Before I began writing novels I wrote a few short stories. Mimi, based on a true story of witchcraft in Zambia, can be found here.
And here is The Lesson, a short, apocryphal tale of a boy returning to his old school, surprised to find that he is not the only one still alive. I’ve made only one or two minor edits, so this is pretty much as I wrote it in my early twenties.
On the seventeenth day I came across my old school on the hill.
For seven hundred years its granite towers had nurtured the misery of countless stoic children, sending them out into the world with a lifetime’s supply of gall and bitterness. But no longer. Now its high, vaulted classrooms and corridors were empty, drained of life, of youth’s tenacious concentration and capacity for knowledge.
Or so I assumed.
I only went in because there was nothing else for me to do. Nowhere else for me to go, and no one to see. I was alone, alone in the deepest sense, without any possibility of home. Like the butterfly in the story that moves casually on the currents and scents of the air, only to find itself far out at sea. It was without any sense of hope or sentiment that I went back into my school.
The wind blew cold as I went up past the bleak, gabled houses of Marriott Street. I glanced back at the city once or twice, black and grey like a machine broken on the earth below me, but found it easier to look at my feet, and the rain-polished cobbles of the road.
At the gates of the school I stopped, looking up at the emblem that hung crucified on their skeletal black iron. Altiora Peto, said the small capitalised white letters beneath the knight’s helmet. I should think, I thought.
The gates were halfway open and I went in, feeling once again the leaden reluctance that had accompanied those steps every time I’d made them. I came into the main courtyard, the place where we’d assembled for fire drills, or on long benches for the school photographs. I turned about, looking up at the gaunt buildings that crowded the square, like spectators at a classical games. They stared at me impassively, indifferent as to whether I excelled or bled. Even outside, a faint sour-milk reek still lingered on the air.
Then something happened, like a lash caught in the side of my eye – a movement, off to the right.
My heart leapt – someone was alive! But whoever it was had disappeared around the corner, so I shouted and gave chase. You must remember, I hadn’t seen a living thing for days.
I came round the side of the Humanities block and caught sight of a young boy, standing with his hand against a door, catching his breath. He looked about eleven or twelve, and he was wearing school uniform – a navy blazer, grey shorts, and long grey socks with two maroon-coloured bands at the top. As soon as he saw me he sprang off into the building.
‘Come back!’ I shouted, then realised he probably wouldn’t be able to hear me anyway.
I followed him into the building and ran down several long corridors, hearing his patent shoes slipping on the red-tiled floor as he skidded around corners. After a minute or so I thought I’d lost him, but then heard the loud muffled boom of a bell. It was the first real noise I’d heard for weeks.
Knowing where the sound had come from, I headed for the main hall, where the bell-rope hung and worn stone steps rose around the walls to the second and third floors. When I reached the rope it was still snaking, and giving off the odd kick. I looked up and saw the boy’s head above me, leaning out from the second floor banister with his scruffy blond hair splaying out like a halo.
‘Wait!’ I cried, but he didn’t.
I went up the stairs slowly, breathing heavily. I remembered this floor because one of my classrooms had been up here. At the landing I was about to carry on up, when suddenly I felt the urge to see that old classroom. I headed down the corridor, and soon came to the nut-brown panelled door of H5. I turned the bronze handle, and went in.
Those thirty-odd desks, each with its own small, plastic chair – I was instantly taken back, and felt a pang of nostalgia. For a moment I remembered the sense of calm that came on the odd time you were first in, when the space was your own.
Except now it wasn’t.
The Master stepped out from behind one of the pillars, dressed in his beige check suit and shabby black cloak. His face was swollen and pink, streaked with capillaries, and what remained of his dark hair frizzed around the flaking dome of his head. From behind black-rimmed spectacles his beady eyes fixed on me, sharp and alive like some weather-beaten seabird.
‘You! Burns, isn’t it? You’re late,’ he said.
I wanted to grasp him, to shake him and tell him how pleased I was to see him – but didn’t.
‘I’m sorry, sir,’ I said. ‘It won’t happen again.’
‘It better not. Sit down.’
I cleared one of the chairs, and sat down looking at the blackboard.
‘Today we have maths,’ he said. ‘Open your text book at page seventy-five.’ I noticed his voice was thick and slurred as if he’d been at the drink again. But I suspected it might be something else.
‘I’ve forgotten my book, sir,’ I said.
‘Put your hand up when you want to talk to me,’ snapped the Master.
I raised my hand.
‘Sir – I’ve forgotten my book.’
He took a deep breath and looked down at the parquet flooring. He pushed a palm across his sweaty brow. ‘You’ll just have to share with someone else,’ he said, turning his back on me and shuffling towards the blackboard. I noticed several white rectangles of chalk imprinted on the back of his cloak, and remembered how we boys used to bash each others’ blazers with the board rubber.
As the Master straightened himself in front of the board, I looked across the classroom to the broad bay windows. Their panes of glass, swollen at the bottom, distorted the view of the fields and ox-bow lake in the carse below.
‘Right,’ said the Master. ‘I’d like you, Burns, to remind me of what we went through yesterday. You know, the algebra.’
I looked back from the window at the Master. ‘I don’t remember, sir.’
‘No, no, never mind. Let me see now…’ Hand shaking, he picked up a stick of chalk and turned to the board. ‘What was the question… oh yes. Burns, see if you can tell me the answer to this one: what does thirty plus one equal? Got that? Thirty, plus one.’
I thought for a moment, trying to ignore the old-milk odour that was particularly strong in the classroom. ‘It depends, sir, which one you mean.’
‘Don’t be stupid, boy. You know very well what I mean. Thirty plus one – what is it?’
‘I think thirty plus one equals a class, sir. Thirty pupils and one Master.’
‘Yes, yes, v. good!’
‘But thirty plus one…’ and here I gently pushed with my toe the corpse of the boy that I had removed from my chair, ‘can also equal nought, sir.’
‘How so? How so?’
‘Thirty boys, plus one sound bomb, sir.’
His face dropped, and the arm that had been looping across the blackboard with my every word suddenly fell limp at his side. ‘Oh… of course.’
For a moment he stood, staring across at the body of another boy slumped forward across a desk. A trail of congealed blood had seeped from the boy’s ears and now linked him for eternity to his open exercise book.
Then the Master shook himself and said: ‘You’ve done well, Burns. As with most things, the way you tackle the question will influence your answer.’
‘How come you survived, sir?’
‘I – I don’t know. Maybe I was down in the archive vaults – I’m not sure…’
I remembered my own experience, pot-holing in the Highlands. Even deep in the earth the noise had managed to seek me out, making my ears burn and bleed as if they’d been stung in the most tender cavities by a thousand angry wasps. I was left coughing and gagging for hours, half senseless with agony. But I had got better.
‘Were there any others…’ I began to ask, but then he pulled his back straight, revitalised by a new wave of memory.
‘That’s all for today, Burns. Class dismissed.’
I stood up and headed slowly towards the door. Suddenly he spoke again.
‘By the way, Burns… if you see Evans, tell him I want to see him.’
I decided that I would stay the night in one of the dorms. I headed up to the third floor, hardly noticing as I stepped over the bodies of two teachers who had fallen across the stairway – just part of the huge necromass I had grown used to, which not only included people but also pets, birds, and fishes of every kind. Even the vast majority of insects had perished.
At the top of the stairs I came to the dormitories, crammed up in the slate roof of the ancient building. The windows of these rooms were small squares, and many hung open, letting in the cold autumnal air. I closed a few and headed for one of the washrooms at the end of the corridor. Then saw Evans again.
He came out of one of the toilets, but as soon as he saw me he was off, through into another dorm. I shouted at him to come back, but was now certain he was deaf. Wearied by my encounter with the Master and the unsettling atmosphere of the school, I couldn’t be bothered to give chase. I was going to wash, but then heard a crashing noise in the next room, and went over to the door. I turned the handle and pushed but something heavy had been brought down behind it. Jamming my shoulder against it I eventually managed to push my way in.
And found myself confronted by the strangest sight of all.
The room was in chaos. Beds and furniture had been overturned and the walls had been covered in pictures and spray paint. Washing lines and string had been taped to the ceiling, and pages from magazines hung from them like something to scare off birds. But worst of all was the smell, a mixture of long-moulded, sour cheese, and urine.
A fire escape door banged suddenly in the wind, alerting me to the way the boy had fled. I moved carefully through the room, picking my way amongst piles of sheets and blankets and broken chairs. I looked at the pictures, saw Batman and Spiderman comics, women in lingerie. On one wall, the Anarchy symbol had been drawn in red, that I hoped wasn’t blood.
Halfway down the room I came across an upright bed with a dead boy in it. Like the others, his skin was loose and mottled, and his eyes sagged back into his head. Life had left him through the ears and down the sides of his cheeks, leaving two dark slug trails of blood that bloomed on the white pillow. The whiff of rotten gas still hung around him. I guessed the boy must have been off sick when the bomb struck.
At the far end of the room a small tent-shaped enclave had been created by propping several beds up against each other and covering them with blankets. I looked in and saw a mattress with some scrawled-up sheets and a pillow, evidently where Evans now slept. The bed was covered in a litter of cuttings from comics and other magazines. A small torch nestled on the indented pillow.
Looking closer I noticed a black-and-white picture of the Master holding the hand of the boy. The Master had a tight smile on his face and his small dark eyes fixed the camera . The picture appeared to have been cut from the school magazine. The caption read:
Miles Evans (Year 4, H5) being presented with the Kingston Award for Mathematics by Head of Dept, Mr Bennett.
At that moment I heard a muffled cry, coming from the centre of the building. I ran back through the dormitories, towards the main staircase and bell tower. As I came into the red-tiled hall, I heard the shout again. It was the cry of a man, followed by a thwack, and the screech of a child:
‘You did this! You did this to us!’
I leaned up against the banister and looked over the stairwell. On the second floor below, I could see the cowering, cloaked form of the Master, lunging about with his arms in front of his face. The boy Evans was a few feet away from him, pulling board rubbers from a satchel and hurling them point blank at the helpless man.
‘It’s all your fault! You did it!’ His words were shrill yet distorted, as if coming up through water.
The Master wailed ‘No!’, stumbling away from the boy. A board rubber struck him on the top of the head with a loud crack, producing a network of bloody trails like forked lightning.
‘You’ve let us down. You’ve let us all down!’
I was just about to intervene when the Master, clearly terrified and confused, staggered back and hit the low balustrade.
I watched as he pivoted swiftly over, and quickly struck the floor below. He lay there motionless, sprawled like some ghastly black bird that had died in flight and fallen from the sky.
Evans looked over the railing at the body of the Master. After a few moments, and without uttering a sound, he headed off down the corridor.
I stood there for a while, then made my way back down through the building and out into the courtyard, past the corpse of the photographer and the lines of children collapsed on the benches. I had decided not to spend the night in my old school.