The Paperweight (Part 1)
(This is a chapter taken from a novel, but I think it makes sense as a standalone piece too.)
Miss Harris was halfway through explaining the concept of enjambement when the door opened and Mr Roper walked in.
Everything came to a halt, for Mr Roper entering a classroom was akin to a king entering a court.
That's not to say that we all stood up and bowed, or that he was accompanied by the herald of trumpets, but, in a single instant, it is fair to say that pretty much all of us changed. Significantly.
Those of us who were slouching sat up.
Those who were swinging on their chairs righted themselves.
Those whose ties were askew now wore ties firmly wedged into their collars.
Those who were staring out the window now stared - with an interest that Miss Harris had been hankering after all year - at the poetry anthologies on their desks.
I, for my part, remained exactly as I was, for I had already been facing the head of the classroom, a look of keen interest on my face.
But for everyone else, every movement, every breath, every heartbeat - a moment ago all done so carelessly and unselfconsciously - was now performed with the greatest exactitude.
It was a room full of actors. And Miss Harris was the most fevered actor of them all.
Looking slightly terrified, she seemed to suddenly notice that she hadn't changed the date on the board for almost a whole week and that the unwieldy pile of books on her desk was a brush away from toppling all over Kareem Sarsam’s desk. She made a weird little gesture as if in an attempt to put everything right, like a witch waving her wrist only to realise there was no wand in her hand. It looked – to use the technical term – totally spastic.
'Oh,' she said. 'Headmaster.'
Mr Roper didn't acknowledge her. He just adjusted his spectacles and squinted at the bit of paper in his hand. 'Can I have ... Dinesh Sharma.'
To my left, there was the screech of a chair.
I didn't look - no one did - but we all used our peripheral vision to watch as a silent, solemn figure made its way to the head of the room.
What on earth had Dinesh done?
Chairman of the Chess Club. Vice-chairman of the War Games Club. Editor of the school newspaper.
I could already sense the feeling in the room: the quiet scandal of it all. The instant Mr Roper left, his captive in tow, I knew everyone would relax from their action positions and there'd be a sound something like 'Oooooh' to honour Dinesh Sharma and his unlikely crimes and then Miss Harris would raise her voice and go red in the face trying, in vain, to get us back to enjambement.
Mr Roper cleared his throat. 'And Oliver Hemlock.'
This time the subtle turns of the head were directed at the middle of the room.
There was no screech of a chair, though. No one stood up.
Miss Harris tugged at her collar. 'Oli?'
I looked up.
Miss Harris managed to convey the greatest sense of urgency in just the slightest distortion of her face. It said: Come on. Do as the man says. Get up. Get out of here. Now.
I nodded, and stood.
As I made the walk of shame, I flitted through potential recent misdemeanours.
I glimpsed Eddie Hynes stifle a snigger and then Mark Roback and Dorian Stead exchange a glance that said, 'This is juicy'.
As Mr Roper ushered us out into the corridor, he treated Miss Harris for a second time as though she were invisible and just closed the door behind him.
We heard the muffled sound of uproar from behind the door, and then Mr Roper was walking.
‘Follow,’ he said.
So we did.
When lessons were in session, the school corridors had a museum-like stillness to them. Usually choca-bloc with traffic and alive with the sound and stench of hundreds of boys, they now felt strange and forbidden. And to walk this strange, forbidden walk with the Headmaster made it all stranger still.
Up this close he seemed almost hyper-real, the way famous people do when you meet them. His was an image I had seen countless times at a distance, either standing at the lectern on the stage in assemblies or glimpsed here and there, ghostlike, flitting in and out of doorways near his office. It was an image I had unconsciously churned over in my mind’s eye for well over three years of my life. And now here it was: the real thing, right there in front of me.
The previous year, when we'd had Mrs Burrows for English, I'd written about this very subject in a poem called 'The Man Behind the Mahogany Door'. There had been a few riské bits in there about Roper's mysterious limp (theories, by the way, ranged from a war injury to gout to regular receipt of anal sex) and subtle references to the rumour that he treated all his staff like scum, but Mrs Burrows had done little more than furrow her brow when I read those bits out. In fact, once I'd finished, she had led the class in a rapturous round of applause and said the poem was an insightful treatise on the nature of appearance versus reality.
He limped ahead of us now, the drag of his right foot eking out an insistent scuff-tap rhythm. I wanted to look at Dinesh, to acknowledge the horror-film eeriness of the sound, but neither of us dared look at each other.
That was the thing about Roper's limp. It seemed less a weakness and more a challenge: it said Go on then, I dare you. Say something. Just you see where it gets you.
We made our way through the West Quadrant.
Drowned laughter came from behind a closed classroom door.
The sound of Dr Schoenfeld screeching 'I've asked you vonce, I vill not ask you again!' spilled out through an open one.
Roper didn't twitch.
Surely we weren’t in trouble.
I mean, how could we be?
Dinesh and I didn’t do trouble.
But still. You never knew.
When we stopped outside a Year 11 classroom and Roper went in to fetch Kieran Quinn – the boy widely regarded as the smartest in the school – it seemed all the more likely that we had been chosen not to receive a bollocking but for something far worse: what if we were going to be asked to do something?
Kieran Quinn joined us as we started up the strange, forbidden walk once more.
Then came the stench of Mr Jones the caretaker, ratty and wearing the same grimy fleece as always. 'Contractors said they won't be in till 'alf past now, Al. Taking the mick really, ain't it. Mind if I give 'em a bit of a telling off when they finally drag up?'
Mr Roper didn't stop walking, but said, ‘A stern word is overdue, yes.’
Everyone knew he was Alan Roper, but Al?
It was like I was peering behind some curtain, and the urge to give Dinesh a look then became almost too much.
We passed the new sixth-form block, a glass building magicked into the old courtyard, whose incongruous modernness made it look like the school was having a mid-life crisis.
And then we stopped.
It took me a few moments to notice where we were.
'Through here, boys.'
The school office smelt like a Friday night out at the theatre. With their fierce perfume and dyed hair, the office ladies were all stand-by aunts. Feeling poorly? You went to the office ladies. Lost your PE shorts? You went to the office ladies. Not sure if your mum knows if she’s picking you up from after-school football? You went to the office ladies. The way they walked and talked, the sheer busyness of them, produced a feminine energy so potent and concentrated that it could have powered the electrical network of a small country.
In all my time at the school, though, I had never noticed that just beyond the reception desk in the office was a side-door.
There were no calls of ‘Al’ as Dinesh, Kieran and I followed Mr Roper through it into a kind of waiting room and then through another door into what could only be described as the Headmaster’s office.
This wasn’t the usual way in, the way through the mahogany door that opened onto the main corridor – we were far too important for that it seemed, or, well, in far too much trouble – but this was definitely it.
There was a Victorian-looking writing desk. An ergonomic swivel-chair that slouched behind it. A painting of the school on the wall. An impressive collection of books – psychology, history, philosophy, educational theory, fiction, poetry – enough to make you see that a tastefully stocked bookshelf was not so different from a Ferrari sitting in a driveway or a set of trophies gleaming in a cabinet.
And there was a big window facing onto the playground and fields – a vantage point to make a dictator envious – next to which sat five chairs arranged around a coffee table.
In one of the chairs there sat another pupil. I couldn’t recall ever having seen him, but he had the right look for the occasion: small, weedy, embarrassed.
And in another seat there sat a man.
‘I believe this is all of them,’ Roper said.
‘Ah,’ the man looked up, and said in a Swedish accent, ‘come, take a seat, boys.’
Roper hovered, awaiting further instruction.
The man sort of waved his hand dismissively and said, ‘Thank you. I have everything I need,’ and with that Mr Roper left his own office and closed the door behind him as though he were some unwanted intern.
What on earth were we doing here?
We all sat down cautiously, like there might be booby traps hidden in the chairs.
The man steepled his fingers and regarded us. ‘Excellent. Then we are all here.’ He looked no older than thirty, with the large, smug head of an overgrown baby. He wore a tweed blazer and underneath that a knitted jumper. He had a large shelf of brow, a slightly puggish nose, and a shock of foppish blonde hair. It was the look of a Viking – the sort of Viking who, rather than spending his evenings raiding and pillaging along the coast of the British Isles, enjoyed reading encyclopaedias back to front and playing multiple chess matches simultaneously.
And then there were his eyes. Beneath the strong brow, those eyes seemed unforgiving; they gave off a fierce intelligence and seemed to see, with merciless clarity, when intelligence was present or lacking in others.
I knew, immediately, that whoever he was I had to impress him.
‘Now, boys, I’ve just been explaining to this gentleman here that my name is Magnus Karlsen and that I’m visiting you today from the Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience at Cambridge University.’
He let that sink in.
‘You’re all familiar with Cambridge University, yes?’
‘And you’re all familiar with the scientific field of neuroscience?’
‘Good, and I would have thought as much – I have been assured that you boys are amongst the best and brightest here at the school. The crème de la crème, if you will permit me to mangle some French.’
I smiled a smile that was too wide for my face.
‘Or so I’ve been told, anyway,’ he went on. ‘We shall soon see if my informants are reliable.’
I liked the sound of ‘informants’.
‘Spies’ would have been better. But still.
Who? I wondered. And what had they said?
Magnus Karlsen pulled out a thin wodge of sheets from his briefcase and placed them on the coffee table.
It was only then that I noticed it.
On the table, sitting squat and small, was a sort of oily-looking rock. Its surface shone like a diamond but swam with inky blackness, almost like there was something living inside it. It looked as though it had been recovered from the bottom of a glass volcano.
‘Pretty isn’t it,’ said Magnus Karlsen. ‘And serves well as a paperweight.’ He divvied up the pile, peeling off a thin layer of stapled sheets for each of us, and leaving a spare tucked underneath the rock.
‘So. The reason I am here.’
It took me a moment to take my eyes off the paperweight. And once I had, I wanted only to look at the sheets he had given me. But if we were allowed to take a look at them, he didn’t tell us. And none of us dared.
‘I am here to conduct research. And you are here because you have been chosen to be my lab rats.’ He smiled to let us know it wasn’t as sinister as it sounded. ‘Now. A researcher, when conducting the kind of research that I am conducting, is faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, I am bound by the laws of ethics to operate within the spirit of full disclosure; that is to say, each of you has the right to know what you are getting yourself in for and, therefore, it is my duty to tell you. After all, if I was about to expose the fact that you have some disabling cognitive bias or that you have a knack for making terrible decisions … then, well, you’d probably like to know. Correct?’
‘However – and it’s a very tricksy “however” – the validity of my research and any findings that it produces is, unfortunately, very much dependent on each of you not knowing what the purpose of my research is. So. An ethical researcher offers two paths at this stage.’ He steepled his fingers. ‘Path one: you decide “No, I don’t like the sound of that, if a strange man is going to come into my school and make me his lab rat, he could at least have the decency to tell me what it’s in aid of,’ then that is absolutely fine; you can walk out of this room right now and we’ll never speak of this again.’
We all stayed seated.
‘Path two: you take a leap in the dark; you take part in the research without knowing what it’s for but knowing that you are doing science a favour. Then, afterwards, you ask me any questions about it you like. Moreover, although I cannot tell you anything about the purpose of the research now, I can at least tell you that it won’t cause you any sort of harm or embarrassment, or come at any cost to anything, really, other than – of course – your valuable lesson time. I know how you are all dying to get back to class, yes?’
We laughed because Magnus Karlsen had just made a funny joke.
‘On top of all this, you are already aware that I have something to do with neuroscience, so your powers of deduction ought to have told you that whatever this is all about, it has something to do with this thing here …’ He pointed at his skull, suggesting the brain, the mind, and all the wonders that lay therein.
None of us said anything.
‘So. There we have it.’ He opened out his hands. ‘Do I have three boys willing to take the leap?’