Having imaginary friends is, like being afraid of the dark, something that you’re supposed to grow out of. According to conventional wisdom, by the time you reach adulthood you’re supposed to be grounded in the real world – whatever “real” means – or grounded enough, at least, to focus on the flesh-and-blood people who inhabit your world.
This, in my experience, is one of the many areas in which conventional wisdom falls sadly short of the mark.
Just as I’ve no doubt that there are many adults out there who secretly dread the onset of night, so there are grown-ups who continue to enjoy the company of imaginary friends.
I am one of them.
I’m not ashamed of the fact. Perhaps I’ve just lived with this for too long to consider it weird. After all, I’ve been writing (or at least attempting to write) since childhood, and part of the writing process is, in my experience, becoming acquainted with people who, while they may not exist in the usual, physical sense of the word, are nevertheless real – or real, at least, to the writer.
I have several imaginary friends. When I was writing The Quickening, Lawrence Fairweather was my more-or-less constant companion. He and I used to have long chats about all manner of things – silent chats, I hasten to add, as I learned long ago that talking to thin air is not really the done thing once when gets to a certain age. We discussed philosophy, religion, music, politics and literature; sometimes, we even had arguments about them.
During our conversations, I learned things about him that never made it into the finished novel. I learned, for example, that as a young man – long before the events described in the novel – he had a passionate and ill-fated love affair; and while this was never mentioned in The Quickening, it was nevertheless a crucial event in terms of his development. I learned that, several years after the novel’s action ended, he would have another, happier relationship, which would eventually culminate in marriage. I learned that as a young man he liked swimming, and that in later life he would take up gardening. None of these things had much relevance to the story related in The Quickening, and were never mentioned in the pages of the novel; but they helped to flesh out Fairweather’s character, giving me an important insight into the kind of person he was, had been, and would be. It was a bit like getting to know a new friend.
Above all, we used to talk about the story that I was trying to write at that time, a process during which I sometimes felt less like the conscious author than the amanuensis. He told me of his fears and his sorrow, and of the various points in the narrative at which – he realised with hindsight – he could have altered the course of his personal history. I learned of his vain, hopeless love for his wife, and how, when trouble really came, that love was simply not strong enough to save her. I learned what it is like to lie in the dark in the house that no longer seems yours, considering the existence of something in which you do not rationally believe.
“The hours of darkness were the worst. The torments that the night brought upon its wings I would not have wished upon my worst enemy. In my fear I locked my bedroom door, though what I thought to keep out, and why I imagined that locks could stop it, I did not know. I could neither sleep nor read, and not even drink consoled me; my fears and fantasies came together, tormenting me, and I lay stirring and sleepless through the long night hours. I feared to keep my eyes closed, because of the bleak images that flickered beneath the lids, and feared still more to open them, lest those insubstantial threats had taken on some corporeal reality and were there with me, creeping around in the darkness of the room.”
Nowadays, with The Quickening written, Lawrence Fairweather has retreated into the background; he still comes back to see me occasionally – we’re old friends, after all – but his place as my round-the-clock companion and confidant has been filled by a new imaginary friend, one Xander Byrne.
Xander Byrne has, on the surface, much in common with Fairweather. They both live in late Victorian England, and are of a similar age, and have experienced tragic loss. Byrne, however, is somewhat different. Unlike the privileged Fairweather, he is an East End brat who managed, against the odds, to struggle up the rather narrow Victorian ladder of social mobility, first via the music halls and then care of the Metropolitan Police. Byrne is more cunning and worldly than the pensive Fairweather could ever be, and more fun (sorry Lawrence, if you’re listening); he knows what it’s like to trail criminals through the grimy streets of the Victorian capital, disguise himself as a costermonger or cabbie, and get involved in high-speed (by Victorian standards) hansom chases. In the slightly alternative Victorian world in which he lives, Detective Inspector Byrne not only worked on, but solved, one of the most famous criminal cases of all time – the Jack the Ripper murders. It’s a life that the quiet, bookish, and rather timid Fairweather could never have lived, or wanted to live.
Differences notwithstanding, however, I like to imagine connections – albeit minor ones – between my characters.
In one of my “mental movies”, it is a dank winter’s evening in late Victorian London. Evil-smelling brown fog curls through the streets; office clerks shiver and sniff as they wait for omnibuses to take them back to their suburban homes in Hammersmith and Fulham. Big Ben chimes in the distance, the sound muffled and distorted in the thick air, and passing carts and hansoms throw up a fine spray of muddy water. Two men are walking in opposite directions along the Strand. One is fair-haired, slight, and handsome in an unassuming way. His hazy blue eyes are preoccupied, as though he is not quite present in the moment, but is reliving something from his past – something unpleasant, if his downturned mouth is anything to go by. The other man is taller, older, and walking at a faster pace, as though he has some urgent business to attend to. He, too, looks worried; but his seems to be the anxiety that comes with immediate and pressing concerns. In contrast to the former man’s dreaminess, he looks like a man who lives entirely in the here and now; and yet, looking into his eyes, you catch a glimpse of a man who is haunted by things that have no apparent reality, but of which he cannot be free.
The two men have never met, but as they draw level a momentary glance passes between them; and in that glance they recognise each other as companions in suffering. They have experienced a similar manner of loss, and they identify with each other’s pain. The glance lasts barely a second before inbred politeness causes them both to look away and hurry off in different directions, probably never to meet again – but that second has been marked by the sympathy of one being for the pain of another.
That, in fact or fiction, in this or any other world, should not be undervalued.