In the ninth chapter of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, the narrator finds a strange comfort in the Hempstocks. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
“You’re only allowed to be there for one hour,” my mother said to me, holding on to the frame of the door, her eyes narrowed with concern. “One hour, and then I’ll be there to walk you back home.”
Of course, mom, I said to her, eager to start walking. Only an hour.
I turned away, possibly too quickly, and bounded down the driveway in a half-skip, half run. By the time I reached the Stoddard house, just ten houses down my street but on the opposite side, I reveled in the thrill I felt. For just one hour, my mother was letting me go to someone else’s house.
I was fourteen years old, and I had never gone somewhere that wasn’t school alone. My mother was always protective of me, but by the time I was in middle school, her grip tightened. I soon learned to stop asking her if I could go to a friend’s house or if someone else could come over. I was not allowed to give my phone number to anyone. My mother did have her reasons for this. I discovered years later that my biological mother had been trying to find me, my brother, and my younger sister. My mom didn’t want this, so she believed that if she hid us from everyone and everything, we’d never be found. But this threat became moot by the time I was ten or eleven, and so I never could understand the justification for why she continued to force me to live in a bubble.
After a long, awkward conversation and an even worse phone call to Mrs. Stoddard, my mom agreed to let me spend one weekday afternoon at the Stoddard household. I was not allowed to eat anything; I couldn’t bring anything there or take anything back with me. I could not play video games, either. It was a limited test run, so to speak, and Christopher’s mom had to agree to a lot of ground rules in order for it to happen.
So when I knocked on their door, I expected a reluctant, muted greeting. Instead, Mrs. Stoddard opened the door and immediately swallowed me in a hug, saying, “Oh, sweetie, we are so glad you are here!”
I didn’t pull away. I pushed my face into her torso a little harder than I ever had, and I heard Chris say, “Oh, come on, mom, let him go.”
She did, and Chris walked over and put a hand on my shoulder. I wasn’t used to this much touching, but I liked it. “What do you want to do?” he asked me.
Before I could answer, he gasped and said, “Oh, I have to show you the Les Paul my mom got me for Christmas last year. You remember, right? The black one.”
I nodded my head excitedly and he dashed off to the room. Mrs. Stoddard smiled and placed a hand on my back, between my shoulder blades. I felt a warmness spread through me as I turned to face her. Her face confused me, though. Only half of her mouth was upturned in a smile; the other was pressed together, as if she was still deep in thought. You have a nice home, I said, hoping to break this moment.
It seemed to work. “Oh, thank you! Yeah, we like it here. Would you like something to eat or drink?”
Like the dutiful son, I refused. My mom said I couldn’t have anything, I told her.
“Oh, she’s not gonna know, is she?” Mrs. Stoddard said, walking over to the fridge and shuffling a few things around before pulling out a Tupperware and removing the lid. “Cupcake?” she said, offering me one.
Chris returned to the room then. “Oh, you’ll love her baking,” he said. “She’s such a good cook.”
I took a cupcake from Mrs. Stoddard and then joined Chris in the living room as he sat down. “So, I was practicing the other day,” he began, “and I figured this part out. ” He began to play the opening riff from “Holy Wars” by Megadeth, the most recent record that he and I were obsessed with. I sat there, shoving a cupcake in my mouth, watching in awe as his fingers galloped through the triplets and muting. When I finished the cupcake, I delicately folded up the wrapper so as not to drop any crumbs on the pristine white carpet, and I asked Christopher if I could hold his guitar.
I hadn’t started to play at that age, but it was a dream of mine. He proudly handed the Les Paul to me, and I strummed nonsense out. I noticed that Mrs. Stoddard was staring at me again, that same look on her face.
I only realized years later that she felt sad for me.
I asked for a guitar that Christmas. It doesn’t even have to be an expensive one! I had insisted. Even a cheap $100 one would be fine.
My mom scowled at me and said no. After a brief pause, though, she said quietly, “And you can’t go back to Christopher’s house.”
- I knew instantly what I was going to write about when I read the section where the narrator feels strangely comforted by the Hempstocks. That is a very real experience I had at the Stoddard’s house, which, until I ran away from home a few weeks before my 17th birthday, was the only time my parents ever let me go to someone else’s house. I had a very lonely childhood, and I had an even lonelier time as a teenager. It was especially hard for me to see how other kids my age were allowed to have social lives and I was not, and I couldn’t fathom it. The fucked-up thing? My mother’s favoritism of my younger sister meant that she got responsibilities I was not allowed to have. Despite being nearly four years younger, she was allowed to have friends over, have sleepovers, go on sleepovers, and she got birthday parties. I did not.
- There is SO MUCH INFORMATION IN THIS CHAPTER. And yet, it doesn’t feel like a gigantic dump of exposition, you know? Gaiman continues to write the Hempstocks as if they aren’t aware that the narrator has no fucking idea what they’re talking about, and it’s a neat way of disseminating information to the reader.
- I HAVE A LOT OF QUESTIONS.
- Can the Hempstocks affect the narrator’s mood? Or is it just solely reading his mind?
- “The badgers saw them.” DO YOU MEAN THAT LITERALLY OR WHAT? Like, are the in communion with all living creatures or are we talking some sort of astral projection badger bullshit here?
- Y’all, that’s the coolest phrase I’ve ever typed: “astral projection badger bullshit.” I’m proud of that.
- SNIP. AND. CUT. Holy shit, how many powers do these amazing ladies have? So, I’m guessing it’s important that Old Mrs. Hempstock used the narrator’s old dressing gown; it’s a personal item with history. So does she imbue it with his entire timeline? Is that how she’s able to alter it in real time? I’m also guessing that’s why Old Mrs. Hempstock says that you can’t snip Ursula out of this. She’s outside of this timeline.
- “Old eyes.” That’s a clue. So, they all have “old eyes,” which explains how they’re able to see things unseen, but what is that?
- “I want to remember. Because it happened to me. And I’m still me.” Yeah, that is absolutely one of my favorite things I’ve ever read. Doing this whole storytelling project in conjunction with reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane has unearthed some painful and uncomfortable things, but I don’t think I’d want to forget what shaped me into the person I am today.
- So, it just sort of hit me while I was flipping through the pages of this chapter that the narrator pulled a “worm” out of a “hole” in his foot.
- That was a goddamn wormhole in his foot.
- WHICH THE HEMPSTOCKS STORE IN A MASON JAR BECAUSE THAT’S SOMETHING PEOPLE DO.
- (I want to be best friends with the Hempstocks, okay.)
- I think it would be impossible for me to dislike this book based on the last couple sentences of chapter nine alone. Purring cats? They solve most problems.
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