No Ghosts This Year #3

“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.”

Philip lifted his arm to point in the direction of Burden Street, before realising that this meant the man was going in the same direction as he was, a thought that made his head spin a little. This could be difficult, if they found themselves walking close to each other. How was he to avoid stranger danger in that case? Perhaps he should just tell the stranger which way to go and then wait until he was gone before walking further himself.

“It’s up that way,” he said, still pointing. “Turn right, then left, then right again.”

He’d given the directions without really thinking about them. But were they correct, he wondered? Suddenly he doubted himself, but didn’t want the conversation to go on any longer. It made little difference if he sent the man off the wrong way. He’d never see him again. So he said nothing more.

“Right, left, right,” repeated the man, still from behind.

“Yes,” said Philip, looking straight ahead once more.

The man smiled as he walked past Philip to go up the hill. “Thanks, mate,” he said, and kept walking. He didn’t look back. Philip stood still and watched him go up the hill. He’d wait until the man was out of sight before continuing on his own way home.

*

There wasn’t much time for Philip to regain focus on his time travelling. At first, he found himself altogether unable to return to the adventure on which he had been embarking only a minute ago; somehow, his brush with possible, real-world danger had taken his focus off time travelling and smoking without health risks to wondering if he would ever see that man again and if, indeed, seeing him again would be a safe or perilous thing. Yet there was no time even for reflecting on that, because he was startled again by the sound of a car horn behind him. Looking back with a jolt (and no small fear that his decision to give directions might already be having treacherous repercussions) he saw his sister, who was surprising him not only by honking her horn but also by being alone behind the wheel of a car.

“Get in!” she called, pulling up beside him and leaning over towards the passenger window.

“What are you doing here?” he called back, too surprised for that moment to have the presence of mind to get in.

“Driving!” she called back, an answer that was, for that moment, sufficient reason for him to get in beside her, although not particularly informative.

They were halfway up the hill that the stranger had only just surmounted when Sarah said, by way of explanation, “I got my license!”

“But why aren’t you in Melbourne?” asked Philip, still confused and reluctant to accept the facts set out before him.

“I came for my license test,” she said. “Surprise.” Then a pause. “Aren’t you going to say, ‘Congratulations’, or something normal like that?”

“Oh, yeah,” said Philip. “Congratulations.”

They sat quietly for a moment, Sarah too focused on changing gears at the top of the hill, Philip too thrown by all these unexpected encounters to know what to say. Then he remembered the question that had most been on his mind since getting in the car, and asked, “Were you driving to get me?”

Sarah laughed. “Nah, I just wanted to go for a drive. I only finished my test an hour ago. But I saw you there and you looked so forlorn. I thought I’d give you a lift.”

“Thanks,” said Philip, not liking the description forlorn, but, in truth, too forlorn to think too much about it.

After a moment, Sarah said, “Were you talking to that guy before?”

Philip sat up. “Which guy?”

Sarah pointed ahead of them. They had caught up with the stranger, who had taken the first right and was heading towards the next turn.

Philip swallowed and, for some reason, said, “No.”

Sarah paused, and said, “It looked like you were.”

“No,” said Philip. “I wasn’t.”

And that was that: a pointless lie, a conversation that went nowhere. They turned the corner and Philip avoided the man seeing him as they drove past. That, as far as Philip was concerned, was that. Yet his heart pounded particularly hard as he entered the house when they arrived home.

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