13 Ways: The Wonder Wall
Posted on December 22nd, 2011
Tom walked out of the 7-11 with two coffees in his hand, one for himself and one for his wife, Gayla, who had waited in the car while he pumped the petrol.
He stopped for a moment to watch children clambering on the Wonder Wall which made up the west side of the shop, and which Tom supposed caused more parents to stop here for petrol and soft drinks than might otherwise.
The wall interested him because walls were his business. Tom was a manager in a company that rendered residential and commercial exteriors. Usually, as jobs go, it was pretty good; but this year had been tough.
He regretted the decision they’d made two years ago, as an executive team, to change their materials supplier to one that offered a supposedly superior rendering mix at lower cost. That’s how all the trouble had started: cracks, mould, and chunks of render dislodging from work sites completed only nine to twelve months earlier.
Tom considered the Wonder Wall, which had both an aesthetic appeal and a structural integrity that he knew to be lacking in his own projects of late. It was large in scale, about six metres high and twelve metres wide, with multiple shapes representing gigantic sea creatures, along with several smaller and more abstract objects that evoked suns, moons, stars and planets. All of these projected outward, offering handholds and footholds, as an open invitation to the young ones to climb up. The whole effect was bright and cheerful, and Tom thought that the wall seemed to radiate its own personal happiness to the viewer.
The wall was truly wondrous, he supposed, if one were a child and keen to climb it, and it was charming and whimsical enough for older patrons to enjoy viewing. There was a thick rubber mat at the base, in case someone fell, although the parts that were suitable for climbing were no higher than one and a half metres. The rest was decorative.
Tom watched two young girls, about seven or eight years old, so absorbed in their play that they took no notice of him. Tom thought they seemed to be having the time of their lives. He felt relaxed and happier than he had in ages to hear them as they chattered, laughed, and negotiated the wall together. A smile lit up his face as he remembered when his own boys were this young: how quick and easy their smiles were then, and how any silly joke would make them fall to the ground laughing.
These were the things that Tom would hear himself explaining to Dr. Jellicoe about the event some weeks later.
“So, Tom, you stopped to have a look at how the wall was constructed and so on, and you found yourself enjoying the children’s laughter as you watched them play?”
“Yes, that’s right.” He shifted in his chair, brought one leg up to rest on the other, and then crossed his arms, preparing himself to explain the next part.
Tom was forty-eight years old, and he had never found it necessary to see a psychiatrist until now, having led a fairly normal, stable, and undramatic life. He wasn’t sure what to expect from her, or what was wanted from him, or if it was absolutely necessary that he be here. Gayla had insisted that he come, and had made the appointment for him.
“And so then what happened?” Dr. Jellicoe asked.
Tom didn’t answer right away. Dr. Jellicoe seemed kind and had intelligent eyes, but he was not used to discussing his private life with strangers. This particular event, most especially, felt deeply personal, and he’d told no one about it aside from Gayla, who had been there when it happened.
“Didn’t my wife tell you this part when she rang you?”
“Yes, she did – her version of things. Would you like me to tell you what she said?” Dr. Jellicoe replied.
“No, actually. I already know Gayla’s version of things. It’s all I’ve been hearing lately, when she talks to me at all.”
“Your wife no longer talks to you?” Dr. Jellicoe cocked her left brow at Tom, tilted her head slightly towards her right shoulder, and adjusted her glasses.
Tom noticed that her glasses were an elegant, expensive design, and he noticed, too, that she had a lovely jaw, high cheekbones, and a near perfect nose. He watched as a lock of her hair, which was dark brown, drifted gently over the left lens of her glasses, half covering his view of one bright, sea-blue eye. Tom realised then that she was pretty, in an intellectual, even artistic sort of way, like a woman one might see staring out from a fine painting in a gallery – a mystery to be solved by the viewer. But this recognition did not stir him as it might have in the past.
“I wouldn’t say that she intends not to talk to me, it’s just that … Well, look. I guess things weren’t great between us before this happened, and since it happened, it’s worse, I suppose. Probably that’s my fault.” Tom took a deep breath and then sighed, letting it go. He sat back in his chair, unfolded his arms, and relaxed his posture, taking a sip of the water Dr. Jellicoe had offered him before continuing.
“We took that weekend trip to the country – where this all happened – to try to reconnect. Our three kids are off at university or working now – our youngest, Jack, moved out a few months ago. I guess, like a lot of couples, Gayla and I realised when he left us that the house felt enormous and empty – as if we each lived alone, even though we were still together.
“Once upon a time, it was romantic and thrilling for it to be just the two of us, you know? We used to be so passionate about each other. But somehow, when we weren’t paying attention, I guess that all changed. We lost touch, literally and figuratively. We’ve been married for twenty four years. There’s little affection expressed between us, and we have nothing at all to say to each other anymore, it seems.
“Or, at least that was true until the Wonder Wall. Now, she has plenty to say to me, but I don’t want to hear it, to tell you the truth.” He flinched saying that, feeling it like a wound being pricked open.
“Is Gayla concerned about you? Is that why she’s talking about that event at the Wonder Wall?” Dr. Jellicoe asked.
“Yeah, concerned is the right word, I suppose. But, to be honest, I think she’s also wondering if I’m just going crazy. And I guess I wonder if Gayla is thinking of leaving me, if maybe she’s been thinking that for a long time, but she was waiting for the kids to grow up and all.”
“Did she say that?”
“She didn’t have to say it. We haven’t slept together since Jack was in year ten at school – that’s three years ago now. And it’s been pretty obvious for the past decade that Gayla prefers the company of her women friends to me. Those are the people she turns to when she wants to have a talk, or a laugh, or a cry. All that’s a clear enough message, I guess.”
He paused here, considered what he’d just said, and then finished the thought. “Not that I’m blaming Gayla. I’ve always worked too much, and when I’m not working, I’m usually busy with other things, like golfing with my mates, or going to my boys’ sports events. I don’t think I’ve been the most attentive husband in the world. And we have three sons, you know, so Gayla has had no other females in the house for company – unless you count our cat, Minx.” Tom sighed again, loosened his tie, and drank more water.
Dr. Jellicoe was silent for what seemed like several minutes, but Tom didn’t mind. He was surprised to notice that he felt calm and okay about talking to her. It felt good to say all these things he’d known for years but never uttered.
Eventually, Dr. Jellicoe looked him dead in the eye and asked, “Tom, do you believe you are going crazy?”
Her directness surprised him, but not as much as his own silence upon hearing the question. Truth was, he didn’t know.
He stared back at her briefly, then glanced outside at a Japanese Maple, whose leaves were brushed with red and gold.
“What are the tears about, Tom? Can you tell me that?” Her voice was a soft seduction, although Tom knew she did not intend it to be. She was attending to him, doing her job, and doing it well, he supposed. Still, he felt a familiar tug towards her – the kind that he no longer felt towards his wife – and he wondered if this was what all her patients experienced with her. It was like being held without being touched.
He had not realised that he was crying, but as he reached up his hand to his cheek, he could feel that this was true.
“I don’t know. Normally, I don’t cry, unless someone dies. Sometimes not even then. But these past few weeks, it just comes on randomly. Usually I don’t even notice it’s happening.” He removed a handkerchief from his pocket and scrubbed his face with it, and then drank more water. “Luckily, it hasn’t happened at work, at least not yet. I don’t know how I’d explain that.”
Again, Dr. Jellicoe waited several minutes before responding. Tom watched her jot something in her notebook with a glossy black pen. Then she looked up at him, uncrossed her legs, and leaned forward in her chair, once more meeting his eyes with such a direct gaze that he would have thought it a come-on in another context, but not here. Here, it meant, “I am listening, and you have my undivided attention.” Tom was not so ignorant or vain that he failed to understand that.
“What happened to you at that wall, Tom? Why does Gayla think you might be going crazy?”
Tom cleared his throat and broke away from her gaze to the painting on the wall behind Dr. Jellicoe’s head. It was a print – though not a very good one – of Picasso’s The Old Guitarist. Tom’s eyes rested there as he spoke.
“On a Sunday evening six weeks ago, I came out of a 7-11 outside the town of Bendano, with two coffees and a receipt for a tank of petrol. It was around dusk, and Gayla and I were heading home from a weekend in the country, where we’d stayed in our friends’ cabin by Lake Reverie. We’d had an OK time, but nothing special, and we were both thinking of other things on the drive home. We were due back at work on Monday morning, so maybe that’s what was on our minds. I can’t really say for sure now. I don’t remember talking much at all.
“Anyway, instead of going right back to the car, to Gayla, I stopped to look at that wall – the Wonder Wall, it was called – and I guess I stood there longer than I realised, kind of daydreaming or something. I don’t clearly recall what happened around me, just that I heard those kids laughing and talking, and the wall’s colours looked brilliant, and the sun was setting just behind me, so the light started to change on the wall as I stood there watching it. I think it had some reflective bits on it, some shiny parts that caught the light just beautifully. Or, that’s how I remember it, anyway.
“After a while, the wall seemed to develop a shimmer, and it was like it started to breathe – like a living thing. The whales and octopuses and fish began to make swimming motions, and the planets and stars lit up, like real planets, and real stars. And you know, all this time, I was thinking, ‘No wonder it’s called the Wonder Wall, this is fantastic!’ because I was thinking this was all part of the gimmick – even though I couldn’t see how it worked.
“Then, I began to hear music coming from it. First, it was just music like an old calliope would make on a carousel. But then the sounds of the sea rose up out of the wall – real sounds, of waves washing up onto rocks, and gulls squawking overhead – even though we were nowhere near the ocean.
“Dr. Jellicoe, I could hear the whales singing. I’ve never in my life heard whales singing, except on a recording. It was magical and beautiful beyond belief. I could feel the sun on my face, even though I knew it had set. The sand blew into my eyes, and I could feel my hair being whipped up by the sea breeze. I could taste the salt in the air.
“And the children were laughing all the time …” Tom stopped.
Dr. Jellicoe said nothing, nor did she move.
Tom considered the man in Picasso’s painting again, and how his guitar must have meant everything to him. How the whole of his life had been reduced to this one defining moment, and this one essential instrument, rendered in the saddest shades of blue Tom had ever seen.
He took a deep breath, and then drank what remained of his water before continuing.
“Yes, the children were laughing all the time, right up until the moment that they turned away from the world, and from me. They swirled around to face the wall, and then, holding hands, they disappeared into it.
“After that, everything stopped. There was no more music, no more whale song, no more laughter … or wind, or sun, or gulls, or swimming fish, or breathing walls. It all just … stopped.”
“And what did you do then, Tom?” The gentle voice inquired from somewhere, but Tom felt far from her now, lost in a waking dream.
“What I did was I dropped the coffees. I don’t remember doing that, but that is what Gayla said, and I am sure it’s true. Because what I do remember is that I ran to the wall and began screaming and banging on it, trying to find the children, trying to make it open up again.”
Dr. Jellicoe remained silent for several minutes before responding, perhaps giving Tom time to add to his story, perhaps considering what he’d said, or perhaps performing some other inscrutable but necessary service.
“Yes, that is what Gayla said she saw, too,” she said. “Except for a few differences. Do you know what those differences are? I am sure she told you.”
“Yes, of course. She’s told me again and again.”
Tom wondered whether, if he stared at The Old Guitarist long enough, he would begin to hear a melancholy Spanish tune, and smell the streets of Barcelona.
“She told me, Dr. Jellicoe, that there were no swimming sea creatures on that wall, and no lit-up stars or planets, and no music, and no sea breeze … And certainly no children, laughing or otherwise. She told me all of these things as she pulled me away from the wall, and away from the staring customers in the parking lot. And she told me these same things, all over again, all the way home in the car – which she insisted on driving.”
“And did you believe her?”
“I don’t know what I believe anymore, Dr. Jellicoe.”
Dr. Jellicoe glanced away from Tom then, as she removed her glasses, rubbed her eyes, and sat back again in her brown leather chair. Tom heard her sigh.
“Tom, what did you hope to do? What were you wanting or needing, banging on that wall?”
Tom considered this. Maybe there was a clear and true answer that was not crazy, or maybe there was not. But he gave her the only answer he had.
“I just wanted to go too.”