What every small child knows about dreams

I’m permitting myself a wayhay today because my agent has read my manuscript… and she says ‘Writing in the House of Dreams’ is a remarkable book!

*happy dance*

So while my dream book is winging its way onto editors’ desks, I’ve decided to celebrate by sharing a short extract here, about what every five-year-old knows about dreams.

Life is resonant. Small events set up vibrations in the soul which still reverberate long after the event itself is forgotten. So it was with the ants on a hot summer day in 1955 which, two years later, were to bring me my first understanding of dreams.

I was making mud pies on the back step, scraping the dry earth into my bucket, adding water from the dribbling outdoor tap and stirring the mixture like my mother did when she made fairy cakes for tea. I spooned it out in sloppy dollops onto the hot concrete and by the time I had found enough small stones for cherries my mud pies were already drying out, going hard and pale at the edges.

 My mother was at the kitchen sink doing the washing. The hankies were boiling on the stove and she had the back door open to let the steam out. My father was mowing the grass. I could hear the whirr-whirr of the blades behind me as he pushed the mower up and down. My big sister Susan was riding her bike, bumping and rattling along the path that ran down the side of the garden to the wooden gate at the bottom.

Our garden was a large patch of scrubby grass, featureless except for a washing-line and a compost heap in the far corner comprised entirely of grass cuttings. On one side, a chain-link fence separated the garden from next door’s identical one, and then another chain-link fence, and another, all the way to the main road. On the other side, a tall hedge hid the flower-beds and orchards that surrounded the big bungalow at the end of the close.

            We heard Monica calling but we couldn’t see her over the hedge. Susan ran down to the gate. I ran after her. I always followed although Susan never asked me to and sometimes I ended up wishing I hadn’t. I hoped Monica wouldn’t have her doctor’s set with her because if she did, they would make me be the patient. They would take me to secret places and hold me down. Susan would wield the syringe, of course – she was the expert when it came to injections.

            We went out the gate and clambered over the stile into the woods, where Monica was waiting impatiently.

            ‘I’ve found something!’ she said to Susan. ‘Come and see.’

I followed them along the dirt path under the trees. Monica was pulling a plank of wood along the ground behind her, tied to a piece of string. I didn’t know what it was for, and I didn’t like not knowing. Suddenly, Monica stopped.

            There was a dead animal lying under the long grass at the side of the path. It had a dribble of dried blood stuck to its face where its eye should be.

            ‘What is it?’ Susan said.

            ‘I don’t know,’ said Monica. ‘But we’re going to pick it up and put it on my sledge.’

They both looked at me.

            I was frightened of Monica. She wasn’t as big as Susan, but she had bright ginger hair, and her pale face was covered in freckles. She claimed she could eat the skin of oranges, and I had seen her mother do it, her bright red lipstick lips drawn back from her teeth. When I tried to do it myself, I couldn’t. Even the fleshy pith was too bitter.

            I looked at the animal. I didn’t ask why we had to put it on the plank, or where we were going to take it. There were fat flies buzzing around it and ants crawling in and out of its fur. I wanted to run back along the path, but I couldn’t see the house from there and I wasn’t sure of the way.

            My sister flicked at the flies with a bit of bracken.

            ‘Go on then,’ she said.

            Monica put her hand on her hip, her orange hair gleaming dangerously. Susan’s hair was black, in thick curls around her face. They were both much bigger than me. I could feel the ants crawling in the rat’s wiry fur as I picked it up.

No-one knew about the rat, but here’s a photo our mother took at the seaside of me holding another dead animal that Susan and Monica found

The ants crawled out of the rat and surfaced again soon after when I was watching a film on television with my father. The Indians buried the cowboys up to their necks and smeared honey on their faces.

            ‘Why have they given them honey?’ I asked my dad. ‘Is it to tease them because they can’t reach to lick it up?’

Before he could answer, the ants came and everything became horribly clear.

            So the ants crawled out of the rat bringing fear and revulsion on their backs, and they came to the honey, and they hurt the cowboys, and then with fear and revulsion and cruelty they marched on. They caught up with me two years later, when my family had moved to a suburban street far, far away from the woods.

I was lying in a shallow ditch. I had no idea how I had got there. The earth underneath me felt warm and grainy, and the sun on my bare arms and legs made my skin tingle. I raised my head and looked down at my body. There was an ant on my leg. I stiffened. Suddenly, the ants were everywhere. I wanted to brush them off but I found I couldn’t move. I started to scream.

            My mother came rushing into the bedroom.

            ‘Get them off me!’ I shouted. ‘Make them go away!’

            ‘What? Get what off you? What’s the matter?’

I couldn’t tell whether my mother was angry or scared, like me.

            ‘The ants! Get them off me!’

            My mother said, ‘There aren’t any ants here. You must have been having a dream.’

            What did she mean, there weren’t any ants? I could see them. I could feel them crawling all over me. I started to scream again.

            My mother ran out and came back with my dad. He stood in the doorway in his pyjamas, bleary with sleep.

            ‘Get them off me!’ I yelled.

The ants were everywhere. They were nibbling at my skin. They were eating right through to my bones.

            ‘What’s going on?’ my father asked – my mother, not me.

            ‘Just tell her there aren’t any ants.’

He nodded, and pulled back the blankets. He said, ‘Look, Jennifer. No ants. There aren’t any ants.’

            I couldn’t see them now, but I knew what I had seen, and I knew what I had felt. I knew what every five-year-old knows – that dreams are real. The only difference between the ants on the rat and the ants in the ditch was that nobody else could see the ants in the ditch. In dreams, you were on your own.

            After my mother and father had gone back to bed, I lay there rigid, not daring to move in case the ants came back. Then I did what every child eventually does – I turned my face away from the dream towards the light streaming in from the landing.

I looked away and my dreams disappeared, as dreams will.

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12 thoughts on “What every small child knows about dreams”

  1. Thank you, Moira! I imagine a lot of us children’s writers still feel some connection with that magical childhood place, where there’s no difference between dreams and waking life

  2. Thank you Enid – I think all little girls and boys have to be brave – and the miracle is, they are!

  3. Brilliant piece of writing Jen. Childhood memories are always so vivid and evocative. I love the photo of you holding the fish, Monica looking happily triumphant and your sister putting on a tough face! 🙂 Fabulous news about your dream book, although not surprising. keep us posted…

    1. Do you know, Pat, I still remember the smell of that fish! I will keep you posted as soon as I have news… hopefully with a BIG wayhay!!

    1. Hi Sue – thank you for commenting – now it’s That Time, when your baby has fledged and you have no idea whether it’s going to sink or swim…

  4. Great news about the book!

    Your ant nightmare reminds me of when we were about that age and made coiled snakes out of circles of paper (draw snake coiled up with head in middle, colour in, and then cut out in a spiral so its body springs down).

    We hung them from the ceiling of my friend’s bedroom, that night her little sister (who slept on the top bunk) woke up screaming that they were going to eat her. All the snakes had to be taken down, and my brother and I were in big trouble for showing my friend how to make them.

  5. That made me laught, Katherine! It reminded me of happy times, making those coiled snakes as a child, and all the other things we used to make from scrap paper and cornflakes boxes, such as shoes and the pound notes to purchase them!

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