I remember the first time I met Lee. He was fourteen and it was my first day as Matron at St Mark’s, my first day as Jane Crowther. I wasn’t sure if it was an identity I’d be comfortable with. I’d trained to be a doctor, not nursemaid to a bunch of spoiled upper-class brats. I was nervous and uncertain.
The police had taken care of all the details, and Inspector Cooper assured me that my cover was absolutely water tight. A few years hidden away in this anonymous little school and then maybe I could resume my medical studies somewhere else. Somewhere they’d never find me.
The last words Cooper said to me were: “I promise you, Kate, it’s over. You’ll never have to pick up a gun again.”
What a joke.
Anyway, there I was, hair freshly dyed, first day at my new school. And the first boy into the San that morning was Lee. He was awkward and gangly, with arms that seemed too long for his body, and a smattering of spots across his forehead. His hair was wild and scruffy, and his uniform was a mess. He’d hit a pothole and fallen off his bike, he said, as he showed me the nasty graze on his arm. I swabbed it clean, smeared it with germolene and slapped on a bandage. Three years of medical training for this, I thought, totally depressed.
But then Lee did the sweetest thing, I’ve never forgotten it.
“You’ve got a hell of a job here, you know,” he said. “Your predecessor was quite something.”
I remember thinking ‘Predecessor’? What kind of fourteen-year-old uses a word like ‘predecessor?’ Certainly not the kind of kids I grew up with.
“Really? How’s that, then?” I asked.
So he told me all about the Headmaster and his wife, and explained why the boys might resent me; he gave me tips on how to defuse the Head’s rages, and schooled me in the tactics needed to manage the particularly difficult boys, who he named and shamed so I wouldn’t get caught by surprise. He was shy but friendly, presenting himself as a willing conspirator and helpmate. By the time he left I felt much better about things.
It was such a thoughtful, welcoming thing to do. I had a soft spot for him from that moment on, I suppose.
I think back to the year after The Cull, and the broken, hard-faced wreck that he became, and I want to weep. You see, he was never cut out for leadership, not under those circumstances, anyway. He was sweet and slightly bookish, a bit of a dreamer really. Young, yes, but mature for his age and with a strong sense of right and wrong.
Even now, years later, he hasn’t got over the choices he made that year. I try to tell him that he shouldn’t feel bad, that what he achieved was flat out heroic. But he doesn’t see it that way. He still has the nightmares. I like to think that I’m a help to him, but sometimes he suffers from deep depressions that can last up to a month, and I’m powerless then. Still, I think writing this account has been therapeutic for him.
However, he can’t bring himself to write the final chapter of the St Mark’s story, so he’s asked me to do it for him. I’m not much of a writer, so I’ll keep it brief.
We were still clearing out the main hall when we heard shouts and running feet in the corridors. Then Rowles appeared on the balcony and shouted: “Bomb!”
Everyone was very calm about it, no one panicked. I suppose after what we’d just been through this seemed kind of tame. We walked outside and made our way to the playing fields at the back. Rowles had been putting the guns back into the armoury when he’d discovered a cluster of dynamite sticks, booby trapped and wired up to a clock.
MacKillick must have left them there, as an insurance policy. If he’d survived he’d have gone down and cut whichever wire he needed to cut. But he was dead, and neither Rowles nor Lee wanted to take the gamble of choosing red, yellow or black. As we stood there debating what to do there was the biggest explosion I’ve ever seen. All the grenades and bullets in the armoury went up with the dynamite, practically demolishing Castle in one horrendous bang.
Sean had the last laugh in the end. If he couldn’t rule St Mark’s then no-one could.
The wreckage burnt long into the night, warming us as we tried to decide what to do next. Lee just sat there, silent, staring at the fire, tears streaming down his face as he watched all his dreams, everything he’d fought for, burn away to ashes.
In the morning we packed up the Blood Hunters’ marquee and walked to Hildenborough, where we moved into empty houses and slept all day.
I had been thinking about what Lee had said, about me being the natural leader. Those three months at the farm with the girls had been wonderful, and yes, I had enjoyed being in charge. Lee made it very clear that he didn’t want the job any more.
So I called a meeting and we put it to the vote. Should we stay and become part of the Hildenborough community, or should I take charge of the search for a new home, a new school? The vote was unanimous.
Weeks later, when we were having our final meeting to choose between two likely places, Lee took me to one side.
“I’m leaving, Jane,” he said.
I told him to stop being silly. His arm and hand were healing but he still had limited movement. He needed more physiotherapy and time to recover. But he was determined.
“I have to go find my father,” he explained. “I know he survived the plague, but he should have been back here by now. Something’s gone wrong and he might need my help.”
“But where will you look?” I asked, unable to believe this.
“Iraq,” he said simply.
I begged him to reconsider, told him to wait for us to finish our meeting and then we’d discuss it. He promised he would. But when we wrapped up half an hour later, he was gone.
I only spent two years as the matron of St Mark’s School for Boys. I’d gone there looking for a refuge from violence, and instead I’d found more death than I could have imagined. And more kindness, too. We took the sign from the front gate with us when we moved into Groombridge, establishing some sense of continuity. “St Mark’s is dead, long live St Mark’s,” as Rowles put it.
I was in control and I swore this time it would work, this time everyone would be safe.
I’d make sure of it.