During the prolog to Neil Gaiman’s slim new novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a man returning to his childhood home is haunted by all that he’s forgotten. It’s a nice piece of writing, this introductory prolog, before all the fantasy kicks into gear. Ironically, this little introduction that does without the magic, is wonderfully magical. So too is it reminiscent of a road trip Gina and I took almost 25 years ago.
We had been dating for about a year. Having traded rough sketches of our short histories, it was time to start coloring in the shapes.
When I was five years old, before moving to the farm, I lived in Coalville, a neighborhood in a small town half a state away. We lived there for six months or so, in a little green rented house with a garage and plum trees in the back yard. In Coalville, I made my first best friend and formed some of my strongest summer memories. In the mid-80’s, I hadn’t been back for almost 20 years. Like the narrator in Gaiman’s book, I felt a mix of emotions at returning. As we drove, the memories revealed themselves, and the years slipped away. And, jarring at the time, but making for a great story now, there was even a moment of spooky weirdness during the trip, when the world tipped sideways.
So we pulled into town, and I had no idea where to go. At five years old, you don’t pay much attention to the roads, and even if I had, they’d naturally changed over time. We stopped at a gas station for directions (no GPS in those days), and before long, drove past the stylish new Quickie Mart station that had replaced the stucco general store where I once traded soda pop bottles for candy with a lady named Tiny.
Coalville was smaller than I remembered. The blocks were shorter, the houses smaller. In memory the place was always sunny. Today it was raining, and as I pulled into the driveway where I had once ridden a tricycle, the clouds swirled in a deep gray. The place was in fair repair, though it wasn’t immediately apparent that anyone lived there. The garage was shut up, and the windows of the house had that dull, dead look empty buildings get. Full of enthusiasm, I rushed ahead to take in the back yard. Experiencing time travel for the first time, I wasn’t overly cautious. The plum trees were taller, the lawn not as plush. I leapt up the steps to the back porch and rang the doorbell.
Miss Havisham answered the door. Paper thin skin, yellow eyes and teeth, a dozen strands of combed over white hair, she was the living embodiment of a Dickens character. If she were living. I tested this by trying to talk to her.
“Hello!” I told her who I was. “My girlfriend and I are passing through and I wanted to stop and show her the house I once lived in.”
“What house?” said the woman.
“This house,” I explained. “Your house. I lived here once.”
Her face didn’t change. No emotion whatsoever. And a matter-of-fact voice.
“You’re mistaken. I have lived here for fifty years.”
“No,” I said, gently. “I lived here with my parents in 1971. I had a swing set in the backyard beside that plum tree. My bedroom was there, where your air-conditioner is in the window.”
She shook her head. “I was here in 1971. I have always lived here. I don’t know who you are, but no boy has ever lived in this house. Only my husband and daughter and me.”
Now the voice of a school teacher explaining the most simple thing imaginable. “You’ve mistaken my house for some other place.”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“I will call the police if you don’t leave now,” she said in an oddly sweet voice.
Well, I didn’t want that, so I thanked her and we got back in the car.
“I’m not mistaken,” I said.
But having grown up on Ray Bradbury and Roald Dahl, Rod Serling, and Alfred Hitchcock, didn’t it make for an exhilarating tale? Ten minutes earlier I’d experienced real time travel. Now I was in the Twilight Zone.
“Where did your best friend live?” asked Gina. “The kid you spent that summer with?”
I backed out onto the street and drove straight to Shane’s house.
His family name was still on the mailbox.
“If nobody remembers you here,” said Gina. “I’m taking a bus back to Nebraska.”
She was kidding. I think.
But I never got the chance to find out. Shane’s mom answered the door, and why yes, she remembered me fondly. We sat inside their garage and drank iced tea and watched it rain and my old friend’s mom filled me in on his life (“He’s in the marines, serving overseas.”) and I told her about my family.
Finally I asked about Miss Havisham and the house.
“The poor dear is confused,” I was told. “She’s lived there a while, but always by herself.”
No Gaiman-like dreamscapes. No Twilight Zone.
Just the sputtering biology of an old lady making the wrong connections. Science, not supernatural.
On the way home, Gina had to ask. “Just for a moment, maybe a split-second, when the old lady argued with you, did you doubt your memory?”
Again, having fun with the fantasy, I was tempted to say yes, but the answer was no. Unlike the narrator of Gaiman’s story, my nightmares were confined to the place they have always lived, in the well tended house of fiction.