Archive for January, 2015

School reunion draws some surprise guests to the blackboard…










In a small town like ours, it is certainly not unlikely that you will run into people you went to school with from time to time. The majority of residents will have attended one of three schools that have historically monopolised the district’s education system: Flinchley Academy (previously Comprehensive), St Joan’s Catholic School and Lethmachen Grammar. The latter traditionally accepted any child who passed their 11+ yet, in part due to its impressive academic reputation, over the last couple of decades The Grammar has evolved into an elite establishment streaming off the most promising pupils from the local primary schools. Competition for places has become so fierce that more affluent families are investing in second properties to ensure that they fall within the catchment area. Aside from impacting on the local housing market, this has also resulted in children from wealthier backgrounds increasingly dominating the school’s annual intake. Yet, even in the years prior to these developments, Lethmachen Grammar had something of a haughty reputation. A number of formal pupils contribute to this site, yet few seem to have fond memories of the place they often refer to as ‘The Grimmer’. With hindsight they believe they were led astray at an impressionable age; by teaching staff who encouraged them to look down upon the other schools in the area and to feel superior to other people in general. This attitude was tacitly cultivated through an endless parade of assemblies and ceremonies celebrating the history of the school and the achievements of its alumni (which amounts to building a few bridges and some minor contributions to Conservative Party politics). It is one of these ex-Grammar boys who has supplied the following report:

‘I first heard about the reunion on Facebook and I confess my immediate reaction was: what’s the point? What are we trying to prove? Although I still keep in touch with a handful of people from The Grammar, conversation rarely turned to our school days. Nobody I knew would be interested in attending a reunion, for them that whole era now seemed either unimportant or unpleasant or both. So if I did choose to attend I would have to go alone. What we would talk about after all this time? What could we possibly have in common? There were probably good reasons why I had lost touch with all those people; it was perfectly natural to move on. Yet Jason Nock was so persistent that in the end it felt discourteous to refuse. Not that he ever contacted me directly with a personal message or invitation; he simply requested that I like the page that he had set up for the occasion. To be honest I was surprised he even remembered my name. We had never been close friends. He was always the centre of attention, the life and soul of the party, whilst I loitered awkwardly in the wings. I am sure you know the type. It was as if Jason had been born with the awareness that this was his time to flourish, an inherent knowledge of how to manipulate the school environment to his advantage. These are skills that it takes people like me years to develop, and by then it is too late. Yet Jason slipped so comfortably into the role: admired by the boys, attractive to the girls and maintaining a good rapport with the relevant teachers. Of course he was a natural at sports, captaining a number of teams. Yet his academic work was also of an accomplished standard, and if his grades had been any higher they may have compromised his all around appeal. As to the future, Jason’s prospects were rosy; he seemed to have the potential to achieve anything. To think that was all thirty years ago now.

On visiting Jason’s Facebook page, I could not resist the temptation to take a quick browse. A date had now been set for the reunion (aptly, a school night); further details to follow. A healthy number of people, presumably notified before I was, had already signed up and confirmed their attendance. This included a few teachers, who had been lured out of retirement for one last performance in front of the class. As I scanned the list of names one or two inspired a flicker of recognition, half formed images of adolescent faces. Yet the majority were now forgotten, unfamiliar to me, and attempting to scrutinize the photographs of them as prosperous adults offered few additional clues. As an introduction, Jason had helpfully provided a paragraph of text about himself and what he had been up to, whether out of pride or a need to prompt our recollections it was not clear. Snapshots of his wife and children; Jason himself holding aloft various amateur sportsman trophies, looking a little younger than in recent family pictures. All in all, he seemed to be doing alright for himself:  Executive Director at Stainrod’s Sheet Metals, a small but successful local company. Perhaps he had not quite achieved the lofty heights his trajectory at school had promised, but I was sure he was earning considerably more than me.

Somehow I became convinced that my attendance at the reunion was inevitable, predestined. Possibly I was swayed by the repeated notifications, status updates and latest additions that stoked the on-line air of anticipation. If you cast your mind back, last Thursday was a dark, dismal evening. The building had changed so much since my day that I was through the gates and into the ultra-modern entrance foyer without even the slightest twinge of nostalgia. No doubt due to Jason’s tireless efforts, a significant crowd had already assembled in the main hall, which was brightly lit and had recently been refurbished. Soon it was just like old times and we listened to the current headmaster’s introductory speech in respectful silence. The gathering was reminded us of the honours that Lethmachen Grammar had bestowed upon us; like the emblem of the lion on every blazer pocket, so we were the lions of learning. Fortunately Mr Peel, the deputy head master during our day, succeeded in lightening the mood when he took to the stage. The crowd particularly seemed to enjoy the superficially barbed, yet deeply affectionate remarks ‘Peeley’ directed at his old ‘nemesis’ Jason Nock. With the brief speeches concluded, and a generous buffet wheeled out, I braced myself for the true impetus of the evening. It was time to impress people who belonged to my past. Feeling a little isolated and self conscious, I gravitated once more to the fringes of Jason’s circle. He was charismatically holding court in the centre of the hall.

At first it was all in good humour. Jason, flanked by a couple of cronies he had obviously maintained contact with, regaled us with exaggerated tales of his youthful escapades. What surprised me was the depth of detail with which he could recall the staff members he had plagued. Jason not only knew their names and the subjects they taught, but could also describe their appearance intricately and mimic their mannerisms perfectly. It was as if they were back in the room. Or we were back in theirs. There was a certain supply teacher that Jason had been especially fond of, even though she had only been with us for one term. Who could forget Miss Linden, he demanded? Who, but me? Next the results and controversies of every sporting event were recounted, whether inter-house or opposing rival schools. Many of those present were probably drinking too much, no longer knowing their limits, simply glad to be free of the kids for the night. Yet Jason seemed to be slugging back the bubbly particularly recklessly, as if he needed the courage to fuel his stories, to keep people listening. Although those about me continued to be entertained, I noticed an embittered, sour tone beginning to creep into his reminiscences. Before long the collective memories had been dispensed with altogether. No more awkward romances, no more fashion disasters, no more cancelled parties. Instead Jason was demonstrating his photographic memory of the old school registers. Swaying unsteadily on a chair he had called for silence in the bustling hall. Then, in a slurred, bullish voice he announced the name of every pupil who had not attended, following each name with a drawn out laugh of derision. Members of the crowd began to shift uneasily. This was no joke; it was evident he genuinely despised all those who had ignored the invitation. It was as if each had personally offended him with their evasiveness, their disinterest, their soft resistance. Everyone seemed to breathe a sigh of relief when Jason, suddenly looking a little queasy, was obliged to depart the hall in search of the toilets. Someone threw on a compilation of well known chart hits from ‘our era’. When Jason returned he still looked ill. I have no idea why he chose to speak to me that night. As I said we were never close. However, this is the story he told me:

‘‘I wasn’t expecting it to be so dark…but as soon as you’re out those doors there isn’t a light anywhere. Of course I knew where I was supposed to be going, only things don’t look the same these days. Without realising I must have taken a wrong turn. Being lost wasn’t so bad for a while. I was quite enjoying strolling the corridors and remembering all the laughs we had in this place. That was when I saw the child. We both stopped still, him like a sentry at the far end of the corridor. Although he was really only a silhouette, I could make out his school uniform by the moonlight. It took a few seconds to register what I was seeing. Then, without warning, the boy took to his heels with a sort of nervous laugh and disappeared down a side corridor. I ran after him; don’t ask me why. There was no way I could keep him in sight, like I said the whole building is pitch black. The direction I had followed led me to a dead end. All that was in front of me was a closed classroom door; I think it had once been my home room. Catching my breath, I put my ear to the door and listened hard. At first there was nothing but dead silence, a sort of low drone, like I hear in the factory at nights. But I’m not fooled so easily. Sure enough, I heard something: whispering on the other side.

Perhaps I should have questioned what I was doing. Why would anybody still be at school at this time? Yet at that moment all I cared about was knowing the big secret. Flinging the door open I stepped onto the threshold. Dozens of eyes met mine in silence, glinting like marbles in the darkness. The classroom was packed with children, sat stiffly upright at their desks, as if waiting for someone. Their teacher? Was that why they were here, without light? Were they all in detention? It couldn’t be me they were waiting for? You know how I am, usually got a joke on hand to break the ice. But for once the words just stuck in my throat. I think I got as far as gasping ‘Why…?’ but that just made them stare fiercer, harder, like they really hated me. I’ve never experienced anything like that before. Then, as if obeying some secret command, every single child in that room began to rise slowly from their desk. Was their teacher here at last? I did sense a sudden presence at my shoulder. Someone at the back of the room pointed a finger at me. ‘You don’t belong here’. That was all they said. Softly, but making it sound like a threat. All the time, the front rows struggled closer through that crowded room. Some of their faces caught the moonlight coming in through the windows. Do you understand? That was the worst thing of all! Because I recognised them. The faces of those who did not come tonight. Only they hadn’t needed an invitation because they had never left, they had been here all along. I felt the shadow behind me move closer, but I no longer thought it was a teacher. It was more like a zookeeper about to throw some live prey to a pack of lions. Something broke and I turned and ran, faster than I ever did on the track. Behind me, I heard a classroom door slamming shut.”

In a sad coda to the above tale, word has reached us that this week Jason has been signed off sick from work, for what will possibly be the long term. Apparently his ailment is stress related. Colleagues report that when he returned to work on the Friday morning after the reunion they initially assumed his behaviour was the result of a hangover. However the main nervous symptoms persisted: Jason appeared terrified of opening any door when on his own, even doors leading into rooms he was very familiar with. This neurosis prevented him from entering the boardroom, the accounts office, even the bathrooms at Stainrod’s Sheet Metals. ‘They will be waiting for me’ he sobbed to one mystified business associate, ‘One day I will open the wrong door and they will still be there, waiting…’


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Images best left unseen appear on Google Earth Street View…









Since Christmas I have been temping in an insurance office, perhaps I had better not specify which one, as I can’t afford to lose this job. I am getting married this September and although I have only got as far as booking a venue and choosing my dress, I am already aware of costs spiralling. Yet the agency assures me this opportunity guarantees six months of consistent employment, so I can start to feel a little more secure about my immediate future. Anyway, this week I was entrusted with my first significant contribution to the firm. In the role of PA, I accompanied one of the managers to an important business meeting in London. Office gossip had already made me aware that this manager (I’ll call him Gerald, I don’t know why), was not held in particularly high regard, either by his superiors or the junior staff. It wasn’t that he came across as embittered or without empathy (as so many in his position do). No, he was considered to be harmless enough, just a little detached and peculiar. Round the water cooler I had picked up hints of a broken marriage some six or seven years ago, perhaps subsequent nervous trouble, resulting in a tendency to keep himself to himself. That was why I was so surprised when he chose to open up to me on the train home. Yet Gerald claimed with a sense of urgency that he felt an immediate affinity with me, that I was in a position where I needed to hear what he had to say. Having already been alerted to his eccentricities, I was not sure what to make of the story he proceeded to relate. The meeting had gone well I thought, and I had succeeded in keeping accurate notes of all the acronyms and statistics flung around the table. However, listening to Gerald’s tale, at times I wondered if he was testing me, gauging the reactions of the new temp through some form of unconventional induction. It’s impossible for most of us to understand what motivates a ‘manager’. As for the story, of course it all began in the office, Gerald having worked there since leaving school…

“I remember that morning there was a break in the old routine. My wife had told me she had to attend a meeting out of town, so we set the alarm an hour in advance. On my way to work I dropped her at the station, although she was insistent there was no need for me to accompany her into the ticket hall or see her off at the platform. There was nothing to worry about; the meeting was being held in a neighbouring town just a few stops down the local line. She was expecting to be back home by mid afternoon, perhaps even earlier. Being one of the first to arrive at the office that day, I allowed myself a bit of free time to browse the internet. For no obvious reason I suddenly found myself thinking of home and ‘Google Earth Street View’. At the time, early in 2008, this was a new service and a bit of a novelty. I think I had overheard some of my younger colleagues discussing the various funny scenes and misdemeanours that had been captured by the roving cameras. Out of curiosity, I clicked on the link and spent fifteen minutes viewing the streets around my childhood home. However, instead of nostalgia I only felt a sense of emptiness. There was no evidence I had ever been there, as if a crime had been committed yet I had cleaned up thoroughly before leaving. Not one to dwell, I decided to instead take a look at where we lived now. My first thought was the quality of light was quite poor; you could not guess at what time of the day the photograph had been taken. Dawn? Dusk? Yet the lack of cars and pedestrians suggested during work hours. Regardless, there is something fascinating about studying your own house standing empty, as if you would expect it to fade into invisibility when you were not present, tidied away like a child’s favourite toy whilst they are at school. Although it left little impression on first glance, I did notice a dark figure had been caught on camera, emerging from the alley way immediately adjacent to our house. This alley ran round the back of our row of semi-detached properties, yet I could recognise this character as a neighbour. As I said the quality of the image was so poor that if you tried to zoom in, even gradually, the picture would soon begin to blur and disintegrate. Although I could not make out the face, which may perhaps have been covered, I was convinced by a slight inflection of the shoulder, a slight dip of the head, that he was turning towards our house. At that very moment I was distracted by my line manager reminding me I had a 9am meeting upstairs in The Mezzotint Room. I hurriedly locked my screen and collected my papers together.

On returning to my computer two hours later and unlocking the screen, I found I had left the ‘Street View’ window open. There was my house still, looking somehow fragile and vulnerable as it stood deserted by daylight. And there was the same, dark figure. Only now it had moved! Surely this was impossible, I thought: the website provides single, static shots, not scenes assembled from a montage or displayed as a slideshow. The only explanation could be I had been mistaken about the figure’s original position. He must have been closer to the house than I had recognised. For now he was stalking the pavement directly outside, rather than lingering in the mouth of the shaded alley. I had the impression he was examining our border of flowerbeds, or else crouching low so to steal across the lawn. Perhaps there was nobody there? Was I simply being fooled by a blemish on the photograph? That must be the answer! It was merely a shadow, most likely cast by the camera-car itself. To confirm my theory, I once again attempted to zoom in for a closer look. From a different angle I was able to bring the house and garden into sharper focus, yet the dark figure resisted definition. He remained indistinct, an insubstantial haze. Seeking any object that could be responsible for such a shadow, I navigated the viewpoint across the road. The pavement opposite was empty but for one pedestrian. This woman appeared to be fleeing the scene, glancing over her shoulder in the direction of the figure. Perhaps the pixels were bleeding; perhaps the site had chosen to digitally obscure her face. As she ran, looking back, her features had dissolved into a distorted mask of horror. If only I had time to think, but unfortunately I was at work. I switched screens to the in-house database.

It was lunch time before I was able to look again. There could be no further doubt, no other interpretation of the scenario. In my absence, the dark figure had made his way across the garden and circled round to the side of the house. This was no friendly visit, he had steered clear of the front door and was seeking a less conspicuous way in. In contrast to the other street views, the images of my road were undated. Was I witnessing a break-in that had occurred only earlier today, or had we lived all this time with a false sense of security, unaware that our home had been invaded? I was not sure which was worse; and what if this was not an opportunistic crime, an isolated occurrence caught on camera by chance? What if this creature regularly visited our home whilst we were working? Still not quite prepared to believe my own eyes, I approached a colleague sat across the aisle. Although reluctant to be drawn away from his lunch, he was eventually persuaded that I had something worthwhile to show him. There was no way to explain, I simply directed him to my chair and my screen. He sat there, slumped, for a minute or two, breathing heavily. ‘I don’t see anything’ he said ‘Just some house that looks the same as all the others’. I stared over his shoulder, about to contradict. Yet he was right: the figure had disappeared. I hoped he was gone for good.

Of course that was not to be. With hindsight you may say I should have dismissed the whole incident, found something else to occupy my mind. But I was at work, and all I could think about was what may be happening at home. By mid-afternoon the temptation to pry was too strong to resist. Logging back into Google Earth I scoured my street for any sign of disturbance. Initially, I saw nothing. The entire road was unoccupied; barren and lifeless. But wait…was there someone, at the upstairs window of my house? I made a frantic attempt to zoom in closer. Reflection on the glass partially disguised the image, yet there appeared to be a ghastly, pale face looking out from our bedroom window. It could only be the dark figure I had witnessed earlier, surveying the street outside with a sneer of triumph, of ownership. Suddenly I knew I must call my wife. What if this creature was awaiting her return? She was due back any minute; she could even be home already. What if she fell into his clutches? My wife’s mobile went straight to voicemail. Of course, she must have switched it off for the duration of her meeting. Beginning to imagine the worst, I next tried our home number. There was no answer, and yet at that moment the figure seemed to turn from the window, to glance back over his shoulder and smile. Could it be there was someone there with him? Or was he enjoying listening to the endless ringing of the phone in the hall, satisfied that nobody would answer?”

Gerald never did finish his story. We were separated at Lethmachen station when we had to take different local services home. There has not been an opportunity to resume the conversation since. You know what the office atmosphere can be like: the politics, the extended silences, the watching eyes. I still wonder if he intended his tale as a joke, some modern spin on an old ghost story. Yet on second thoughts, I think he really meant it.

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