When Peter Fortune was ten years old grown-up people sometimes used to tell him he was a “difficult” child. He never understood what they meant. He didn’t feel difficult at all. He didn’t throw milk bottles at the garden wall, or tip tomato ketchup over his head and pretend it was blood, or slash at his granny’s ankle with his sword, though he occasionally thought of these things. Apart from all vegetables except potatoes, and fish, eggs and cheese, there was nothing he would not eat. He wasn’t noisier or dirtier or more stupid than anyone he knew. His name was easy to say and spell. His face, which was pale and freckled, was easy enough to remember. He went to school every day like all other children and never made that much fuss about it. He was only as horrid to his sister as she was to him. Policemen never came knocking at the front door wanting to arrest him. Doctors in white coats never offered to take him away to the madhouse. As far as Peter was concerned, he was really quite easy. What was difficult about him?
It was not until he had been a grown-up himself for many years that Peter finally understood. They thought he was difficult because he was so silent. That seemed to bother people. The other problem was he liked being by himself. Not all the time, of course. Not even every day. But most days he liked to go off somewhere for an hour to his bedroom, or the park. He liked to be alone and think his thoughts.
Now, grown-ups like to think they know what’s going on inside a ten-year-old’s head. And it’s impossible to know what someone is thinking if they keep quiet about it. People would see Peter lying on his back on a summer’s afternoon, chewing a piece of grass and staring at the sky. “Peter, Peter! What are you thinking about?” they would call to him. And Peter would sit up with a start. “Oh, nothing. Nothing at all.” Grown-ups knew that something was going on inside that head, but they couldn’t hear it or see it or feel it. They couldn’t tell Peter to stop it, because they did not know what it was he was doing in there. He could have been setting his school on fire or feeding his sister to an alligator and escaping in a hot air balloon, but all they saw was a boy staring at the blue sky without blinking, a boy who did not hear you when you called his name.
As for being on his own, grown-ups didn’t much like that either. They don’t even like other grown-ups being on their own. When you join in, people can see what you’re up to. You’re up to what they’re up to. You have to join in, or you’ll spoil it for everyone else. Peter had different ideas. Joining in was all very fine, in its place. But far too much of it went on. In fact, he thought, if people spent less time joining in and making others join in, and spent a little time each day alone remembering who they were or who they might be, then the world would be a happier place and wars might never happen.
At school he often left his body sitting at its desk while his mind went off on its journeys. Even at home daydreaming could sometimes get him into trouble. One Christmas Peter’s father, Thomas Fortune, was hanging the decorations in the living-room. It was a job he hated. It always put him in a bad mood. He had decided to tape some streamers high in one corner. Now, in that corner was an armchair, and sitting in that armchair doing nothing in particular, was Peter.
“Don’t move, Pete,” said Thomas Fortune. “I’m going to stand on the back of your chair to reach up here.”
“That’s fine,” Peter said. “You go ahead.”
Up on to the chair went Thomas Fortune, and away in his thoughts went Peter. He looked like he was doing nothing, but in fact he was very busy. He was inventing an exciting way of coming down a mountain quickly using a coat hanger and a length of wire stretched tight between the pine trees. He went on thinking about this problem while his father stood on the back of his chair, straining and gasping as he reached up to the ceiling. How, Peter wondered, would you go on sliding down without slamming into the trees that were holding up the wire?
Perhaps it was the mountain air that made Peter remember he was hungry. In the kitchen was an unopened packet of chocolate biscuits. It was a pity to go on neglecting them. As he stood up, there was a terrible crash behind him. He turned just in time to see his father fall head first into the gap between the chair and the corner. Then Thomas Fortune reappeared, head first again, looking ready to chop Peter into tiny bits. On the other side of the room, Peter’s mother clamped her hand across her mouth to hide her laughter.
“Oh, sorry Dad,” Peter said. “I forgot you were there.”
* * * * *
Not long after his tenth birthday he was entrusted with the mission of taking his seven-year-old sister, Kate, to school. Peter and Kate went to the same school. It was a fifteen-minute walk or a short bus ride away. Usually they walked there with their father who dropped them off on his way to work. But now the children were thought old enough to make it to school by themselves on the bus, and Peter was in charge.
It was only two stops down the road, but the way his parents kept going on about it, you might have thought Peter was taking Kate to the North Pole. He was given instructions the night before. When he woke up he had to listen to them over again. Then his parents repeated them all through breakfast. As the children were on their way out the door, their mother, Viola Fortune, ran through the rules one last time. Everyone must think I’m stupid, Peter thought. Perhaps I am. He was to keep hold of Kate’s hand at all times. They were to sit downstairs, with Kate nearest the window. They were not to get into conversations with lunatics or wicked people. Peter was to tell the bus conductor the name of his stop in a loud voice, without forgetting to say “please.” He was to keep his eyes on the route.
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