The day after, he always felt like a wounded soldier. And, while there was a certain manly glory in the feeling, it was hard for others to see or understand it; and what good, really, was there in having survived a battle that no-one else knew you had fought?
As a younger child, he had tried at times to get his parents or Sarah to understand. Sometimes they seemed to, yet only sometimes. It was easiest for them to understand when there was something tangible to explain the battle: a sickness, f0r instance; something that could be observed and diagnosed. Fear of sickness did not seem to amount to the same thing. Being convinced he had asbestosis because Pa had brought out a piece of asbestos at the dinner table one night and had shown it to them: that had not been legitimate. The night that the left half of his face felt paralysed, that night they had understood, for a time; until it had been revealed that there was nothing really wrong with him, only fear.
So, on days like today, he learnt to simply endure it. School would go on, the battle would go on. Perhaps, he reflected, he shouldn’t have read that book before bed. Perhaps he should have drunk his before-bed glass of milk. There were no explanations, only guilt. So he took it on his own shoulders, and went to school.
Sarah, although offering to drive him from school, had no intention of driving him there. “I’m on holidays,” she’d said, when he’d gone to her room to say goodnight. “I’m not getting up that early.” And so it was with some level of fear that he set off walking to school, passing Burden Street as he did, not sure if he was afraid of the stranger he had met or of the strangeness of his thoughts on going to bed. He could reflect now, in the relatively calm light of day, that there had been no reason to think that he had feared – what was it? What even had he feared? The content of the book? The face of the stranger? His own heart? Having no idea what, he could only try to shrug off the odd sensation that clung still about him.
It was another sunny day, likely to make him clammy and grumpy by the end. He hated the sensation of summer about his face and limbs. Only when he could be still and at rest in the sun did he not mind. When he had a fan and a book, or a beach to dip into, then the sun did not trouble him. But when his uniform clung about him and the sun beat down with the pulsating urgency of timetables and the scrutiny of familiar schoolyard faces: then sun was only torture.
So he did his best to walk in the shade, and shade there was if he crossed the road. The shade took him also away from the milk bar where some of his classmates met in the mornings to walk to school together. Crossing over, he averted his eyes from the milk bar and focused on the shade.
“Hey,” called a voice from the other side of the road.