Derek thought he was on a conveyor, one that was moving in the opposite direction to his feet. He was walking as fast as he could, and the school gates steadfastly refused to get any closer. His legs felt like lead, his eyelids drooped no matter how hard he tried to keep the open.
Eight times, he thought to himself. Eight times in one night. He yawned and his eyes watered. He had cramps, in both hands, and his Problem was quite sore.
‘My friend, you really need to lay off it for a couple of days.’
Tony Harrington-Speed fell in step beside him. ‘No what day it is today, Smithy old mate?’
Derek said that he had no idea.
‘Friday, sport; payday.’
‘Oh,’ said Derek, ‘right.’ When Tony went exhorting, he usually liked to take a small contingent with him. Today he was alone. Derek wondered if it was a sign of trust, or if Tony simply didn’t expect trouble from him. He suspected it was the latter as he handed over 70p in ten pence pieces.
‘Good lad,’ Tony said, pocketing the money without counting it. ‘Heard you had a spot of detention with Miss D. last night. You lucky lucky bastard.’
‘You heard right.’ Derek didn’t like other men saying her name, especially when they used an over-familiar abbreviation.
‘And I heard she left you off.’
‘She didn’t left me off; she made me go to art club.’
Tony sniffed. ‘Sounds better than detention to me. She must like you, old son.’
‘I don’t think so, Tony.’
‘Trust me.’ Tony put an arm around his neck and pulled him down into a gentle headlock, if there was indeed such a thing. ‘And I’ll tell you how I know.’
‘How?’ Derek said, his voice pitched an octave higher.
‘It’s the magazines.’
‘The dirty mags.’
‘I don’t think she reads them, Tony.’ In fact, Derek was very sure she didn’t.
‘Are you being deliberately dense?’ Tony released him so he could look at him in much the same way everyone looked at Sophie Stebbs when her back was turned. ‘I’m going to let you in on a secret, Smith, and it had better go no further.’ He looked around; they were obviously alone. ‘It’s the power of the mags, mate. I’ll tell you something for nothing: after I’ve had a wank, women find me a lot more attractive. I bet that’s what’s happening with you and Miss D.’
‘Dunbavin,’ Derek said airily.
‘Her name’s Dunbavin.’
Tony was about to say something else, something snarky, something cutting, but before he opened his mouth, his eyes met Derek’s, and as tired as those eyes were, he must’ve have seen something in them that made him think twice. He bit his lip and said, ‘Right, Dunbavin; sorry about that. Didn’t mean any disrespect.’
‘Forget it,’ said Derek, feeling strangely magnanimous.
They walked on in silence until they met Tony’s entourage at the school gate. Derek pushed past them and headed into the yard. There was something different in himself; he could feel it. And there was something different about the school, a strange stillness about it. He checked his watch; only 8:45 and everyone had already left the yard and gone inside. He went through the canteen entrance and along the corridor to the main hall. Mr Singh (geography and history) was standing outside, and to Derek’s surprise, he didn’t say a word about him being late or early or whatever he was. Instead, he just opened the hall door for him. Derek slipped inside, noticing that Mr Singh’s eyes were very red. Perhaps he was a member of the Early Springer’s Book Club too.
The hall was full; every class from every year had been crammed in, and every teacher from every class from every year lined the walls. The only time that the whole school was in the hall was when something bad happened, like when Kevin Burke had burned down his own house.
Mr Griffiths, the headmaster, was speaking. He said Miss Dunbavin’s name, accidentally referring to her by her real name, Milly, before correcting himself and carrying on.
A strange buzzing sound started in Derek’s ears, and even more strangely, as the headmaster carried on speaking with tears in his eyes, the buzzing flattened out to a dull whining sound, like a mosquito.
Derek suddenly found it hard to breathe. He looked around the hall. Where was Miss Dunbavin? Everyone else was here. Where was she? The sound in his ears was getting louder. Derek blinked to clear the tears from his eyes.
He could see Sophie Stebbs. She was looking at him and she was crying. He looked again for Miss Dunbavin.
There was nothing anyone could do.
The headmaster removed his spectacles so and pressed his fingers around the bridge of his nose. He looked quite ill. Perhaps it was a flu bug, Derek thought, his eyes streaming; yes that’s why she wasn’t here. She was sick and had taken the day off and tomorrow she’d be as right as rain and they would talk about that art club and how much he’d enjoyed it and Sophie wasn’t so bad after all and…
Died at the scene.
Derek suddenly felt very tired. He couldn’t breathe and the roaring in his ears made it very hard to think. Mr Singh (Maths) was asking him if he was all right. Derek said there was something wrong with his chest and he would like to lie down for a few minutes. Mr Singh nodded and reached for his hand. Derek looked at the floor and realised he wouldn’t need to lie down after all: the floor was rushing up to meet him.