This is a misadventure about magic, and the watershed between knowing magic is real, as children do, and knowing it isn’t. Both parties KNOW this, and yet… doesn’t that suggest that knowledge depends on your point of view?
When I was 8, I moved schools from St Giles RC to The Valley County Primary in Oakamoor because my mum got in a snit with my class teacher over why I’d cut holes in my school skirt out of boredom one day. The thrust of the argument was why I’d been allowed to keep scissors in my desk (we all were).
There were some slight cultural differences between being at a 6-class Catholic primary school with a couple of hundred pupils and being at a C of E village school with 32 pupils spread across two classes.
The new school was quite bottom-heavy, meaning class 1 was a lot bigger than class 2. There were three people in my year group. At my old school, there had been thirty. I was the only girl in my year, so I got put on the table with the girls from the year above.
Unfortunately, everyone forgot I was actually a year younger. The teacher gave me the same work as everyone on my table and held me to the same standards.
I was always being told off. I coloured “carelessly” because I went up and down instead of round and round for colouring a hedge. I hadn’t even known round and round was a thing unless you were using a Spirograph.
I wrote “wrong” in creative writing. My mum was called in after school one day. At my old school, we all only wrote gory horror stories. I mean, our main ideology, told to us constantly, was about a man called Jesus who got brutally tortured to death in graphic detail for something we didn’t completely understand. And saints who all met grisly demises. I thought seas of eyeballs were awesome. We all did.
But I was a girl and my work was Bad at this new school. The other girls read my story while trying to copy it, then they told on me and my mum got called in. This was back in the days when parents automatically sided with teachers, so I was categorically told by my mum and the headteacher (who was also my class teacher) that it was Bad and Wrong to write horror stories. That changing the title “The Road” to “The Road… of Death!!!” was deplorable. And that I mustn’t do it again.
Sidenote: Some of my published books have way worse scenes than that swimming pool full of eyeballs. Mrs. K was not a good judge of what was appropriate story material. For decades I felt shame about writing “wrong”, but these days, I think I had a better grasp of what a story was than Mrs. K did, because mine had conflict, where her expectation was that we wrote pointless drivel about going down the road to the shops or some shite like that. HOWEVER, I had no excuse for using three exclamation marks in a row, so I’ll give her that one.
Anyway, those girls were awful. Nasty, cliquey bullies. I think most eight-year-old girls are. They’ve probably grown into Mother Theresas. I had fitted in at my old school because there were ten times as many children to socialise with and they were my own age/developmental stage. Now, for the first time in my life, at school number five, I was struggling to make friends.
So when one of the girls asked, “do you believe in fairies?” and I, being 7 at the time, said yes, they laughed at me. They asked the other “outsider”, Jen, who had muscular dystrophy. She said she didn’t.
It made me sad that these girls didn’t believe in fairies. When you believe in fairies, I think you do feel very sorry for people who don’t. And I was genuinely worried, as well, because I’d heard that every time someone said they didn’t believe in fairies, one died.
Perhaps that’s what prompted me to say, “I actually know a fairy. They live in the fields near my house and have dinner on a tree stump every night.”
Now, it must be said, there was a gigantic tree stump two fields away from my house and I could see it from my window. At night time, its black form was visible still because of the light pollution reflected back from the clouds, or on clear nights, by the moon. I’d never actually been to the tree stump at this point but I’d created an entire mythology around it.
There were at least half a dozen fairies and when it was a full moon, there were even more. Tons. A party of fairies. I decided party was the collective noun for fairies because I couldn’t imagine a huge gathering of magical flying creatures and them not having a party.
They lived in the hedgerows around the tree stump.
So I was pretty sure that all I needed to do was ask them to visit the girl who said she didn’t believe in fairies, and they wouldn’t even really need her address because they could use magic to find her. Right?
This made perfect sense to my seven-year-old brain.
“There’s no such thing as fairies,” Jen reiterated, to which Julie and Janine agreed.
“There is. And I’ll prove it.” I walked into this. I was quite good at that.
“Go on then.” Jen sharpened her pencil with disdain. She had one of those fancy pencil sharpeners with a special cup that caught all the shavings.
“Fine. A fairy will visit you tonight. Look out of your window after dark and you’ll see it.” I was pretty sure I could ask a fairy, even though I actually did know that I’d never actually met a fairy. Probably.
“No I won’t because fairies aren’t real.”
“Shut up! They aren’t. I’m telling.”
Nothing came of it.
I went back to colouring my hedge and imagining that the centre of the circles were invisible dismembered eyeballs. At home time, I got into my mum’s three-wheeler and we trundled home.
It was May 1994. I know that because Mrs. K made a mistake when she gave me a music book and wrote “Maysic” instead of “May” and “music”. It’s stuck in my mind forever. Anyway, because it was May, it went dark late. So late.
I watched the sun go down and the street lights bathe the town in the orange glow of sodium filaments.
When I was sure my sister was asleep in the bed next to mine, I opened the window. I climbed out so my bottom perched on the windowsill and my legs dangled down, kicking at the concrete pebbledash.
“Fairies, I wish you would visit Jen so she will stop saying you don’t exist because then she’ll know you’re real.”
The hazy summer breeze swirled around my legs and I was absolutely sure magic was about to happen.
Then, a real fairy blew into my room. I don’t know if this was a Staffordshire thing or if anyone else will know what I mean. There were these white fluffy plant things that blew around everywhere looking a bit like the top of a dandelion. Everyone called them fairies. When I was 7, I thought they really were fairies, disguised so humans wouldn’t know.
I’m still not sure why, in my childhood mythos, fairies, Santa, the Easter bunny et al felt the need to pretend they were not there. It would have solved a lot of their problems if they hadn’t done that.
I put the fairy back out of the window and blew her on her way.
When it was properly dark, I went to bed.
The next day, I went into school and I was genuinely surprised that Jen still didn’t believe in fairies.
I think I spent about a week trying to convince her and failing, then I befriended the boys and got very into football which lasted until I found out there was no point doing football as a girl. At which point I took up reading, and have subsequently spent the rest of my life oscillating every few months between high-energy outdoor pursuits and reading/writing books.
While writing this up, I’ve realized I cared so much whether she believed in fairies because I was stuck on a table with three girls who had nothing in common with me. If Jen had seen a fairy, if she believed in them too, maybe she’d like me for showing them to her. And then she might be my friend.
I do the absolute stupidest things while trying to get people to like me.
Years later, when I was old enough to go out across the fields alone, I finally walked to that tree stump (the first of a thousand times). It was about eight feet high, pure black, and had jagged edges at the top. The tree appeared to have been a couple of hundred years old and had been hit by lightning one day. The trunk was about four feet wide.
Even as a stump it towered a bit over the surrounding hawthorn hedges (which were not insignificant). At one point I climbed the barbed wire fence that was nailed to the bottom of it and peered over the top. I learned it was also rotting from the inside out and a bit hollow.
It was nothing like I’d imagined for all those years seeing it out of my window. The scale was all wrong, and there was no surface on which fairies could have a dinner party.
There was definitely no magic, there.
There’s probably a metaphor in here somewhere, to do with loss of innocence and how all our dreams turn out to be hollow shells as we outgrow them.