An Ocean and a River

You must be somewhere in London
You must be loving your life in the rain
You must be somewhere in London
Walking Abbey Lane

– “England” / The National


Fifteen years ago, when I was just old enough to start saying I was “too grown up for all that stuff” but not old enough to stop doing it, I had an imaginary friend. His name was Paulie. He was nine, like me, with short, dark hair that always seemed to fall into his eyes. He had a weird, unbalanced run because of it – he was distracted, too preoccupied with scraping stray locks of hair from his face. He was – oh, I don’t know – nice. He was mischievous enough to be labelled “boisterous,” but without crossing the line into malicious. Yet he was always polite; he’d say hello to every adult we met, even though they couldn’t hear him.

Sometimes he wouldn’t appear, or he’d run off somewhere – I don’t know, maybe my subconscious thought I needed some time alone – but he’d be around most of the time, and even when he couldn’t follow me to my door, he’d be polite. He’d tell me to “say hello to your mom for me!” or something similar, then he’d head off down the nearest path until he was out of sight. It didn’t matter whether he said hello in person or through me; Mum would just look past him – or even worse, through him – and sigh. I was too old for such games, she said. The kids at school would laugh at me; they’d wonder how I was brought up – if there was something wrong with her parenting, or if I was just “slow”. I’d gathered that slow was a bad thing, but never really questioned why. I was still slightly confused, though; I came first or second in most sports day races.

Mom. That’s another thing. Paulie was bright, he was interesting – and he was American. I figure now I watched too much TV; I must’ve thought that was glamorous or something. I don’t know. Mum used to laugh at some of my weird turns of phrase, asking if, as we both suspected, I’d been sitting in front of American shows for too long. For several years I could do a pretty good American accent, though my Bostonian music teacher said it sounded oddly like I was from Chicago. It lasted five years after Paulie left before I got too rusty to use it.

Paulie knew. He’d listen, and he’d laugh at me, and then he’d sit with me and try and straighten it out. The way he said round and saw was endlessly amusing to me – and difficult to perfect.

That’s the thing: for all Paulie was a nine-year-old boy, and so had the attention span of a monkey who’d overdosed on espresso, he wasn’t stupid. Sure, he did stupid things – there was that time he encouraged me to climb over a fence, tried to demonstrate, and fell. He nearly took all the skin off his knee; I made that surprisingly, vividly gory, considering I’d never seen a horror movie or even a bad accident. Even so, he could be patient when he wanted to, and he was smart. Insanely so, or at least it seemed to me. It makes sense – I was lonely, and far from dumb myself, so with no friends, I invented someone who could keep up with me. He nudged me along with the basics of arithmetic; he was a useful mechanism, an approachable way of putting questions into context so I could rethink them. He could quote my – our – favourite shows out of thin air without blinking. He had a wild, impressive imagination, even though he hadn’t quite realised he was part of mine. I still remember the time we played “cowboys in the Outback,” lassoing crocodiles and yelling, “Yee-haw!” My theory is that Paulie got his deserts mixed up.

Paulie was fun, and he was brave, and he stayed with me even after all the boys at school had started to say that girls were icky and only liked Barbies. See, he’d been my friend for years – since I was four years old. Since we were four years old. I only chose nine because it’s the year that he left me.

The inevitable happened. Mum grew concerned with how much I seemed to enjoy my own company, rather than other children’s. I was driven to clubs, sports teams, dance classes, and ordered to make friends. I did eventually, albeit in my own stubbornly awkward way. First there was Megan, and when she came round to “hang out” – I did not say play, we were too old to play – I thought about inviting Paulie along with us. But I knew deep down that he wasn’t real. By then, part of me knew, even if the rest of me couldn’t admit it. So I made excuses, said to myself that he might be too busy or too intimidated by the new addition to our group, and didn’t call him. Then there was Kay, and Penny, and Polly, but no Paulie.

He got it, after a while. He’d always noticed things: he asked about street signs; seemed confused by the British road layout; said he’d asked his mom what an aubergine was. (He had a mum but no dad, just like me. Just like I’d wanted.) He’d look concerned sometimes and say I seemed lonely, or sad. He’d ask me if anything was up at school. I was bookish, afraid of most people other than Paulie, and still imagined friends for myself at nine; as you’d expect, something was always “up”.

At last he noticed that I’d been avoiding him. I hadn’t met at any of our usual places, hadn’t answered the door when he’d knocked. We’d met occasionally, but I’d been distracted, and our conversations had been stilted. After a while, he was the same, fidgeting like he was dying to leave me. He started speaking of Al, of Leon, making friends just like I was, but it was distant. I had little desire to hear of the others intruding upon our little world, and wondered why I’d invented them.

The simple truth was this: I was embarrassed. I was ashamed of him. I had realised, sitting with friends that weren’t Paulie, that he was no longer of use. I had friends, real friends, now; I was no longer so sad as to have to dream up my own. It was brutal and painful to realise, but it was true. The thing was, as Paulie began to feel less and less real, so did I. I was self-conscious, second-guessing everything I did. My epiphany felt like I’d wrenched out a piece of my soul.

It was a warm summer’s day when I walked out to the fields behind my house. I came to the gate, sat on the stile, and waited. I saw a shape after a few minutes, a figure that was in the distance and walking towards me. I knew exactly who it was.

He reached me and he smiled at me. It was a sad and half-hearted thing. The sun had made us both freckly, but somewhere along the way, he’d become taller than me, like some of the boys in my class.

“Hey,” he said.

I nodded and looked at my feet. My courage was running out.

“You don’t want me around anymore,” he said. A statement, not a question. There was no debate to be had.

“I do,” I began, “I just…”

He shook his head. “You don’t. And that’s OK.”

I just stared at him.

“I have to go,” he said. “It’s hard to explain and I – I just do.”

“Where?” I cried, sad but also somehow outraged he’d stolen my thunder, left me first.

“You wouldn’t know,” he sighed. “Don’t – I just have to go.”

I nodded again.

“You’re gonna be OK, right?”

Nod. Shrug. Sadness didn’t seem to make me very talkative. My sensible, Mary Jane school shoes suddenly held immense interest for me.

Then I heard a sniff – the snotty sniff of a kid who wasn’t old enough to hold it back yet. “I hate this,” he said, and ground his shoe into the dirt. It was childish to stamp, Mum had always said, and I’d passed that on to him. This was his weird way of not-quite-stamping. “I hate this!” He put his hand to his face, sniffling again. I only saw this because his upset had make me finally look up from my shoes; Paulie rarely cried, except at the fence incident and a few times when we were younger.

“Paulie…” I tried.

He met my gaze. His eyes shone with unshed tears. They were blue, I suddenly saw; I hadn’t known, or maybe I simply hadn’t cared enough to imagine that detail before. A few tears fell, and he swiped them away hastily, ashamedly. “Sorry,” he mumbled.

“Paulie,” I said again, stepping forward – and then he hugged me. In reality, there was nothing; he couldn’t touch me. Even so, I felt it in my bones. I closed my eyes and let myself pretend, grasping for another second, another minute – just a little more time with my best friend.

Then he drew away from me. “I have to go,” he insisted again, then he grinned at me – it was a wide, graceless, impossibly bright thing that spread across his face slowly, the way a flower opens – and ordered, “Say hi to your mom!”

“I will.”

He turned and began to walk away from me. One step at a time, I felt him fading, even though he stayed solid until he was out of view.

I never saw him again. Well, not really.

Sometimes strange things happen and you have no explanation, no reference point for them. They have no precedent, and they happen once, and then you spend the rest of your life wondering what if.

Nine years ago, when I’d been old enough to say I was “too grown up for that stuff” for a long time – and I was – I heard a knock at my front door. Another followed, and another. I was fifteen, plenty old enough to answer the door myself, but I hesitated. I will never know why I did; it was unusual for me.

Something made me look down from my window, onto our front garden, and walking quickly down the garden path was a boy. Nearly a young man, actually. He was lanky, and he was wearing a black T shirt. I frowned; he didn’t look like any of the boys from school. He headed down the garden path, his shoulders slumped and his hands in his pockets.

Then he turned to look once more at the front door, and I knew. He had a buzz cut, but his eyes and the rueful little smile he gave the shut door were the same.

Paulie, my mind screamed, and I froze.

I should have run downstairs. I should have wrenched the door open and called his name. Instead I stayed stock still and watched him get to the end of the path. He went through the gate, shutting it behind him – that was nothing new; I’d always imagined Paulie could do things, affect things, it was just others that didn’t see it, hear it, feel it – before walking down the road. He kept going until he turned the corner and I could no longer see him.

“Who was it?” Mum called a couple of seconds later. I heard her steps, then she was leaning against my bedroom door frame. She had dripping hair, a towel wrapped round her and a steady glare.

I could only stare back. She’d heard that?

“You didn’t answer it, did you?”

I shook my head.

“Jesus, it’s probably Veronica, and now she’ll give me the nth degree about missing a planning session for the wedding – “

“It wasn’t Veronica,” I interrupted. Too quick, too vehement. The moment the words were out of my mouth, I wanted to cram them back in.

Mum’s answer turned to confusion. “I thought you didn’t answer it?”

“I didn’t,” I said hastily. “I saw them walking away. Didn’t recognise them.”

Mum tsked, straightening. “Probably some cold caller.”

I shrugged. “Probably.”

Mum headed to her room, and I turned back to my window, confused and afraid, knowing what I’d seen was just my imagination, and yet somehow… anticipatory.

I never saw him again. Not even a glimpse.

So there it is. Abbey asked me what my best childhood memory was, and I only said one word: Paulie. She asked who he was, so of course I had to explain, and now I’ve explained. Done.

Except Abbey won’t leave it. She stares at me, then says, “You almost talk like he’s real.”

I shrug. “I catch myself doing that sometimes. I mean, he felt real for such a long time, and maybe part of me hasn’t quite grown out of that.”

She’s still saucer-eyed, still staring. “But the thing with the knock on the door – that was weird, right?”

I shake my head. “I’d been under a lot of stress with exams, and I kept getting bullied… I don’t know. I was on the verge of a breakdown, I reckon, and my mind sent me something I needed. That’s what it’s always been for, this – this imaginary friend idea. It helped me compartmentalise, I guess. I probably made some noise when I got surprised, Mum saw me looking at the front path, and she reacted.”

It’s Abbey’s turn to shrug. She takes a sip of her coffee, darting glances around the crowded Starbucks – probably waiting for the odd looks, for people to start backing away. “Right,” she says after a moment.

She’s a friend, but I suddenly feel like I’ve exposed far too much of myself. It’s sad, I know, but Paulie helped me be brave. Even after I stopped believing in him, that glimpse helped me get through exams. If my mind could generate Paulie, I figured, it wanted me to get through this in one piece – it was strong enough that I could do that. So I did.

I pointedly check my watch. “Oh,” I say, feigning surprise. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know it was – Mum’ll be expecting me.” It’s a lie; I have an hour until I’m meant to meet her.

Abbey nods, smiling. “See you.” She gives me a cheery wave.

“Soon, hopefully,” I laugh. I stand, throw my coffee cup in the bin and wave to her before walking through the door, into the grey autumn day.

Sometimes strange things happen.

I walk down the street, pulling my scarf closer to my neck. It barely keeps the cold out, but it’s better than nothing. I look up, and that’s when I notice it.

The street is crowded and there are a few people directly in front of me, but in front of them is a man- and his hair is blue. Not a blue-tinged black – a bright, honest blue, the colour of a blueberry. It lies in a short ponytail that’s doesn’t quite pass his shoulders. It draws the eye. I can’t quite look away. The aforementioned shoulders are covered by what looks like a heavy leather jacket.

Subtle, I think, feeling myself smirk, then I add, more sincerely, Brave.

It is. We don’t get many crazy-haired, all-black-wearing types round here, and I have to admire him for it. I keep walking, and I watch him.

He’s tall, and he has the long-limbed gait to match it. Broad, too, but not arrogant: he moves to let people past him, and when they do the same for him, he nods his thanks. An old woman – surprising everyone in the street, I think – smiles brightly at him. Her pleased response tells me he’s smiled back.

He ends up at the crossing a few feet ahead of me – the one I’ll have to use to get to Mum’s road. I speed up a little as I see him press the button, not wanting to miss the green man. Traffic zooms past the blue-haired goth type. Yet more cars pass, and more. He shifts his weight with what might be a sigh, from the way his shoulders sag slightly, but gives no other outward sign of impatience.

In the two minutes it takes me to reach the crossing, the traffic still hasn’t slowed. This is ridiculous. I draw level with the blue-haired guy, carefully not looking – and yet trying to, strangely curious.

He doesn’t even make a pretence of ignoring me; he gives me a small smile, a shrug. I abandon my own pretence, and look.

Even with the weird hair and the eyebrow piercing – maybe even slightly because of it – he’s something special: high-cheekboned, blue-eyed, with long eyelashes and a full, pink mouth. Only the strength of his jaw stops him being pretty, rather than handsome. His smile is infectious, and I catch myself giving him one of my own.

He reaches up to shift a few stray tendrils of hair from his eyes.

I freeze. It’s sudden. It spreads through my whole body until my feet are planted, immoveable, even as I hear the beeping that tells us to cross, and I’m staring at him, reconsidering him and trying to understand…

He’s a second behind me, but his eyes widen, and he frowns. He looks me up and down like he’s trying to make sure I’m real – or like he hasn’t seen me in years and I’ve changed beyond recognition. Maybe I have. Nine years is a long time. He takes a deep breath, steadying himself. “I had an imaginary friend just like…” he begins, and yes, he’s American, and his voice is deeper than I remember but he still wears his city on his sleeve. He stops. Another deep inhale as he takes in my own shock. Then that guileless, all too familiar grin appears, blinding as the sun, and he asks, “How’s your mom?”


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