A blast from the past: An Imaginary Friend

I was googling and came across stories in the charity anthology, A Pint and a Haircut: True Irish Stories, edited by Garret Pearse and published by Londubh Books, Dublin, in 2010 to raise funds for Haiti after the earthquake there. I think I may have been one of the few non-Irish writers in the book and it was a pleasant surprise to see the writings out there and on the website of the Irish publisher.

I’m very attached to ‘An Imaginary Friend’, so here is how the story came about, sort of. The story itself can be found in a 1997 issue of Thema Magazine, USA, in my collection, The Past Present, and at Ether Books.

The Making of an Imaginary Friend
Sylvia Petter, Vienna

When I first started writing, I went to Ireland with my husband to visit friends in Mulranny, County Mayo, hoping to see Heinrich Böll’s cottage on Achill Island. It was closed to the public the day we drove by, so all I had was a view of a little white house behind a closed gate.

The next day golf was on the agenda. A fierce wind was blowing on the links near Belmullet and I opted to stay in the clubhouse in front of a warm open fire, nursing clam chowder and reading Edna O’Brien’s biography of James Joyce. I don’t know if it was the wind and the ocean, or the poster of a little green man in the pub at Westport where we stopped for more Guinness and Kilkenny, but that night I dreamt of a leprechaun.

Back home in Geneva, where we were then living, I started to write about a leprechaun called Ben. Ben wasn’t green, though; he wore black velvet knickerbockers and a floppy white blouse. He had chin-length hair the colour of corn and would swing on my kitchen curtain rail by his knees. And he would tell me stories which I wrote down.

He told me about how he’d been to Japan, the old Japan of Anjin-San. Then he told me about the sushi trains in Tokyo and with great glee jumped into the bowl of jelly I was preparing. Boy, did he make a mess. He left me, saying he had to catch an electric storm to the land of the long white cloud, but that he’d be back.

I sent the story to a small magazine in Hiroshima and it was accepted. They were looking for a bit of whimsy and Ben must have jumped through their window just at the right moment. It was my first story in print.

There followed more stories about Ben riding rainbows and jumping into tales of far-off lands, and soon I had a full twenty pages which I entitled ‘An Imaginary Friend’. It was the story of Liana and Ben. Ben kept having to go away to search for those infamous pots of gold. He would ride electric storms and rainbows, never tiring, never getting old. But Liana got old, as we all do, and her knees started aching. One day, Ben came back from one of his trips with a little bag of golden dust. He told Liana that the dust would ease the pain and that she should rub it into her knees. And as she did so, Liana began to shrink until she was the same size as Ben. He took her hand gently and guided her up a fresh new rainbow with an indigo bannister. They went slowly at first, for it was all uphill, but they eventually got to the top where they sat holding hands and dangling their legs until they faded away with the rainbow.

‘An Imaginary Friend’, the twenty-page story, was published in print by a magazine in America. I imagined it becoming an Internet project that would teach children about stories and places all over the world. Maybe it still will. I sometimes wonder if I would have met Ben had I not been to Ireland to see Heinrich Böll’s cottage, or snuggled up with James Joyce at a hearth near Belmullet. Or maybe it was just the leprechaun poster, or the Guinness and Kilkenny in the pub at Westport.


I still have plans for the story and its possible spinoffs. Maybe as a literacy project, maybe as an app. Who knows? Until then, and as always, Onwards! but with a little p.s.

Did our stories help? Where is Haiti now?