(This extract contains a bath scene. All my novels contain lovingly-written bath scenes. I considered it one of my trademarks. I love baths. I think every film and movie should contain a scene in a bath, unless it would be absurd to have one.)
Rex made dinner. For all his hatred of modern life, he was obviously quite happy to eat tinned food. Dinner was tinned ham, rice, carrots and peas. There was no sauce or gravy, and Rex drank water—- though he poured a glass of milk for Billy.
It wasn’t tasty, and there wasn’t much of it, but Billy ate it gratefully. He was hungry-- he hadn’t eaten since before he got on the train—- but it wasn’t just that. The simple act of eating food was very comforting. It was so familiar, and normal, and reassuring, after all the weirdness of the night.
It kept Billy’s mind from racing. He was full of wild fear and wild excitement, and sometimes they felt like exactly the same emotion.
He felt like he’d felt the time he’d visited Funderland and gone down the enormous water-slide...the moment just before he’d slid down. The sheer giddy exhilaration. Except this water-slide was one that went on and on and on...out of this world entirely, into outer space and goodness knows where after that…
They didn’t speak during dinner. Rex had fallen silent, and Billy couldn’t think of anything to say. Rex seemed to chew every mouthful a hundred times over, and he didn’t look at Billy as he ate. He just gazed into thin air, obviously lost in his own thought. Sometimes he seemed to mutter to himself, but Billy could never hear the words.
It was well past midnight. The trick-or-treaters had stopped calling. The fireworks didn’t stop, but they grew less frequent. Marius curled up underneath the table, and began to snore.
“I’m afraid I don’t have a shower”, Rex said as he was piling the dishes beside the sink. (Billy had offered to wash them, but Rex simply waved him away impatiently.) “But I do have a bath. You’ll want a bath, won’t you? People today wash non-stop, I know. So the soap and shampoo companies can sell them more and more stuff.”
“My parents say just the same thing”, said Billy. “They say it’s a waste of water. They’re always telling me I run the water in the shower too long.”
“Oh, environmentalists, are they?”, Rex asked. Billy thought Rex might have been pleased to hear that Billy’s parents agreed him, but it didn’t seem to please him in the least. In fact, he looked a little provoked. “Well, you can run the bathwater here for a whole hour, if you like.” When Billy didn’t move, he said, “Well, do you want to take a bath or not?”
“Yes”, said Billy. He longed for hot water.
“Then kindly do so”, said Rex. “I’m sure you’ll find the bathroom without much trouble, and your bedroom is the room immediately adjacent. You don’t have nightmares, do you?”
“No”, said Billy, even though he often had nightmares.
“You won’t be kept awake by my typing?”
“No”, said Billy. This wasn’t a lie. His parents said that he could sleep through a tornado.
“Then I’ll speak to you in the morning”, said Rex Cunningham, with a curt nod. “Goodnight”.
Billy made his way upstairs. He was surprised that Marius didn’t wake up and follow him. He switched the lights on as he went, finding the switches with only a little difficulty.
Upstairs was even more bare than downstairs. It was such a spacious house. There were ornamentallly curved bannisters on the stairs, and there was plasterwork (in the shape of fruits and flowers) in the corners and centre of the ceilings. But the whole place looked as though someone had just moved out, or hadn’t quite moved in. There were carpets and wallpaper but no pictures hanging on the walls, no little tables with flowerpots and bric-a-brac, not so much as a lampshade for the lightbulbs—- none of the little things that make a house look lived-in.
He looked into several rooms before he found the bathroom. The first room that he looked into was utterly empty, without so much as a carpet. The second had nothing in it except for five or six wooden crates in the middle of the floor, and a stack of huge books lying beside them—- they looked like they might be atlases or encyclopedias, and Billy guessed they didn’t fit on the bookshelves.
The next room was his bedroom, which was almost as bare as the others, but at least had a bed, just underneath the large window. A double bed, too, neatly made up with chocolate-coloured pillows and thick blankets, and a hot water bottle lying at its foot.
Next door he found the bathroom, and this was the only room of the house that could be called cosy. The bath was almost twice the size of any bath he’d been in before, and round rather than rectangular-shaped. It was made of green porcelain, streaked in several colours. The taps were at least four times as big as the taps on the bath at home. They were made of brass, and carved in the shape of sea-horses.
The orange light of the street lamps outside splintered through a round, frosted glass window in the middle of the gable wall. Plasterwork surrounded this, too; the points of the compass, flowing waves, starfish, mermaids and bubbles. It looked like a retired admiral’s bathroom.
He guessed the decorations had been there a long time; before Rex Cunningham moved in, anyway.
He locked the door, undressed, ran the bath (the water shot out of the mouths of the seahorses) and a few minutes later he lay up to his neck in steaming hot water. (“You’re going to scald yourself”, his mother used to say, when she saw how hot he liked his baths.) He probably liked being in a bath more than anything in the world, apart from reading Rex Cunningham books. In fact, he usually did both of them at the same time. He reached for his trousers, which were lying close to the tub, and pulled The Neverending Nightmare from his pocket.
For once, though, he found his mind wandering from the story. He put it down on the tiled floor, and lay back again. His gaze rested on the brass sea-horse taps. He liked how big they were, but he imagined them even bigger. Bigger than the lions in Trafalgar Square. Bigger than...well, so big that a dozen people could sit on their backs.
He imagined them looming over a huge porcelain pool—- no, not just a pool, but a lake. A lake whose water was as hot as this bath, so that clouds of steam rose from it, like in that photo of Icelandic geysers in his geography book.
And there would be boats. Of course there would be boats. They would look like Viking longships, except instead of those monster-heads on their prows, they would have the heads of sharks. Sharks whose jaws were wide open. And, instead of being made of wood, they would be made of gleaming green porcelain.
Above the lake— far, far above, higher than a cathedral’s steeple— would be a roof of gleaming tiles, glimmering and glowing a hundred different colours. Soft green light would radiate down from enormous globes of frosted glass, bigger than houses...
Automatically, as soon as he realised he was drifting into one of his reveries (as his mother called them), he sat up and reached for the taps. That was always the moment, when he was running a shower, when one of his parents banged on the bathroom door and told him to stop wasting the world’s water supply. Then he remembered he wasn’t at home, but in Rex Cunningham’s house in Dublin.
He was always snapping out of reveries like that. His mother called them reveries. Mrs. Costello in art class called them “dazes”. Tommy Lynch, the bully, called them “space-outs”.
His hand reached down towards the ribcage on his left side, caressing the skin there gently. The bruise had turned yellow in the last few days; it only hurt now when he pressed against it. At first, he’d wondered if his ribs were broken.
He remembered the playing field behind the library, Kevin Dempsey and Trevor Higgins holding him down while Tommy Lynch punched him in the side. When they left him (after throwing his books and gym clothes around the grass), the pain in his side was nothing compared to the relief it hadn’t been worse. He’d heard that Tommy carried a knife, and he’d been terrified he was going to use it. Who knew what kids like that would do when they got carried away? He’d read about stuff like that in magazines.
The day after the beating, Tommy had come up to him in the school yard and started telling him jokes from some film he’d seen. It didn’t make any sense. But then, what did make sense? Grown-ups and other kids never behaved like you expected them to.
Billy heard Rex Cunningham moving about downstairs. He heard him coughing—- lightly, at first, but them more and more heavily. The machine is breaking down inside. Was that what he’d said?
But he wasn’t going to think about that. Because if Rex Cunningham died, then—- well, then Billy would be alone in the world, except for his parents.
He wondered what his parents were doing at that exact moment. When they weren’t having dinner parties or going out, they usually just sat in front of the television. Sometimes they watched a DVD. Billy sometimes watched it with them, but the films his parents watched bored him. They always seemed to be about drug addicts or politicians or mentally ill people. Where was the fun in any of that?
The films Billy liked were science-fiction, horror, fantasy; films about other worlds, marvellous and terrifying places. His father called them “good old-fashioned harmless escapism” and told Billy that he used to enjoy reading Dan Dare comics when he was a boy. Billy had never heard of Dan Dare.
His mother had a different attitude, though. “I can’t stand all that stuff”, she used to say, almost viciously. She was usually such a mild-mannered woman, but even the thought of horror films made her eyes narrow and her jaw clench. “It’s such a waste of time. Life is too short.”
Billy could never understand what life being short had to do with it. He’d heard his mother complain about being bored hundreds of times. Sometimes, he listened at his parents’ bedroom door while she was crying and his father was trying to comfort her. He hated those times.
“I feel so empty”, he’d heard her saying, in her tear-choked voice. “So completely empty.”
He could never hear what his father said. But a little while later, his mother would appear again, even more cheerful and bright than usual.
Billy stepped out of the bath, wiped himself on the towel, and got dressed. A firework exploded a few yards from the window. They were getting rarer and rare now.
He went to his bedroom, holding The Neverending Nightmare in his hand. He noticed for the first time that there were pyjamas folded up at the bottom of the bed, just underneath the hot water bottle. They were blue-and-white striped pyjamas, and they looked very old, faded and worn. He changed into the pyjamas and climbed under the blankets. It was probably the most comfortable bed he’d ever lain in. It was very soft and there were no bumps.
The light was still on. He usually left his bedside lamp on until he was asleep. His mother complained about that, too, when she caught him doing it.
He turned onto his side, the side he always lay on. He felt the hot water bottle slide off the side of the bed and thump on the wooden floor.
He reached down, and ran his fingertips along the beams of the floor, but they didn’t connect with anything. He leaned over the bed, and looked down. The hot water bottle wasn’t there. It must have bounced under the bed somehow.
He got out of bed, knelt down, and peered underneath.
The hot water bottle was there. There was also a pile of books. He could see the spines of some of them. Tales of the Macabre by Edgar Allen Poe, The Man Who Was Thursday by GK Chesterton, The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle...he slid the hot water bottle from under the bed, and then reached under for The Lost World. The titled excited him.
He put the hot water bottle back onto the bed, climbed up onto it himself, and sat cross-legged in the middle. He looked at The Lost World. It was a blue hardback book. A layer of dust had built up on the cover. With relish, he wiped the dust away with his pyjama sleeve, and then blew what remained into the air. Billy loved dust. Nothing in his house ever got dusty.
He opened the book. There was a coloured illustration beside the title page, showing a dinosaur bird. He tried to remember the word for that. Pterodactyl, that was it!
Arthur Conan Doyle. The name was familiar. But why? It took him a few moments to remember. He was the guy who wrote the Sherlock Holmes stories. Billy’s father had given him The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes as a birthday present, two years ago. He’d called them “terrific yarns”. Billy had read all of them, but he found them pretty boring. Every time something weird happened in those kinds of stories, there was always a logical explanation. It was so disappointing.
But this one looked more interesting...he flicked through the pages....ah, it was a time travel book, or something like that...guys in Victorian dress, and dinosaurs...this was a lot better than Sherlock Holmes...
Something slipped out from between the pages and landed on the bed. Billy put the book aside and picked it up.
It was a receipt. The purply-blue ink was very faded, but he could still read it. It said:
Item: APPETITE FOR DESTR
GUNS N ROSES
Thank you for shopping with
Guns ‘n’ Roses! Billy wasn’t much of a music fan, but he’d heard of them. They were heavy metallers, he knew. Some of the kids in school liked them. And he’d seen some of their videos on TV.
But why would Rex Cunningham use a receipt for a heavy metal album as a bookmark? Surely he’d hate that kind of thing with a passion? How did he have the receipt in the first place? Billy couldn’t even imagine him listening to a radio, never mind a CD player.
There was only one other possibility. Somebody else had slept in this bed.
Why did that thought make him so uneasy? What made him think Rex couldn’t have had other guests and visitors? Nieces and nephews, even?
Then another possibility struck him. Maybe the receipt was there before Rex owned the book? Surely he’d bought it in a second-hand bookshop? He could imagine Rex browsing the shelves in a second-hand bookshop. You always saw old men like that in charity shops.
Yes. Of course that was it. Quite simple, really. And nothing to worry about.
Billy slid the receipt back into the pages of book, got back under the blankets, rolled onto his side, and— one elbow propping him up on the mattress—- began to read The Lost World.
But he was more tired than he realised, and he’d hardly got through a few pages before the book dropped from his hands and he fell into a heavy sleep.
A few hours later, he woke up, needing to use the bathroom. It took him a few moments to remember where he was, and how he’d got there. The house was very cold now, and the floor was cold under his bare feet.
The house was silent, but not completely. From Rex’s room came the same noise that Billy had heard when he first entered the house, the sound of Rex Cunningham typing: Tap-tap-tap-tap...
Billy (strangely for him) woke up several more times during the night, and once towards dawn. Every time, the sound was still there. Tap-tap-tap-tap.Tap-tap-tap. It even followed Billy into his dreams.
“Have you had other fans visiting you?”, asked Billy.
It was eight o’ clock in the morning, and Rex was taking his “morning constitutional”, (as he called his walk) in a park beside his house. There was nobody else around except for a few people walking dogs, the occasional jogger, and some kids on skateboards. It was still quite dark.
Rex couldn’t have slept at all during the night (unless he could type in his sleep, that was) but he seemed perfectly alert and awake. In fact, he seemed cheerful.
“Must you use that term, fan?”, he asked now, and he actually smiled instead of frowning. It was a sardonic smile, but not a bad-tempered one. “It makes me think of those screaming girls who mobbed the Beatles. Why can’t you just say reader?”
“Have you had other readers visiting you?”.
Rex gave a quick nod. “Once or twice. I wasn’t very impressed by them. They weren’t really my sort of people.”
Does that mean I am his sort of person?, wondered Billy.
“Do they still write to you?”, he asked.
“Oh, no”, said Rex. He was swiping the dew from the grass with his walking cane. “They just disappeared. I don’t think I was what they were expecting.”
In the cold light of an October morning, it was difficult to believe what had happened the night before. I became a bird, he thought. I flew. And now I’m just walking through a park with Rex Cuningham. People must think he’s my father, or my grandfather. They have no idea of who he is; of what he can do.
You got used to anything pretty quickly. He’d heard people say that over and over. Mr. Donleavy, the French teacher who’d been blinded in an accident, said it about losing his sight. Well, it seemed to be true.
Now they were passing a small, stone cottage that stood in the middle of the park. It looked like it had been a groundskeeper’s residence, long ago. Now the door and windows were boarded up. Rex lifted his cane and pointed to a large brass praque nailed to the wall. It was engraved with a list of names.
“Look at this, Master Reynolds”, he said, and he actually twirled the end of his cane in his enthusiasm. “This is a list of the Irishmen who died in the charge at Colenso, in the Boer War. You’ve probably not heard of that one, either?”
“Yes, I have”, said Billy. It was true. He’d heard the name.
“They charged into the Boer pom-poms and Mausers”, said the old man, gazing softly at the rusted old plaque, “in a desperate attempt to relieve the garrison at Ladysmith. The Irish brigades took the worst of it; the Dublin Fusiliers and the Connacht Rangers. The Boers were hidden in the high ground and cut them down with ease. It was a suicidal charge. But what gallantry, Master Reynolds! What high valour!”.
Billy peered at the inscription. They made the ultimate sacrifice on the fifteenth day of December, it said, the year of our Lord Eighteen Hundred and Ninety-Nine.
“It is the keenest regret of my life”, said Rex Harrison, his eyes running down the ranks of names on the plaque, “that I never experienced the field of combat. I was born at the wrong time, the wrong place. If I’d been born fifteen years earlier…!” His eyes lit up at the thought.
“But couldn’t you make your own war?”, asked Billy. He lowered his voice a little, even though it didn’t seem necessary. Anyone who heard him would know what he was talking about. And if they did work it out, they wouldn’t believe it. “You can make anything real if you want, can’t you?”
Rex shook his head, still reading the list of names on the plaque.
“Alas, no, my young friend”, he said. “I can make your dreams come true. But I cannot make my own dreams come true. I cannot enter into the worlds that I create. I can only see them through the eyes of another. It is the curse of the creator.”
“How do you do it, anyway?” Billy couldn’t keep from asking the question any longer.
A faint smile came upon Rex’s lips. “Oh”, he said, his lips making a perfect O as he said it. “You already think you deserve to be my heir? You already feel entitled to the inheritance, is that it?”
Billy flushed furiously and stared at the dew-bright grass. The stump of an exploded firework was lying a few inches away from his shoe, he saw. “No”, he said. “No, that’s not what I meant...”
Rex put his hand on the boy’s shoulder, and squeezed.
“And yet,” he said. “Perhaps you are. Perhaps you are the one. I feel more hopeful of it every minute. Aside from everything else, you have some concept of respect. Not like the others.”
“Others?”, asked Billy, still not able to raise his eyes. “What others?”
“The others of your generation”, said Rex Cunningham, after a long pause. “The little hooligans we see skateboarding right now. The graffiti artists. The youths who jump in my path with clipboards in their hands and harass me for donations to some charity.”
Billy’s embarrassment was at boiling point now. He hated any sort of attention, but praise was the worst. To change the subject, he looked up into Rex Cunningham’s eyes and said, “Why would anyone actually want to fight in a war? I don’t understand that.”
This time, the old man actually laughed. It wasn’t a sarcastic laugh, or a mocking laugh, or a bitter laugh. It was a joyous laugh, like you might hear from a young man at a party.
“Because that is reality”, said Rex, lifting his cane and cutting the air with it, as though it was a sword. “A man knows the truth about himself when he is facing into the enemy guns, or braving the enemy swords. There’s no play-acting or faking then. There’s no hiding.”
Billy didn’t say anything. The whole idea seemed ridiculous to him.
“You’re never so alive”, said the old man, “as when you are staring death in the face. And defying it!”. He clenched the fist that wasn’t holding the cane and raised it in the air. There was a tight smile on his lips now. “And believe me, I know. I may never have inhaled the smoke of war but I have looked into the face of death.” From the look on Rex’s face, Billy had no doubt he was telling the truth. “And believe me, it changes a man. Wonderfully.”
Two women, jogging, passed them. They were talking, and the only words Billy heard was, “...I’m sure she’s had plastic surgery, nobody can look that good at fifty-three...”
Billy shivered. The first morning of November was chilly (even though Rex had given him a thick black coat and a woolly hat) and the thought of facing gunfire made him chillier. “I guess I’m very different from you,” he said to Rex.
“You think you are”, said Rex, softly. “You think you are. Now let’s get breakfast. We have a long day ahead of us. The longest day of your whole life, I guarantee.”
* * * * * * * *
To Billy’s surprise, they went to a pub for breakfast. It was only a street away from the park. It was called The Old Regimental, and Billy (who hadn’t been in all that many pubs) thought it must be the darkest, dingiest pub in the world. There was nobody there that early, except for the barman, who gave Rex a quick nod, which Rex returned.
He took Billy to a table in the corner. It was so scratched it looked like it might be a hundred years old. The windows, which were small and high, were so grimy they looked as though they were never cleaned. Hardly any light filtered through them.
There was barely any decoration in the pub. A few pennants and banners hung on the walls. They looked very old. There was a musket (at least Billy thought it was a musket) hanging over the bar in a display case. A painting on another wall showed red-coated British soldiers surrounded by brown-skinned warriors who were almost naked and were all brandishing spears.
Rex went to the bar, spoke to the barman (who looked almost the same age as him) for a few minutes, and came back carrying two drinks; a fizzy orange for Billy, and a mug of tea for himself.
A few minutes later, the barman came with two plates of toasted cheese sandwiches. “Your good health”, said Rex, taking a sandwich from his plate and biting into it. He was not a dainty eater.
The toast and the cheese had both been burnt. But Billy barely tasted it anyway. He was wondering what Rex meant when he said this would be the longest day of Billy’s life. In fact, he was thinking of everything Rex had said.
* * * * * * * *
“This room is the best, I think”, said Rex Cunningham, putting a cushion behind Billy’s head. “Are you comfortable?”
“Not too warm?”
“Not too cold?”
There were in the front room of the house. Its thick curtains were closed. An enormous fireplace stood in the middle of one wall. It was made of marble, and there was a coat of arms with a dragon and two towers on it. There was a motto, too, but it was too worn for Billy to read. The fireplace looked as though it had not been used in a long time, although what looked like a few dozen letters (opened, but still in their envelopes) were lying on the mantlepiece above it.
The whole room looked as though it hadn’t been used in a long time. Predictably, it was full of books. There were bookcases against every wall, although these ones didn’t reach up to the ceiling. There were ornaments and bric-a-brac on top of some of them; an African mask, a ship in a bottle, an inkstand, a snowglobe, a framed collection of medals or coins. There was a layer of dust over all of these, and over the books as well.
There were two burgundy armchairs in the middle of the floor, and Billy was sitting one one. Rex was pacing up and down, holding a silk scarf in his hands. It was still early morning.
“Physical discomfort is distracting”, said Rex. “At least, at first. Afterwards...” He trailed off.
“Afterwards, what?”, asked Billy, who was feeling more frightened every moment.
“It doesn’t matter so much afterwards”, said Rex. “You’re so caught up in the other world, you don’t notice. You go deeper and deeper.”
Billy bit his lip. His fears were screaming at him to get up, to thank Rex for inviting him, and to go back home. Screaming? They were roaring at him through a megaphone.
But he saw a picture, in his mind, of what happened after that. Long after that. He saw himself as an old man, sitting in a chair by a window, looking out at the sky and wondering what marvels he had missed. Because he was sure that, if he hesitated again, Rex wasn’t going to give him any more chances.
“I can see you’re nervous”, said Rex, his voice lowered a little. “That’s good.”
“It certainly is. It shows that the pores of your imagination are open. You’re awake to more possibilities when you’re nervous. Nerves are just another sort of excitement.”
Billy nodded, trying to show that he understood, though he wasn’t sure that he did.
“Anyway”, said Rex, as he wrapped the scarf around Billy’s eyes and began to tie it. “We’re going to do a little exercise first. Close your eyes and keep them closed till I tell you.”
“What kind of exercise?”, asked Rex, resisting the urge to grit his teeth.
“I need you to realise something”, came the voice of the old man, as he tied the scarf tight around Billy’s eyes. “And I can only do it this way...Master Reynolds, I need you to imagine somewhere you hate. A situation you hate. A situation you loathe.”
Billy didn’t have to try very hard.
“You’ve got it?”, asked Rex’s voice. Once again, it already seemed further away, and at the same time louder.
“Very good”, said the old man. “Let us begin”. And then, once again, he began to mutter something, something that Billy couldn’t hear. But somehow, he got the impression the words weren’t in English.
Then he felt Rex untying the scarf from around his head. “You can open your eyes”, said the voice of Rex Cunningham from a thousand miles away.
Billy opened them, knowing exactly what to expect this time.
He was sitting in Mrs. Delaney’s geography class. A map of Europe was unrolled in front of the blackboard. The air was heavy and hot with summer, flies were buzzing in and out of the open windows, and his classmates were mostly in their shirt sleeves.
And everybody was looking at Billy. And out of the swarm of faces—- nearly all of them grinning like jack-o’-lanterns—- there were two that jumped out at Billy, as always.
One was Gillian Rice, with her flowing hay-coloured hair, her freckled face and her kind, intelligent, green eyes. She was smiling, like all the others, but her smile wasn’t cruel.
Then there was Tommy Lynch, with his near-skinhead and his square face, the lips permanently frozen into a sneer. He was sitting at the front because he was always made to sit at the front, where the teacher could watch him.
“Billy?”, asked Mrs. Delaney. “Billy! You went into one of your dazes again, didn’t you, Billy? Billy, come up here and tell us all about the populations of East Europe.”
“Up you go, Billy”, he heard Rex Harrison saying. Of course, nobody else could hear the voice. “This time it’s going to be very different from the other times…”
The tittering increased as Billy got up and walked to the front of the class. Kevin Dempsey shouted, “Your fly is open!”. For once, Billy managed not to look.
“Settle down”, said Mrs. Delaney, though she was smiling too. She always seemed to think that the class should be laughing at Billy, as though it served him right for not being any good at geography. “Mr. Reynolds is going to amaze us all.”
She got a laugh for this, and her smile broadened. She was a pretty woman, but her eyes was stern and her smirk was without pity.
“Now, Billy”, she said, putting her hands together in a praying gesture. “With apologies for dragging you from whatever world you were just in.” Another laugh from the class. “Can you tell us how many people live in Romania?”
Billy was about to say I don’t know—- he knew how this game was played—- when he heard Rex’s voice, coming from way above the ceiling of the class. Tell her, Billy. You know. You know.
Billy was sure he didn’t know. But, since Rex had told him to, he said, “Fifty million?”
Mrs. Delaney’s eyes widened, and her lip dropped a little, as though in disappointment.
“Well, that’s right”, he said. “Obviously some of what I’ve been saying penetrated that daze. At last! What about Bulgaria?”
“Thirteen million”, said Billy.
Mrs. Delaney’s eyes widened again. There was another titter in the classroom, but this time it wasn’t aimed at Billy.
“OK”, said Mrs. Delaney, looking a bit irritated now. “Poland?”
“Fifty-five million”, said Billy, knowing it would be right.
Mrs. Delaney went through all the countries of Eastern Europe, then moved onto the rest of Europe, and they were halfway through the countries of Africa before she gave up. Cheers were beginning to come from the class now.
“No need to give him a big head”, said Mrs. Delaney. “So you’ve had one good day, Mister Reynolds. Let’s see you keep it up now. A little less time spent in Billy-land and a little more time spent with the rest of us...you can go back to your desk.”
Billy turned, and began to walk back to his desk. Everyone was looking at him very differently this time.
“Hey, you dropped a triangle”, said Tommy Lynch. “Look at him, throwing shapes now.”
As always, Tommy got a laugh. Billy kept walking, staring straight ahead, but the voice from nowhere that was Rex said: Don’t just walk away, Billy. Turn back. Don’t put up with that.
Billy stopped. Even knowing that it wasn’t the real Tommy Lynch, he found it hard to make eye contact with the boy. He remembered the pain of Tommy’s knuckles in his side.
Don’t be afraid. Turn around.
Billy turned back around, and managed to look straight into Tommy’s face. There was a flicker of surprise in those cruel, steel-blue eyes.
“What’s the story, bud?” asked Tommy, in a sarcastically chummy voice. The whole class was quiet now.
“I think...” began Billy, but his voice trailed off. His stomach was heavy with fear now, even if this wasn’t the real Tommy Lynch. Billy expected (he hoped) that Mrs. Delaney would tell him to hurry to his desk, but she seemed just as curious as her pupils. She stayed silent.
“Have you gone all the way to Freaksville, Arizona this time?” asked Tommy, shaking his head as though in astonishment. “Aren’t you going to even finish school before you start wandering the streets and talking to the sky?”
Hit him, Billy. Hit him right now.
To his own utter amazement, Billy obeyed. His fist flew towards Tommy’s face and collided with the boy’s mouth. Billy felt Tommy’s teeth scrape against his knuckles.
Without shouting, without making any noise at all, Tommy slumped backwards, straight into Philip Corcoran who sat beside him. Billy had never seen anyone look as utterly flabbergasted as Tommy did at that moment.
For a moment there was utter silence in the classroom. Then the other kids began to cheer. It was only a few voices at first, but soon almost everybody seemed to be joining in.
Billy was watching Tommy carefully, waiting for the bully to come at him furiously. But it didn’t happen. Even when he’d got up from being sprawled against Philip Corcoran, and taken his seat again, Tommy just stared at Billy in complete bewilderment. He didn’t even seem to hear the cheering around him.
Billy looked up, into the rows of cheering pupils. Some of them were punching the air.
His eyes fell on one face: Gillian Rice, who sat almost at the back. She wasn’t cheering, but she was grinning. Billy had spent a lot of time watching her smile, but he’d never seen her smiling at him before. At least, not like this.
When she noticed he was looking at her, she put her head on one side and winked. It was a slow, theatrical wink. There was no mistaking it.
Very well, that’s enough, came Rex’s voice, out of heaven. Time to come back. Close your eyes.
Billy closed his eyes. The cheering still rang in his ears. He heard Mrs. Delaney shouting, “OK, OK, everyone calm down, this isn’t...”
Then suddenly, as though a radio had been unplugged, her words and all the other noises of the classroom disappeared. Billy felt Rex undoing the tight knots on the silk scarf, and a moment later he heard the old man say: “And now, sir, you may open your eyes once more.”
Billy opened them. Rex was standing in front of him, wearing a rather quizzical smile.
“So how was that, Master Reynolds?” he asked, raising one eyebrow. “How did it feel to make a fool of your least favourite teacher, and give your tormentor a dose of his own medicine—- not to mentioning winning the smile of your favourite girl?”
Billy blushed at the last part. He felt a little ridiculous. “It was...it was good.”
“Just good?” asked Rex, with a blink of surprise. “Not exceedingly good? Not...what do you say these days? Not awesome? Not brilliant? Not, ah, not the coolest thing ever?”
Billy remembered the look in Gillian’s eyes. Seeing it there had made him feel so warm inside. And yet....
“It just didn’t seem real”, he said, in a low voice. “I mean, that would never happen. It’s just what I wanted to happen, that’s all.”
Rex Cunningham smiled. He raised a finger to his mouth and tapped it against his lips. He looked pleased, but didn’t say anything.
“I mean”, Billy went, encouraged by this reaction, “I bet those aren’t really the populations of those countries.”
“They’re not”, said Rex.
“And Tommy Lynch wouldn’t just stare at me like that if I punched him,” said Billy. “He’d hit me back. Or wait until later and beat me up. And Mrs. Delaney would have done something. And...” He stopped suddenly.
But Rex saw where he had been going. “And that girl you’re sweet on would never have winked at you in such a saucy manner”, he said, with a dry chuckle.
“Well, no” said Billy, looking down and blushing again. “Not that, either. Things like that only happen in stories.”
“Correction,” said Rex Cunningham, raising his finger in the air. “Things like that only happen in bad stories. They don’t happen in mine. The reason my make-your-own-story books work so well is because the reader knows there might not be a happy ending.”
Billy nodded. This was certainly true. Whenever he read a Rex Cunningham book—- though he’d read them all before, and knew all the possible endings—- everything seemed so solid, so three-dimensional, so vivid. You could almost breathe the air. Maybe it was because Rex was such a great writer (and Billy didn’t care if nobody else agreed with him about that). But some of it was because Billy knew that things didn’t always work out in Rex’s stories. If you made the wrong choices, there were poisoned cups and assassins behind curtains and guns that ran out of bullets when you needed them the most. He always felt a little thrill when he read the words, “Your story ends here.”
“Just bear that in mind”, Rex went on, waving his hand again in his teacherly manner, “if the world you are about to enter seems, in any way, less than ideal. If it was exactly what you wanted it wouldn’t be worth tuppence-ha’penny.”
Once again, the anxiety that was a permanent background noise in Billy’s mind rose to panic. He should get up right now, he thought, and leave. It was insanity to stay. He really had no idea what he was getting into.
But he already knew he wasn’t going to do that. No matter how panicky he became, he wasn’t going to do that. All he had to do was remember what it felt like to be a bird in the sky. And imagine being an old man who had missed this opportunity...
“What world am I about to enter?” he asked, trying not to sound nervous, and succeeding better than he expected.
“My dear sir”, said Rex Cunningham, arching his eyebrows, “you are about to enter your world. Your own world. Or maybe I should say your own worlds? I offer you nothing but your own deepest, wildest imaginings.”
“What do you mean?”
“You are about to enter realms of your own creation, Master Reynolds.”
“Can you read my mind?” asked Billy, horrifed at this sudden thought.
Rex Cunningham chuckled again. “It’s not as simple as that”, he said. “I have no idea what the skies and streets and seas of your world will look like. Not until they actually exist. It happens like that.” He snapped his bony fingers.
“So who is actually making these....worlds?” asked Billy, feeling more confused all the time. “Me or you?”
“I make them” said Rex. “But you design them. They’re in your mind already, even if you don’t know it. Of course I have to do a fair amount of—- how should I put it?—- adapting. Do you understand?”
“No”, said Billy, feeling a little cross.
“Of course you don’t”, said Rex. “You won’t understand until you’re there. And you won’t fully understand until...well, until it’s all over.”
For the first time, Billy noticed a small clock that stood on the mantlepiece. It had stopped at ten past seven. He wondered how long the hands had been stuck there.
“When will it be over?” asked Billy.
“Don’t worry about time”, said Rex. “Time is completely different in a world of your own making. It’s like time in a story. Think of how a hundred years in a story can take four pages in a book.”
“A hundred years?” asked Billy, alarmed.
“It was just an example” said Rex, with a touch of irritation. “Rest assured your journey won’t take a hundred years, however you measure it.”
Billy noticed that Marius had stolen into the room, and was sitting right by the edge of the door he had pushed open. He was watching the two humans solemnly, almost ceremoniously, his tail curled around his paws and his head held straight. As though he knew what was happening.
A car honked on the road outside. From even further away, there came the sounds of girls singing a skipping song. Billy, looking into Rex’s eyes, saw his own reflection, tiny and far away, looking utterly helpless and lost.
“Are you ready?”, asked Rex.
“I’m ready”, Billy lied.
“Close your eyes”, said Rex. “Everything that your heart ever longed for is about to come true.”
Billy closed his eyes, and Rex tied the scarf around his head.