" I'm not going to bed," said John -- which startled his wife. Children are never ready for bed, but grown-ups like John are usually hankering for their pillows and eiderdowns from the moment they finish dinner. "I'm not going to bed!" said John again, and so ferociously that his wife knew he was very frightened indeed.
"You have been dreaming again, haven't you?" she said tenderly. "Such a trial."
John scrubbed at his eyes with his knuckles. "I told you. I never dream! What does a man have to do to be believed in his own house?"
His wife stroked his shiny head and went to turn down the bedclothes. And there on John's side of the bed, something bulged up through the coverlet. It wasn't a hot-water bottle or a teddy bear or a library book. Mrs. John folded down the sheets. It was a cutlass.
With a sigh, she hung it on the hook behind the bedroom door, alongside the quiver of arrows and John's dressing gown. Both she and her husband liked to pretend it was not happening (because that's what grown-ups do when they are in trouble), but secretly they both knew: John was dreaming of Neverland again. After every dream, something was left behind in his bed next morning, like the stones around a dish after a serving of prunes. A sword here, a candle there, a bow, a medicine bottle, a top hat...The night after he dreamed of mermaids, a fishy smell hung about the stairs all day. The wardrobe was piled high with the dregs of dreams -- an alarm clock, an Indian head-dress, an eye-patch, a pirate's tricorn hat. (The worst nights were when John dreamed of Captain Hook.)
Mrs. John plumped up the pillows with a brisk blow of her hand -- and a gunshot rang out through the whole house, waking the neighbours and terrifying the dog. The bullet shied about the room, bouncing off the lamp-stand and smashing a vase. Cautiously, with two fingers, Mrs. John drew the pistol from under the pillow and dropped it into the bin, like a kipper found to be not quite fresh.
"They are so real!" whimpered her husband from the doorway. "These wretched dreams are just so real!"
All over London and even as far afield as Fotheringdene and Grimswater, old boys were dreaming the same kind of dreams. Not young, silly boys but boys grown-up: cheerful, stolid boys who worked in banks or drove trains or grew strawberries or wrote plays or stood for Parliament. Cozy at home, surrounded by family and friends, they thought themselves comfortable and safe...until the dreams began. Now each night they dreamed of Neverland and woke to find leftovers in their beds -- daggers or coils of rope, a pile of leaves or a hook.
And what did they have in common, these dreamers? Just one thing. They had all once been Boys in Neverland.
"I have called you all together, because something must be done!" said Judge Tootles, twirling his big moustache. "It is not good enough! Gone on far too long! Won't do! Enough is enough! We must act!"
They were eating brown soup in the library of the Gentlemen's Club off Piccadilly -- a brown room with brown portraits of gentlemen wearing brown suits. Smoke from the fireplace hung in the air like a brown fog. On the dining table lay an assortment of weapons, the sole of a shoe, a cap, a pair of giant bird's eggs.
The Honourable Slightly fingered them thoughtfully: "The flotsam of Night washed up on the shores of Morning!" he said (but then the Honourable Slightly played the clarinet in a nightclub and was inclined to write poetry).
"Call Mrs. Wendy! Mrs. Wendy would know what to do!" said Judge Tootles. But of course Wendy had not been invited, because ladies are not allowed in the Gentlemen's Club.
"I say we should let sleeping dogs lie," said Mr. Nibs, but nobody thanked him, because dogs are not allowed in the Gentlemen's Club either.
"Mind over matter!" exclaimed Mr. John. "We must just try harder not to dream!"
"We tried that," said the Twins mournfully. "Stayed awake all night for a week."
"And what happened?" asked Mr. John, intrigued.
"We fell asleep on the London omnibus on the way to work, and dreamed all the way to Putney. When we got off, we were both wearing warpaint."
"How perfectly charming," said the Honourable Slightly.
"Last night we dreamed of the Lagoon," added Second Twin.
There was a murmur of heartfelt sighs. Each of the Old Boys had dreamed lately of the Lagoon and woken with wet hair, and dazzle in his eyes.
"Is there a cure, Curly?" enquired Mr. Nibs, but Dr. Curly knew of no cure for an outbreak of unwanted dreams.
"We should write a letter of complaint!" boomed Judge Tootles. But nobody knew of a Ministry for Dreams or whether there was a Minister of State for Nightmares.
In the end, with nothing solved and no plan of campaign, the Old Boys sank into silence and fell asleep in their armchairs, their brown coffee cups dropping brown drips onto the brown carpet. And they all dreamed the same dream.
They dreamed they were playing tag with the mermaids, while the reflections of rainbows twisted around and between them like water snakes. Then, from somewhere deeper down and darker, came a hugely slithering shape that brushed the soles of their feet with its knobbly, scaly hide....
When they woke, the Old Boys' clothes were sopping wet, and there on its back, in the middle of the Gentlemen's Library, was a prodigious crocodile, lashing its tail and snapping its jaws in an effort to turn over and make supper of them.
The Gentlemen's Club emptied in the record time of forty-three seconds, and next day Members everywhere received a letter from the management.
The Gentlemen's Club Brown Street, off Piccadilly, London W1
23rd April 1926
We regret to inform you that the Club will be closed for redecoration from 23rd April until approximately 1999.
Your obedient servants,
In the end, of course, it was Mrs. Wendy who explained it. "Dreams are leaking out of Neverland," she said. "Something must be wrong. If we want the dreams to stop, we must find out what."
Mrs. Wendy was a grown woman, and as sensible as can be. She had a tidy mind. For six days in any week she strongly disapproved of dreams littering up the house. But on the seventh, she was not quite so sure. Recently she had begun hurrying to bed, eager for that twilight flicker that comes between waking and sleep. From behind closed eyelids she would watch for a dream to come floating towards her -- just as once she had watched at her bedroom window, hoping against hope for a small figure to come swooping through the local stars. Each bedtime her heart beat faster at the thought of glimpsing the Lagoon again, or hearing the cry of the Neverbird. Above all, she longed to see Peter again: the friend she had left behind in Neverland all those years before.
Now Neverland was rubbing against the Here and Now, wearing holes in the fabric in between. Tendrils of dream were starting to poke through. All was not well. Somehow Mrs. Wendy knew it.
"Perhaps the dreams are messages," said one Twin.
"Perhaps they are warnings," said the other.
"Perhaps they are symptoms," said Dr. Curly, putting his stethoscope to his own forehead and listening for the dreams inside.
"I'm awfully afraid they may be," said Wendy. "Something is wrong in Neverland, gentlemen...and that is why we must go back."
Text copyright © 2006 by the Special Trustees of Great Ormond Street
Go back to Neverland? Go back to the mysterious island, with its mermaids, pirates, and redskins? The Old Boys snorted and blustered and shook their heads till their cheeks flapped. Go back to Neverland?
"I'm a busy man!"
In the rosy gloom of her parlour, Mrs. Wendy poured more tea and passed round the cucumber sandwiches. "As I see it, there are three problems," she said, ignoring their cries of protest. "First, we have all grown too big. No one but a child can fly to Neverland."
"Exactly!" Judge Tootles looked down at the straining buttons of his waistcoat. Over the years, he had indeed grown too big, in every direction.
"Secondly, we can no longer fly as we could then," said Mrs. Wendy.
"Well, there you are, then!" Mr. John remembered the evening when a boy dressed in a suit of leaves had flown into his life and taught him, too, to fly. He remembered leaping from the open bedroom window and that first heart-stopping moment when night had caught him in its open palm. He remembered dipping and soaring through the black sky, blipped by bats, nipped by the frost, keeping tight hold of his umbrella.... Oh, how brave he had been in those days! Mr. John gave a start as Mrs. Wendy dropped a sugar lump into his cup with a pair of silver tongs: his thoughts had been up among the moonbeams.
"And before we can fly," Mrs. Wendy was saying, "we need fairy dust."
"Then it is plainly impossible." The Honourable Slightly looked down at the bread crumbs on his trousers, and a lump filled his throat. He remembered fairy dust. He remembered it glittering on his skin like water drops. He remembered the tingling sensation it sent racing through his veins. Even after all these years, he still remembered.
"I think it is best if we do not tell anyone we are going," said Mrs. Wendy. "It might upset those we love. Also it might attract the attention of the newspapers."
There did not seem to be any arguing with her, so the Old Boys wrote down what she said, in their appointment diaries, under the heading Jobs to Be Done:
Must not be grown up.
Must remember how to fly.
Must find fairy dust.
Must think of something to tell the wife.
"I think Sunday week would be best," said Mrs. Wendy. "There is a full moon that night, and the children will not need collecting from school. With luck, this annoying cold of mine will have cleared up too. So, gentlemen. Shall we say June the sixth? I am sure I can rely on you to arrange everything?"
The Old Boys wrote in their appointment diaries:
Then they sucked their pencils and waited for Mrs. Wendy to tell them what to do next. Wendy would know. Why, even with a cold she did not need an appointment diary to remind her what jobs needed doing!
Next day, Mrs. Wendy's cold kept her from going out, but the Old Boys found themselves in Kensington Gardens with butterfly nets, wandering up and down. Looking for fairies.
There was a stiff breeze blowing. Something white and fluffy brushed Mr. Nibs's face and he gave a shriek. "There's one! It kissed me!" And all the gentlemen went pounding after it. The wind was rising. Other scraps of whiteness scudded past, until the air seemed to be full of flying snowflakes all twirling and dancing, feathery light. The Old Boys trampled the grass flat with running to and fro, swiping at fairies, accidentally swatting each other, whooping and shrieking, "Got one!"
"So have -- OW!"
"Here's one, look!"
But when they peered into their butterfly nets, all they found were the fluffy seed-heads off summer's first dandelions. There was not a single fairy in among the dande-down.
All day they searched. As the sun went down and starlings gathered over the glimmering city, the Old Boys hid themselves among the bushes of Kensington Gardens. Early stars ventured into the sky, their reflections spangling the Serpentine. And suddenly the air was a-flicker with wings!
Jubilant, the ambushers leapt out of hiding and ran to and fro, nets flailing.
"Don't hurt them!"
"Ouch! Watch what you are doing, sir!"
"I say! This is ripping fun!"
But when they turned the nets inside out, what did they find? Midges and moths and mayflies.
"I have one in here! Definitely! Incontrovertibly!" cried Mr. John, cramming his bowler hat back onto his head to trap the captive inside. The others gathered round, jostling to see. The hat came off again, with a sigh of suction; Mr. John reached in with finger and thumb, plucked something out of the satin lining, and held it up to show them -- the iridescent purple, the shiny, flexing, turquoise body...
Only a dragonfly.
Mr. John opened his fingertips, and eight pairs of disappointed eyes followed the lovely creature as it staggered and waltzed back towards the water.
"I don't believe there is a single fairy..." began Dr. Curly, but the others felled him to the ground and clapped their hands over his mouth.
"Don't say it! Don't ever say that!" cried Mr. Nibs, horrified. "Don't you remember? Every time someone says they don't believe in fairies, a fairy somewhere dies!"
"I didn't say I didn't believe in them!" said the doctor, tugging the rumples out of his suit. "I was only going to say, I don't believe there is one single fairy here. Tonight. In this park. I have mud on my trousers, insect bites on my ankles, and I have not eaten supper yet. Can we give up now?"
The other Old Boys looked around them at the twilit park, the distant, glimmering streetlamps. They looked at the soles of their shoes, in case they had trodden on any fairies by mistake. They looked into the water of the Serpentine, in case any of the stars reflected there were really fairies, swimming. No fairies, no fairy dust. Perhaps, after all, they would not be going back to Neverland.
"All for the best. Absurd idea," growled Mr. John, but no one answered.
The Honourable Slightly took from his pocket a gleaming bubble filmy with every colour of the rainbow. "Last night I dreamed I was playing water polo with the mermaids," he said. "This was on my pillow when I woke."
The bubble popped and was gone.
The park gates were locked when they got there. The Old Boys had to climb over, and Judge Tootles tore his best tweed jacket.
In the end, it was Mrs. Wendy who managed it, of course. She led the way to Kensington Gardens next day, wearing a linen coat and a splendid hat with a feather in it.
"But we looked here yesterday!" her brother protested. "There wasn't a fairy to be found!"
"We are not looking for fairies," said Mrs. Wendy. "We are looking for prams!"
Twenty years before, the park would have been busy with nursery maids pushing pramfuls of babies up and down, filling them up with good fresh air. These days, nursery maids were a rarer breed. There were only three today, pushing prams, feeding ducks, wiping noses, picking up rattles thrown out onto the grass. It was a sight that always disturbed the Old Boys....
Once, Curly and Tootles, Nibs, Slightly, and the Twins had all been babies like those in the prams. Once, they had been tucked up, cozy and snug, boggling up at the sky with sky-blue, newborn eyes. But they had fallen out of their prams.
Got lost. Gone astray.
They had been handed in to the Lost-and-Found office, and stored under B for babies, right between A for aquaria and C for cricket bats. No one had claimed them, and after a week or so they had been posted off to Neverland. There they had joined all the other Lost Boys, making do without manners or mothers, making do on make-believe meals and catching doses of adventure along with their captain, Peter Pan.
As a pram rolled past, Mr. Nibs could not stop himself saying, "Oh, do please take care of that baby, young woman! I know there's nothing so very terrible about being a Lost Boy, but even so, do take care that it does not fall out! Lost boys are not all as lucky as we were! They are not all adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Darling and loved and cherished and blessed with custard tarts on Sundays and a university education!"
"Well, I never did!" exclaimed the nursery maid. "I hope you are not suggesting I might lose a baby of mine, sir? As if I would! As if I'd ever..." But before she could work herself into a paddy, the baby in the pram started to cry.
Mrs. Wendy had been leaning over the pram, using the feather from her hat to tickle the baby.
"What are you doing, madam?" said the nursery maid. "That one can't abide feathers!"
"Oh drat," said Mrs. Wendy, vexed with herself and secretly with the baby, too. "Mr. Slightly, don't just stand there! Sing!"
And the Honourable Slightly (who, if you remember, played clarinet in a nightclub) suddenly realized that the success of the whole plan depended on him. Scooping up the baby, he began to sing.
"Orpheus with his lute, with his lute made trees..."
It was no good. The baby howled more loudly still.
"Oh, the grand old Duke of York, he had
ten thousand men..."
Still the baby wailed.
"Come into the garden, Maud,
For the black bat night has flown!"
"Now see what you done!" said the nursery maid, wincing at the noise and looking around for a policeman.
The Honourable Slightly went down on one knee:
"Mammy! Mammy! I'd walk a million miles
for one of your smiles, my Ma-a-a-mmy!"
And suddenly the baby laughed!
It was a noise like water gurgling out of a jug. It was so delicious that the nursery maid clapped her hands and giggled too. "His very first laugh, bless him!"
In one movement, the Old Boys lifted their hats. Even Mrs. Wendy unpinned hers. Then, to the nursery maid's astonishment, they tossed the baby back into its pram and went racing out across Kensington Gardens, jumping and reaching and wildly waving their bowlers and brown derbies.
"Well!" said the nursery maid. "What is the world coming to!"
Among banks of orange aubretia, beside the war memorial, they caught him -- a tiny, bluish mite, with red hair and eyes the colour of honey -- a fairy! Like a robin out of an egg, he had hatched out of that baby's first laugh, you see, as all fairies do.
The Old Boys were tired and short of breath, but they were triumphant.
Mistakenly, Mrs. Wendy called the fairy Con Brio, not knowing he came ready-fitted with a name.
"I am Fireflyer!" said the fairy indignantly. "And I'm hungry!"
So they took him to the Serpentine Tea Rooms and fed him on ice cream, scone crumbs, and cool tea before bearing him home aloft in Mr. John's bowler, like a little eastern potentate. By the time they reached the house in Cadogan Square, the hat was slightly scorched, but it was also half full of fairy dust.
Text copyright © 2006 by the Special Trustees of Great Ormond Street