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Beyond The Wall

Photograph by Tamara Dean, Story by Patrick Gale


“Were you trying to say war?”

Her sister wore the fastidious expression she had perfected in childhood and which still made Stella want to slap her quite hard.

     “A wall,” Stella enunciated. “A garden wall. Even in a dream I doubt you’d find a war in a garden.”

One of the most regrettable side effects of her episode was that her sister had taken her on like a cause and paid her these visits several times a week. She was merciless.

     “I’m all you’ve got,” she said with a kind of wounded relish when Stella suggested once a week would have been plenty. “You have no friends.”

     The other side effect was the weakening of her ability to summon the right words when she needed them. She lived in words. Words were her life. Or had been. And now, between doing up one shoe and the other, she had become a mumbler, prematurely aged. 

     “Gaga,” she said now, because the syllables were readily summoned and because they upset her sister, who promptly said,

     “Don’t say that.”

     “Gaga gaga gaga!” Stella told her.

     Her sister winced again. “Now you’re just being silly. Catch.”

     She threw her the little yellow ball. Stella obediently caught it one handed, just to show her. She tossed it back.

     “So tell me,” her sister asked with a show of patience. “You’re in a garden, and there’s a wall.”

     “It’s not just any wall. It has a kind of glow from behind it. And there’s music.’

     “There’s what? Sorry, dear. Tell me more slowly.”

     “Music. There. Is. Music.”

     “Well don’t be cross. Catch!”

     Stella caught but this time held the ball in her lap. She disliked rehabilitation exercises at the best of times, but when forced upon her by her sister between appointments they made her scalp prickle with irritation. She made herself speak slowly and clearly. “I’m in our garden. On the Island. Only I come across a new wall where the Wendy house stood.”

     “You liked that Wendy house.”

     “It was my escape from you.”

     “Sorry, dear?”

     “Yes. And more than anything I want to get beyond the wall. There is… something good on the other side.” The word she wanted was transcendent but it stayed obstinately out of reach of her tongue.

     “Very basic Jungian symbol,” her sister sighed, disappointed. “You can change dreams, you know. If they keep recurring. You can assert your will in them. It’s frightfully healing. I read a little book about it when I was having my analysis.”

     Her sister had put herself into psychoanalysis after her husband died and she was embarrassed at not feeling his loss sufficiently. It was a point of honour in Stella never to have taken her repeatedly dropped hints to ask for details. 

     “Next time you dream the wall, just will a door in it. You’ll be amazed. Now I must dash. Be good. Be cheerful. Bye, dear.”

     She dreamed about the wall that night, naturally. She dreamed about it every night. She was in the big garden of their father’s Isle of Wight rectory. There were the bamboos, the duck pond, the yew hedge where they thrust handmade, sinister “sacrifices” to make wishes and place curses. And she was a boy. A rather sturdy, six year old boy with filthy knees, inky hands and one of those elastic belts with a snake-shaped fastening. Just the sort of boy she had always longed to be. 

     She could hear her sister whining as she hunted her on the far side of the hedge. She sought the Wendy house, long acknowledged as “hers” but found instead the wall.

There was a sunny glow on its other side and, as before, the intense sound of a mistle thrush song or a wren’s one – one of those piercing songs it was always a shock to find issuing from such a small, brown creature. She had lied about the music.

     “Mistle thrush,” she enunciated perfectly, but was amused to hear it emerging in the would-be gruff tones of a bolshy little boy. 

It had not occurred to her that she could speak in her dreams, that her brain might function in them unimpaired. She laughed.

     “Eloquence,” she pronounced at the wall, and clapped delightedly. “Grandiloquence. Mellifluousness and superfluity of adverbial clauses.”

     There was a rumbling, and shifting of dust, and spiders and moss from the wall and a part of it rose up, mysteriously animated, to form an arch. It was no higher than her stubby little boy knees but the sunlight through it fell in dazzling splashes across her Startrite sandals and she saw the unmistakeable swift darting shadow of a bird in flight.

     Just then her sister rounded the hedge, as she had every time, trailing the wretched doll, her hair in ribboned braids, a thoroughly pretty child on the brink of tears.

     “I’ve been looking everywhere for you,” she panted. “I called and called. What are you doing?’

     “Nothing,” Stella told her and, turning, heard the arch in the mysterious rose rumble shut behind her.   “I can do anything in dreams,” she added. “Just look at this!” and she smacked her pretty cheek so hard it woke her up.

     The next day she made a special effort all day to be nice. She was nice to the nurses, nice to the speech therapist and positively charming to the young woman in rehabilitation who made her play with balls and little dumbbells and go up and down stairs to nowhere. 

     That night, forearmed, she hurried directly to the wall, ignoring every distraction in between.

“Verbosity,” she told it, letting each consonant ping. “Loquacity.” The arch started to rumble upwards again. High as her knees. As her thighs. “Magniloquence!”

     As soon as it was the height of a small six-year-old, she stepped beneath it, ignoring the shriek of her sister behind her. The sun was warm on her face, the birds were loud. She stepped forward into the light.

Patrick Gale was born on the Isle of Wight in 1962. He spent his infancy at Wandsworth Prison, which his father governed, then grew up in Winchester. He now lives on a farm near Land's End. He's a passionate gardener, cook, and cellist and chairs the North Cornwall Book Festival each October. His sixteen novels include the Costa-shortlisted A Place Called Winter, A Perfectly Good Man and Notes From an Exhibition - both of which were Richard and Judy Bookclub selections - The Whole Day Through and Rough Music. His latest, Take Nothing With You is a tale of teenage obsession, sexuality, betrayal and music-making. Find him here @PNovelistGale

Tamara Dean is an Australian photographic and installation artist whose practice explores the relationship between humans and the natural world. Dean was a selected artist for the 2018 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art where she created her experiential installation ‘Stream of Consciousness’and photographic series ‘In Our Nature’. She has received numerous awards and notable achievements including –Winner of the 2019 Moran Contemporary Photographic Prize, Winner of the 2018 Josephine Ulrick & Win Schubert Photography Award, Winner of the 2018 Meroogal Art Prize, finalist - 2016 Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, National Portrait Gallery, London; High commendation - 2013 Moran Contemporary Photographic Prize; Winner - 2011 Olive Cotton Award and Winner - 2009 Sydney Life: Art & About. In 2013 Dean was selected for the ArtOmi International Artists Residency, New York. Works produced during this residency won first prize in the 2013 New York Photo Awards - Fine Art series category. 

Solo shows include – Endangered 2018, In Our Nature 2018, Instinctual 2017, About Face 2016, Here-and-Now 2015, The Edge 2014, Only Human 2012, This too Shall Pass, 2010 , Ritualism and Divine Rites, 2009. Dean's work is held in a number of public and private collections including Francis J. Greenburger Collection, New York; Parliament House Art Collection, Canberra, ACT, The Art Gallery of South Australia, The Mordant Family Collection, Australia; Artbank, Australia, the Balnaves Collection, Australia, and the Gold Coast City Art Gallery, QLD. Dean is represented by Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney.  You can find out more and follow Tamara here @tamaradean

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