.
“We have breakfast here early,” she said. “Milking starts at first light. But there’s porridge in the saucepan, and jam to put in it.”
She gave me a china bowl filled with warm porridge from the stovetop, with a lump of homemade blackberry jam, my favorite, in the middle of the porridge, then she poured cream on it. I swished it around with my spoon before I ate it, swirling it into a purple mess, and was as happy as I have ever been about anything. It tasted perfect.
A stocky woman came in. Her red-brown hair was streaked with gray, and cut short. She had apple cheeks, a dark green skirt that went to her knees, and Wellington boots. She said, “This must be the boy from the top of the lane. Such a business going on with that car. There’ll be five of them needing tea soon.”
Lettie filled a huge copper kettle from the tap. She lit a gas hob with a match and put the kettle onto the flame. Then she took down five chipped mugs from a cupboard, and hesitated, looking at the woman. The woman said, “You’re right. Six. The doctor will be here too.”
Then the woman pursed her lips and made a tchutch! noise. “They’ve missed the note,” she said. “He wrote it so carefully too, folded it and put it in his breast pocket, and they haven’t looked there yet.”
“What does it say?” asked Lettie.
“Read it yourself,” said the woman. I thought she was Lettie’s mother. She seemed like she was somebody’s mother. Then she said, “It says that he took all the money that his friends had given him to smuggle out of South Africa and bank for them in England, along with all the money he’d made over the years mining for opals, and he went to the casino in Brighton, to gamble, but he only meant to gamble with his own money. And then he only meant to dip into the money his friends had given him until he had made back the money he had lost.
“And then he didn’t have anything,” said the woman, “and all was dark.”
“That’s not what he wrote, though,” said Lettie, squinting her eyes. “What he wrote was,
“To all my friends,
“Am so sorry it was not like I meant to and hope you can find it in your hearts to forgive me for I cannot forgive myself.”
“Same thing,” said the older woman. She turned to me. “I’m Lettie’s ma,” she said. “You’ll have met my mother already, in the milking shed. I’m Mrs. Hempstock, but she was Mrs. Hempstock before me, so she’s Old Mrs. Hempstock. This is Hempstock Farm. It’s the oldest farm hereabouts. It’s in the Domesday Book.”
I wondered why they were all called Hempstock, those women, but I did not ask, any more than I dared to ask how they knew about the suicide note or what the opal miner had thought as he died. They were perfectly matter-of-fact about it.
Lettie said, “I nudged him to look in the breast pocket. He’ll think he thought of it himself.”
“There’s a good girl,” said Mrs. Hempstock. “They’ll be in here when the kettle boils to ask if I’ve seen anything unusual and to have their tea. Why don’t you take the boy down to the pond?”
“It’s not a pond,” said Lettie. “It’s my ocean.” She turned to me and said, “Come on.” She led me out of the house the way we had come.