David Gatward spent a considerable part of his life confusing not just himself, but those around him. He spent most of his childhood and teenage years wondering what it would be like to be any one of the following (in no particular order): actor; musician; carpenter; army officer; writer; helicopter pilot, and highwayman.
He suffered the usual illnesses (measles, chicken pox, pizza-face acne) and, for an embarrassingly long period of time, was a bed-wetter. He saw his first ghost at 16. At 18 he had his first book published. And saw his second ghost. At 19 he went to college. Four years later, qualified to teach, he went in to publishing.
Managing his career with all the skill of a blind sea captain in a hurricane, he ended up in the civil service and ran away as soon as redundancy was offered. Writing took over, thanks to a couple of ghost-writing contracts and, quite to his own surprise, a book deal to write The Dead. The rest, as they say, is history...
Atticus Clay, twelve years old and addicted to breaking the rules, for once, did as he was told.
“I have a question for you, Master Clay.”
Mr Scriviner, head teacher, wearer of numerous shades of brown, and collector of agonised moments in his pupils' lives, was sitting opposite Atticus at the other side of a worn oak desk. The surface of the desk was decorated with a taxidermied squirrel playing a harmonica, a photograph of a steam engine, and a pile of reports.
Mr Scriviner leaned back in his chair and it creaked in complaint. He was an enormous man. When he strode through the school, it sometimes seemed as though the walls bent inwards, warped by his collosus. He was bald and wore a moustache that made him look like a walrus.
Atticus said nothing. Speaking out of turn with Mr Scriviner was never a good idea. Sometimes, when he got really angry, he'd lean in close enough to allow his spit, which seemed to form between his lips with each word he uttered, to fall on you like sticky rain.
“Are you considering a career in television?”
“Sorry, Sir?” Atticus replied, staring at the man through his fringe of straggly red hair, which danced in front of his eyes like fire.
“Television, Clay,” repeated Scriviner, emphasising each word with pronounced venom. “You know, the flat rectangular thing that vomits putrescent, brain-killing poision into the homes of humanity on a daily basis?”
“I know what a television is, Sir,” Atticus said. “I just don't understand the question.”
It wasn't exactly unlike Scriviner to baffle with nonsense. His school assemblies had covered subjects as wide and diverse as they were strange and bizarre. Atticus's favourite to date had been the one about moles. Scriviner had managed to fill up a whole hour on the subject of The Evil Of The Blind Menace. He had even produced numerous slides on the subject, ranging from Moles I Have Encountered, to Moles That Have Paid The Ultimate Price For Messing Up My Sports Field (The Horrible Little Sightless Blighters).
Mr Scriviner produced from a drawer to his left a large red book. He opened it, slowly and deliberately, moving each page as though it held an impossible weight. The pages, Atticus could see, were covered in notes, each with a date in a margin down the left side.
“You recognise this I am sure,” said Mr Scriviner. “I call it my Diary of Devilment. And in it I record the misdemeanors of all my students. See here, for example...”
Scriviner's finger stroked a page, lovingly almost, and stopped at an entry.
“January the second, eleven thirty-three, John Robert was overheard misusing the word quality while talking with his friends in the canteen.” Scriviner glanced up at Atticus. “You can imagine my horror, yes?”
Atticus did his best to show no emotional response at all to the head teacher's question.
“You see, Master Atticus,” continued Mr Scriviner, “if we let these little things slide, then they soon become larger things. For example...” The headteacher leaned back once again in his chair. “... if we go around saying things are quality without explaining, for example, if it is good or bad quality, then before we know it, the foundations of our language have fallen apart and we are back in the Tower of Babel!”
Atticus had no idea what Mr Scriviner was on about. He was relieved. It was a firmly held school yard belief that understanding the Headteacher was the first sign of madness. And there was no second sign.
“You, Master Atticus, are one of the little things, and I'm afraid to say that you've been allowed to slide a little too far. Until now.”
Atticus watched as Mr Scriviner closed the red book and produced another smaller, yet thicker, book, with a worn black cover. He flipped it round so that Atticus could see the front cover.
“What do you see?”
“A book?” Atticus answered.
Mr Scriviner raised an eyebrow.
“My name,” Atticus said. “My name is written on the cover of the book.”
“Indeed,” said Mr Scriviner. “And that is because your misdemeanors, Master Atticus, are so numerous as to warrant their very own ledger. How proud you must be!”
Atticus knew then that his day was about to get very bad very quickly. He also had a sneaking suspicion as to why.
“Which brings us rather neatly back to my original question.”
“The one about me getting into TV?” Atticus said.
Mr Scriviner fell silent.
“The word, as I'm sure you are aware, is television. T-E-L-E-V-I-S-I-O-N.” Mr Scriviner pronounced each letter as though he were loading bullets into the magazine of an automatic rifle. “It does not require, indeed never has required, an abreviation.”
“Right...” said Atticus.
“I ask the question as this book here –” he tapped a chubby, sweaty finger against the book “– demonstrates to me that you seem rather intent on making a name for yourself. Perhaps even acquiring a modicum of fame.”
Atticus was now very aware of just how numb his backside had become. Whatever it was Scriviner had to say, he wanted him to get to the point sharpish.
“You have been at this school for a mere seven months,” continued Mr Scriviner, “and yet in that small amount of time you have managed to – and forgive me if I provide only a summary of your activities – flood all the bathrooms; blow up the chemistry laboratory; fill the gymnasium with sheep; convince half the school population that they were invisible; establish a profitable black market of chilli sauce to improve the flavour of school dinners; cause the fire service, police, local doctor, and even the vet and, quite astonishingly, a hairdresser, to attend supposed school emergencies no fewer than eleven times; have the Religious Education teacher arrested for apparently summoning demons; spray the school hamster pink; turn the school swimming pool into a hundred thousand gallons of lime jelly, and have the school featured on the six o'clock national news in a supposed record-breaking attempt for the most pupils called Alice!”
“It's a popular name,” Atticus said.
“SHUT! UP!” Mr Scriviner snapped back, leaping out of his chair like a laviathan crashing up from the sea to stare down at its hapless prey, at once demolishing his until now calm, collected demeanor.
For a moment, neither the headteacher nor his pupil spoke. Instead, they just sat, staring at each other, two warriors readying for a final combat.
Mr Scriviner sat down, cleared his throat, then stared at Atticus.
“We, that is you and I, Master Clay, are at a fork in the road.”
Atticus wanted to run. Mr Scriviner's stare had taken on the kind of ferocity reserved for furnaces.
“All of this,” said Mr Scrivner, resting his left hand on the black book, “somehow pales into insignificance when compared with the events of today.”
“I don't know what you mean,” Atticus said, deciding to play it innocent until the crime and its perpertrator had been made absolutely clear.
“Cling film, my dear Atticus,” Mr Scriviner said. “Cling film and the staff toilets. And how, when combined, two such unrelated things can become the very stuff of nightmares. Mine...” Scriviner paused, leaned forward and widened his eyes. “... and yours.”
Atticus was confused. The idea of clingfilming the staff toilets had occurred to him on a number of occasions, but he'd never got round to doing it. So, did this mean that the other thing hadn't been discovered yet? Surely not.
“I have had to send seven members of staff home,” Scriviner said. “Not only to get showered and changed, but also to recover their dignity, something that I'm sure will be rather difficult.”
“It wasn't me,” Atticus said.
Mr Scriviner ignored him.
“I have also had to send in the caretakers to clean up, order three new mops and a gallon of bleach, cancel this evening's staff social event at Bob's Bingo, and worst of all tell my mother that I will not be home for dinner this evening! Chaos, Master Clay. All is Chaos! And you must pay!”
“But it wasn't me,” Atticus said again. “I had nothing to do with it.”
Mr Scriviner's laugh launched itself into the room with all the surgical precision of a tactical nuclear device.
“And so am I, boy, so am I!”
Mr Scriviner produced a form from another drawer and laid it on the desk. He then removed a pen from inside his jacket. A moment later, he signed the bottom of the form. Once done, he replaced the pen inside his jacket, folded the form into three, and slipped it into an envelope. Finally, he handed the envelope to Atticus.
“You, Master Clay, are hearby expelled from this school. You are to collect your things immediately. The necessary people have already been called and you will be collected in precisely six minutes. I will be escorting you off the premises. You will hand the envelope to whomsoever is unlucky enough to be your legal guardian. Any questions?”
Atticus held the envelope. The contents he knew all to well. In fact, this whole scene had played itself out so often in his life that he knew the script off by heart.
“But it's the last day of term,” Atticus said.
“Which means, dear boy, that we won't be having the pleasure of each other's company come the autumn,” said Mr Scriviner, smiling with the meanness of a cat.
Atticus got up from his seat and made his way to the door. Grasping the handle, he paused.
“Something bothering you?” asked Mr Scriviner. “Surely not your conscience.”
From the other side of the door, Atticus heard first a scream of pure, throat-ripping terror. This was then followed almost immediately by the sound of frantic running.
Mr Scriviner looked up from his desk.
“What is going on, boy?”
Atticus opened the door. The hallway on the other side was a blur of fast moving bodies. Teachers and pupils were pushing each other out of the way, barging their way through, all clearly desperate to escape from something as yet unseen by either Atticus or the headteacher.
His curiosity piqued, Mr Scriviner removed himself from behind his desk and walked towards Atticus and the open door.
It was then, as he came to stand by Atticus, that the cause of the stampede revealed itself.
When, only two days earlier, Atticus had managed to pilfer some large boxes from a spider farm located on the outskirts of town, he had initially assumed that each would contain but a few hairy eight-legged nightmares. Judging by the mass creeping and crawling towards them, he knew that his estimation had been wrong.
The walls, the floor, even the ceiling, were a seething mass of fat-bodied arachnids. They ranged in size from that of a mouse to a dinner plate. At times it was difficult to make one specific spider out, not simply because there were so many, but also because they moved with such speed. None were particularly dangerous, or so Atticus believed, bred as they were in the main to be pets. But explaining that to the terrified wave of humanity racing in the opposite direction was, he guessed, a little pointless. Anyway, they would never have been able to hear him above the screams, which had now reached an altogether new and ear-piercing frequency, as a number of the spiders, no doubt as terrified as those running away from them, took it upon themselves to leap for freedom. Unfortunately, freedom involved navigating numerous heads, shoulders, backs and faces.
“Spiders...” muttered Mr Scriviner. “There are spiders in my school... Spiders...”
Atticus could see the disbelief etched into the face of the headteacher as lines carved in stone. This current turn of events, it was clear, was absolutely beyond his frame of reference and he had no system in place, either inside his mind, or indeed in the school, to deal with it.
“I'll be going then,” said Atticus, backing away from the door towards an open window at the other side of Mr Scriviner's office.
Mr Scriviner continued to stare out into the hallway. Then, as he at last made to close the door, a large spider fell onto his head and just sat there like a halloween-themed toupee.
Atticus was at the window. Thankfully, the office was on the ground floor. With the notice of expulsion in his hand he climbed out to the ground below. As he made to leave he took a final look at Mr Scriviner. The man was now covered in spiders. The one on his head was going nowhere and seemed to be making a nest. Two more were swinging on his moustache. Across his chest and down his arms, a dozen or so smaller spiders were racing up and down, whether for fun, or to add to Mr Scriviner's horror, Atticus wasn't so sure. But it was the ones crawling up the man's legs that made him stare the longest. A great trail of the things had gathered at the headteacher's feet as though queuing up to see a new tourist attraction. And one by one, they were making their way across his shoes and up into the dark recess between trouser and flesh.
Now all Atticus had to do was get home. And deep down, he knew that everything that had just happened at the school would have nothing on what was going to happen when he arrived.
The foster home at which Atticus had lived for the past two years was the kind of building that looked like it had been designed to keep itself to itself. Situated at the far end of a hopelessly dreary dead-end road, Clumber House sat away from the other houses on the street, hidden behind trees both tall and evergreen. The roof sat upon it much like a rain-drenched hat. The windows, of which there were many, all seemed to be rather too small for such a large building. For indeed it was large, rising to three floors, not including the rooms huddled together in the attic. The garden had the potential to be the building's one redeeming feature. Except that it was hidden beneath a thick carpet of bindweed and bramble. Inside, the place was little better, with high ceilings decorated with dust and cobwebs, carpets that reached desperately for the walls but never quite made it, and a heating system that was better at making a noise and keeping everyone awake than it was at fighting the cold and keeping the place warm and dry. Wallpaper peeled, furniture wobbled and creaked, and condensation froze on the windows. Yet, despite all this, Atticus rather liked the place. He had his own room, the food wasn't bad, and most of the staff were decent people trying to do a difficult job. The owner, Miss Pitchers, a woman with all the charm and warmth of frozen bowl of vomit, was the exception to the rule. But thankfully she spent most of her time in her office.
Having left the school and his spider-covered headteacher an hour ago, Atticus had taken a longer route home than usual. He knew that whoever had been sent to pick him up would be miffed, but he'd needed a bit of me-time, and he was sure that they would understand. Instead of walking through the small town, he had headed off across some fields growing rich and full under the sun with crops soon to be harvested. It was a bright day, somewhat at odds with what had just happened. It wasn't that he was upset about being kicked out of the school. Far from it. He hated school. The rules. Hadn't really made any friends. Pranking pupils and staff had been the only way to keep himself entertained. What bothered him was that he would have to now be placed in another school. And that was rubbish.
At last, Atticus made his way over a fence and into the garden of Clumber House. A faint path had been trampled through the weeds and soon he was at the steps leading upto the front door.
Atticus looked up into a smile filled with teeth so crooked and pale that the initial impression was of their owner happily chewing broken glass.
Miss Pitchers said nothing more, instead just held out her hand and clicked her fingers.
Atticus removed the envelope given to him by Mr Scriviner from his pocket and handed it over.
“An eventful day, Atticus.”
“You could say that.”
“I did say that,” Miss Pitchers replied. “My office, if you would be so kind.”
Miss Pitchers then stepped aside and motioned with a pale hand for Atticus to go first. Reluctantly, Atticus walked up the steps, and into Clumber House. Once inside the cavernous reception area, the main features of which were the imposing staircase leading up through the centre of the house, a large picture of Jesus and the twelve disciples at the last supper, and a hat stand minus any hats, he took a right down a long hall. At the very end of this stood a large, highly polished door. Once at the door Atticus waited.
“So, you still have some manners,” said Miss Pitchers as she reached past Atticus and opened the door. “In.”
The room was dominated by lots of large things vying for attention. Miss Pitchers desk sat in the middle of the room. It was so huge that if you stared at it for too long, you started to feel dizzy, as though the object wasn't just too big for the room, but for time and space as well. The curtains hanging from the bay windows behind the desk were of thick, black velvet, and ended in large crumpled piles of night on the floor. Two walls were hidden behind bookcases that reached from floor to ceiling. The books which populated the shelves were none of them out of place, the spines so perfectly in line with each other that they could just as easily have been carved from a solid piece of wood and painted to look like books. The final wall was horrifying. Its bottom half was taken up by an enormous fireplace, the large grate inside providing black metal teeth to the yawning mouth crackling with flame, regardless of the bright, warm day outside. Above the fireplace and pinned to the wall were numerous mirrors, none like another, staring out into the room like the eyes of a giant fly.
Atticus heard the door close behind him then watched as Miss Pitchers slid across the floor to stand staring out of the bay windows behind her desk. She was, as always, wearing a dress that had quite possibly been designed by an insane nun. It was long and black, with blood red hemming around the sleeves. A hood fell back from her neck, its edge cut to resemble, of all things, shark teeth, or so it seemed to Atticus. The front was pinned together, from neck line to the floor, by what could only be described as rough hewn nails. It was the kind of outfit that said many things, most of them to do with pain and punishment and horror, rather than running a home for orphans.
“I am a fair person, Atticus,” said Miss Pitchers. “And I like to provide all those within my care with the most appropriate environment for their needs.”
“Thank you,” Atticus said, not really knowing why and wishing immediately that he had kept his mouth shut.
“And it occurs to me,” continued Miss Pitchers, her voice ringing with the clarity of an empty wine glass that was also a little dusty, “that you, Atticus, have very specific needs that perhaps normal education cannot provide.”
At this, Miss Pitchers turned to face Atticus. There was a smile on her face, but it wasn't kindly, Atticus thought. No. With the way her eyes stared it had more the burning intensity of a crocodile that had missed breakfast, lunch and dinner, and was going to make up for it big time at supper with you as the main course.
“I'm sorry about the spiders...” Atticus began, but Miss Pitchers held up a hand, shushing him immediately. Then, before Atticus could react, she was round and next to him, holding his face between her hands. He felt like a melon in a vice.
“Never apologise for who and what you are, Atticus,” Miss Pitchers cooed. “We are all unique and our individual callings as strange and wondrous as the heavens!”
Atticus had no idea what the woman was talking about, but he knew it was the reserve of the crazy. He tried to pull his face away from her hands but he was stuck fast. He'd just have to wait it out.
Miss Pitchers leaned in close, her nose almost touching Atticus's own. Her breath had the faint scent of boiled sweets and mouldering flowers.
“Let me tell you of a place,” began Miss Pitchers, her eyes growing wider still, “where you, dear sweet Atticus, will at last fit right in...”
Some time later, when Miss Pitchers finally stopped talking and let go of Atticus's face, he shook himself as though waking from a dream. He could remember few if any of her words, but his mind was awash with images of trees and wilderness and the countryside, of an old house and other children and good food. He tried to grab at the images, stitch them together somehow, but the more he tried to hold them, the more slippery they seemed, and soon they were gone. But what wasn't was a twisted knot in his stomach. But whether it was of excitement or fear he wasn't sure. Perhaps it was a mix of both.
“So,” said Miss Pitchers, her voice snatching Atticus back into the moment, “you will spend your summer here, and at it's end, you shall attend Hallows Hall on a permanent basis.”
“Hallows Hall?” Atticus asked.
“A privately-funded school in Somerset,” said Miss Pitchers, “catering for the kind of children other schools simply cannot handle.”
Atticus wasn't quite sure what Miss Pitchers was implying, but before he had a chance to ask her to explain, she spoke again.
“And by that I mean children such as you, Atticus. Trouble-makers, vandals, truants, pranksters, jokers, the untamed and the apparently untamable. You will fit right in!”
Atticus didn't know if he was insulted by what Miss Pitchers had just said, or proud to be included in the list. He said, “You mentioned something about attending on a permanent basis?”
“Indeed I did,” said Miss Pitchers. “You will, like the rest of the students, board, returning only during the Christmas, Easter and summer breaks. There are no half terms.”
At this news, Atticus had no idea how to respond. Was he to be thankful? In some ways he was. A school in the countryside might be fun. And if it wasn't, he'd at least make it fun in his own unique way. As for boarding, that was probably little different to where and how he lived now, except that there wouldn't be as far to walk to school in the morning.
“You are dismissed.”
Atticus left Miss Pitchers office and a couple of minutes later was in his own room. It wasn't exactly the hight of luxurious living, but it was comfortable. The bed was dressed in a Dracula duvet cover, the walls hidden where possible behind movie posters, most of them horror classics like The Evil Dead and House on Haunted Hill. A few bean bags lay scattered across the floor. In the corner sat a small television, not that Atticus watched it much. He was more a music and words person and behind his door, screwed to the wall, stood shelves as testament to this fact. The bottom two shelves were given over to an old record deck he had found in a charity shop and his growing collection of vinyl. CDs were too expensive and he'd never owned a smart phone for the same reason, so he wasn't into MP3s or streaming music. Instead, he'd spend hours seeking out a few discs of music he'd never heard before, often buying them based on the record sleeve alone. Above this sat his books. They were in no particular order, indeed the piles were higgledypiggledy, not that this mattered to Atticus. What did was that once he shut the door to his room he could disappear into his own little world, all by simply choosing a record and selecting a book. It was, in many ways, a haven.
And that was when he started to worry a little. Here, in his room, he was safe and secure. He had his own things around him, stuff that made him feel relaxed and happy, defined him. In a few weeks he would be leaving this all behind. No more security blanket. He would be starting from scratch. That odd twisted knot of fear and excitement once more took hold in his stomach. The summer was six weeks long. It disappeared in a heart beat.
(C) David Gatward 2016
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.