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It must be said that Mrs Darling had a soft spot for Peter.

For all such grown up women, Peter Pan is the little girl they once were. If they want to hold her in their arms and sigh, if they are tempted to pluck the kisses from the corners of their mouths and give them to Peter...why, it is only because all little girls should grow up a little in love with themselves. They should learn their own loveliness so that it becomes more visible to others.

Peter's charm was the charm of a girl who had learned that lesson early and had only become more in love with herself with every passing year; which, I am sorry to say, would have been called cockiness in a boy and smiled over with indulgence, but in a girl must always be called vanity and severely squashed, lest it become dangerous.

Mrs Darling could sometimes catch a glimpse of her younger self in the mirror, or when she turned quickly enough to catch her willowy shadow -- which was made of the best stuff, and never wrinkled or faded -- unprepared.

At moments like that she thought about Peter and smiled.

***

Peter was sitting on the floor of the nursery, telling stories. This was partly to tempt Wendy, and partly to distract herself as Wendy sewed her shadow back on to her feet.

"You can't sew?" Wendy had said, aghast.

"No," said Peter.

Actually, Peter could sew very well -- the fairies had taught her -- but she did not like to admit that she knew the difference between a needle and a thimble, let alone a thimble and anything else.

As for Wendy, she was greatly enjoying the feeling of being alone with a girl who was nearly her own age. She had two brothers and sometimes thought that her lack of sisters was a sore oversight on her parents' behalf. Surely Mr Darling could have totted up the numbers in a different way and decided that more girls would be the cheaper option. At the very least, they might have eaten less.

So she felt herself to be a girl alone in a sea of ungirlhood. Nana was a dear, but she didn't count, and Wendy was of exactly the right age to be wary of Mrs Darling, to be trying to cling on to the distance between them. She was less and less likely to be found dressing up and playing at being her own mother.

"Tell me again, Peter, about the fairies," she said.

"I ran away from home the day I was born," Peter said promptly. She had already told this story once, but it was about herself, so she never tired of telling it. "I went to live among the fairies, in Kensington Garden, until I was bored one day and set out for Neverland, to live there instead."

"Alone, Peter?" said Wendy, true to her cue.

"No!" Peter said. She wriggled her toes and pretended that the needle did not sting. "Or at least, not for long. I have a great many girls with me now."

"The lost girls!"

"They are not really lost," Peter said, with a grand air. "Girls do not get lost."

"You only take them if they want to go, then," said Wendy.

"Of course," said Peter. "Girls, you know, are much too clever to fall out of their prams."

"We are, aren't we, Peter?" said Wendy, basking.

"Girls will climb right over the side."

Again Peter was not being quite truthful. Certainly she would only take the girls who wanted to go, but she was not above luring them out of their prams and their bedrooms with wild promises and clever words. Most of them were young, and would climb out quickly at the very idea of pirates and mermaid lagoons and cunning little houses dug under the ground.

But some of them were Wendy's age, the dangerous age: on the one hand is mother's dressing table, with its bottles of scent and strange powders, its little gold tubes of makeup, full of secrets. And on the other hand is Peter Pan, whose skin glows with only the fever of youth and who wears boyish clothes over her flat chest and neutral shape.

Peter would enter their open windows, blow fairy dust over them and teach them to fly. On the way to Neverland she often would laugh aloud, lying on a warm breeze, thinking about the girls' parents finding their beds empty, and the girls would laugh as well because Peter was laughing. There is nothing so heartless as a child, or so cruel as a girl.

"Would you take me, Peter?" Wendy held her breath.

"I might," said Peter, as though the idea had just occurred to her. "Yes, I would."

Wendy was thrilled, but she was also a conscientious child, so she finished her sewing. It was a very neat job. Then she leapt to her feet and rushed to the other side of the nursery.

"John, Michael, wake up!" she cried. "Peter Pan is going to take us to Neverland!"

Peter frowned as the two of them tumbled out of bed.

"Boys?"

"Oh, yes, Peter," said Wendy. "Don't you ever wish you had some boys?"

"No! One girl is more use than twenty boys."

Both John and Michael protested this, but not too strongly, because they knew it would be best not to make Peter angry if they wished her to agree to take them.

"I can't go without them," Wendy said.

Sullen in a corner, Tinker Bell expressed the opinion that Wendy shouldn't go at all.

"Well, all right," said Peter sternly. "As long as they don't expect any of us to be their mothers."

"Oh, no!" declared John.

"I never really wanted a mother!" added the disloyal Michael.

A smile that Mr and Mrs Darling would have found frightening, but which Wendy in her fluttering heart found entirely lovely, spread across Peter's face.

"Then I shall teach you all to fly," she said.

***

We know, of course, that the Neverland was always changing. With the arrival of every new lost girl upon the island, it might suddenly grow a huge tree whose leaves sheltered thousands of colourful birds, or a series of pretty green pools full of darting fish and rocks perfect for climbing. The island was also not the same shape to any two of its inhabitants: the redskins told their own stories about it, and there were parts of their Neverland which were hidden even to Peter, though they had no qualms about hunting in the common areas as well. And the pirates knew it predominantly as a series of beaches and coastlines, because they preferred their ship.

Or at least, Hook preferred her ship, and it had the same result.

Let us look at her, now, the woman that Peter always has in her mind when she talks of grown-ups with such venom. Captain Jas. Hook, the terror of the seas and the undisputed queen of the Neverland's pirates, was asleep in a hammock strung between masts. She had her own cabin, of course, and her own bed, but this night she was restless, though she did not know why.

We know, of course. It was because of Peter Pan, even now somewhere distant teaching Wendy to steal food from the mouths of birds, but drawing ever closer.

All Hook knew was that she wanted to be able to open her eyes at a moment's notice and search the night sky. Thus the hammock, around which her pirates crept with soft feet and wary glances.

The arm which ended in an iron hook hung carefully down over one side, so as not to catch on the fabric.

She was a striking sight, Hook was, with her golden hair in long curls like the flames of candles, or the arrows of the sleepy sun which point the way to the Neverland. She had a way of carrying her mouth, always pursed to one side, as though she was on the verge of giving the order to have you gutted on the deck. Hook was everything Peter hated. She was fully grown and her voice was rich and her body was a shape not at all ideal for flying, or for sliding down a hollow tree trunk. Instead of hoarding its kisses her sideways mouth had a tendency to spill them carelessly all over the place, as if to declare that they weren't precious at all.

And of course, most unforgivable of all, it was whispered among the lost girls that Hook had been a mother, or at least had wanted to be.

But who will dare to ask her? Not we. Not of this woman, who kills her own pirates for ruffling her beautiful clothes.

It's true that before she was Hook she was someone else, in England, with a proper accent and a name that was almost but not quite James. But she was always a poisoner, always black-hearted and sharp-minded and ruthless, and she had found her way to the Neverland through sheer force of will. Now the wind of her true name mingled with the wails of her victims to guard the ship in the night.

Hook painted the nails of her hands with crushed flowers, until they shone red like the bloodied claws of the beasts. If you caught Peter Pan in the right mood, she would tell you that this was why she'd cut one of them off and fed it to the crocodile.

But we will come to that later.

***

At that time there were six lost girls living in the home under the ground. They had recently been forced to find themselves new hollow tree trunks to serve as entrances, the old ones having been damaged in a fire that swept through that part of the forest.

Slightly was the lumpiest, and had secretly whittled out her tree so that it would fit her more easily. Even so she was constantly terrified that Peter would decide she had too many lumps to her, and do something about it. She would count her make-believe cakes, lining them up in front of her: one, two, three, four.

All the girls had to be careful not to grow too much in any direction. Peter had firm rules on the subject.

"The only blood allowed here is a pirate's blood," Peter would say sometimes, and the younger girls would cheer and go to sharpen their knives.

The older girls would look at one another out of the corners of their eyes, and that night in their beds they would hold their breath and try extra hard to wish themselves forever small, forever young.

***

From the moment that Wendy, Michael and John arrived in Neverland there were more than the usual number of adventures, as though the island was anxious to make them feel welcome. You will have heard most of them already, as Curly insisted on writing them down when she was a grown lady in England, and although they have been changed slightly they are still quite recognisable when you open the book and look closely.

Curly did leave out of the book the story of when John came closer than anyone else ever had to befriending a mermaid, because Curly was away on an adventure with Peter at the time, and so she did not know the details. Peter liked to take Curly along when she needed someone even smaller than she was, and no doubt the uncomplaining Curly found herself wriggling through a lot of tight places while Peter laughed and laughed and sometimes forgot why they were there in the first place, but it was still counted an honour.

The mermaid's name was Elucidation -- as you know, mermaids find it amusing to call themselves after whatever word they find most musical, no matter its meaning -- and she wove for John a little purse of seaweed, though she and her sisters also had a tendency to splash water at him with their tails and give themselves points if they could knock his hat off.

Wendy was not pleased to find that the lost girls learned a lot of their manners from the mermaids, or perhaps the mermaids learned them from the girls. Either way, Wendy was often horrified at the way the girls treated one another: vicious and cruel one moment, and laughing and plaiting one another's hair the next.

"You wouldn't understand," one Twin said vaguely, when Wendy asked her about it. "You don't have any sisters."

"Can't you talk to them, Peter?" Wendy appealed.

"Avast, about what?" said Peter. She was making believe that she was a pirate, which she often did, but on that day she didn't feel as convinced about it as usual.

"Tootles and Nibs are being perfectly beastly to one another," Wendy said, choosing a pertinent example.

Peter laughed, delighted, and immediately forgot she was a pirate.

"Are they?"

"Oh," said Wendy, stamping her foot. "You are no use at all."

Sugar and spice is what little girls are made of, and Peter Pan was the purest form of both of them: sweet and lovely one moment, with her turned-up nose and her eyes like the stars reflected in the surface of the lagoon. And then the next moment you would catch the wicked twist of her mouth, the gurgling acid of her laugh. Peter Pan, the girl brought up by fairies, not knowing any better.

Peter Pan the girl teetering constantly on the edge of womanhood but never, never tipping over that edge.

***

The adventures piled up on one another like the best snowballs, and many of them brought the lost girls into contact with the pirates. Sometimes the two groups would clash in good spirits and withdraw in even better spirits to lick their wounds. But sometimes the wind would be full of malice and the wounds inflicted would be deeper, and they would part in renewed anger against one another.

After a little while of this, as the anger built and built with an uneasy heat that belonged to no snowball in the world, even the beasts and the redskins began to be wary of walking the Neverland's paths when they thought there was a good chance of stumbling into such a skirmish.

Hook had moved her grand cabin permanently out of doors, and she would lie awake on her hammock well into the night, gazing up at the stars and listening to the childish waves lapping playfully at the side of her ship.

As for Peter, she would stand guard outside their home, in the clearing that held the entrance-trees. She would sit high up in a proper tree, chatting to the Never birds, as the sun set and the night clasped the Neverland in her inky embrace. Then Peter would wave to her especial friends among the stars, and she would feel herself to be very brave and very virtuous, staying awake so that her girls would be safe.

On occasion she would forget that she was standing guard, and one of the stars would whisper down to her the beginning of a splendid new joke, and she would fly up into the heavens to hear the rest of it.

More often she would simply fall asleep. Depending on the tree in which she had seated herself, she might slumber peaceably in the crook of some branches until dawn, or she might fall straight to the ground.

One night, when this happened, Wendy awakened at the thump. She climbed out of her bed and ascended through her personal tree with the ease that came of practice, and she found Peter asleep on the grass where she had fallen. The moon was almost full and was smiling brightly down on them, as the moon often does for young girls of Wendy's age.

Peter was dreaming, and crying in her sleep.

Wendy's heart ached. She tiptoed forward, then sat and pulled Peter into her lap, where she held her tightly and stroked her hair until Peter settled. She leaned down and pressed a kiss to Peter's forehead. This was sweet of Wendy, who just like Mrs Darling was very jealous of her kisses.

Then she had a sudden idea: she would do what her own mother had always done on the nights when Wendy was sad and troubled by dreams. She would tidy up Peter's mind for her.

Wendy had an organised nature and she found this activity to be very satisfying. She shook out the mustiest thoughts and let them air, and found some delicious ones to lay out on the very top where Peter would encounter them on waking.

She was puzzled for a long time when she could not find the Neverland in Peter's mind, even when she had emptied the whole thing and run her small fingers around the edges of it. After a while she shrugged and packed everything away again. It did not occur to her that Peter's version of the island encompasses the versions to be found in the minds of every boy and every girl, everywhere, and so the reason she could not find Peter's Neverland was because she was living in it.

She was also puzzled by the name and the image of Hook, which appeared a great many times in Peter's mind, and not in a nice organised manner: no, Hook popped up in every corner. Wendy would turn her up in a pile of thoughts about Tiger Lily, and she would be tucked away in the memory of a hunt or a feast.

"Tut tut," Wendy said; she had picked up the habit from Tootles. She could not make her tongue tut properly, so she just said it: tut tut.

She folded most of the thoughts of Hook into a neat pile in one corner of Peter's mind, but she kept one of them spread out on her knees for a while, so that she could gaze at it. One of her fingers traced its way down a sun-arrow curl, curious, and lingered on the red nails that adorned the single intact hand.

Peter slept on.

***

Some people will say that poison is a woman's weapon.

This, of course, is a very serious and very deadly thing for it to be.

Here is Hook, having tricked the lost girls into deserting their captain, and having found her way into the underground home by way of poor lumpy Slightly's tree. Even now Slightly is crying bitterly into the blindfold that a pirate has wrapped over her eyes, blaming herself. "I should have made believe to eat fewer cakes," she weeps. "I should have let Peter slice more pieces off me."

Here is Hook gazing down at where Peter Pan lies asleep.

Hook was listening, with the part of herself that was always listening, for the tick of the crocodile: girlhood ticking towards adulthood, adulthood towards death. When the clock runs down, you are eaten.

Hook feared little, but she feared death. She would often sit in front of the mirror, staring into her own forget-me-not eyes and forgetting to be in love with herself, calling for Smee to fetch her dagger so that she could remove a hair which had dared to show a hint of silver among the gold.

And so Hook hated Peter because of that thing which should have been called cockiness, the simple and easy vanity of the ungrown girl who believes herself whole-heartedly to be without fault or flaw. Peter slept with her arms askew, her head turned carelessly to one side, as though she cared for nothing and nobody's opinion.

Hook gazed down at Peter with a multitude of kisses trembling on the edge of her generous mouth, but for once she did not let a single one of them fall.

She pulled the yellow poison from its hiding place. The hook made a gentle sound as it pulled the cork from from the bottle; in her boudoir in the wall, out of sight and silent, Tinker Bell shook herself awake and pressed her eye to a chink in her door.

Hook poured five drops of poison into Peter's medicine cup.

She stole from the house without a second glance, and her dark heart was singing as she went.

***

Wendy had recognised Hook at once, having spent that night poring over Peter's thoughts. For a moment when they met in person she was quite entranced by the woman's air and manners, by the splendour of her clothes and the knowing heaviness of her periwinkle gaze.

No; that is telling white lies to sweeten the truth.

Wendy was entranced for more than a moment.

In Hook, Wendy saw the promise of womanhood to come, real womanhood, not the make-believe version which she had half found herself believing. It took all the courage and loyalty she had not to forget herself and beg to change sides, to do as Peter so often did and declare herself a pirate as well.

It is as well she did not. For we know that Peter Pan was skulking in the shadows wrapped around the pirate ship, listening to Hook taunt her girls, all afire with hatred and waiting for her moment.

***

A little while later there were cries ringing out across the water, so sharp and so urgent that the mermaids paused in their combing and looked out to the harbour. Cries and the rattle of weapons and the exultant crowing of a young girl in love with her own cleverness.

Beneath all of this, if you listened closely, you could hear Slightly counting dead pirates in a monotone: one, two, three, four.

And beneath that, if you listened even more closely again, was the ticking.

***

They would talk about the grand duel between Captain Hook and Peter Pan for many years to come. In time the story would become both larger and thinner than what had actually happened, and more real.

Shaken by the loss of her pirates and the failure of her plan, but much too proud to show it, Hook walked in a slow circle, her eyes on her foe. Hook's red nails shone on the hilt of her sword and the heels of her brilliantly gleaming boots fell precisely onto the wood of the deck and -- did not tick, oh no, they would not have dared. They clicked.

The lost girls huddled together, out of the way, watching their captain in perfect faith.

Feeling the weight of the moment, Hook remembered her school days, and drew herself up formally.

"Vain and insolent girl," Hook said, "prepare to meet thy doom."

Peter feared the tick-tick-tick of the crocodile as well, but not because she feared death. If she could have leapt straight from girlhood to death, as though from one rock to another in a busy stream, she would have been quite content. She would have regarded it, indeed, as an adventure.

She feared the middle step, and Hook was that step.

Peter lifted her sword and pointed it at the hated grown-up.

"Dark and poisonous woman," Peter answered. "Have at thee."

***

As captain of her own ship, having vanquished its previous master and replaced its previous crew with her own, Peter Pan was wilder and more lovely than ever. One day she would gaze sternly down from the bridge and order Nibs flogged for flying up to the crow's nest, with the admonition that sailors did not fly.

The next day Peter herself would forget this mandate and spend an hour running her fingers through the tips of the waves, only to return to the ship and swagger importantly about the deck.

"Can't you sew me something from Hook's clothes, Wendy?"

"You may sew it yourself," said Wendy firmly. One of the girls had betrayed Peter's secret.

Of course, Peter sulked and scoffed and chose in the end to try the garments on as they were. Mostly they hung on her frame ridiculously, but there was one dress that nearly fit, and that was almost her undoing.

It was Wendy who found Peter arguing with her own shadow, where it was cast on the wall of Hook's cabin.

"I don't look like that!" Peter was shouting, hands on her hips. "I won't!"

"Peter," said the unwise Wendy.

Peter's whole body shook as she tried to free herself from the dress, as though it were a fishing net that she had found herself tangled in. She had pulled her arms clear when she spun around and glowered at Wendy from beneath her short chestnut curls.

In that moment Wendy had the queer inside-out feeling that she herself was a grown up woman playing at being a girl.

"Here, Peter," she said. "I'll help you with the buttons."

***

When Peter flew back to number 14, meaning to bar the window and make Wendy believe that her parents had forgotten their children, she saw Mrs Darling asleep in the nursery chair.

Peter crouched on the window ledge and could not bring herself to move, either to step into the room or to launch herself into the air once more.

For the first and only time, Mrs Darling's shadow, creased and wavering in the lamplight, looked older than the woman herself. We can't blame it for this. It, too, was exhausted with sorrow and with waiting.

Mrs Darling had the youthfulness of truly deep sleep. The elusive kiss lurked at the corner of her mouth, which was also her daughter's mouth, and Peter's forehead tingled.

"We can't both have her," said Peter, to this vision of Wendy's future.

Or perhaps she was seeing Wendy herself. After all, Peter Pan was the kind of girl who was endlessly distracted by new adventures, and never kept track of the time. So although she believed that she'd flown straight to Wendy and John and Michael's window, she might have spent years gossiping among the youngest stars, or playing tricks on the mermaids of the ocean, and forgotten all about it.

It doesn't really matter, though. Does it?

***

Much later, when she was a woman grown, Wendy would remember them like this:

Hook with her golden hair streaming in the wind, her iron hook hungry for the bite, the blade of her sword vibrating with the memory of having struck Peter's and forced the girl back a few steps, almost to the plank.

And Peter's star-filled eyes gone wide as she fought for balance, Peter teetering on the edge, teetering, teetering.

Peter always and forever in the moment before the fall, gay and innocent and heartless.