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Halford waits, resting his weight on the climbing bars which straddle the wall. He imagines the picture the children will see when they enter, holds an image in his mind of a tall man in a sober, well-fitted suit surrounded by varnished wood, chairs and desks.
He sweeps a hand through his fringe and smooths down his jacket.
The tap tap tap of footsteps is followed by nervous bodies filing in from the entrance. Rigid, blazered shoulders, pursed lips - they arrive in pairs like chain-ganged prisoners.
The first few hesitate, unsure where to sit. Halford does not instruct or offer a word of welcome. They work it out, pressed from behind by their classmates. He smiles to himself, pleased by the slow, tentative flow of teenagers moving between rigid lines of desks.
He stands and approaches his table and chair, remaining silent until all the children are seated and the hush falls.
“You each have three black biro pens. Do not suck them or eat them or treat them as anything other than a writing implement. Yes, Shelton, I’m looking at you.”
A murmur of chuckles. Shelton, a pale, weak-jawed boy sat in the front row, sinks into his seat and lowers his head.
“Mrs Shardloe will distribute the papers, face down.” He booms these last words, making the children jolt in their chairs. A bespectacled woman with bouffant hair emerges from the back of the room carrying an armful of paper.
“You are not to touch these until I say. You are not to sneak a look as Mrs Shardloe distributes them.”
At the centre of the desks, a hand shoots up. Halford struggles to recall the girl’s name, Emma or Edna or something, but does remember disliking the way her mother looked at him during parents’ evening.
“What is it?” he asks with a sigh.
“Sorry sir, it’s just… there’s soil in my eyes, sir.”
Halford frowns, shakes his head. He walks around the table, into the aisle of desks, towards the girl. “What do you mean? Soil?”
The girl returns his confused look. “Pen, sir. I only have two pens. Not three, sir.”
Halford stops. He looks from side to side and the children are staring at him now – invasive, impertinent looks. He misheard, that is all.
“Use what you have. Raise your hand later if there’s a problem.” He waves dismissively at the others. “Look to the front. All of you.”
Halford smooths down his suit again and takes a deep breath. “The time will not commence until I tell you to turn over the paper…” He continues with his monologue, repeated many times over recent weeks.
As he speaks, his mind wonders to other affairs: his car needs a service, he should visit his mother and, of course, there is his application for the Head of 6th Form position. He should be a shoe in, Halford thinks, but there are whispers of a challenger, and the kerfuffle over the Pyke girl still lurks in the background. Six years ago, but people have long memories.
He returns to his chair, takes off his jacket and sits. When he looks up, the children are all staring at him again. He is momentarily panicked, then realises that he has not reached the end of his speech. Regaining his composure, he smiles, checks his watch and exaggerates the enunciation of his final instruction.
“You. May. Begin.”
They move in unison, flapping over papers, picking up pens, writing names in the allotted space.
Halford wants to take out his phone or a book now, read something to pass the time. But this is not allowed, by express instruction of Lord God Almighty, AKA the headmaster, Jonathan Lewis. “Invigilation means vigilance,” the old souse is fond of reminding them. Halford would despise the man were he not one of the few admirers of his teaching methods. Lewis, for all his faults, is Halford’s biggest cheerleader, his ticket to promotion.
He stands and slowly paces the perimeter of the room.
Mrs Shardloe sits on her own chair beneath a basketball hoop. Halford nods as he passes and she acknowledges him with a thin, almost sarcastic smile. This is the sixth exam they’ve done together. All the other invigilators stay together, whispering to each other to pass the time, but Mrs Shardloe separates herself. Halford would like to think this is to keep a closer eye on the kids at the back of the gym, but he cannot shake the impression there is something more to it, something personal.
His fists form into tight balls inside his trouser pockets.
It has been this way all his life. He observes the connections made by others: the affection his colleagues show to each other, the hand-holding teenagers taking their first tentative steps in relationships, the hugs parents give to the younger children as they part at the school gates. Halford wonders at these gestures, inwardly cringing in their presence, but knowing it is something he lacks, has always lacked.
The recurrence of this thought, conjures his father, sat in an armchair chain-smoking Marlboros, lost in some mindless TV show. As a child, Halford would observe him for hours, sitting on the sofa, staring, not at Bullseye or Family Fortunes or The Price is Right, but at the prematurely aging man squashed into his rancid armchair, wheezing, puffing fag after fag.
It was like watching mould or an infected wound.
A whispered call breaks the spell.
A boy has his hand raised. Oliver Averis, one of the group who will do well in the exam. Good parents, always well turned out. Excellent diction.
“What is it, Averis?” he asks.
“Someone is passing notes, sir.” The boy points up the aisle of desks. Halfway along, on the floor, is a scrap of paper. Halford nods to the boy and stomps towards the note. He picks it up, opens up the crumpled ball and reads.
Soil in my eyes.
For a moment, Halford is dizzy. He rests a hand on the back of a chair, steadying himself. He inspects the nearby pupils. They ignore him, lost in their work.
The children have decided to play a prank on him, it seems. The girl who mentioned soil before is nowhere near the note. There must be a few of them in cahoots.
If this were the classroom, he would be raging now, demanding answers, uncovering the perpetrator in seconds through sheer force of will. But the examination hems him in. He cannot break the silence because of a prank.
Halford takes out his notebook and pen and writes down the names of the four children sat either side. There will be a reckoning, but it will have to come later.
Noise. Something scuttles.
He turns, surprised by the sound. He is about to tell the children to ignore it, that he will deal with the situation, but none of them have glanced up from their papers. He looks over to Mrs Shardloe, who remains undistracted, bolted upright in her chair.
The sound comes again, an irregular movement across the wooden floor, as if several people were moving through the gym on thin stilts. Halford struggles to locate it, then swings toward the entrance of the equipment room at the back of the main hall.
The double doors are open. Were they before? He can’t see past the darkness of the entrance, but there is a movement inside.
Halford grinds his teeth as he hurries toward the room, unable to comprehend the idiocy of these children. Important exams, a chance to show the best of themselves, and they do this.
At the doorway, he reaches inside and presses the switch. Halogen bulbs flicker to life, draping the room in a dirty yellow glow.
He keeps his voice low, mindful of the exam, but Halford’s growl has a threatening edge. “Come out of there, now. What on earth are you doing?”
Silence. No movement. Nothing.
Looking down, he notices a patch of something dark at his feet. He kneels and presses his finger to it, and puts it to his nose. The odour is earthy, damp.
Further into the storeroom, he sees patches of dirt at regular intervals, all the way to the back, like footprints. He shakes his head. The marks lead to a stack of heavy landing mats propped up against the back wall.
Halford is suddenly, desperately alone, detached from the seventy-three human beings only a few metres behind him. A small but hardening kernel of fear has formed inside his chest. He wants to retreat, to fetch Mrs Shardloe from the gym, ask her to look at whatever is behind the mats.
A memory comes, his father, coughing, wheezing the words from his armchair. “Why can’t you be a man?”
Halford shakes his head and stands. He moves deeper into the storeroom, following the patches of dirt. The closer he gets, the more strongly he senses a presence, crouching, hiding in the narrow space between the mats and the wall.
It is a child, he tells himself. Stupid, ill-bred trash from the council estate, kids destined for a dead end job, living a pointless beer-soaked life in this dead-end town. Hatred, there is no other word, for these children, for their families and his own father drives away the fear.
He bends down and looks behind the landing mats. Tucked into the corner, someone is sat in the darkness, a child. But there is something wrong, this is not one of the children who filed into the gym only a few minutes ago. Halford knows he should pull back the mats, let the light reveal the thing in the corner, but he can’t. He knows that if he does this, something in him will snap.
“Soil in my eyes,” A girl’s voice, but constricted, like there is something in her throat. “I can’t see anymore. Too much soil in my eyes, Mr Halford.”
A hand moves to its face and he sees how painfully thin it is. Papery, dirt soiled skin hangs from the bone.
“Come out of there. You have an exam to complete.” Halford can hear himself saying the words, but his voice is weak, carrying no conviction.
The thing in the gloom leans forward, showing him its face. He falls backwards, whimpering, thrashing his legs to push himself away.
She is a terrible thing. Eye sockets filled with muck. Razor cheekbones. Strands of sodden black hair cling to the bone-white pate.
When she speaks, globules of soil fall from her mouth. “You know, Mr Halford.” She garbles, “You know what happened to me.”
He pushes back against the side wall, scrambling to get to his feet, then slipping, falling back down. She is coming, crawling out from behind the mats, closer and closer. The smell, a mix of damp and earth and decayed flesh, is so rich and thick it clings to him.
“You know, sir. You know.”
Jennifer Pyke or the thing she has become is standing over him, reaching down..Her hand touches his cheek. And all of a sudden, he does know, more than he ever wanted to.
“Mr Halford.” The voice is different. “Mr Halford.”
He turns his head towards it and sees Mrs Shardloe standing is the doorway of the storeroom. “Are you okay? What happened?”
He wants to scream, to tell her to help, to get the corpse girl off him, but when he looks back to where it stood, the revenant is gone. No skull face, no soil. The rancid smell of death has evaporated, replaced by the usual odour varnished wood, sweat and cheap deodorant.
“She was…” he trails off, understanding the scene. Shardloe has found him lying on his back in the storeroom when he should have been overseeing the exam. He raises himself and climbs to his feet.
“I fell, hit my head.” he says.
She narrows her eyes. “Okay.”
“I should get back in. Check on them.”
“The exam is over, Mr Halford.”
He looks over Shardloe’s shoulder and sees a final few students filing out. The desks beyond are empty. Halford checks his watch, shaking his head. “I…I…”
“Are you okay? Your hands are shaking.”
He looks down, and clasps them together, trying to hold them in place.
“Do you need to go and see Mrs Watts? Perhaps the hospital?”
He draws in a deep breath and walks past her into the main hall. “You closed the exam on time, I trust.”
She follows him out. “I did.”
“Thank you, Mrs Shardloe.” He clears his throat and tries to lower the tone of his voice. “An accident on my part. A slip and a sore head. I’m fine now. We don’t need to mention this to anyone, do we?”
She raises her eyebrows. “I suppose not.”
“I’ll collect my things.” He gestures to the table at the other end of the gym. “Perhaps I could have a moment alone, to collect myself.”
She nods. “The papers are on the table. Don’t forget to take them to the office.”
He bristles at the impertinence, but Shardloe is gone before he can think of a caustic reply.
Left alone, Halford looks back to the entrance of the storeroom, searches for any movement inside, then slowly moves away.
Hallucinations, falling asleep during an exam. Is he losing it? Breaking down? He bites his lower lip, and clasps his hands into tight fists.
Halford sits at his table, facing the grid of desks and takes his head in his hands.
“Time to stop this nonsense,” he says to himself. “Be a man.”
The pile of completed exam papers is at his elbow. The paper on top catches his eye.
Name: Robert Derek Halford.
Could be another prank, but the handwriting is an uncanny copy of his own spidery writing style.
He takes the exam paper from the pile and opens it.
(End of part 1 of 2)
(Final part is here: https://www.abctales.com/story/charlie77/page-blank-part-2 )