By the time she had reached the top of the drive, it was dusk. Myra managed to pick out the word ‘girls’, carved into the sandstone arch above the entrance to her old school. She hauled herself up the steps and through the archway just as the sun disappeared. Where did Ruth go? Myra called her from the top step.
‘Ruth, Ruth’. Her own voice came back to her, Ruth’s did not.
The years slid away, it was like yesterday she took the steps two at a time. Only ever made register by the skin of her teeth.
The old cloakroom, still here? It was old, forty years ago, old and cold.
‘Ruth, Ruth’, again
Her shoes click clacked across the tiles as she ventured further in.
The whiff of girly body odour and smelly knickers turned her nose up. She tripped over a mud caked plimsoll. Where was Ruth? Myra thought she heard something.
‘Ruth is that you?’
A gabardine mac fell from a peg onto the floor.
And again the only voice, reverberating around the damp, peeling walls, was her own.
A tap gushed into one of the washbasins, then another and another and them all.
‘Ruth, you’re not bloody funny, turn the frigging lights on.’
Myra couldn’t remember where the switch was, couldn’t remember if the switches were accessible to the kids. She began to feel her way around the sticky walls, stumbling over the hockey sticks and netballs beneath her feet, kicking them out of her way in desperation to find the way out – the way she came in for God’s sake.
Her breathing became short and fast. Shorter and faster still when the nattering and chuckling began.
Myra was panicking now. The throbbing in her ears almost blotting out the clamour which was reaching a crescendo. Then suddenly the doorway. She fell through it, into the lobby. Then silence. No Ruth.
Crawling a few yards on her hands and knees, she reached the quadrangle before attempting to stand. There was a rail, she heaved herself up.
The Quad, a large lawn, was overlooked by a rather grand house where the caretaker lived with his wife and son Lucien. Lucien would stand at the landing window with his willy hanging out. This performance was attributed to being named Lucien.
The classrooms built around the other three sides, were still standing.
Myra moved on sensing her way around. She wished she could see properly. What with the fading day and her failing eyesight, she was struggling. Ahh, room fifteen. Was there a light? Hypnotised, she made her way towards it. Squinting through the door, she could just make out all the desks, crouched, one behind the other in four rows. It was in room fifteen that her cousin Raymond stood up and threw something at her whilst yelling,
‘Shut yer gob!’
Raymond earned himself a hundred lines for that. He hadn’t seen Totty Lawson, so called because he had a wooden leg, behind him. Totty, outraged, bellowed,
‘Manners Maketh Man, on my desk, tomorrow morning at nine!’ She smiled at the memory.
The glow which attracted Myra to the room, moved around. Up and down the aisles, in and out between desks. Up and down, in and out, around and around it went. Myra’s nose was pressed on the glass, staring, eyes like saucers. The glow, brighter now, was gravitating towards her. She went to run away. Run? Rather, move as swiftly as her hip would allow. Too late. The door to room fifteen scraped opened and then a voice, that voice, that calm, yet demeaning voice. Hushed, but not gentle. That voice which always and even now scared the hell out of her.
‘Come in Myra, you look worried.’
Worried? She thought she would faint. Wished she would. Myra didn’t faint, just stood there her mouth a gaping hole.
The glow fizzled out and instead, and with attitude, stood Zombie Banks, headmaster.
‘Come in Myra’ and again, ‘You look worried.’
Myra walked towards him, in a trance. But then that was always how she walked towards him, unless riveted to the floor, too terrified to move. He was a fearsome sight, as his name implied. Zombie held the door for her.
‘Sit down and take out your books.’
Still in a trance she walked to her usual desk and sat down. They were all there. Sandra in her red spotty dress, Julia in blue, Fred and Johnnie Lamb. No Ruth. All facing the front, books open at Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha. Zombie’s favourite. Oh my god, he’s bound to ask me to recite something, he always picks on me.
By the shores of Gitche Gumme,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
Myra found herself thinking in the present tense, wasn’t this the past? Terrified, she scanned her memory. Desperate for another verse.
Till she bore a son in sorrow,
Bore a son of love and sorrow,
Thus was born my Hiawatha
No, there was no more. It was a mile long anyway, nobody could remember it all.
Zombie turned away to write on the board. From the back, his tall frame, black gown hanging in folds, reminded Myra of a gigantic cockroach. Suddenly he turned and pointed at her his eyes ablaze.
‘Pythagoras’ theorem, word perfect, stand!’
Shaking she began, ‘In every right angled triangle’
‘Wrong, sit down. Anyone?’
Nobody moved. He began to tell a tale of when he was in the Army. He was a Warrant Officer. He had thousands of men under his command and had to train them all to be loyal, brave soldiers capable of blasting Jerry to smithereens. To hear him talk, he had won the war single handed. ‘Pity there wasn’t more men like me’ he boasted. There wasn’t a kid in the class who would argue with him.
The bell went, Myra giddy with relief headed for the door. Zombie did not call after her. Nor did her friends. But then they wouldn’t, she remembered. They were all dead, long dead.
She escaped the quad as fast as her wobbly legs allowed; her heart beating ten to the dozen, her face red and smeared with tears. Down the steps and halfway down the drive, she stopped. Hot on her heels was Ruth. Ruth with the knees, her with the hip. ‘Christ!’
Ruth and Myra, in unison, ‘Where the hell have you been?’
‘You won’t believe it.’ Myra told Ruth,’ ‘Where were you?’
‘In room fifteen with that mad bastard, Zombie.’
They limped down to the gate, holding on to each other, neither daring to look behind.
Out in the street they scanned the faces of passers by looking for other friends, long gone. But no, all appeared normal.
‘Is The Black Bull open?’
Later after a couple of gins, they calmed down and discussed their simultaneous experience, hardly believing it had taken place. Indeed wondering if it had.
‘Learn anything new?’ they asked each other.
‘Only that if you jump in a river in full combat kit, you’ll break your neck if you don’t unfasten the sodding strap that holds your steel helmet on!’