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Introduction to SIBA (LATV)
I went to an all-boys boarding school for children with educational difficulties. I was there from 1985 to 1990.
As I was getting ready for my GCSEs and preparing for this whole "being an adult" lark, I had the idea of a fictional story series. It would be a group of boys at an all-boys boarding school who run a pirate television station.
The first story was roughed out at the end of 1989, based upon something kicking around in my mind since third form (1987). It would finally be written in 1990. This story would be my first work of fiction of any length - in other words something written for the sake of writing it and not just homework for English lessons or short stories of a few sides of A4.
After I left school, the period of 1990-1992 I wrote some more stories, and the television station was called "SIBA".
Around 1994(ish), I revised the stories, changed some of the locations to be less specific, and also changed the station name to LATV (Local Access TeleVision). These incarnations were shared with some friends.
The stories were extended and revised again around 1998-1999 which was a horrible mistake because the stories turned into a nasty anachronism stew. Stories set in the late '80s contained numerous contemporary references that absolutely did not fit. The obvious question that comes to mind is "wait, just pick up your mobile phone"...
I tried fixing some of this around 2002, but since I'd just moved to France (and was cut off from both the Internet and the world), I had far more interesting things to do so things never got finished.
When rummaging through some old backup disc images (the fun of running FCFS on an emulator), I found the notes and outlines of the original stories.
Armed with this information, I took the (numerous) rainy days in this year's summer holiday to revise the stories to create the definitive versions. I have thrown away the weird anachronisms and sorted out the timeline so the stories take place at specific points in time (something that was always a bit vague in the originals) - starting in 1988 and running until 1990. The title of the station has returned to SIBA, rather than LATV.
But that's not all. It hasn't been a simple job of tweaking things. Oh no. There has been extensive reworking of a lot of the stories in numerous subtle ways - so if you recall LATV from the past, give it another read. Not only that, but one (stupid) story has been thrown away, and two entirely new stories have been written. The final story, and the ending, is in the process of being written right now, and is going to be vastly different to what it was in 1998.
So what I am going to present over the next few weeks, every Friday evening, is the SIBA series. My first major work of fiction, nearly thirty years in the creation. ☺
Starting with part one just below.
Imagine the late eighties. The home computer era of the BBC micro and the Sinclair Spectrum was coming to an end, the Archimedes had just been released, the Amiga was just around the corner. But Beebs, with their two megahertz processors and thirty two kilobytes of RAM were still commonplace in schools. The "PC" was practically unknown, and those that did exist sported a "Turbo" button to run it a shade under 8MHz, in case the default 4MHz wasn't good enough. But, then, Windows didn't exist, so maybe 4MHz would suffice for the simpler software of that era?
Mobile phones did not exist.
Payphones did. And phone tariffs were an incomprehensible maze that boiled down to a rough approximation of distance for something like three "local" charge bands, plus two "national" charge bands. Or something like that. I remember mom had a call timer price display gadget that was really complicated. Oh, and if that wasn't enough, calls in the morning cost more than calls in the afternoon, and calls after six in the evening were the "cheap rate".
There were only four television channels. BBC 1 for general programming, BBC 2 for nerds, ITV (regions) for general programming for stupid people, and Channel 4 for showing films where Charlotte Rampling takes her clothes off...
There was no such thing as "social media" either. Bulletin boards existed, for people rich enough to have modems and be able to pay the phone bill. To give you an idea, a typical modem operated at 2400 baud. By contrast, a modern 20 megabit ADSL connection is equivalent to 20,971,520 baud.
As such, "social media" was when a family sat down together to watch Noel Edmonds.
For my international readers, this is set in the south of England, so expect lots of "proper English" accents. If you have difficulty, maybe you have heard Tony Blair, David Cameron, or (god help us all) Theresa May on the TV?
There are also a number of Brit expressions, words, and phrases - some of them dating from the era in question. I'll give you a clue - a rozzer is a Bobbie. ☺
If you think "bloody hell" is a swear word, stop reading here. We say bloody all the bloody time. You have been warned.
This brings us to the music. So much awesomeness that there are actually radio stations that play nothing but songs from the eighties. The British station I listen to from time to time, 96.4 Eagle (from Guildford), plays a lot of eighties too. Because the eighties rocked.
To get you in the mood, here is a playlist of the songs featured in this story. Enjoy!
1 - Differences
|Differences by Richard Murray
Based upon “TakeOver”; © 1990-1996 Richard Murray
Based upon “Differences”, © 2000 Richard Murray
Based upon “SIBA:TakeOver”, © 1989 Richard Murray
This version, © 2017 Richard Murray.
Richard Murray is asserting his right to be identified as the author of this story.
This story is not to be republished anywhere else in any form (electronic, paper, or otherwise) without the prior permission of the author.
“Good morning everybody!”, I said in my best DJ voice, which wasn’t much, “It’s Monday April the fourth, nineteen eighty eight, and the weather is about as good as we can expect in April. So, you can all stare at our cartoon testcard and enjoy Mel and Kim’s ‘Respectable’, shamelessly stolen off the radio this morning.”
I pressed Play on the tape deck and picked up the small mixer console sitting on my lap and twiddled knobs. The live audio faded down to nothing and the tape audio faded up until the song played through the speakers without any distortion. A video camera was pointing at a drawing. A drawing created by somebody with the skills of a five year old.
I placed the console on the table and spun around in the office chair I was sitting on. I liked doing that.
“David, you gonna get up this morning?”, I called over to the lump on the bunk above mine. Silence.
I looked around. The SIBA broadcast centre was finally up and running. Sunnyvale Independent Broadcasting Association. Or maybe Authority. We hadn’t decided, so we never said what the acronym meant. I just thought “SIBA” was a cool acronym, though far too many people mistook it for a type of cat food.
It was a fancy name, but in reality it consisted of the dormitory above the staff room. There were four beds here, two of them claimed by David and myself. The four beds at the back of the room had been removed so we could set up a studio. This was a plywood frame into which we inserted coloured card to change the decoration, one table with two chairs for interviews, and another table with the mixers, tape machines, and the transmitter. For we were running a pirate television station. Or maybe I should be polite and say an unlicensed television station. In an all-boys boarding school.
It all came about because we were supposed to participate in after-school activities. I wasn’t interested in - or any good at - sports, and things like chess and book club were reserved for the seniors. So being flippant I suggested we (that’s myself and my best friend David) make our own TV station. I have no idea where the idea came from, but nobody took it seriously. “Fine, you go do that”, said the headmaster matching my level of flippant, “and when you make your first proper broadcast, we’ll sort you out with somewhere to make a studio”. Unfortunately he made his sarcastic assertion in front of the entire school so a few months later when we actually made a broadcast, we held him to it. And we got it too, but the proviso was that we had to broadcast school announcements, wake up messages, and so on. I reckon they were hoping the 6am starts would get to me as I’m absolutely not a morning person.
To be honest, my specialty was in coming up with grandiose ideas and then goofing off. David was the wizard who actually managed to build a UHF transmitter. Colour too. It took him quite a while to get the output stage right so it could transmit without cooking the amplifier transistors. At least, that’s what I think he was on about. I could program a computer so I worked on the autoprompter software while he burned out three dinky yellow soldering irons in building all of the equipment we used. The limit of my soldering expertise was fixing broken headphone jacks.
In fact, the only thing David hadn’t sussed was how to switch between the cameras without the picture briefly rolling on the TV screen. David explained to me that it was because professional cameras were all synchronised to a single timing source, so all would be outputting the exact same part of the image at the exact same time. Our equipment was a small collection of salvaged personal video cameras. The one on the tripod was a HandyCam with a broken tape deck. It gave the best picture. The one we used to taking to other parts of the school was one of those prehistoric models with a waist-belt that consisted of the tape deck that took full sized tapes and a large battery pack. The picture was a bit rubbish, the camera used a rather worn tube style sensor (ancient technology) but it was a solid beast. We could record things to replay later, or throw a long cable with battery amplifier out the window to push the video signal back to the studio. The images from that were rather poor quality, but people watching us were used to that. People watching us were the school and maybe about half the village if they even knew, for our transmitter managed about a mile and a half in favourable weather. Anyway, all of these cameras were working independently of each other, so when switching between them, one may be sending the bottom of the picture down the video cable, when another was sending the middle of the picture at that exact same instant. Because of this, when we switched cameras the picture on everybody’s television sets would roll from top to bottom a few times until the TV locked into the new signal. As such, we tried not to change camera angles too frequently. It doesn’t harm the equipment, but it annoys the viewers. All three of them. Well, we know we have a larger audience, sometimes, but it’s a bit of a running gag that we have “three viewers”. The gag came because Matron went around during our second broadcast (the first from our new ‘studio’) to see how many people were actually watching, so we told everybody to turn their TVs off and quietly read a book. Everybody did except these three second formers who weren’t paying attention. Matron reported back that we had three people watching, and how strange it was that absolutely everybody seemed to be peacefully reading something. In a special needs school where half the boys were some degree of dyslexic.
It was Spring in 1988. Our final term as third formers. After this we would have to choose which subjects to continue with, as we headed towards our final exams in fifth form. I really had no idea. I knew I wanted to ditch Religious Education and History, both of which I found boring. The problem was the lesson clashes. I couldn’t do Motor Mechanics and Music, because both were scheduled at the same time. Maths, English, and a science were mandatory. The old O-levels and A-levels were over, being replaced by a generalised examination method called GCSE. The biggest changes for us are that our coursework for some subjects in fourth and fifth form will count towards the final result. And, of course, since the examination system has changed there are plenty of people on TV talking about the examinations being “dumbed down”. Thanks a lot, that’s a great way to make a pupil want to bother continuing. All the stress for the next two years for... what? A worthless piece of paper?
But for now I was still a third former. I could muck around and be a wally and, hey, it’s okay. Well, it doesn’t help me choose subjects I want to take, but my mind is completely blank on that topic.
David and I were the main players in our so-called television station, however we were also assisted by James. A second former, hyperactive and precocious, desperate to join in. So I told him if he wanted to participate he needed to do something to prove his worth. I left it open-ended so we could just say “nope” if he was getting too annoying. He went off on weekend exeat and came back with five little security cameras. Microchip style, better picture than any of our stuff. That made it hard to say no, so we told him he could be our intern. In other words, he could run around doing the stuff we were too lazy to do ourselves, which was a lot once we realised we had somebody to boss around. He seemed to like it. David hated being in front of the camera. I didn’t mind talking to camera, but I didn’t like talking to actual real people. James? Was a total extrovert. He’d talk to anybody about anything, anytime, anywhere. He even interrogated a bully while said bully was taking a dump. It took some masterful work with the volume knobs to edit out the... uh... ambient audio... before broadcast.
The bunk finally stirred and David slid out of bed. I grabbed a towel and threw it at him, I didn’t need these constant reminders that he sleeps in the nod. The song was coming to an end so I rummaged through the pile of papers on the desk for my hastily written notes. David is obsessive, his duty days are planned days in advance down to exact timings. Me? I’m usually planning the next song while the one before is playing. I scrabbled for a tape and faded myself in.
“Respectable, not a word that would be used to describe us. Keeping with the theme of things we aren’t, here’s Alison Moyet with “Weak In The Presence Of Beauty”.”
“You’re playing that?”, David asked.
“What would you suggest?”, I shot back.
“With Or Without You”.
“Ugh, too commercial”. Truth was, I didn’t like U2. Or Simply Red. My go-to track of choice was Erasure’s “The Circus”, a killer track from a new album of theirs. I played it several times over the weekend, partially because I thought it was apt for the state of the world, and partly because I was annoyed at being told not to play The Clash’s “The Guns of Brixton” any more. The staff did not want me playing a punk song about the Brixton Riot despite it being more reggae than punk and released before the riots. But let’s not let facts get in the way of adults on a pointless crusade.
So, what do we broadcast? To quote David, we broadcast 5 percent information wrapped in 95 percent bollocks. I don’t quite agree. We broadcast school events. Assembly. Teachers teaching, recorded live, to be rebroadcast later in case somebody wasn’t paying attention. We record all that happens in the chemistry lab, if we can, to condense it into ‘soundbites’ to help during prep. With a few added bangs for fun. Well, I guess that all fulfils the “bollocks” quota. We also broadcast movies. Yeah, real movies. Copied from telly, video rentals, or - god forbid - ones we actually went and paid money for. Okay, it is copyright abuse. Get over it. It isn’t any worse than one of the teachers renting a movie and showing it in the dining room. David brought back a medium quality copy of “Beetle Juice”, recorded at a cinema. That will be our next Saturday evening movie.
A lot of the rest of our broadcast is live rubbish which is often tedious but sometimes worthy of paying attention to. Get a bunch of people together, such as students and teachers, and toss over some boring trivial question and broadcast the results. Philosophy and deep science are best because some of the older teachers, especially those with religious inclination, are unshakable. Our crowning moment in live debate may well have been two teachers inviting each other to ‘step outside’ after a half hour heated argument over Richard Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene”. Unfortunately the headmaster stepped in to calm things down. Damn, just as it was starting to get interesting...
We also try some of those appalling ‘hidden camera’ shows. I don’t like them much, David loathes them, James gets a rush on them for all the wrong reasons. But our audience of three like them, and they are only marginally more expensive to produce than the debates. By that, we are talking a couple of quid for some decent lengths of co-ax cable, hey big spender.
“Okay guys, breakfast time now and then off to assembly, see you again at lunchtime.”
I reached over and flicked the power on the transmitter. I could hear a loud hiss from a nearby dormitory. Well, they were listening to us, at least.
Breakfast was like every other meal. The first and second formers went first. They had twenty minutes to eat and clear out. That was twenty minutes from the first person served, so if you were at the end of the queue then you would have to eat what you could in half that time. It wasn’t unusual for kids to turn up in pyjamas so they could be a little...messier. Nobody much cared if you spilt food on your school uniform at lunch, but if you dared to turn up for morning assembly scruffy, expect an eternity of detention.
Mealtime ended when the prefects said it ended, and it usually ended with the prefects picking up the breakfast trays and dumping the contents into the bin, regardless of how much had been eaten. They exercised a regime of extreme favouritism. The people they liked, the first formers that did the fagging without complaint, would usually be ignored until it was time for the next rota. The whiny noisy entitled brats would be the first in line for tray removal. As the prefects were sons of trustees and such (there was no such thing as equality or merit), they really didn’t take well to pompous eleven year olds. One of their favourite methods of cutting kids down to size was to wake up their entire dormitory at 5am and send them all on a long run, in their school clothes, in the pouring rain. The teachers tended to overlook a group of annoyed soggy children at assembly, instead they - like all the rest of us - would be trying to work out which one of them was going to get their arse kicked by sundown. There’s no better way to silence an obnoxious boy like making their entire dormitory (and by extension, a good proportion of their class) hate them.
Third and fourth form had the next twenty minute time slot, and fifth and upper fifth had the final half hour, however there were about twenty minutes from the formal end of breakfast until morning assembly so the third sitting was usually more relaxed.
Assembly was recorded using the chunky camera. Boring as always. We’ll probably tape over it tomorrow. After this was a double English literature. I hope they don’t ask Timothy to read. He’s very dyslexic so he reads phonetically and very obviously has no clue about what he is reading. By the time he finishes a sentence, he can’t remember how it started. Me? I’m a bit like that with numbers. David... David doesn’t talk much about himself. He’s a Forces Brat, his parents are in the military somewhere and they dumped him at Sunnyvale College. Ah, yes, Sunnyvale College. That’s this place. It sounds impressive. It isn’t. It’s a big old building in one of the few remaining bits of “countryside” in the south of England, housing about a hundred and fifty boys in various states of screwed up, plus an assortment of equally screwed up staff. Well, they’d have to be. Who would voluntarily come here to work?
All I know about David’s family is that his father single-handedly took out twenty Argie planes in the Falklands War using a really big chain fed gun. I doubted his story, but he went into such detail about the gun that I wondered if he’d been there. Yeah, as if they’d be cool with an eight year old on the deck of the HMS Ark Royal.
We were reading the bleakest rubbish I ever laid eyes upon. “Of Mice And Men” by Steinbeck. All of the literature of the British Isles, I don’t quite understand why we’re reading about two migrant drifters in the American Great Depression. Shouldn’t we be reading... I don’t know... Jane Austen? That one set in the moor that that screechy woman made a song about? Dickens, perhaps, just to remind us that there are worse things than being an inmate at an all-boys boarding school?
Lunch was lasagne. At least, that is what was scrawled on the chalkboard. My favourite cook was not in on Monday so the lasagne resembled something that might have been ejected from the nose of a rather large animal following a particularly raucous sneeze.
I took one look at the lasagne and just kept on walking. My stash of Yorkie bars will see me through.
David finished playing Kylie Minogue’s relentlessly perky “I Should Be So Lucky”. Ugh. Kylie. Ugh.
“What kept you?”, he asked. A not so subtle way of pointing out that I was supposed to be handling lunch. Ah, so playing that song was payback. Okay, fair play.
“Did you see what was passing for lunch?”, I asked.
“Nobody who doesn’t want to spend a night in the sanatorium eats Monday lunch”, David replied, “I swear it’s all the stuff put into the bins through the week heated up and served.”
I thought that was the Saturday stew, but I said nothing.
“Okay Dudes and Dudettes, time for a little programme segment we have decided to call Smufty”, James said to the camera.
I looked at David and mouthed “Smufty?”. David shrugged and whispered back “At least it’s not a swear word...I think.”
We were used to James’ frequent female references despite this being a place full of Y chromosome carriers, and for all of that he seemed to be quite popular with the gay crowd. We didn’t care, a viewer is a viewer whatever their orientation. In this case, it was the late lunchtime slot. The Aussie programme “Neighbours” had only been on air a few months but it had this magical ability to clear the entire school building. I don’t know, it’s a bunch of people doing nothing in particular in this little street in Melbourne. But for twenty odd minutes, everybody was glued to the telly. As such, I fully expected that not a single person would be watching this.
Which is why we chose now to hide some of James’ cameras in the private room of a member of staff, with James hosting his own show. We’d tape it in case anything interesting happened, but the live broadcast would be watched by exactly nobody.
“Ummm, Anyway”, James continued, “the point is that we hook up a few hidden cameras, and catch a person watching us. Say peek-a-boo and see what happens. They might have done it better on BBC, but we have the benefit of knowing each of you little worms personally. And right now we are looking at just such a worm, and shamelessly waffling until we have a good time to introduce you.”
James raised his right hand. He was holding a black panel with four bright red buttons, and a thick wire leading to the transmitter patch panel.
“In James’ hand”, I explained, “is a little button that will switch the picture to the hidden camera.”
“Actually, there are four buttons. Three hidden cameras, and back to us.”, James says.
“Waffle waffle waffle. Waffle.”, David said.
“Huh?”, James asked.
“I ran out of stuff to say. Well, in case it wasn’t obvious, this is all live and unscripted, and we... NOW!”
James pressed a button. Our viewers, if we have any, would now be looking at a picture of Mr. Sisken. He is a man in his late forties, early fifties, wearing a grey flannel suit. His finger rammed quite firmly up his nose.
I continue speaking, as a voice over, “As I was saying, following the incident month with the fire alarms, we have been given an official warning to watch what we broadcast. So we have decided that there will be...”
Sisken removed a big lump of snot from his nose and looked at it hanging off of his finger. I felt like puking.
I continue, “...no more swearing, obscenities, or lewd comments on-air. We also have been banned from playing 18 rated movies.”
Sisken opened his mouth, wiped the snot on his tongue, then slurped.
“Ugh, Christ! Sisken, that’s sick!”, James exclaimed.
Sisken glanced up, then recoiled in shock at seeing himself on the television.
“What? WHAT? How long have you been watching me, you miserable shits?”, Sisken ranted, with lengthy emphasis on the word ‘miserable’. But that wasn’t the important word. Mr. Sisken had said a forbidden word often quoted as being of Anglo-Saxon origin (it’s actually proto-Germanic), so, when James flicked the picture back to the studio, it was no wonder that I was scrabbling around under the control desk looking for the right wire. A few more stronger obscenities passed, so I yanked the outgoing sound feed. David nudged me and pointed to a button on the controller marked “Mute”.
The picture changed back to Sisken. He was still ranting. Loudly. But all the sound we were broadcasting was a loud hiss. After a click and pop, the studio audio was restored, only without Sisken’s audio. I wondered where in the chain the VCR was, what it would be recording. Sisken walked away from the camera. For about ten or fifteen seconds the picture was motionless. Oh God, was he on his way up here?
The picture shook violently.
James pushed a button and the picture changed to another camera, this one on the bookshelf. Sisken had found the first camera and was hitting it with a cricket bat. The camera was wedged between a large plant pot and the VCR, on top of the television. The plant pot had smashed, the VCR badly dented. The camera was still working, just.
He stopped, staring at the TV.
“Uh-oh, he’s noticed”, James muttered.
Sisken gracefully whirled his heavy frame around and took a leap at the second camera, cricket bat in mid swing.
The picture collapsed in on itself and was nothing but blankness.
David pressed a button and the picture reappeared. The TV-top shot, only now at a skewed angle. David left his position behind the studio camera and joined us to watch the output monitor, all three of us staring open-mouthed at Sisken, apparently trying to lift his huge armchair.
“Bloody hell, is he trying to do what I think...?”, I finally exclaim.
Sisken lifted the chair up, heaved it into the air, and threw it towards the camera.
James pressed a button on his box of tricks. The picture cut to the third camera, mounted high up on the bookshelf. Sisken’s television was destroyed by the armchair, the tube imploding with a bright flash. Smoke rose from under the chair. Sisken, bright red with rage, yanked the broken chair away, in pieces, and began to pulverise the remains of the television with the cricket bat. He spotted the camera and reached out for it, but decided to move that thick red wire out of the way first.
Sisken’s body did a backflip that champion gymnasts would be envious of. He collapsed, a bit heavy on the dismount, into his wire rack of cheap imported alcohol, the type of stuff the country of origin considers are ‘dregs’ and is only too happy to flog to clueless Brits. That thick red wire, bristling with electricity, stroked against the metal wine rack. The sparks set light to a broken bottle of spirits.
The prefects dealt with the small fire. The ambulance dealt with Mr. Sisken. We got totally bollocked by staff member after staff member. Some even waited a while and then bollocked us all over again.
But the ‘playground chatter’ was worth it.
“Did you see Sisken? He smashed his telly with a chair.”
“Then beat it with a bat”
“No, it was a crowbar”
“Idiot, it was a cleaver”
“Same type he used to murder this kid one night”
“You don’t believe that do you?”
“D’you think that was a normal reaction to being caught picking your nose?”
“Sisken wasn’t normal.”
“Well, where was his other hand, I wonder?”
“After all, watching cute schoolboys on television? Great for bishop bashing.”
“You think they’re cute?”
“Am not, besides, I’m not the one chucking anvils around”
“and slicing the room with a sword”
In the space of minutes, the cricket bat turned into Zorro’s sword and Sisken was a known child murderer. I had to wonder to myself, how many people actually watched the broadcast? We were grounded for the live stuff. We could do news and tame debates, but any more hidden camera tricks, and the headmaster Big Cheese would personally insert all of the cameras into my arse (why me!?) and then kick them. The imagery was bizarre but the message was clear. We, of course, pleaded total innocence, as it was a rather viscous reaction by any estimation. It was also damned good television. Lowest common denominator. I was appalled. I was also rather pleased. A bit of a broadcaster’s wet dream really; you could waste weeks of videotape and not capture anything worth looking at again. I really was disgusted at it all. What a tacky pointless charade all this broadcasting rubbish had turned out to be. But, when we said we’d re-screen it at 10pm to set the record straight as to what really happened; Christopher (our first-former informant) ran around the place and reported everybody watching. Probably our highest rating ever.
Through the week we stuck to exactly what we said we would. Pre-scripted debates, official announcements, and pop songs taped from radio broadcasts.
The sun rose. My alarm clock rang. Well, it meeped. Pathetically. But I tell it that it rang so the poor thing doesn’t have a crisis. Suffice to say, the alarm clock is rarely what wakes me up. But hey, shhh, our secret.
My first lesson that day was a double maths. Maths and I have this agreement. If it stays the hell out of my life, I won’t loathe it...too much. It’s, um, a memory I’m trying to repress.
That horror was followed by another horror. Biology. The bio teacher and I have never really seen eye to eye since that time I liberated the frogs from dissection. We were supposed to dissect frogs to see what’s inside, and also to put a weak electric current into the leg to see it kick. Problem was, the frogs were hopping around the desk. I had issues with that, so I collected them all up in a small plastic box and took them out to the pond and let them go. The teacher, annoyed, reminded me that the lesson was biology, not ecology, and if I was inclined to any more of those tree-hugger sensibilities, I should just skip class.
Asides from that, biology is a kind of a cool subject. Physics tells you how the universe works, chemistry tells you how smelly gunk works, and biology tells you how you work. Well, at a physical level. The rest is more psychology, debate, and lots of educated guesses. And yes, we even get the lame thrill of opening the Biology textbook to page 124 so we can all stare at that line drawing of the female reproductive system and utterly fail to say “clitoris” and “vulva” without smirking, though for some reason nobody ever smirks over “fimbriae” or “endometrium” despite those being much cooler sounding words, in my opinion.
The last two lessons were double motor mechanics. A bit of a doss really. I’m taking a Suffolk Colt lawnmower to bits. I might turn it into a go-kart or something equally lame. Or just put it back together. I dunno...
Lunch sucked. I have that on good authority. If James wants to skip lunch, then it isn’t worth my while making up my own mind, because if James won’t eat it, it is unfit for consumption. So my friends talk me into accompanying them on a trek through the woods to the nearby restaurant.
I grabbed my notebook and a pen and headed off. We had four hours as the broadcaster was hooked to a video tape, edited highlights of the week, filling a 240 minute tape. Nobody would be watching on Saturday afternoon anyway.
It was drizzling, so I kept my uniform on. If I’m going to get wet, it can be clothes that I’ll chuck in the wash basket when I get back.
James had the smart idea of cutting cross-country to save on the distance. So we left the muddy path, something I was glad of as it was getting messy, and ploughed into rhododendron bushes, nettles, and a field full of dandelions.
The waitress, a cute wafer-thin brunette called ‘Sarah’, glanced up at the new arrivals. Us. Shock flitted across her face. We had a reputation that where we were, trouble usually followed. It wasn’t fair, we didn’t go looking for trouble. Trouble came looking for the fifteen seconds of fame afforded by a video camera and a bunch of kids that didn’t bother with following any broadcast rules whatsoever, not to mention the perennial cheap thrill of yelling random obscenities and mugging at your mates.
Sarah slinked over and flashed us a particularly unconvincing smile. We stated the obvious. Party of three. Non smoking. Big table.
We walked across the open room and sat around a brightly lit table near the window. The restaurant was one of those franchise places designed to cater for the harried motorist. It was well placed at the junction of two main roads, but never seemed to be particularly busy.
Sarah was new. I watched her out of the corner of my eye, in some amusement, as we got out our notebooks and started discussing what sort of programming we might be able to get away with, as the last week had been mind-numbingly boring. Our current way of coming up with ideas was to lay out card with letters of the alphabet arranged in a circle and spin a cola bottle to see what letters it pointed to. I could understand people thinking we were talking to the dead, which judging by the horrified expression on Sarah’s face, must have been what had crossed her mind.
I ordered a Glory Burger. It was a half pound hunk of beef stuffed into a large bap. With grated cheddar. Pickles. Lettuce. Tomatoes. Bacon. Sausage. Hash Brown. Egg. And some sort of chemical concoction that was supposed to taste like a smoked barbecue. I think this one burger pretty much covered all of the important food groups - fast, frozen, microwave, and junk. I had an Earl Grey tea to go with it, gotta have standards, you know?
And that, my friend, is how a weekend should start.
By the time the beverages arrived, we had bored of divine inspiration, having spelled out “lehithabeh” which didn’t seem like a word in any language we knew. James suggested it might be whatever the Pharaohs spoke, but since none of us even knew what Pharaohs spoke, we decided to give up and try something less likely to frighten the waitress.
My Glory Burger arrived. I arranged the plate and just stared at the burger awhile. Some days I feel guilty for eating a cute little inquisitive cow, and a cute pink pig with those human-like eyes. But... I’m sorry. This thing just tastes too good. I try hard to concentrate on how wonderful the flavour is. Because if I thought about eating an animal, especially one that might be riddled with antibiotics to get rid of unspeakable illnesses, I’d probably be sick. In fact, I’d probably honk just thinking about eating. I mean, us sitting around this table were taking big bits of a dead creature and stuffing them into our mouths. Then we’d chew them and swallow. It’s always gross and smelly when you puke, but that’s what is in your stomach. And those people who are squeamish about defecation are actually carrying a load of it around inside themselves every place they go. I looked at my burger and concentrated harder on the interaction of the sauce and the bread, how it made the bread slimy. I looked at Sarah. She had a nicely shaped body. I looked down at where her belly button would be. Behind her clothing and skin is a big bag full of partially food floating in vile smelling acidic juices. If she wasn’t a veggie, she’d be digesting her own dead animal pieces.
Whoa! Too much thought. Concentrate less! Concentrate less!
I sipped my tea and glanced out of the window. It was now raining quite hard from the leaden sky. It looked like a right storm brewing.
“Excuse me”, Sarah said, trying to avoid directly approaching us. “Are you the boys from Sunnyvale?”
Everybody looked at me, still wearing my uniform, and then at Sarah, as if to say “For real...?”.
“Okay, you’re to go back now. Instructions of the headmaster”.
We rolled our eyes. What, on a Saturday? We’re not inmates on the weekend.
“Are you boys in trouble or something?”, Sarah asked as she took our payment.
“Yeah. Turns out that you can’t speak to the dead without permission of the witchfinder general”, I lied.
Sarah gave up on sorting out payment and just pushed us out the door. I swear she was holding herself.
“Nice going, she was sweet”, James mumbled.
“She was stuck in the sixteenth century”, I shot back at him. “It’s 1988, who believes that crap any more?”
We tore through the woods. Didn’t care about getting wet. Didn’t care about the mud, or the rain, or anything. It was coming up to five o’clock and I had a horrible feeling that we had to make some sort of announcement at five. Exactly bang on five. Because the headmaster was a stickler for time.
We arrived in our dormitory at two minutes before five. I didn’t have time to change so I sat in front of the camera in my wet clothes. Not that it showed up on screen. A computer printout and floppy disc lay before me. I tossed the disc over to James to load up into the autocue. The autocue was basically a television hooked to a computer. It had the scanning coils diddled with so the image was back to front. This thing was placed in front of the camera, just below it, with the screen facing upwards. A piece of two-way mirror was placed at a forty-five degree angle directly in front of the camera. Thus, when the presenter looked into the camera, he would be able to see the computer display, but the camera behind would see the presenter and not the words. It was quite difficult to prevent your eyes wandering from side to side as you read the autocue, but it looked a lot better than our first weeks reading from scrunched up pieces of paper, especially given my lack of organisation, not to mention my handwriting.
I could hear the BBC Micro’s floppy drive thunking loudly as it read each piece of data from the disc. What was this message going to be, it sounded like twelve thunks, which meant it went on for ages. The floppy disc contained ten sectors of 256 bytes to each track, so if it stepped through twelve tracks, that would make it approximately 30 kilobytes, or thirty thousand letters. The dot matrix printer could print 80 letters across the page and 66 lines down it, which is a little over five thousand characters on each page, or a little under six pages for the 30 kilobytes. Now double that because no documents written in English use every single character space on the paper. This rough calculation suggested to me that it was a ten to twelve page document. I picked up the printout and thumbed through the pages. All eleven of them. Oh boy, this was going to be a long evening.
David set the transmitter onto our test card drawing and counted down from ten. At the count of five, the output monitor went black. We were now on air, but the fader was on. He counted down, now accentuating each number with a beat of his hand. The final two counts were silent, because the equipment was up and running for the count of two, and we were being faded in. With a flicker, the camera changed to mine.
I looked at the autocue. I was never happy reading off the cuff, I liked to review the material before the broadcast in case there was an unpronounceable word or a tongue twister. Big Cheese himself wrote this, so God only knows what state it’d be in. He was big on sesquipedalian loquaciousness - the desire to pick exactly the right word regardless of whether or not the target audience of children would know what he was on about. We called him pretentious, which was usually just shortened down to twat.
“Students, teachers. Last week there was a terrible incident in a school which involved one pupil murdering another in cold blood with rage and a gun. Following this, we have implemented a set of guidelines which are expected to be distributed to all educational establishments. We shall be enforcing these guidelines. You will, of course, have two days grace before they become absolute. At which time anybody found breaking these rules will be unconditionally expelled.”
So far the words were not too bad, if a bit bombastic and draconian. The message, on the other hand...
“Firstly, we shall deal with the dress code. You will no longer be permitted to wear all black. Neither are you allowed to wear garments carrying flags, badges, or political slogans - no matter how obscure. Additionally, it has been noticed that several of our pupils, those most likely to be described as troublemakers, have taken to wearing trenchcoats and other peculiar apparel. These are banned. That said, football colours and other team sports related clothing are permitted.”
“Certain types of music are now banned. Invocative music by woman such as Marilyn Manson, plus heavy rock or any form of rock or rock-like music heavier than the Beatles, as well as any group where the lead male singer looks like a woman. A suggested alternative is a nice Beethoven symphony.”
“The following people are on two week report and must see the guidance councillor first thing Monday morning.”
I read the names, but did not say them. There was a long list, including our names. Practically everybody who didn’t like sports and figured that there was more to life than getting that English essay in on time, or kicking an inflated piece of leather around a field. I reached towards our tape racks with my right arm and scanned down the list with my index finger. I located the cassette tape I required, and tossed it over to David. He looked at it and frowned. I nodded so he loaded it up and forwarded to the right part. He knew which track I wanted.
I stared directly at the camera, motionless for the longest time.
“This.... is bollocks”, I finally exclaimed, “I’d rather resign my position here at SIBA than be a part of this sanctioned bullying.”
The picture flicked to a HandyCam. James was holding it towards me. It allowed more freedom of movement than the studio camera affixed to the tripod.
I stood up.
“To the person who devised this rubbish, and to those who saw fit to refer half the school to therapy, this is for you.”
I ran up to the camera and punched my fist to the lens, then extended my middle finger. Juvenile, yet somehow satisfying.
I said “Codswallop”, then turned around, opened the door, and walked away. James didn’t have much lead attached to the camera so he couldn’t follow me. Instead he panned around to show David at the control desk. David pressed PLAY on the tape deck. As Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall” started, David stood up, shook down his coat, a black trenchcoat no less, and also walked out.
James set the camera down on the windowsill so our audience saw a wide view of the dormitory that we called our studio. He sat at the broadcast table and backed up the autocue. Reading the names, his mouth slowly fell open. But that wasn’t all. There were other, stupider, rules following. One such rule was that all pupils should submit to detailed searches by staff members or prefects. They have the power to search drawers, beds, lockers, and even to strip-search you. If and when they feel like it. They don’t need evidence, they can just pick you at random. It would take exactly zero imagination to see how that could be abused.
James didn’t know how to link the autocue into the transmitter, so he picked up the HandyCam and placed it on the broadcast desk facing the autocue. The display, out of synchronisation with the camera, flickered badly, but it was still readable. James set the autocue running again. By this time Pink Floyd had finished, the next song on the tape was The Clash’s “I’m Not Down”. How appropriate. James pushed the volume into the red, the VU meters smacking against their end stops, and walked out of the room.
The fire alarm sounded.
In mere minutes, I was ready to sacrifice everything I had created and built over something that I believed in. Was I brave? Was I exceedingly stupid? The only thing I know for sure is I feel physically sick, and by this time tomorrow I’ll be trying to explain to my mother exactly why I got expelled. I wasn’t a grade A student, but I tried. Sometimes. At least, I tried hard enough not to get a bad reputation. But with an expulsion on the cards, nobody will give a damn about civil liberties and freedom. The reasons, the causes, the principles and beliefs. None of that will matter to anybody. They’ll see the world “expelled” and think “problem student”. I’ll be sent to one of those failing schools because I have a legal right to an education, but nobody gives a damn about those kids who don’t give a damn. Suddenly I was realising that the world was a screwed up place. I was wishing I could turn the clock back. I could probably have said “I disagree” and walked away. SIBA would be shut down, but I’d not be out on my ass and I...
...whoa! Hold it there just one bloody moment. Yeah, so maybe I am gonna get kicked out. Maybe I was going to spent the rest of my school days with an assumed reputation. Maybe my life’s destiny was to ask “Would you like fries with that?”. But I made my move. Good, bad, bloody stupid, I had a choice and I chose to do this. It really gave me the hump, stupid rules from stupid pencil pushers that don’t know dick. You either take a stand when it gets too much, or you get screwed around with for the rest of your life. And I’m not willing to play the underdog. If I had, I’d probably not have chosen television as my pet project.
The fire alarm permeated my thoughts. I walked towards the back stairs. I turned. No, wait. I’m going to use the main stairs, forbidden for use by pupils, and I’m going to stride out the front door like I mean business. And if I get any grief, I’ll stand there and laugh at the clueless bastard giving me the grief.
And that is exactly what I did.
Well, up until the laughing bit.
When I got outside, the first thing I saw was David with a video camera and the long-life battery pack. He beat me down here? How? The headmaster was re-reading the list of names and the rules. He gave me an evil look and told me he would deal with me on Monday. Thanks dude, prolong the agony, why don’t you?
David went home late on Saturday. James and myself spent Sunday in our dormitory. Broadcasts were suspended. We locked the doors. Well, they didn’t lock, but a chair wedged under the door handle had the desired effect. It felt a lot like starting a fire, then backing away to watch it burn, but I didn’t feel like a bunch of mini Q and A sessions or people saying “did you really say...”.
While it felt like you could cut the air with a blunt pair of safety scissors, the only type they allow us to use, we did find a few moments of levity mocking the headmaster for thinking Manson was a woman, and the numerous drug references in Beatles songs - from “Magical Mystery Tour” to “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”, never mind “I Am The Walrus”, whatever the heck that was about...
Monday morning assembly was an eye opener for me. The school was quite clearly split. On the right were those who obviously got duped by the rules and by the dumb regulations. The prefects had been using a little-exercised power of theirs, the ability to nominate another pupil to be a prefect. If ten prefects of good standing signed a consent, you were in. By now there were some forty prefects. It was practically a regiment of some deranged private army.
The left side of the assembly hall was filled with people wearing black. I’d never seen so many kids in the favourite colours of eighties rebels. Gary Numan could have been hiding in amongst that lot.
There was instant silence as we walked in. I crossed the hall and sat down by the grand piano. Somebody started clapping. Then somebody else. A prefect yelled for silence. More people clapped. The prefect repeated his request in much cruder language.
Then those in black started to stand up and clap.
A standing ovation. For me? For us? For what?
This was more than the prefects could stand. They started grabbing kids and pulling them to the floor, picking on the smaller ones. A prefect kicked a first-former in the face, knocked him out cold. Somebody punched a prefect. I noticed James standing in the corner with a HandyCam just before a prefect ripped it from his hands, punched him, then started smashing the camera against the wall. James grabbed back the camera and beat the prefect across the head with it, blood pouring down the prefect’s face. James yanked out the cassette and palmed it to David before using the camera as a projectile weapon against another prefect. Then he himself ran and dived right into the brawl. The kid was stark raving bonkers.
“Let’s get out of here!”, David yelled to me.
Only too happy to agree, I dived under the piano, crawled behind the staff chairs, then ran for the main staircase. My jumper tightened around my neck, buttons popping from my shirt. I struggled to get free. I heard something rip. Hands tightened around my legs. I felt myself being pulled down, intense pain in my stomach.
I rolled over and winced.
“Christ, had to beat them off with a chair. We’d better hide you”, David explained.
“Huh?”, I muttered.
“You were out cold there for a moment.”
“You know that girl that we sometimes see? Daughter of one of the teachers. She helped me bring you up to the sanatorium. Figured the dormy was too obvious a place for you.”
“Oh. I’m in sick bay.”
“Yeah. She gave you a brief check over. Matron is going to examine you better once the police arrive.”
“What’s the prognosis so far?”
“Not bad. You were kicked in the stomach and your head hit the flagstone floor. That’s what knocked you out. But you appear to be intact. Which is more than I can say for your uniform.”
“Well, it’s trashed. Oh, and your belt is around god-only-knows who’s neck.”
“You are in the sanatorium. That girl that we’ve...”
“I know that! M’not brain damaged, heard you clearly the first time.”
“Sorry. I wasn’t sure.”
“Sorry too, I didn’t mean to get annoyed. I’m just... Look... I meant downstairs.”
“It’s a bloody riot.”
A strange piercing noise filled the air, like repeated rapid explosions far away.
“What the hell?”, I exclaimed.
“Did that sound like...”, David asked, “...gunfire?”
There were indistinct screams, followed by a low rumbling. I recognised the rumbling as the noise of a hundred people running the stairs for the prime position in the dinner queue.
So people were running. Where to?
“I don’t know.”, I admitted, “I’ve only ever heard guns in movies.”
The rumbling ceased, to be replaced by an eerie silence.
A girl, blondish hair, well proportioned, about fourteen years old, wearing a brown and orange pinafore uniform, dashed into the room.
“We gotta hide you!”, she said breathlessly. I couldn’t place her accent other than “American”. She sounded like every Southern Belle in every such movie, but she spoke quite rapidly. I always thought they spoke really really slowly “down South”, though my knowledge of American geography meant that I wasn’t exactly sure what counted as “South”. Texas? The place with the big river? The place with the crocodiles? I snapped back to reality, realising that the current situation was a tad more important.
“What?”, I asked. I was being pulled out of bed and then out into Matron’s kitchen. The girl opened the window and climbed out onto the parapet. She took my hand and pulled again. I climbed out and looked down. The parapet was about a foot tall and roughly as wide. The other side was a very big drop. We were ten... twenty... I don’t know how high. I just know that falling from here would be instantly fatal. I felt proper frightened. I wondered how James would be feeling in this position. The crazy sod would probably be dancing on the parapet wall. He lived for moments like these. Me? I was scared. Real scared.
The girl scrambled up the roof. From my position, I could see her white cotton underwear. That took my mind off of the drop. I climbed up, David followed.
“Down there, across the hump, down the dip, up the other side. Turn left, you’ll see a skylight window. That’s the attic space that was used as the old staff quarters. Some of your friends raided your dormy and took stuff up there for you, along with food. It’s barricaded. Skylight is the only way in for now. Go!”
I was about to make a tasteless quip about Anne Frank, but in the blink of an eye that extraordinary girl slid down the roof and was gone.
David and I looked at one another, then broke into a run across the roof.
The run was wild. It was liberating in a way that James could understand the most. But unfortunately, moments of madness have to come to an end.
With a locked window.
That was flaw number one in the plan.
Flaw number two was we were sure that we had been spotted running along the roof. We were fairly sure that nobody knew where we were now, but it wouldn’t be long before they came looking.
I pulled my trusty penknife out of my pocket and began to pick away at the putty around the window. It was old, decades old, and fell off with little in the way of motivation. I carefully scraped down one side of the window when David, deciding enough was enough, experienced a shoe-window interfacing incident. Okay, yes, that would be a quicker way to open the window.
Dank. Musty. It was a little store room that was more an afterthought than design. Somebody had swept the cobwebs away and brought up some of our broadcast equipment. It was scattered around the floor, as if somebody had wanted to rig it up for us, but then realised the pseudo-organised chaos that passed as “our nice reliable system”. The floor had plastic sheeting nailed across it, with a sizable puddle in the centre of the room. Looking up, I saw that the addition of the skylight was basically a case of cutting a hole in the roof, and botching a few bits of wood in place. I could see daylight through the various holes, and the markings of a trail of water flowed clearly down the wall where the run-off from the flat part of the roof was not taken into account. I looked again at the plastic sheeting on the floor. It was nailed up the walls a couple of inches on three sides. The fourth side, under the window, it was laid under the roof to empty into the parapet. I’ve seen hurricane-lashed greenhouses offer better conditions than this mess. I would have to remember to place the equipment in the corner away from the window.
It took me two hours to rig up. But it was worth it. as was David’s new idea of the short range VHF transmitter. James was walking around with a camera, sweet-talking the prefects. A kind of fly-on-the-wall video thing. They, the gullible bastards that they are, fell for it. James was transmitting all of this stuff on the VHF link. As no broadcast TV uses the VHF bands any more, nobody would stumble across this broadcast by accident.
David and I watched in amazement at the collection of weapons. Lots of sleek black guns that look serious. I’m not up on my weapons, but they stuff wouldn’t go amiss in an American action movie. The disturbing question was where did all the guns come from?
As night fell, David swiped a camera and pack of tapes and headed for the other side of the story. He took another VHF transmitter, but warned me that this one was his first try at building such a transmitter so it didn’t work as well. Unfortunately, I had to switch the screens off and throw a tarpaulin over the equipment. I couldn’t risk having something visible in the dark room. But not to be out of the scene, I hooked James into the left channel and David into the right, and wore my headphones with two extension cords end to end so I could move around. By now, it was totally dark. I walked across the tiny room, cursing as I forgot about the puddle, and stood up against the window peering out of the broken window. It was raining ever so gently. My eyes adjusted more to the dark and I saw something going on down on the grassed oval in front of the building. As I was short sighted, and my glasses were smashed during assembly, I couldn’t make out details.
There was a knock at the door. I froze. My first instinct was to push open the window and hurl myself out. But that would have made noise. Instead, I remained frozen. There was a gentle creak, and I saw the outline of the door grow as it opened. Damn, why didn’t I think to lock it. Didn’t that girl say it was barricaded?
Another girl entered. I could tell from the outline of her shadow. It wasn’t the girl I saw earlier. This was a smaller person. Ah, this will be Amy. A ridiculously naïve girl and the daughter of the matron, with really big glasses that magnify her eyes to make them look enormous, plus it would be rare to see her not wearing an Alice band. She is quite fond of a big bright red one that doesn’t really go with her brown school uniform. Amy tries hard to keep out of the way, as she lives here in matron’s quarters. In a school full of boys. But that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that anything even vaguely scary would cause unconsciousness with a possibility of bladder malfunction. By vaguely scary I mean clapping hard and shouting boo. In a room with the lights on. She got mocked, a lot.
“Hello”, she said, in that quiet little voice of hers. In times like these, it would be customary to whisper. She didn’t need to. Speaking louder than a whisper was her equivalent of shouting. She gently closed the door.
“Hi.”, I whispered back.
“I’ve brought you some clothes?”
“One problem though.”
“They are mine and Anna’s.”
I figured Amy to be quite a bit smaller than me. And I wasn’t exactly sure who Anna was.
I didn’t reply, so Amy continued. “I’d have brought some of your stuff, but our ways around are limited by gun-wielding freaks.”
I couldn’t have put it better myself.
“So we’re going to have to make do with what we have here. Anna said your clothes were kinda past it?”
She stepped towards me, probably trying to figure out exactly where I was standing. Her eyes would not have adjusted yet.
“Well, I have a nice cotton blouse, a blue skirt, some underwear and stuff, and Anna has thrown in an old pair of shoes. It’s probably not quite what you had in mind, but the idea is nobody is going to see you. So, um...”
I heard a splashing noise.
“Did you?”, I asked.
“No, there’s... a big puddle?”, Amy asked.
“Yeah, it’s raining.”
She had this way of phrasing a lot of statements with rising inflection, as if they were questions.
“So, yeah, let’s dress me up and see if we can find something good to accessorise with. Does this Anna person have a Versace handbag to spare?”
Upon Amy’s request, I stripped off everything except my undershirt and pants. I could vaguely see Amy, so was wondering how good her night vision was. She handed me a blouse so I slipped it on. It was much softer than the blue shirt I was wearing. That might have been more to do with the way things get washed here, than the material. Amy handed me a skirt next. To please her, I put it on without a complaint. Maybe I should have said something, as she handed me a pair of tights. But I didn’t. I pretended to put them on, and chucked them behind me.
Amy handed me the tights again. I got worried about how good her night vision was. “Look, it is easy to wear them, when you know how. Roll them up, like this”. She guided my hands over hers so I could feel what she meant. She took my hand and pushed it into the little ball of nylon. “Then, put your foot in and unroll it up your leg, like this.”
Yes, it was simple enough now that I knew. Though could I tell this girl that my point wasn’t in not knowing how to put on a pair of tights? Okay, I didn’t, but that is beside the point. I simply didn’t want to wear them. In fact, I was kinda hoping I could put my uniform back on. I reached over and picked up my trousers. Hoping she can’t see me, I put them on the windowsill and then faced her again.
Fine. Let’s just dress me up, say good-night, then she can go away and I can change into something more comfortable. And masculine.
Finally, Amy handed me a pair of shoes.
“They’re Anna’s old schoolshoes. I hope they’re okay?”
Feeling around, they had a buckle-up strap. Now these I wasn’t quite so bothered about. James wore something similar, and nobody paid much attention to it. I slipped them on and fastened them up. They were a tad on the small side, but not painful or anything.
“Good. I’ll come see you tomorrow, okay? Here’s a cardie in case you need it?”
The next thing I knew, Amy had gone. Just like that.
I felt around for my uniform and found nothing where I put it. I found only the cardigan. Damn. She must have taken my clothes away.
I felt down my body with my hands. It felt bloody weird. And really rather open. I was about to despair, and consider knocking up some kind of lock for the door when I remembered my trousers. I walked to the windowsill and grabbed them. I pulled off the skirt and put my trousers back on. And to hide the blouse, which I imagined to be frilly or something hideously girlie like that, I put on the cardigan and did up all the buttons.
“I see you put your trousers back on.”
I rubbed my eyes. Amy was looking down at me. It was morning. I don’t know what time.
“Well, yeah. People ‘round this place have a problem with knocking before they walk in. And, well, this being a boy’s school and all.”
“I did knock. And, I know you’re not a morning person, but it has gone ten?”
“Is that all?”
Amy frowned at me.
“Brought you something to eat?”
I sat on the floor and looked at my food, Amy stood by the window and gazed out. Three tins of baked beans, and a loaf of brown bread that was on the far side of it’s acceptable use date. Amy had thoughtfully provided a can opener. Or rather, I suspect Anna had. I’m not sure who she is, but I get the feeling that Amy was simply following instructions.
I opened the first can of beans and tipped some into my mouth. Cold beans are hard to describe, suffice to say that heated on toast with some cheese is much better. In fact, cold beans are a rather lacklustre meal. The tomato sauce tastes like sugary orange gloop with little bits of soggy cardboard floating around in it. What a difference a little bit of heat can make.
I heard a splattering noise. Because I was eating, I decided not to say anything.
“I know what you’re thinking.”, Amy said quietly, “It isn’t me.”
I felt myself blush. She looked at me and my face felt like it was pulsating.
“So, um, what is it?”
I stood up and walked over to the window. The heavens had opened, and water was splashing down from the ceiling.
“Good God. Does it do this every time it rains?”, I exclaimed.
“You’re asking me?”, Amy replied, “This is my second time up here?”
I stuffed a stale piece of bread into my mouth and offered the bag to Amy. She declined, wisely. I tied the end of the bag and tossed it over to where I had slept. Looking out of the window, I saw people still carrying stuff around down there. They appeared to be unloading stuff from a white van.
“Any idea what that is?”, I asked.
More moments passed. Amy wandered over to the other side of the room, walking straight through the sizable puddle. I watched her look under the tarpaulin.
“Does any of this stuff work yet?”, she asked me.
“Uh-hu. But...”, I replied, shifting my focus to the water pouring through the roof.
I walked around the puddle to the equipment. I pulled the tarp back a little and powered up the monitor. Then I took two steps backwards, the edge of the puddle.
Amy joined me. “I thought you were short sighted? Can you see it okay from here?”
“Not really, but with this much water around I don’t wanna get too close.”
Amy gave me a blank look.
“Electricity, water, sizzle-bang?”
Amy understood it like that. She stepped backwards a little more, into the puddle again.
It was a bit of a moot point really. What I saw on the monitor drew me closer.
“What the bloody hell?!?”, I gasped.
James turned the camera around, almost as if he knew I was watching.
“Oh shit!”, I exclaimed.
“That’s a naughty word”, Amy said. She looked at the monitor and asked “Is that what I think they are?”
“Oh shit?”, Amy replied.
So not only were the prefects running around with guns, but the headmaster’s office was a stockpile for some rather nasty weapons. Grenades, launchers, mines. Stuff that you see in movies. In fact, it was like a set piece from the A-Team.
“I’m scared.” Amy burst into tears and hugged me tightly.
For some reason, I actually liked that. So I hugged her back.
David walked into the room and looked around, “I didn’t know we had an indoor swimming pool!”
“Yeah, very droll.”, I replied, “Can we maybe move somewhere cosier? Like maybe a microwave oven and something that passes for a bed?”
“Sorry, this is the only place you’re safe. You can join the Rebels if you want, but they’re under constant risk of attack.”
“They pinched some guns. So we are having a few good old fashioned shoot-outs. Amazingly, the only casualties so far are one numpty who shot himself in the leg.”
“I don’t believe it. They’re shooting at each other?”
“Tell me. I want details.”
I let go of Amy and sat down on a rickety chair. Amy sat on the floor, partially in the puddle. I wondered if that was to hide something.
“I take it you didn’t want to wear the skirt. I figured as much.”, David said.
“Huh?”, I replied.
“Oh, Anna said she’d sort out something for you, but her options were rather limited. We said we’d smuggle out some of your stuff, but she was worried about when.”
“Mmm, so who doesn’t know?”
“Oh, probably the prefects.”
“Yeah, they know. But don’t sweat it. Who do you think made safe passage for Amy here?”
I didn’t say anything. There was a message here, but I didn’t quite follow it.
“Okay”, David finally said, “Most of the kids down there think you are some kind of God.”
David frowned, then continued, “Now, I’ll admit that some of the smarter ones have been stirring them into action with the nice rousing speeches, but credit for starting the ball rolling lies with you. So, if you decide you want to come down and lead them into battle wearing a fishnet body stocking, they’ll not blink an eyelid.”
“Um, sorry to rain on your parade, like this rain isn’t enough already... but, um, this isn’t The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And just in case I’d failed to make myself clear - what the bloody hell is going on?”
David did exactly as I asked of him and explained. This conflict was based upon The Golden Rules as the prefects had decided to call them. That I already knew. What I didn’t know was that there were some sixty kids down there who appreciated my standing up for what I believe in. And they have learnt that you can’t be afraid to sacrifice something for a cause you believe in. That said, I think sacrificing your own backside is maybe going a bit too far. When people start shooting at you, bloody well hide!
David led me through the loft accesses to the junior common room. As I walked in, people started to clap. David and I shushed them. Discretion was the key here, not to announce my arrival. Some of the kids stepped forwards and announced their sexual preferences, one said he was borderline alcoholic which made my mind spin given that he was twelve. What the hell? And why is this sounding like a self-help group? A kid called Clarice who tried to be a bit goth by modelling himself on Robert Smith explained it was the realisation that it was okay to just be yourself.
“And harm it none, do as you will”, I muttered to myself.
David pulled me away.
“Wow!”, I muttered.
“Pretty much everybody feels like them. The scary thing is, you met some of the more unusual characters. Many of them are just like us. And you, dude, totally Ché Guevara.”
“David, mate, he got executed.”
I returned to the wet room and showed David the video of the weapons.
“They don’t seriously mean to use those, do they?”, David asked.
“I hope not. Enough stuff to level twenty miles”, I replied.
“Mind if I take that tape?”
I ejected it and passed it to David.
“Can you make a little distraction?”, I asked.
“I want to slip out of here, with Amy, and go get some professional help.”
“I don’t think this is really the time to worry about your psychiatrist.”
“No, dimwit, I meant the rozzers. Or something like that. This is beyond belief.”
“Agreed. But you can’t get out. This place is in lockdown.”
David thought for a moment.
“Okay. Eight o’clock exactly, come to the stone stairs at the other side. Easiest way would be to go through the roof space to matron’s quarters, and down that way. Go down. Then into the Physics lab. The door will be open. I know it’s near the hall, but we’ll bugger the fusebox. From the lab, cut across to the observatory. When it is clear, go to the squash courts, then through the outside of the woods. Be very quiet as there’s a guard in there along with a bunch of hostages. Cut around the fields, best staying on the far side of the fence, and join into the woods run route. Mind out for the field with the cows, it’s got an electric fence down low. About a foot off the ground. You got all that?”
“Yeah, t’was pretty much what I expected.”
Amy never sings. She is embarrassed by it, thinks she sings really badly. But she softly sang Limahl’s “The Neverending Story” all the way through the loft access, and she was actually pretty good. She was really scared. It was pitch black and dusty. We had to clamber on all fours from one roof strut to the next. The ceiling below was made up of thin strips of wood with plaster splattered over. It all seemed rather fragile.
I helped Amy down into the storage area and retied her towel - earlier I had suggested she tie a towel between her legs so she doesn’t give the game away by having an accident somewhere. She snuck away and returned with an enormous beach towel. I guess that was a positive agreement.
From the loft access, we clambered up the side of the huge water tank. I flicked on a tiny torch and floated it in the water. I straddled across and heaved myself to the other side. I held onto a beam and caught my breath. Amy straddled herself across the tank in a way similar to me. But she was a smaller person. It had to be painful. She pushed herself forwards and almost reached the beam. I saw her face turn from desperation to panic as she began to fall backwards. I reached out and grabbed her belt. She slipped into the tank. I tried to pull, but she was too heavy for me in my position. So I just held her.
After a few seconds she stopped writhing and realised she was being held. Together we both heaved and got her out of the tank. She was wet from the tummy down and had abandoned the beach towel. I held her for a minute to calm her down, she spent the entire time apologising. Then, wanting to hold her longer, I grabbed my torch and pulled her between two walls. It was a narrow gap. Down the bottom of one of the walls was an access panel that leads into one of matron’s cupboards. I knew it well, as that cupboard was the one that confiscated stuff was put in. I also knew the water tank well, having nearly drowned one night while trying to rescue a football for the bounty of two pounds fifty.
We crawled out into the cupboard, then out onto the landing in matron’s quarters. There was an armed guard sitting down by the door. He was asleep. I pushed Amy back along the corridor and hurried her into sick bay so she could dry herself a bit. While she was doing that, I tiptoed over to the sleeping guard and swiped his weapon. I hoped to hell that if it came to it, I’d be able to figure out how to use the thing.
Amy crept over to me and we snuck out of the door.
The lights were out in the corridor. I felt my way down the wooden stairs. The junior bathroom was to my right, the junior staff room was to my left. In front of me were the stone stairs. The flimsy wire balcony wouldn’t be a trouble for me because I was walking slowly. But last year, a boy from third form went over the balcony. Fell a long way, must have been like from the roof of an average two-floor house, onto solid stone. And only broke both his wrists too, from what we were told. Scared the crap out of matron though.
At the bottom of the stairs we took the first left. The physics lab. The door was open, so I locked it behind us. The patio door was unlocked.
We were outside. It was raining. I hurried to the observatory and looked around. It was quite busy near the squash courts. And there was a commotion going on out by the front. Our only choice was across the field. Floodlights around the front, and lights at the squash courts meant that it wouldn’t be pitch black across the field.
“Amy, you okay? It’s going to get a bit hairy now”, I said.
“What’s our plan?”, she asked.
“That way, we just leg it and hope we don’t get seen”, I said, pointing down the field.
Amy nodded. And we ran. Amy kept up with me. But that’s no real achievement, I’m not a good runner. There was a drop of about two feet between the upper field and the lower field. I leapt over the drop and noticed that Amy was no longer beside me.
She was rolling head over heels in the long grass. As soon as she came to a stop, she stood up, and fell flat on her face.
I picked her up.
“Hold up, get your balance”, I whispered, “Ready?”
We ran again. Being a smart-ass, I tried to leap the wooden fence at the bottom of the field. My leg crunched against the top bar and flipped me over. I landed head-first into the corn. Amy, being smaller, dived between the slats of the fence, rolled on the ground, and stood up. She joined me and we walked further into the corn. When we had gone about fifteen metres, we turned right and walked between the rows. My feet sank into the wet loose soil. But it wasn’t quite mud. Yet.
We arrived at a gate. This was the cow field. Our eyes had adjusted to the dark, so the orange glow of the lights of nearby towns gave us the ability to just about see what was in front of us. I leapt over the gate and landed in thick oozy mud. Gross.
Amy unlatched the gate, stepped through, and closed the gate afterwards. Now why didn’t I think of that?
“Hold my hand tightly”, I instructed Amy. We were going to support each other. I, for one, didn’t fancy landing on my ass in this.
We slipped around a lot, we both almost lost it once, but we made it across. I helped Amy over the electric fence, and hopped over myself. I climbed the gate and down the other side. We were now on a gravel road that ran through the nearby forest. This was part of the route that we had to run along when sent on a “Woods run”. Amy was washing the mud off of herself in a puddle. I didn’t bother, it was raining quite hard now, but even so the sky was starting to break up.
We set into the woods. David had told me that James said to look for the sign. It was something he was planning to make physical education less of a chore. We must have walked a mile. Nothing. The rain was easing off. We carried on a little bit further, down an incline. Nothing here but a huge puddle. The moon cast a silver glow into the night landscape. I dragged Amy back up the incline and started to walk the way we came.
“Look, there”, Amy whispered in my ear.
I saw it.
That huge puddle, and the ones beyond, were illuminated by the moon. Reflecting the moonlight, the shape of the puddles was an enormous arrow.
“My God! That can’t have been natural.”, I exclaimed.
We ran down the incline and straight into the puddle. Once off the path, the puddle was knee deep. That quickly became a lake, waist deep. But we had to keep walking this way. The puddle entered the woods. If we got off track walking around the puddle, pond, lake, whatever this was, we might miss what we were looking for. To make matters worse, I had no idea what we were looking for. I was wading, beside me Amy was actually swimming.
We were entering a forest of fir trees. A steep rise and we were out of the puddle. To our left, a large pipe was belching water, probably run-off from the fields. I carried on and walked into something very wet, and very large.
Upon examination, it appeared to be several large black sheets in a square. Seeing no way in, I lifted the bottom of one of the sides and crawled under.
Inside the cloth square was a small caravan, painted black. I found the door and let myself in.
The windows were painted black apart from a skylight up high and it smelt musty and damp. A little light switch by the door turned on a weak battery powered fluorescent tube that was about the size of a ruler and gave a weird blue light. The main focal point of the caravan was surely the moped crammed into the small area of floor space between the table at one end, and the bed at the other. I saw a closet to the immediate left of the door, so I opened it and put the gun inside. We were out of the school so didn’t need that any more. Thankfully we didn’t have need to figure out how to use it.
I sat down and sighed. I was knackered, and soaked. Amy looked pretty tired too. At the end of the caravan, under a window, was a bed. I sat down, spun around, and laid down. Amy took a duvet cover from the closet, obviously stolen from school, and laid it over me. Then she climbed under it and laid on top of me. I set my watch and told Amy that it was half nine. We would be getting up again at four, in order to make it out in darkness, to get to the authorities early. We’d phone, then go to the police station.
I don’t think Amy heard all of the plan, she was fast asleep soon after laying down her head.
My watch bleeped. And it bleeped again. And again. By now it was sounding positively agitated.
Eventually I awoke. Four o’clock. This was when I should be going to bed, not getting up.
“Wakey wakey!”, I sang out, giving Amy a good shove.
“Oh! What time is it?”
“Four. That early enough for you?”
“Too bloody early!”
“My, my! I thought you were the type to wake up bright and happy.”
“I’m allowed to be grouchy. I’m damp, cold, and it’s the middle of the night.”
“Yeah, well, can’t have everything.”
Amy sat up. “Do you think James has anything to eat?”
“Take a look, and check the sell-by dates.”
I lay back in bed and closed my eyes.
“I didn’t pee on you, did I?”, Amy asked apprehensively.
“Nah”, I lied.
We sat down at the table, which had seats on either side and was somehow supposed to become another bed. Amy sat across from me, and began to eat her meal. Cold spaghetti hoops and a bar of chocolate. It looked really unappetising in the harsh light of a battery powered fluorescent lamp. Amy flicked off the light and lit a candle. That was better.
There was a gas stove opposite the door, but neither of us could figure out how to get it to work. Maybe the gas bottle was empty?
Fed and nourished, sort of, we lifted the moped out to the ground outside the caravan. It was a Honda.
We detailed the moped. We raided the few drawers. We looked under things. We even took the bed apart. We didn’t find the keys anywhere.
I took a large Phillips screwdriver from James’ toolkit in the closet and unscrewed the headlight fitting. Using many awkward body movements, I located the wires connected to the keyswitch and traced them back with my fingers, which wasn’t easy with only a candle for light. Close to the switch was a terminal block joining four wires from the switch to four other wires. I unclipped the terminal block on the moped side. Following the wiring back, I took the red wire from the battery and connected it to the the black wire that should be the rest of the circuit. I was hesitant as connecting red and black is usually a bad idea, but not in this case. I then also pushed power into the lights by twisting the black and white wire in as well. The left indicator started blinking. The fourth wire, a green one, looks like it acts as a kill switch to stop the engine so I left it disconnected.
I switched the indicator off and screwed the headlamp back into place.
I sat on the machine, locked the back brake, and pressed the electric ignition. Nothing happened.
“Damn ignitions”, I muttered, cranking away on the kick-start. After a cough and a splutter, the moped buzzed into life. I gave the underside a liberal spaying with some kind of waterproofing spray that I found in the helmet box.
Amy stared at the moped, “Is that it?”, she gasped.
“Simple electric circuit. Not exactly brain surgery.”
“Where do you learn that kind of stuff?”
We trundled the moped under the black sheets. Amy hopped on the back of the moped and I switched on main beams. Even though this was a piddly little moped, the light was dazzling bright. We cut sideways through the forest of pine trees, and shot out onto the gravel road at the top of the hill where I saw the arrow in the water. I screeched to a stop and waited.
“What’s wrong?”, Amy asked.
The sky was lighter out in the open, so I turned the headlight off.
“What is it?”
“I’m rarely up this often, but look over that ridge.”
Amy looked, confused. It didn’t take long for the penny to drop. The blazing morning sun rose behind the upper trees, cutting huge shadows in the swirling morning mist. It was a beautiful sight.
“Wow?”, she whispered.
That done, I released the rear brake and cranked the accelerator to maximum. The engine coughed and kicked itself into action. For a moment there, I thought it was going to choke on me.
It took a few more seconds before the centrifugal clutch transmitted any of the engine’s frenetic screaming to the rear wheel. We were off! Chocks away! Tally ho! And all that nonsense.
We hit the big puddle at twenty five. Thanks to the waterproofing stuff, we made it through with no stalling. I’m not certain though if we drove through or sailed across. Not that it mattered. We were up the other side. Half a mile on, the gravel path turned to muddy slush. This was where the loggers were massacring the forest. After the devastation of the hurricane last year, we couldn’t work out why they were tearing down even more trees, and our lobbying to the local council and MP was met by deafening silence. Nobody cared. So we took to sabotaging their equipment. Small things, at first, but when that didn’t help, James found a mad friend who hotwired a JCB and used it to utterly wreck the workman’s trailer and two pickup trucks. He got hauled off by the police, fingerprints taken, but released on account of him being a juvie. He played dense and denied knowing what a digger was, never mind the incident. Let off with a caution. The law is utterly screwed up, but at least it works against everybody some of the time.
I drove slowly through the slush. It was extremely hard to steer, so I had to glide my feet along the ground, ready to skid and push if we should start to topple. It happened a few times, and Amy screamed her lungs out. I’m not sure if she was really terrified or if a little danger kind of turned her on. Her default setting was somewhere around “frightened” so it was hard to tell.
We were back to the gravel road. Unfortunately our exit to the proper road was now blocked by a ranch-style wooden fence. No worries. I sped up a little and aimed for a part furthest from the uprights.
I cleared the moped and bounced off the grass verge and rolled into the middle of the main road. Amy landed in a heap on top of me.
“Bugger”, I muttered.
I sat up. The moped, front fork badly twisted - how will I explain that to James - and front type popped, lay on its side by the fence.
A people carrier swerved and honked as it sped by. I looked behind me. A white van honked and flashed its lights. “Get outta the road you crazy bastard!” yelled the driver.
There was a lot of traffic for six o’clock in the morning.
The next car slowed down and stopped. It flashed its lights.
I stood up. “Um, hello officer.” God, what a cliché. “Can you...”
“Amy? And...uh...”, the policeman asked, looking at a piece of paper. I looked at Amy, and back to the policeman. “Uh, yeah?”
“You’re in a lot of trouble son. Do you know how much trouble you have caused by running away? Please step into the car.”, the policeman said, gesturing in a no-nonsense way.
“But...”, I began.
“Get!”. The policeman was now rigidly pointing to the back seat. I crawled into the car. Amy climbed in, sat beside me, and started to cry.
Just before the entrance to the school, we were flagged down by two boys.
“Hello Sir”, the first boy said, “You got them? Good. We were sent to bring them quietly in the back way. Um, should we sign anything, or just take them in?”
“You two are gonna get such a bollocking!”, the other boy taunted, “Alice has been in a right tiz.”
My mind whirled. Alice? Who is Alice?
The policeman escorted us out of the car, and then drove away quietly.
As soon as the car was gone, I jumped the second boy and pummelled him to the ground. The first boy grabbed me and pinned me to a tree. Amy slunk against another tree. She was mouthing “ohmigod” over and over but no actual sound was coming out.
“Bloody hell, ease off already!”, the second boy moaned, tending to his arm.
“Well”, I began, “I would say ‘die bastards’, but you appear to have the advantage.”
The first boy looked over to Amy. “God, Amy, we didn’t mean to scare you like that. Uh, I’m Daniel and this is Kenny. We’re on your side.”
“Yeah? Prove it.”, I said.
“Cautious. James said you would be. As soon as they knew you’d gone, they phoned the police to report you missing. Told them you had this crazy notion that a bunch of kids were holding the place under siege with guns and stuff. Said you probably watched so many movies you couldn’t tell fantasy from reality any more. We intercepted a call about quarter of an hour ago. The police saying they’d found you. So we said two boys will bring him, uh, you in the back way.”
“We gotta smuggle you in, but you need to get up to speed first.”
Daniel and Kenny walked up the embankment on the far side of the road. I followed them into some woods. The wooded area wasn’t very large, it was on a raised triangle of land where the top road out of the village joined a small road down to a farm. But the outside was densely wooded with birch trees and a few firs. The middle consisted mostly of oak, so the trunks were more spread out. Plenty of room to erect a small tent. A small magenta tent with a large antenna. Subtle. Very subtle.
Kenny led me in. The tent had three car batteries strapped together. This was powering a travel kettle, a small VCR and a television. Kettle. Tea. Brilliant.
Amy and I sat down while Daniel made us both a cup of tea.
“We recorded this last night”, Kenny said.
He switched on the television and set the video recorder to Play.
The picture was perfectly still. I assumed they allowed James to set up a tripod. We were all looking at a door. I recognised the door as the side entrance to the main hall. It opened. A prefect walked in, flanked by two prefects carrying weapons in a menacing way. The view panned to follow the prefect as he walked through the hall. The hall had been turned around, with the back against the side wall. To the new back were most of the lower three forms. In front and around the sides were prefects. About forty or fifty in all. The prefect we had been following took to a small podium and approached a microphone.
“I am Head Prefect”, he announced, “I am your God.
“Unlike the real God, I take care of my people. That is why I am here, to introduce to you the concept called Democracy.
“Out there in the big world, and probably those rebel saps, they like to believe that democracy is allowing everybody a fair representation. That is not democracy, that is anarchy. Some people’s beliefs aren’t worth the time of real people with real beliefs. But that is all by-the-by.
“Democracy is simple. It is a power game. What we do is blow up a few things, kill a few people, and ask to join the so-called democratic process. Other people will, obviously, consider our aims and beliefs as meaningless. So we blow up a few more things, kill a few more people, until they agree to let us be democrats. And when it comes to votes and matters of importance, we stand a chance of losing. What we do if we lose is blow up more stuff, mutilate a few people. Carefully placed bombs in shopping centres and dead children seem to work the best. They will, of course, eventually find themselves agreeing with us. God bless democracy!”
The prefects started cheering.
I looked at Amy. She was pale.
“Told you it was bad”, Daniel said.
“Gets better”, Kenny added.
We returned our concentration to the screen.
“To show our appreciation and grasp of democracy, we are going to allow all of you visitors here today the opportunity to become a prefect and to support everything that we believe in. Hell, if any of the rebels wish to defect to be a prefect...hey, I like that, make some posters... anyway, anybody that wants to join us will be made more than welcome. Of course, the alternative is death, but hey, that’s democracy for ya!”
We then watched as the Head Prefect walked around several of the non-prefects and asked if they wanted to join. Those that said “No” were beaten, then asked again. If they still didn’t want to join, they were dragged away.
Daniel stopped the tape.
“We know they are still alive”, Kenny said, “because Head Psycho wants to find interesting ways to kill them. He says you have to have a new angle. Simply shooting them is boring.”
“I suspect he’s weighing up the slavery options as well, the lazy bad asses are tired of moving their heavy boxes around”, Daniel suggested.
Kenny and Daniel led us away from the tent and back towards the school. We took a different route back, so we’d emerge from the woods opposite the driveway. It was muddier this way.
Kenny and Daniel walked across the road and boldly walked towards the study end of the building. “Last night, we retook the studies. We also took the nearby dormitories and liberated your studio”, Kenny explained, “It’s a bit of a mess, but we tidied it up a little and brought your equipment back down. We’re using it as an Ops room.”
I nodded, taking all this in. “Bellum est exitio incolis”, I muttered.
“Psst!”, Amy said as quietly as usual, “Bellum et exitio incolis”.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a window being broken. It was a small side window in the teacher’s accommodation held by the Prefect Mob. Before I could utter something coherent, bullets streamed out of the window. We dived for cover behind the stone wall, but it wasn’t quick enough for Kenny. He winced, and limped to the wall holding his stomach. Blood poured from his hands. Daniel and I pulled his arms up and dragged him into the courtyard by the chemistry room. That girl took us inside, and we lay Kenny on the floor.
The room shook. The windows flew into the room, accompanied by an unearthly howling noise. A bright flash bathed the room in light, and I could feel a tremendous heat.
The next few seconds were silent. Amy’s face was contorted in horror, but she wasn’t screaming. They say time is relative. That might explain why nothing was moving. Amy’s scream started up, quietly, then louder, as if she was an ancient record player being cranked up. I jumped up and dashed through the cloakroom to the door. The older girl grabbed me just before I ran out. More cautious, I poked my head out.
The outer stone wall was alight. The courtyard was covered in flame. The entire side wall of the school was alight. The walls and parts of the roof of the chemistry room and the biology room were on fire. The wooden walls and tarred roof of the maths room were smouldering. Across the road, trees were ablaze. There was nothing obvious causing the fire. It was as if the very walls were burning.
It was then that I noticed a gaping hole in the outer stone wall, and a very large crater where the LPG tank used to be. Well, okay, now I know what happens when one shoots a gas tank.
Rebels began pouring out of the kitchen door, carrying containers of water, and fire extinguishers. Right beside me was a fire hose. It was hot, so I wrapped my hands in the prep room washcloth and pulled the hose. The water turned on automatically. I turned the hose to maximum spray, and began to dowse the maths room. Then I went for the roof of the chemistry and biology rooms. I ignored the walls, Daniel was already coating them in blue dry powder, not that the extinguishers lasted for more than a handful of seconds each.
I turned the nozzle for a powerful stream rather than spray, and aimed right into one of the studies where the curtains were ablaze. When that was quenched, I started to criss-cross the side wall. It was too high to be attended to with the extinguishers.
A second former tapped me on the shoulder and pointed behind me. He took the hose and started to tackle the trees, which were beginning to burn out of control.
I walked back into the chemistry room. Kenny lay on the floor, a metallic blanket over him. There was a large puddle of blood around him. Dark red. It didn’t look like I expected it to look. The older girl stared up at me with sad eyes.
“Oh my God, they killed Kenny.”, I said.
“Yes”, she whispered.
The older girl left me with the task of informing Daniel. In the distance, I heard sirens. The explosion and smoke probably scared the hell out of the villagers. Looks like one way or another this was going to come to a head.
“Daniel, come here a sec...”, I called.
I grabbed a nasty looking gun from one of the Rebels nearby and offered it to Daniel.
“You might want this”, I said.
“Why?”, he asked.
“Kenny. Um. The bullet. It. I. Uh.”
So simple. ‘Those bastards killed Kenny’. But Daniel and Kenny were best friends. They knew each other when their language was dribbling and drooling, and they grow up together. That is why I couldn’t simply state the obvious. In fact, it hurt. It hurt really bad inside. I didn’t kill Kenny, but somehow, looking at Daniel, I realised that it didn’t matter. I still felt as if I was taking a bit piece of him and choking it to death.
The penny dropped.
Daniel was slowly walking backwards, arms out, palms spread, muttering “No!” over and over.
Me? I stood there watching. Then I began to cry. I felt so small and useless. What could I say? What could I do? It was too late for sorry. If I hadn’t taken my little stand, it would be okay. Kenny would be alive. If I just kept my damned mouth shut.
Daniel’s screaming jarred me back to reality. The last syllable was “kers”, I can guess the rest. He knocked people out of the way, and kicked open the old shed used to store vegetables. Moments later Daniel strode out strapped to a General Electric Minigun.
“Oh...”, I said. A lot has happened but right now I’m actually completely speechless. I turn around and see David there with a camera, and Amy unconscious on the ground.
“David, doesn’t it worry you slightly that that thing was lurking in the veg shed?”, I asked, finding some words.
People began to gather behind Daniel.
It was obvious that the weapon was too heavy for Daniel. But he didn’t care. He was a man, er, juvenile on a mission. As to the minigun, it was a misleading name. A chain-fed beast of a weapon that attached to you by some kind of belt with the ammo box worn like a backpack. It offered six rotating turrets. I don’t remember the vital statistics, but it was something like six thousand RPM, off-loading about a hundred rounds per second. Maybe more. Certainly, whoever called it a minigun had a sense of humour.
“This is the Rebel’s greatest coup”, David informed me, “A gun to die for.”
“I kinda thought that was the point of guns”, I replied flatly.
The back door was locked. The minigun removed the door and large chunks of the wall rather too efficiently, and horribly noisily. Daniel led us up the rear staff stairway, up to the top floor, slowly because it was narrow and the gun was heavy. He stood there, in the middle of the corridor, holding this enormous weapon. David and I edged up behind for a look down the corridor. David held the video camera over Daniel’s head.
The other end of the corridor was a closed firedoor guarded by a wannabe prefect, dressed in a red tracksuit. He was dancing around and singing, badly, to the barrel of his pistol. It sounded like that song by The Fine Young Cannibals, but his singing was such a disaster it could just as easily have been Tina Turner. He noticed us and raised his weapon. Then he noticed the minigun. His pistol clattered to the floor, and he raised his hands.
Daniel advanced and raised the barrels of the minigun, all six of them, to the guard. Without warning, the guard hurled himself over the bannister and jumped.
The guard had landed badly on the stairs below and had knocked himself out.
Timothy ran forward and kicked the firedoor open. About twenty prefects stared at us then went for their weapons. They noticed the minigun and kept on running.
I could see Daniel wrestling with his thoughts. Why not just squeeze the trigger and stand back? Enough lead shot into the walls, you’ll be able to shoot right through them. Sweep back and forth, you’ll be able to slay everybody. All seventy or so prefects. The bastards were growing in numbers, they killed Kenny. I saw Daniel’s finger tighten on the trigger. I did something incredibly foolish. I stepped in front of the gun and told Daniel to lower it.
Behind me, prefects were streaming out of the room. Some were running away, others were ripping off their shirts and ties and trying to become rebels. Thankfully, the rebels didn’t want anybody who was so fickle as to change sides when the going got tough.
“Daniel”, I said, “you know what needs to be done.”
“Uh?”, he replied blankly.
“We have to confront the core prefects.”
I’m not sure what happens then, but let’s worry about that when the time comes. Just no bloodbath here.
We walked down the back stairs, we must have been eighty-strong by now. Through the hall and out of the front door. Fire trucks and police cars had arrived. The officers gaped in disbelief as we passed by. They wanted to do something but the amount of weaponry around the place was far more than a few men armed with truncheons would be inclined to get involved with. From our dormitory, on the right, that fourteen year old girl threw down spare tapes and a quick-charged battery belt. David paused for a moment to put the belt on and swap power sources. He threw the NiCad battery pack back up, but missed. The battery sailed through one of the other windows, leaving a gaping hole in the glass.
We, the rebels, walked confidently across the field. A brisk, meaningful pace, we were almost synchronised in our walking. Nobody shouted, nobody spoke. We just looked ahead and walked towards the final smackdown.
A helicopter passed overhead, forcing the rain in it’s downdraft.
I couldn’t help but smirk as I recalled David’s Ché Guevara comment. Let’s just hope I have a better outcome than Guevara.
The prefects had reached the “dell”. It was a hole in the field. Maybe it was once a pond? Hard to tell exactly. In the dell were stables built from pre-fabricated sections of concrete. They might have been something in the second world war. Hard to tell exactly. A massive salt block hung from a rope tied from a tree. Some of the newer prefects scrambled up the far side of the dell and were splashing around helplessly in the mud field. Several bemused cows had come over to see what all the fuss was about. The remaining prefects, including “God”, hauled up in the stables. Barricaded themselves in. We climbed over the fence and stood at the top of the dell. Two helicopters were over us now and it looked like one of them was from a local television station. And in the distance I could see more police officers with riot gear. That was quick. I figured the shields and Kevlar would be no match for grenade launchers and the minigun. But then again, a normal sane officer would be inclined to disbelieve reports that a bunch of schoolkids had more firepower than independent militia groups. Daniel lay down his weapon. I gave the biggest sigh of relief.
Something small and green flew through the air. Well aimed, it sailed right into the right-hand stable and belched out thick greenish smoke. The prefects tumbled out, tripping over themselves. They saw the police and started to run. The rebels slipped and slid down the incline, crossed the dell, and began up the other side. Daniel caught up with “God” and smacked him one in the face. I leaned against a tree at the top by the fence and watched the brawl. The police officers were grouping near the stables.
I picked up the minigun, or rather, I heaved it up. It was extremely heavy. I aimed skywards and pulled the trigger. Nothing. I put the gun down and picked up an “Bazooka” style missile launcher. It was heavier than it looked. Operation wasn’t hard, flick a switch, aim the open end of the tube at an empty bit of hill, then pull the trigger.
In slow motion, the rocket launched. I barely felt it leave, except for a slight warmth as it left the tube. It glided effortlessly across the dell and touched the hillside. Mud and dirt rose high into the air. Everybody froze.
“Pull out!”, I yelled. Gesturing to the police, I shouted “Their turn!”.
It was true, I was their leader. They all, including Daniel, dropped whoever they were beating up. As a cohesive unit, they all turned and walked away. They were obeying...me? Nutters.
The police stumbled in warily, fearful of anything else being blown up.
“You’ll die bastard!”, God screamed. An oddly high pitched whine.
He lunged for a gun. The police scattered.
God fired off a few token rounds at me. I don’t know if they actually hit anything, certainly nobody fell. We held our ground.
He turned the gun on himself and scattered what little brains he had across the steep incline.
I turned away. Their leader had conceded.
They say school is a battleground. This battle won was an important one for the expression of self and individuality. I expect there will be more battles to fight. I just hope they are a little less actual battle-like.
Amid cheering and police officers trying to collect up the weapons and get sense out of people, I walked back towards the building. Lost in my own thoughts, I barely noticed that David was joined by a local news crew and the crew of a national news helicopter this time. I could kill for a decent cuppa. Okay, the tea here wasn’t anything to write home about, but at least it was barely drinkable. And right now I needed tea. Lots of tea.
David handled the exclusive rights. For five grand each, plus a pile of old broadcast equipment, we would do an interview. Several terrestrial channels settled for interviewing some of the lesser players as a prominent international broadcaster was more than happy to oblige. So here we sat, in our dormitory, playing back clips from our videos and explaining both sides of the story. The interviewer looked a lot like one of the Bananarama girls. But my mind kept going back to that girl whose name I didn’t know. The one that seemed to be in the background helping... wait a minute. Could her name be? Yes, that might be it.
I’ll try it.
“Anna?”, I asked, right in the middle of the interview.
The girl turned, her face turning red.
She smiled. A big wide smile that reached her eyes.
So that’s who Anna is. What a totally awesome person.
In the background, David negotiated another £5,000 each, plus £10,000 extra for me for us to release our video tapes for broadcast.
“Sir?”, the interviewer asked. Way too formal.
“Uh?”, I replied. Way too informal.
“Can you tell me how you feel about all of this? Why did you do it?”
I thought for a while. Well, I lied. I knew the answer, but a psychology book I read last term told me that if you simply blurt out an answer then you are seen as insincere and all sorts of other unkind things. You should always pause for a few seconds before giving any answer of levity. It shows you are thinking, it shows you are considering.
“Well”, I began, “I feel good in knowing that our vision and idealism came though in the end. I feel extremely bad for our losses. I think, if the same situation arose again, I would do the same thing, only this time we’d organise ourselves better. I feel amazed that only one person was killed, and three injured, given the number of guns around and how much we actually managed to shoot at each other. I feel for Kenny’s family and for his friends. I can’t give a long speech on what kind of person he was because I didn’t really know him. But what I can tell you is that he played a very important role, and he died for something he believed in.”
“I don’t want to be hailed a hero. Quite frankly, I’m scared by those who have stuck printouts of me on their bunks. I don’t think I did anything special. I just decided enough was enough, and said so. It all basically came from there.”
“I hope that, had it been any other student in my position, they would have reacted the same way. Because adults seem to have more to learn about life than we do. Sure, we may dress up in black and listen to warped music. We may enjoy watching violent movies and laugh at apocalyptic nonsense. Now, some people have a problem with dealing with fantasy. That doesn’t apply to everybody, and I think that treating all of us as if listening to our music will make us start gang wars and shoot each other is just plain insulting. Indeed, this whole mess arose not from our music and way of life, but from the oppression of our freedom to be ourselves. There is no universal ‘normal’. I, for one, think I am more normal than the sports heroes of the school. How long does a footballer play for? What then? Me? I won’t command millions per game, but I’ll be fiddling with my computers until I’m old and decrepit. So people, think before you start trying to shoehorn everybody into a category.”
God, I talk too much. I need a snappier ending than that.
“Or, in short, I did what I did because it was right.”
Yes, the protagonist is a total Mary Sue (author avatar). He was originally called Rick, but I have tweaked the dialogue so he isn't mentioned by name at all (except in the story written by Richard Goodwin). Just, you know, to clear that up. ☺
Now, the genesis of this story came about in a third form history lesson. We were set the challenge of describing how we would take over the school. I don't know, maybe the history teacher was hoping somebody would? Back in those days it was a lot simpler - with over a hundred boys and far fewer staff, we would really only have needed to cut the phone lines (not hard, they all entered in one specific place) and post pupils at specific points to stop staff members (or boys looking to leg it) from escaping. There was no mobile phones or streaming video to worry about.
So most of the class decided to write short epics about how they would take over the school.
I decided that such a thing was mundane, and a more interesting story would be about those affected by some other students doing the taking over. Especially if those others had it in for the protagonist in one way or another.
You will notice from the messy history at the start that this story was called "TakeOver" until the rewrite in the year 2000. The reason for this is because the Columbine Massacre happened in April 1999, and this focussed sharp attention on those pupils who are "different". And yes, sadly, there does seem to be something bizarre in the American mindset (I covered this before on my blog someplace, that US school shootings in one year far outnumbered European school shootings since before I was born) that may lead certain teenagers to the idea of shooting up their school. That said, there is a lot of peer pressure to conform to specific types, and those who don't tend to get ostracised, mocked, bullied... of course none of this is any justification for responding with guns and bullets. The backdrop of Columbine and the ensuing moral panic over goth culture and social outcasts (even though, ironically, the perpetrators were not themselves outcasts) gave me a lot to think about in the context of TakeOver, in which the main events more or less kicked off due to a similar moral panic that goes horribly wrong, as seen from the point of view of "those three weirdos".
The original "TakeOver" story, written in Ovation, ran to a mere ten pages. The "Differences" rewrite (in OvationPro this time) was three times larger. This version (still written in OvationPro!) is about the same length, as while a couple of pages of content was added, a bunch of song lyrics were removed because of onerous copyright issues. It's no big deal, I don't need to mention any lyrics to give you cultural references, it's 2017, I can just name the song (song titles are not copyrighted) and give you a YouTube playlist. Way better, no?
David Pilling (Hiya!) noticed that the "Oh my God, they killed Kenny!" was from something else. Yup, quite correct. It's from South Park. As part of the anachronism stew of the Y2K rewrite, the following dialogue was present:
Obviously the South Park reference had to go as that didn't exist in '88, but since the kid was called Kenny, I didn't quite have the heart to get rid of that one line. Call it a stealth joke. ☺
- The older girl stared up at me with sad eyes.
"Um, would this be a bad time to say 'Oh My God, they killed Kenny'?", I asked.
"Yes", she whispered.
"Would this be a bad time to reply 'The bastards'?", Amy asked.
"Knock it off you two!", the older girl shouted.
I stared at Amy, "You watch that too? Cool!"
"You're frigging unbelievable, get the hell out!", the older girl ordered, pointing at the door.
So, there you have it. Part one of the SIBA series and a little bit of background info.
I hope you enjoyed the story.
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|Clive Semmens, 13th March 2019, 19:24|
Love it. Will link from the Fiction page on my website, with your permission. And maybe tell a few fiends [sic] about it.
Humour? Definitely. Serious points? Definitely. ThumbsUp.
(Felicity? Marte? Find out!)
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Last read at 19:22 on 2022/08/12.
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