School gets weird
A vast wasteland stretched as far as the eye could see. They called it the Dead Plain and it was said that no-one had ever crossed to the other side. The young man had been travelling for three days now without rest or food. A faint wind whispered across the desert raising a cloud of blue grey dust. He continued trudging through the rough sand, his feet on fire with blisters, his mind grimly set on the task ahead. They said it was a week’s march to the Source. They said... No-one really knew. The Source had long since slipped into legend and some said it had never even existed.
But he had hope, and there was not much of that left. His lids were heavy but he had to stay awake. It was in the drowsy numbness of sleep that they came, and as his eyes began to close so the whispers increased, rising out of the wind and the dust.
We are coming for you, we are coming…
Alfie sat bolt upright in bed, his pulse throbbing, sweat trickling down his back like an insect. That was no dream.
The hands on his clock glowed green in the darkness – 3.00am. This was the quietest time of night when the steady rumble of traffic faded into silence and only the occasional passing car broke the long hours of loneliness.
He slipped on his shoes and made his way out on to the landing and down the stairs. They creaked. In this sprawling old house everything creaked, and there were far too many nooks and crannies, far too many corners behind which anything could be hiding.
We are coming…
The ‘dream’ which could not be a dream sizzled at the bottom of his mind like acid. There was only one thing that helped on nights like this, and that was strong tea and the bright lights of the kitchen. But to get to the kitchen you had to go past the cellar door, and Alfie had a curious fear of that cellar, as though it were linked in some strange way to the visions (you couldn’t call them dreams) which had been troubling him for the last few months. No doubt it was a perfectly normal cellar, full of old boxes and garden tools, just like any other. The trouble was, he didn’t know, because the door was always locked.
The hall was dark and Alfie considered turning on the lights, but if he did that his parents would wake up and start asking questions. He didn’t feel up to answering those questions, not now when his heart was thumping and his hair damp with sweat. He made his way past the cellar door and tried not to imagine things behind that door, things that whispered in the darkness, things lurking in the foundations of this crumbling old house.
With iron control he made himself walk past the door, refusing to look at it, blanking out its shadow. He flicked on the kitchen lights, switched on the kettle and started to feel better. There was something comforting about the sound of boiling water. It sounded normal, and normality was in short supply in Alfie’s strange life. He reached into the cupboard and grabbed a mug with You don’t have to be mad to live here but it helps printed in crude red lettering. It had been a Christmas present from his kid sister and was much too true to be funny.
He’d just dropped a tea bag in the mug and started pouring out water when he felt a hand on his shoulder. Alfie jumped, spilling his tea and spun round to find his mother looking at him in confusion.
“I’m so sorry, darling,” she twittered. “I didn’t mean to give you a shock. Have you burned yourself?”
“No it's okay.”
He had, but if she knew that she’d be there for the next hour dousing his hand in cold water and slapping on special plasters. The way she went on you’d think he was made of glass.
“Oh dear, it looks very red. What will your father say?”
She hovered in front of him in her pink threadbare dressing gown, hair all over the place, an image of anxiety, and Alfie felt guilty, as he always had, as though somehow he were responsible.
“I’m fine,” he said, more sharply than he intended.
“Couldn’t you sleep?”
She didn’t know, but then how could she when they hadn’t talked about it in years.
“No, I'm just worried about school.”
It was the wrong thing to say.
“Why?” she asked fretfully. “What's wrong with school?”
School was awful, he couldn't stand the place, but he couldn't tell her that. She seemed to live in a constant state of nerves as it was, her eyes darting from shadow to shadow as though she expected something to jump out any minute.
“School is fine,” he lied, thinking of the last lousy month at Thorngrove High. “I just have a spelling test tomorrow and I’m a bit stressed. Maybe I’ll have this drink, then go and revise.”
Any talk of hard work always had a positive effect on his mum and she brightened up. “You can’t study too much. Are you sure you’re okay?”
Alfie was good at pretending, years of practice. “Yeah I’m fine. Hey, maybe I’ll get 100%.”
Now that was the right thing to say. Mum pecked him on the cheek and practically skipped out of the kitchen.
You don’t have to be mad to live here but it helps.
If Alfie had really thought about it he might have wondered what kind of parent would encourage their son to start working at 3 o’clock in the morning. But Alfie didn’t think about it. He’d gone way beyond that point years ago, and besides, he had something more urgent to grab his attention.
The chattering had begun again, a creepy echoing sound which put his teeth on edge. He hovered by the kitchen door, his finger on the light switch, listening intently. There it was again, the same sound he'd heard on and off for the past few weeks, but it was only now that he realised where it was coming from. He switched off the lights and gave a sharp gasp as the old fear returned, the churning in his stomach which was all too familiar.
The sound was coming from behind the cellar door and the door was no longer dark but framed with a faint green light. He should have run, he knew that, or turned on all the lights and shouted for his parents, but he didn’t. For some reason, so deeply buried that he couldn’t have explained if you’d asked him, he walked towards that heavy oak door, slid his fingers round the handle and turned. Nothing happened. It was locked, as it always had been. He leaned his head against the door feeling the throb of his pulse, the trickle of sweat on his brow.
Was it his imagination or did he hear something scuttling, towards him or away from him, something dark and formless.
We are coming…
It was quite enough for one night. Heart racing, he made his way back to his room as quickly as he could and dived under the bedclothes. If only he could sleep. If only he could get some time out of this crazy life, maybe then he could get his head together. But he knew that would never happen. The only thing waiting for him as he burrowed deeper into the bedclothes was a long dark night full of dreary memories and the endless ticking of the clock.
Poor Alfie hadn't slept in years.
“Necessary”, intoned Miss Mankitt, “Particular, Accommodate...”
Alfie scribbled down the words without much enthusiasm. He certainly wasn’t going to get 100% on this spelling test.
What the hell did that mean!
It was stupid. He’d had all night to revise these rotten spellings so why hadn’t he done it? He could have been an A-grader with no trouble if he focused a bit more. All that time at night, and all he ever did was lie there staring at the walls.
“D'you mean peculiar like Alfie Jones?”
Adrian Marshall grinned nastily and the creepier members of the class sniggered.
“God Adrian, you're such a wit.”
Adrian lobbed a rubber at him. “Retard.”
Alfie was out of his seat in a moment, but Miss Mankitt got between them.
“Sit down,” she barked, “and it’s a referral for both of you.”
“He started it!”
“He started it,” she echoed, imitating him in a nasally whine. “Did he Alfie, did he start it?”
Alfie wondered why Miss Mankitt had ever become a teacher. She was crabby and spiteful with eyes like small buttons and she obviously hated kids.
“Well I’m finishing it,” she hissed.
He was still sunk in gloom as he toyed with his lunch in the school canteen. He could see Adrian and his gang looking daggers in his direction and wondered how long it would be before they ended up in a fight.
“Mind if I join you?”
Alfie looked up in surprise. For the last two months he’d been eating on his own, whether because he was peculiar or the other kids were scared of Adrian, he couldn’t say.
“Yeah, why not.”
“Name’s Nick, I’m new.”
He looked into Nick’s cheery face and wondered whether things were looking up. Thorngrove High was an unpleasant place and friendly faces were few and far between. Even the teachers were miserable, except for Twizzle, the History teacher, who had kind eyes and unshakeable enthusiasm for his subject, not that anyone ever listened to him.
“Want some chips?” asked Nick. “I can’t eat all these.”
“Thanks,” said Alfie, “When did you start?”
“Today’s my first day.”
“Bad luck,” he answered sourly.
“Oh, it’s not so bad. I know a few kids from football club and the food’s good.”
Nick proceeded to tuck into a revolting pasta bake and cleared the plate in record time. He leaned back and waved at one of the grumpy dinner ladies.
“Love the pasta Mrs Crumble!” he called, as she doled out chips to a lengthening queue of Year 13s.
She waved back and a smile flickered across her face, disappearing as quickly as it had come when someone dropped a plate of sausages on the floor.
“How come you’re so friendly with the dinner ladies?” asked Alfie, “I’ve been here for two months and I don’t even know my way round school.”
“Oh you know, I talk a lot,” said Nick. “I saw you walking to school. I think you live near me. We could walk in together.”
Alfie liked the sound of that. He was sick of being on his own and he could do with a mate. He’d had a few friends in primary but they’d either gone to different schools or just drifted away, and Thorngrove High was so big you could go for days without seeing people. Of course, he could have joined the football team but Adrian was Team Captain and the coaches loved him so that wasn’t going to work.
“I’ve got Geography next. Do you know where Room 5A is?”
Alfie felt his spirits lifting. “Yeah sure, I have Geography too. You can come with me.”
They got chatting, talking about something and nothing, and Alfie found himself warming to Nick. He might be a bit scruffy, his arms were too long for his sleeves and he had a hole in his blazer, but who cared about that.
When the bell rang they grabbed their bags and headed off to Geography. Alfie had always hated Geography; it was all contour lines and population charts and boring stuff that didn’t fit into other subjects. Or maybe it was just because he’d never got on with his Geography teachers. They had a new one starting today, and the moment he walked into the room Alfie felt the hairs on his neck rise.
Mr Ambrose was young, in his twenties, dressed entirely in black with dark hair just a little too long for a teacher, and there was something unreadable about him. He didn’t look sideways at Alfie the way the rest of them did, he looked straight at him with piercing blue eyes.
“Turn to the chapter on rock formation,” he announced.
The eyes bored into Alfie skewering him to his seat.
Alfie dug Nick in the ribs. “Is it me or is that guy scary?”
Nick shrugged, “Seems nice enough.”
“There are three types of rock,” continued Mr Ambrose, “igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic.”
A paper plane sailed across the room and landed on the teacher’s desk. Adrian sniggered. Then Denny Fairbourne, another of the year’s hard nuts, stuck his hand up.
“Sir, I need the toilet”.
“Me too,” said someone else.
Alfie knew how this played out. He’d seen numerous teachers fall to pieces along with class discipline. It was a wonder anyone learned anything in this dump.
Mr Ambrose said nothing. He picked up the paper plane and threw it back at Adrian. Only that paper plane didn’t sail gently through the air, it sped like an arrow straight towards him. Adrian didn’t even have time to move or dive under the desk. He just sat as still as one of the rocks Sir was talking about as that sharp, vicious missile aimed straight for his eyes. There was a gasp from the class and Shelley Matthews screamed. It must have taken only seconds but it seemed so much longer. Alfie was acutely aware of Shelley’s mouth in the shape of an O, of her pink, tatty bag with Princess printed across it in fading silver. He could see Adrian’s red, mottled skin slowly turning white as though the blood were draining through his neck, and he felt a scream in his own throat which never came. At the last minute the plane dropped into Adrian’s lap, a harmless piece of paper.
“Do you still want to go to the toilet, Dennis?” asked the teacher, his voice as cold as arctic ice.
Denny put his hand down. “No.”
“No Sir,” corrected Mr Ambrose. His eyes ranged round the silent, horrified class. “I have rules,” he said, “which you will not break.”
Alfie blinked. Had he thought the teacher was in his twenties, no he looked older, forty at least. The children sat there with their mouths open.
“First you will always call me Sir.” A few heads nodded. “You will not throw paper planes or any other missile. You will ensure you have visited the toilet before coming to my class.” He placed his hands on the desk and fixed them with an iron stare. “There will be no fighting, no eating, no drinking, no smoking and no taking snuff.”
A few people whispered, “No Sir”. If they were wondering what snuff was they didn’t dare ask.
“And finally,” he said, “You will never interrupt when I am speaking, and on no account will you borrow my pen. Now turn to Chapter Three.”
There was a rustle of pages as the terrified students dutifully turned to Chapter Three.
“How weird was that!” whispered Alfie to Nick. “Still think he’s nice?”
Nick seemed oblivious to it all. In fact looking at him, Alfie realised he was the only kid in class who wasn’t scared witless.
“Well if he wasn’t,” said Nick, breezily, “Adrian would have a hole in his head.”
When the bell went there wasn’t the usual mad dash for the door. The class hesitated as if waiting for permission to leave.
“Off you go then,” said Ambrose. “Make sure you’ve done your homework for tomorrow. Three examples of each type of rock with a description of their main characteristics and remember…” He glowered. “NO excuses. Your mother has not put your exercise book in the wash, your aunt has not been rushed into hospital with scarlet fever and your dog has not eaten your pencil case. Do I make myself clear?”
Thirty heads nodded and the children made their way out in silence.
“What do you think of Ambrose, honestly,” Alfie asked Nick as they walked home together.
Nick looked thoughtful, “Seems okay to me. Fancy a pasty?”
Alfie couldn’t understand why Nick was so cool about it but maybe that sort of thing was normal where he lived. After all, look at the weird stuff that went on in his own home.
“Yeah okay, a pasty would be good.”
Out in the sunshine he’d noticed that Nick’s blazer was looking really shabby and the heels of his shoes were worn down as though he hadn’t had a new pair in months.
“But I’m buying,” he said.
That was a good afternoon for Alfie, the first in ages where he’d forgotten about dreams that couldn’t be dreams, about dark cellars and pulsing green lights, about teachers with black button eyes and acid tongues, and more than anything, the long lonely years without sleep. That afternoon as he chattered with Nick about footie scores and superheroes and which takeaway did the best pizza, he felt, just for once, like a normal kid.
There's no such thing, of course, as he was about to find out.