This week’s short story is… well, it’s a bit of a cheat, but for very good reasons.
This past week has sucked. Really, really hard. I’ve been dealing with a family member with COVID-19… which has also led to me catching the so-called “spicy flu”.
This is no joke, folks. It sucks, and hard, and I feel more sick than I have in decades. Absolutely horrible. Anyone who says it’s “just a cold” is not only objectively wrong, but they’re also lacking a whole heaping load of empathy.
But anyway, it’s killing my brain right now in the worst way. Which very much makes it harder to form enough stuff to make a passable short story.
But I don’t want to fail just three short weeks in! Last time I did this, I had a couple of stories “in the tank” to cover myself, but no such luxury this time around.
Last time led to “Fifty-Two”, which you can still buy now:
Enough blatant plugging.
To cover myself, I’m dipping back into a different bit of my creative brain. This is a chapter from an earlier novel attempt of mine that I’ve been meaning to clean up and publish for years now. It needs some serious retooling from me, because it started as one thing, became another, and while there’s bits of it I do like, there’s also a lot I don’t. Also needs a good beating from a competent editor as well before the whole thing is ready for public consumption.
There are some chapters I do like, however, at least conceptually.
This is way more raw than I’d usually present anything, so please be kind. If time permits, I’ll try to do a fresh catchup story later in the challenge sequence. We’ll see.
Thursday, 1st Of September, 1955
St Leonard’s Grammar School, Little Cricklewood
The voice rang out for a second time with a distinct note of irritation to it. It was a little difficult to tell given its booming timbre, but the sharpness of the tone lifted ever so slightly, with just a suggestion of incredulity beneath it.
It took Charlie a few seconds to realise that the name being so forcibly pronounced across the school hall was in fact his.
“Excuse me, Mr Prendergoost?”
“What? Sit DOWN, BOY!. FOR THE LAST TIME, CHARLES LEADWORTH!”
“Sir… that’s me. I’m Charlie Leadworth.”
“You are CHARLES LEADWORTH, as per my list. Go to my rooms, boy.”
“MY ROOMS. GO. NOW.”
Charlie could tell he was in some kind of trouble, but couldn’t quite work out what it was, or even indeed why. He wandered off in the direction of the principal’s office. It was perhaps the one room he’d memorised from the very brief visit he’d had here last August, and even then only because of the chocolate biscuit he’d been given to consume while Mr Prendergoost had chatted so amiably to Father and Mother. The loud booming presence that even now was announcing further new boy’s names throughout the auditorium (and indeed much of the rest of the school, such was its amplification) was as far removed from the genial elder gentleman he’d been introduced to on that warm August day as he could possibly imagine.
At least he knew where Mr Prendergoost’s room was, and indeed that there was a comfy leather couch to one side of the room. Finding the heavy oak door just as he’d remembered it, Charlie opened the door and walked into the darkened room. It took his eyes a second or two to adjust to the lower levels of light, until he realised that the curtains that had been open to let in the bright summer sunshine were drawn against the cold winter air outside. A small lamp on Mr Prendergoost’s desk had gone out, but it was a matter of seconds for Charlie to flick its gibbering light into life. He sat down on the huge leather sofa and waited.
As he waited, he hummed a cheery tune to himself to pass the time. He’d always been keen on music and tunes, and felt particularly happy. Only his first day at the big school that Oliver had gone through, and already he’d been invited up to the Principal’s office. He wondered what kind of chocolate biscuits he’d be given this time.
Suddenly the door swung open, revealing the heavy tall frame of Mr Prendergoost silhoutted against the light streaming out from the hallway and only dimly illuminated from the small lamp on his desk.
“WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING?”
“Sir, I’m waiting for you. You told me to go to your rooms. May I have a chocola”
Charlie only got half the word out before Mr Prendergoost got across the room, lifted him off the sofa and hurled him against the main wall with what seemed like incredible force. The wind was knocked out of Charlie’s lungs, and he felt a gasp of pain escape from his mouth. Slumped against the wall in pain, Charlie slowly rose to his feet, hurt and confused beyond all measure.
“You will speak only when spoken to boy!”
“But you asked me a quesOWWW!”
Charlie hadn’t seen the cane that Mr Prendergoost had picked up as he’d been collecting himself up off the floor, but he most certainly felt its impact as it cut down over the top of his new school blazer. It felt like it had sliced cleanly through the cloth into his shoulder blade, although later examination would reveal that his clothes were unharmed. His shoulder wasn’t quite so lucky. Charles let out a sob as Mr Prendergoost continued to talk, although his voice was now soft and silent, no longer booming.
“I will explain these rules only once to you, boy. You will answer to your full name, and your full name only. If you do not, or persist in silly nicknames, you will receive three cuts of the cane. Hold out your hand.”
Still in pain and shock, Charlie froze against the wall, not sure what the next best move was.
“I said, hold out your hand.”
Reluctantly, Charlie held out his hand, palms held out but trembling in fear.
“Palms down, boy.”
Three times in quick succession the cane came down on Charlie’s wrists, and three times he shrieked in pain. He withdrew his hands, tears streaming down his young face.
“Hold out your hands again, boy.”
“Three more for not holding out your hands promptly the first time. And three more again for talking back. I will not have insubordination.”
The Ghost was present here too. It had been present for some time, although strictly speaking it didn’t think in terms of time any more. What did interest the ghost was the expression on Prendergoost’s face, which was calm and collected even during the most frenzied strokes. He wasn’t beating the boy out of annoyance or even some kind of thrill he might get from dominance. If the ghost could say anything, he might have suggested that Prendergoost appeared, if anything, a little bored.
Six strikes quickly descended, but by the time Mr Prendergoost had swung four times, Charlie could no longer feel anything in his hands at all, although he could solidly see the physical evidence in the lines now striped across the fair skin of his wrists. A thin trickle of blood was starting to ooze from his left wrist where the tip of the cane had dug in on one particularly enthusiastic strike.
“Now, take yourself along to Matron before you bleed all over my carpet.”
Charlie stumbled out of Mr Prendergoost’s room, shoulders trembling in fear and pain. His fingers didn’t seem to want to work, or indeed move in any kind of normal way, and he didn’t know where Matron was.
Still, he had learned one new thing. It most definitely wasn’t worth knocking on Mr Prendergoost’s office door in order to find out. Not that he could have formed his heavily spasming fingers into something resembling a fist that could have knocked on the door in any case.
“Ooh. Those look NASTY.”
The voice startled Charlie, and he let out another involuntary shriek, worried that some further violence was going to fall on his already pain-struck body. Turning as he shouted, he came face to face with a boy perhaps a year older than him. The newcomer had thick brown hair, a heavily worn school blazer and scuffed shoes. In just about every respect he was the exact opposite of Charlie’s shiny new blazer, crisp school hat and exceptionally shiny shoes. Shoes that Charlie realised, as he finished looking the newcomer over, had small spots of blood on them. As the adrenaline from the shock of the voice wore off, the pain from the caning returned with a vengeance, and Charlie felt his head starting to spin. Without particularly wanting to, but having no semblance of control, he started to topple towards the newcomer.
“Oof! Blimey, you are in a bad way. Run afoul of Prendergoost, eh? Well, you’d better get along to Matron” explained the newcomer as he caught Charlie before he hit the floor. “It’s just along the corridor, second door on the left. Don’t knock on the first door, mind you. That’s Mr Craske’s rooms, and he’s even worse than Prendergoost. My name’s Gregory Hawe, by the way. You must be Charles Leadworth.”
“How did you know that?” Charlie asked, as they started down the corridor towards where he presumed Matron’s rooms were.
“How did I know what?”
“What my name was?”
“Blimey! Do you think it’s every day that a boy cheeks Mr Prendergoost like that? You’re famous already!”
At that point, the two boys reached a door marked with a small golden cross and a bright red doorknocker underneath. “That’s Matron’s room” said Gregory. “I’ll see you later at tea.”
Charlie tried to wave goodbye to Gregory, but found that his hands were still essentially dumb lumps of meat against his frame. He couldn’t recall being in quite so much pain ever before, and found his body alternating between a kind of pained peace and a shouting clarity of agony with every heartbeat. It was then that he hit upon a new problem, albeit the same problem he’d had facing Mr Prendergoost’s door. There was no way he could get his throbbing fingers to form the fist shape needed to grasp the doorknocker in order to get Matron’s attention. Charlie sobbed in a mixture of pain and frustration, his wet tears now mixing with the contents of his nose and dribbling down onto his shoes, adding to the mess that was his first day uniform.
Charlie was grateful that the door opened as he stood there sobbing to reveal a thin rake-shaped woman in a severe black dress.
“What are ye doin’ out there boy? Why the snivelling? Something wrong with you? Well, come on, I haven’t got all day!”
Struck dumb, Charlie merely held out his trembling, wracked hands and wrists that were by now turning a purple shade, marked out only by thin line of blood that continued to trickle down the sides.
“Ah. Ye’ve been in trouble, haven’t you, boy. I’m Matron. You’d better come in.”
Charlie followed the lady inside her rooms. The room stood out for being painted bright green and being stacked with shelves upon shelves of bandages, strange looking pills in jars and sets of scales and pestles that looked well worn, and in one case rather bloody. Charlie was quickly directed into a chair by the lady in the black dress.
“Now, don’t you worry. This won’t hurt a bit”, she said as she took out some thin white gauze and swiftly started wrapping it around the boy’s wrists. Reaching to one of the lower shelves, she hefted up a large black container that had a white lumpy mixture oozing down one side. With practice born of expertise, she scooped up a large handful of the oozy mixture.
“This, though, this’ll sting. Bit of a bugger, this salve, but there’s nothing better.”
Charlie didn’t believe her at first, as the salve she painted onto the bandages seemed lovely and cool after the hot and angry cane strokes that his hands had only just endured. Then he felt a cold heat rising in his hands that swiftly became much worse than the pain had originally been. Worried that he was going to suffer more indignity, he whimpered under his breath, unable to keep all the noise in his head inside.
“Ah, don’t worry about that. The pain will pass, and with it the heat of the cane strikes. Now, just sit there for half an hour. You do know how to tell the time, right?”
“Yes… erm.. Miss?”
“That’s Miss Jenkins, to you boy. And I can see you’ve recovered the power of speech, at least. Prendergoost didn’t knock that sense entirely out of you, which I suppose is something of a small mercy. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time. Still, boys will be boys, and you’ve got to learn your place. Speaking of your place, look at me prattling on, what is your name, boy?”
“Charli… I mean, Charles Leadworth, Miss Jenkins.”
“Ah, well, Charles Leadworth. It’s half past ten now by my clock on the wall over there. Can you see the clock over there?”
Charlie nodded to indicate that yes, he could.
“Oh, good. I’ve had boys in here with eyes boggled from the pain, but I can see you’re a little tougher than that, although obviously not that bright, as otherwise you’d never have ended up in Prendergoost’s rooms on your very first day and all. Anyway, when it’s at eleven o’ clock, you can take those bandages off yourself, and go to elevenses in the main hall. That’s where you had your first assembly this morning, in case it’s skipped your addled brain. I’ve got to be off to a staff meeting, so just sit there and wait. Don’t go messing with anything in this room, or I’ll send you back to Prendergoost myself!”
With that, Miss Jenkins gathered up a small clipboard jammed full of handwritten notes and headed out the door.
The ghost sat in the corner of the room. The collected pain within the room was quite palpable to the creature as it saw echoes of a past replete with broken arms, countless bruises and more cane strikes than would seem feasible. The memories weren’t those of the ghost itself, but places like this always left such a strong resonance that the ghost found itself unable to recall even the simplest of details. In short, simply being in this place was overwhelming to the ghost’s sensibilities. Focusing itself in on the boy, it noticed how still and quiet he was sitting. Compared to the frantic action of Prendergoost’s rooms and even the busy work of Miss Jenkins, it seemed as though time had simply stopped to pass. It was only the simple movement of the boy’s chest up and down and the ticking of the clock that made it apparent that minutes were passing by one by one. As he watched the boy, he saw tears that had been running hot and fast slow first to a trickle and then stop, leaving salty streaks to coalesce into tiny crystals on his cheeks.
The threat of Prendergoost’s name alone had sent a pain spike through Charlie’s hands, and he sat quite still for fully thirty minutes as the pain in his hands slowly receded. As the clock eventually wound around to eleven, he gingerly unwound the bandages from his left hand using the fingers of his right hand, which by now had some mobility. Both wrists unwrapped to reveal solid black marks against the skin that in the following days would turn first purple, then a blotchy yellow colour before returning to their more normal pink hue. Placing the soaked bandages into a bin, Charlie headed out the door and back down to the hall where his day had begun.
He was astonished to note that in the hour that he’d been first in Prendergoost’s rooms and then Matron’s, the hall had been transformed. Tables had been erected and long stools placed beside them. Each and every table was teeming with boys, starting from his own age and heading all the way up into the lofty teenagers, who all seemed to have congregated down the far end of the hall. As he wandered in, many eyes looked towards him, some with obvious pity at the dark marks still evident on his wrists and the obvious discomfort at which he moved, and others in a more mocking sense. Spotting the boy Gregory amidst a pack of boys towards the close side of the hall, Charlie headed over.
“Ah, Charlie, there you are. Did Matron sort you out?”
“Yes, thanks. Thanks for showing me where her rooms were.”
“Not a problem, not a problem. Now, you’ve missed the early orientation entirely, which means you don’t know where your stuff should be, or where anything is. Luckily for you, I do. That trunk over there — is that yours?”
Gregory pointed over towards the far wall of the hall, where Charlie spotted his school trunk. Clearly, it had been pushed aside when the tables were brought in and left where it was.
“Yes, that’s mine. What should I do with it?”
“After you’ve eaten, you’d better shift it over to the dorms sharpish. We’re due at Rugby at half past, so go and get some food quickly. I’ll get some of the other new boys to give you a hand to carry it. Looks like you won’t be lifting much today.”
With that Gregory let out an involuntary chuckle, and it reminded Charlie of the pain in his hands. Spotting the glum look on Charlie’s face, Gregory continued on, trying to distract the boy.
“The food is over in that direction, although most of what you get at elevenses isn’t up to much. Still, it’s good to get something inside you before lunch, and you’ll need the energy out on the rugby field.”
After securing a cup of tea and some rather heavily burnt toast from a rack, Charlie sat down and navigated the tricky task of eating with exceptionally sore hands as best he could manage. He couldn’t quite shake the impression that many of the boys in the room were staring at him, and to be fair, many of them were. He wasn’t to know it at this point, but it was rare for a boy on his first day to land in so much trouble quite so quickly.
The Ghost watched the boys eating their meals, and wondered what it was that food tasted like. The pain of the matron’s office having subsided, some memories were returning, but it could only come up with a cold and rather functional association for food. Food was what people ate in order to fuel themselves for further activity. In some key way, money was involved. But why one boy chose toast with a thick black spread on it while another chose a chunky orange one was a mystery to it. It knew it should know and recall these things, but couldn’t figure out exactly why it was that it couldn’t recall precisely.
Having finished his toast, Charlie was greeted by Gregory and two other boys. Both had thin frames, wore glasses and had a shock of unruly red hair, and it took Charlie a second to work out that they must be twins.
“Charlie, this is Daniel Benson” Gregory said, pointing to the redhead on the left “And this is Michael Benson. We’re all in the same dorm, and we’ll help you with that trunk.”
The Ghost looked at the group of boys intently. Many of them seemed familiar, but oddly out of shape to its perception, as though they’d been shrunk considerably. The only exception to this seemed to be the boy Michael, who appeared to be solidly stuck in place. It was only intermittently to the ghost’s view that Michael appeared to move at all, and yet somehow this seemed fine and natural to the ghost. It couldn’t remember why this was fine and natural; it just was.
With that, the boys headed off to grab the trunk and transport it to the dormitory. When they arrived, Charlie noticed that every single bunk bed had two trunks against it except for the very closest one, which only had a single trunk.
“That’ll have to be your bunk” said Michael, dropping the trunk at the rear of the bunk.
“Back of the bunk means bottom shelf!” chimed in Daniel, clearly repeating something he’d only just learned himself based on the sing-song nature in which he expressed himself.
The dorm rooms simply made the ghost sleepy. It began to wonder why it never seemed to travel from place to place; it just was where it was when it was there, and while it was in a place, it felt as though it had always been there. Perhaps it was the dorm making it sleepy and muddying its thoughts or perceptions of what was happening.
“The bunk nearest the door’s the worst one, I’m afraid. Closest to the room monitor, you see, so if something is happening you’re the first checked and the first blamed. Can’t be helped, though, as the rooms are full. Now, get your gym bag together, and then we’d better scarper over to the gym. Follow me!”
Charlie, Michael and Daniel followed Gregory out of the dormitory and across the main quad to a low brown building that, like the rest of the St Leonard’s grammar buildings bore the school crest carved out of marble. The gym building was clearly a newer construction than the old school hall, however, and the marble crest against the brickwork looked astonishingly out of place. Heading into the building, the boys filed towards the changing rooms. Charlie trudged into the curious smelling changing rooms, met with an odour that mixed boyish sweat in with a touch of mould and damp along the way. Finding a peg, he hung up his bag and removed the crisp and new blue rugby top and black shorts. He noticed as he did so that every other boy had the same crisp new uniform save for the boy who had crept up on him outside Prendergoost’s rooms. Gregory’s blue collared top was already somewhat worn, with the school crest hanging by only a half dozen threads, and if his shorts had ever been black, there was little sign of that now, based on the grey worn objects he was pulling up over his knees now.
“Ah, Charlie. What’s up?”
“I don’t mean to pry… OK, I suppose I do mean to pry.. I mean… well..”
“You want to know why I’m in such worn clothes when everyone else is donning ruggers gear for the very first time, right?”
Charlie went bright red. Was he really that obvious?
“OK.. you weren’t around for first orientation, were you? I had to repeat first form again because my parents decided it would be good for me, being a bit smaller than everyone else in my year. Don’t worry — within weeks, your rugby gear’ll be lucky to look this good.”
With that, Gregory sat down to lace up his rugby boots, and Charlie did likewise. The two boys then headed out into the brisk winter air. Charlie enjoyed running about, and was a bit of a dab hand at tennis for a boy his age, but he’d never played rugby before.
Ninety punishing and heavily muddy minutes later, he knew why. Perhaps it was the physicality, perhaps it was the cold winter air, or perhaps it was just the way that Mr Groenewegen screamed at the boys to “Get stuck in boy!” every five seconds that he found most jarring. It was only later that he realised that the spur of adrenaline from having a boy twice his weight, a lad he would later find out was called Colin, run screaming at him was a very effective way to forget about the pain in his hands. It was also how he discovered that diving out of the way wasn’t the way that rugby was played, and that having to run two laps around the rugby pitch as a penance was in fact preferable to running on the pitch based on the bumps and bruises the boys sported on their very first day.
The Ghost watched the match with some interest from the stands. The boy Charlie wasn’t much of a player, that was clear, and the boy Michael kept annoyingly flickering in and out of view, never quite in a real place when he reappeared. Memory was dim, but the Ghost was quite surprised when the numbers twelve and two spun into view in front of it. It took the ghost several seconds to work out that this was the score.
Even running around the sidelines and thus not being a real part of the match, it wasn’t a surprise to Charlie that his side lost the match 12-2. The boys headed back in for the compulsory showers and changing routine that would quickly become part of Charlie’s daily chores.
The rest of the day passed in something of a blur, with the introduction to lessons (English, Maths, Latin, Botany and Choir) before a brief evening service and dinner. Charlie’s head was in a complete spin, and he felt sure he’d never feel quite at home or at rest at St Leonard’s Grammar School.