Having recently finished reading Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I have been thinking a lot about children and magic. One of the most wonderful things about reading children’s fantasy is how accepting its protagonists are of the magical. They have long suspected there is more to the world than adults tell them, and magic is the easiest way to fill those gaps; it makes perfect sense. It also confirms for them another suspicion. Despite how everyone tells them to be careful, how fragile children are told they are, they now discover they actually possess extraordinary ability, a potential for power that is unique to them. For them, every puddle is an ocean. They have access to worlds the grown-ups do not.
My niece, last year, was taken on a school trip to the Think Tank. To get there, she was walked, along with twenty or so other children, to the local train station and ushered onto a platform from where they were transported to A Different Place. To her aunt, this station is part of an anxiety-ridden daily commute to her job working through endless spreadsheets, to earn money, to be allowed to live. To a five-year-old, however…
“It’s somewhere here,” she insists.
“What’s here?” I’m distracted trying to make sure she doesn’t wander into traffic. I cling to her hand, determined to make this trip to the park as painless as possible.
“The gap.” She says it as though it should be obvious and I nod. Of course.
A pause while I navigate her around a dog turd that’s been deposited in the middle of the pavement.
I bite. “What’s the gap?”
“The gap that takes you to the museum!” Again, she’s frustrated at my slowness.
I glance down at her, raising an eyebrow. I’ve not been to the museum for a very long time but I feel I might have noticed if it was anywhere near our local play park.
“There’s a gap that takes you to the museum,” I repeat, looking around me for any signs I might have missed.
Her eyes are suddenly sparkling with the prospect of knowing something I don’t know. She tugs on my arm in excitement and starts telling me a story.
“Somewhere here there’s a gap,” she says, “and when you go through it, it takes you to A Different Place. We went with My Teacher.”
I remember enough of my conversations with her mother to understand what she means now.
“The Think Tank,” I say, and somehow I feel a little disappointed, “You went on the train to the Think Tank.”
“Yeah! The train!” She’s pleased that this crucial keyword has come up, that we have achieved Communication. And then –
“I think it’s that gap.” She’s pointing to the space between the kerb and the island in the middle of the road.
I’m examining it before I think about it, although I don’t know what I’m looking for.
“Or that gap.” Now she waves her arm at the space between two trees in front of us and I see her eyes widen as they follow the line of them all along the pavement. The trees have been planted in rows along the two kerbs, stretching to as far as she can see and beyond. And between each pair of trees, a gap.
“Do…” She glances up at me, half laughing, half breathless, “do all the gaps take you to Different Places?”
She’s five years old, so she’s never read The Chronicles of Narnia, but I have. I look at the road in front of us and it looks like some strange new iteration of The Wood between the Worlds. I see the Different Places hung like hammocks between every pair of trees, mysterious and inviting.
All we would have to do is step out into the road.
“You’re not allowed to go there now.” I pull her hand to direct her away from the trees and the traffic and towards the barriers that stand outside the gate to the park. For a second, she resists and I can feel her pulling away from me, towards all the Worlds I won’t allow her, and I know I can’t hold her in this one forever.
I open my mouth, ready to explain to her that sometimes, you can walk through a gap and not fit through to get back –
but before I can, she’s already spotted a free swing in the distance, and, used to being told no, she complies, running instead towards the barriers.
She asks me what they were made for, even as she makes it clear why they’re useful. I help her climb over them and jump down gracelessly and explain to her – like I explained last time – that the barriers are to stop cars from being able to get in. She nods, but I can tell from her face that she doesn’t understand and that she won’t remember the next time we come here. She cannot conceive of something so huge and metal even trying to fit itself into this space. She will not understand yet, how gaps and barriers are the same thing. That she passes in and out of doorways others might die attempting to traverse.
I hold the gate open for her, and she runs through.