Travelling in the Grey Country

“If you look to your left,” says the guidebook, “you will see the fabled Lake of the Lost, where the ghosts of the dead gather before passing to a better world.”

Erosion patterns on Mars, courtesy of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, NASA

“If you look to your left,” says the guidebook, “you will see the fabled Lake of the Lost, where the ghosts of the dead gather before passing to a better world.”

​You look to your left. The Lake is there just as the guidebook described it, the forlorn shapes of the free ghosts swirling with the white mist, stretching long, clammy hands towards the tourists snapping photos on the shore.

The green water is glacier-cold. You dipped your hand into it during the boat ride from the southern bank. You were straining to reach the pale young woman trapped beneath its surface, her phantom hair spreading like seaweed, her long-dead eyes wide with fear and desperation as she mouthed silent pleas at the boatload of passing tourists. You reached for her, your fingers going numb as they parted the slick surface of the water. She stretched eagerly for your hand, but her ghostly fingers passed through yours the way a cloud’s shadow might pass across your face on a summer’s day. The boat moved inexorably on, and you lost sight of her despairing eyes in the multitude of ghostly faces pressed against the surface of the water.

“This place is boring,” whines a plump boy wearing a scarlet baseball cap. “I wanna go back to the arcade.” His tanned mother mutters something you cannot hear.

How has it come to this? Anger chokes you as you scan the sweat-flecked faces of passing tourists. You can still remember the sense of wonder that engulfed you as a child, sitting curled against the rise and fall of your father’s chest. The first edition of the Corrected Atlas was spread on his knees, a colourful quilt mapping the countries of the world. You remember how his voice rose with excitement as he described the mysterious continent that had risen from the waters of the Pacific Ocean, a fantastic place where magical beasts and monsters roamed for real.

“The fairy tales were true.” His chin stubble rasped against your skin as he impulsively kissed your cheek. “It’s all true. Magic is real. You have no idea what an exciting time you’re living in.”

But you did know. Your father’s excitement was contagious. Night after night you begged him to tell stories about the Grey Country, this fantastic, blank map of a continent that had brought magic and possibility back into the mundane world.

And now, decades later, you are actually here, standing beside the Lake of the Lost in the tourist Mecca of the Grey Country, a few miles from the neon strip of Vegas-style resorts, surrounded by a dusty crowd of bored jet-setters and cranky children who believe the Lake is boring.

To be fair, the children do not remember the time before the Grey Country. They have grown up knowing that magic was real; to them, werewolves and unicorns are merely exotic animals, like lions and tigers are to you.

“Oh look.” A short, bossy-looking English girl is pointing at the water. “It’s Mrs. Bentley. Do you remember her?” She jerks her younger brother’s arm to get his attention. “She was run over by a bus, you know.” You have seen no faces you recognize peering out of the Lake. This is both a relief and a disappointment — you would not want to see a loved one pounding desperately against the liquid surface, but at the same time, to see them would be to know they still exist. Nothing frightens you as much as the thought that the people you love can simply disappear, the way your father did one day, without any explanation.

Your mother told you he’d run off with another woman. This is exactly what she said: “He ran off with another woman, sweetheart. Gone to start another family. We won’t hear from him again.”

Of course you didn’t believe it. Not your beloved father, with his musky scent and sharp chin stubble, who read the Atlas to you in a voice that shook with excitement, who lifted you up when he arrived home so that your nose almost touched the ceiling, who could whirl you around and around in his arms until you were sick and dizzy and laughing. It was impossible that he would abandon you without a word of explanation, that he could forget you, and replace you with someone else.

So you knew it was a lie. A clever lie, which your father had told to escape from his boring job, his dilapidated apartment and his eternally weeping wife. While the neighbors muttered sympathetically, and the other children mocked you on the playground, you clutched his secret close to your heart: Your father had run away to explore the Grey Country.

This was why he had bought the Atlas, and read it to you every night — so that you and you alone would know where he was going. You mustn’t tell anyone, because otherwise they would drag him back, and stop him from doing all the wonderful things he was going to do.

For years you wrote letters to your father. You dumped them in the mailbox without a name or an address, knowing magic was the only thing that could take them to the Grey Country. At night you imagined, line by line, the letters he was writing you in reply, describing the fantastic animals he had seen, his daring adventures, and the treasures he had discovered in ruined temples. You could only receive these letters in your imagination, of course, because that was the way things worked in the Grey Country.

When you were fifteen your mother got a letter in the mail, containing a photo of a man who looked like your father, hugging two wide-eyed children who were not you. Your mother gave it to you to keep. When she wasn’t looking you tore it into pieces and flushed it down the toilet. Of course it was a fake photograph, part of the elaborate lie your father needed to protect himself, but after that you stopped reading his imaginary letters. There was no comfort in them anymore.

Now you shoulder your heavy backpack and trudge back up the trail to the Shining Temple. Today is your last day in the Grey Country, and you mean to enjoy it. You catalogue the places you have been, trying to dispel the lump of melancholy growing in your chest: the Charcoal Mountains which give the Grey Country its name, the Howling Forest, the Bonegrass Castle, and now the Lake of the Lost. You have seen a werewolf up close, you have tasted the bitter apples that glow like small suns in the dark, and once, through the dusty window of the rattling train, you glimpsed a dog with eyes as large as saucers staring at you from a thorny field.

You have not seen your father anywhere.

Of course, in your heart you knew this would be so. You knew your mother had told the truth. But it is one thing to know it, and it is another thing for the child in you to know it. The knife that twists in your heart is still sharp after all these years. Hot tears prickle behind your eyes as old questions resurface: Was it my fault? Was it something I did? And most painful of all, did I mean nothing to him?

“Are you all right?”

The bossy English girl is staring at you curiously. You nod, forcing a thin-lipped smile onto your face, and then she is running past you, down to the beach where her brother is tottering beside the water.

“Get back here!” Her young voice is strident with authority. “I’m telling!”

Shaking your head, you continue the dusty climb up to where the tour bus will take you away. The sun beats down on you. Your water bottle is empty and your feet hurt.

When at last you arrive at the top of the stairs, you look around at the tin shacks, the babbling crowd, the thin-faced beggars with greedy hands outstretched. Narrow-eyed hawkers rush towards you trailing postcards and strings of fake unicorn horns. As you wave them away you realize what the other tourists have known from the start: This is a country like any other.

It is a melancholy realization, but it is also a relief. Immediately you can feel yourself straightening, shaking off your foolish childhood fantasies, growing back into your adult self. Yes, your father abandoned you, and yes, the Grey Country is, for all its wonders, an ordinary place. So what? This discovery has not destroyed you. Perhaps you are better for it.

A hawker shows you a mirrored key chain he claims will ward off vampires. Your reflection looks older and wiser, far too sophisticated for its tawdry surroundings. You wonder whether your father would recognize you and decide he wouldn’t. A cynical smirk slides onto your face as you examine the plastic souvenirs. It feels comfortable there.

You buy the key chain. You pay too much, but that too is what’s expected.

The bus arrives in a rumble of hot exhaust. You climb up the metal stairs and take a seat near the window. In front of you the English girl points excitedly out the window, but you find her chatter irritating. The gasps of the new tourists at the sight of a rainbow waterfall fill you with a smug feeling of superiority.

You flip a battered magazine open and begin to read about the technology boom in Southeast Asia. As the bus crosses the bridge you idly lift your eyes from the page, and in the Lake you glimpse something that looks familiar.

You sit up to have a better look, but even then it takes a moment before you recognize the agonized face pressing against the glassy surface. Instinctively you reach out, but your hand hits the window. Fading into the distance, the ghost of your childhood self stretches out a pleading hand as the rattling bus carries you away.

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