A trip down memory lane...
Joe walked for a long time, he didn’t pay much attention to where he went his mind was filled with thoughts, emotions and memories, stuff he’d thought he’d dealt with years ago, stuff he was uncomfortable with. In truth it was merely stuff he had buried away in the dark recesses of his mind. Now here it was all bubbling up and resurfacing. He had kept all the emotional stuff about his parents buried, for six years following his mother’s death, isolating himself and increasingly becoming a loner. He felt bad that he hadn’t seen more of his mother but hadn’t he had to work? If only to keep paying the bills, bills that just kept getting bigger. Joe knew it was bad for him to bury his feelings, he’d been told often enough by his father that doing that would eventually rot out his soul, but at the same time he just didn’t feel rightfully equipped to deal with it all…at least not all in one place, it was too much! He therefore tried to take bite sized chunks and deal with them one at a time, that might work better for him. But each time he tried to select a morsel the stuff all came along at the same time and it just sent his emotional side into overload. His usual reaction to that overload was to lock himself away until the emergency passed.
Natalie had told him grief affected people in different ways, well Joe’s way it seemed was to bury it, put it all in a back corner of his mind and forget about it! It had worked with his father’s death, almost twenty years now and he doubted he’d seriously thought about his father in that time. OK, maybe, occasionally when something came up that reminded him, but nothing regular. Joe’s father had not been the easiest of men. Joe smiled to himself ruefully, his father hadn’t exactly treated him like a human being. Joe had felt sometimes as if his father would have been happy with a machine, just push a button and out come the answers that would have fitted his father’s world view.
Joe had assumed it would, could be the same with his mother. He’d been closer to his mother, especially when it became just her and him together…maybe that was the difference, maybe that was why he felt the pain so keenly now. He’d just had a very abrupt and intrusive reminder of how he felt about his mother that afternoon and it was unnerving to see how it ate at him…seeing her as she had been before she married his father, the epitome of efficiency in her prime!. It felt like opening up old scars, he tried to shake it off and drew his jacket closer around him with a shudder, but he knew those scars were being reopened and he was emotionally bleeding again for her.
Why should he feel so bad? Nothing that had happened to her had been his fault, he hadn’t put the cancer inside her. But his guilt at not being there for her more meant he felt as if he were somehow to blame for all of it! If he’d cared more for her, if he’d not been so engrossed in his own life. If he’d not worked every hour God could send then maybe it would have been different. Joe remembered the evening at the hospital when he had heard the doctors say they had found a huge intestinal cancer and operated. The news had hit Joe like a crossbow bolt between the eyes fired from the dark…Cancer? He’d never even suspected anything was seriously wrong, she would have times when she’d collapse but cancer? Once he’d come home to find the house dark and her lying on the floor unable to get up. He’d worried himself almost into a hospital bed over that, how long had she been there? Why had no one found her? But cancer that was something entirely different!
Cancer you see is no mere trifle, not in any form. If caught in the early stages it can usually be treated and many patients recover, letting them live active lives as if the big C had never happened to them. OK, Joe thought it could relapse and come back which was usually bad. But those early stages had a good prognosis. However, once a cancer reached a certain size or longevity it would spread, what was the word? Metastasise, infecting other parts of the body, that would then grow their own cancers. Of course some organs in the body were vastly more important than others, a cancerous kidney and you still had one, losing both would mean dialysis; but lose your liver, lungs, heart, brain or get your bone marrow affected and that would usually be all she wrote!
Cancer experts themselves named three or four stages of cancer, depending on the cancer itself. Joe stopped momentarily as if trying to remember the various stages, he felt it important to remember. His foot hovered for a moment before he continued on.
Stage one, even stage two could be treated with chemicals, chemotherapy, or radiation. Hugely powerful drugs that left the patient sick as a dog for a few days in the hope that the doses would kill the cancer cells or blasts of intense X-Rays that would incinerate the cancerous tumours. Drug companies were always offering improved drugs that had better chances and better success rates.
Stage three, that usually incurred surgery, they literally cut out the tumour in the hope that any secondary infections were minimal, and could be treated with doses of radiation and chemicals. In many cases the surgeons would be only partly correct or they would miss some secondary cancer growth. Prognosis was difficult and usually not that good. Sometimes stage three was considered the final stage.
Stage four was the big one. Stage four was considered incurable, end stage! Joe shuddered visibly at the thought, even the words sounded so fatalistic and final. He pictured fighting a fire in the body where the fire, the cancer, was officially considered out of control and the fire crews were just going to let it burn. It was usually at this point that you started getting your affairs in order and making sure your will was all sorted.
With Joe’s mother they had found the intestinal cancer at stage three. She’d been admitted to the accident and emergency after another of those falls and they’d checked her. Simple enough! But they had found it covering at least half of her intestines, operated immediately, literally cut it out and hoped. She hadn’t undergone any chemo or radiation therapy because at her advanced age, it wasn’t considered a cost effective option. Joe sneered a half smile, it always came down to money didn’t it? He felt his earlier anger rise again, always money! His hands clenched into fists and for just a moment he felt the magic rising to meet his anger. With a shuddering breath he let his anger go. Joe was starting to realise, perhaps in small steps that he was dangerous. Just suppose he lost control of himself at some point, in a blind rage he lashed out, he had enough power already to turn suits of armour and metal targets to molten slag at two hundred metres. He shuddered, and here he was contemplating getting even more powerful.
Joe’s mother had been in her forties when she had him, a somewhat risky birth by her own account. So she had died in her early eighties and that was just a case of, if the cancer didn’t kill her the next cold spell might. She’d been moved into a care home to give Joe a chance to sort out things and he’d done his best! He could almost hear his plaintive cry in his mind. She’d finally come home after six or was it nine months away? Then she had had maybe three years at home. Joe had to admit that had been good. He didn’t know if he’d call it the best time of his life, his mother was going progressively senile, she could be infuriating, but just having her there was reassuring…Then she’d been admitted to a second care home to give him a break, respite care they called it, time off for good behaviour. She’d then gone in a steady and rapid downward spiral. They’d transferred her to a third, then transferred her again to a fourth care home. This final care home had been a trek for Joe to make. He couldn’t fault the staff they were nice enough but regular visits had been hard to do; he’d had a job to try and hold down and that journey had just drained him, physically and emotionally…but he’d done his best!
Joe laughed quietly to himself as he walked, his feet scraping and kicking gravel, that would probably be his epitaph, he could see it now engraved on the headstone Here lies Joseph Winstanton. He hoped to live forever but in the end…he just did his best! It was just in most cases his best just didn’t seem good enough. Maybe he was beating himself up but what else could he do? Or could he have done other than what he did? Joe felt he’d done his best visiting his mother as often as he had, the sight of her being eaten alive by the cancer that had returned, of the vital strong woman she had been just curling up into herself, shrunken and so…well, so old looking! That had almost made him quit seeing her after the first visit. He’d returned home and cried for her through the night, how cruel life could be…but in the end he’d done his best! He’d tried to grin and bear the pain he felt, he’d seen her on her birthday bringing cards and cakes. He’d done his best too trying to deal with her advancing senility, again causing him so much emotional pain. Joe remembered that birthday visit even now. Walking into her room and not being recognised, to hear her asking him who he was and who’s birthday it was; it was all so heart rending. And, as if in a final two finger salute from life, she had been suffering encroaching blindness and deafness, it just made everything a struggle, a hugely draining emotional struggle that he just felt he couldn’t deal with, not all in one place. He’d done his best with the house, he’d done his best trying to hold down his job, in spite of everything else. He’d even done his best in trying to get a personal life for himself…In his early forties and still without a single relationship to his name. But it was all like he was holding onto a handful of dry sand, the more tightly he closed his fist to hold his life together the more sand slipped through his fingers. Joe sighed deeply and sullenly trudged on.
Joe’s mental turmoil turned over his mind with each step as he worked his way through the emotions, studiously cataloguing and pigeon holing them away…as he had always done before. After finally heaving a deep regret filled sigh and having run over all of his memories of his mother and his father he lowered the lid on that chest of memories and firmly locked it. He knew he’d revisit it, but the worst of it was locked away and he silently prayed it would stay there. Joe raised his head and looked around. He gasped and looked around again confused.
“Christ! Where the bloody hell am I?” For a few minutes he turned and turned around, he didn’t immediately recognise his surroundings. Absolutely nothing looked the vaguest part familiar. If he had paid attention to where he went maybe he’d know how to get home again. But he was standing on one side of a tarmac road with hedgerows and open fields on either side while the remnants of a small orchard were on his side. He was literally in the middle of nowhere! Joe looked down at his wristwatch, it was almost four thirty, he’d been walking for nearly fifty minutes. He couldn’t remember if he’d made any turns, indeed he couldn’t see any as the road snaked away from him on both sides. So logically all he had to do was make a one hundred and eighty degree turn and he could head straight back the way he’d come. It was then that he spied the small lane, the broken tarmac road descending down a slope to his left. Gradually, as if digging deep into his memories, he started to see familiar landmarks, landmarks that he would have passed every single day on his way to primary school. What had brought him out this way he wondered? A walk of just over a mile made twice a day from the age of four, mostly with parental escorts but in the later years Joe had done the trip on his own. He’d even ridden a bike to school, the other children had jeered because it wasn’t the best of bicycles, but it had been Joe’s.
“Yes, Oh God yes!” He clasped a hand to his mouth, his primary school was out here. Joe gasped again and looked around. He remembered the tiny little school that had only catered for three classes of about thirty pupils a piece. He smiled, those had been the days, every lesson taught by the same teacher, no moving class to class you were put in one room and spent the school day there. There had been no set timetable, the teachers did whatever subject they felt like doing, as long as the hours matched up with what was expected they had a free hand. In the main building the infants had been in one classroom. On the left side as you looked at the front. A class known as transition had then been in a separate mobile classroom at the rear while juniors occupied the room next to the infants on the right. He wondered briefly if it was still active, he’d heard it had improved and changed a lot over the years…hadn’t all schools? Joe smiled to himself again. He suddenly remembered the headmaster, even though the guy had been a gruff no nonsense Yorkshireman Joe had had a soft spot for him…maybe even a love for him that he didn’t feel for his own father. The year Joe had left to go onto secondary school had been the same year that the head had retired. Joe remembered the party the school had thrown to celebrate. He’d even been selected to write and give a speech about how good a head the old guy had been, for an eleven year old boy it had been daunting. But he’d done his best! Oh God yes those had been the days…
Joe whirled around trying to get his bearings. Thirty odd years could change a lot of things but yes over there...that was the lane. That lane that ran downhill to the school entrance. The entrance was “concealed” by a big old horse chestnut tree that all the kids had collected conkers from in the autumn.
“Oh my God...” Joe breathed, he hadn’t set his eyes on the place in the best part of what thirty six years at least! Joe looked longingly at the lane, dare he go see the old place? With his emotions all rattled up as they were, would stirring these old memories help anything? This mental trunk had been locked away for a long time, was it worth taking a peek? He suddenly felt a deep longing to be back in the one place that he had felt honestly happy in.
For a few moments he appeared to debate with himself whether he should or shouldn’t go, then with a short abrupt nod, he crossed the road towards the top of the lane. Memories started immediately to flood him, it was as if nothing had changed in all those years. The tarmac of the lane was still all broken up with potholes, exactly as it had been all those years ago. Funny had no one tried to repair them in all those years? He half expected to see his friends and classmates running and chasing their way to the main gate, mothers pushing pushchairs as they dropped off their child or picked him or her up after a long school day. Joe could almost hear the excited chatter…in fact. He stopped for a moment, he could, he could actually hear it, it was faint as if coming from a long distance.
As Joe walked down the little lane kicking little pebbles that rattled on the tarmac he saw the entrance to the school. Amazingly in thirty six years, absolutely nothing had changed, it was all exactly as he remembered or maybe that should be as he felt he remembered from thirty six years ago. The big horse chestnut tree was still there, how old was that tree now? Standing by the main gate, it looked the same, shouldn’t it be older and more gnarled than it had been and maybe the bark blacker? Joe approached the open gate, the same wooden farm gate with the broken rubble farm track that veered off down beside the school giving the septic tanker trucks access to the lower playground and the school’s septic tank. The gate looked as if thirty six years hadn’t touched it...nor he doubted had a paintbrush. Joe momentarily thought it unusual, these days with increased school security, that the gate should be open like that! He’d been here in less security minded times. He drew in a deep gasp as he raised his eyes from the gate and was met with the sight of the once so familiar light grey stones of the old main building, it was still there…exactly as he remembered it! Exactly to the stone! Faintly he heard the sound of the school’s bell ringing, again there was a far away sound to it and a creepy strange echoing. Another surge of old memories flooded him, causing Joe to grip the gate for support. He drew in a shuddering breath, staggering, then letting it out slowly. As if in answer to this surge a small child, a boy, dressed in the same sort of clothes he had worn all those years ago, tore past him at a dead run. Running toward the school. Joe gasped, for a moment the boy looked like his best friend Pete. Joe smiled Pete and he had been inseparable as friends. Before he could stop himself Joe called out “Pete wait up!”, the child half turned and beckoned him.
“Come on Joe, you’ll be late, didn’t you hear the bell? Old Tatty will have your hide this time! If he doesn’t have a cow first!” Icy fingers gripped Joe’s spine…it was Pete! Just as Joe remembered him, but that was impossible, how could Pete be here looking like he was only eleven when he was at least in his forties like Joe? Joe hadn’t kept up any sort of contact with his old friend but he should not be like this! Old Tatty had been the nickname the kids used for the headmaster, his real name Joe remembered was Ilkley. At the memory of the name he buckled over as if punched in the stomach. He straightened up uneasily, yes that had rapidly changed to Ilkley-Moor, as in Ilkley Moor the place and then been replaced with the old song On Ilkley Moor bar tat, hence Tatty; no one ever called him it to his face of course but Joe often wondered if he’d known his nickname anyway. Old Tatty had been a tough head, the kind you did not want to be on the wrong side of, but for all of his tough exterior he was fair, he almost never got angry and given he had thirty juniors in his class that was no small feat.
Joe cautiously followed Pete through the gate towards the main entrance, he felt like he was walking in a dream; he hoped it wasn’t going to become a nightmare! None of this could be real surely? Everything, literally everything looked like time had forgotten this place after the day he left. Pete approached and appeared to open the old black oaken door, or had he just faded through it? The door black and strongly smelling of creosote was left slightly ajar, for Joe to enter. Joe stood on the doorstep looking at the door, it was all exactly as he remembered it being. The same door, the old ring handle that looked like a black metal coil of rope, icy fingers of memory gripped him again, squeezing tighter. Joe looked back to the gate and felt something pull at him, an invisible force wanted him to go in. Suddenly Joe wondered if that might not be such a good idea after all.
Joe looked around himself again, more memories were washing through him. His body jumped with muscle spasms as each memory surfaced. Suddenly he was remembering the play time sessions; morning break, lunch break and a break in the afternoon unless Old Tatty chose to spend the afternoon playing sports like rounders on the lower fields. The children had followed an unwritten almost religious rota of what they did for fun. In the spring there had been roller skating, with the steep gradient of the lane it was a natural environment. You couldn’t go outside the gate so that had been the start point. Start on the tarmac at the gate with good well oiled skates that strapped onto your feet made to run fast! None of those rollerblades or boots, these were traditional metal skates with leather straps. The children would all link up forming a vast squatting train by the main gate, holding each other’s waists. Then with everyone joined on, the front person would kick off and the whole conga line would start to roll and once started nothing was going to stop this particular express! The train would literally thunder all the way down, to the lower playground where everyone would peel away, laughing and chattering excitedly. Joe half smiled at the thought, thirty or forty children, about half the school at the time, thundering past the infants classroom, what must it have sounded like inside? Once in the lower playground you simply skated individually back up the hill to set it up all over again, kind of frivolous really but just so much fun!
Suddenly, Joe caught his breath, had he really just heard that clack...the sound of old metal skates. The sound was much closer and followed by faint chattering and then a growing roaring thunder. He turned from the door and his mouth dropped open. He couldn’t believe it, his eyes bulged and a sudden fear gripped his guts, he was looking at a conga line of forty indistinct children lined up one behind the other, they looked unreal, ghost like they shimmered. They started moving, slowly at first but accelerating in the familiar long conga line squatting on skates holding each others waists, snaking down the hill. The weight of thirty nine children behind the front person meant that by the time that front skater reached the corner of the school. The place where the water fountain was. That child was usually rocketing along. Joe had taken that front position several times and it was the most exhilarating experience, to hear his skates whirring, the ball bearing races screaming in protest. You had to be fast too or you’d simply have everyone else piling on top of you. As he watched in awed silence the front skater shot past the corner with the same clattering whir as three hundred and twenty well oiled wheels running on their races behind him buzzed like infuriated bees. Joe smiled at the sight even though he felt terror gripping him. He gasped just as the leader reached the corner and vanished, pop! As if he winked out of existence. Joe staggered, it was as if his legs had suddenly lost the strength to support him, those kids couldn’t be there…he must be dreaming or imagining it! Joe pinched his arm in the hope he would wake up but the last of the children shot past the corner with a faintly echoey cheer and was gone. Everything fell eerily quiet.
“Quiet as the grave…” Joe shuddered. He’d been so proud to have his first proper pair of skates, bought with money he’d saved. His father had not understood and accused Joe of wasting his money. But the thrill of them running down that incline, Joe had polished those skates to a bright silver gleam.
Joe now turned back to the door again, his hand reached for the handle unbidden, only for more memories to try to crowd him. Again without any conscious effort he said, “What had been for the summer term?” Oh yes, the summer had been cricket on that lower playground, football as well but cricket in the summer. A four was counted as the ball hitting the chain link fence, six if it did it without bouncing. If you lifted it over the hedge into the lane outside then you were scored six but also judged to be out as no one could field it. Joe staggered forwards touching the wood of the doorframe for support. The memory was being torn from him with a force that tore his breath away. If you got unlucky, or maybe lucky, enough Old Tatty himself might come out and bowl against you. Being a large beefy Yorkshireman he prided himself on his cricket skills; usually you had to have been in bat for a while to face him. He did it solely to give other children a chance. Being small children most of them bowled underarm, but Old Tatty he bowled properly…overarm! Just having that solid red cricket ball hurtling towards you usually induced a state of mild panic in whoever was batting and that usually meant the batsman would miss hit the ball and be leaving in short order.
Joe gasped again, something was definitely going on. He’d just heard the click of a cricket bat hitting a ball and the cries of the children playing. Joe shuddered, his knees ached and felt weak, another memory hit him hard, hard enough that he felt winded as his head rocked back on his neck. He had been simply terrible at cricket, most sports were not his forte…that was until that last summer when by some miracle he’d improved his game so much that no one could touch him! Even Old Tatty had tried three balls at him, usually it would be out after just one. But Joe that summer had been unlike the others, they would collapse and get bowled or caught out. Joe had summoned himself, fronted up to the ball and derisively sent Tatty’s first two bowls for fours. The first he’d hit almost with a how do you like that then? look on his face. He’d then clipped the third with the bat’s edge for a single. Old Tatty had left perhaps sulking back to his office but Joe thought secretly smiling with pride. Joe wasn’t put out but the single meant he was not facing the bowler any longer. As if right on cue Joe heard a cry of catch it! And the voice sounded so much like Old Tatty it was surreal. That had been what Old Tatty had shouted on Joe’s first four, it had so nearly been a six or caught by the fielder!
“Didn’t get me out did you old man? Wonder how you felt about it?” Joe knew that Old Tatty would probably be long dead now. He had retired when Joe turned eleven so unless he was getting telegrams from the queen he’d be gone! That couldn’t have been his voice! Joe sighed and wiped a hand across his eyes, they came away wet with tears.
Now memories of sports day hit him, for a couple of weeks before hand the children would practise the events, especially when the running track got marked out in white chalk dust on the grass. Joe remembered the races and events, he remembered the coloured fabric streamers for first, second and third positions. The children pinning them with the little safety pins to their socks or shorts, the successful ones looked like morris dancers! Joe had always loved the obstacle race, so much more complicated than the straight running race. His parents had attended only the one sports day in his whole time at the school, they’d seen him gain a second place streamer for an egg and spoon race, his only ribbon ever! Joe sighed hanging his head, he remembered that the pupil in each class that got the highest total of streamers had a chance of winning a trophy. Did they have to give it back after a year or did they get to keep it? Joe was sadly no sportsman so had never stood much of a chance in that sense, just not all that physically endowed really but he’d done his best…always!
“Good times though.” Joe nodded slowly, “I really enjoyed being here.” He could feel tears welling up in his eyes, he was going to be crying soon. “Makes me wish I could have stayed. I think it was maybe the one place I felt OK. Nobody was here judging me or bullying me…not like later anyway!” The sound of a loud speaker broke the silence, again there was Old Tatty’s voice this time it was clearly Old Tatty, no distortion or strange echo. It spoke cold and stark with an announcement of the Junior’s egg and spoon race about to start. He even started naming the competitors lane by lane. Joe felt himself sink to his knees, his fingers dragging down the black wood toward the iron handle. Silently he was pleading to wake up, he had a sense that if his fingers touched that handle he would be lost, sucked into this nightmare and lost forever.
Another memory crashed over him, “What had the autumn been? No please no more!” Of course, the autumn was conker season! Joe howled with pain as another memory was ripped from his grasp. With that big tree at the main gate it would literally carpet the area in dead leaves and small hard brown globes, you’d end up crushing most under your foot. Every pupil infant to junior would join in a competition to get the most, the biggest, the best. They’d play conkers at every break hoping to smash their opponents and end up the conker champion. Joe shuddered as a chill wind blew across him. He was close to a state of silent screaming, he turned his head towards the old tree and saw children walking underneath it, unreal, more solid than the skaters but still semi-transparent ghosts or memories, echoes from his past. Occasionally bending to pick up likely looking conkers.
“Oh shit! Please no more!” Joe pleaded quietly.
But in spite of his pleading, his fingers slipped lower, closer to the iron rope handle. Thoughts of the winter now came to him, Joe cried out another wail as his fingers slipped lower, almost on the handle, another inch and it would have him. Winter almost always meant snow and that meant snowball fights and snowmen building. He laughed one year he remembered so much snow had fallen someone had a go at building a full sized igloo! They’d diligently scraped the area clean of every trace of snow, compacting it into cubes and slabs and finally there was this small domed igloo sitting in the middle of green grass, another surreal sight. Of course if the snow got bad or deep then the gradient would become icy, treacherous, and that meant problems for parents to take the children home. As well as problems that usually closed the school...The heating system was archaic, an oil fired boiler that wouldn’t have looked out of place on an old steam liner, lit by Old Tatty dropping a burning paper towel into a particular hole in the top. If it didn’t work properly then the school would close, no one could work in the cold.
Joe suddenly felt on the point of tears, he sniffed back deep into his throat, the memories were coming so thick and fast. His head was bobbing and with each bob his fingers would lower closer and closer to that handle. Six, no seven years of his life had been spent here…how could he have forgotten all of this so easily? He cried out in surprise, a snowball out of nowhere smashed into the side of his face exploding with cold and wet. The sound of a child laughing followed in quick succession. It was April there was no snow, so who could be throwing snowballs?
Tentatively, Joe got up from his kneeling position. He looked down his hand firmly grasping the metal hoop of the door handle. He tried to pull it away but it was as if he was glued there so he placed his other hand on the old wood and pushed against the oaken door instead. He was now certain he didn’t want to, but whatever force was operating here would only be satisfied when he was drawn fully inside. As he pushed on the door his blood almost froze in his veins, his eyes widened to the size of dinner plates, standing in the entrance immediately in front of him with his arms crossed over his chest was Old Tatty! Solid and dark, very very real, if he was an echo like the children he was a very real looking echo. The look of thunder on his face said he was not best pleased.
“Late again Mr Winstanton, that makes three times!!”
“Yes, I’m sorry, Mr Ilkley I’ll try not to let it happen again.” Joe squeaked, his voice felt normal for his forty seven year old body but he heard the voice of the eleven year old boy again.
“And do you have any excuse or explanation this time Mr Winstanton?”
“No, I’m just very sorry Mr Ilkley.” Joe unconsciously hung his head, then lifted his eyes and looked into Old Tatty’s face. Something different, odd about the old man, he was just as Joe remembered him but something was off, a trace of something. For a moment Joe couldn’t see it, then he saw, it was as if the left side of Old Tatty’s face was falling…in slow motion, his speech was coming out slurred too.
“Your mother not ill then? Or is your father away again? No I guess your dog died? Or is it your budgie this time?” Joe rolled his eyes back down and shook his head slowly. Had he really used all those tired old excuses? “I see just no excuse then…I see!” Old Tatty’s last word slurred badly sounding more like she than see.
“Do you? Err can I ask how late am I Mr Ilkley please?”
“How late?” Old Tatty gave an exasperated look before tapping his wrist with an index finger, “Don’t you possess a watch Mr Winstanton? Let me see school starts here promptly at nine…so you would appear to be…thirty six years late!” Joe gulped audibly. Dream? If so he’d just had an ice bucket over him. If this was one of those back to school dreams shouldn’t that be minutes? Fear gripped him in a crushingly powerful bear hug that tore his breath away. Joe’s mind screamed to be released as he convulsed, clinging to the door handle. Whatever had drawn him here was relentless and wasn’t finished. The old metal door ring was starting to hurt Joe’s hand, his grip tightened to the point that his knuckles showed white. He heard a faint rattle and realised his hand was shaking so badly the ring was rattling against the wood. Old Tatty continued, his pallor had started to change now, he was changing to a ghastly pale grey white that reminded Joe of some paint he’d used on his mother’s room. “Mr Winstanton, thirty six years with no explanation. I shall have to consider a suitable punishment for you…I may need to call your parents in.” Old Tatty’s breath was starting to hiss like old gas pipes as his slurring and pronunciation deteriorated further.
“Yes I understand that.” Joe paled as he thought good luck on that, like you they’re both dead! How could all of this be happening? Joe told himself over and over again to wake up! Old Tatty was more than likely in a graveyard somewhere feeding worms…and, Joe gulped, from his appearance that was exactly where he should have been! His clothes were becoming mouldering rags and there was a strong odour of mildew and rot.
“Well come in and close the door boy, were you born in a barn? I’ve lit the old boiler so we will all have the room warm enough soon. We need to get the lesson started…I think we’ll start with English” Old Tatty hissed the word English like a live snake, “this morning.” Old Tatty turned and just for a fleeting moment, he blinked out of existence! It was only for the amount of time one might find between two heartbeats but for that instant he wasn’t there! Joe stopped dead in his tracks, his eyes staring at the blank space. He tried to get a grip on himself, he could feel the cold iron ring burning in his grasp now, his grip was becoming the sort that would break bones. He tried to turn his feet and run. But then Old Tatty reappeared, Joe felt gripped again by an icy strong grip that almost pushed him inside the old building. Joe wanted to scream, it took every ounce of his inner strength to step through the door, he fought every inch and every inch felt like he was losing. From not wanting to touch the handle he now didn’t want to release it. He was groaning inwardly, his worst subject at the school had been English. He had no problem with vocabulary, even grammar was not a problem, but his punctuation was atrocious. It was even a reason the head had wanted to hold him back an extra year. Joe just couldn’t get the hang of punctuation. As Joe passed through the front door, fighting every movement forwards, his sense of smell was assaulted by another memory. The cloakroom at the front of the school where the juniors hung their coats and outdoor clothing. It was the same slightly musty smell from all that damp and rot. Joe looked hesitantly and gasped, racked up along the wall hanging from the metal hooks were children’s coats and bags, one hook was empty. Joe did not want to look closer but felt the icy fingers drawing him to look at the small printed nameplate under the empty hook…the name was his own! Joe silently closed the door behind him and for a minute hung onto the iron ring on the inside. He felt that the only safe thing in this nightmare was the death grip he held on the ring. He wanted to rip the door back open and run, fear was crawling over his skin, up and down his insides like a million beetles. He pressed his forehead to the oak wood, pleading with whoever was running this show. He wanted out, everything felt so real yet how much was a dream? Or was he seeing ghosts after all? With a deep shuddering in drawing of breath he finally straightened up and horror stricken felt his hand release the door ring. He looked at his hand absently seeing the impression of the rope effect on his skin. He turned to follow Old Tatty, his hand ached from the monstrous grip he’d exerted. Old Tatty entered his classroom, he moved as if he drifted an inch or two above the floor. As headmaster he taught the juniors. Joe followed at a discrete distance, pleading over and over for this nightmare to release him.
“Now class…thanks to the fact that Mr Winstanton has decided to to join our happy throng at last we can get started…” Old Tatty’s voice echoed like his mother’s had, gravestones grating. Joe looked into the classroom, thirty children all turned to look at him. Every single one was a face he remembered, every single one! He could name them like it was yesterday he’d seen them instead of thirty six years ago, he remembered them all well! “Please help me!” he pleaded quietly.
The classroom was divided, an aisle down each side and one down the middle. The wall at this end had a huge blackboard on it and two lines of desks ran the length of the room, not crosswise in ranks but two long columns of wooden top desks, positioned so that students faced each other. So pupils sat with their backs to the aisles. Girls sat at the desks on the window side of the room while boys were by the partition wall. There was a seat free next to Pete. Joe coughed slightly and moved to stand behind it. He felt sick and shaky, he gripped the back of the chair with that same bone crushing death grip, it felt solid enough. He turned his head and stared at the wall behind him. It was covered in the familiar pale blue sugar paper that the school used for their backing material and stapled on to it were examples of the children’s work; drawings, artwork, written essays and mathematical graphs. Joe remembered them, almost all of them. He peered a little closer at an essay written on exercise book sized lined paper and stapled to the wall immediately behind him by one end of a treasury tag. That icy sensation of terror grasped him again so tight he almost passed out right there. He felt the room try to spin around him so he gripped his chair back tighter, he heard the wood creak. He recognised the work, he recognised the handwriting, the litter of red ballpoint marks for missed punctuation. He recognised it because his name was on the front of it; it was his work, he had written it, thirty six years ago! Old Tatty had pinned it up behind him to shame Joe into improving his punctuation.
“No!” Joe shook his head, gripping even tighter to the chair “This can’t be happening, I wrote that story thirty years ago, it can’t still be there! No! Not after all this time it can’t! I’m dreaming, I’m having a vivid nightmare in the day time that’s all.”
“That’s all Mr Winstanton…that’s all?” Old Tatty turned to face him, Joe felt a retching sickness crawl up inside him. Tatty’s clothes were disintegrating in front of him as now was Old Tatty’s skin, white as parchment paper and dry as autumn leaves. As each moment passed he looked more like a rotting cadaver. “I can assure you that is not all Mr Winstanton! First you turn up to my class late and then you won’t take your seat…SIT DOWN BOY!” Joe paled as Old Tatty raised an arm, flesh and tattered clothing hung from the upper limb dangling down like old rope. Joe involuntarily pulled out the chair before sitting down on it. He scanned the room again, some of the children were tittering and laughing, pointing at him, Joe felt deeply ashamed and timid. He’d been shy and timid at school...even then a loner! The children all looked pale, insubstantial, a couple of them appeared to flicker in and out as they turned to each other whispering.
Pete half turned to face him and whispered as Joe clasped his face in his hands rocking back and forwards, “I told you Old Tatty would have a cow! Great job Joe! Way to go…” Joe raised his face from his hands so he could respond. He wanted to say something like “It isn’t my fault Pete!” but as he faced his old friend the words froze in his throat. Instead of talking he suddenly retched. A huge part of Pete’s face and most of the left upper part of his skull were missing, just missing! While Pete looked like some grotesque ghoul, distorted, discoloured, even bloated.
“Pete?” Joe didn’t dare to breath, he hid his face and peeked through his fingers. He gulped and felt bile rise in his throat, he whispered, “Pete…what happened to you mate?”
“What happened…?” Pete turned and looked at him questioningly then reached up a hand to the missing part of his head as if stroking his hair, “oh you mean this, that’s easy old mate…I died! I got drunk when I was at college with some mates one night, we went out on a boat. I was so pissed I tripped on a life jacket and fell overboard. Before my mates could do anything I was dragged into the outboard propeller. My head got sort of chewed up. It was quick and relatively painless…I wasn’t found for a few days though, guess I took on some water.” Pete pressed a festering green hand to his chest and squelched as a little trickle of brackish dark water ran onto the floor.
Joe for a moment looked stunned, emotions fought to take control of his face; finally horror got the upper hand and beat out the rest of the opposition. Joe backed away an inch or two, Pete was dead? How many of the others were like that? Finally Joe knees buckled and he fell backwards of his seat, he vomited onto the floor, a loud retching repeatedly until he couldn’t bring up anything more. As he retched and puked more tittering and finger pointing from the other children. Joe was sitting in a classroom of ghosts, how many more of these children were dead? How many of his old classmates were still alive or were they all ghosts just sitting there waiting for him to join them?
“MR WINSTANTON!!” Joe raised his face Old Tatty looked like a cow would have been a mild alternative to what he was about to have! In all the days Joe had been at this school the headmaster had never raised his voice above a loud word, now his voice thundered…That was, what was left of Old Tatty thundered. That curious frozen half of his face looked like a bare skull, bone plainly on show, while his right arm hung uselessly. As he advanced he dragged on his right foot like it was moulded from lead. “Are you in s-s--some difficulty Mr Winstanton?” Old Tatty slurred and hissed the words badly. “Why haven’t you taken out your English exershishe book and begun your leshon boy? You arrive late! And then display this behaviour, I have never in all my years…are you doing this deliberately to spite me boy?” Old Tatty came shambling down the aisle in a crab like side on shuffle, dragging his right foot behind him like an old prisoner would drag a ball shackled to his ankle. Joe looked at the right foot Old Tatty was dragging, more correctly Old Tatty was scraping on the tiled floor; the shoe was little more than ragged leather scraps with long shell pink worms crawling in and out of the tattered remnants, while the flesh had gone almost completely. In fact his whole appearance was degenerating moment by moment, “One would have thought that the would be Great Magush would have been able to handle himself better!” Old Tatty roared, his left arm raised like a threatening club. “…he will be no match for anything, let alone that chaos lord, if he can’t handle a few simple ghosts!” Old Tatty’s face, what parts still had flesh, sneered a sickening leer. The children tittered and pointed, whispering the word Magus over and over. “Give up the magic Joseph, let it go before it is too late, you’re no match for him and never will be! He will awaken and he will consume the universe! All shall fall into darkness, the new chaos. All shall fall and we shall be free!” Joe gaped, he gasped, he shivered in febrile convulsions but about one hundred times stronger. His whole body started to shake like an epileptic seizure was gripping him. How could Old Tatty call him the Great Magus? How did he know about the demon? This was worse than any horror B-movie because it all felt so real.
Almost unconsciously Joe felt he wanted to vomit again, this time the pain in his gut reminded him that to vomit he had to actually have something inside to vomit up, so he instead curled into a foetal ball, he curled up tighter and tighter. From some distant place he heard screaming, long drawn out wails. He clasped his hands over his ears as he buried his head into his chest, curling his fingers behind his head all the time trying to curl up into a tighter and tighter ball. Anticipating the fateful blow from Old Tatty’s festering club like arm that would end his life and make him a permanent member of the class. The screaming grew louder and with barely a gasp for breathing in Joe realised with horror the screamer was himself.
Voices echoed and whispered in his mind repeating the words, give it up! Magus! Joe just carried on screaming, shaking unable to stop and unwilling to uncurl.
“Can I help you sir?” A hand touched him and Joe did scream louder than ever, he almost ricocheted off the high ceiling in his shock. For a moment Joe was at a loss, everything was suddenly very quiet, cautiously he uncurled his body enough to lift his head out of his chest.
“I’m sorry.” Joe said hoarsely, peeking out between his fingers, his throat was raw from the screaming, how long had he been here?
“I said can I help or assist you sir?” Joe blinked, he tried to focus on the figure standing in front of him, a big burly looking man in a dark blue uniform with a peaked cap. What was a security guard doing here? The guard coughed. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave sir, this building is not safe to be in…condemned see!” Joe uncurled only a little and raised his head to look around him, the classroom that had been such a perfect memory moments before was now totally empty, the walls were little more than gaping holes held together with old mouldering plasterwork, the holes showed through to the next classroom. Here and there old discoloured pages of exercise books littered the floor, blowing like dead leaves in a breeze, but otherwise the room was completely empty; no tables, no desks, no children, no Old Tatty. Just a barren empty room with an old tiled floor, even the old boiler was gone.
“I…well…I used to go to school here.” Joe said quietly, he wondered if he were still dreaming, or had he woken up and come back into reality now? Perhaps this was some new torture that would build to unhinge his mind again?
“Probably very different from your day sir, as you were obviously here some time ago...the school hasn’t been here, on this site for some ten years now! It was moved to a new purpose built site further along the road.”
“I was here thirty six or maybe even thirty seven years ago. I was here when it was just three classrooms, the headmaster retired the year I went. I haven’t been out this way or seen the place in all that time. I wasn’t even sure it would still be standing.”
“It barely is sir. The whole site is due for clearance and demolition. That’s why you really shouldn’t be in here, it isn’t safe! Didn’t you see any of the signs? Did you move away and have only just moved back?”
“No…I…I never left, I still live where I always lived. I’ve just never been out this way since I finished here. Christ what’s happening to me?” Joe whimpered, he defensively curled up again.
“Well you can see it’s still here sir...barely! One good strong breeze and this lot will probably collapse on its own, save the demolition company a packet! I’m surprised with the last storm it didn’t…” The guard opened an arm panning it around the room. “So I’m going to have to ask you to leave...now! Might I ask how you got in?”
“What? Yes, I came in through the wooden gate next to the old horse chestnut tree and then used the iron ring door handle on the outside door why?”
“Perhaps you should come outside sir, it will be easier to show you than to try to explain…and there’s less risk of the roof falling on you in the open air while I try.” The guard cast a glance up to the ceiling, vast areas of it were open to the sky, the whole building was little more than an empty shell. Joe shakily got to his feet, he almost collapsed sideways, he felt weak and drained out, the guard grabbed him to support him.
“That’s a good gentleman just come outside with me…” The guard ushered Joe to the doorway, the door he had entered through behind Old Tatty was gone! Just an empty door frame, splintered and cracked with charred blackened wood. Joe stepped out of the room into the old cloakroom area, it was littered with rubble and plastic sheeting, part of the wall between it and the classroom had collapsed into it. Joe leant against the door frame trying to get his breath. “I’d be careful doing that sir the frame is broken and could collapse at any moment, taking the rest of the partition wall with it. Might bring the whole bloody lot down too! Wouldn’t want you under it when it goes now would we sir?”
“Yes, sorry, but when I arrived this was just as I remembered it being, all those years ago, as if nothing had changed here.”
“Seeing ghosts then are we?”
“I think so...I saw my best friend Pete.” Joe felt like he wanted to be sick again, “Christ save me, half his face was missing, he said it had been chewed up by an outboard propeller.”
“The old headmaster looked odd too, like his face had fallen on one side and he was paralysed down one side. While the other children were sort of flickering in and out.”
“Sounds like ghosts to me, never believed in them myself, but you do get some strange things in these old places, especially after the sun goes down. Would that be Mr Ilkley you are referring to as the old headmaster by any chance?”
“Yes it would, why?”
“Because sir, I do know that Mr Ilkley died twenty one years ago in a care home, the old gentleman suffered a massive stroke to the left half of his brain!”
“Oh God help me!” Joe rocked back on his heels. The guard, concerned more that Joe might dislodge some major part of the building, took Joe’s arm again reassuringly and gently pulled him outside through the gaping hole that had been the main doorway, everything to either side of it was covered in plastic sheeting, while scaffolding poles and boards were supporting what was left of the decrepit old building’s stonework. All of the stone was black with soot, none of the lime grouted light grey stone in sight. Joe wanted to retch again as he saw the grounds, far from the grounds he’d seen with children running and playing, the place was a rubble strewn building site, a bomb wouldn’t have caused much more disarray. Joe turned back to the main building and gasped, he would have guessed that perhaps fifty to sixty percent of the building was gone, it was little more than a ruined shell, no roof to be seen, with only the thick outer stone walls remaining and they were crumbling. All of the wooden timbers that were left showed signs of blackening and soot, there had been a devastating fire here at some point.
“What happened here to close the place down?”
“They moved to a new site as I said sir. Wasn’t worth upgrading the buildings here so they got new ones…but if you’re referring to the burning, some wise ass decided to arson the place. That’s why they put me here to watch over it until it gets demolished.”
Joe turned to look to the gate, where was the old wooden gate he’d come through? All he could see was plastic covered metal mesh fencing, at least eight feet high in a continuous perimeter. Two very solid looking metal gates in a different corner were the only entrance and exit way. Standing just inside the gates was a small cabin. The old tree was gone, a litter filled crater marking the place it had stood.
“Perhaps a cup of tea might help you sir. Must have been quite a nasty experience for you. I’ve got a flask with me in the cabin you’re welcome to a cup.”
“Thank you, but I’m more of a coffee drinker.” Joe replied absently without looking at the guard, he was shaken to the core of his being and felt frail! All he really wanted was to get home, somehow the reassuring presence of Natalie was all he wanted right at this moment. “I think I’d better be going home now. I’ve got a date with my girlfriend at some new restaurant.”
“Nice. Have a good evening then sir.” Joe looked at his watch, it had been four thirty when he’d arrived, it was almost five now, how could thirty minutes have disappeared so quickly? Joe broke into a shambling half run, half jog. He was going to be late for Natalie, but then again once he told her about this he was sure she’d understand. The guard called after him wishing him good luck and a safe journey home, Joe raised a hand in acknowledgement waving it half heartedly. He left through the metal gates and sighed deeply as they clanged shut behind him. Maybe wandering down memory lane hadn’t been such a good idea after all!
The mile and a bit trip home would have usually taken Joe fifteen minutes, twenty at his normal ambling rate of walking, but at his shambling half jog he covered the distance in ten arriving outside his house out of breath and close to collapse. For some moments he stood gasping for air and bending occasionally to cough and spit, sweat beaded on his forehead as he looked blankly at the front of the house. Occasionally he turned his head to look back along the road, a momentary fear passing across his eyes. His run had been partly due to his lateness but there was also a creeping feeling that whatever they were at that old school would somehow come after him. A groping crawling sensation that the thought of those phantoms coming to his home scared him more than he thought possible.