|NEVER TELL TALES OUT OF SCHOOL
by Jim Mountfield
Graham reached the top of the avenue and looked out from the phalanx of trees that accompanied it up from the road. At the sight of the school, his chest tightened, his heart thumped and the old, sick feeling gathered in his stomach. He felt like he’d reverted to being the runt in short trousers and National Health Service glasses that he’d been forty five years ago.
Then, as he realised the school was nothing like what he’d remembered, the panic passed. He’d read a few years ago in the Hetley Gazette, the local newspaper, that its old structure had been gutted and rebuilt and new parts had been added to it. This meant the façade he saw now was totally different. It had three-storey blocks of grey stone standing at either end and a middle section where concave surfaces of polished timber swept into a sheer wall of glass. Two CCTV cameras were fixed at the glass’s top corners. One camera seemed trained on him, as if somebody in a control-room was watching him on a screen.
He emerged from the trees and started towards it, but then paused again, distracted by the sound of something rolling on the tarmac before his shoes. He crouched and lifted a fallen chestnut, in its spiky shell, the last of many that covered the avenue behind him. He felt a little glow, remembering the early-autumn playground when he’d taken on other boys in games of conkers.
When he straightened up, he noticed how the façade’s glass wall was opaque. On its surface only shimmering, swirling patterns were visible. It contained a smaller glass door and within the door-frame the patterns suddenly coalesced and created the figure of a boy, a stocky, strong-looking boy who seemed to stare out at him. The outline of the boy’s head suggested curly hair spilling down onto his shoulders. This surprised Graham. He’d assumed boys had stopped having hairstyles like that at the end of the 1970s, when he’d been a boy himself.
Then the boy must’ve moved away from the door, because his image melted off the glass.
Graham ascended some steps to the door and was about to push it back when he saw a sign beside it. VISITORS, said the sign, PLEASE USE THE SIDE ENTRANCE. It also bore an arrow pointing to the left. By now the glass was no longer opaque. It’d become transparent and he could see through into an entrance lobby. Of the stocky boy with the 1970s haircut there was no trace. Indeed, the lobby contained no trace of anybody.
Before he followed the sign, he turned and looked back down the steps. The area between the avenue and the building’s entrance had once served as a playground, but now it had rows of cars parked on either side. Maybe they’d moved the playground around the back. And the steps weren’t the ones he remembered, either. These new steps were broader and shallower in their incline. They’d be more difficult to fall down, the whole way, to the ground… Suddenly, Graham wished he hadn’t thought that because another memory came back, a bad one.
Him standing at the top of the old school steps. Behind him, a malicious voice whispering, “Dead leg!” and then someone’s hard, round kneecap crashing into the back of his right leg, behind its knee. The leg collapsing and him pitching forward and striking step after step until, finally, he was sprawled on the ground below. Half-a-dozen points of pain burning in his palms and elbows and knees where’d they hit the edges of the steps. Struggling to move, hands probing in front of him until one of them landed on the ruptured frame of his National Health Service glasses. A thumb poking through a hole in them where a lens had been.
Later, Mr Boyle pleading: “Come on, you must know who did this to you. Who was it?”
Him bawling back: “I don’t know, I don’t know! It was a big boy but I didn’t see his face!”
He went around a corner and along the building’s side until he arrived at another door, which had a third CCTV camera perched on a ledge above it. The side-door was locked and he had to press a buzzer. A woman’s voice replied from the intercom and he explained that… He needed a moment to remember. Then he babbled about a book, about his schooldays, about the school library and finally about having an appointment with Mrs Pearson, the headmistress. Mrs Pearson’s name seemed to convince the woman. The door clicked open and Graham pushed inside.
He found himself in a narrow, dimly-lit passageway that didn’t correspond to his memory of the old school’s layout. A booth with a countertop, and a hatchway whose upper half was filled with glass, stuck out from the wall. Inside this sat the woman who’d spoken over the intercom. She was young, though Graham didn’t hazard a guess at her age. Nowadays, all youngish women looked the same to him, whether they were in high school, college or work.
“Hello,” he said in a hopefully avuncular tone. “As I said, I’ve come to see Mrs Pearson-”
“She’d agreed to meet me, you see, after I’d emailed her—”
Louder, sharper, impatient. “Your name?”
“Oh. I’m sorry. Kincaird, Graham Kincaird.”
“Take a seat please, Mr Kincaird. I’ll inform Mrs Pearson you’re here.”
The seats were set against the wall immediately behind the entrance door. It seemed waiting visitors had to be kept at the very edge of the building. Graham sat down, rested the knapsack on his lap and peered along the passageway beyond the reception booth. For several yards the passageway was dim and pokey, then brightened as it approached an area that was presumably the entrance lobby he’d seen at the front. The lobby exuded tendrils of light into the passageway, light that shone on its floor-tiles and glinted on a series of framed pictures hanging along its walls.
He marvelled at the school’s quietness for a moment, but then from the lobby came footsteps. Mrs Pearson, coming to meet him? No, these weren’t the sharp, clicking footsteps he’d associate with a headmistress, but scuffing, dragging ones that sounded like someone walking with a bad slouch. Briefly, he saw a shadow, perhaps a stocky one topped with unruly hair, flit across a faraway lobby wall. Once the shadow was gone, the footsteps receded and vanished too.
Graham realised something. He hurt. He lifted his right hand and saw that it was clenched. Even in the dim light he perceived the whiteness of his knuckles. He gritted his teeth and forced the hand to open, revealing the big, barbed chestnut he’d lifted off the avenue. He used his other hand to prise the chestnut out of it and four or five thick globs of blood welled up from the punctures it’d left in his palm—
“Mr Kincaird?” a voice called across.
Graham dropped his bloody hand behind the knapsack. “Y-yes?” he stammered. He didn’t know how he sounded to her, but to him he sounded nearly in tears.
“Mrs Pearson won’t be along for a few minutes. She’s very sorry. She’s finishing something off. Do you mind waiting?”
“No, no, that’s fine.” Trying to conceal his movements from the woman in the booth, he rummaged in a pocket at the top of the knapsack and found a handkerchief, which he wrapped around his hand. Meanwhile, he searched for calming thoughts. Pleasant chestnut-related memories. Early-autumn breaks in the playground. Taking on other boys in games of conkers—
It didn’t work. Another bad memory came back. Him running through the playground shrieking, “Get them out! Get them out!” The front and back of his shorts, and of the underpants beneath them, bulging with objects that’d been crammed inside them.
The perplexed face of the duty teacher, possibly Mr Boyle again. “Get what out?”
The teacher noticed the crotch of his shorts grotesquely distended, as if he was afflicted by a monstrous genital tumour. “You get them out. You’ve got hands, haven’t you?”
Tears slathering his cheeks, his voice piercing: “I can’t! They hurt! They jag!”
Then the shock on the teacher’s face as he realised that it wasn’t smooth, round conkers that someone had stuffed into his pants for a laugh. It was conkers still in their shells, radiating spikes. Jammed against his foreskin, between his thighs and scrotum, into the cleft of his buttocks.
It was definitely Mr Boyle who spoke to him later. The same old question. “Who did this to you?”
The same old answer. “A big boy! But I didn’t see his face!”
And then Mr Boyle shouting in exasperation: “How did you not see his face? He must’ve been right on top of you when he did this!”
Graham had an idea. He left the knapsack on the seat, walked along the passageway and studied the framed photographs on its walls. These showed the school’s pupils and staff-members in different years. The years hanging here belonged to the 1960s and 1970s. Presumably the more recent years were displayed in the more public area of the lobby. He found a picture for 1974. The youngest classes sat on a line of gym-mats, the boys cross-legged, the girls kneeling. Behind them, older classes sat on chairs. The most senior pupils, plus the teachers, stood along the back. He skimmed the bottom row of small, hunkered-down children and found himself easily enough, thanks to his oversized glasses and the grin on his face, so over-enthusiastic it made him resemble Batman’s nemesis the Joker. Graham recalled how that grin had really been a grimace. He’d been in extreme pain at the moment the picture was taken, struggling to stop himself bursting into tears.
The children had been instructed to sit with their hands clasped in front of them, but Graham wasn’t doing that. His left hand clutched his right one by its wrist. He remembered what’d happened a few minutes before the taking of the photograph. Temporarily, there’d been chaos, children milling everywhere, teachers trying to organise them into their classes and make them sit or stand in the correct positions. Unwittingly, Graham had blundered into an older boy. His face was suddenly level with the boy’s sweater, its grey wool exuding a tang of cigarette smoke. A voice said, “Hey, kid, you know what a Chinese burn is? Let me show you.”
A pair of hands seized his right arm, yanked back his sleeve and set to work on his wrist. One hand wrenched his skin and tissue one way, the other hand wrenched them the opposite way, and suddenly Graham’s wrist seemed to be on fire.
He’d seen no more of the face than he had on the day its owner had sat on him and loaded his pants with spiky chestnuts. His only perception was that it was framed by black hair, long and curly in a style popularised by several famous footballers of the era. Now he scanned the rest of the photo, hoping he’d recognise the face when he saw it. Yet as his eyes roamed along the rows of people, he felt no spark of recognition—
A woman’s voice: “Mr Kincaird?”
He had to be there…
The voice was angry now. “Mr Kincaird!”
He turned and realised the woman had emerged from her booth. She marched up to him and said brusquely, “I must insist that you return to your seat. Visitors aren’t allowed to wander about the school unsupervised.” Then she took him by his arm, his left one, not the right one with the handkerchief-bound hand, which he managed to hold away from her, and led him back along the passageway.
He thought he heard more of those slouching, dragging footsteps and glanced towards the lobby, but without seeing anything. He imagined now that the faceless older boy, his tormentor, had walked with a slouch too.
“It’s our child-protection rules,” the woman told him as he sat down again. “We have a duty to ensure the safety of the children in our care.”
Ruefully, he said, “It didn’t use to be like that.”
Five minutes later, a woman came and introduced herself as Mrs Pearson. Graham didn’t reply for several seconds because he felt surprised. This was the headmistress? A woman at least a decade younger than he was? But then he got a grip of himself and introduced himself too and Mrs Pearson led him to her office.
“It’s very silent here,” Graham observed as they crossed a corner of the lobby and entered a second passageway leading deeper into the building.
Mrs Pearson agreed. “It is. Ironic, really, considering we’re passing the music room and it’s full of children practising on instruments.”
“Why can’t we hear them?”
“The instruments they’re using don’t actually make noise. External noise, that is. The kids wear headphones and hear the music they’re making that way. They only hear themselves.”
“Wow. Modern technology.”
But a little further along the corridor they did hear a noise, the gurgle of water leaving a cistern and sluicing into a toilet bowl. “Okay,” said Mrs Pearson, “that’s something we haven’t been able to eliminate with technology. Not yet, anyway.”
Then she stopped and opened a door. She was slightly discombobulated to realise she was alone. Graham had paused a few yards previously and was staring at the door of a male lavatory, behind which the flushing noise had occurred.
“Is something the matter, Mr Kincaird?”
Unwelcome memories assailed him. The porcelain rim of the toilet coming up over his head like a gravity-defying noose. His face jamming against the toilet-bowl’s hard, wet, funnelling surface. The crack of pain as his crown struck the bowl’s throat, too narrow for it to descend any more. The cold water underneath soaking into his dangling locks of hair and up through them to his scalp. The stench, not of piss or shit as he’d expected, but of detergent, its acridity seeming to burn into his nostrils. Terrifying claustrophobia, worsened by the fact he was upside-down. Then he heard the handle crank on the cistern and freezing water cascaded around him. It surged into all the little gaps between his head and the bowl. Then it surged into all his own little gaps, his ears, nose, mouth, throat…
The next thing he knew he was in a heap at the bottom of the cubicle wall. His upper half was drenched. He coughed and snorted and expelled threads of drool and snot. A pair of shoes squelched away from him, through the water covering the tiled floor, and a voice warned, “Don’t let me hear you telling tales about this, you little shit, or you’ll get a bog-wash every day.”
Snapping out of it, Graham hurried and joined the headmistress at her office door. “Sorry, something triggered a memory from my schooldays...” As they went in, Graham realised his head was wet. He touched his face and discovered he was perspiring heavily, releasing not a warm sweat of exertion, but a cold one of fear.
Mrs Pearson went behind an IKEA-style desk. “Well, we’re very grateful that you’re offering a free copy of your book to our library, Mr Kincaird. Though before we accept it, we need to check and make sure it’s completely, uh, suitable.”
Rather than sit down, Graham placed his knapsack on the desk and took out a copy of the book. “Oh, I assure you it is suitable. It’s an account of my childhood, all the simple, happy, innocent things that make childhood special. In fact, I wrote it as part of my therapy—”
Mrs Pearson looked at him. “I’m sorry?”
“Therapeutic,” croaked Graham. His face felt colder and wetter than ever. “Writing the book was very therapeutic for me. An escape from the, uh, stresses and pressures of adulthood. Which we all suffer from.”
Keen to change the subject, he flicked through the copy’s pages. He did this slightly awkwardly because he used his left hand and kept his right hand, still bound in the handkerchief, under the book and out of Mrs Pearson’s sight. “Here,” he said as he arrived at a page with a black-and-white photograph of a half-dozen schoolgirls, standing in a line and leaping into the air as one. “This picture was taken outside. At the front, where the playground used to be.”
Mrs Pearson took the book from him and read aloud: “In wintertime, when the children came to school wrapped up in their woollies, many of which had been knitted by loving grandmothers, the girls often took part in a mass-participation form of skipping, involving six or eight participants, and using one huge skipping rope, made out of their scarves, knotted together at their ends…” The headmistress smiled indulgently. “You have a lot of commas in that sentence.”
“Blame Mr Boyle.”
“A teacher here in those days. Taught us grammar among other things. My, was he fanatical about punctuation. In his lessons you left out a comma, or misplaced one, at your peril.” He took the book back from Mrs Pearson and hunted through more pages. “I’ve written something about him, in fact…”
Slightly worriedly, Mrs Pearson asked, “There’s no, what you might call, tittle-tattle? I’ve heard of people writing memoirs to settle old scores.”
“Oh no. I’ve no old scores to settle.”
“Good. As they say, never tell tales out of school—”
“Shit,” said Graham. More loudly: “Shit!” Then, realising he’d just cursed in front of a headmistress, he felt embarrassed. “Oh, I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”
He’d discovered two empty pages in the middle of the book. A little further, he found another pair of empty ones. He sighed and snapped the book shut. “The printing company has cranked out a duff copy. It’s got pages in it that are blank.” He put the faulty book down on the desk and produced a second copy from the rucksack. “I’m sure this one’s okay, though.”
He started leafing through this new book but Mrs Pearson seemed to have seen enough. “It certainly looks impressive but, as I’ve said, I can’t guarantee a place for it in our library until it’s been checked for suitability. So, before you go and mention this to the Hetley Gazette, I’d appreciate it if you waited for it to be okay-ed.”
“Oh, I understand. I won’t submit anything to the Hetley Gazette till you give me the all-clear.” Graham fished around in his knapsack for something else. “Publicity is everything these days. Which around here means getting the local newspaper to report on it. And I’d like people to know about the book and buy at least a few copies, so I can recoup a little of what I spent on the printing costs.” He found what he was looking for, a small digital camera. “I was wondering… Since I’m here… Could we take a few photos now of me presenting you with the book? Perhaps in the library?”
Mrs Pearson looked dubious. “But nothing, text nor pictures, appears in the Hetley Gazette till I give the say-so?”
“Well, I suppose that should be okay…”
They left the office, returned to the lobby and went up a flight of stairs. Graham suddenly had a new idea. “By the way… I don’t want to disrupt anybody’s lessons, but… Would it be possible to get a few children, just for a minute, to stand in the background while I hand the book over? To give the pictures some context?”
The bland affability on Mrs Pearson’s face gave way to sternness. “Oh no. Our privacy rules forbid that. Pupils can only be photographed with written permission from their parents. Of course, if you have children attending school here, Mr Kincaird, you could sign a form now and we could take them out of class for the pictures.”
“Oh,” said Graham, deflated. “Not to worry.”
The school library looked nothing like the one he remembered. It was bigger, brighter and airier, thanks to it being topped not by a solid ceiling but by a huge, sloping expanse of glass. Above that glass, a few puffs of cloud floated across the September sky, still summery and blue. Half-a-dozen long sections of shelving occupied one side of the room, made of metal, loaded with books, each with a round, rotating handle on its end. Just now the sections were separated from each other by aisles about two yards wide, but Graham realised that by turning the handles the sections could be made to close together, liberating some of the library’s floor space for other activities.
He was glad that in his schooldays the shelves had been immobile. Otherwise, sooner or later, he’d have been pushed into one of the aisles and had the sections cranked in on him, squeezing him like a book-mark amid the pages of a big, thick book.
But that thought was enough to waken another memory, the worst yet. He touched his face again and the sweat felt colder and more copious than ever. Meanwhile, from the other side of the room, he thought he heard a sniggering sound. That area was filled with rows of tables that supported a small army of computers, and he wondered if he saw something bobbing over the top of one of the computer screens, perhaps a few black curls of hair.
He remembered not being crushed between moveable shelves of books, but being crushed between a wall and a boy’s shoulder, a big boy’s shoulder. The intention was to force the shoulder against his chest until it was empty of air and he fainted. And while his ribs contracted, he saw little more than hair. Curly, black hair, reeking of cigarette smoke, tangling about his face—
Mrs Pearson called to the far end of the room, “Andrew? Could you come here and do the honours?”
A man wearing overalls and a yellow high-visibility vest worked in a distant part of the library, forcing a mop down into a wheeled, plastic bucket, squeezing water out of the mop-head. Around him, several yellow cones warned, CAUTION—WET FLOOR. He set the mop aside and ambled towards them. His head was almost bald, with a few grey scrags of hair combed over his pate. The top gum of his mouth lacked incisors, had only canines and made him look like a vampire.
Somehow, Graham felt the pressure on his chest again. It was if someone was exerting it on him from forty five years ago. Barely managing to control his panic, he propped his knapsack beside a computer on the nearest table. He saw how all the tables in the computer area were unattended, so he’d been mistaken in thinking there was somebody there. Then he handed the camera to Andrew, the janitor. He momentarily met the man’s eyes, set deep in his vampire-like face, and felt a flicker of recognition. But before he could wonder about that, the pressure worsened in his chest. He found it increasingly difficult to breathe.
Numbly, Graham posed with Mrs Pearson in front of the bookshelves. He presented the book with one hand whilst reaching to shake the headmistress’s hand with the other. Andrew fumbled with the camera. A half-minute passed. Impatience started to strain Mrs Pearson’s smooth demeanour and she said, “Quick as you can, Andrew, please. It’ll be breaktime soon and this place will be swamped.”
Graham mentally urged Andrew to hurry too. Standing still like this only made him more aware of the pain in his chest. Indeed, his lungs felt on fire, such was the pressure against them and the impossibility of breathing—
“Figured it out,” said Andrew at last, voice whistling through the gap in his teeth. “Okay, smile. Say cheese!”
But before he could take the picture, Mrs Pearson exclaimed, “Mr Kincaird, are you alright?” and recoiled from him. More precisely, she recoiled from the hand Graham was offering her, the handkerchief around which was brightly spotted with blood. His ribs practically cracking now, Graham looked at her dully, then looked equally dully at Andrew, who’d lowered the camera again. And then the library grew dark. He had a feeling that the black, manky hair tousling about his face had swarmed up over his eyes.
He keeled back onto the floor.
He was still on the floor when he regained consciousness. A pair of legs clad in grey school-uniform trousers stood next to him. “Thirteen that time,” a voice declared above. “I counted to thirteen while you were out. That’s the longest yet. Beats eleven, which I counted to the last time we did this.” He heard the flint-wheel turn on a lighter and moments later smelt cigarette smoke wafting down at him. “You should see your face when you flake out. Fucking hilarious, it is. The way your little piggy eyes roll up in their sockets. And then you go all floppy, like an old man’s cock—”
Graham juddered awake and found himself not on a mid-1970s floor, but in a chair, which’d been turned around from one of the computers in the 21st century library. The headmistress and janitor crouched in front of him. “You all right, mate?” asked Andrew-the-janitor. “For a minute you were out cold.”
Mrs Pearson wielded a smartphone. “I think it’d be a good idea to call the school nurse.”
Graham could breathe again. His chest ached where that bulldozering force had been applied, but the force itself was no longer present. Then, directing his gaze towards the janitor’s ravaged face, he whispered, “Do I know you?”
“Well, you look sort of familiar to me. Did you attend this school?”
“Oh yes. Yes, I certainly did…”
Worst fucking luck, he was about to add, but then he saw something beyond the two staff-members. Peering out from the end of an aisle between two bookshelves was a grey-uniformed figure, a boy, stockily built and topped with curly black hair. The face was strangely undefined. Graham lurched up from the chair and charged at the figure, knocking Mrs Pearson and Andrew out of their crouching positions so that they landed on either side on their bums. The figure ducked back into the aisle. Graham followed it in, running. He was forty five years older now, big, strong, determined. No way was he going to be intimidated by some little bastard who at most was eleven or twelve.
“You,” he barked, “stop and take what’s coming to you!”
The figure fled towards the aisle’s far end. Such were Graham’s emotions as he gave chase that he barely noted how, running between the shelves, they seemed to rise higher and higher. When he entered the aisle, the highest shelf was level with his head. Halfway along, his head reached only the second-highest. At the other end, the figure ducked around the shelves to its left. Graham followed and pursued it along the next aisle. By now he felt sure that the shelves were much taller than they should have been. It was as if he was running inside a telescope, from the objective lens back to the eyepiece, and as it narrowed, he shrank…
Ahead, the figure shot out from between the shelves into the main part of the library. A moment later, he shot out too—and halted. The library had somehow grown dark. It was full of long, black shadows, cast by things that seemed abnormally big now, the chairs, the shelves, the tables with computers on top of them. As Graham took in the changed surroundings, it occurred to him that he had to look upwards to see everything.
Behind him, and above him, a voice said, “Well, little shit, what’s it going to be today? A Chinese burn? A bog-wash? The wall-game, to see if we can make it more than thirteen this time?”
A large hand landed on his shoulder. And just then there was a hectic tintinnabulation as school-bells started ringing outside the library. Everything else had suddenly become big and, correspondingly, these bells were deafeningly loud. They had the effect on Graham that a starting pistol would have on an athlete. He bolted from the hand’s grasp and out through the library doors to the stairs.
Mrs Pearson was still on the library floor, a throb in her backside suggesting that she’d bruised her coccyx. “What did you do to him?” she demanded.
“I did nothing!” retorted Andrew, who was standing. “Just touched him on the shoulder and asked if he was okay!”
As he careered down the stairs Graham nearly lost his balance, because they seemed double the height they’d been when he’d come up them with Mrs Pearson. He arrived in the lobby. By now he could hear classroom doors opening, a cacophony of voices, a stampede of feet. The noises were growing louder because, he knew, he was growing smaller. He wasn’t merely a runt in short trousers and National Health Service glasses. He was even tinier and less significant than that.
The lobby’s floor seemed the size of a plain, but on its far side he saw the gleam of the glass door leading outside. Graham tore towards it, determined to escape the school before he became so small that his arch-enemy would be able to squash him with a stamp of his foot.
He was still running when he reached the bottom of the avenue. Fallen chestnuts, sealed in their spiky shells, bounced away from his shoes.
Unable to adjust his course in time, he flew straight out between the entrance-gateposts and onto the road that passed the bottom of the hillside the school was built on. He managed to stop then, just in time to hear a shriek of brakes and catch a glimpse of a white transit van before it smashed into him.
Later, when Graham raised his head off the road, he saw the van stopped a little way along from him, no longer so white because the front bodywork had red streaks on it. Then something compelled him to turn his head sideways. His right foot, he noticed, rested puzzlingly on the asphalt a few inches off from his right shoulder. He repositioned his head so that he could look along the leg to where it was connected, very loosely now, to his hip.
His head sank back against the road-surface and he sighed: “Dead leg.”
“He’s gone,” Andrew reported in Mrs Pearson’s office. “Some kids saw him rush out the front door and towards the avenue. Like a bat out of hell.” He carried Graham’s knapsack and the copy of the book he’d wanted photographed. “He left these behind in the library.”
Mrs Pearson sat at her desk, uncomfortably because her tailbone still ached. “Well, thank God for that at least. Imagine if he was running loose inside the school. What would the child-protection people say? The health-and-safety people? They’d have a field-day.”
“He said he’d attended this school like I had,” mused the janitor. “Well, I think I remember him now. Thing is, he had serious problems. Personality problems… No, personalities. He seemed normal, mostly. Just some meek, quiet, inoffensive kid. But once in a while, he’d do something freaky. He’d hurt himself—”
“Plus, he had a habit of talking to himself. That scared the crap out of us. He didn’t talk to himself in his own voice, but in a different one, a creepy, nasty one. And usually, it was when he seemed to turn like that, into somebody else, that he hurt himself. Yeah, we were relieved when they finally carted him off to the nuthouse—”
“The psychiatric hospital.”
“No, it was definitely the nuthouse—”
“Please, Andrew, ‘psychiatric hospital’ is the term we use nowadays.” She gestured at the knapsack and book. “Leave those at reception with Olive, in case he calms down and comes back looking for them. Tell her not to let him any further into the building. If he has an issue with that, she’s to call me immediately.”
Once Andrew had left, the headmistress noticed the first copy of Graham’s book, the faulty copy, lying on her desk where its author had dumped it and forgotten it. Something made her open it. The contents page had half-a-dozen chapter titles relating to experiences at school, but there were other titles too like A Day at the Seaside, 1970s Children’s Television, 1970s Children’s Comics, Hetley Sweetshop, Hetley Cinema… She frowned. This town had had a cinema once?
She felt a pang of sympathy. “The poor man. If he fetishizes his childhood like this, what sort of life has he had since?”
As she leafed through the book, she began to feel puzzled. Hadn’t Kincaird complained that the printing company had left blank pages in this copy? As far as she could see, there weren’t any blank ones. All of them contained print. Then she noticed something unusual about one page. It took a moment to work out what it was. Unlike the previous pages, whose lines swarmed with commas, this page had no commas at all. In fact, as she started reading aloud from it, she realised there was zero punctuation.
“Great fun today with the little shit because I got him on the floor and sat on his chest and pinned down his arms and then let a great big load of gob hang from my mouth over his face and just when he thought it was going to fall on him I sucked it back in again and then I did this again and again and again terrifying him that my gob was going to land smack in the middle of his face and after about ten minutes I wasn’t able to suck it back in time and it went splat over him…”
Something seemed to possess Mrs Pearson while she read. Her voice grew louder.
“…just as well I let go of him then because he puked up a little being so disgusted about my gob being on his face ha ha that was superb that was tremendous I fucking love dishing it out to him day after day wonder what I can do next with the bastard—”
Mrs Pearson realised she was reading so loudly because her voice was in competition with the internal telephone on the desk beside her. It’d started to ring urgently.