The Ocean at the End of the Lane

BOOK: The Ocean at the End of the Lane
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The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Neil Gaiman

Dedication

For Amanda,

who wanted to know

Epigraph

“I remember my own
childhood vividly . . . I knew terrible things. But I knew I
mustn't let adults know I knew. It would scare them.”

Maurice Sendak, in conversation with
Art Spiegelman,

The New
Yorker,
September 27, 1993

0.

I
t was only a duck pond, out at the back of the farm. It wasn't very big.

Lettie Hempstock said it was an ocean, but I knew that was silly. She said they'd come here across the ocean from the old country.

Her mother said that Lettie didn't remember properly, and it was a long time ago, and anyway, the old country had sunk.

Old Mrs. Hempstock, Lettie's grandmother, said they were both wrong, and that the place that had sunk wasn't the
really
old country. She said she could remember the really old country.

She said the really old country had blown up.

Prologue

I
wore a
black suit and a white shirt, a black tie and black shoes, all polished and
shiny: clothes that normally would make me feel uncomfortable, as if I were in a
stolen uniform, or pretending to be an adult. Today they gave me comfort of a
kind. I was wearing the right clothes for a hard day.

I had done my duty in the morning, spoken the words
I was meant to speak, and I meant them as I spoke them, and then, when the
service was done, I got in my car and I drove, randomly, without a plan, with an
hour or so to kill before I met more people I had not seen for years and shook
more hands and drank too many cups of tea from the best china. I drove along
winding Sussex country roads I only half-remembered, until I found myself headed
toward the town center, so I turned, randomly, down another road, and took a
left, and a right. It was only then that I realized where I was going, where I
had been going all along, and I grimaced at my own foolishness.

I had been driving toward a house that had not
existed for decades.

I thought of turning around, then, as I drove down
a wide street that had once been a flint lane beside a barley field, of turning
back and leaving the past undisturbed. But I was curious.

The old house, the one I had lived in for seven
years, from when I was five until I was twelve, that house had been knocked down
and was lost for good. The new house, the one my parents had built at the bottom
of the garden, between the azalea bushes and the green circle in the grass we
called the fairy ring, that had been sold thirty years ago.

I slowed the car as I saw the new house. It would
always be the new house in my head. I pulled up into the driveway, observing the
way they had built out on the mid-seventies architecture. I had forgotten that
the bricks of the house were chocolate-brown. The new people had made my
mother's tiny balcony into a two-story sunroom. I stared at the house,
remembering less than I had expected about my teenage years: no good times, no
bad times. I'd lived in that place, for a while, as a teenager. It didn't seem
to be any part of who I was now.

I backed the car out of their driveway.

It was time, I knew, to drive to my sister's
bustling, cheerful house, all tidied and stiff for the day. I would talk to
people whose existence I had forgotten years before and they would ask me about
my marriage (failed a decade ago, a relationship that had slowly frayed until
eventually, as they always seem to, it broke) and whether I was seeing anyone (I
wasn't; I was not even sure that I could, not yet) and they would ask about my
children (all grown up, they have their own lives, they wish they could be here
today), work (doing fine, thank you, I would say, never knowing how to talk
about what I do. If I could talk about it, I would not have to do it. I make
art, sometimes I make true art, and sometimes it fills the empty places in my
life. Some of them. Not all). We would talk about the departed; we would
remember the dead.

The little country lane of my childhood had become
a black tarmac road that served as a buffer between two sprawling housing
estates. I drove further down it, away from the town, which was not the way I
should have been traveling, and it felt good.

The slick black road became narrower, windier,
became the single-lane track I remembered from my childhood, became packed earth
and knobbly, bone-like flints.

Soon I was driving, slowly, bumpily, down a narrow
lane with brambles and briar roses on each side, wherever the edge was not a
stand of hazels or a wild hedgerow. It felt like I had driven back in time. That
lane was how I remembered it, when nothing else was.

I drove past Caraway Farm. I remembered being
just-sixteen, and kissing red-cheeked, fair-haired Callie Anders, who lived
there, and whose family would soon move to the Shetlands, and I would never kiss
her or see her again. Then nothing but fields on either side of the road, for
almost a mile: a tangle of meadows. Slowly the lane became a track. It was
reaching its end.

I remembered it before I turned the corner and saw
it, in all its dilapidated red-brick glory: the Hempstocks' farmhouse.

It took me by surprise, although that was where the
lane had always ended. I could have gone no further. I parked the car at the
side of the farmyard. I had no plan. I wondered whether, after all these years,
there was anyone still living there, or, more precisely, if the Hempstocks were
still living there. It seemed unlikely, but then, from what little I remembered,
they had been unlikely people.

The stench of cow muck struck me as I got out of
the car, and I walked, gingerly, across the small yard to the front door. I
looked for a doorbell, in vain, and then I knocked. The door had not been
latched properly, and it swung gently open as I rapped it with my knuckles.

I had been here, hadn't I, a long time ago? I was
sure I had. Childhood memories are sometimes covered and obscured beneath the
things that come later, like childhood toys forgotten at the bottom of a crammed
adult closet, but they are never lost for good. I stood in the hallway and
called, “Hello? Is there anybody here?”

I heard nothing. I smelled bread-baking and wax
furniture polish and old wood. My eyes were slow to adjust to the darkness: I
peered into it, was getting ready to turn and leave when an elderly woman came
out of the dim hallway holding a white duster. She wore her gray hair long.

I said, “Mrs. Hempstock?”

She tipped her head to one side, looked at me.
“Yes. I do
know
you, young man,” she said. I am not a young man. Not any longer.
“I know you, but things get messy when you get to my age. Who are you,
exactly?”

“I think I must have been about seven, maybe eight,
the last time I was here.”

She smiled then. “You were Lettie's friend? From
the top of the lane?”

“You gave me milk. It was warm, from the cows.” And
then I realized how many years had gone by, and I said, “No, you didn't do that,
that must have been your mother who gave me the milk. I'm sorry.” As we age, we
become our parents; live long enough and we see faces repeat in time. I
remembered Mrs. Hempstock, Lettie's mother, as a stout woman. This woman was
stick-thin, and she looked delicate. She looked like her mother, like the woman
I had known as Old Mrs. Hempstock.

Sometimes when I look in the mirror I see my
father's face, not my own, and I remember the way he would smile at himself, in
mirrors, before he went out. “Looking good,” he'd say to his reflection,
approvingly. “Looking good.”

“Are you here to see Lettie?” Mrs. Hempstock
asked.

“Is she here?” The idea surprised me. She had
gone
somewhere, hadn't she? America?

The old woman shook her head. “I was just about to
put the kettle on. Do you fancy a spot of tea?”

I hesitated. Then I said that, if she didn't mind,
I'd like it if she could point me toward the duck pond first.

“Duck pond?”

I knew Lettie had had a funny name for it. I
remembered that. “She called it the sea. Something like that.”

The old woman put the cloth down on the dresser.
“Can't drink the water from the sea, can you? Too salty. Like drinking life's
blood. Do you remember the way? You can get to it around the side of the house.
Just follow the path.”

If you'd asked me an hour before, I would have said
no, I did not remember the way. I do not even think I would have remembered
Lettie Hempstock's name. But standing in that hallway, it was all coming back to
me. Memories were waiting at the edges of things, beckoning to me. Had you told
me that I was seven again, I might have half-believed you, for a moment.

“Thank you.”

I walked into the farmyard. I went past the chicken
coop, past the old barn and along the edge of the field, remembering where I
was, and what was coming next, and exulting in the knowledge. Hazels lined the
side of the meadow. I picked a handful of the green nuts, put them in my
pocket.

The pond is next,
I thought.
I just have to go
around this shed, and I'll see it.

I saw it and felt oddly proud of myself, as if that
one act of memory had blown away some of the cobwebs of the day.

The pond was smaller than I remembered. There was a
little wooden shed on the far side, and, by the path, an ancient, heavy,
wood-and-metal bench. The peeling wooden slats had been painted green a few
years ago. I sat on the bench, and stared at the reflection of the sky in the
water, at the scum of duckweed at the edges, and the half-dozen lily pads. Every
now and again, I tossed a hazelnut into the middle of the pond, the pond that
Lettie Hempstock had called . . .

It wasn't the sea, was it?

She would be older than I am now, Lettie Hempstock.
She was only a handful of years older than I was back then, for all her funny
talk. She was eleven. I was . . . what was I? It was after the bad
birthday party. I knew that. So I would have been seven.

I wondered if we had ever fallen in the water. Had
I pushed her into the duck pond, that strange girl who lived in the farm at the
very bottom of the lane? I remembered her being in the water. Perhaps she had
pushed me in too.

Where did she go? America? No,
Australia.
That was
it. Somewhere a long way away.

And it wasn't the sea. It was the ocean.

Lettie Hempstock's ocean.

I remembered that, and, remembering that, I
remembered everything.

BOOK: The Ocean at the End of the Lane
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