One book that I ordered some time ago and that has been sitting on my shelf — I really should write down where I get these book ideas — is the children’s book Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce. My paperback copy says on the cover, “60th Anniversary Edition.” I took to it bed the other night to accompany me instead of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala; it’s conveniently lightweight and small.
The story is about an English boy Tom who is quarantined (who knew?) at his aunt and uncle’s house for a couple of weeks when his brother gets the measles. Though he starts out terribly bored in the small flat, he soon begins to have experiences that take him back in history, in a vast garden with a charming playmate. He keeps his nighttime adventures secret, but wonders what is going on; is his friend a ghost?
Toward the end of the story she shows him a Biblical inscription on a grandfather clock, which prompts the children to find a Bible and read the quote in context. They read about a rainbow, angel feet like pillars of fire, and the voices of seven thunders. At the breakfast table next morning Tom asks, “What is time?” It was a gently progressing mystery until that point, when the metaphysical questions intensified:
“Of course,” said Uncle Alan, “it used to be thought…” and Tom listened attentively, and sometimes he seemed to understand, and then, sometimes he was sure he didn’t. “But modern theories of Time,” said Uncle Alan, “the most modern theories…” and Tom began wondering if theories went in and out of fashion, like ladies’ dresses, and then suddenly knew that he couldn’t be attending, and wrenched his mind back, and thought again that he was understanding… and then again was sure he wasn’t, and experienced a great depression.
“I’ve heard a theory, too,” said Tom, while his uncle paused to drink some more tea. “I know an angel — I know of an angel who said that, in the end, there would be Time no longer.”
“An angel!” His uncle’s shout was so explosive that a great deal of tea slopped down his tie, and he was made even angrier to have to mop it up. “What on earth have angels to do with scientific theories?” Tom trembled, and dared not explain that this was more than a theory; it was a blazing, angelic certitude.
More and more clues are added, as Tom’s desperation grows. He does not want to leave the house and go home again, and thinks at one point that he may have figured out Time enough to make it work the way he wants. I won’t tell you the happy ending to this fun story, but I will say it has a lot to do with an old lady’s dreams. And of course, the mystery of Time is not ever truly solved. It’s metaphysical!