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Tales from the back of the eyelids

Education

  • This story is not a dream. It is an examination.

  • Distinguish between imagination and reality in the text on the right and discuss your conclusions in the space provided below.

I woke up. It must have been early because the daylight was diffuse and everything was quiet in the house. My brother was still asleep in his bed opposite me. I climbed out of my cot, slipped down to the floor and pattered across to the sliding door. I pulled it open and went out.

Along the length of our bungalow was a patio which I often used as a short cut to get to my parents' room. Sometimes I would have fun surprising my parents by appearing on one side of their room and then running through the building to appear at the other side. They would be amazed - or at least would pretend to be amazed - that there were two of me.

Instead of going to see them, for some reason this time I walked out into the garden. The grass was wet and warm underneath my bare feet. The sun was beginning to rise but there were still wisps of vapour trailing over the lawn. At the back of the garden the bushes from which we would pick rambutan fruit were wrapped in a delicate gossamer-like mist.

That's when I noticed something surprising: a huge stone tower was standing in the middle of these bushes. It rose up out of the mist, high into the blue sky. It  was impressive: white, gleaming, cylindrical and made up of rows of arches and columns.

The structure hadn't been there before. How did it get there? Most peculiar of all was that the tower was leaning at a precipitous angle and looked as if at any moment it could come crashing to the ground.

*

That was one of my earliest memories. It comes from Singapore where we lived until I was almost four. The memory is slightly garbled: the Leaning Tower of Pisa didn't stand at the end of our garden. It did stand, though, on a shelf on the wall nearest to the patio door. At least, a six centimetre high marble model of it did. Everything else is completely accurate. I think.

I can remember things that happened when I was two years old. "No, you can't," my father would say in later years. "No one can remember anything from that age." He claimed I had false memories implanted from watching his home movies of Singapore. But he was wrong. My first memories are hazy and sometimes muddled but I know they are not make-believe.

Rambutan is a good example: this delicious fruit became the stuff of legend in England where it wasn't available. My family would crave it as we, in our darkened sitting room, watched ourselves on film eating its delicate flesh. For years I craved along with my family, even though I couldn't be sure I remembered how the fruit tasted. Strangely though, when I did eat rambutan again after forty odd years, it tasted exactly as I had imagined all that time. Now a memory of a taste can't come from home movies, can it?

Father was wrong but he did have some ammunition. Early recollections seem fanciful because in them reality and imagination are given equal value. Young children haven't yet learnt to differentiate between the two. If you see a gleaming white tower in your mind's eye, and if you haven't yet learned that reality must be supported by cause and effect, how can you know that your vision is only imagination?

By the time I was six I was absolutely sure of the difference, even though my imagination remained as vivid as ever. As I stood in the queue for lunch in the school dining hall, I could see my favourite space monsters standing between the tables battling it out, zapping and blasting each other to bits. But at that age I already knew what I was seeing was not real.

*

How did this transformation happen? A pivotal moment was returning to England from Singapore. Events became a narrative for the first time on that journey. Before then memories had only been isolated images. Perhaps the catalyst was the sudden dramatic change in my surroundings. Perhaps it was the excitement. Perhaps it was India.

India? You see, mid-journey the plane stopped in India to refuel. At first I didn't really understand what India meant. My parents had a friend who had a red dot in the middle of her forehead. The first time I saw her I stared at the dot, mesmerised. I was told she was from India. That was the sum total of my knowledge of India.

The rest of my family, though, was in awe. "Wow! India!" They said. India, apparently, was marvellous place that usually a person could only dream of visiting. We couldn't actually see much of India from the aeroplane windows: only a long concrete runway and some airport buildings in the distance. Still, to be in India was amazing. Life, I realised, could be thrilling.

*

On the second leg of the journey it was dark and we slept fitfully, as you do on a plane. One time when I woke up I said I needed to go to the toilet. My father took me to the back of the plane. But I didn't want Daddy. I wanted Mummy. As Father dragged me along the aisle I wailed: "I want Mummy! I want Mummy!"

When we got to the toilet Father tried to take my trousers down and sit me on the bowl. I struggled and twisted. "I want Mummy! I want Mummy!" I screamed.

Father was annoyed. "Quiet!" He shouted. "You can't have Mummy. She's asleep. Just pee!" Somehow I managed to wriggle my way out between his legs and out of the door. I ran back down the aisle to where the family was. There, in a row, asleep, flopped over each other, were my mother, brother and sister. I crawled into my seat next to Mother. She raised her head and looked blearily at me. "Shh!" I said to her. "Don't tell Daddy!" I put my head on her lap and pretended to sleep. "All right, dear," said Mother, who already had put her head down and closed her eyes.

A little later I heard Father talking to someone in the row next to us. "I'm very sorry," Father said, "in the dark I thought he was my son." Father was giggling and seemed to be embarrassed. The man he was talking to sounded pleasant and good-humoured. "Oh, that really doesn't matter," he was saying. " Any time you want to take him, just go ahead. I'd only be too happy." I smiled to myself. I had managed to do a very difficult thing: I had fooled a grown-up.

For years after Father would tell guests the amusing story of how he took a stranger's child to the toilet believing it was me. It was dark and he had only been half awake. "I went back and there was Philip fast asleep in his seat. Then I saw another blond boy, just like him, in the next row still whimpering for his mummy."

It was an entertaining anecdote but it wasn't true. One day, when Father was telling the story yet again to some visitors, I spilled the beans. He was angry – I had ruined his story. "But that's what really happened!" I protested. "No it didn't. You're fibbing," he said. "No one can remember anything from that age."

Of course the real reason my father rubbished my memories was because it suited him. As far as he was concerned, the truth was whatever he wanted it to be.

*

As I said, the journey from Singapore to England was a milestone in my development. From that moment on I realised events followed each other: after the flight we collected our new car and drove to our new home, which was in Allington, a village in the south of England. But just because reality was now ordered, it didn't yet mean that my imagination was completely disentangled from it.

In Allington we got our first television set. Every day at the same time I would watch a children's program called The Magic Roundabout which came on before the early evening news. One day, though, we had come back from somewhere too late and the news had already started. In the sixties there was no such thing as the internet nor even video recorders and so when a program was over, it was gone for good. That was a terrible finality which people today don't have to face and which I had not yet learnt to deal with. I was devastated. I wailed and cried. If I cried enough surely someone, somewhere could do something....

When I had wailed for a fair while, my father finally promised he would phone the BBC and ask them to cancel the news and play The Magic Roundabout again. This is when something extraordinary happened: just after my father dialled the number, the telephone rang on the newscaster's desk. The man on the TV stopped reading and said: "I'm sorry, excuse me for a minute." He picked up the phone. "I completely understand," he told my father, "but it really isn't possible. We must keep to our schedules. Yes, I'm sorry. Goodbye." At that the newcaster put the phone down, apologised once again and continued reading the news.

My father also hung up. "Well, you heard him," he said to me. "They can't show the program again. Oh well," he sighed.

At that instant I gained another insight into reality: wanting things to be different, even when it hurts very badly, won't by itself change anything. In any case I stopped wailing because I had seen with my own eyes that Father had tried his best.

*

Allington was a small village with big buses. The double deckers would wait at the bottom of our cul-de-sac for a while before heading back to Boscombe, the nearest town. Their size seemed too large and important for our little street, which was only a few houses out in the middle of miles of fields. The bus driver and conductor would lounge about, talking and smoking on the kerbs, waiting until it was time to start up the engine again. I didn't like them. Despite their uniforms they looked untidy and had greasy hair. Once, when I was playing near by, one of them called out to me. I froze in fear. The men laughed and as they opened their mouths I could see their horrible yellow teeth.

*

Sometime in the summer my mother told me I would be going to the school in Boscombe soon. I was going to be five in the autumn and so I had to go. I didn't like the idea of going to a big school and meeting lots of children I didn't know.

"I don't want to go to school, Mummy," I said. She ignored me. I knew that if I pestered enough, I ought get my way in the end. "Mummy, I don't want to go to school. Mummy! I don't want to school, Mummy." Seeing as she was not paying me any attention I grabbed the hem of her skirt and pulled at it. "Mummy!" Suddenly she turned around and snapped furiously: "Well, you're just going to have to!"

Another piece had just fitted into the jigsaw: for arbitrary reasons of their own, grownups sometimes refuse to help you get what you want. I saw there was no point in trying to persuade her any more. Mother's reaction was far more frightening than my abstract fears and I didn't mention school to her again.

*

When the day came, Mother and I went to the bus stop and waited for the double decker bus. I remember that as we stood there I learned what a duffel coat was. I was wearing a new one and I was very proud of it. Mother smiled at me as I repeated the words "my new duffel coat" over and over.

At first everything was fine at school: I played with some toys while Mother chatted to the teachers. Then, when my back was turned, Mother tried to sneak away without me. But I spotted her just as she was going out the door. I hurled myself after her, crying "Mummy!" at the top of my voice. I caught her and held onto her waist.

Mother was embarrassed of me up to the top of her ears. She tried to push me away but I held on tight. Mother extracted herself from me only with the help of the teachers, and I was left by myself with these strangers, screaming my head off.

*

The double decker bus was waiting at the end of the cul-de-sac and the bus driver and conductor were lounging about on the kerb, talking and smoking. Despite their uniforms they looked untidy and had greasy hair. I was playing nearby and one of them called out to me. "Come closer, little boy!" The men laughed and as they opened their mouths I could see their horrible yellow teeth.

I knew I ought to obey grown-ups. I took a few steps towards them. "Get on the bus, little boy!" one of them said. "I don't want to!" I replied. By now I was ready to run. But I couldn't. My legs wouldn't move. The next thing I knew I was on the bus. I have no idea how.

The bus started up and off we went together. Soon my house and street were gone and I didn't know where I was. I thought of how I would never see my home or my family again. "I don't want to get on the bus!" I screamed.

*

I screamed - and woke myself up. And even though I was now awake, I continued screaming because I wanted my parents to comfort me. In time my father came to the door.

"What's wrong, Philip?" He asked, frowning. Father knew I wanted him to cuddle me, but he deliberately stayed by the door. "If I ran to him every time he cried out, I would make him into a crybaby," he said to himself.

"I don't want to get on the bus!" I screamed again.

Father was irritated. "How can there be a bus in the room? That's just stupid! You're at home, Philip. There is no bus. Go back to sleep!"

I realised he was right. How could there be a bus in the room?

"Ah," I thought. "That's how to distinguish between imagination and reality, stupid!"

***

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