I`ve posted this story before but this is the shortest version of it at 5,151 words,left the bunnies out and assorted bits and bobs.Now can`t decide whether or not i prefer it shorter...
It was a toy box styled school but built by someone who only really knew how to build in Victorian gothic.An odd out of place building, not fit for purpose with it's scary staircase, dark interiors and playground that could turn to sheet ice in winter.
Surrounded by a high wall and built out of red and black brick there were two square buildings at either end full of classrooms, it was a spanner shaped building.
It Consisted of two school buildings on two levels with a similar styled primary school on the upper level, this school held the smallest children and the kitchens. The high narrow stone staircase that was the only way to the upper level felt like a high wire act, often reducing small children to tears. The black painted safety railing was no comfort at all, alarming just to get near it as you could see straight through,to the sheer drop beneath.
My friendship with Clemency was based on her easy laughter and my agreeing to go everywhere with her.Clem had a fear of the school bathroom, which I found it hard to disagree with although I chose to ignore it myself. There was nothing to like about the bathroom. A dark, grey damp concrete box with all the Victorian built green painted wooden cubicle doors looking so out of place now as to be shed like. Teachers insisted it had been tiled,it was hard to believe and no one could get tiles to stick anymore.
The school`s high tall windows made sense at least. By the time you were almost tall enough to see out you were big enough to be leaving.A consequence of the high windows was the unnecessary darkness. The dark green painted hallways were the darkest, the small of fresh paint ever present. The flickering lights ought to have added a creepy air but no one noticed the bad electrics after a while.
The dark wooden central hall with its ever-present smell of boiled cabbage had the largest windows, yet that too was dark.
Life seemed to be moving very fast age eight. I was always
trying to take everything in but much of it didn`t mean anything to me yet anyway,i was so used to the unfamiliar. Life itself is unfamiliar.All the things you don`t know are coming up at you fast. Adults forget that. Only other children your own age know how easily it is to drop the ball. They understand but they are no less forgiving. No one gets a pass on dropping the ball
"Do you all want to be equally stupid or equally clever?
A teacher might ask and add;
"It`s a hard world out there"
They remind you;
"You won`t have any time to catch up later on if you fall behind now"
Added to this the adult world does not always like to let you entirely trust your own thoughts;
Why does it always smell like cabbage?"
we often asked and
"It`s your imagination "
was the reply.
We could be our own worst enemies when it came to imagination. When you get too used to not knowing things the temptation is always there to fill it in, to make it up.
Imagination is what myself and Clemency most held out against when we first met new girl Valeria. Clem`s reaction to her was so strong I worried about her imagination taking over.
She shouted in hushed tones
"Sam, whose she?"
I did not catch the urgency of it till I saw her myself. Valeria was odd looking. Much odder than anyone me or Clem knew.
I tried to ignore the fuss her presence had created and carried on gluing tissue paper petals to the gaudy flower in front of me. We always seemed to be gluing things. I made a joke about it but Clemency was not listening. There was something she could not get her head around about the new girl. She was not the only one.
I thought it would soon come to light why Valeria seemed different. Coming in during term time as she had it was likely I thought, someone would come along to introduce her and explain. “Best just wait" I said. So we kept waiting .In the meantime Valeria accounted for herself well enough chatting, laughing and making friends with everyone around her table.
Everyday Clemency and myself and our entire table came up with explanations of how she was just different and difference is what you are supposed to expect from those who are different "There is something to like about everyone, even if it`s just one thing" Clemency`s mother had said and we all agreed.
"We`ll find it" I said to Clem.We knew we had to. Sooner or later our class would be mixed up as it often was for some activity involving groups or pairs or both "To get you away from the people you are comfortable with to make sure you can mix and get along with everybody “
My mother explained.
Valeria did not help. She had sensed our concerns and took it for unfriendliness and hostility she sat at the far side of her table staring hatefully at anybody on our table who caught her eye. Clemency seemed to catch the worst of these and was sometimes quite shaken up.
There was no point appealing to MS Halisted, the most disinterested teacher I ever remember. Everybody loved her of course. You could get away with so much so long as you were never too loud. Having learnt we liked crafts it was all we really did anymore. MS Halisted sat behind her desk pretending to be busy, she was just daydreaming in action.
I tried to speak to Valeria at first. I approached her in my friendliest most convivial manner and was simply brushed past and ignored. Clemency was incensed. MS Halisted could never even find Valeria`s name when calling out the register and after several weeks had still not added it.
Both Valeria`s set of friends and Clem`s and mine were soon edgy with each other. Uneasy and unsure how to end this thing that had not`t really started yet.
Valeria became quite comfortable at her table.Sometimes when we forgot ourselves she forget herself too. The more comfortable she became with the sound of her own voice and the odder and stranger that voice became.
Words she knew how to pronounce ordinarily became wrong. Mrs. Halisted seemed most taken with Valeria in these moments. It was always obvious she favoured her.
We wondered what they were not telling us about Valeria, was it for our own benefit and how? Was it a condition? Often Valeria`s only real struggle seemed to be within herself. Sometimes she wanted to scare us, her black looks lingered too long, then at other times her better side won out.
"But she shouldn`t be able to scare us so much..."Argued Clem
When the inevitable group activities occurred it felt like a dark dreary day of doom had fallen on me. Separated from Clem who had been kicked in the back of the leg on several occasions. Although she never saw Valeria, she knew it was her. Clemency was ready for a showdown but I was still torn between thinking Valeria something horrible and hoping it was our imagination.
Everyone was tense. Group activities could really bring out the worst in people, they seemed to be meant to induce high drama although I did not know it back then I just knew to expect tears,tantrums,unfairness and drama. I found myself being sat down next to Valeria. Well she will have to speak to me now I thought. Which of course she didn't.
We have to get on! We have to mix! I told myself and took it upon myself to make it happen. It did not happen until Valeria was absolutely assured of my politeness and civility and when she was her sense of frustration only grew and grew. She knew I still did not like her and wanted to call me out as a liar for being so polite.
Valeria mocked something slight Clemency had done wrong in her group at the far side side of the classroom.Clem looked enraged but kept silent on my behalf.
I was never going to stoop so low as to fall for a bit of goading but Valeria seemed as fixated on impressing her followers with my humiliation as they were on seeing her succeed.
I still hoped to find that one thing I could like about her.
As we took a tally of the eye colour of everyone sat around our table I noticed none of Valeria`s group had been split up. I had one friend sat to the left of me, a girl called Paula
"Her eyes are black"
I said to be noted down on the tally
"Your eyes are black too"
I said to Valeria as cheerfully as I could. Valeria fixed me a delighted look;
"People`s eyes are either blue, green or brown"
she said and waited for everyone to laugh at me but no one was yet sure who was right. Valeria stared at them expectantly. I looked over to Paula and she rolled her eyes. Valeria was still trying to sound in the right so I cut her off saying
"Her eyes are as black a dark brown as human eyes are supposed to get"
The tension cracked like a body following a foot through a frozen lake. Valeria refused to look at or acknowledge me but she also did not know where to take the argument. She appeared to be appealing to her followers. Someone shouted
"She is human!"
It was a humiliating defence. I heard her sigh and her friends then all jumped up with the two arms to legs, eyes and nose argument. Valeria looked sad. I realised then that I liked her for her sadness. Everyone wanting her to be something on her behalf.It might have opened up a new way forward but at that point MS Halisted`s presence made a rare appearance and was felt. It was home time.
We packed up in silence. Clemency`s table had been packed up and ready to leave the whole time attention was on us.Clemency flew from the room with the parting shot
"You`re dead and you better get used to it!"
In the awkward silence that followed Valeria made a quiet comment to her friends about it not being a very nice thing to say but the mass crush was on to get out.There was much shouting about Valeria as everyone piled down the long hallway toward the doors;
" What`s it all about?"
and the occasional
There was a lot of explaining in general and defence specifically from her friends. As we jostled and shoved closer to the doors someone yelled
"What about them she friends with?"
amidst all the confusion I knew what this meant and shouted back
"They think she`s foreign!"
To some laughter. Her friends tried to get in a defence but it was too late the doors swung open and the bright winter light freed us.
We peeled out and the tone changed, arguments past and some awful thought almost lost just caught me.Every voice but hers. Could it be she was not leaving? No one was there waiting for her?
I did not really want to believe it.I imagined she trotted off smugly with a mother or brother later.I wanted to turn up tomorrow and have everything explained.
My feelings about Valeria were forever mixed after that, coloured by sadness. Though I still found i never wanted to be alone with her.
The most immediate reaction to our fall out was from the boys whose en mass response was to goad us incessantly into more arguing. It amused Valeria and me brief that the response to that from us both was identical silent stonewalling. It didn`t amuse Clem one bit.
MS Halisted was watching Clem,myself and everyone on our table closely so we tried to use this sudden alertness to find out more about Valeria. It didn`t work. She really was not even on the register.
The next day however MS Halisted expressed great surprise at not finding Valeria on the register and made a great noise of going off to find out why. It seemed like a set up for a showdown that was not coming. It didn`t. When she returned she seemed in very good humour,apologising to Valeria over some or other Mix up. She was of course on the register, adding slightly accusingly
"Why wouldn`t she be?"
It struck me through with horror.
On the way up to dinner that day I felt someone kick me in the back of the shin but I didn`t say anything. For all her cleverness there was something not very new about Valeria. Clemency spotted me rolling my eyes ,she came over and commiserated
"You can`t get into a fight with a ghost"
We looked around for Valeria knowing she was not there. That was the first time we said what we thought in seriousness. We didn`t really know if we believed it ourselves though.If we were wrong we would be wrong together at least, failure of too much imagination or not.
After our moment of matching silence at the boys I had noticed Valeria seemed to be looking at me occasionally with less intense furious hatred and it occurred to me she might even be going to talk to me,it was a scary thought I tried to dismiss. Not least due to the sheer height a girl like Valeria would presume to be talking down to you from.
It was just when Clem`s fear of the dungeon like bathroom had begun to rub off on me and I decide I didn`t want to go alone that Valeria decided to confront me in it.A face to face with Valeria was always going to be a high noon moment. She simply stood there in front of a grey concrete wall waiting for me to go and stand in front of her. The first thing she said
"Why do you hate me?"
I began not thinking she would believe me.The fact that I only said it once appeared to confirm to her that it was a lie. She didn`t want to believe it.Thinking that a lost cause I went on
"I don`t think you like me or Clem.You don`t even like your`e own,your friends."
She shot me a venomous look
"They aren`t my own!"
They appeared to like her quite a lot but I didn`t know what to say. Didn`t really want to say anything. I just wanted to get away but she was still talking
'You are all so stupid. I picked the best at being stupid at least'
I thought I saw someone behind her then. Valeria was studying me for a reaction. I was waiting for her to explain what was going on. The fear and the cold froze me and what actually happened then is all a bit of a blur due to the passage of time the confusion of the moment and the blow to the back of my head. I have thought most often that I received the blow on the way out but given what I think I saw I`m not so sure. Maybe Valeria knew more about the power of suggestion than she ever let on. The other children behind her appeared to be fading in and out of view. Seven or eight of them. It was dimly lit single bare bulb bathroom but the bulb was never known to move at least. The children seemed to be fading in and out of view as if under a bulb swinging back and forth. Someone was beside me too.
After Valeria had laughed awhile at my paralysed state she became sad and sorry for herself, I managed to unfreeze enough to make a dash for the door and that was when something hit the back of my head
"you are so stupid"
I just heard her say quietly, sadly.
I was so dizzy and light headed leaving the bathroom i knew i was fainting. The whole world kept sliding sideways and shutting down. I only made it back to my classroom with the help of Paula who saw me as she was coming down from the cloakroom. She held me up and steered me.I could feel and hear but not see for a while.
Back in my chair my vision returning i saw the children from the bathroom,clearer and more solid looking now,were amongst us. Everything was extremely wrong. I shut my eyes and hoped not to see them again. It was vision of hell.
The children peeled off their own flesh, burnt, bloody and black, they threw it at each other. A child walked backwards unwinding the intestines of another. Others were wrapping themselves in intestine like christmas tinsel. I buried my head in my arm it was too much to look at. It felt like the end of the world.
Amongst my own classmates there was at first blissful ignorance.Clem couldn`t see. Not at first and then eventually everybody could.
Across the room from me a blonde boy with a neat bowl haircut was one of the only all right looking of the other children. He was stood quietly so I looked at him instead of everything else until he came into sharper focus. The blackened burnt looking girl stood next to him was blowing gently in his ear with a straw clasped in blackened fingers. Out of the blonde boys other ear oozed dark blood and brain. The blonde boy widened his eyes in mock horror at the boy in front of him, only meaning to complain she was not blowing hard enough. The laughing boy was shaking and shrieking with laughter and at blonde boys insistence took over the straw. Steadying his laughter for one huge blow laughing boy then caused an explosion of blood and brain matter to burst all over the wall. Blonde boys eyeball popped out of its socket onto his cheek. Laughing boy and the girl double up in hysterics .It was now the most gruesome scene in the room .There was no escape.
I don`t remember the rest of that day. Someone shrieking at me to tell them what was going on, a teacher… I couldn`t speak. The school was closed for a week after that day. Due to an outbreak of a nasty bug according to my mother. She said the nightmares were a symptom and everybody was having them. She insisted I had it because I had the nightmares but after all week convincing her I was fine she I finally wore her down to
"well you had a bit of it."
I couldn`t get hold of Clemency, her parents said she was not`t well enough to come to the phone which seemed impossible. My mother was so calm and laid back about it, sure it would soon clear up.
The first day back was unusually terrifying for different reasons. My mother walked me up to the school doors as usual and then to my horror kept on walking with me through the doors and up the hallway!
That dark winters day the school was a shock for my mother. The hallways looked like midnight. My mother commented she didn`t know how we put up with it to my bewilderment. The lights began flickering as always and the end of the corridor disappeared in black gloom. she fussed nervously with a piece of paper
”This should be her”
It was Mrs. Goldgren the head mistress`s office. She looked stricken to meet us but said the opposite. I wondered if it wasn`t just being found at all realising now Mrs. Goldgren made a point of telling everybody in the upper school her office was in the lower and everybody in the lower that it was in the upper.
My mother sat down on a dark grey plastic office chair in front of Mrs. Goldgren`s desk me beside her. Mrs. Goldgren proceeded to rattle off a long apology that sounded well-rehearsed.She looked in a position she didn`t want to be in, alarmed to see us.I noticed Valeria sat crossed legged the other side of my mother watching Mrs. Goldgren carefully. In the dark gloom under a small high window a group of Valeria`s friends milled about.Seemingly in a light of their own turning slowly off and on.Mrs Goldgren and my mother saw nothing.
"Mrs. Halisted had been removed from her position"
I suddenly heard
"Following complaints from parents"
"I should think so"
Replied my mother.I looked over at Valeria wondering if she had any explanation,she turned her face to me, the whole right side of her face was black. The longer I stared at her the more her burnt skin shrank back till her eyeball bulged and her teeth grinned horribly. The face might have been devastatingly gruesome had I not detected the briefest flash of a mischievous smirk across the still ok side of her face. I had to look away.
When I could I looked over at the group under the window to see what they were doing. Their flesh boiled and blistered red like lava and then blackened like charcoal. I stuck my head to my mother`s shoulder, catching a glimpse of disbelieving sneer from Mrs. Goldgren
"Can you see them Samantha?"
She asked me somewhat sarcastically
"What are they doing?"
Mrs.Golgren stiffened herself and sat upright,putting on her friendly face she addressed me in the manner of someone dealing with someone deranged
"we have the plaque up for the lost children now Samantha.We know this is what they wished.Or what you all believed they wished.All the children who caught the bug had the same nightmares you see?Take a look"
She waved an arm in the direction of a bronze plaque on a wall next to a filing cabinet in a humouring a lunatic style
"How many names?"
Mrs Goldgren surprised to hear me speak replied instantly "Eighty six"
She then comforted herself with some more formal apologising on behalf on the school this time to Clemency and myself whom she felt had been particularly affected by the "outbreak" which was somehow connected to the "hysteria" My head buried in my mother`s shoulder she said to her
"You have my sincerest apologies"
"But is it over?"
Asked my mother. I looked up to catch Mrs. Goldgren shrugging in the direction of the plaque and then looking at me as if to indicate I was involved.My mother and i looked at each other questioningly. I Felt sure she was about to mention the bang in the back of the head I had received but the next sound we heard was the sound of the plaque on the wall being dropped to the floor. It very obviously did not fall.The disturbing sound we heard was of it moving through the air at an unnatural speed, thrown to the ground.Swoosh.Clank.
Mrs. Goldgren span round her chair to stare at it mystified she turned again to eye me suspiciously.My mother cutting her off with an accusatory
"Maybe the screws were loose"
The lights were flickering. The door burst open and a woman stopped herself in her tracks realising she had not knocked
asked Mrs. Goldgren
"The stage curtains are all down again."She informed her.
Heather noticed the plaque on the floor and in a confused state went straight over to it.As she picked it up all the other pictures on the walls made a similarly speedy descent to the ground.Heather looked at me accusingly
"The screws are all missing"
Seeing my mother had just about had enough Mrs. Goldgren stepped in saying
"It was not Samantha Heather"
Mrs Goldgren tried to gather herself to smooth things over sensing all her time spent apologising was about to be lost. As we looked to her all the things on her desk began to slide slowly forward and onto the floor. No one could ignore that.
"They don`t think it`s enough!"
I squeaked nervously.Thinking it obvious. Heather who had been frozen to the spot suddenly moved again, we all thought she was about to accuse me again but she became distracted by something in the air. There had been something of a mist, dismissed as the steam that you get when you come into a warm room from cold wet weather, but it was not wet out and this mist was becoming blacker, more like smoke. Looking around we saw the walls seemed blacker too. The tension was too much for anyone to stand .I thought we all had the same idea at that point to Get Out Now .Mrs. Goldgren did not, laying out her hands in a sudden display of unearthly calm Mrs. Goldgren stopped us.She told Heather to sit down.
Speaking slowly and quietly it became clear Mrs. Goldgren`s greater fear was to lose control of her school "
If we make two more plaques one for one entrance and one for the hall, will that be enough"? She was addressing me for some reason. I looked up at my mother for help. Then I saw Valeria was sat on the floor again and looked to her, she shrugged. I was scared I would become too frightened to move and just wanted to get out, I clung to my mother urging her toward the door. Valeria was stood under the window now with the others
"We want to be remembered" They murmured deep in unison. It was terrifying sonorous sound the like of which i had not heard before or since.Everyone else had a reaction too although they appeared not to have actually heard what was said
"They want to be remembered?"
Shouted Mrs. Goldgren trying to remain calm I nodded
"WHAT did they say!?"
But I could not speak.A sound like the rest of the school roof caving in was heard.it was almost a relief just to hear external sound the tension in the room was so thick. Then the thought came to me, the remembered dream that may as well have been what I heard.
The eighty six children were all in the hall when the fire started. Sat together in front of the stage taking a boring lecture on a play that they were to stage, they were disinterested but well behaved. The smoke that first started appearing through the stage curtains was not much at first, it was being held back by all the damp material. They had substances they took for granted that were unknown to them very dangerous.When the fire took hold in the storeroom at the back of the stage it was with a an unnatural ferocity.
The children were told to sit and wait when the teacher first saw the smoke, she walked away unawares of the impending disaster. The children were soon overcome by the smoke. Valeria was the last to be overcome.She made it to a window.
Why didn`t you go for the door Valeria!? I wanted to know desperately.I dare not ask.Mrs. Goldgren was still appealing for answers. The room was turning blacker. The crashing sound came again. I couldn`t speak and there was no negotiating with Valeria and i could not have explained that! Heather shot up and was desperately rattling the big brass door handle by the time we were all behind her. She let go only when Mrs. Goldgren attempted it briefly. Then went back to panicked rattling.Mrs Goldgren reappeared as suddenly has she had disappeared with a fire hydrant which without wasting a second she put straight through the doors glass pane. We were out.
I thought I had better recount as much detail as I possibly could in order to help you better deal with your current situation. I have no idea what will be helpful and what will not so I am just including everything!
After that meeting in Mrs. Goldgren office things did quiet down at the school.The school inside seemed ever darker all over.Blacker. In need of repainting. Clemency made a completely startling about turn. Her parents seemed to have brainwashed her.She would not be budged from the belief that it had all been her imagination. It was all very odd. Luckily with we were all familiar with odd by then.
We were told repeatedly we had a very nasty infection, a contagious fever, causing terrible nightmares and an out of control imagination. That was the strangest bug I ever heard of let alone caught! I have certainly never heard of anything like it since. Malaria maybe? In West Leeds?
I remember after everything realising we only had few months left before we moved to a bigger modern middle school further down the road.I walked the distance everyday wondering nervously if it was far enough away.
Walking past the weird old primary every day I still sort of remembered it as a scary place but had forgotten why in the intervening years.I must have had a recurrence of it whatever it was because I recall seeing Valeria one last time when I left the middle school for high school.
We stood under the trees that edged the middles school playing fields at the end of the driveway saying goodbyes.
When almost everyone had gone I felt someone kick me in the back of the shin. I span round ,knowing I would see someone I knew but not who and there she was about three feet beneath me. I knew her instantly . The height difference now shook us both so much we staggered back. Valeria`s face filled with a raging inferno of hatred .She could not even stand to look up at me, she simply turned her rage away and disappeared in fury back to her school. She couldn`t let me forget but facing me was like facing what she had lost all over again. If she had opened the door instead of going to the window she would have survived.