The Art of Never Growing Up
Hello. My name is Peter Pan.
…is what I tell the little girls who came here to see Snow White and Rapunzel and are understandably a little taken aback by the tiny ginger guy hopping around in green tights. They want to know which princess I belong to. This would be where a professional would grab the chick dressed in blue (I don’t know her real name and she hasn’t earned the right for me to refer to her as Wendy), but she finds me irritating, preferring the company of Prince Charming. I’ve told Cinderella in private to watch out; blue chick looks like the type to push her in front of a carriage. So I give them a little bow and introduce myself, before pointing at the brilliant blue sky and explaining that I live in a place far beyond the reach of an aeroplane, but if they ever need to find me it’s second star to the right and straight on until morning.
In case you haven’t guessed yet, I work in Disneyland. And I take my job extremely seriously. You have to, here. Skive off for one second and you’ve ruined some little innocent’s childhood forever. One time Sleeping Beauty took a smoke break and a six-year-old stumbled across her. She wouldn’t stop crying until I took her in my arms and whispered to her that those little white sticks were the side-effect of a curse she’d had put on her, but if one little girl wished hard enough, that curse might just be broken.
I’m pretty sure Sleeping Beauty heard. I never saw her touch a cigarette again.
I think I just have that effect on people. Considering I’m not in the Big Three, or even the Big Ten (who are all girls by the way, which I would be absolutely fine with if they weren’t up there almost solely because of their looks – even in a world where pirates live in fear of ticking crocodiles and princesses sleep agelessly for a thousand years, you can’t escape consumerism), I’ve become pretty popular over the last three years on the job. I started when I was twenty, fresh out of university with an English degree and absolutely no career prospects. I was dating an older and infinitely richer woman at the time, and for my birthday she brought me down here for a treat (I think in some ways I was as much her son as her lover). I stayed. She left.
I am the only person here who truly wants to be. Mickey Mouse is here for his girlfriend Minnie, who is saving up to go back to school. Jasmine is supporting her grandmother single-handedly, and she is just thankful she didn’t have to find another way to use her looks to her advantage. Gaston wanted to be a Shakespearian actor and this, as he often says with a heavy sigh, is as close as he’s ever going to get.
Everybody else has given up on this place, if they ever believed in it to begin with. To them, the Happiest Place in the World is smoke and mirrors, which they begrudgingly work to uphold. They think that because underneath their smiling masks are red eyes and frown lines, and beneath their beautiful clothes are stretch marks and scars, that makes it all a lie.
As far as I’m concerned, they’re overthinking it. All you have to do is watch a child’s face light up as their favourite cartoon character hugs them to know that this is the happiest place in the world.
Personally, I love the freedom. All I do all day is mince around, sit cross-legged on various surfaces, watch the world and take it all as it comes. If a family looks lost I dart right over, crouch down beside the kids and murmur that I don’t talk to grown ups but if they could ask Mummy and/or Daddy to tell me what the problem is I’ll do whatever I can to help. The parents normally eye me slightly distrustfully but much as I’d like to (and know I probably should) shoot a wink at them over the children’s heads, I never do. I don’t think of what I do as acting. I think of it as being. In my little green suit, I am Peter Pan. And it’s a damn good thing too, otherwise I’d just be a twenty-three year old in a little green suit and that’s just sad, don’t you think?
* * *
Hello again. I am now in an oversized T-shirt and loose sweats, and my name is Simon Reed. I walk like a normal person, the weight of the world settled like dust all over my skin, and I live on the third floor of a block of flats with my boyfriend, Eric.
Yep, it’s a Disney name. Let’s not dwell on it. A complete accident, I assure you. He’s got nothing to do with that part of my life, you understand, and I don’t talk about it with him. Peter Pan does not his spend his nights in a shabby apartment, in bed with another boy. Much as I think it would make for an interesting piece of cinema.
Eric is always tired when he gets home. He works at a law firm; works his way up. We met when he brought his little niece to meet Mickey Mouse and ended up getting hopelessly lost.
This is how I know the place where I work is magical: I could just as easily have not been where I was. I could just as easily have not looked up and seen him. It could just as easily have been that the sunlight didn’t glance off of him in such a way that completely dazzled me. I approached, crouched, asked the little girl if her Daddy was lost.
Daddy’s not lost, she giggled. Daddy’s at work.
Then who’s this wonderful creature holding your hand?
That’s Uncle Eric, silly. Who are you?
What a question! I’m Peter Pan. Silly. Now, what can I do for you little lady?
I think Uncle Eric’s lost.
I think he is too. Do you think maybe he needs some fairy dust to guide him?
Then I did something I had never done before, and will never do again. I stood up straight, looked him right in the eye, and blew gently into his face. Even though technically Peter Pan can’t produce fairy dust.
He stepped back blinking like a baby, his jaw slack with shock.
I bowed low to him, before silently pointing him to Aladdin. He knows his way around better than anyone, and he does not have Peter’s selective mutism.
I thought that would be it and my heart ached a little because he was so beautiful…but then he came back, just before closing time. Or rather, his niece did, dragging him by the hand declaring There he is, see!
Although it killed me a little I completely ignored him, dropping down to her level again. What is it, friend? Did you want to say goodbye?
She shook her head. Uncle Eric says he wants to ask you out on a date. Is that allowed?
Startled, I looked up at him. He was bright red but he bit his lip, nodding in confirmation.
I returned my eyes to hers. You can tell Uncle Eric that if he meets me by the gate at seven, he can ask me out then.
She commanded that he bend down so she could whisper it in his ear like it was a sacred secret, and when he whispered something back she repeated it to me. Will you say yes?
I smiled, tapping the side of my nose. Ah, that would be telling. He’ll have to wait and see.
By the time I met with him again I was Simon and he was alone. He took me for dinner and we talked about everything – everything except my job.
We haven’t really spoken about it since. I guess he thinks it’s a little weird, and I can’t blame him. He’s only seen me at it that one time and I leave every piece of Peter Pan behind me when I walk out of my changing room. That’s part of the job: no one can know who I am. No one can know my real name. If they did it would ruin the magic. If he came to see me and kissed me in the middle of the park, it would ruin the magic – as surely as if blue chick started making out with Prince Charming. My duty is, first and foremost, to the children.
I love Eric though. He makes me feel real in a way that I don’t when I’m Peter, or when I’m alone. For a while before I met him I was starting to doubt whether Simon even existed at all, or if he was just what was left of Peter after I took the costume off. Eric brought back the Simon in me, so now I shift between my personalities relatively smoothly.
How was your day?
Not bad. Hectic.
It must be awful, I muse, to not think your job is the best thing in the world. You look tired.
I am. Don’t think I’m up to dinner, babe. I need some sleep.
You go lie down, I’ll bring you something.
I look after him. I want to. It’s in my nature to sacrifice; to protect. Even my fling with Older Woman was, although enjoyable and quite exciting, mostly because I thought she seemed lonely. She was one of those women who’d paid a lot of money to have every trace of her past scrubbed from her features: the remains of laughter; concern; love. But a few stubborn emotions still stuck in the corners of her eyes and lips. I liked to seek them out and kiss them because they tasted like salt.
Eric is only twenty-five now, but he has a furrow between his eyebrows. I think it’s my favourite part of him, except maybe his eyes. Sometimes they’re blue and sometimes they’re grey and sometimes they’re green. I can use them to guess the weather without looking out of the window.
I bring him food and we eat in bed, both too tired to speak. When we’re done and the trays are on the floor he settles down into the sheets, turning on his side. I do the same so we’re parallel, and then he wraps his arms around me because this is how we sleep when we’re past doing anything else. He’s slightly bigger than me, just enough so I fit like a coin in the slot of a machine. In his arms I dream of bricks and cogs and puzzle pieces, falling into place.
* * *
Peter Pan, once more at your service.
A lot of the kids I see are just that: kids. 2-10 year olds in pink and blue dresses, swept away on the surrealism of this dreamy world but really believing, somewhere in their hearts, that this and not the outside, is reality. They ask me what it’s like to live here, and if they can come and stay with me. I explain that I don’t in fact live here but fly back to Neverland every night, although the lost boys sometimes simply set up camp amongst the trees if they’re not up to the journey. But, I explain, they’re used to making do. You couldn’t survive here, I shrug apologetically, you’d be too cold when the lights were out. Even princesses need something warmer than a bouncy castle.
Anyway. That’s the majority of them.
But once in a while, there’ll be someone different. A teenager, perhaps tagging along with their family, who’ll recognise me (my dedication to character apparently hasn’t gone unnoticed online: from what I hear I’m something of a Youtube sensation. They can’t get enough of the confused expression I get when I’m told to say hi into a lense – But why can’t I just say hi to you? You’re standing right there) and come up for an autograph or a hug. Sometimes her sleeves will ride up as she holds out her arms and I’ll see raised silvery scars on her wrists and I’ll understand why she wanted to see me.
I can tell you’ve been fighting a lot of pirates, I’ll whisper as we embrace. You’re very brave, but leave that to me from now on, OK?
Sometimes it’s a he and most of the time I’ll know. I’ll hug him as hard as I can and give him a big kiss on the nose because it always makes him laugh.
Once it was a tiny girl in a wheelchair, who begged me to make her fly. I whistled for a nearby Dwarf and asked him to round up the lost boys and Tinkerbell for me and together, with permission from her carer, we lifted her into the air as high as we could. I remember I could feel her spine straining out of her back, like at any moment it would break in my hands.
Once it was a small boy who had gotten scared when Jafar, forgetting as he does sometimes that he’s the bad guy, made a playful lunge for him. He wasn’t crying but he was holding himself, shrinking, in a way that made me think he knew well what position to take when people came too close too fast. I approached him slowly, making sure he saw me well before I was close enough to go down on one knee and questioningly hold out my arms. He glanced up at his sour-faced mother who rolled her eyes but nodded, and then he walked into them. Don’t worry about the bad guys here, I murmured. They’re only good guys in disguises.
I know, he whispered back. My bad guys wear disguises too.
Well that’s not fair at all, I countered, hoping he didn’t hear the tremble in my voice. But don’t worry. Bad people can never truly fool the good. They always get found out.
I lied. But I’m not all talk. I kept an eye on him until they were safe in the belly of a rollercoaster, and then I found one of our security guards and explained what had happened, pretty much the only time I’ve ever broken character. He was skeptical at first, but he knows me so he agreed to check it out. Later he told me that the boy had been taken into care.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that sometimes it’s hard playing a boy who never grew up when I come across so many children who have, for all the wrong reasons. Sometimes I wonder about the things that even I don’t see; things worse than dirt tucked under their fingernails or food colouring staining their teeth. How many children force-fed into adults have I really spoken to as Peter?
Today, something bad happens. Bad things rarely happen here past temper tantrums and vomiting, but even the Happiest Place in the World can’t completely keep out evil.
I’m sitting on the marble edge of a fountain, legs swinging, beaming at anyone who catches my eye. I like it because even the sweatiest, most exhausted-looking parents always smile back.
Then my sunlight is blocked out as four large boys step into my sight, very close.
I tuck my legs up, my heart accelerating a little. But I’m still Peter. Hello friends. How can I help?
God, you’re a queer, one of them scoffs. What the Hell are you wearing tights for?
They keep me streamlined, I improvise. To help me fly.
Christ, you’re fucking retarded as well, aren’t you?
Oh, I'm not a fairy, I correct, smiling sweetly. If you want a fairy you should go find Tinkerbell. But I don't think she'd like you very much.
One suddenly shoves me in the chest. I just manage to stop myself toppling backwards into the water, hopping up on my feet. Can’t catch me! I cry, my voice higher than normal, pulse throbbing in my throat as I skip away. By now people have noticed and are looking around worriedly, concerned for my safety but afraid to step in in case it turns ugly. They’re clasping their kids protectively and I can’t blame them for keeping them out of harm’s way. A slow burn of anger starts inside me; these people are polluting the magic.
They run after me, and one kicks out. His foot collides with my ankle and I trip, falling. Before I can move he kicks me again, this time in the back. My windpipe closes off as pain explodes up my spine, but I manage a mocking laugh. Is that the best you can do, you mean pirates?
For a second I have absolutely no doubt that I will not live through the next ten minutes (just because I can’t grow up doesn’t mean I can’t die) – but then a gravelly voice bellows Did somebody say pirates?
It’s Hook, in all his red-and-gold glory, and normally I’d be off like a shot but I’m still struggling to breathe.
It’s OK though: he hasn’t come for me. Who dares call themselves pirates on my land! he roars, brandishing his padded hook. I should have you all walk the plank!
Two of them scoff – but two of them swallow. Hook can be quite threatening when he wants to be.
At last Security shows up and they’re carted away. The crowd clap, perhaps truly believing that it was an act all along.
Well, I can’t let them down. I leap up, suppressing a wince as I round on my arch-nemesis. This will never be your land, Hook!
Wait til I get my hands on you –
I stick my tongue out, put my thumbs to my ears and wriggle my fingers, and then I’m gone.
* * *
When I take my T-shirt off, Eric sees the bruise spreading across my back. Hey, what happened there?
I’m often scraped up like a toddler from stumbles and the scratchy material of the little girls’ princess dresses, but even I have to admit that I look pretty bad tonight. You can practically see his footprint, dyed in blue and purple. I ran into some trouble.
Jesus Simon, you work at Disneyland.
I shrug. There’s evil everywhere.
You’re telling me. He climbs out of the bed and gives me a hug, his hands hovering over my injury. I understand why a bad guy might get a few punches but who could possibly have anything against Peter Pan?
I don’t answer, just nuzzle into his neck. I don’t want to talk about work. I don’t want to talk about Peter.
He understands. He pulls me under the covers and massages my shoulders, which feels very nice for a while – but I can feel his stress and tension in his hands so soon I turn around and return the favour, until he falls asleep. He needs comfort more than I do. Corruption and evil only show themselves sporadically where I work. They surround him all and every day like a cloud of tear gas. I think he needs me to make sure they don’t pull him under. He said it to me once; he said The only reason I don’t let them turn me bad too is because I wouldn’t be able to look you in the eyes.
That’s not a good enough reason, I replied fiercely. Do it for yourself, not for me.
He smiled. But I do everything for you.
Why must people be so dependant? I love him and I want to keep him forever, but I don’t need him in that way. I’ve learnt to look after myself, I did it before him and I could do it after.
Sometimes I wonder if too many people need me. Those children need me – well, not me but what I represent: innocence and defiance and permanence. My Mum needs me to give her a reason to live. My sister’s cat needs me to remind her to feed him. Eric needs me to save him from himself.
I’m only twenty-three.
Is it time to move on? There’s only so long I can be Peter Pan after all, what with the slight problem that, unlike him, I can’t stay young forever. I can already see crinkles by my eyes. Wendy got fired for gaining six pounds.
Why do I want to leave? What’s wrong with me? Even if I did get fired, it’s not like I need to support myself. Pretty much the only thing I spend my money on is books, and I’ve barely read any of them so I’d have something to do. Eric would be happy to support me until I figure out what I’m going to do with my life. In fact I think he’d be happy if I could just stay in this flat forever.
And that’s what scares me. It’s why I let Older Woman leave. I don’t want to be anyone’s pet. I’m like Peter in that way, I suppose. I won’t be captured. I won’t be confined. I won’t be domesticated.
And this is dangerously close.
I wriggle out of the bed and tiptoe to the kitchen. I brew some tea and sit on the washing machine to sip, making a conscious effort not to cross or swing my legs like Peter does. I used to do this when I was a kid, except it was hot chocolate (I’m surrounded by so much sugar during the day that I really can’t face any outside of work) and I would be wearing one of my Dad’s jumpers (when he walked out I shredded the ones he didn’t take with him). Doing it now makes me feel very small.
I could leave right now, I realise. Like my Dad did. Just saunter right out of the front door. There’s nothing here I could, or need to, take with. I could get the train as far as away as it would go, get off and start all over.
But, I realise at the same time, I won’t.
I finish my tea, gazing at a glass on the table that I forgot to put in the dishwasher and wondering whether it’s a metaphor for something (if it is, I don’t figure it out), and then go back to bed. I slip between his arms and fold them around me, then wait wide awake for morning.
* * *
Oh my God it’s Simon!
They’re running toward me and for a moment I draw a total blank: Who’s Simon?
Aww that’s so cute he’s staying in character! A gaggle of teenage girls hysterical with excitement, clutching each other like I’m a member of One Direction or something. We love you so much, Simon, you’re so amazing!
They know my name. Blind panic clutches me and I can feel myself slipping, unstoppably, dangerously, into Simon. No, no, I’m Peter Pan. Children are stopping, frowning. I try desperately to salvage the situation. Did Hook send you to distract me? Are you mermaids?
They squeal like piglets. One of them is in tears. It’s OK Simon, we know it’s you! We came all the way here just to see you; don’t you know you’re famous?
Famous? Me? For what?
I notice the camera in one of their hands and relax a little as I latch onto a familiar trick I use – no, no, it’s not a trick, it’s just what I do, I’m Peter, I’m still Peter. What’s that? Is it magical? Can I see it?
She shoves it right into my face.
I shove it straight back and she nearly drops it. Don’t be aggressive, I reprimand. Don’t you know it weighs you down, so you can’t fly?
She gapes at me – and then beams. He’s so cute!
They all explode into Simon, we love you Simon, you’re so amazing Simon, I know all about you Simon, Simon, Simon…
But Simon doesn’t exist here. He can’t, because Peter is Simon and Peter’s the one who belongs here so if Simon exists here then Peter has nowhere to go and he’ll disappear and I won’t be able to get him back.
But I can hear him in my voice as I murmur Guys, please, can I just talk to you after work?
One of them winks, as if she hasn’t shattered the spell. What do you mean work, Peter?
I don’t care at this point, I just need them to get out of here. Please.
And, thank God, they go away.
I still haven’t recovered by the end of my shift (I’ve never called it that in my life), and when Mrs Potts tells me that the boss wants to see me, I nearly have a nervous breakdown.
She gives me a hug, and as always I remember that she’s a teapot and start giggling because I’m being hugged by a teapot. She chuckles too, and pats my bum to send me on my way (it’s OK; she’s sixty. And anyway, she’s a teapot).
My boss is looking ominously serious. Simon.
I don’t bother to correct him. I’m not even sure who I am anymore.
You know you’re a fantastic Peter Pan. Your enthusiasm is a real boost to the entire team.
I hate his clinical language. We aren’t a team. As if I’d be on the same team as Hook. Besides I work alone, except for maybe Tink and the lost boys.
But we have a problem.
High schools are closing for the summer, and over the past few months your Internet fame has sky-rocketed. Most teenagers who go on Tumblr know who you are. And they’re all making plans to come and see you. Those girls today must have skived off early.
I stay silent, trying to process it. How many people does that make who depend on me?
And we really can’t have that, can we? We can’t have the kids seeing you being harassed by teenage girls; hearing your real name. He hesitates, looking uncomfortable. Do you see where I’m going with this?
Kind of. But I want to hear him say it so I hold my tongue.
He sighs. I’m afraid we’re going to have to let you go.
Like I say, you really have been wonderful. Maybe the best character we’ve ever had.
No. Not character.
You’ll get a month’s wages and a flawless reference, obviously. I’m very sorry, Simon.
But…what about them?
The girls who are coming to see me. What are you going to tell them?
They’ll still see a Peter Pan, they just won’t know his name. I think I’ll give the role to Michael.
Michael, who plays a lost boy dressed as a bear and wouldn’t know what to do with Peter’s elegance and lightness of foot even if he had it. But they wanted me.
Life’s full of disappointments. That will be all.
I can’t move. If I move, I will lose Peter for good. Sir…
I’m sorry, he repeats. Once you’ve changed you can pick up your wages from the information desk. You really have been a joy, Simon. Goodbye.
On autopilot, I turn and walk away. I change and leave Peter in a flannel bag on a hook, take the envelope Rose hands to me on the way out and leave the building as no one, scrubbed completely clean.
Eric doesn’t come home for hours and I drift around the house relentlessly, not daring to try and walk through the walls in case I succeed. I don’t know my name. I don’t know what I look like. I don’t know anything.
When he texts me to say he’s working late I text back with I love you because I know that at least. Then I take one of his jumpers from the wardrobe – the threadbare one he only keeps because he can’t stand to throw things away – and my wallet from my bedside table, and the next thing I know I’m hitting the ground walking, heading for the train station, like I’ve been dreaming of doing for the past three weeks.
He texts me again when I’m on the train: Where are you?
Are you OK?
Christ Simon this isn’t funny, please tell me you’re OK.
I want to. But I’m not Simon. Not anymore. If I told him Simon was OK I’d be lying because Simon doesn’t exist anymore.
I buy a sandwich from the trolley, wrap my phone in the napkins and stuff it in the box, which I then drop into the bag they bring around. The second it’s gone I desperately want it back; want Eric; want my life – but they’re not mine now.
I get off the train when they tell me to and sit on the platform for a long time, cross-legged, watching the world come and go. Maybe I could just stay here forever. It wouldn’t get boring. I might get a bit hungry though. But I would be interesting to see. A boy just sitting, perfectly still, day after day until only a skeleton is left.
They must think I’m waiting for someone.
Maybe I am.
A couple of people stop, ask if I’m alright. Only one asks my name: a policeman. It occurs to me that Eric will have dialled 911 by now. If I tell him my name is Simon he will bring me back to him. And I so want to go back to him. It would be so easy. So safe.
Son? Your name?
I smile innocently up at him. Peter.
Chris Downing is 18 years old and is on a gap year, after which he is going to study English Literature and Creative Writing at Birmingham University. While he was in 6th Form at school, he won third place in the Lancaster Creative Writing Awards and he was commended in the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award. Recently, one of his short stories was published in the Fresher anthology. As an LGBT individual, he is very committed to creating novels with queer characters who have rich lives and fulfilling relationships.