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Mr Dodgson’s rooms were magical, filled with games and music-boxes, songs and laughter. They were like a toystore, a magic land, a place of wonder … “It’s a Wonderland,” I told him once.
“That, Alice, is a brilliant word,” he had replied. “Wonderland, wonderland. Ten letters. W: twenty-third letter of the alphabet! Double U,” he pauses and pops a raggedy old top hat onto my head. It slips down over my eyes, and I push it up again as he keeps on talking. “Only letter in the alphabet with more than one syllable! How high can you count, Alice? Do you know all your letters?”
I, only four years old, paused before answering: “I know my numbers to fifteen,” I told him, “and I think I know my letters.”
He nodded very sincerely. “What about you, Lorina?” he asked, turning to sister.
“Oh, she said, I know them all.”
“You must be a very smart girl,” he told her. I felt a stab of jealousy – Lorina was a liar! Just this morning, she’d made a mistake in her recitals, skipping twenty five entirely. Though I could not even reach sixteen, I still felt as though someone as old as her ought to know much better than to ignore an entire number.
“Harry knows all his numbers,” I had said.
“Every single one?” asked Mr Dodgson, “all the way up to a million?”
“Well …” I considered this point to a great extent, “I don’t think anyone could know that much!”
“You’d be surprised,” he said.
“Yes, I suppose I would.” I didn’t say it, but I found it very hard to imagine my brother keeping that many numbers locked up in his memory.
I loved being with Mr Dodgson on days like this. I loved the way his stutter would vanish the moment he sank into his world of stories and games, word-play and puzzles. I loved the photographs he would take, the way he transformed what would have been the stiff and boring into something magical and fun. I loved it in the darkroom, that heart-in-mouth moment of slowly seeing a perfect image of yourself appear, as if by magic. I loved the worlds he built up. I loved his mind.
Slowly our afternoon drifted away, a winding blur of stories and games, puzzles and wonder (that word again! wonder, wonder). Eventually, it was time for Miss Prickett – our governess – to take us back home. She’d been sitting politely on the couch for hours while we had talked, and complained of backache the entire way back to the Deanery. The sun was setting over Oxford, and I found myself walking backwards, my neck stretched up, so as to gain the best view of all the spires and turrets, made golden and orange by the sunset.
That was how my childhood passed, and that was how I grew up. Morning lessons were spent hoping that Mr Dodgson would arrive that afternoon. When he didn’t come, I’d drag my feet on our frequent walks, while Lorina smirked at me. “You’re a silly crybaby,” she said, “Mr Dodgson’s stories are silly, too.”
Yet every night, the stories he told would snake their way into my dreams, just like the mouse’s tail. I’d grow and shrink every night, spin and spin and spin.
It must have been awful for him when I grew up. To me, it was anything but. Originally, I was reluctant, but that slowly passed. Before long, I was enchanted by this new world of manners and beauty, dresses and men. They danced before me. I danced, too. I danced my way up and up, away from the nonsense which I had so loved.
I was no longer that dreamchild.
I was not a child, and “dream” held no meaning any longer.
He found other children to amuse and to talk with, while I ran away from him, turning my back, facing my life.
Never have I regretted anything more.