Something to consider when reading/listening: If all of your experiences take place in your mind, how can you be certain anything is real?
I’m sitting here in my office watching an iguana crawling slowly along my keyboard. Green with dashes of red. A drooping chin. Spikes running along its back. It seems perfectly content with who and what it is, as it lifts up its head and sticks out its tongue in mockery of me.And as it does so, I’m thinking about the conversation I’ve just had with Annie. All I can do is recount exactly what happened. If I add or remove anything it will… well, I… all I can do is recount it exactly, precisely as it happened. Annie is the eldest daughter of two of my dearest friends. They came to stay, the three of them, purely with the intention of getting me to speak to her. I’m a therapist and she, so they said, had been having some trouble recently. Specifically, she’d been finding it hard to differentiate between fact and fiction. Now, before I tell you how the conversation unfolded, you must know that children are not my forte. And I did make this perfectly plain to Annie’s parents. After lunch, I asked Annie if she’d like to come to my study and have a look at my first edition copy of a book we both adore. The book is my prized possession. Valued at around four thousand pounds but I wouldn’t dream of selling it. Printed in 1950, it has a cream dust jacket with a simple cartoon of Edmund and Lucy riding on the back of Aslan. The text reads, “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – a story for children – CS Lewis.” “Can I touch it?” she said. “No.” “Oh go on.” “Afraid not.” “Come on Uncle Simon, please. If I don’t touch it, how will I know it’s real?” “Ah, well,” I said, “that’s a very good question.” Her face dropped. “Oh dear,” she said, “you’ve been speaking to my parents, haven’t you? They’ve told you that I can’t tell the difference between fact and fiction. But it’s not true. They don’t listen.” She spots my fish tank and runs over to it. “I know there are books and plays and films and TV shows and dreams,” she says, speaking to me from the other side of the glass. “And I know there’s what people call real life. I can tell the difference between the categories. I just don’t know why we give this final category, ‘real life’ such significance. “In fact, as far as I can see, there’s only one major difference between fact and fiction. And that’s that fiction is much more important.” “That’s a very clever observation, Annie.” “Don’t speak to me like I’m eleven.” “But you are eleven.” “Says who?” She jabs her fingers against the fish tank in attempt to hassle one of the poor creatures. “Age is an idea. It’s something we tell ourselves. Every atom in my body is billions of years old. And every thought is brand new. And neither you nor I, Uncle Simon, can possibly compete with good fiction. Think how much of an impact The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe has had on the world. Think of all the people who’ve read it and all the subtle ways in which it’s changed them. There are very few real lives that can compete with the lives of Edmund, Lucy and Aslan. “If you were to die suddenly right now, it would affect my parents and me and a small group of people, maybe quite a large group. But it wouldn’t have anything like the impact of Aslan’s death.” “But come on, Annie,” I said. “What about the relationship you have with your actual mother…?” “We’re just characters, aren’t we? She’s been cast as my mother.” “No. No, that’s not true. Your mother loves you.” “And Aslan loves Edmund and Lucy.” “Aslan’s not real.” “He’s more real than my mother. They’re both concepts that come to life whenever someone thinks about them. But Aslan’s advantage is he’s quite a bit more famous.” “Your mum is real, continuously, for as long as she’s alive.” “My mum’s a busy lady. You know that. There must be hours every single day when she’s not thinking about me and I’m not thinking about her and no one else is thinking about either of us. And for those hours, the concept ‘Annie’s mother’ doesn’t exist. And all it is is a concept. But I’d imagine someone somewhere is pretty much always thinking about Aslan.” “No, no, look. Something doesn’t cease to be real if we all stop thinking about it.” “Ok,” she said, “give me an example of something real that you’re not thinking about?” I smiled. “You’re very clever, Annie.” “I should be”, she said, “I’m billions of years old.” “I wasn’t thinking about… I don’t know…Iguanas.” “But now you are.” “But I wasn’t.” “But now you are.” “What you’re doing is an intellectual trick, and a good one.” “Anyway,” she said, running back from the fish tank at full speed and slamming her hands against my desk, “Iguanas aren’t real. They’re ridiculous creatures. So ridiculous in fact, I think you just made them up.” “Well, I know I didn’t.” She seized the copy of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and held it above her head. “Maybe you’ve gone mad.” “Put that down Annie.” “Maybe your brain just invented them out of nothing. It took a lizard and gave it a mohican and created a piece of pure fiction. How do you know for certain that this isn’t what’s happened? What if everyone you ever met from now on told you iguanas were just in your head.” “Well I’d show them an iguana.” “And what if they couldn’t see it. What if you showed them an iguana and they thought you were pointing at the air? You’d have to conclude that iguanas aren’t real.” “But that’s not…” “It happens all the time. People are always seeing things that aren’t real. I was saying this to Stevie only this morning while she was playing with her toys.”
Stevie. I’d been wondering if this might come back to Stevie. Annie’s little sister. Four years younger. Died last summer.I picked my words carefully. “Stevie was very real,” I said. “And your memory of her…” “If she and I have a conversation, as we often do, it is every bit as real as the conversation you and I are having now, Uncle Simon.” “No, Annie, it’s not. This conversation is really happening. And can you please put the book down?” “Is it though? Are you sure it isn’t just in my mind.” “No, no. It’s real. It’s really happening.” “So it’s not in my mind?” “No.” “Wow,” she said, “for a doctor you’re really not very clever, are you?” With the book under her arm she ran back towards the fish tank. “Ok, look,” I said, “in one sense, it is in your mind. But please, give me the book.” “There you go, you see. Everything that ever happens in my life takes place in my mind. My brain can’t access the real world. All it can do is take in in sound and light waves and other sensory information and process them into a picture. But it is just a picture. It’s my mind’s idea of real life and that’s the only real life I’ll ever get. Everything that happens, including this conversation, happens in my mind. “The exact same thing, the exact same thing happens when I’m talking to Stevie. My brain creates a picture of her just like it creates a picture of you. How she looks, what she does, how she sounds. It’s the same process. “And if I write a story with Stevie as the main character, and that story becomes as famous as The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Stevie won’t just be real, she’ll be more real than pretty much every real person who’s ever lived.” I looked away for a moment and when I looked back she was on tiptoes holding my prized possession over the fish tank ready to drop it in.
“Ok, Annie. Let’s just take a breath.” She loosened her grip on the book, inches away from the water. “Annie, for god’s sake.”“Poor Uncle Simon,” she said, “Whether or not I drop this book into the fish tank, it’s still getting destroyed.” “Please Annie.” “We’re all getting destroyed. Everything’s getting destroyed. The sun will eat the earth, the universe will eat the sun, it will be as though nothing has ever happened. The curtain will fall, the show will end and the audience won’t remember a thing.” “Annie, that book costs thousands of pounds.” “Money isn’t real, Uncle Simon.” By now she was straining to hold onto it and I feared she might drop the book out of exhaustion. “Look, I know what it’s like ok. I know what it’s like to be angry at the world. I understand how you’re feeling….” “Uh oh,” she said and she feigned dropping the book into the water. “Annie if you do that, you’ll go to jail. You will, it’s a historic artifact, it’s worth a lot of money and it’s not your property. And I will have to report it to the police. And they will send you to jail. I mean it. And you can read as many books as you like, or escape into as many dreams, but you would always come back to that jail. There’s nothing you’d be able to do about it. The cold and the loneliness and complete separation from the rest of the world. You’d be trapped there. Locked up and they’d throw away the key.”
I was watching her hand. Watching the book. Weighing up whether or not I should pounce and try and dash it away from her. I didn’t notice her lip quivering or her eyes filling with tears.She pulled the book back to safety and threw it at me. It bounced off my chest, and dropped to the floor. And still, I looked at the book rather than her. I inspected it, made sure there was no damage to the dust jacket. I delicately picked it up and put it on a high shelf out of her reach. And I saw her, I saw the tears, I saw her lip quivering. I saw her for the eleven-year-old girl she was. She had lifted herself up onto my desk and was sitting there beside my keyboard, looking up at me with her sad eyes. “I’m sorry Annie,” I said. “I really am sorry. I didn’t mean to…” And she smiled. She beamed. Any sense of unease evaporated as though it was all an act. “Don’t worry,” she said, before sticking her tongue out in mockery of me, “I know you were lying about sending me to prison. Grownups do it all the time. That’s the problem with real life. So many lies.”
[Doe Wilmann first released this piece on his short story podcast, Meaningless Problems.]
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