Do you have any idea what it’s like to be somebody’s imaginary friend? We’ve all seen films like ‘Drop Dead Fred‘, haven’t we? Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s nothing like that. Not one bit. And before you start thinking about religions, hear this. Religion is a different thing altogether. Real or not, I can’t talk about people like me in the same breath as gods that people worship and willingly devote their lives to and even die for. Totally different thing.
Let me introduce myself. I am a member of LIFERS – the League of Imaginary Friends and Extrinsic Realism Simulators. My latest assignment is a four-year-old lad living with his well-to-do parents in a village near the coast. He hasn’t given me a name yet. Give him time; he’ll need to discover language first, and it he is having a few problems in that area. I have a feeling this is going to be a tough job.
LIFERS rules won’t let me tell you my client’s name, or anything about his story before I appeared in his life. LIFERS takes client confidentiality very seriously. All I can say is that, a couple of months ago, the system picked up that the boy was calling for an IC (imaginary companion). They reviewed his situation and chose me to support him. The IC is never told anything about the client; we have to discover everything on the job. They say that allows the relationship between client and IC to develop ‘organically’. I would prefer to go in fully briefed, but that’s not how it works.
I met my client – let’s call him Jimmy – in the regular way. The prep crew told me from his first contact, what he was expecting in terms of age, gender, appearance and so on. That was my brief. That was all I had to work with. I appeared beside Jimmy one afternoon in the early summer while he was walking along the sea front with his mother. He looked at me and smiled, as if he were expecting me, then took my hand and led me along with him. Textbook stuff.
He didn’t speak to his mother. She asked him a lot of questions as they walked together, but he just looked at the ground with a distant expression. After a few minutes, though, I had to leave. The trigger was his father’s arrival on the scene. Perhaps that was a sign of what I was there to help him deal with.
That’s the worst part of this job; the sudden dismissals.
When we’re between clients, we ICs spend all our time in LIFERS headquarters: overseeing assignments, processing new contacts and generally being busy little souls. As soon as we are assigned a client, things change. Your life belongs to that client, and nothing else matters. When you’re not needed, when your client is perhaps distracted or alarmed, you disappear into a void, waiting for the next call.
What’s this void like? I’m glad you asked. The nearest I can give you to a description would be ‘total sensory deprivation’. It’s dark and it’s silent. You aren’t aware of being on or in anything. You can see nothing, hear nothing, smell nothing, taste nothing, feel nothing. All you have is your mind, and time. According to the rules, that makes sure that your every thought is about your client. You are keenly aware of the passage of time, and desperate to get back to work, but if you were to dwell on that too much, you’d soon go mad.
But let’s get back to Jimmy. After a few weeks, he let me get closer to him and even started talking with me. Bright lad, and good language skills for his age. I couldn’t get him to talk about anything serious, though. I soon sussed that the problem lay with his father. You see; his father was a kind, generous, loving and gentle man – right up until he came back from the pub at chucking-out time every night. Then he became a brute; a real-life Henry Jekyll MD turned Edward Hyde. Night after night Jimmy and I lay in bed together, listening to shouting from his father and violent sounds followed by screaming from his mother.
“Why does your Daddy get so angry every night?” I asked him one late autumn evening.
“Dunno. Prolly my fault,” he replied with a shrug.
“How can it be your fault?”
“He keeps saying things like ‘you and that damn kid of yours’ to Mummy, and ‘it wouldn’t be so bad if the damn kid was normal, instead of walking around the place like a zombie’.” Then, with the change of pace that only a pre-schooler can pull off, he asked, “What’s a zombie?”
“Not you, that’s for sure,” I said.
He turned to face me, his eyes showing a mixture of piqued interest and confusion. “What is it, though?”
“Somebody who’s walking around as if they’re almost asleep,” I explained, sticking to concepts I thought he could deal with.
“Do I do that?”
“A bit. Sometimes,” I admitted.
That seemed to dampen Jimmy’s mood, and he asked, “What can I do to stop Daddy hating me?”
“I’m sure he doesn’t hate you, Jimmy. Why not try just talking to him like you do to me?”
Jimmy’s mumbled response, almost sobbed out behind his hands, was barely audible. “Cos if I say something wrong, he might want to hurt me.”
Boy, did I have some work to do here!
“Quiet,” he hushed, “Daddy’s coming. He mustn’t hear us.”
And with that, I was back in the void, fearful of what was about to happen to Jimmy but powerless to do anything to stop it.
By my reckoning, it was two or three days before Jimmy called me again. Two or three of the longest days I could remember in all the time I had been with LIFERS.
“Hi, Jimmy,” I said cheerfully when I appeared beside him, while he was playing in the garden, wrapped up against the October chill.
“Hey, Tony,” he replied. Progress indeed; I have a name.
“What shall we do today?” I asked, avoiding any mention of the way our last meeting ended.
“What you said about talking to Daddy,” he said, “will it work? Will it stop him hating me and blaming me for everything?”
“It can’t hurt,” I replied, “but try it in the daytime at first, when he’s nice. And don’t tell him about me; not yet anyway.”
“I wouldn’t tell anyone about you, Tony. You’re my friend, nobody else’s. Nobody else needs to know anything about you. Ever.” And with that, I was back in the void again.
When we met some time later, Jimmy was seated on the floor, cross-legged and surrounded by presents; some still wrapped. The room was decorated and there was a tree in the corner, festooned with lights that shone like so many jewels. The first sound I heard was Jimmy saying, “It’s true, Daddy, honest. He’s here now. Aren’t you, Tony?”
“Of course I am, Jimmy,” I said, “I’m always here when you need me, but your Daddy can’t see or hear me; no-one can, except you.”
The next voice was Jimmy’s father, “Very pleased to meet you, Tony. Jimmy says it’s down to you that he has started taking to his mother and me, and joining in family things again. Whether you’re really there or not, I want to thank you. I want to thank you for rescuing our son from his silent, lonely world, and giving him to us. And I want to thank you for rescuing me from the pit I was descending into. These are the best Christmas presents I have ever had. Like it or not, Tony, you’re an important part of this family now.”
Jimmy was beaming, and so was I. He had changed so much in such a short time, and my sense was telling me that my work was nearly done.
Sure enough, after only a couple of months, I started to get the very strong feeling that Jimmy’s life was going so well that he would soon stop calling me. A while later, when the weather was starting to pick up for spring, we had a play session in the garden with both his parents. The session was so normal, that I felt like an interloper. In the middle of a game that really didn’t involve me, just Jimmy and his parents, I was sent into the void and almost immediately found myself back at LIFERS headquarters being congratulated on a job well done. Jimmy had no more use for me.
That is what we work for; that is what we live for.
This short story was written in response to Kreative Kue 14, issued on this site earlier this week.