Art Pact 168 - The Ghost


I saw him for the first time hanging around the corridors. The bell had gone, the end-of-lunch bell that calls us all back hyperactive and sullen at the same time, to the first of our afternoon classes. I was slow, making a point to my maths teacher that he was not the boss of me, and I shuffled through the the echo-ridden halls almost on my own, just a few of those two most despised other classes - the dullards, too stupid to get to class on time even if they wanted to, and the prefects and teachers' pets roaming around on their various pointless missions. I kept clear of them by snaking, by zigging and zagging, by making up my own route through the labyrinth like the prize rat they thought I was. It was for that reason that I spotted him.

He should have seemed awkward and out of place, but he did not. There was a confidence about him - not an attractive one, though, the sort of lazily aggressive self-confidence that made you think that he was leering all the time, a repulsive sense of possessorship. He leant against the display cabinet, peering within, and my first thought (since he was not in uniform) was that he had come in to steal some sporting trophy. Fine, I thought, let him. Such things were worthless anyway. All they led to was jingoistic belief in the superiority of the school, and that was the starting place for teachers believing that we loved them and worshipped them as tiny gods, that we would come at their beck and call and stand still while they shaped our rough clay with their clumsy hands. Bollocks to that. I slowed down and observed my surroundings, looking for a comfortable hiding place from which to observe the crime.

The school was built in the fifties, in a style which - well, there's no point me trying to pretend that I know anything about building styles, is there? The sort of fool who talks about modern brutalism and Doric columns wouldn't be here, waiting to see someone break into a trophy cabinet. They'd be at my cousin Hester's dinner parties, talking pretentious shit and staring at me on the sly when their wader-bird girlfriends weren't looking, as if just because they knew something about how some dead idiot put up a house they stood the slightest chance with me. Anyway, however those sly winkers would have desrcibed it, the school was sturdy, and the appearance of sturdiness came from thick blocks that ringed the corridor at regular intervals, providing convenient alcoves behind which a girl with a bit of self-control could hold herself so that no-one on the other side of the obstruction could see her. I found one of those and made use of it.

Imagine my disappointment, though, when the target of my surveillance turned out to be admiring the trophy case, not casing it. He took out his mobile (another clue he didn't belong here - all mobiles banned in school hours), and took a photo - first of the case on its own, then another of himself by the case, framed in classic arms-length style.

Disgusted, I checked my watch. There was a danger of making my point to Mr. Creek too well, and I was rapidly approaching it. Without the frisson of a crime to observe, there was little point in hanging around any further and risking the headmaster's office or detention. At the moment I was late enough for the maths teacher to complain about it, not late enough for it to be worth him escalating the issue to a higher authority.

#

Safely back in class, I put the trophy-case lurker out of my mind. I'd assumed, I think, that I would never see him again. But that was not to be the case. About half-way through the class, when we'd got onto the quadratic formula and Mr. Creek had finally stopped directing every question at me (his preferred form of passive-aggressive punishment, slightly derailed by the fact that I was so incompetent at the application of the formula that we had only got about one-tenth of the way into his lesson plan), we heard a knock on the door. Everyone looked up, obviously - such a distraction is not to be wasted - and I was surprised to see the horrid self-satisfied grin of the lurker pressed up against the door's little safety window.

Mr. Creek, to his credit for once, looked annoyed at the interruption. Apparently oblivious to the power of the frown, the lurker let himself in, slouching into the room and observing the assembled mass as if we had gathered there to await his arrival. There was something horridly venal about his look.

"Yuk," said Claire Sanforth, but she said it in a tone of voice that suggested there were parts of her that thought otherwise. The lurker crossed the room to Mr. Creek's desk, offered a hand. Mr. Creek looked at it for a few moments.

"Mr. Stepney," he said. "How can I help you?"

"Hi Mr. Creek," said the lurker. He still had his hand out, and after a few seconds in which I could see him visibly wrestling with his emotions, the maths teacher took his hand and gave it one quick shake. "Just popping in to say hello, see how things are going, see the old place."

And with that - and Mr. Creek's expression - I understood. This figure, this Mr. Stepney, was one of the colourless ghosts of the school, the terrible revenants that came back from their depressing and empty teenage lives to revisit the site of some perceived glory days and to lord it over the younger ones. For once I sympathised with Mr. Creek, because a teacher cannot simply tell someone to fuck off. Instead, Mr. Creek gestured towards the class. Mr. Stepney looked us over - the girls hungrily, the boys with a sort of disdainful amusement.

"I'm afraid we're busy at the moment. I believe there is an open day next month," Mr. Creek suggested menacingly. "Why not come back then?"

Mr. Stepney took the hint, but as he left he winked at us. I had the unpleasant feeling we would be seeing more of him.

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