Paul Kane: This is a very personal book for you, isn’t it? Did you feel it was a catharsis of sorts?
Tim Lebbon: I wrote directly about the death of my mum in the short story ‘Discovering Ghosts’ (Postscripts #10). That was a very painful, very personal story to write. It took a few months after her death until I could work on that, and a while later I was asked to write a novella for Humdrumming. The Reach of Children emerged from out of nowhere—where most of the good ideas come from—and though it’s not as directly about Mum, there’s a lot of me and my experiences in there. The main character is a ten-year-old boy who loses his mother, and I found it very difficult to write about such a traumatic experience from the point of view of someone so young. Difficult, yet revealing as well.
So to answer the question, yes, it was cathartic writing this novella, as well as ‘Discovering Ghosts’. More than anything, though, it felt as though I was truly writing about what I knew, and I think that came through in the work. It’s a familiar piece of advice to writers, but it’s also very true.
Paul Kane: How hard or easy was it to put yourself in the mind of a ten year old boy?
Tim Lebbon: It wasn’t easy. As I said in my Afterword to the novella, the ten-year-old I once was is a complete stranger to me now, but the act of thinking back to how I was at that age was a pleasing, nostalgic process. I remembered a lot of what interested me back then, and whilst working on the novella I tried to imagine what that boy would think of me now. ‘Old and bald’, probably.
Paul Kane: Did any scary things happen to you when you were younger?
Tim Lebbon: I was lucky enough to have a good, safe childhood, with nothing more than the usual bumps, bruises and scares: no broken bones, no extended hospital visits. But part of what this novella is about is a child’s realisation of mortality, and I can still remember a terrible dream I had when I was four years old. In it, I watched my mother going through the windscreen of a car. In my nightmare it was my fault, and I woke up screaming, shouting out, “I didn’t mean it! I didn’t mean it, Mummy!” My parents remembered that particular nightmare of mine for years, too. It sends a chill through me even now, because I think that’s when I realised my mother could die.
They say that a child grows up when he or she realises they can die – but I think it’s more likely that it’s when they realise their parents can die.
Paul Kane: How have you found working for Humdrumming and are you pleased about the special editions they’re putting out?
Tim Lebbon: The guys at Humdrumming are completely insane. Let me say that first of all. But in publishing, I think borderline insanity can be a boon, and I’ve had so much fun working with them. The editing process was in-depth and yet painless, they chatted to me about every major decision they made, and the books are going to look just fabulous. The Extra Special Edition especially will be something to treasure. I’ve worked with Necessary Evil Press a lot, and I have the gorgeous metal traycased limited editions of my books with them (with a couple more yet come), and I think this Humdrumming limited is going to be just as fabulous. Did I mention that they were mad?
Paul Kane: Can you tell us more about the significance of the title?
Tim Lebbon: It’s from the warning on medicine bottles – ‘Keep out of the reach of children’. The relevance in the story is partly literal, but the novella is also about how children are much more perceptive that we sometimes give them credit for. To say too much would be to reveal elements of the story, and I don’t want to do that in detail. But it’s not just a title picked out of the air.
Paul Kane: What’s the appeal of the book for potential readers would you say?
Tim Lebbon: If you’ve ever suffered through the death of a loved one, I think you’ll be able to connect with the story. And everyone has been a child…everyone has those fears. It’s a horror story, because the young character perceives some terrible things going on around him. But it’s also a story of childhood strength.
Chapter One (Extract)
long pine box
Daniel was only ten years old, but he had been made to grow up quickly, and he knew that when the door to his bedroom opened in the middle of the night and his father sat gently on his bed, it could only mean one thing.
He kept his eyes closed and tried to go back to sleep, because that way maybe it would make things change, refresh themselves, so that when he woke up to dawn’s cheery light and the sound of birds singing in their back garden, everything would be different. But his father would not allow things to change. He shifted position slightly, and Daniel heard a muffled sob.
I’m asleep, Daniel thought. I’m dreaming this, Dad’s back in his bed, and things aren’t quite so bad.
But then his dad reached out and touched Daniel’s face with infinite tenderness. “Dan?” he whispered.
Daniel squeezed his eyes tighter, shutting out the weak light that filtered in from the landing and the ancient starlight from the window that he so often welcomed, dreaming of the space it had passed across, the billions and billions of years it had been travelling, just to finish up in Daniel Powell’s eyes.
“Dan? Wake up, squire.” His dad shook his shoulder a little, and now he must surely know that his son was awake. Daniel rolled away beyond his father’s reach, and for those few scant seconds before his dad leaned over and took him into his arms, everything could have been all right.
“She’s gone,” his dad said. He meant it as a whisper, but it came out as a cry, tears surrounding the words like a ruthless army of grief. “Dan, I’m sorry son, but she’s gone.”
“Mummy?” Daniel said. And then he turned to his father, and they hugged each other as the world grew cruel around them.
That morning, the house was full of people: Aunty Jackie, his mum’s sister, looking as though she was constantly holding a breath; Gary, his dad’s best friend, who for the first time entered the house without running after Daniel and tackling him into a tickle or a pretend fight; Nanny Powell; Granddad Sugg; and other people who Daniel knew, sometimes had birthday cards from, but who today seemed to be here visiting someone else.
Something about grief appeared to make Daniel invisible. He wasn’t quite sure whether it was because of what he was feeling, or because of what everyone else felt, but he sensed a distance between himself and the grown-ups that seemed difficult to cross. His dad had brought him downstairs and hugged him for a long time, but as soon as the first of the visitors arrived, everything seemed to have changed. He received lots of kindly looks, some hugs, and plenty of hair-ruffling. But when he went into the conservatory and sat in the old rattan chair, a book propped open on his knees, everyone seemed to think he was okay. He heard them inside – a monotone mumble of voices and tears, played to the seemingly constant growl of the boiling kettle – but it was a silence that Daniel listened to the most.
The silence from upstairs.
That’s where Mum is, he thought. She might not be sighing in her sleep, as she had been for a long time, or groaning as she shifted her position in the bed. But that’s where she was lying right now, quiet, calm, dead, while the downstairs of her house seemed to be filling with grown-ups who no longer understood how to talk to her son.
“Upstairs is where I’m going,” Daniel said to the still air of the conservatory. Outside, he could see birds flitting across the garden, darting back and forth to hanging feeders and the bird table that his mum had bought long before she became ill. He’d always helped her fill the feeders when they were empty, and here and there around the borders were tufts of wild grass where he’d dropped handfuls of seed, just to see whether they would grow. He’d worried for a time about what would happen to the birds if the seeds sprouted in their stomachs, but his mum had explained things to him, and after that he’d stopped worrying.
A goldfinch looked his way. Daniel froze, watching the bird’s jerky movements as it seemed to size him up. Today’s just the same as yesterday for you, he thought. And then something startled the bird and it took flight in alarm.
“Okay, tiger?” a voice said.
Daniel turned a page in the book. “Yeah.”
Gary sat in the chair opposite him. Daniel’s dad had once told him that he and Gary had been friends since they were even younger than Daniel, and the two men often went out to the pub, concerts, or sometimes on overnight stays to their other friend’s place in London. Gary was a big man, balding, with arms nearly as thick as Daniel’s thigh and a smile that never seemed to slip. It was there even now, that smile, but there was something about it that Daniel no longer liked. He realised that it was dishonest, and Mum had taught him never to lie.
“You going to be a brave boy?”
“Help look after your dad?”
Daniel nodded and glanced up at Gary.
“Good lad.” Gary averted his eyes quickly and looked into the garden. As he turned, his smile fell away. “Damn it,” he muttered, and Daniel wasn’t sure whether he was meant to hear.
“I remember when your mum died,” Daniel said. “Dad told me it had happened, and he took you a present.”
Gary looked back at him, eyes wide and watery. Then the smile came back, and it was refreshingly real. “Great memory there, Dan. You must have been … eight?”
Daniel shrugged, because he didn’t know how old he’d been. All he remembered was going out with his dad, following behind him as he browsed the shelves of bookshops for exactly the right thing. He frowned, trying to remember what it had been.
“Your dad bought me a book called The Coral Island. First book my mum ever gave me, and he knew I’d lost it years ago.” Gary nodded, glancing down at the hardback open on Daniel’s knees. “I always loved Dr Seuss, too.”
“Not even reading it, really,” Daniel said. He closed the book and put it gently down beside him.
“You okay?” the man asked again.
“Yeah.” Daniel answered without really thinking about it, without pausing to consider just how okay or not okay he was, because there was something he had to do, a silence he had to visit. And much as he loved Gary and knew Gary loved him, this moment was starting to feel awkward. The spaces between words said much more than the words themselves. So he smiled, and Gary seemed to take that as a signal to leave. But before leaving, he had something else to say.
“Listen, Dan.” He squatted down right beside the rattan chair, and Daniel could tell he hadn’t even cleaned his teeth. “I’m always around if you need me. Either of you. I’ve told your dad, and I know he believes me. But sometimes grown-ups can forget what they’re thinking.” He frowned, as if searching for better words to illustrate what needed to be said. “Sometimes they don’t know they need someone. You know what I mean?”
Daniel nodded, still trying to think things through.
“So I’m telling you as well, because we’re mates, and I want you to think you can trust me. I’m here if you need me, Dan. If either of you need me.”
Gary was crying now. That shocked a tear from Daniel as well, but he wasn’t sure it was for the right reasons. Sometimes, seeing a grown-up cry was just such a damn shock.
Gary ruffled his hair and left the conservatory, and Daniel looked back out at the birds, eating their seeds but safe, because in their stomachs they had special feather-powered seed-grinders that only birds were ever born with.
That was when he started to cry.
There was a woman in the living room whom Daniel didn’t know, and when she saw that the boy had been crying, she turned away. Daniel looked at the woman’s hands, curved around a cup of tea, nails bitten and raw, and wondered who she was. Maybe he’d seen her many times before, but he’d surely never noticed her.
His dad was in the kitchen. Daniel could hear his voice, and he did not want to see the father that voice came from. There was crying and sobbing, and words were erupting from him as though caught by something on the outside and pulled out, raw and bloody. “She … she … was … never going to … leave me … she … promised!” Daniel heard some soothing noises, and the low mumble of another man’s voice, and for a moment he considered entering the kitchen. He loved his dad. But the man out there didn’t sound like his father. And hearing the crying made Daniel’s eyes feel hot again, and his throat started to tighten and fill up as if someone had stuffed a wad of cotton wool down there.
So he turned away from the kitchen, not towards it, and walked through the living room and out into the hallway at the bottom of the stairs.
He looked up. It was completely still up there. Over the past few months he’d become used to the muted sound of the TV in his parents’ room, or the music system his dad had installed. And more recently, upstairs had hushed to the gentle voices of people reading books on CD. His mum had gone blind, and when she had mentioned about buying some talking books, she could never have known the nightmares seeded in her son’s mind. Daniel had only gone to bed that night after pulling every one of his books from their shelves and stuffing them beneath his bed. He’d known what she meant, of course, and he’d told himself that with every book he pushed out of sight. It was the false images in his own head he was trying to hide away.
Still he’d dreamed of dusty old tomes with teeth, and eyes, and bad breath when they came close to tell you their forbidden stories.
Now, there were no sounds from his dead mother’s room. The stereo had been switched off for the final time last night, and the books no longer talked.
He started upstairs. He trod as quietly as he could, breathing in and out gently through his mouth, craving any faint sign that everyone was wrong; the rustle of a sheet, a cough, his mother’s groan as she tried to shift position in her bed.
She’s gone, his dad had said, and Daniel had known immediately what he meant. He’d seen the vague shape of his mother, hidden by sheets and shadows and the blur of tears, as his father had carried him downstairs early that morning. But there was more of her to see.
“There’s lots you forgot to tell me,” Daniel muttered, standing halfway up the staircase. “Mum? You forgot to tell me stuff you said you would. You always said, I’ll tell you when you’re older, and I am now.” And he sat down on the stairs, because he suddenly realised that his mother would never grow older again.
Someone laughed downstairs, a tentative, quiet sound. Another voice echoed the laughter, but it was smothered in a hug that Daniel could not see, and he imagined his dad holding onto someone else. Someone should be holding onto me, he thought, but the idea felt distant to him, as if it was too adult for him to produce.
He walked up the rest of the stairs and stood on the landing. The door to his parents’ room had been closed, maybe so that people could come up and down without having to see, if they really didn’t want to.
But why wouldn’t they want to see?
She’s gone, his father had said. Daniel needed to look at her one more time to really understand.
She had talked to him about dying. He had never even asked her if she was scared. Now he wished he had, and in some older part of his mind, he recognised that there are some regrets which echo forever.
Someone had come into the room and straightened the bedclothes. Daniel felt a brief, irrational rush of anger at whoever had done that, because his mum never liked the duvet pulled right up under her chin. She liked to sleep with her arms stretched out on top of the duvet, not beneath, and someone had brushed her hair, too, neat and tidy back from her forehead instead of that messy look she so preferred, that wild and windswept look as she called it. Daniel knew that she had not been windswept for months, but it was still so unfair.
He pushed the door closed behind him and expected her to move. But he had never seen her so still, so silent, so not there.
Daniel closed his eyes and sobbed, one loud exhalation quickly followed by tears. His eyes snapped open and he looked at his mum. She would never let him cry like this without asking what was wrong.
She lay back in the bed, eyes closed, her forehead smoother than he’d seen it for a long time. He thought she might be fooling him.
“Mum!” he said, his voice loud enough to startle him, make him look around to ensure there was no one hiding in the shadows. She did not reply so he tried again, quieter this time.
Quiet, motionless, so not there.
He sat down on the small chair his parents always kept beside the door. He still remembered standing on it when he was little to reach the light switch, and there had been an occasion when he had done that for the very last time. The next time, he’d managed to reach the switch without using the chair, and he’d never needed to stand on it again. He wondered whether, had he known that was to be the final time, he could have promised himself to stand on that chair again, just to stop things moving on to where they were now.
This was the last time he would ever see his mother. Dad had told him that people would be coming soon to take her away, and then she would be even more not there than she was now, not just quiet and cold, but those hands that had soothed him, the face that had comforted him so much, the lips he had kissed and seen smile so many times, gone from his view. He would never again be able to reach out and touch her.
He thought of Gary, his dad’s friend for over thirty years, and how his own mother had died a couple of years before.
“Mummy,” he said, trying not to cry but failing miserably, “I’m not old enough for you to die.” He stayed there for some time, rubbing tears away only to replace them with new ones. Once he thought he heard someone out on the landing listening to him, but whoever it was went back downstairs and left him and his mother alone.
He knew his dad would be worried, so he looked at her for the last time, touched her hair – not her face, not her hand, because she could never be cold to him – and then went back down with the grown-ups.
(C) Tim Lebbon 2008
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.