No Ghosts This Year #4

Dinner had passed with congratulations all round for his sister’s success at her license test and corrections from his grandfather over his reports of the ridiculous song that had been inflicted on Philip in music class that afternoon.

“That was ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’!” Pa had said. “Christina Rossetti and Gustav Holst. The greatest English poet of her century, and one of the greatest English composers too. Strangled cat indeed. Ppphhhh!”

He never quite knew how Pa managed to make that sound, really just a blowing of air through pursed lips, into something so affectionate and admonitory at the same time, but it had had its desired effect. Philip already contemplated changing his listening diary in the morning to reflect a growing understanding of the song’s value. But then dinner had ended, he had been asked if he had any homework, to which he had replied in the negative, and the conclusion had been that he was therefore in the perfect position to do the washing up. Unable to suddenly acquire homework without raising suspicions, Philip had slunk off to the kitchen in reluctant obedience and had begun the laborious task, finding as he got underway that the act of splashing dish suds around in the sink was quite restful and restorative. Only, when he had finished and his shirt was covered in water, Sarah said, “Did you wet yourself, Phil?” and his dad found several plates that still had food-scraps left on them, and the job, when he returned to complete it, seemed much less pleasurable the second time around.

So, when Philip was finally released from the responsibility, he retreated quickly to his room, where the book he had borrowed that morning from the library was waiting for him. It was entitled Tales of Mystery and Imagination and had a particularly gruesome picture of a man skulking around a four-poster bed with a bloodied heart in his hands. He felt fairly sure that his parents wouldn’t want him reading it, which was why he had placed the book under his pillow as soon as he’d come home, and why he decided to read it now with the added precaution of hiding under the covers. The caption on the back cover told him that the cover painting was called “The Tell-Tale Heart”, and, finding a story in the book by that name – and finding that it was relatively short – he started the book there.

True! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses – not destroyed – not dulled them.

He was compelled from the start. The phrases – short, sharp, almost staccato – and the odd, frantic punctuation arrested him somehow, as though he himself were in the mind of the narrator. He had no idea what he was reading, yet he had to continue.

Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth…

A knock on the door. The door began to open. He hurriedly poked his head out from under the covers. It was Sarah.

No Ghosts This Year #2

The walk home was generally a relief. Mark caught the bus home, so he wasn’t around to be a nuisance. And mostly Philip had the time to himself, to think and daydream. Sometimes he would take a book with him and try to read as he walked, but that was a hard thing to do. He knew the walk well and hardly needed to look where he was going to take the correct left and right turns, but he hated having to interrupt his book every time there was a red traffic light (“You would have been happier in this town when there were no traffic lights,” his grandfather had once said to him, “then you could read without stopping”), and once in a while there was a dog that had left a little treat for him on the ground, waiting for careless feet to tread in. No, it was generally best to look where he was going. It was difficult to do that and read at the same time.

You could get quite far in a daydream, of course, even if you couldn’t read: far away from Mark, and far away from PE and Maths homework. You could get to a place where it didn’t matter so much if your hair was messy or you stank, where no-one was likely to take a specky on your back. Only, there were obstacles still to daydreams: the realities of classmates that saw you while you were walking, for instance. Where they were likely just to ignore you at lunchtime, you seemed to become much more interesting when they saw you outside of school. If they saw you while they were standing by the milk-bar, they might call out, “Hey Savage!” as though that were a particularly original (and biting) thing to say. If they were doing something forbidden for kids to do in school uniform – smoking, for instance – they might append an offer to the “Hey Savage”, like, “Wanna smoke?”, knowing, of course, that the answer would be no. That was the point of it: to provoke him into saying no. Had he ever said, “Sure!” and gone over to smoke with them, the appeal might have worn off quickly. Or he might have opened up something altogether new in his relationships with his peers, an entirely unknown and dangerous dimension: unknown and dangerous to all involved.

He preferred the unknown dimensions of his daydreams. At least then he had some control over what happened within each dimension. Recently, for instance, he had discovered that, in his mind, he had mastered the power of time travel, and found that it was remarkably similar to an H.G. Wells book, just without the bad special effects and furry monsters of the old film version your father showed you. In that world he could smoke without getting lung cancer or being grounded, because that was what happened in H.G. Wells books. Indeed, you could do basically everything that would be misinterpreted or misconstrued in a world that simply did not understand imagination or the desire to be somewhere or someone else. So long as he could be in his imagination without anyone seeing that he was “playing imaginary games” (something that, he had learnt a few months ago, he and his peers were all now too old to do), he was fine; he could do whatever had struck him as interesting or worth doing, without fear of it being twisted against him. Hadn’t it been Mark who, back in Grade Three, had seen him and his friend Tim, no longer at the school, playing a game themed around the French aristocracy being guillotined, and had said by way of explaining away their game, “They’re homosexual”? Now it struck him that this had only revealed a lack of imagination or historical knowledge on Mark’s part, not anything negative about himself or Tim, but he could hardly have said that at the time – or even now, for that matter. People like Mark didn’t care about being unimaginative or historically ignorant. It was almost a badge of pride. No, it was best to keep his many worlds inside his head. That was best for everyone.

He was all set to explore one of these worlds on his five minute walk home (ample time for a time traveller to use gainfully) when from behind him came a voice that he didn’t recognise. It wasn’t Mark – that much was impossible, since he would be on his way home on the bus by now. But neither was it anyone from his year level. It was an adult’s voice. He paused, unwilling to look behind him, the stranger-danger talk firmly in his mind.

“Sorry to bother you, mate,” said the man. “I just need some directions.”

Philip remained where he was but tilted his head a little towards the man. He didn’t recognise him, but something about the man made him seem harmless enough. He looked like someone his parents would invite over for dinner – though that was hardly a guarantee of safety. “Even if someone you know well makes you uncomfortable…” his teachers had said – at which Mark had called out, “Ben makes me uncomfortable!” and the lesson had changed from being about stranger-danger to Mark’s stupidity. Not unusual, he reflected. Though it had made the moral of the lesson a little hard to recall at this moment.

“Can you tell me where Burden Street is?” the man continued. “I…” A pause. “I got the train here and thought I could walk there from the station. But I’m lost.”

Mind and Soil

As part of my new writing project, My Family and Other Landscapes, I’m setting myself the challenge of writing one sonnet each day for the next few months. I won’t post all of them here, but I’ll make semi-regular updates and select the best to put together a book from them. Here is today’s effort.

He tells stories all the time: some are true,
Some are not (the most fun is had from these);
And on some garden afternoons he weaves
Stories of made-up distant lands, and you,
Adventurer you are, embark into
His terraced Sydney woodland. Though he leaves
You off on your sojourning (and may heave
A sigh to see you occupied, it’s true),
He’s there in every game, and will stay
When games are done and memory is all:
Turning compost by the garden wall,
Tilling soil for poetry to grow.
The life of mind is given birth right here,
Where joy springs out of safety, ever clear,
The love that held, will hold and won’t let go.

George MacDonald and the Regenerated Imagination

Well, our month of looking at George MacDonald is now finished, and to conclude it here is an essay I have written on MacDonald’s work. We have been focusing here through August on MacDonald’s poetry, but his work was far broader than that, so this essay considers not only his poetry but also his many works of fantasy and criticism. I hope it can give you all an interesting entry point into the richness of his work as a writer.

George MacDonald and the Regenerated Imagination