It was just the two of them now. The rest had gone on to greater adventures. They sat side by side on a park bench, like the winter companions in the old Simon and Garfunkel song. Tootles leaned forward on his walking stick and squinted over at the statue of the boy with the panpipes.
“Did I ever tell you how much I despised him?” he asked.
“Frequently,” replied Nibs, and hawked a huge gob of phlegm onto the path.
“He was an idiot,” said Tootles. “Strutting around and crowing like a cock. One of us should have just kicked him right up the bum.”
Nibs shrugged his scrawny shoulders.
“You know who I hated?”
“Who?” asked Tootles.
“Wendy bloody Darling.”
Tootles laughed and shook his head.
“Liar. You loved Wendy. We all did.”
“Couldn’t stand her. Forcing us to take our medicine. What was that all about?”
“I reckon we were in the wrong gang,” said Tootles. “I always thought we should have thrown our lot in with Hook and his boys.”
“We’d have made damned good pirates, Peter would’ve been along that plank and into the jaws of the crocodile quick as you like.”
Tootles nodded. “We’d have keel hauled Wendy and had those whingeing brothers of hers drawn and quartered.”
Nibs rubbed the leathery palms of his hands together, warming somewhat to the notion. “And then we would have raided the Indian village, looting and pillaging.”
“And I’d have had my chance at last with Tiger Lily,” said Tootles. He nudged his friend in the ribs.
Nibs let out a chuckle. “We’d have chopped up their totem pole for kindling and burned their wigwams to the ground.”
“And ran up the Skull and Crossbones in its place.” Tootles leaned sideways to break wind. “After that we’d have gone down to the lagoon and set the crocodile amongst the mermaids.”
“Then we’d have hunted down that little god-damned fairy,” said Nibs.
“And I’d have swatted her out of the sky,” said Tootles.
Nibs tossed his head back and laughed till he coughed.
“And I’d have crushed her under my heel where she fell.” He puffed out his chest. “Damn it, Toots, we’d have been the Buccaneer Kings of Neverland.”
“If there ever was a Neverland,” said Tootles.
Nibs turned his head and scowled.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Tootles sighed. “It’s just sometimes I’m not so sure. I think all we did was go down to the park, the whole gang of us just got dragged along on the coattails of Peter’s wild imagination. Hook and his boys as well.”
He looked across at the statue. “What came first the statue or the boy? Maybe Peter was never who he claimed to be. Maybe we were never who we wished we were.”
“Of course we were. Neverland was real. I loved that place. I loved the smell of the wet leaves in the forest when it rained. I loved the feel of the sand between my toes. I loved the sound of the waves crashing against the rocks. It was like our own Garden of Eden. And summer was its only season.”
“Back then the summer holidays seemed to last forever,” Tootles said.
Nibs glared at Tootles.
“It wasn’t just the summer holidays. When we were there we never grew older. I remember us flying over the treetops.”
“Maybe you just remember us lying flat on the branches of the trees, so that it felt like we were flying,” said Tootles.
“I remember the lagoon.”
“The boating lake,” said Tootles.
“I remember the pirate ship and how it creaked and swayed when we crept across the deck,” said Nibs.
“The rusted old climbing frame, groaning and wobbling.”
“Well what about Tinkerbell?” asked Nibs. “I definitely remember her flitting around my head.”
“Dragonflies and Damselflies. Whenever we saw one we said it was her.”
Somewhere in the foggy haze of his memory Nibs had this nagging feeling they had been through this argument many times before.
“You’re just trying to rationalise what shouldn’t be rationalised.”
“And you’re just clinging to the possibility that the impossible might be possible,” Tootles shot back.
“Clap your hands if you believe in fairies,” challenged Nibs.
“Clap your hands if you’re a moron,” retorted Tootles.
Nibs hawked up another gob of phlegm and spat it onto the path.
“Peter always said you were the idiot between the two of us.”
Tootles sneered and shook his head. “He did not.”
“He did,” said Nibs. “And I agreed with him.”
Tootles rose to his feet, hand trembling with rage around the handle of his walking stick. “I should give you a thick ear for that.”
Nibs rose unsteadily and squared up to him, fists clenched at his side. “I should black both of your idiot eyes.”
For a while they stared at each other in silence, like gunslingers at noon. It was Tootles who broke off first.
“Boy, did we have some brilliant fights when we was kids.”
“You always fought dirty,” said Nibs.
“You always gave back as good as you got,” said Tootles.
They both laughed and sat down.
“Paradise lost, my friend,” said Nibs.
“Events, dear boy.”
They fell silent again, each secretly concluding that it didn’t actually matter whether or not Neverland was real or imagined. They’d all been in it together – Peter and Wendy and the rest of the gang. Hook as well, whoever he might have been. They’d clapped their hands, bought the dream, and shared some damned good adventures. Maybe that was as real as it ever needed to be.
Back at the nursing home the staff didn’t call them Tootles and Nibs. They were both steadfastly defiant in their insistence on not answering to their other names. Why should they? What’s in a name anyway?
For the briefest of moments Nibs felt as if the cloudy cataracts were dropping from his eyes. Everything was becoming clear, and crisp, and bursting with colour, the way it had been way back then.
Beside him Tootles could feel his tired old heart thumping away in his chest. It felt so strong and youthful he could almost believe he might toss away his walking stick and dance an energetic hornpipe on the bench.
Instead he leaned forward and looked over again at Pan’s statue.
“Did I ever tell you how much I loved that guy?”
“He was the best,” agreed Nibs.
“The bee’s knees,” said Tootles, and tapped a straight-fingered salute against his wrinkled forehead. “Cock-a-doodle-do, old pal.”
“You know who I loved?” said Nibs.
“Wendy Darling,” sighed Nibs.
“We all loved Wendy. She was like a mother to us.”
“But I loved her more,” said Nibs. “You guys loved her. But I was in love with her. She was the love of my life.” He bowed his head. “She never knew.”
“Love’s a funny old thing,” said Tootles. “Ever wonder what happened to Wendy?”
Nibs reeled off a probable obituary. “Met somebody. Got married. Had kids, who gave her grandkids. Lived her life and died.”
Tootles stared off into the distance “I reckon that’s how it goes for most of us.”
“Only some are endlessly burdened by unrequited love.”
“Back in the day, I had a thing for Tiger Lily, you know,” said Tootles. The afternoon breeze caught a wisp of his white hair and caused it to dance on the crown of his head.
“Love and lust are two entirely different things,” Nibs said. “What I felt for Wendy was always pure. I never once had a smutty thought about her.”
Tootles let out a snort of derision.
“Love often leads to lust and vice versa.”
Nibs slumped a little on the bench. Chin resting on his chest, he heaved a forlorn sigh. “I should have said something, damn it. I should have told her exactly how I felt.”
“She wouldn’t have listened,” said Tootles. “She was besotted with Peter.”
“He had us all under some sort of weird spell.”
“Did I ever tell you how much I despised him?”
“Frequently,” said Nibs.
He struggled to his feet and turned slightly so he could secretly wipe away the teardrop that was zigzagging down through the crags of his cheek. “Can you remember which way we go to get back to the nursing home? I get confused.”
Tootles winked at him. “Somewhere between bedtime and dawn.”
“Catch you in your dreams,” said Nibs
“No you won’t,” replied Tootles. “Out of the two of us I could always run the fastest.”
“That’ll be the day,” said Nibs.
“Race you to the gate then,” challenged Tootles.
“Last one there is a pirate’s smelly armpit,” said Nibs, hurriedly hobbling along the path.
J M Barrie’s gift of the rights to Peter Pan has provided a significant source of income to Great Ormond Street Hospital ever since they were given in 1929. This story is published with the kind permission of the Peter Pan Team if you would like to make a donation click GOSH