The Old School


It is strange when a book becomes a living thing, lifts off the page, and you have to write about the characters, or you feel they might become neglected or fade or decay or lose limbs or potency.

The more I write books, the more the characters begin to live, become people I admire and have affection for. Love. What has happened to make that happen, to be unable to live without them? I can’t go on a train or bus or walk through the school playground without seeing them; I have long conversations, and they strip layers from my artifice and leave me with nothing. They demand honesty. They can be brutal. Fear stalks me, and they know it and use it. They can hurt me deeply, as only those closest to you can.

Sometimes I panic about neglecting characters or feel they may be hurt, or they want to be done with things and abandon me. I feel guilty while taking assembly, holding a meeting, or having lunch, or striding through the corridors, or speaking to children, meeting worried parents, taking money out of the bank, cleaning my teeth, or tending my greenhouse, or putting flowers on my parents’ grave. The guilt is always waiting, tapping on my brain, catching my eye in a mirror, or moving past the surgery window as the doctor checks my pulse. Or my ghost-friend, Savaric, appears to remind me with a knowing smile. Sometime their honesty might kill me.

I feel sorry for having reached this point and trying stupidly to be inscrutable, pretending not to be there, as if I cannot endure the thought of you knowing who I am—offering only a modicum of duty to you, by just including short glimpses into the light and shadows of my life.

There is no mystery to who I am in your world, but in mine…well, that is why I am writing this, to make sense of it all. I want to wake up one day and know. The only way to do that is to push open the doorway into the dark.

A scene or a place leaps out of my past. I panic—have to write it, visit the place, embrace and wrestle with the ghosts that populate its shadowy streets and alleys and strange land of skeletal trees and misty fields.

The “Old School” has arisen—a mirage of dull square buildings and rickety teaching huts. The first school I taught in. Let us drive there.

My memory is charged with shifting images and pictures of the rooms and spaces, the children I taught—a cast of characters, now departed. I really need you now. Keep close. This will not be easy.

I had expected to see its buildings whole and strong. I knew it had closed. Something terrible had happened. Parents had taken their children away.

Our car passes along the concrete avenues of avuncular semis and gaunt maisonettes. Dreary Victory Flats, an ashen cold war relic, drifts by, its stark square silhouette dimming the weak sunlight.

I expected to see deserted classrooms, the old assembly hall with its gleaming floor, lines of coat hooks, wire trays, and book heaps stacked high, some toppled. Old Apple IIs, BBC Masters and Commodores, blank and broken, innards yanked out and smashed; the giant roller chalkboards bearing only graffiti and crude scrawlings of genitalia. The noisy Octagon, team lists pinned to corkboards, rolls of honour, and toilets pungent with fag smoke and urine. Outside the silent staff room, the memorial garden gently tended. I even had checked on Google Earth to see if it was all still there. I had expected to see these things.

But now we walk towards the chain-link fence. A red sign. site closed. no access.

There is a dog hole in the wire. Come with me. Let us see.

There, an old concrete streetlamp, light smashed, a mute witness to the desolation. Desultory boys used to congregate beneath it and smoke. Everything has gone, each stone ground down to a sterile shingle of concrete and brick. See the dead bonfires of charred drawings and exercise books; chair legs, like hacked-off limbs, protrude from skips. The memorial garden has been bulldozed, its bonsais and saplings snapped, and vehicle tracks snakeskin across its floral beds and sculpted lawns. The little plaques of commemoration are crushed and twisted, flower garlands and wreaths snatched up by reptilian JCBs to be scrunched and minced. Lines of skips, like tanks, await evacuation beneath circles of wheeling gulls and crows.

One low brick wall survives. I used to drink my coffee here, and kids would gather with their crisps to chat while footballs thudded against the tennis-court fence. Follow the footpath to the end and look! Look! See! Class 3W gathers around the battered wooden door, before sweeping like a wave into room seventeen, flooding the aisles between the rickety chairs and desks. The room always bore the stench of wax and disinfectant; there was a baited rattrap by the door.

Place your hand on the classroom door handle. When you do, everything you planned to do morphs. The lesson you had schemed is snatched from your pocket by a piskie. I’ve always known that from the very first time. I used to get excited at school, sitting in a lesson, waiting for the teacher to arrive and the door to open. To walk through that door is to transform who you are, to walk through the wardrobe, to cross the river, to open the trapdoor. Try it.

I remember. Class 3W had flowed into the room—twenty-nine heads facing front, senses switched on, minds alight. I handed out twenty-nine copies of Macbeth. “Not enough, sir. One more needed.”

Baffled, I rooted out an extra book. “OK, act three, scene four—the banquet scene.” I looked around the room. Fifteen pairs of seats; there should be one spare.

I took a paper register. Twenty-nine “Here, sir.” No “She’s away. She’s miching.” Unusual. There should be one spare seat. I looked up. There were none.

“Is anyone here who shouldn’t be? Has anyone come to the wrong room?”

“None of us wants to be here, sir.” Laughter.

“No one wants you here, Elvis—you stink.” Laughter.

“OK, OK. Let’s get on.” I paced the room as we read the text. This was getting to me. I stared at each child then looked across the room, expecting to see their double. They all had exercise books. There should have been one without.

When we did the part where Macbeth goes mad, I was reading the lines aloud. My voice didn’t sound like my voice.

“Bit loud, sir!”

“Sssh! Sir’s acting!”

I ended the lesson early. “Cor, cheers, sir!”

“Leave your books by the door.”

I won’t tell you how many books were in the pile. You know.  Don’t you?

The senior mistress told me off for letting the class out early. “You’ll never make a teacher.” She shook her head.

At the end of the afternoon, I sat in the staff room, staring across the fields to Victory Flats. I couldn’t talk to anyone about what I had seen. I would have to live with it.

I refused to teach in that room again. I said I was allergic to polish.

Savaric, the ghost, said I shouldn’t have been afraid. It had happened before. I just hadn’t noticed.

"Brilliant descriptions of characters and places enrich a twisty plot that kept me guessing right to the end. John Simes is a master story teller."James Stevenson, Author