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  • Writer's picturefergus church.

making the grown up choices.

(or, ‘choose your own teenage trauma’ - a quasi-review of the National Theatre's production of The Ocean At The End of the Lane.)

This is a choose-your-own adventure story.

It felt fitting for both the fantastical nature of the story and for the tabletop rpgs I played on most of my spare weekends around the time this series of anecdotes takes place.

At the end of most story moments, there is a choice between various options, follow the number to find the next relevant paragraph and continue on from there. It might not work - I’ve never written one of these before. You also may 'lose' and/or die, in which case, go back to the previous paragraph and try to make better choices next time.

Your tale begins on the 16th June 2013 and ends on the day you are reading this blog post.

You are playing as 17-year-old me.

You are acne-ridden, nerdy and a bit lonely. You also have a bad haircut and not much discernible fashion sense. You play video games or D&D most weekends and wake up at 5am most weekdays to finish your homework before school.

You are a big fan of Neil Gaiman and have ordered a copy of his upcoming book The Ocean At The End Of The Lane a few days ago.

Begin at paragraph 1…

- 1 -

You are a spotty teenager. You have tried every commercial anti-acne product on the market and have turned to the doctor to seek some medical advice. The doctor gives you some cream, which doesn’t work. You go back to the doctor. The doctor gives you some pills, which work for a little bit, then eventually stop working. You go back to the doctor. The doctor gives you some more pills which are usually used to treat UTIs. You don’t know what a UTI is but apparently the pills are fab for acne. You bring the pills home with you. Go to 10 to take the pills or go to 6 to not take the pills.

- 2 -

You put the book away for a moment to slather some weird-smelling anti-histamine cream onto your hives. You wonder why bad things happen to good people. You wonder why people at school don’t want to hang out with you as you slather cream into your acne-medication-induced rash. You wash your hands and get into bed with your book ready to start reading. Go to 18.

- 3 -

Your acne gets so bad that eventually you stop going to school because why would you do that to yourself? You become an acne-ridden hermit, never leaving your bedroom, and live out the rest of your life not showing your face to the outside world and never discovering that your copy of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean At The End Of The Lane arrived and is sitting in the hall. Make better choices. Go back.

- 4 -

You decide not to buy the book and waste your holiday money on a book you already own. Probably the sensible option. Go to 22.

- 5 -

You spend the rest of the day reading and finish the book in one go. You hope you won’t forget any of your favourite moments from not marking your favourite pages but you’re sure that you won’t. By the end of the day, your hives are clearing up and when you wake up the next morning, your skin is clear! Apart from the acne still all over your face. But the hives are gone! You’re up at 5am writing a homework essay for your English class later that day. A month later you spend the days revising. A month after that you take your AS Levels. Then you go on holiday with your family. You keep thinking about the book. Go to 20.

- 6 -

You don’t take the pills. Over the next few days your acne – unimpeded by prescription drugs – begins to resemble a third-degree sunburn. It feels like one too. Go to 10 to take the damn pills or go to 3 to keep leaving it.

- 7 -

Cool of you to assume this was a possible option. Go back to 28 and quit dreaming.

- 8 -

The lights go down and the play begins. It’s directed by Katy Rudd who did The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and Pinocchio so you know a little bit what to expect. Gorgeous puppetry and ingenious stagecraft evoking the realistically magic aspect of the book that resonated so much with you as a kid. What you don’t expect is to be fully taken into a world that has only existed in your head for six years. Go to 21 to visit the Hempstocks’ kitchen. Go to 29 to bind the flea. Go to 12 for a swim in the ocean.

- 9 -

You truly freak the fuck out and immediately open every single performance's seating plan in a new tab to compare available seats. Your boyfriend isn’t picking up the phone or answering your messages because he’s at work. You curse him for not planning his life around your personal schedule. You click through the dates that aren’t sold out and every show only has single seats dotted about. Your boyfriend is going to kill you if you can’t get these when you promised you would sort it but he’s not answering the phone so technically it’s his fault? You manage to find one date – the 5th December – which is the only show left with two seats next to each other. You immediately panic-book these and don’t even really check where they are. The confirmation email comes through. Your boyfriend replies, What’s up? You’re just glad you stayed so calm and collected the entire time. Go to 23.

- 10 -

You take the pills and miraculously, your acne begins to clear up within just a few days! You are very excited about this as last week, a kid at the primary school you volunteer at asked you what was wrong with your face. A few days pass, however, and you notice some strange red marks on your arms when getting changed for bed. In the morning, your whole body and face is covered in hives. You have had an allergic reaction to your acne medication. Your mum lets you take the day off school. Go to 16.

- 11 -

You aren’t really sure how you ended up here. When you were writing this blog, you forgot to include a choice that led to number 11 and wrote this instead. You realise the only way you could be reading this is if you were cheating and not playing the game properly. You immediately decide to go back to whatever number you were on before. Or start the game from scratch at 1. You are ashamed at your cheating. You feel sorry for yourself.

- 12 -

You dive into the ocean and it’s six years ago and you’re in bed with hives after an allergic reaction to your acne medication. You watch Samuel Blenkin as the boy answering back to Pippa Nixon’s incredible, terrifying Ursula (who, along with Ruth Wilson in the BBC His Dark Materials adaptation, apparently proves that you should never trust someone with that exact pristine haircut.) You start to scratch your arm and look down at them in the audience half-light, expecting to see them red and allergic. You want to run out, covered in rashes, and rage at all the grown-ups who don’t listen and, once that’s done, run to your kid best friend’s house to run around the back garden and have a sleepover. You remember that your kid best friend is a grown up as well now and that you’re a grown up too and you’re pulled out of the ocean by your collar and you’re drowning in the air of dry land. You could save yourself. You could go back to 1 and try it all again. Maybe it will be different this time. You could make better choices. Keep going back to the start when you mess up. But that’s not the point of the play or, even, the book. You just have to get on with it, find the wonder from your childhood memories again. Because it’s not gone anywhere, we have. You can go back to 8 to watch the other scenes or go to 30 to leave the theatre.

- 13 -

You are very itchy but start reading anyway. You open the book and immediately are so invested in the story that you don’t realise that you’re scratching your arms to get rid of the itchiness. Your mum comes in, sees the unopened anti histamine cream on your desk and you scratching. She tells you off and confiscates the book. Go to 2 to put on the cream or go to 17 if you cba.

- 14 -

You spend the rest of the day reading and finish the book in one go. Along the way, scared of writing in it, you have marked the pages using some colourful paperclips you found in a drawer. A blue paperclip tears a little corner of the book but in the moment, you don’t mind. When the book is finished, you try to close it but can’t because the pages are fat with paperclips. You decide to just take them out and instead place little pieces of ripped up paper in between the pages that resonate. By the end of the day, your hives are clearing up and when you wake up the next morning, your skin is clear apart from the acne still all over your face. You’re up at 5am writing a homework essay for your English class later that day. A month later you spend the days revising. A month after that you take your AS Levels. Then you go on holiday with your family. You keep thinking about the book. Go to 20.

- 15 -

You get in there early and manage to book two excellent seats for the show. It is a completely stress-free affair and there are multiple options for you and your boyfriend (who also loves the book after you introduced it to him) to sit together. Well done for being so on it with things like this. You’re a star. Your boyfriend is really happy that the tickets are safely purchased and I can’t emphasise enough how much of a stress-free affair booking these tickets ended up being. Go to 23, you gorgeous, successful, organised person whose procrastination will never get in the way of your career success. I’m so proud of you.

- 16 -

You are in bed feeling very sorry for yourself when your mum comes upstairs with a package that’s just been posted. It’s your copy of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean At The End Of The Lane that you ordered last week. You didn’t even realise today was the day it was published. You scratch at your arms. Your mum gives you some cream for your hives. Go to 2 to put on the cream or go to 13 to start reading straight away.

- 17 -

Your mum goes off with the book but leaves the cream there. You lie in bed. Bored. Scratching. You think you notice your hives getting a bit worse. If you wanted, you could go to 2 to put on your cream but you could also be stubborn. You are stubborn. But you’re also bored. You think about opening up the bottle of cream and going to 2 but maybe you think twice about it. You stay in your room for the rest of the day and never go to 2 and never put your cream on. You never read Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean At The End Of The Lane because you never get it back off your mum. You never write this post because you never read the book. You live the rest of your life with hives maybe? Just put the bloody cream on.

- 18 -

You open the book and begin reading. You slowly fall into the world of Lettie and her duckpond. The flea. Mrs Hempstock and Old Mrs Hempstock. Porridge with jam stirred into it. Monsters and ordinary magic and the farm down the lane. You realise when you stop reading to have some lunch that this is the first, proper, real, grown up book you’ve ever read and it’s a book about a five-year-old. You decide before you’ve even finished it that it’s your favourite book. You think you should maybe start marking the sentences that you couldn’t even close your eyes to blink while reading but also are too scared to ruin this new book. Go to 14 to mark the moments, go to 5 to leave it and risk forgetting.

- 19 -

Niiiice. V frugal. Probably sensible. This decision will avoid a small bicker with your boyfriend in early 2019 when he finds out that you own a much nicer paperback edition than the one he has. Good choice. Go to 24.

- 20 -

You are on holiday with your family when you go into a bookshop. You see a copy of - you think - the American edition of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean At The End Of The Lane. The cover is much nicer than your UK one back home. The book is much thinner because the font is a bit smaller. The edges are deckled (but at the time you don’t know what deckled means – you think the edges are just cool and torn-looking.) You don’t have much holiday money left but you can afford it and want to buy it. Go to 25 to buy it or go to 4 to leave it.

- 21 -

The Hempstocks’ kitchen is exactly how you’d imagined it without realising you'd furnished it a certain way. An old wagon for a table. A crackling fire stove. Dried plants hanging from the ceiling. The kitchen is cramped and warm and cosy despite the stage being physically wide and fairly bare. And the women that occupy it are every bit the Hempstocks that have quietly been your heroes since you were a teenager. Carlyss Peer is strict and loving and distant and close as Mrs Hempstock. Josie Walker is powerful and mysterious and fiercely kind as Old Mrs Hempstock. And Marli Siu’s Lettie feels like you’re seeing an old friend in their school play. You want to get out of your seat, ’scuse-me your way up the aisle and onto the stage to hold her hand. The three women turn you into a kid. You want to chat with Carlyss at her kitchen table, swinging your feet in your Velcro school shoes that don’t quite touch the floor. You want to hear Josie’s stories about the olden days. The things she got up to. The things even she doesn’t remember. And you want to play with Marli in the back garden until it gets dark and your mum’s in the hall calling you in because it’s time to go home now and to say thank you for having me. You can go back to 8 to watch the other scenes or go to 30 to leave the theatre.

- 22 -

It’s a few years later. You’ve since reread both your editions once each. You now work at Waterstones as a bookseller. You spend time finding that book with a red cover for strangers. You spend time building to-scale cardboard replicas of Baba Yaga’s house for window displays. You have a 50% discount off all books. You spend time abusing this discount. One day, while ordering a copy of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean At The End Of The Lane for a customer after recommending it to them, you notice there is a paperback edition you’ve never seen before. The paperback normally on the shelf is the same cover as your original UK edition. This one is a beautiful illustration of two ghostly children in the woods. That’s the Christmas edition, says your cool Northern Irish colleague when you ask her about it. It’s like July but available to order. Do you order a copy? You only make a little bit more than minimum wage so probably shouldn’t. Go to 27 to order it or 19 to not order it.

- 23 -

It’s the 5th December. You meet up with a couple of friends before the show for a quick dinner in the fancy new National burger bar. There aren’t any free seats because every table for four has a single person on it with a Diet Coke and a laptop. You start to wonder if the staff would mind you eating your burger on the other side of the building but your boyfriend manages to find a table hidden away in the corner of the burger bar because he’s brilliant and ultimately a problem solver. (You are a problem creator.) The burgers are pretty good. You would recommend the new burger bar to friends. You buy a programme, sniff it – as is tradition because it smells like crayons – then head into the theatre to take your seats, which actually have a very nice view of the stage if you do say so yourself. There is a little girl dressed in a Santa’s elf onesie sat in front of you with her mum. You think this is really lovely until you remember the scene in the book where two characters have sex in a window. You’ll panic and hope that they’ve somehow made it more family friendly. Go to 8.

- 24 -

You’ve left Waterstones to work in film production which is nice but you do miss the discount. The National announce their new season and right at the bottom of the list you see an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean At The End Of The Lane. You are very excited about this but also a bit sad and annoyed because btw you’re a playwright now and it was a secret dream of yours to one day write the stage version of the book. You tweet just about your annoyance because being earnestly excited about something isn’t allowed on social media. Do you book tickets for it straight away? Go to 15 to book tickets right now or 28 if you think nah I’ll leave it for now, I’ve got six months to buy em, it’ll be chill.

- 25 -

You pick up the book and go to take it to the till. Don’t you already have that? asks your sister. Yeah, but this edition is so nice, you reply. Your sister thinks it is a bad financial decision to buy a book you already own. Not too late to reconsider and go to 4? But you ignore her and buy the book anyway. The cover is a rough matte and makes a washy-scrapey sound like water on sand when you brush your hand over it. Go to 22.

- 26 -

You give up on seeing the show. Everyone on social media seems to be really enjoying it though so you’re a bit gutted. You end up never writing this blog post but you’re still reading it now. You cause a paradox and the universe rips itself apart from the inside out. All because you couldn’t get your shit together. Make better choices. Go back to 28.

- 27 -

You order the book. It arrives a few days later and you pay for it on your lunch break. It costs less than a fiver with your discount. You will miss this discount a lot when you leave Waterstones five months later. You decide to reread the paperback as you haven’t read your favourite book in a while. You sit and read it in the tiny staff room in the basement under flickering fluorescent lights and a damp ceiling that occasionally drops chunks of itself onto your head. You eat some soup and splash a bit on the page but you don't mind much because it's a paperback, babyyy. The book draws you in even more than it did when you read it five years before. You’re older now and have a bit more fashion sense and a better haircut and are a bit less of an idiot but not by much. Rereading this book spurs you on to finish reading all of Neil Gaiman’s books, which you do. You tweet about this and Neil Gaiman likes the tweet and you tweet about the fact that he liked it. Go to 24.

- 28 -

You wait until the week before the show before getting round to buying the tickets. You keep meaning to but life just keeps getting in the way, yknow? Life is things like playing Zelda, taking care of a plant, not writing the play you're meant to be writing and starting a blog instead. You eventually manage to scrounge up some free time somewhere in your hectic schedule to spend five minutes booking tickets to see the play. You go on the National’s website and click through to The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, where you see that every single show is Limited Availability or Sold Out. Your animalistic ticket-booking senses kick into overdrive – this was literally the production you were most excited to see all year. Go to 7 to book the tickets in your typical calm and collected manner, go to 26 to give up on seeing the show completely or go to 9 to just basically panic.

- 29 -

The monsters in the play are terrifying. Animalistic, stretchy, blubbery, sticky, sharp claws and tongue, scratchy, poisonous, drippy, sweaty, boily, warty and real. You feel a genuine thrilling terror and jump out of your skin at one point in Act 2. The little girl in front of you holds her mum’s hand, who puts an arm round and whispers something. You are glad that they toned down the earlier adult scene from the book but wonder whether this show is appropriate for children anyway. It’s full of wonder and adventure and excitement, yes. It’s got beautiful puppets and laughs and ABBA (genuinely.) But do those things make it kid-friendly? The National definitely seem to be aiming it towards families in their marketing and by programming it over the holidays. And you do genuinely think it’s a great show to take your kids too. But ultimately, you have always thought of the story as a fairy tale for grown-ups. Folktales exist to teach lessons, almost always to kids – don’t stray from the path, don’t talk to strangers, be nice to your abusive step-family and you’ll be rewarded with some killer shoes and a prince – but the lessons Ocean teaches are ones that grown-ups need: your parents are people too and they are flawed; ordinary everyday life is miraculous and magical in itself; the best way to get rid of pests is through physical theatre. One particular lesson of the show resonates with you in this particular retelling, given its timeliness around the election: all villains think that what they are doing is good. You aren't sure whether this is comforting or terrifying. The play handles all these lessons with thoughtfulness, danger and delicacy, like all the most gripping fairy tales. You can go back to 8 to watch the other scenes or go to 30 to leave the theatre.

- 30 -

You leave the theatre. You walk back to Waterloo slowly with your boyfriend and talk about the play. What they changed from the book and what they kept the same. You're laughing, being deep and stupid in the same breath, and it's easy and cosy. You think if anyone’s like a kid best friend, it’s him. Stick him in some wellies and a raincoat and he could be the Lettie Hempstock you spent years wanting. Just a bit more beardy.

You go into the station. What should my next blog post be about? you ask him.

Write one about me, he says. He’s joking. But you think it’s a good idea.

Maybe one day, you say.

And now you’re writing your next blog post. You started at midnight and now it’s just after 2. Your sleeping schedule is a bit fucked, though, because you were at a Christmas party late last night.

Now you're chatting to Jem about the art for this month's post.

And now you're doing some final edits.

You could go all the way back to 1, or to any number really, and give it another go. See what’s different. Or you could end it right here. Be happy with the choices you've made. Because that’s what grown-ups do.

Gorgeously illustrated, as always, by my marvellous friend, Jem Venn.

You can find her on Instagram or her website.


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