It is 5pm on Sunday afternoon. A family car meanders along a country road, returning from a day out at the beach. In the back seat three small heads nod, and six eyes close. Up front, their father is driving, while their mother, let’s call her Alice, is gazing out of the window. Green fields line the roadside, bordered by a pretty stream.
Alice considers the view through her window. She imagines undoing her seatbelt, opening the car door. She is jumping….
In her mind’s eye, she tumbles to the pavement, gathers momentum, and plummets into the ditch, stopping just an inch from the water. She pulls herself to her feet and dusts herself down. She is alone, but for a few storks flying overhead in lazy arcs.
She is about to hurdle the stream and climb up the bank, heading for those verdant pastures, when she hears scurrying footfalls. It is a white rabbit, carrying an enormous, wipe-clean, messenger bag, and hustling three small rabbits who are lagging behind. All the while it checks its watch with an air of panic.
“I’m so sorry my little ones, I know you wanted to stop and play with those pebbles, that leaf, and the abandoned ice cream wrapper. We’re so terribly late you see. There’s no time. We were due at the party at five and now it’s getting on for half past. Everyone will judge me, I just know it. And your shoes don’t match and your tails aren’t brushed. What a to do!”
Taking no notice of Alice, the rabbits disappear into a tunnel dug into the ditch’s side. Overcome by curiosity, she follows them down the hole. She descends deep into the earth, until a light appears in the gloom.
She stumbles onto an overgrown woodland path, and picks her way over roots and under branches. There is a sudden brightening as the trail opens into a clearing. In front of her is a table set for an abundant tea. There are crumpets and banana bread, whoopee pies and iced buns, not to mention scones, cupcakes, and the odd gateau. In the centre, is a huge teapot. The elder rabbit is searching for the bibs and wet wipes she forgot to pack. The little bunnies are lined up at the table’s edge, poised with an air of expectation. Their eyes are fixed on a woman in a huge top hat, wielding a cake-slice with precarious imprecision.
“Lack of time is no excuse for sloppiness you know.”
Swish! goes the cake slice, just missing a baby bunny, and impaling a jam sponge.
“I baked a dozen muffins and a tea-loaf before breakfast. It can be done. You should see what I can do with an egg, a carrot, and ten minutes. Only make sure they’re organic. Are those biscuits you brought sugar-free? I thought not. Not homemade either. They’ve got a bit of mouldy banana stuck to them too. Personally, I have no trouble making whites white and dishes sparkle, but it takes all sorts doesn’t it. I’m sorry may we help you?”
The woman in the top hat turns round and fixes her eyes on Alice, who smiles and replies.
“I was just looking round, best be on my way.”
“You must stay for a slice my dear, and perhaps a cup of tea. You look ever so tired.” Not wanting to appear rude Alice accepts the invitation.
“Well, maybe just a drop of tea.”
The woman gives an icy grin and gestures to an empty chair with her cake-slice. With much ceremony, she places a fat, sticky piece of cake on a plate and passes it to Alice. She turns her attention to the tea pot, picking it up with both hands. To everyone’s surprise it starts to speak.
“Can’t I get five bloody minutes peace? I’ve had less than an hour’s consecutive sleep since February. I finally get the baby off, and settle down for a snooze and you start shaking us about! I might have to bite you.” A small furry face wearing a menacing expression pokes its head out of the pot. An accusatory wail emanates from within, growing stronger by the moment. The mouse spits out an expletive and returns to her baby.
Without missing a beat, the top-hatted woman offers Alice a glass of lemonade instead.
“Thanks, but I really must be off” says Alice, thinking that if she is to waste an opportunity for a moment to herself in warm sunshine, it will not be for a soft drink. She turns on her heel and heads back towards the path. Before she has taken three steps a small thunderbolt, which turns out to be a playing card with limbs and a head, knocks her off her feet, looks at her askance, and disappears behind a bush.
“Off with his head” shrieks a woman’s voice.
“But, my dear, he is only three years old” pleads a man.
The couple break into the clearing. Alice identifies them as a pair of royals by the crowns that sit on their brows. The Queen’s forehead is furrowed in a resolute sort of way, while the King appears beleaguered and not a little sweaty. Footsteps follow behind them, and they are flanked by two playing card knights.
“Really, we’d be bordering on child abuse, my sweet.” continues the King. The Queen appears unimpressed.
“Very well, I shall sentence him to a Time Out.”
“But with cuddles at the end, dearest. We should always remember the cuddles you see?”
“Your cosseting will not teach him obedience. Guards! Seize the child!”
One of the knights dives behind the bush and returns with his squirming quarry. His partner tootles a quick blast on a trumpet.
“For the crime of running from Her Majesty, I pronounce you in Time Out. You may not move from this spot until it is decreed by Her Royal Magnificence!”
The diminutive card-boy drops to a cross-legged position on the ground and folds his arms in a truculent manner. Recovering from her surprise, Alice draws herself up from the dirt floor and dusts herself off.
“And who might you be?” enquires the Queen.
“Answer Her Royal Highness”
“I am leaving.” says Alice, ignoring the knight’s brandished trumpet.
“Lovely to meet you, but I’m afraid I must be on my way” The King smiles in polite acknowledgement, but the Queen is less congenial.
“You will kneel when addressing your Queen.”
Not wishing to embark on a power struggle, yet unwilling to take orders, Alice employs her very best toddler-reasoning skills.
“I can see that manners are very important to you. I wish I could stay here and take part in all your marvellous court formalities: courtesies, homage, the whole shebang, but I have to be going now.” And with that she dives for the cover of the trees. By the time the Queen has yelled “Off with her head.” she is ensconced in woodland shadow once more.
Alice races through the trees, weaving over and under their sprawling feet and arms. Above her she glimpses a cloud of giant butterflies negotiating the tree tops, but they don’t pay her any attention. She parts the branches ahead of her, and almost falls over a large mushroom. It’s occupant, a hazy looking caterpillar, gazes up at her in exaggerated annoyance.
“Watch where you’re going! Great big oafish sort of girl.”
“Sorry, I didn’t see you there. And for your information I’m 34. That makes me a great big oafish woman.”
“Makes no difference to me. Who are you?”
“Well, my name is Alice, but I’m afraid I can’t stop.”
“What’s the hurry?”
“Look. I just want some time alone. I’m searching for the way out of here. All I really want to do is stretch out under a tree and watch the sun go down without anyone wiping their nose on me, or asking for snacks, or explanations of astro-physics.”
“Well excuse me for speaking. Aren’t you a crosspatch!”
“You don’t understand. It’s been relentless. I need a break. You ask me who I am, but right now I couldn’t tell you. Whoever I was got lost in a sea of dirty dishes and nappy changes weeks ago. If I could just breathe for a moment I might feel like myself again, but it never stops. ”
“How about you take a bite of my mushroom.”
“I’m sorry, is that some sort of euphemism? I don’t see what good that will do.”
“I am being quite literal. Just do as I say.”
“Fine. But after that I must be on my way.”
Alice leans down and pulls off a piece of mushroom. She pops it in her mouth and chews. To her surprise she begins to grow. As she broadens and lengthens her tedious domestic chores and struggles with bedtime routines seem far away. She has lifted her head above the trees. She inhales deeply. She feels what her family means to her, and she to them. She is filled with a wonderful, expansive sensation. It is power. It is joy. It is love.
“Now you are looking at the bigger picture.” says the caterpillar, with a smug smile.
“That does feel better. Only, how can I get back to the outside world if I can’t fit through the rabbit hole?”
“Just eat some more mushroom.”
Alice does so and returns to her former size.
“The pathway is to your right.”
“Thanks. I mean it. You are the most helpful caterpillar I’ve ever met.”
With that she heads off in a rightward direction, looking forward to her walk home.
After what seems like hours have passed she is still following a just discernible trail. The path forks and she hesitates.
“I wouldn’t go that way.”
A large feline is watching her from the hollow of a tree root, lazily feeding her kittens.
“Where is the path the rabbits use? The one that goes out to the fields. I was sure I must be close to it, but I can’t seem to find it.”
“That path might take you there, but the Queen’s guards won’t let you pass without inspection. The Mad Hattress might give you a scone though”
“I see. I’d rather avoid that whole bucket of crazy. Should I go this way then?”
“Rather judgemental aren’t we, for someone who threw herself from a moving car?”
“How did you….Oh never mind. I’ve been wandering around for ages and the parody is wearing thin now. I’d just like to get back to my family and forget the whole thing. So is this the way or not?”
“It is and it isn’t. It all depends on your state of mind. You’re not so different from the others you know. Just because you don’t share their particular demons. Looking at you, I can quite see that you don’t suffer from domestic perfectionism. Your anxiety and sleep deprivation aren’t so acute yet. You are not so terrified by your own sense of powerlessness. Yours is a problem that simply requires a sense of proportion.”
Alice considers this for a moment.
“So what you’re saying is, the walls aren’t closing in because I’m trapped, but I’m trapped because I am preoccupied with claustrophobia. Ironic”
The enigmatic cat just grins and vanishes.
“Time to resolve this nonsense.” thinks Alice, and she sits under the tree in exasperated silence. After a while, an idea crystallises and she sits up a little straighter. She visualises the green fields, the trickling brook, their car trundling sleepily along. She feels the space and light around her that has always been, will always be. She knows there will be a time when she can wander lonely as a cloud, at least for an hour or two. It is up to her to make it happen. Her family love her and they will understand.
“Penny for them?” asks her husband, as is his habit when she drifts off in the car. “Rabbits, crumpets, executions, hallucinogens. The usual.” The fields give way to blocks of flats and roundabouts as they arrive at the edge of town. As they turn down the road home, a small voice pipes up.
“Mummy, I want a peanut butter sandwich and I need a wee. Why do birds fly? Sam’s snotty. It’s gone all over his car seat. Can I have some hot chocolate without any cocoa?”
“One thing at a time my darling.” Back to reality.