When the day came it seemed little had changed. The same buildings stood firm, accompanied by a couple of new teaching blocks that referenced a modern, institutional style. The boys had different haircuts but wore the same uniforms. Richard arrived just as assembly ended, the forecourt flooding with dark blue blazers and grey trousers. He began to feel distinctly out of place when a woman in a short skirt showed him into a room and asked him to wait. Richard smiled politely. She left, pulling the door behind her.
The room was dim despite two large windows. One faced south to the forecourt, the other was sheltered behind gardens of shrubs. Timber wall panelling and glass display cases featuring trophies and cups of various sizes lent the chamber a dignified purpose. A painting of the original school building on Petrie Terrace hung over a monstrous sideboard. On this sat a vase of fresh lilies and a tray of drinking glasses. A water cooler had been installed in the corner. Oversized armchairs took up most of the remaining space. They were old chairs but appeared barely used.
The door opened and a man wearing a grey suit appeared.
“Mr Turner,” he said, gripping Richard’s hand, “Good to meet you at last and welcome back. This must bring back memories. By the way, congratulations on your book.”
“Have a seat.”
Richard obeyed, springs subsiding under him.
“The Writer-in-Residence is just one addition to our programme. When I took up this post, the school was ripe for change. My first initiative was the pastoral care system.” The Headmaster rose from his chair and went to the sideboard, picking a clean glass and pressing it against the cooler. A clear stream filled the glass, bubbles bursting up in the tank like farts. “There’s more accountability now. Of course, that affair with Carey did not help.” The Headmaster stood at the forecourt window, fingers stroking his chin, and eyed Richard side-on.
“Yes, terrible business.”
“But we’re through that now. In January we’re opening a middle school, years six and seven. There’s scope for fellows like you.”
Richard shifted in his chair and sank a little further into the leather.
“Take time to settle in. Make use of the facilities. We’d like you to feel at home.”
The school board was buying up all adjacent properties as they came on the market. For the duration of his term, they had provided Richard with a small, double-storied timber cottage on the other side of busy Gregory Terrace as both workplace and residence. The lower floor was gutted, the internal walls removed, just a kitchenette, a café table and a couple of chairs remained as concessions to domestic necessity. The floorboards had been stripped and sanded back, unfinished as if the workmen were unsure of what to do next. He felt hesitant to walk over them, fearing he would mark their soft, dusty surface.
This atmosphere of incompleteness reminded Richard of his failings. Thirty-seven, patchwork resume, single – again – and, to use his mother’s expression, a confirmed bachelor. When she died, Richard sold her house and had the proceeds divided up between his sisters and himself. There was just enough to buy a dilapidated bungalow. He soon tired of do-it-yourself weekends. It remained another work-in-progress.
In the cottage provided by the school, the bedroom and bathroom were upstairs, along with a room designated as his study. Equipped with the latest computer, it gave off a characteristic taint of newness. From the desk, he could see across to the south side of town and the eclectic disorder that purported to be a city.
Another writer had initially been chosen. A well-known and highly celebrated author, this man was also an old boy of the school. Parents and students were excited by his imminent arrival. But at the last minute, he withdrew having apparently received a better offer. Richard wondered what the reaction had been when his own name was announced as the replacement.
After university, Richard had gone into the public service. In the evenings he wrote and had managed to publish a number of pieces of short fiction. Then, after accepting a position with a tabloid newspaper, he found himself struggling. The pressure of deadlines and editor’s directions choked his creativity. Bored and personifying his lack of interest, he turned up repeatedly late to the office. Eventually, the choice was made for him. He was sacked. He turned to charity, at least positions in the charity sector. The first of these involved teaching teenagers what was euphemistically called creative writing but turned out to be a kind of delinquent baby-sitting funded with crime prevention money. He despised the aggression of his charges but conceded the job was not too bad overall. The worst of them were usually too wasted on pot to attend. His friends had teased him about it.
“There must be some hotties.”
“They’re 16 years old!” he’d cry. “They’re just kids!”
During this period he managed to produce his first novel: a bleak, moralistic tale about a girl falling through the welfare system. The book had been published but only after Richard yielded to it being marketed as ‘young adult’ fiction.
Someone had left a copy on the bookshelf of the study alongside past editions of the school yearbooks. Richard found the one for his year. He lingered over the sports photographs; teams of husky young men dressed incongruously in blazers and dark football shorts, their legs spread salaciously. They were golden boys: irrepressibly dominant and born to good fortune. He could see them now, swaggering and bullying their way around those dreadful years as he did his best to blend and appease. He’d worked hard to slip invisibly through his education avoiding notoriety, a shadow of no concern to anyone, his purpose being survival more than anything.
He turned a page and there was a picture of him, unglorified, in a single class group photograph with his wiry hair and nervous smile. A little thinner and fresher in the face but, somehow, remarkably similar and peering expectantly at his prospects.
He shut the volume and slid it back between the others. Beside the bookshelf was a poster featuring an eagle flying over a mountain and the words:
No one can predict to what heights you can soar.
Even you will not know until you spread your wings.
Some schoolboy had crossed out the last two words and scribbled “her legs” in their place. He suddenly felt quite anxious and questioned why he had accepted the position at all. Without a further thought, he pulled the pins from the poster, rolled it up and stuck it in the waste bin.
To read the complete story please purchase the Sanctuary here.