I celebrated my fifteenth birthday by burying my headmaster and emptying my bladder on the freshly turned earth. Best present a boy could have.
I found his corpse on the sofa in the living room of his private quarters. I’d only been in that room once before, when I was among a group of boarders who pretended to play chess on his dining table while he stood behind us beaming benevolently as part of a photo shoot for the school prospectus.
He didn’t look so smug now, curled up under a blanket clutching a whisky bottle and a handful of pills. I reckoned he’d been dead for about two weeks; I had become very familiar with the processes of bodily decay in the preceding months.
I opened a window to let out the stink, sat in the armchair opposite and considered the fate of a man I had hated more than I can easily express. At moments like this the novels I had read always portrayed the hero realising that their hatred had vanished and been replaced by pity and sadness at the futility of it all. Bollocks. I still hated him as much as ever, the only thing missing was the fear.
The corridor that ran alongside the head’s living room was walled by a thin wooden partition and the dormitory I used to share with three other boys lay on the other side. At night the four of us would lie awake and listen to our headmaster drunkenly arguing with his wife, our matron. We liked her. She was kind.
He had been no nicer to the boys in his care. His mood swings were sudden and unpredictable, his punishments cruel and extreme. I don’t mean to make St Mark’s sound like something out of Dickens. But our headmaster was a bully, pure and simple. Far worse than any of the prefects he’d appointed, with the possible exception of MacKillick; but he was long gone, thank God.
I was glad the head was dead, even gladder that his death had come at his own hands. I enjoyed imagining his despair. It felt good.
Perhaps I should have worried about my mental state.
I considered pissing on the corpse there and then, but decided it would be crass. Pissing on his grave seemed classier. I was just about to get on with the grisly task of hauling him downstairs when I heard a low growl from the doorway to my right.
Shit. I’d forgotten the dog.
Nasty great brute called Jonah. An Irish wolfhound the size of a pony that liked to shag our legs when Master wasn’t around to kick some obedience into it. Always had a hungry look in its eyes, even back then. I didn’t want to turn my head and see how it looked after two weeks locked in a flat with a decaying owner.
Two things occurred to me: first, that the dog’s fear of its master must have been intense to prevent it from snacking on the corpse, and second, that by the time I was able to rise from my seat it’d be upon me and that would be that.
The headmaster’s wife left him in the end. One Saturday morning while he was out taking rugby practice she rounded up all the boys who weren’t on the team and together we helped move her stuff out of the flat into the transit van she had waiting downstairs. She’d kissed us all on the cheek and driven off crying. When he returned and found her gone he seemed bewildered, asked us if we’d seen her go. We all said “no sir”.
Perhaps I could roll off the seat to my left, use it as a shield and beat the dog back out of the room. Who was I kidding? It was an armchair; by the time I’d managed to get a useable grip on it I’d be dog food. Despite my probably hopeless position there was an absence of fear. No butterflies in my stomach, I wasn’t breathing faster. Could I really be so unconcerned about my own life?
Our new matron had a lot of work to do to win over those of us who’d been so fond of her predecessor. For one thing, she didn’t look like a matron. The head’s wife had been middle-aged, round, rosy cheeked and, well, matronly. This imposter was in her twenties, slim, with deep green eyes and dyed red hair. She was gorgeous, and that was a problem – she acted more like a cool older sister than the surrogate mum we all wanted. No teenage boy really wants to hang out with his older sister. I liked her immediately, but everyone else kept their distance. They called her Miss Crowther, refusing to call her Matron, but she won them over eventually.
Two months into spring term we all went down with flu. There were only eight of us in residence that weekend but since the sanatorium had only four beds the headmaster decreed that we should all remain in our dormitories, in our own beds, in total silence until Monday. Miss Crowther wasn’t having any of that, and confined us all to sickbay, enlisting our help to carry in chairs and camp beds. Then she set us up with a telly and rented us a load of DVDs.
The headmaster was livid when he found out, and we sat in the San and listened to him bawling at her. How dare she subvert his authority, who did she think she was? He had half a mind to show her the back of his hand. It all sounded very familiar. But she stood up to him, told him that the San was her jurisdiction, that if he interfered with her care of sick boys she’d go to the governors so why didn’t he just shut up and back off? Astonishingly, he did, and Miss Crowther became Matron, heroine to us all.
The dog’s growl changed tenor, shifting into a full snarl. I heard its claws on the floorboards as it inched its way inside the room, manoeuvring itself to attack. I’d foolishly left my rucksack in the hallway; anything I could have used to protect myself was in there. I was defenceless and I couldn’t see any way out. There was nothing else for it, I’d just have to take the beast on bare fisted.
When the plague first hit the headlines Matron reassured us that antibiotics and effective quarantine would keep us all safe. The World Health Organisation would ensure that it didn’t become a pandemic. Boy, did she ever get that wrong. But to be fair, so did everyone else.
There was a big meeting with the governors, parents and staff, and even the students were allowed a say, or at least the sixth-formers got to choose a representative to speak for them; fifth-formers and juniors didn’t get a look in. A vocal minority wanted the school to close its gates and quarantine itself, but in the end the parents insisted that boys should be taken home to their families. One teacher would remain on site and look after those boys whose parents were trapped abroad, or worse, already dead. Matron said she had nowhere else to go, and she remained to tend any boys who got sick. The teacher who stayed alongside her, Mr James, was a popular master, taught Physics, and there had been rumours of a romance between him and Matron in the weeks leading up to the dissolution of the school. One of the boys who stayed behind told me he was secretly looking forward to it. They’d have the school to themselves, and Matron and Mr James were sure to be good fun. It would be just like a big holiday.
I had passed that boy’s grave on the way up the school driveway an hour earlier. Mr James’s too. In fact almost all the boys I could remember having stayed behind seemed to be buried in the makeshift graveyard that had once been the front lawn. Neat wooden crosses bore their names and dates. Most had died in the space of a single week, two months ago. Presumably the headmaster had returned from wherever he’d been lurking shortly thereafter, had hung around for a while and then topped himself.
My father was overseas when The Cull began, serving with the army in Iraq. Mother took me home and we quarantined ourselves as best we could. Before communications gave out entirely I managed to talk to Dad on the phone and he’d told me that the rumour there was that people with the blood group O-neg were immune. He and I were both O-negs, Mother was not. Ever the practical man, Dad demanded we discuss what would happen if she died, and I reluctantly agreed that I would return to the school and wait for him to come get me. He promised he’d find a way, and I didn’t doubt him.
So when Mother finally did die – and, contrary to the reports the last vestiges of the media were peddling, it was not quick, or easy, or peaceful – I buried her in the back garden, packed up a bag of kit and started out for school. After all, where else was there for me? And now, after cycling halfway across the county and surviving three gang attacks en route, I was probably about to get savaged and eaten by a dog I’d last seen staring dolefully up at me with its tongue lolling out as it made furry love to my right leg. Terrific.
Jonah had now worked his way into the room and stood directly in front of me. His back was hunched, his rear legs crouched down ready to pounce. Fangs bared, eyes wild, feral and furious. This was a very big, very vicious looking beast. I decided I’d go for the eyes and the throat in the first instance, and try to kick it in the nuts at the same time. I didn’t think I could kill it, but with any luck I could disable it enough to force it to retreat and then I could grab my bag, leg it out of the flat and shut the door behind me, trapping it again. The headmaster could bury his own damn self for all I cared. I’d have enough to do tending my bite wounds.
And then the dog was upon me and I was fighting for my life.
I wasn’t wearing my biker jacket, but the lighter leather coat I did have on provided some protection to my right forearm as I jammed it into the dog’s gaping mouth. Forced back in my chair by the strength of the attack, I tried to raise my feet to kick the beast away, but its hind legs scrabbled on the hard wood floor, claws clattering for purchase, and I couldn’t get a clear shot.
I felt the dog’s hot, moist breath on my face as it worried my arm, shaking it violently left and right, trying to get past it to the soft flesh of my throat. I brought my left arm up and grabbed it by the throat, squeezing its windpipe as hard as I could; didn’t even give the beast pause for thought.
My right forearm was beginning to hurt like hell. The teeth may not have been able to break the skin but the dog’s jaws were horribly powerful and I was worried it might succeed in cracking the bone.
We were eye to eye, and the madness in those great black orbs finally gave me the first thrill of fear.
I grappled with the dog, managing to push it back an inch or two, giving me room to bring up both my feet and kick it savagely in the hind legs. Losing its balance, it slipped backwards but refused to relinquish my arm, so I was dragged forward like we were in some ludicrous tug of war.
I kicked again, and this time something cracked and the dog let go of my arm to howl in anguish. But still it didn’t retreat. I could see I’d damaged its right leg by the way it now favoured its left. Undaunted, the dog lunged for my throat again.
This time I was ready for it, and instead of using my arm as a shield I punched hard with my right fist, straight on its nose. It yelped and backed off again. Thick gobbets of saliva dropped slowly from its slavering jaws as it panted and snarled, eyeing me hungrily. It couldn’t have eaten in two weeks, how could it possibly still be so strong?
Before I had time to move again Jonah tried a different tack, lunging for my left leg and worrying it savagely. This time I screamed. Cycling shorts don’t give the best protection, and his teeth sank deep into my calf, giving the animal its first taste of my blood. I leaned forward and rained punches down on his head. I realised that I’d made a fatal mistake about a tenth of a second after Jonah did, but that was enough. He released my leg and sprang upwards towards my exposed throat, ready to deliver the killing bite. I didn’t even have time to push myself backwards before a loud report deafened me.
When my hearing faded back in all I could hear was the soft whimpering of Jonah the dog, as he lay dying at my feet. I looked towards the door and there, silhouetted in the light, was the figure of a woman holding a smoking rifle.
“Never did like that bloody animal,” she said, as she stepped forward into the room. Grimacing, she lowered the rifle, closed her eyes, and pulled the trigger again, putting the beast out of its misery. She paused there for a moment, eyes closed, shoulders hunched. She looked like the loneliest woman in the whole world. Then she looked up at me and smiled a beautiful, weary smile.
“Hello Lee,” said Matron.
I winced as Matron dabbed the bite wound with antiseptic. The sanatorium was just the same as it had been before I left – the shelves a bit emptier and the medicine cabinet more sparsely stocked, but otherwise little had changed. It still smelt of TCP, which I found oddly comforting. Matron had changed though. The white uniform was gone, replaced by combat trousers, t-shirt and jacket. Her hair was unkempt and make-up was a distant memory. There were dark rings under her eyes and she looked bone tired.
“The head turned up here about a month ago and tried to take control,” explained Matron. “He started laying down the law, giving orders, bossing around dying children, if you can believe that.”
“He tried to institute quarantine, though it was far too late for that, and burial details made up of boys who were already sick. He seemed quite normal until one day, out of nowhere, he just snapped. No build up, no warning signs. He told Peter… Mr James, to help bury one of the boys, but he was already too ill to leave his bed, and refused. I thought the head was going to hit him. Then he just started crying and couldn’t seem to stop. He went and locked himself in his rooms and wouldn’t come out. I tried, a few times, to coax him out, but all I ever heard was sobbing. Then, after a few days, not even that. I didn’t have the time to see to him, there were boys dying every day and the head was O-neg so I just figured I’d deal with him when it was all over. But when I tried the door all I heard was the dog growling and I, well, I just couldn’t be bothered. Plus, really, I didn’t want to have to bury a half-eaten corpse. Still can’t believe the dog left him alone. Weird.
“Stupid pointless bastard,” she added. “What a waste.”
I didn’t think it was much of a loss, but I didn’t say so.
“Did you dig all those graves yourself, then?” I asked.
“No. Mr James helped. At first.”
“But you can’t have been the only one who survived. Some of the boys must have made it.”
I didn’t want to ask about Jon. He’d been my best friend since we both started here seven years earlier, and he’d stayed behind when his parents couldn’t be located. Mother had offered to take him with us, but the head had forbidden it – what if his parents came looking for him?
“Of the twenty who stayed behind there are three left: Green, Rowles and Norton.”
Jon’s surname had been Swift. Dead then.
“Oh, and Mr Bates, of course.”
“Eh? I thought he’d left?”
“He did.” Matron placed a gauze dressing over the wound and reached for the bandage. “But he came back about a week ago. I haven’t asked but I assume his wife and children are dead. He’s a bit… fragile at the moment.”
Bates was our history master. A big, brawny, blokey bloke, all rugby shirts and curry stains; fragile was the last word you’d use to describe him. He was well liked by sporty kids but he had little time for bookish types, and his version of history was all battles and beheadings. He was also the head of the army section of the school’s Combined Cadet Force, and he loved bellowing on the parade ground, covering himself in boot polish for night exercises and being pally with the Territorial Army guys they trained with every other month.
My dad didn’t think schools had any business dressing fourteen-year-old boys up in army gear, teaching them how to use guns, making war seem like the best possible fun you could have. He had made sure I knew the reality of soldiering – blood, death, squalor. “Don’t be like me, son,” he’d told me. “Don’t be a killer. Don’t let your life be all about death. Study hard, pass your exams, get yourself a proper job.”
So much for that.
I remember one Friday afternoon Dad stood at the side of the concrete playground we used for parade and watched Bates bluster his way through drill practice. At one point Bates yelled “RIGHT FACE!” especially loud, holding the ‘I’ for ages and modulating his voice so he sounded like a caricature sergeant from a Carry On film. Dad laughed out loud and everyone heard. Bates went red in the face and glared at him until I thought his head was going to explode. Dad just stared him down, a big grin on his face, until Bates dismissed us and stomped off to the staff room.
Anyway, Dad didn’t approve of the CCF, but Community Service for three hours every Friday afternoon sounded really dull – helping old ladies with their shopping might be character building but, well, old people smell – so I joined the RAF section. There was a lot less drill and shouting in the RAF section.
My special area of responsibility was weapons training – I taught the fourth-formers how to strip, clean and reassemble the Lee-Enfield . 303 rifles that were kept in the weapons store next to the tuck shop; Matron’s rifle stood in the corner as she taped up the bandage on my leg, so Bates had obviously opened up the armoury. Made sense. I’d had a few close calls with gangs and vigilante groups on my journey back to school.
“There, all done,” said Matron. “You’ll be limping for a while, and I want you back here once a day so I can check for infection and change the dressing. Now, you should report for duty! Bates will want to see you. We’ve all moved into the staff accommodation block, easier to defend, so he reckons.” She noticed my curious expression and added, “He’s gone a bit… military. Overcompensating a bit. You should go see for yourself while I clean up here. Just remember to call him sir and salute and stuff. Don’t worry though, he’s harmless enough, I think. He’s been very good with young Rowles.”
“Okay.” I got up, winced again, and sat back down.
“Sorry,” said Matron. “No painkillers left. They’re on the shopping list for the next expedition, but ’til then I’m afraid you’ll just have to grit your teeth. I may be able to rustle up some vodka later, if you’re good.” She winked and grinned, then handed me a crutch. I hobbled away. Jesus, my leg hurt.
As I was turning the corner at the end of the corridor she popped her head out of the sickbay and called after me.
“Oh, and Lee?”
“It really is very good to see you. We could use some level heads around here.”
Trying not to let my level head swell to the size of a football, I blushed and mumbled some thanks.
The staff accommodation was situated in the west wing of the main school building, an old stately home from the 1800s that was turned into a school about a hundred years ago. It was imaginatively referred to as Castle – not The Castle, or Castle House, just Castle. The two towers on either side of the main entrance made it kind of look like a castle, with mock battlements on the roof, but inside it was wood panelling, creaky floorboards and draughty casement windows.
The central heating in our dormitories was provided by huge, old metal radiators that wheezed, groaned and dripped all winter. The paint on them, layers thick, would crack and peel every summer, exposing the scalding hot metal underneath. Some prefects’ favourite method of torturing junior boys was to hold their ears to an exposed bit of radiator metal. It’d hurt like hell for days afterwards. MacKillick liked this technique, although he had allegedly once used a softer and more sensitive part of one boy’s anatomy, and I don’t even want to think about how badly that must’ve hurt. The radiators were cold now, and the air was chilly and damp.
The school was eerily quiet. I paused in the main assembly hall, breathing in the smell of floor polish and dust. At one end stood the stage, curtains closed. The sixth-formers had performed A Midsummer Night’s Dream there last term, God knew when it’d see use again. Halfway up the wall, around three sides of the hall, a gallery walkway joined one set of classrooms to the library and staff areas. I limped up the stairs and used it to make my way through into the wing normally reserved for teachers.
I found Bates in the staff room, giving what appeared to be a briefing to the three remaining boys, all in their school uniforms, as if attending a lesson. Bates was stood by a whiteboard, drawing a simple map with arrows showing directions of approach. The central building on the map was labelled ‘Tesco’.
The door was open, so I knocked and entered, making Bates jump and reach for his rifle before he recognised me, clocked the crutch, and came over to help me to a seat.
“Kevin isn’t it?”
I sighed. “No sir. It’s Keegan, sir. Lee Keegan.”
“Keegan, right. Well, welcome back Keegan. Been in the wars?”
I’ve buried my mother, cycled halfway across the county, been attacked three times on the way, eaten ripe roadkill badger for breakfast and then been savaged by the hound of the bloody Baskervilles. I’m covered in mud, blood, bruises and bandages, and I am on crutches. Of course I’ve been in the damn wars. You prick.
“Little bit, sir.”
He had the good grace to look sympathetic for about two seconds.
“Good to have another senior boy back. RAF, weren’t you?” He said RAF with a hint of distaste, as if referring to an embarrassing medical complaint.
“Yes sir. Junior Corporal.”
“Oh well. You can still fire one of these though, eh?” He brandished his. 303.
“Good, good. We’ll get you sorted out with at the billet later. I was just outlining the plan of attack for tomorrow. Take a seat.”
Bates looked weird. His hair was slicked back with gel (or grease?) and he was dressed in full army gear. His boots shone but he hadn’t shaved in days, his eyes were deep set and bloodshot. His manner was different, too. The blokey jokiness was gone and instead he was acting the brisk military man. Grief, did he really think he was a soldier now? I bet he’d even started using the 24-hour clock. He resumed his briefing.
“We assemble by the minibus at oh-six-hundred.” Knew it. “The primary objective is the tinned goods aisle at Tesco, but matches, cleaning fluids, firelighters and so forth would come in handy. Yes Green?”
The sixth-former had raised his hand.
“Sir, we’ve already visited… sorry, raided… Sainsbury’s, Asda and Waitrose. They were all empty. Morrisons wasn’t even there any more. Why should Tesco be any different?”
For the briefest of instants a look of despair flickered across Bates’ face. It was gone in a moment, replaced by a patronising smile. God, he really was in a bad way. It’d been hard enough for me to bury my mother but it was, after all, the natural way of things – children mourn their parents. I couldn’t begin to imagine what burying his wife and children had done to him; he seemed broken.
“Got to be thorough, Green. A good commander leaves nothing to chance. Nothing!”
“Right sir!” The boy shot me a glance and rolled his eyes. I grimaced back. I knew Green reasonably well. He was in the year above me, but was in my house and had helped organise our annual drama show last term. He was a high achiever in exams, and always put himself front and centre in any play or performance, but get him near a sports field and he looked like he wanted to run and hide under a bush; smart, but a wimp. Exactly the kind of boy Bates wanted nothing to do with. He was tall and lean, with dark hair and brown eyes, and the lucky bastard had avoided acne completely. No such luck for me.
I had been in the Lower Fifth before The Cull. Rowles was a second-former and Norton, sat next to Green, was Upper Fifth.
I barely knew Rowles. He was so much younger than me I’d never had anything to do with him. Even for his age he was small, and his wide eyes and freckled cheeks made him look like one of those cutesy kids from a Disney film, the kind who contrive to get their divorced parents back together just by being awfully, grotesquely, vomit-inducingly sweet. He was looking up at Bates, eyes full of hero worship. Poor kid. Bad enough losing your parents, but to latch onto Bates as your role model, now that was really unfortunate. I realised he was young enough that the world pre-Cull would soon come to seem like a dream to him, some fantasy childhood too idealised to have really occurred.
Norton, on the other hand, was all swagger, but not in a bad way. He was confident and self assured, a posh kid who affected that sort of loping Liam Gallagher strut. Well into martial arts, he had the confidence of someone who knew he could look after himself, and spent most break times smoking in the backroom of the cafe over the road, chatting up any girls from the high school who bought his bad boy act. Although he fitted the profile, he wasn’t a bully or a bastard, and I was pleased to see him; things could be fun with Norton around.
What a gang to see out the apocalypse with – an aspiring luvvie, a wideboy hardarse and an annoying mascot child, overseen by a world weary nurse and a damaged history master who thought he was Sgt Rock. Still, it could be worse – the head could be alive and MacKillick could be here.
Just as that thought flickered through my brain I heard someone behind me clear their throat. I cursed myself for tempting fate and turned around knowing exactly which particular son of a bitch would be standing behind me.
“Hi sir,” said Sean MacKillick. “Need a hand?”
“Oh fuck,” said Rowles.