Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The Altercation - 2

2

His thoughts were dark as he stood before the gates. There was something ominous in returning to the scene of the crime. Yet, he was driven by an urge that seemingly arrived out of nowhere, and even now, standing where he was and allowing second thoughts to enter his mind, he knew that he had to go on. It was what the counsellor called, “dealing with it.”
            He clambered over the gates, conscious that his attire wasn’t exactly conducive to this being a social visit. He doubted that dressed as he was in black and with a battered and bruised face, he could convince anyone that he actually worked here. Nevertheless, once over, there was really no going back. He trundled into the main playground, feeling somewhat like a trespasser. The school’s deathly quiet didn’t help to disperse that feeling. If anything, the emptiness and the bitter cold only exacerbated his paranoia… and the events of last Tuesday made him flinch at every noise.
            “You’re letting it get to you!” his mind whispered. Silence answered; stony, dead silence.
            The world was cold. The wind was howling through the eaves, howling through the skeletal trees. It was the lazy wind Toantown prided itself on, the sort of wind that didn’t bother blowing around you, but rather, it went through you. This it did now, despite the thickness of Jim’s coat. It cut like scythes, teasing tears from his eyes, causing the hairs on his scalp to prickle.
            Before he knew it, he was crossing the main quadrangle, his leather loafers scraping exaggeratedly loud on the cracked grey concrete. Every footfall rebounded around the enclosed space, surrounded on three sides by classrooms and the fourth by the toilet block and canteen complex. Above, the sky was the colour of slate and darkening, so it seemed, by the minute.
            He ran up the stairs leading to the second level, taking the steps two at a time. The new rush of blood alleviated the cold somewhat and distracted his mind, if only temporarily. It wasn’t until he had reached his destination that he realised that he had been on autopilot. And straight after that, having turned his pockets inside out, he realised another serious flaw in whatever plan was hatching inside his head. His copy of the English staff room keys were even now glinting in the shadows on his desk.
            Jim swallowed, still catching his breath from the dash upstairs.
            “What now?” he asked himself. He leaned his back against the door, peering over the balcony and over the front quadrangle to the main road and the gates he had jumped over. “Home?” he wondered, but shook his head.
            Therapy.
            The word entered his head, a demented jingle that could have sold anyone in the world at this moment, but not Jim, standing chilled and bruised and somewhat paranoid outside of his staff room. Already, his eyes darted to the far right of the large concrete quadrangle. Past the dilapidated basketball ring, with the hoop that was bent almost to the vertical, past the faded hopscotch court that was about twenty years overdue a touching up… past even the cutesy nineteen-eighties murals splattered on the canteen wall. Between the luridly painted canteen and the toilet block, the tiny corridor, like an oblong gaping maw, drew Jim’s undivided attention.
            Here there be dragons
            He suddenly became aware of an itchy sensation down his sides, and the slick of sweat over his back and chest. His left eye twitched, his mouth dried out, felt as if he had been eating leather for the last five hours. Even his hands, secure in his pockets, were fidgeting.
            Through the tunnel, he knew, was the lower quadrangle, which separated the English, History and Social Science Departments from the Science Laboratories, the Workshops and the Art Rooms. At the far end of this quadrangle, leading out towards the back ovals, was the Metal Workshop. And it was there that Jim had received his working over…
            He touched the right side of his face, where the stitches wound like a snake, covered in thin strips of adhesive tape. From here, he traced the dark smudges along his cheeks, on both sides of his face, before sneaking a hand around the back of his head, finding the tender bulbous swelling lurking underneath a carpet of unkempt hair. Last night, he had counted into the twenties all the bruises he could see on his ribs, arms and chest… he was dead certain there were more on his back.
            Through the tunnel, was where his pain originated. Through the tunnel, would be memories. Memories, pain, salvation; damnation. He didn’t want to go down there, but knew that he had to. Therapy. He had to “face his fears.”  He had to “regain control of his life.”  Call it any cliché you want; Jim knew that his life depended on the actions he was to take in the next few minutes.
            He stepped away from the door, leant over the balcony rail, glared at the maw that threatened him so. An image leapt unbidden in his mind. He was leaning against Andy Johnson, his face bloody, the world spinning uncontrollably around him. One hand, smeared with blood, reached out and pressed on the brickwork…
            Jim closed his eyes for a second and reopened them. Had that happened?  If it did, then the proof would be on the wall…
            It took longer to go down the stairs than up them, Jim’s loafers scuffling on the rough concrete steps, echoing loudly in the stairwell. On the lower level, the corridor looked much larger and somehow darker. But Jim, grim faced, ignored the jittery sensations in his guts. He crossed the quadrangle with purposeful steps, and just before the corridor, stopped.
            His handprint, or more correctly, his fingerprints, were still on the wall, smeared in blood that was now a dark shade of brown. “Fuck me,” Jim muttered, holding his hand out over the bloody replica on the wall. He held it thus for some time, before lowering it, his eyes roving down the narrow corridor, like the neck of a concrete and brick womb, opening out into the next open chamber.
            He followed the corridor out into the lower quadrangle, suddenly feeling dread of memories coming to the surface. He stopped, closed his eyes for no more than two seconds…
            Sounds. Children… the smells of cooked fries from the canteen. Loud music coming from the music room upstairs: drums, bass and guitars, making a sweet cacophony. In the far corner, that closest to the Metal Workshop, there is three bench seats. Standing on one of the bench seats is Lachlan Murray, from year eleven, dressed in a black jacket over a black tee-shirt, a pair of jeans and dark beanie. Across from him, is Benny Gooding, dressed almost exactly the same. The two of them are yelling at each other, and anyone else within earshot. Around them, dressed so similarly that that might have well been their uniform, was Lachlan’s “gang.”  There were about six of them, skulking about with sombre, stoned looks on their faces, standing nearly knee deep in rubbish from a kicked over rubbish bin. The bin, with a massive dent in it, lies neglected some four or five metres away.
            Jim walks towards them, unsure suddenly if it wouldn’t be easier to simply ignore the rubbish and the carrying’s on of the year eleven boys. But even before his mind is made up, he is giving the instructions, being the teacher.
            “Boys, you’ll have to clean up this area.”
            “Huh?” a derisive snort. Benny Gooding, arms folded over his chest, offering challenge.
            “You’ll have to…”
            “I heard what you said, Hallaron,” Lachlan interrupted. He jumped down off the seat, right into the middle of the rubbish. “But I’ll be fucked if I’m gonna do it.”
            Jim drew a sharp, whistling breath, and let it out slowly. “Either you clean up the area, or I’ll see you this afternoon for detention…”
            “Are you threatening me?” Lachlan offered.
            “Are you threatening us?” Benny added, still perched on the bench seat.
            Around him, the “gang,” nothing more than whipping boy puppets, milled about, toeing the ground with their thick-heeled boots. If it weren’t for Benny and Lachlan, the area would have been cleaned up by now. But no; these kids were only just starting.
            “Are you threatening me, you dumb fuck!” Lachlan stepped forward so that his face was inches from Jim’s and that when the word “fuck” was said, flecks of spittle accompanied it. He was close enough for Jim to see bloodshot eyes. Close enough to smell the pungent essence of dope, which hung like a pall around the young man.
            “You’ve been smoking, haven’t you?”
            A malevolent sneer slid over Lachlan’s features.
            “Fuck off, Hallaron, before I punch you in the fucking head.”
            “What did you say?”
            “You heard what I said.”
            “You heard what he said,” Benny echoed.
            Jim glanced up at Benny briefly, then around at the other boys. “I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that, Lachlan. You’ve got three minutes until I get back here. If you haven’t cleaned up this area… there’ll be trouble.”
            “Ooo-ooo-ooh!  Talking big are we?” Lachlan sneered. “Shove off then. Dumb fucking…”
            Jim turned to go, turning his back on Lachlan’s parting words, which was probably the biggest mistake of his life. He barely heard the end of the angry retort, or the shuffle of boots on the concrete. He barely had time to even flinch as the shadow suddenly loomed over him. Then there was pain and blinding flashes of rainbow coloured light. He staggered forward, clutching the back of his head, where already there was a lump bursting through his hair.
            “What the…?” was all he managed, before seeing Lachlan coming at him through a film of tears.
            He had both fists raised like a fighter, protecting his face and throat… not that he needed much protection with Jim blinking through the pain and blurred vision. A fist caught him in the jaw. Another on the cheekbone. He staggered back, still somehow on his feet. Lachlan’s shadow drew nearer.
            He blocked the next blow more by fluke than any real skill, but the next blow was a money shot. Lachlan’s ring cut a nice swath underneath his right eye. Blood flowed; warm and treacly. It was enough to clarify Jim’s vision.
            “Come on, you fuck!” Lachlan challenged. “Threaten me, will you!”
            “Back off, Lachlan!” Jim heard himself say. “Back off!”
            But Lachlan wouldn’t back off. Indeed, the words only caused him to come forward anew. Jim backed away, blocking as many blows as he could with desperate movements of his arms. He didn’t see the blow that slipped through all of his defences and sent him crashing to the ground. But on the ground, he suddenly realised, with a sickening lurch, that it was Benny who had felled him. Now both of them stood over him, leering at him… sneers on their faces.
            “Get up!” Benny cried. “Get up and fight you pussy!”
            Lachlan joined in. “Get up, or we’ll kick you in the fucking head.”
            Jim stared up at the both of them, feeling the world rushing suddenly in and out of focus. Even if he did manage to get up, he would no doubt pass out. The king hit from Lachlan, combined with that which he received from Benny had taken its toll. He was kneeling, and the world was swaying. I can’t get up!
            “Get the fuck up!” Benny shouted. And suddenly, there was an echo…  “Get up! Get up!” only it wasn’t an echo, but a chant. With sickening dread, Jim realised that he had become the centre of some kind of twisted entertainment. “What the fuck is happening?” his mind shouted.
            Suddenly, Lachlan was kneeling down next to him, digging in the pocket of his jacket. “Either you get up, Hallaron, of your own free will, or I will fucking make you get up!”
            He yanked something out of his pocket. It wasn’t until Jim heard the telltale click that he recognised the switchblade knife for what it was.
            “You wouldn’t!” Jim breathed.
            “Watch me,” Lachlan retorted, bringing the knife into Jim’s field of vision. Closer he brought it, closer still. It was half a centimetre from Jim’s left ear, close enough for him to feel its cold razor edge…
            That was when he exploded.
            With a roar that was purely animal, Jim sprang forward. He felt the knife brush over his face, unaware that it had opened his cheek until he was at the doctor’s surgery. A superhuman shove sent Lachlan sprawling to the ground and the knife bounding several yards away, the blade stained crimson on its razor tip. Then a fist shot out—Jim’s fist—connecting with Benny’s nose. There was a satisfying squishing nose, a spurt of blood. Benny roared, his hands flying to his stricken face. He backed off, curses now sobs. Jim gave him another few parting shots for good measure, but the fight was all out of Benny.
            That left Lachlan, who even now was picking himself up off the ground, his eyes flickering left and right, finding his quarry—the switchblade—and closing the ground towards it. Without thinking, Jim made a hurried, maniacal dive towards the same target. He arrived too late, but succeeded in knocking the horrible weapon from Lachlan’s desperate grip. On the ground, they scrabbled, wrestled, two wiry, determined bodies.
            At length, Jim was aware of a commotion going on around him, aware of voices yelling “Hey! Break them up!”  Urgent, shouts flooded the courtyard. Feet pounded the concrete, fleeing, screaming kids as more and more teachers flooded into the courtyard.
            With a sickening lurch, reality crashed down onto Jim with the force of an anvil. It wasn’t until Andy Johnson, voice shaking and edgy, was prying Jim’s hands away from Lachlan’s throat that he knew what exactly had happened. All he saw were dark bruise-like smudges, blue lips… staring eyes… before he was whisked away, bloody, ready to pass out…
            “Hello… Jim?
            He shook his head and the memories didn’t altogether fade—they never would—they merely took a few smart steps backwards, deeper into his subconscious, from where they would rise once more to goad him. With his reverie broken, he could feel the bitter wind on the skin of his face again, could feel the welcoming numbness that dulled the pain of his bruised profile. He turned around slowly, feeling a little like a trespasser, to see who it was who had dragged him out of his pitiful past.
            Emily Reed stood at the far end of the little courtyard, arms wrapped around her body, which was wrapped in a thick coat. Even from this distance, and with the wind playing havoc with her long dark hair, the look of concern on her face was unmistakable. He could see sadness in her wide brown eyes, sadness and concern, as well as tears brought on by the wind. She was studying the rough contours of his battered face, which would have been plainly evident anywhere except for in a dark room, while he stood transfixed to the spot.
            “I thought this’d be the last place to find you,” she stated, casting her eyes around the empty courtyard.
            Jim shrugged. “I don’t know why I came here. I guess I was flying on autopilot.”
            “I came here looking for you, because I couldn’t get you at home. How long have you been out?”
            He shrugged again. “I’ve no idea. Murray broke my watch on Tuesday.”
            “I rang at nine-thirty and got your answering machine.”
            “I was up at five. By eight-thirty, I was restless and decided to go for a walk.”
            “And you came here?” Emily tried a smile, but it faded almost as soon as it formed. During the conversation, she had edged closer. They were now no more than five feet apart, and didn’t have to speak loudly to hear one another.
            Jim found himself unable to meet Emily’s gaze. Instead, he focussed first on her boots, before training his gaze on the graffito on the wall.
            “Are you okay, Jim?” she asked.
            For the third time, Jim shrugged. He was about to say something jocular, but bit his tongue instead.
            “Does it hurt… the bruises?”
            “Like hell,” he murmured. “But the cold air is making them… numb.” On saying the last word, his eyes found Emily’s. They were dark and wide, bright and intelligent, shining with a zest for life that Jim didn’t possess, at least not at the present. Her face was open, angular, with a strong jaw and equally strong cheekbones. It was framed with a shock of generally unkempt thick brown hair that begged Jim to comb through it with his fingers. In this instant, several tiny strands danced in the wind, beckoning him, enticing him. Though he was tempted, he kept his hands thrust determinedly in the pockets of his overcoat. That she was beautiful he couldn’t deny. That they had chemistry of sorts, he couldn’t deny either. But how did that old saying go?  Don’t mix business with pleasure?  Jim sighed, rocking backwards and forwards on his feet. “How are you?” he inquired, breaking the silence that had enveloped them.
            “Mm, all right, I guess.”  She toed the ground with her boot.
            “How have things been going ‘round here?” Jim asked, indicating the school in general with his eyebrows.
            “No one misses you in case you’re wondering.”
            It hurt to smile. Jim winced instead. Even the effort required to do that was too much. He sighed, staring morosely down at his feet. “You know,” he said, “I’m not looking forward to tomorrow.”
            “Nobody is. It’s Monday.”
            “But you don’t have to face what I’m going to have to face. Or who I’m going to have to face.”
            Emily smiled again, catching his eyes with hers. “You’ll be fine.”
            “D’you reckon?”  He cast a suspicious glance around him, aware of another old saying. This one went: even the walls have ears. His furtiveness didn’t go by unnoticed.
            “Do you want to go somewhere and talk?”
            “It depends on how you feel about conspiracy theories.”
            Emily’s brow furrowed slightly, though there was a trace of humour to be found in her eyes. She said nothing though, only turned and began walking. Jim followed close behind, like a large shadow. In silence, they made their way upstairs to their destination; the English staff room of all places.
            Jim waiting patiently as Emily wrestled off her gloves, excavated for her keys and unlocked the door. He would have played the part of the gentleman himself, but his staff room keys were still sitting on his desk, along with everything else he had sat there on Tuesday before his little altercation. By his reckoning, there should have been a half-finished salad roll and a near to full mug of very cold coffee sitting on his desk—that is, if what Emily said about nobody caring for him was true. Much to his disappointment, neither were there. His keys, however, were; along with stacks of rushed photocopying used for quick fillers for all of his classes. He could barely contain a malicious grin as he thumbed through some of the shit lying there.
            While Jim was busy with his desk, Emily had gone to hers. She had doffed her coat, flinging it over the top of her desk where it sat like the skin of some great animal. She was wearing black jeans and a light blue jumper. Currently, she was wrestling her hair into a ponytail and had her back to Jim. Having finished this caper, she turned around.
            “You really look awful,” she told him.
            “You’re not exactly a million dollars yourself.”
            She grinned. “I see this little episode hasn’t eroded any of your humour.”
            “It’s all I have.”
            They stared at one another for the briefest of seconds before looking away. Jim began rocking on his heels again, a mannerism he found he did often when he was nervous.
            “I’m worried about tomorrow,” he said at length. “I’m worried about the interviews. I’m worried about how everyone’s going to react. I’m worried that everyone thinks I’m guilty.”
            “Guilty of what?”
            Jim shook his head. “That’s the point. Of what am I guilty?  But I’ve heard the rumour mill—shit, I’m like the main cog around which the damn thing rotates!”
            “I have to admit, it didn’t take long for the news to spread.”
            “Of course not. My reputation is far from honourable as far as this one horse town is concerned.”
            “Why are you letting it worry you then?  You never have before.”
            “Because now I know I actually did what they say I’ve did. It’s different to the rumour mill spreading crap about me, because it’s just… crap. Now… now…” he faded off, his eyes staring into nothingness.
            “Have you seen anyone… a counsellor or something?”
            He nodded. “We had a good yarn, we did.”  He met her eyes again, aware of the concern, aware of the compassion. They were no more than an arm’s length apart… and yet, there seemed to be both a chasm and a minute distance between them.
            Emily reached a hand out, closing the distance between them. This hand rested on Jim’s shoulder. “Whatever happens, Jim, I’ll support you,” she said. And then, lightning quick—so quick, in fact, that Jim was sure he had imagined the whole thing—she kissed his cheek. “You’ll be all right,” she told him. “Cats like you always land on their feet.”