Mar 18, 2021
7 mins read
This is a slightly tweaked version of a short story I wrote around 2013 when I was posting a lot of short fiction to the main website. It's based - like many of my story ideas - on a weird dream I had. At the time I thought it might eventually become a novel but it never developed. I've made it supporters only because it's been edited including a few minor story changes.
It feels odd after all these years, walking back in through those doors.
The familiar smell of potatoes, cabbage, custard, and the slight musk of hundreds of children passing through that lobby every day.
Despite these memories resurfacing now, I’ve felt no affinity for my school in the near 30 years since I left, not in the way that most people do. I didn’t hate it; It’s just that the best years of my life were not my teenage years, but my early thirties when I went to university and my life changed forever.
To say that this place feels distinctly alien to me would be almost right. Sure, I recognise the corridors and the classrooms. The décor has changed but little else has. Still, it seems a whole world and several lifetimes ago.
I remembered the way to the assembly hall. It is just down the slope and in through what used to be the staff entrance.
It’s open today though and I quietly slip through the door, having a slight pang of guilt because we were never allowed through that door when I was a teenager. Old habits, hey?
I found myself in the hall where we used to eat our school meals. The old off-white curtains were still there, though probably not the same ones – they just looked like them.
There were many adult age former pupils here, every generation and as I passed a couple in their sixties, it made me realise just how far back the history of this school goes.
There was nobody there I recognised which was partly a shame and partly unsurprising. Those I would want to see are on Facebook anyway and we have had enough chance encounters over the years.
The place where we collected our school meals hasn’t changed. There was still an extensive kitchen at the back and that familiar breakfast bar still had places for hot and cold food and a drinks counter. There were just a few dinner ladies there, just a couple – and they were handing out biscuits and tea and coffee – not scents we were used to back then!
I didn’t recognise any of them. Not really surprising, most were in the late 40s and 50s now so even the youngest today would be in their mid-70s.
I wasn’t sure where to go, but there was a desk before the assembly hall entrance and a couple of people I assumed were teachers.
I approached one lady who looked slightly familiar and realised that I did know her. She was much older than when I was at the school. Back then she was a 25-year-old NQT, and all the boys fancied her. Now is in her late-50s, it was still distinctly her. I recognised her warm and kindly smile.
A flicker of recognition passed over her eyes; she frowned briefly and for a moment I am transported back nearly 30 years.
Do you really want me to send you to the Head Mistress?
No miss, sorry miss.
‘Name?’ she asked curtly, and I was briefly taken aback. She hadn’t been like this back then except with the badly behaved children.
I flushed. ‘Mason.’
She snatched up the clipboard and flicked to “M”, ran her finger down the page and pointed to a name. ‘Is this you?’
She raised an eyebrow at me. ‘Come with me please,’ and turned on her heel.
Still slightly on the back foot from her curt tone, I followed her into the exam room. It was full of those old wooden desks that are as old as the school. If I looked at all of them, I might probably find a name I recognised etched into the wood.
The hall looked just as it did when I took my final GCSE – the final time I ever stepped foot in this hall as a pupil. There were a few people at the desks, around two thirds at the front of the hall were full but there was nobody at the back and that is where she took me.
‘Sit down,’ she ordered.
Meekly, I did so.
‘Why are you here?’ she asked.
‘I was at the fete yesterday and I was invited by one of the new teachers. I can’t remember her name, sorry but she was young, younger than me and had black hair. She told me there was an exam. They wanted as many former pupils as possible to come and take some kind of test? I thought it sounded interesting.’
‘Yes well, she made a mistake inviting you. You shouldn’t be here.’
‘I know I’m late, but I had a bit of bother with the car.’
‘It’s not that. We have former pupils coming in and out all day, there’s no set times.’
‘Well, I’m here now,’ I said with a smile to hide my annoyance.
‘You have a degree, don’t you?’
‘Yes, a masters.’
The sternness on her face evaporated and a slight passed over her. ‘My son studied there too. Beautiful city.’ but then her frown returned. ‘I am afraid you wasted your time. With your qualifications you’d skew the results of the exam.
‘I’m just one person.’
‘Hmm, certainly for your age group and probably for everyone taking the exam. That’s why it’s pointless for you and for us, of you being here. You may as well just leave.’
I ignored her and turned the paper over. There were strange symbols and questions on algebra – hardly my strong point then and certainly not now! But there was something else. Strange pictograms appeared randomly throughout the first few pages. If I didn’t know better, I might have assumed they were engineering diagrams. The questions did not make grammatical sense either and I pointed that out. ‘This seems exceedingly difficult. I’m not sure I can make sense of this stuff. Strange pictograms, complex algebra, and that isn’t even proper English.’
‘You will make sense of it when you have read the introductory page and understand the keys and symbols. No, it’s pointless you being here, and if you insist on taking the exam then you’ll have to pay.’
‘I don’t know, we haven’t decided yet.’
I scratched my head. ‘Right. Great. I’m sure it won’t be a lot.’ I picked up a pen and turned the paper over, but she grabbed my arm. ‘What the?’ I looked up to challenge her unwarranted physical contact. The look on her face was no longer that of the stern teacher who greeted me, her look was one of utter terror. Slowly, she raised her finger to her lips in a gesture of silence then took the pen from my hand.
She let go of my arm and took a piece of paper. ‘Very well,’ she said, handing me the scrap of paper. ‘May I suggest you talk a walk in the grounds while I sort out the admin.’
I start to unwrap the paper, but she stops me. ‘In the grounds. Visit the old rugby pitch. That should bring back some memories.’
I waited until I was outside to unravel the paper. I didn’t visit the rugby pitch; instead, I went to my car. When I unravelled the paper, I froze. It read: LEAVE WHILE YOU CAN. SAVE YOURSELF.