Nobody came to my seventh birthday party. There was a table laid with jellies and trifles, with a party hat beside each place, and a birthday cake with seven candles on it in the center of the table. The cake had a book drawn on it, in icing. My mother, who had organized the party, told me that the lady at the bakery said that they had never put a book on a birthday cake before, and that mostly for boys it was footballs or spaceships. I was their first book. When it became obvious that nobody was coming, my mother lit the seven candles on the cake, and I blew them out. I ate a slice of the cake, as did my little sister and one of her friends (both of them attending the party as observers, not participants) before they fled, giggling, to the garden. Party games had been prepared by my mother but, because nobody was there, not even my sister, none of the party games were played, and I unwrapped the newspaper around the pass-the-parcel gift myself, revealing a blue plastic Batman figure. I was sad that nobody had come to my party, but happy that I had a Batman figure, and there was a birthday present waiting to be read, a boxed set of the Narnia books, which I took upstairs.
I lay on the bed and lost myself in the stories. I liked that. Books were safer than other people anyway. My parents had also given me a Best of Gilbert and Sullivan LP, to add to the two that I already had. I had loved Gilbert and Sullivan since I was three, when my father's youngest sister, my aunt, took me to see Iolanthe, a play filled with lords and fairies. I found the existence and nature of the fairies easier to understand than that of the lords. My aunt had died soon after, of pneumonia, in the hospital. That evening my father arrived home from work and he brought a cardboard box with him. In the cardboard box was a soft-haired black kitten of uncertain gender, whom I immediately named Fluffy, and which I loved utterly and wholeheartedly. Fluffy slept on my bed at night. I talked to it,sometimes, when my little sister was not around, half-expecting it to answer in a human tongue. It never did. I did not mind. The kitten was affectionate and interested and a good companion for someone whose seventh birthday party had consisted of a table with iced biscuits and a blancmange and cake and fifteen empty folding chairs.
I do not remember ever asking any of the other children in my class at school why they had not come to my party. I did not need to ask them. They were not my friends, after all. They were just the people I went to school with. I made friends slowly, when I made them. I had books, and now I had my kitten. We would be like Dick Whittington and his cat, I knew, or, if Fluffy proved particularly intelligent, we would be the miller's son and Puss-in-Boots. The kitten slept on my pillow, and it even waited for me to come home from school, sitting on the driveway in front of my house, by the fence, until, a month later, it was run over by the taxi that brought the opal miner to stay at my house. I was not there when it happened. I got home from school that day, and my kitten was not waiting to meet me. In the kitchen was a tall, rangy man with tanned skin and a checked shirt. He was drinking coffee at the kitchen table, I could smell it. In those days all coffee was instant coffee, a bitter dark brown powder that came out of a jar.
"I'm afraid I had a little accident arriving here," he told me, cheerfully. "But not to worry."
His accent was clipped, unfamiliar: it was the first South African accent I had heard. He, too, had a cardboard box on the table in front of him.
"The black kitten, was he yours?" he asked.
"It's called Fluffy," I said.
"Yeah. Like I said. Accident coming here. Not to worry. Disposed of the corpse. Don't have to trouble yourself. Dealt with the matter. Open the box."
He pointed to the box. "Open it," he said.
The opal miner was a tall man. He wore jeans and checked shirts every time I saw him, except the last. He had a thick chain of pale gold around his neck. That was gone the last time I saw him, too. I did not want to open his box. I wanted to go off on my own. I wanted to cry for my kitten, but I could not do that if anyone else was there and watching me. I wanted to mourn. I wanted to bury my friend at the bottom of the garden, past the green-grass fairy ring, into the rhododendron bush cave, back past the heap of grass cuttings, where nobody ever went but me. The box moved.
"Bought it for you," said the man. "Always pay my debts."
I reached out, lifted the top flap of the box, wondering if this was a joke, if my kitten would be in there. Instead a ginger face stared up at me truculently. The opal miner took the cat out of the box. He was a huge, ginger-striped tomcat, missing half an ear. He glared at me angrily. This cat had not liked being put in a box. He was not used to boxes. I reached out to stroke his head, feeling unfaithful to the memory of my kitten, but he pulled back so I could not touch him, and he hissed at me, then stalked off to a far corner of the room, where he sat and looked and hated.
"There you go. Cat for a cat," said the opal miner, and he ruffled my hair with his leathery hand. Then he went out into the hall, leaving me in the kitchen with the cat that was not my kitten.
The man put his head back through the door.
"He's called Monster," he said.
It felt like a bad joke. I propped open the kitchen door, so the cat could get out. Then I went up to the bedroom, and lay on my bed, and cried for dead Fluffy. When my parents got home that evening, I do not think my kitten was even mentioned. Monster lived with us for a week or more. I put cat food in the bowl for him in the morning and again at night as I had for my kitten. He would sit by the back door until I, or someone else, let him out. We saw him in the garden, slipping from bush to bush, or in trees, or in the undergrowth. We could trace his movements by the dead blue-tits and thrushes we would find in the garden, but we saw him rarely. I missed Fluffy. I knew you could not simply replace something alive, but I dared not grumble to my parents about it. They would have been baffled at my upset: after all, if my kitten had been killed, it had also been replaced. The damage had been made up.
It all came back and even as it came back I knew it would not be for long: all the things I remembered, sitting on the green bench beside the little pond that Lettie Hempstock had once convinced me was an ocean.
About the book:
The Ocean At The End Of The Lane follows an unnamed man who returns to his hometown for a funeral and remembers events that began forty years earlier. It is a fairy tale of magic, of the harrowing power of memory, and how we face the darkness inside each of us.
Neil Gaiman's fluttery and diaphanous prose mesmerises and astounds, and at times, also petrifies.
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