On the Other Side (Short Story)
It was Johnny’s birthday and the sun was shining brightly on the little green box of lawn that was the garden he’d known all his life. It had been a good birthday for Johnny, he’d woken early without meaning to and spent sixty peaceful minutes curled up against the dawn before the slow, joyful illumination of the date hit him with the sun’s rays. He’d rushed downstairs to find smiles and breakfast being made, there was even a parade on tv and although the messages on the placards and banners did not mention him by name he appreciated the thought all the same. Best of all, a goodly collection of brightly wrapped boxes sitting neatly on the kitchen table, so perfect in their promise that finally opening them seemed almost sacrilegious. Johnny savoured the anticipation and was not disappointed by the actuality.
When the torn paper had been pushed aside Johnny found himself with: a Connect4 and an AK-47 from his mum, a letter with a tenner from his dad, a cuddly killer whale from his uncle, a monster truck from his Other Uncle, a Polly Pocket Party Boat from his nan (who was admittedly getting on a bit) and from his older brother, who had gone a bit white-faced when he saw the party and disappeared upstairs for twenty minutes, a large round multi-coloured ring.
Johnny was pleased with his haul of presents and in its turn each thing was played with. He had coveted the Connect4 he’d seen round a friend’s house the week before and he made everyone lose at least one game against him. The gun proved useful in hunting down and executing the invisible ninjas who stalked the house. The tenner was proudly stuck to the fridge with a magnet as if Johnny had personally drawn the queen’s face on it. The killer whale rode the monster truck in faster and faster circles round the kitchen floor until Johnny felt dizzy. He’d even been good and played with the girl-boat, only sulking a little bit. The presents had made Johnny happy and he sensed that he’d done a good job of making the people who gave them happy, which is as much as anyone can ask from a gift.
But the huge and unwieldy circle of plastic from his brother perplexed Johnny. He’d been told to take it out into the garden and had dutifully slunk outside with it, with no better ideas he’d lain on the green grass and set this inexplicable and useless thing down next to him so that they might both lay on their backs and look up at the clear sky above.
Johnny and his circle were still laying there enjoying the sun when his brother trundled out the door with a can of lager and a piece of cake in hand. Johnny squinted upwards, shielding his eyes from the sun as his big brother sank down in the grass next to him.
“Having a good birthday champ?”
Johnny propped himself up on an elbow, it had been a bright peaceful day but he could sense his brother was getting at something, there was something he was meant to know about the big plastic ring, something he was meant to do with it. But this thing couldn’t be a something could it? It was just a ring, no moving parts, no instructions, it was a hole, a nothing. Johnny looked from the ring to his brother and back to the ring. His eyes begged for help.
Johnny’s brother exploded in laughter.
“You do know what this is don’t you Johnny?”
Johnny felt a tingle of defiance at this, he knew exactly what it was, he just didn’t know what his brother thought it was.
“It’s a big ring isn’t it?”
“Well yeah, kinda, it’s called a hula hoop. It’s a toy, you’re supposed to play with it.”
Johnny regarded his brother with a critical eye.
Johnny’s brother looked uncertain for only a moment.
“Here, I’ll show you.”
Setting his paper plate on the grass Johnny’s brother pulled himself to his feet and holding the hula hoop up to his eye as if it were a giant monocle he began in professorial manner:
“The hula hoop is a test of agility, flexibility and rhythm. While easy to learn it will take you years of practise to master. You begin by placing it over your head…like so…” Johnny’s brother stood awkwardly with the great ring suspended about his waist “And then you kind of…”
He gave an odd jerk of his hips that sent the thing tumbling to the grass. Retrieving it he tried again, rotating his whole body in strenuous circles. This time the hula hoop travelled upwards, orbiting between his armpit and his collarbone for a moment before colliding quite hard with his nose and once again descending back to earth. Johnny’s brother said a word Johnny wasn’t meant to know.
“Sorry, it’s a bit…uh trickier than I remember, here you try.”
Johnny gingerly took up the gauntlet fearing the ring was out for blood. It was an odd thing to hold, so light, too light, huge and unwieldy in its lightness, so that it twisted in his grip and dipped and rose as if trying to flap its way free. He set it about his waist, and feeling very silly gave a half-hearted spin that saw it gently come to rest on his shoes. The two brothers settled back on the grass in defeat, eating cake as they regarded the opponent that lay between them.
“ I’m sorry, I guess it wasn’t a great birthday present.”
Johnny’s brother opened a beer and fell quiet for the first time that day. Feeling himself partly to blame Johnny fell silent too, staring at the tips of his shoes and digging his fingers into the warm, soft soil like ten burrowing earth worms, until suddenly his brother brightened, almost jumping to his feet.
“Of course, the hula hoop does have one other use” he said nonchalantly, “but…nah, you wouldn’t be interested.”
Johnny felt curiosity bubble within him, and recognised an opportunity to make his brother feel better.
“What? What do you mean? Tell me!”
“I dunno, you’re pretty young to find out about this…”
Johnny’s brother laughed into his beer, big hearty guffaws that echoed round and round the can like a ringing bell.
“Okay, okay. You really shouldn’t be hearing about this from me, but hula hoops aren’t just toys.”
Johnny’s brother leaned in, grave and huge and beery.
“They’re portals you see.”
Johnny blinked blankly.
Johnny’s brother gave an equally blank blink.
“Uh, no, portals. They’re gateways, each and every hula hoop is a passage to another place…another dimension!”
“Sorry, and sorry but I’m not stupid.”
Johnny shook his head slowly. He knew when his brother was making fun of him and he wasn’t going to be caught believing a ridiculous lie.
“Okay, then I’ll show you.”
As he said this Johnny’s brother tossed the ring high in the air and caught it with one hand, holding it out to the side.
“Believe me Johnny boy, I am deadly serious, this right here is a portal, holding it like so and passing through it completely will take you to a different dimension. Stand up and see for yourself”
Holding the hoop in front of him, he indicated for Johnny to step through and Johnny, obediently and with just a hint of nerves climbed awkwardly through the hoop, coming out the other side.
Johnny blinked and felt stupid, he’d been made to look a fool. He turned to his brother.
“Y’know I knew that wasn’t going to work right? I was just going along with it, I was just going along for fun.”
Johnny’s brother looked at him with horror.
“Strange, unholy traveller! From whence have come you?”
“I know what you’re doing, I’m not an idiot.”
“What magic has brought you to this place stranger?”
“Stop it, stop.”
Johnny had begun to feel an odd, cold little prick of fear. A novel rising fear that began to overjump the every-day fear of looking like a child in front of his big brother.
“I know not who you are, or how that strange ring of yours has made you appear out of thin air, and yet there is something oddly familiar about your face.”
Johnny’s eyes flashed a panicked white flag.
“Stop messing around, I know it’s you.”
“I promise you mysterious traveller, one moment there was only empty air, the next there you stood.”
Johnny’s brother took a swig from his can. At least it looked like Johnny’s brother, like everything else he appeared unchanged, and yet Johnny’s brother did not know him. This couldn’t be true could it? But here he stood, an apparent stranger in his own back garden. This couldn’t be a lie could it?
“Yes way. I swear it, I do not know what world you have come from, perhaps it appears just like this one, perhaps even the faces of our people are familiar to you, even the blades of grass may look the same, but I tell you, this is not your world, there is none like you here mysterious traveller. This is your world without you. There is some great power in that ring of yours is there not? The power to move between the worlds, from yours to mine, and mine to yours.”
“So I can go back?”
“There is only one way to find out.”
Johnny clambered excitedly through once again and as he emerged his brother threw his beer to the ground letting out a gasp of shock. Stumbling out of the hoop Johnny seized his brother frantically,
“It was just like you said. Everything looked exactly the same but suddenly you didn’t recognise me!”
Johnny trembled with the thrill of it, and to think he’d taken this gift for a pointless plastic ring! He had been given a world, a whole new world, and with it came the blissful relief that everything else must be possible too. If one could jump between worlds then it could all be true, every fantastical thing he’d ever been told, his nagging doubts about God, Father Christmas, the Yetis on Himalayan slopes, the school caretaker who everyone said feasted on human flesh, they melted away, it was all real, everything could be true and the whole universe now lay before him infinitely richer and scarier. This, surely, was freedom.
As Johnny watched his brother, open-mouthed in awe and surprise, Johnny felt as if he, his brother, the little green garden, all of creation had been made anew.
“Thank you for my present, I promise I will use it wisely.”
Johnny’s brother, so like his extra-dimensional counterpart in every appearance, opened a fresh can with a crisp hiss and solemnly went to go back into the house before stopping and turning at the door to give his little brother a little smile.
“I’m glad you like it. Happy birthday Johnny.”
With that he was gone, disappeared into the private milling world of adults when children are not there, and Johnny was left alone in the green box garden with the key to his own private world, huge and round and light in his hands. Squaring the circle.
Johnny was ready to explore, stepping once more through the ring he looked out upon this other, identical world. Another revolution about his head took him back again. Climbing again and again through the hoop with quickening pace, his heart beating a drum in his chest, little Johnny marvelled, delighted, reviled in his power to step so easily between worlds.
For some people naivety will not outlive infancy, barely old enough to stand on two feet yet beaten by experience they will already have learned to yearn for a world other than it is. Other people never will and like modern Panglosses insist until their dying day that we live in the best of all possible worlds and everything happens for a reason. If and when it comes the knowledge that not all is right in the world is called growing up and Johnny, horrified by the first dawning of disappointments, beginning to sense the claustrophobia of living in one life, felt immense relief to have found a way out, a secret tunnel, a plot hole, a loop in the contract.
Finally out of breath Johnny let the hoop fall from his grasp to softly sink to the ground. Sitting on grass in its centre like a child caught in a fairy ring Johnny looked around him. He looked up at trees he had known his whole life, at sky as blue as in a picture book. Johnny heard the chatter of familiar muffled voices from the house beyond, and slowly it dawned upon him that he had lost his place and no longer knew which world he was in.