Do any of you know that feeling when you take a book off your shelves where it has been resting for a long time, read it and immediately regret all the lost time you could have had together?
If only you’d known each other days, months, years ago, how different the time since would have seemed, how much richer your day-to-day life would have been for having carried this story around with you.
And at the same time, you have to cope with the guilty knowledge that all that time spent apart was your own fault, and the lovely book did nothing wrong. That in fact it had been the one to bravely make the first move, calling out to you across a crowded library. And yes, you were easily swayed by a pretty cover and nicely-constructed blurb – it’s okay, we all are from time to time. But then you took it home and left it on the shelf and, sure, it caught your eye every now and then but the time wasn’t right, or so you justified it to yourself, or you just weren’t in the mood and so you kept on extending your library loan period online just so you wouldn’t have to deal with it all, just so you wouldn’t have to be the one who said ‘It’s over. Yes, we once only had eyes for each other, but then you moved in with me and domesticity tested our bond. Our time has been and gone and left us here together but alone, so very alone’. And of course, inevitably, it all came to a head one night and, frustrated and disappointed at your own inability to just commit to one book for a couple of hours, you angrily snatched the book of the shelf and huffed ‘Fine! Whatever! I’ll just read you then!’ and you took it to bed and then…
Anyone? No? Well then, let me just croon to you The Ballad of Me and Pobby and Dingan. (I have a feeling it may have been covered by Leonard Cohen at some point, it feels like that kind of tale.)
Life’s not so easy for Ashmol Williamson. There aren’t many comforts growing up in Lightning Ridge, New South Wales. Dad’s an unsuccessful opal miner, fueled by dreams and alcohol. Mum makes ends meet by working in the local supermarket but misses a more refined life back in England. Most of Ashmol’s time is spent with his younger sister, Kellyanne, and her two best friends Pobby and Dingan, who, it should be said, are imaginary. Having to put up with his younger sister tests Ashmol’s patience, but the way that everyone acts as if Pobby and Dingan are real drives him mad.
Kellyanne glared at me through tears the way she did the time I slammed the door of the ute in Dingan’s face or the time I walked over to where Pobby was supposed to be sitting and punched the air and kicked the air in the head to show Kellyanne that Pobby was a figment of her imaginings. I don’t know how many times I had sat at the dinner table saying, ‘Mum, why do you have to set places for Pobby and Dingan? They aren’t even real.’ She put food out for them too. She said they were quieter and better behaved than me and deserved the grub.
‘They ain’t exactly good conversationalists, but,’ I would say.
And at other times when Kellyanne held out Pobby and Dingan were real I would just sit there saying, ‘Are not. Are not. Are not,’ until she got bored of saying, ‘Are. Are. Are,’ and went running out screaming with her hands over her ears.
And many times I’ve wanted to kill Pobby and Dingan, I don’t mind saying it.
Except something terrible has happened and, according to Kellyanne, Pobby and Dingan are lost and ‘maybe-dead’. Never the strongest of children and now overwhelmed with grief, Kellyanne becomes so sick that Jack the Quack offers a diagnosis of ‘nervous illness’ and talks about removing her to the local hospital. As Kellyanne gets progressively worse, each family member reacts differently.
[Dad] started to get all emotional, and cracked open tinny after tinny of V.B. And then he cried. It was like beer was going in his mouth and coming out of his eyes.
Ashmol just gets angry – very angry. At Pobby and Dingan. He determines to find them, maybe-dead or not, and enlists the help of the entire town in his search. As everyone tries to fool Kellyanne into believing that they have found her imaginary friends, she tries to convince Ashmol that it will take a special kind of person to find them and that only he can do it. But in order to succeed, he’s going to have to believe – if not in Pobby and Dingan, in something at least.
Pobby and Dingan is a short work. Hand in hand with that brevity is a simplicity, and the two combine to invest the novella with a convincing honesty. The story never addresses what Pobby and Dingan may be, or even the possibility that they may be real, but what are real and credible and honest are Ashmol’s love for his sister and the lengths to which he goes to try and help her. The relationship between the brother and sister is just lovely and ultimately very moving.
The setting and community which Rice describes is also very convincing. Lightning Ridge is a real town and, from what I’ve been able to see online, it looks just like I imagined it. There’s heavy use of Australian slang through the text and I’ve seen other readers comment that Rice, an Englishman, didn’t always get it right. For me, though, the use in fiction of real places or local language doesn’t have to be accurate, it just has to be convincing. And it is here.
Pobby and Dingan, as you may have guessed, was a real find for me. I loved it and wish I’d read it years ago so that I could have raved about it to others and passed copies to boys I know who I suspect may have been driven mad by little sisters too. So of course the first thing I did was look to see what else Ben Rice has written. Only to find…
Well, not a lot actually. He’s gone a little invisible himself it seems. Pobby and Dingan was well received when first published. Here’s a review from Robert McCrum in The Observer. (I think he may have liked the book a little bit too!) The novel won the Somerset Maugham Award in 2000 and was shortlisted for the 2001 Mail on Sunday / John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. In 2003, Granta named Rice as one of the 20 Best of Young British novelists. And then nothing.
So that seems to be the final verse in The Ballad of Me and Pobby and Dingan. I’ll always have a special place in my heart for the novel but Rice, it seems, must be cast as a mystery figure, a player in a love affair that could have been grand ‘if only’, a bit like that teenage crush you lost track of but whom Google informs you is lecturing on rock formations somewhere in the American midwest. Maybe one day he’ll return with
his sturdy geologist’s boots and farmer’s t an a new work of fiction, but until then, I guess we’ll always have our song.