The walk home was generally a relief. Mark caught the bus home, so he wasn’t around to be a nuisance. And mostly Philip had the time to himself, to think and daydream. Sometimes he would take a book with him and try to read as he walked, but that was a hard thing to do. He knew the walk well and hardly needed to look where he was going to take the correct left and right turns, but he hated having to interrupt his book every time there was a red traffic light (“You would have been happier in this town when there were no traffic lights,” his grandfather had once said to him, “then you could read without stopping”), and once in a while there was a dog that had left a little treat for him on the ground, waiting for careless feet to tread in. No, it was generally best to look where he was going. It was difficult to do that and read at the same time.
You could get quite far in a daydream, of course, even if you couldn’t read: far away from Mark, and far away from PE and Maths homework. You could get to a place where it didn’t matter so much if your hair was messy or you stank, where no-one was likely to take a specky on your back. Only, there were obstacles still to daydreams: the realities of classmates that saw you while you were walking, for instance. Where they were likely just to ignore you at lunchtime, you seemed to become much more interesting when they saw you outside of school. If they saw you while they were standing by the milk-bar, they might call out, “Hey Savage!” as though that were a particularly original (and biting) thing to say. If they were doing something forbidden for kids to do in school uniform – smoking, for instance – they might append an offer to the “Hey Savage”, like, “Wanna smoke?”, knowing, of course, that the answer would be no. That was the point of it: to provoke him into saying no. Had he ever said, “Sure!” and gone over to smoke with them, the appeal might have worn off quickly. Or he might have opened up something altogether new in his relationships with his peers, an entirely unknown and dangerous dimension: unknown and dangerous to all involved.
He preferred the unknown dimensions of his daydreams. At least then he had some control over what happened within each dimension. Recently, for instance, he had discovered that, in his mind, he had mastered the power of time travel, and found that it was remarkably similar to an H.G. Wells book, just without the bad special effects and furry monsters of the old film version your father showed you. In that world he could smoke without getting lung cancer or being grounded, because that was what happened in H.G. Wells books. Indeed, you could do basically everything that would be misinterpreted or misconstrued in a world that simply did not understand imagination or the desire to be somewhere or someone else. So long as he could be in his imagination without anyone seeing that he was “playing imaginary games” (something that, he had learnt a few months ago, he and his peers were all now too old to do), he was fine; he could do whatever had struck him as interesting or worth doing, without fear of it being twisted against him. Hadn’t it been Mark who, back in Grade Three, had seen him and his friend Tim, no longer at the school, playing a game themed around the French aristocracy being guillotined, and had said by way of explaining away their game, “They’re homosexual”? Now it struck him that this had only revealed a lack of imagination or historical knowledge on Mark’s part, not anything negative about himself or Tim, but he could hardly have said that at the time – or even now, for that matter. People like Mark didn’t care about being unimaginative or historically ignorant. It was almost a badge of pride. No, it was best to keep his many worlds inside his head. That was best for everyone.
He was all set to explore one of these worlds on his five minute walk home (ample time for a time traveller to use gainfully) when from behind him came a voice that he didn’t recognise. It wasn’t Mark – that much was impossible, since he would be on his way home on the bus by now. But neither was it anyone from his year level. It was an adult’s voice. He paused, unwilling to look behind him, the stranger-danger talk firmly in his mind.
“Sorry to bother you, mate,” said the man. “I just need some directions.”
Philip remained where he was but tilted his head a little towards the man. He didn’t recognise him, but something about the man made him seem harmless enough. He looked like someone his parents would invite over for dinner – though that was hardly a guarantee of safety. “Even if someone you know well makes you uncomfortable…” his teachers had said – at which Mark had called out, “Ben makes me uncomfortable!” and the lesson had changed from being about stranger-danger to Mark’s stupidity. Not unusual, he reflected. Though it had made the moral of the lesson a little hard to recall at this moment.
“Can you tell me where Burden Street is?” the man continued. “I…” A pause. “I got the train here and thought I could walk there from the station. But I’m lost.”