Sometimes you see a person and you just know. Half your mind is busy setting off fireworks while the other half is dancing around, shouting: “That there is your new best friend!”
Sometimes you can even understand why. It might be the fact that they’re reading your favourite book on the train, or that they have green hair and don’t give a damn about the weird looks people give them.
What drew Sir Fluff to his new best friend was not her pirate boots or the ray gun in her belt, but the fact that she looked as real to him as any of the twenty-nine kids who were currently ignoring their teacher’s calls to settle down. He had never seen such a solid-looking imaginary friend as her. Most of the others only came out during break time, and even then, they were wispy insubstantial things who didn’t speak.
Sir Fluff trotted over to her.
“Hi,” he said, flicking his ears forward. “I’m Sir Fluff. Pleased to meet you.”
“Hello yourself. Captain Comet, pirate of the galaxy, at your service.”
She held out her hand and he shook it with one of his wings.
“Do you fly a lot?” she said.
“Every day! We go all sorts of places. Do you have a spaceship?”
“You bet!” Captain Comet shot him a grin. “Finest spaceship in the universe. It takes us anywhere we want to go. You seem very real, by the way. Your kid must have quite an imagination.”
“Lemme guess.” She looked around at the children, and finally pointed to a girl in the front row, who was doodling with a badly chewed pencil and trying not to look at the giggling girls who sat just behind her. “That one.”
“That’s my Mandy,” Sir Fluff said proudly. He shook out his mane and his wings. “What gave it away, the fact that she’s drawn winged unicorns all over her books?”
“That, and the look of utter despair. Speaking of which…”
The teacher had finally managed to calm the class down, and proceeded to announce that they had a new pupil.
“Why don’t you stand up, Derek, and introduce yourself?”
Sir Fluff snorted. “Why do teachers always do that? Horrible.”
A freckled boy, small even for a seven-year-old, stumbled to his feet. The other kids sniggered.
“Hi,” the boy said in a squeaky voice. His ears turned bright red. “My name is Derek. Um.”
“Right!” said Captain Comet. “Rescue mission!”
She did a backflip, vaulted over three desks and somehow landed on her feet by Derek. She put her hands on his shoulders and whispered something in his ear. Sir Fluff couldn’t hear what she said, but he did see Derek standing up a little straighter. And his voice was a little bit steadier as he told the class the bare minimum about his life.
“Thank you, Derek,” said the teacher. “Now, let’s continue with the multiplication tables.”
Captain Comet gave Sir Fluff a little wave and mouthed, “I gotta stay with my kid now!”
He gave her the closest equivalent of a thumbs up that a winged unicorn could manage, and went off to sit with Mandy. The teacher was handing out maths worksheets
“You have to help me, Sir Fluff,” she whispered. “What’s eight times six?”
“Oh dear, I don’t know.” He peered at the worksheet, which was full of the little black squiggles that people called numbers. “Unicorns can’t do multiplication. We’re not clever like you.”
“I’m not clever.”
“Of course you are! You can do the other one, right? Addition. And the one where the squiggles form words. What is it called again? Reading!”
Sir Fluff might not be able to do multiplication, but he was world champion in making his Mandy smile.
It was afternoon before Sir Fluff and Captain Comet had a chance to speak again. The children had been given books to read, and the classroom was filled with the sound of noisily turned pages and the odd whispered conversation.
“Your girl looks like a keen reader,” Captain Comet said. She was leaning against the blackboard, fiddling with the ray gun on her belt.
“She likes to write stories too.”
“Really? So does my Derek! They’re mostly about space travel.”
“The thrilling adventures of Captain Comet?”
“Yep. Going to be a bestseller one day.”
“And how’s he settling in?”
Captain Comet’s face fell. “Not so good. The other kids are mean to him.”
“I’m sure it’s nothing. All children feel like outsiders on their first day.”
“He wanted to join the football game during break, but the other boys ignored him. He just stood there on the field, alone, while they played around him.”
“Oh, the poor boy.”
“I hoped this place would be different.” Captain Comet shook her head. “How long has your Mandy been here?”
“At this school? Two years.”
“And still no one wants to play with her.”
“I suppose you’re right.” Sir Fluff pawed the ground. At first, he’d been heartbroken to see his Mandy so alone. She was always the last one to be chosen for sports teams. No one ever invited her to birthday parties or sleepovers. But the more the other kids ignored her, the more she turned to him. And, well… He loved it when they flew around the world together, or pretended they lived in a castle. But there was always a nagging feeling of guilt. He knew, deep down, that Mandy needed friends. Real, human friends.
Captain Comet sighed. “You ever wonder about us?”
“What do you mean?”
She gestured vaguely. “You, me. Flying unicorn, space pirate. Poor kids, they must want to get away from here so badly.”
“I suppose,” Sir Fluff said. He looked at his Mandy, who was completely absorbed in her book. Her tongue stuck out slightly, and she was pages ahead of the other kids.
“I’d do it, y’know, if I could,” Captain Comet said. “Take him away from here, I mean. Look at him. He’s so small a gust of wind could blow him away. I’d take him to another galaxy where the bullies couldn’t get him.”
She laughed and dabbed at her eyes. “Listen to me… I’m not usually that emotional. It’s just, well, ‘s nice, to have someone to talk to, about, y’know…”
“I understand. I would do the same, you know. Although my Mandy would prefer a castle in the clouds.”
“I’ve never met another imaginary friend as real as you.”
“Neither have I. I thought it wasn’t possible to talk to the others. A few of the children in this class have imaginary friends, you know, but they’re half transparent and can’t talk.”
“I suppose the other kids don’t need ‘em as much as ours need us.”
They stared fondly at their kids.
Then Captain Comet spoke again. “Do you think they could like each other? My Derek and your Mandy?”
“I can’t see anyone not liking my Mandy,” Sir Fluff said. “But I suppose I might be a little biased. I will talk to her, if you talk to your Derek.”
“Great!” Captain Comet patted him on the flank. “It’d be good for them. And we might be able to hang out more often!”
At eight o’clock that evening, Mandy was in bed with Sir Fluff beside her. His head was by her pillow, and he had one wing over her to protect her from monsters.
“I don’t want to go to school tomorrow,” she whispered. It was the same conversation they had every evening.
“I know.” He nuzzled her face. “But you don’t have to be alone tomorrow. You could talk to the new boy.”
“Derek? But he’s a boy!”
“Well, so am I. And you talk to me, right? Derek seemed a little lonely today. I’m sure he would like a friend.”
“Nobody wants to be my friend.”
“That’s not true! I do. And maybe Derek does too. You could talk about books. He was reading almost as quickly as you in class today. I’m sure he likes stories.”
“Maybe. Sir Fluff?”
“Will you come with me to school tomorrow?”
The following day, Derek and Mandy exchanged polite hellos, but nothing more. They sat apart during break, each with their nose in a book. Sir Fluff thought he saw them glancing at each other occasionally, but this did not strike him as the beginning of a friendship.
“They’re shy,” Captain Comet said, when the two imaginary friends found some time to talk. “My Derek doesn’t like going up to people.”
“Neither does my Mandy.”
“I guess we’ll just have to give them time.”
Help came from an unexpected quarter. The teacher, realising he had two lonely children in his class, put Mandy and Derek in the same group for the next project. Now that they were sitting at the same table, designing a poster about the solar system together, it was suddenly a lot easier to talk.
“I wanna be an astronaut,” Derek said. “And go to the moon.”
“Doesn’t it take really long to go to the moon?” Mandy said.
“Weeks! You gotta have a really fast spaceship.”
“Cool. I want to be a vet when I grow up. And I’ll write stories about all the animals.”
“I wrote a story about space. It’s four pages already.”
Sir Fluff and Captain Comet were crouched behind a neighbouring desk, close enough to here what was being said but far enough so they wouldn’t distract their children.
“This is amazing!” Captain Comet threw her arms around Sir Fluff’s neck and hugged him. “He’s never told anyone about his story, except me and his mum.”
“And my Mandy is laughing.” Sir Fluff’s favourite sound in the world was Mandy’s laugh, but he still felt a pang of sadness. She was laughing with someone else.
A week later, Derek read Mandy his story.
Two weeks after that, she lent him her favourite book.
When Derek turned eight, he invited her over for his birthday party. It was the first birthday party she could ever remember being invited to, and she lay awake for hours that night, telling Sir Fluff about the cake, and the games they had played.
“It was the best party ever,” she said, stifling a yawn. “I wish you could have been there, Sir Fluff.”
“I was,” he whispered, when she had fallen asleep.
“They’re going to write a book together,” Captain Comet said one day during break. Mandy and Derek were off doing something or other together, and the two imaginary friends stood side by side under the big chestnut tree on the playground. “Did you know?”
“No. My Mandy didn’t tell me.”
“Neither did my Derek, but I overheard the two of them talking this morning.”
“What will the book be about? A space pirate who travels across the galaxy to visit a unicorn who lives in a castle in the clouds?”
“No. It’s about a duck who discovers a volcano in the park.”
“I want to read that.”
“So do I. But I hope it doesn’t mean I’ll turn into a duck.”
Sir Fluff laughed and flapped his wings. “Of the two of us, I think I’m more likely to do that.”
“Have you changed a lot over the years?”
“I used to be a normal unicorn. The wings are a recent addition. What about you?”
Captain Comet indicated her pirate boots and ray gun. “I started out as a pirate, then became a superhero, and then my Derek saw a movie about space and I became an astronaut. The pirate tendencies gradually crept back. Good thing too. I quite liked the space suit, but the helmet - whew! Couldn’t see a thing. Kept bumping into stuff. Trees. Walls.”
“It took me months to get used to the wings. They’re quite heavy, actually, and they have to be folded away just so, otherwise they’ll drag on the ground as I walk. They get horribly dirty that way.”
“They look a bit dusty now, if you ask me.”
Sir Fluff shook out his wings. The tips weren’t just dusty, they looked positively bedraggled.
“My Mandy usually helps me clean them,” he said. “But she hasn’t had much time lately. You know, because of…”
“I could help you.”
“Oh! That would be very kind! The dirt just brushes right off, it shouldn’t take you long.”
Captain Comet reached out to grab the nearest wing, but her hand went right through it.
The two imaginary friends looked at each other, then over to their children, then back at each other again.
“It doesn’t matter,” Sir Fluff said. He folded his wings away again. “They’re not that dirty.”
Over the next months, Sir Fluff tried not to notice how often his Mandy went to bed without asking him for a story. They sometimes went a whole week without flying together, and he couldn’t even remember when she had last told him about her dream castle.
His Mandy was happy. That was what mattered.
He also tried to ignore how translucent his tail was getting, and how one day, Captain Comet didn’t have her ray gun anymore. Her hands kept straying to her belt, but then she would remember herself and pull them away. She spent a lot of the time with her arms crossed.
“It’s your Mandy’s birthday soon, isn’t it?” she said one day.
“Next Thursday. She’ll be nine! Imagine that, my little Mandy, nine years old.”
“My Derek is writing a story for her birthday. And he asked me for help to draw the cover.”
“Yeah.” Captain Comet shuffled her feet. Her pirate boots looked a lot smaller than they had the first time they’d met. “We’re fading, aren’t we, Sir Fluff?”
“I suppose we are. It’s natural though. Children grow up. Imaginary friends are forgotten.”
“We could’ve had years still, my Derek and me.”
“They’re his years,” Sir Fluff said gently.
“I know. Still hurts.”
“Yes, it does.”
One winter morning, Sir Fluff was struck by how tall his Mandy was. If they wanted to fly together, she would have to imagine him bigger first, or he wouldn’t be able to carry her. But his Mandy didn’t fly on winged unicorns to castles in the clouds anymore. She also didn’t struggle with her multiplication tables, or look on while the other children played games together.
He still went to school with her every day, wings dragging behind him on the ground, in case she needed him. But it was getting so hard to focus. He would spend the day leaning against the back wall of the classroom, just wanting to close his eyes and sleep. Sometimes, Captain Comet was there with him. She was growing blurry and translucent.
“Look at my Derek,” she said. Her voice echoed slightly. “He’s happy, isn’t he, Sir Fluff?”
“He looks happy.”
“Yeah. He does. And your Mandy does, too.”
Sir Fluff tried to give Captain Comet a friendly nudge, but his wing went straight through her shoulder. They both pretended it hadn’t happened.
Three rows in front of them, Mandy had forgotten her pencil case. Derek rolled his eyes, grinned, and tossed her a pen. She caught it and stuck out her tongue at him.
“I think we did it,” said Captain Comet, in a voice so faint it was barely audible. “You were a good friend, Sir Fluff. We got them away.”