|THE KINDLY SPIRIT by Dave Ludford|
At twelve years of age I knew very well what fear was. It was personified in the form of Duncan Robinson, in the year above me at Ashgrove Comprehensive School, and the beatings he meted out to me on a regular basis. Duncan was the stereotypical bully: heavily built for his age, low intelligence, and someone who loved inflicting pain and suffering for no other reason than that he could. And I was easy prey: small, thin and geeky-looking, bespectacled and a lover of books. Someone who paid attention in class, being eager to learn. My parents were indifferent to my plight; my alcoholic mother had retreated into her own sad world years ago and my father, disappointed that he hadn’t managed to produce a son good at football or sports in general, had once told me that the beatings would “make a man of me.” My cuts and bruises went largely untended.
The school library was my refuge, being a place I knew that Duncan would never follow me; it would be like the antichrist entering a church. I would spend my lunch breaks in there, often picking books off the shelf at random: anything from architecture to philosophy but mainly the horror and adventure stories I loved and would devour eagerly. The teacher on library duty the day that I discovered the book that would change my life was Miss Rufus, who took me for English. Miss Rufus took a keen interest in me, and suspected that I was being bullied no doubt—the cuts on my cheeks and bruised arms were a dead giveaway. I was never able to fully hide my wounds. But she said nothing, never broached the subject. Probably thought it would be character-building, too, I thought then. But I couldn’t judge her too harshly. Besides, I’d heard a rumour that she would be leaving the school at the end of this term, having secured a position in her home town, the better therefore to help look after her ailing father, and I was sad at the loss of someone who at least, if only on the surface, seemed to give a damn.
It was a Thursday, a hot summer’s day only a couple of weeks before the school holidays. I entered the library with shirt sleeves rolled up, revealing a fresh batch of cuts inflicted by Duncan a couple of days previously. I wore those cuts like stigmata, a certain stubborn pride, testaments to my suffering. As I pushed my way through the door Miss Rufus looked up from her desk where she had been reading her habitual Guardian newspaper.
“Hey, Brian, nice to see you! My first customer this lunchtime! Have you eaten already?”
I hadn’t. My packed lunch—which I’d made myself the previous evening—had been snatched from my bag by one of Duncan’s cronies in the playground that morning. He’d thrown my sandwich and apple on the floor and ground them underfoot. He’d then stomped on the plastic container, smashing it to pieces. Duncan and two other of his cronies had looked on approvingly, convulsed in paroxysms of hearty laughter.
I looked at the burgundy-coloured carpet of the library and shook my head, cheeks burning with humiliation, embarrassment and shame.
“You know, Brian, you really need to look after yourself better. You’ll never grow up big and strong if you don’t eat.”
I remained motionless, still staring at the floor. Then Miss Rufus said, with a sudden change of subject:
“We’ve had some new books in, Brian. I’ve kept a couple aside for you that I’m sure will be of interest. Come here, they’re on my desk.”
I trudged towards my teacher, only lifting my head when I’d reached the desk. Miss Rufus pushed the two volumes towards me. The top one was a collection of Elmore Leonard’s cowboy stories, written in the 1950’s. It piqued my interest instantly; I loved those type of stories. Still do. Despite how miserable I felt, my face broke into a sudden smile. Pure escapism of the best kind.
The second volume was intriguingly entitled ‘Latimer’s Myths, Magic and Urban Legends’ and produced from me a puzzled, quizzical expression. I picked it up and randomly flicked through the pages; it was a thick book with beautiful colour illustrations of werewolves, vampires and the like. Spirits in human form. I felt a rush of excitement; this was right up my street. My smile returned once more as I muttered my thanks to Miss Rufus. She checked the books out on my library card and I took them to a nearby table, opening the book of cowboy stories first. Latimer’s could wait until later when I was safely home. It was something to look forward to.
I made a terrible mistake when the bell rang at 3.30pm, signalling the end of the school day. I decided to walk home through Dunmore Park; although it was open and exposed, somewhere I’d be vulnerable to attack, it was the shortest route home and I was eager to get started on the book of myths and legends. Sure enough, Robinson and two of his gang were there, idly sitting on the swings. There was no escape, no way I could outrun them. One of Robinson’s crew was Derek Harvey, the school athletics champion and long-distance runner for the county team. I was, once again, easy prey.
“Hey guys, look who’s turned up like a bad smell!” Robinson called to his mates. “If it isn’t our little playmate Brian Shaw! You ready for some fun, guys? Brian, I hope to hell you are, too!”
In no time at all my enemies had circled me, like wolves surrounding a wounded deer. Robinson, as always, had the right of the first punch, being the gang’s leader. His blow to my stomach made me sink to my knees; hot tears immediately flowed and stung my cheeks. Satisfied with himself, he turned to Harvey, who delivered a swift kick to my side. The force of the impact caused my glasses to fly off; Ben Hollis, the other of Robinson’s crew present, delightedly ground them underfoot. Robinson then pulled my bag from my shoulder, opened it, and pulled out the two library books.
He tore all the pages from the Elmore Leonard book in clumps of a half-dozen or so pages at a time and threw them into the air, thence to be scattered by the breeze.
“You know, Brian, you really should be more careful with school property,” he said when he’d finished his small act of cultural vandalism. “Now you really are in deep shit.” This statement provoked gales of hearty laughter from all three of my tormentors.
Next up was the Latimer volume; flicking through the pages, he seemed at first intrigued by the pictures therein (I have no doubt at all that he would have struggled with the words had he taken the time to read any of them.) After a few seconds of this he grew bored, snorted contemptuously, and prepared to repeat his page-tearing.
And that’s when it happened.
Try as he might, those pages resolutely refused to be torn away. He screamed in helpless frustration which quickly turned to humiliation.
“What the fuck’s... going on here…fucking thing... die!”
The book refused to oblige. Robinson looked at his two companions, as if seeking help, or some sort of help at an explanation. None was forthcoming; his comrades were looking on in stunned disbelief, speechless, motionless. But the book hadn’t finished its resistance to Robinson’s effort. My chief tormentor suddenly screamed and dropped the book, as one would when picking up something extremely hot, a dinner plate perhaps. He was now bent double, holding his right hand with his left, in the apparent extremes of some great agony.
“You weedy little fucker, Shaw, what have you done?” he screamed across at me.
Derek Harvey attempted to pick the book up from where it lay on the grass, pages flipping idly in the breeze. He couldn’t, merely suffered the same treatment as his gang leader. So now I was confronted with the satisfying sight of two of my tormentors experiencing…what, exactly? I wasn’t sure. Extreme pain, yes, certainly that.
I got up from where I’d folded to my knees, breath now recovered and tears subsided, walked over to the book, and picked it up, easily. No pain or hurt for me. I hadn’t hesitated; it was as if I knew, was somehow subconsciously reassured, that I would come to no harm. I closed the volume, placed it back inside my bag, and calmly walked away, past Ben Hollis who put up no resistance whatsoever; in fact he even flinched as I went closer to him and meekly backed away a few steps, still with that look of stunned disbelief on his face. As for me, I felt calm; delighted with my tormentors’ suffering, the tables having been well and truly turned. I knew with a deep certainty that I would never again be one of life’s victims.
All well and good, you may be thinking. Another story with a happy ending, and you’d be right. But I haven’t come to the really weird bit yet.
Upon reaching home I let myself in and walked into the lounge, where my mother sat staring at the TV screen. Some shit game show was on; insane, raucous laughter boomed throughout the room. I shouted at her to turn the volume down; she just turned slowly towards me, a blank, uncomprehending expression on her face, as if she didn’t recognize the person who stood regarding her. There was little point asking what was for dinner, I knew there wouldn’t be anything prepared until my father got home from work and that wouldn’t be for another hour or so. I decided to go to my room and do a little reading to kill time.
I sat on my bed, reached into my bag, and pulled out Latimer’s. Opened it at random. Only…it wasn’t at random. It was as if I was meant to open the book at that page. The section of the book I’d opened up at was entitled ‘Urban Legends’. I stared in total disbelief at the colour picture that preceded this particular narrative. It was a full-colour print of a woman in portrait: long black hair, deep blue eyes, hands folded on her lap. The book stated that the name of this particular legendary being was Drusilla Hart, and a quick scan of the text revealed that she was said to have been a kindly spirit in human form who helped people in the hour of their deepest and direst need.
But I knew her by another name; for staring back at me was the smiling face of Miss Rufus.