I was exactly nine and a half years old when a big part of my day-to-day life started cracking, letting doubt slip into me. It was an ordinary lesson in class when - for some reason - I decided to entrust my teacher and the other pupils with something I didn’t know was supposed to stay a secret; it had never occurred to me others might find it shameful.
A few giggles made their way to me from the back of the class, but apart from that everyone was silent. The teacher’s eyes were fixed upon mine, but her kind smile tricked me into not realising what an ominous sign that was.
“How old are you?”
I replied without blinking, although of course she knew it already. Another few seconds passed, the whole classroom holding their breath, expecting the teacher’s reply. Suddenly a corner of her mouth went up, transforming her kind smile in a mocking one.
“And your father is still telling you bedtime stories?!”
The air around me filled with laughter, but I kept my eyes glued onto hers, trying to decode the meaning behind her words. I suddenly felt childish and spoilt, although I couldn’t understand the relation between my age and the ritual that me and my family had practised almost religiously every evening, for as long as I could remember. There were many reasons why we still kept the tradition going despite my age, but none came to mind at the time. It took me years to admit there was nothing wrong with it, in fact a question as simple as “Why?” would have probably uncovered a valid answer from my nine year old self: enjoyment. As simple as that. The enjoyment of my five year old brother - together with my own - when listening to the stories, the enjoyment of my father when telling them, of my family when reading fiction books, of my parents feeding the flame of imagination in their children's minds, enchanting us with the magic of words.
Dad’s stories weren’t the usual bedtime tales either; the ones that end after just a couple of hours or even minutes: they were epics stretching over hundreds of evenings with complicated plots and characters. One of the protagonists was Tilincuța which by no coincidence was also my dearest toy, sleeping every night by my pillow. This together with that incident at school might be the reasons why I found myself one night trapped in a dream more vivid that usually - a scenario invented by my restless brain based on imagination and those new-found anxieties of being too old for bedtime stories.
One moment Dad was in the middle of describing an ingenious plan for escaping the evil wizard, the next it was silence: no voices or sounds apart from the curtain’s smooth movements in the open window. Nothing unusual about that, however the silhouette outlined by the moonlight was unexpected. I froze with panic for the couple seconds it took me to realise who he was: I had seen him in a book earlier that day.
“Of course, who else?” He approached the bed, laughing. “Sorry, did I scare you?”
“No, not all”, I lied.
Something moved next to my pillow, and I quickly turned my head just in time to see Tilincuța mocking me silently.
“I’m here to take you to Neverland”, Peter Pan said while holding his palm raised towards Tilincuța so she could land on it, leaving a trail of sparkles behind. “We agreed it’s time for you to join us.”
I frowned, looking at my animate doll and then at Peter Pan.
“Why me? Why now?”
“Why not you, and when else if not now? You’re as ready as you’ll ever be, so-”
His eyes widened, reflecting Tilincuța’s glow in the dark room, while she was flying in disbelief from one corner to the other.
“Of course you can! Don’t you want to be a kid forever?!”
My mind jumped back to the teacher’s words and the mean laugh of my classmates resonated once again in my ears.
“All children, except one, grow up - I think we both know who that one is, right? Not me!”
His eyes stared at me for a second, then he turned to look out the window as if making up his mind about something; I knew what it was before he could put it in words.
“What about… being our mum?”
I shook my head fiercely.
“I already have my brother who needs me here, and he won’t come with us. He loves Dad’s stories too much… Plus, without me here, who else would protect him from spiders and bees, darkness, strangers and-”
Peter Pan jumped away from the window to cover my mouth with his palm, while Tilincuța hid behind me.
“Quick, we don’t have much time!”
I could barely understand his whispers, muffled by my own heartbeats growing louder and louder in my ears. After a couple deep breaths I could distinguish the other sound: a rumble coming from the night’s darkness, a rhythmic thunder growing in intensity, an angry monster roaring, looking for its target - usually with the help of its powerful sense of smell, although in other stories it could be a simple mistake of the hero’s.
My vision started fading to black listening to the loud sound, and as much as I tried keeping my eyes focused on Peter Pan’s outline against the thin curtains, darkness was slowly surrounding me. His hand grabbed mine, pulling towards the open window and I felt the delicate flutters of Tilincuța’s wings against my forehead, her pixie dust covering me; I didn’t want them to take me away so my arms grabbed the side of the bed tight to make sure I wasn’t going anywhere.
I was less than ten years old, yet I was brave enough to stay behind and grow up - even if that meant knowing whether there was a growling monster coming after me, or if it was just Dad, who had fallen asleep again in our room, snoring.
In the weeks that followed I put together my growing up plan, starting with helping Dad come up with fresh ideas for the stories. This way there would be no more one-sided “storytelling”, instead “story carving” in which my brother and I would contribute by slowly shaping each and every scene, polishing the base that Dad would lay down ahead of us. Next step - writing. Putting down on paper a summary of what our heroes went through the night before, sometimes accompanied by a quick sketch or even a coloured drawing depicting the action.
The purpose of this was clear to me: one day I was going to write everything as a book, to share the adventures produced by our imagination. I had to be a grown up to do that, though, so in the meantime I focused on the third and last step in my transformation: reading as much as possible, any book I could get my hands on, to prepare for my future bestseller.
The memory of Peter Pan remained vivid in my mind for a long while, keeping me determined to stay on track with my plan: grow up, edit and publish the book. At some point along the way Peter Pan started fading into a bitter-sweet memory that would pop up randomly in my mind less and less often. Tilincuța never talked to me again from next to my pillow, nor did Peter Pan visit me.
Until last night, that is.
The warm weather in London was unexpected, determining me to keep the window open despite the busy traffic outside. I kept turning around in my sleep, trying to get comfortable but failing miserably every time, the heat keeping me captive in the fine border between dreams and reality. My mind was wandering - lingering upon certain pieces of information it encountered during the day: war in the East, a new problem at work, unknown rules for immigrants after Brexit, all of which filled my heart - and my thoughts at night - with uncertainty. But there was something else my mind decided to stop upon: a name I had seen somewhere earlier in the day, maybe on one of the social media apps, in a bookshop or perhaps just in a dusty corner of my brain: Peter Pan.
I opened my eyes as soon as those words echoed in my head and glanced towards the window, anxious of who might be waiting there: my heart skipped a bit seeing the well known silhouette framed by floating sparkles.
“You called me, didn’t you?”
His mischievous smile was mirrored by Tinkerbell’s, and she flew just inches from my face to make sure I saw her. I didn’t dare to blink, just in case I would break whatever spell had been cast and send them away just as suddenly as they had appeared.
“Do you remember Tinkerbell?”
Of course I did, who else had been my favourite toy for so many years?
“Tinkerbell… I still can't believe I forgot you out in the park that day!” She smiled and wiped a tear from my cheek with her whole palm. “I wasn’t calling you Tinkerbell back then though, was I? You were Tilincuța,… but now that we’re in this country, we might as well use the name you have here. Last time we met, I wasn’t dreaming in English.”
Peter Pan smiled.
“Last time we met, you chose to stay and grow up instead of joining us in Neverland. How are you now?”
“Someone famous once said that one day you will be old enough to read fairy tales again... I think I reached that age where I need some magic to interrupt my day-to-day life. Actually-” I added before changing my mind, “is it too late to visit Neverland?”
My grin brought a smile on Peter Pan’s face, immediately replaced by melancholy. Tinkerbell shook her head left and right, then she measured me from head to toe as if comparing my height with Peter Pan’s. She was right though, I was too tall to pass as a child in Neverland, too tall even for a mother-child. My shoulders loosened with a sigh.
“You can’t join us to Neverland, but don’t worry - I have a better idea. Think of happy thoughts!”
My eyes lit up, the same feeling I used to have when the protagonists from Dad’s stories were about to go on an adventure; the happy memories of those nights flooded my mind in an instant: me cuddled up with Tilincuța in bed, my brother surrounded by teddy bears in the bed underneath, with Dad laying next to him on some chairs, his voice soothingly sending us to sleep.
The room around me changed in the blink of an eye: the double bed was replaced with a bunk bed, the bare walls with shelves full of books, posters and children’s drawings, the wooden floor with a vintage carpet. Everything was so cramped, there were even books on top of the wardrobe. Had my childhood bedroom shrunk in the years I hadn't stepped inside the old flat…?
Peter Pan watched me look around the room, describing all those little details I had forgotten about.
“This carpet!... All its intricate patterns I was trying to copy in my notebooks- and my old Barbie dolls! Well, fake Barbies - but I never really cared.” I picked the brunette one from the floor, carefully combing a spider web from her hair. “This is one of the dresses I sewed for her right after Mum taught me how, see?”
Tinkerbell came to check what dress I was talking about, then proceeded to compare it with her own, shining one.
“Yours is the original one, I liked it too much to change it.” I turned around to look at the bed where Tinkerbell and I had spent so many nights, and realised in an instant that something was wrong about it.
“The bunk bed! What... what happened to it?”
“It looks the same to me as last time I was here”, Peter Pan laughed. “It's you who decided to grow up, remember?”
He was right, of course. The bed that once was my tower, my fortress, which I was struggling to climb in and out of using the narrow stairs, was now only up to my shoulder.
I hesitated to touch it, conscious of the thick layer of dust covering the wooden margins. Everything had been left alone for so long, it had become old and shrunk. Suddenly it felt wrong to be here: an intruder in an abandoned house, disturbing the ghosts of the past residing there. A shiver passed my spine.
“Peter Pan… Can we go now, please? I think I've seen enough.”
My eyes lingered one more time on the layers upon layers of books, amongst which I was once hoping to see my own bestseller. They suddenly became foggy from my tears, blurred as if making me question the reality I was finding myself in.
No one replied, and I made an effort to wipe off the tears enough to look around the room. Darkness met my eyes, but something did catch my attention: a rhythmic noise, roaring closer and closer with every breath I took. A monster? A giant? A căpcăun from those folklore stories I had forgotten about? I smiled faintly, wishing it was any of them; any fantasy creature would be seen as a miracle at that point, after so many years in which none of them had crossed my mind.
“Quick, happy thoughts!”
Peter Pan’s whispers startled me, but I dismissed them in an instant. I didn't need his advice, I wanted to see whatever was approaching the window. Closer and closer, louder and louder… until I couldn't stand it anymore.
“Honey, you're snoring again!”
I pushed my fiancé's shoulder with probably a bit more force than necessary.
“You interrupted my dream…”
My eyes stung with tears I didn't realise were there. The thought of my brother and parents being almost 2,000 kilometres away didn't help, but at least I wasn't alone in the foreign city. The snoring stopped abruptly, just as I realised there was no way I could continue my dream - not by sleeping, at least.
Instead I decided to get up and start writing down these thoughts and memories. Maybe one day I will accomplish my childhood dream of publishing that book, but for that I need to do more than just wishing for it: without writing there can't be any writer, and without imagination there can't be any stories.
Written on: 15 March 2018
Note: This story was submitted for an international writing competition on the theme: "Childhood".