The retreat [final part].
The following day, and everyone I looked at seemed to be hiding something. Students whispering behind their hands, and Victor somehow distant, unresponsive. As for the long-term residents, they’d assumed an air of sly collaboration. Downcast eyes and furtive body movements. The morning’s classes had gone by slowly, my tiredness getting the better of me and making me lazy. Rather than galvanise my students, I’d handed out textbooks and asked them to work in silence. I knew this wasn’t fair, but had neither the energy nor the inclination to even feign an interest.
After lunch and an abortive stab at sleep, I sat in my bedroom considering a cigarette. Maybe I’d go to the canteen and get a cup of coffee first. As I was putting on my shoes, I heard footsteps pounding down the corridor towards me. There was a frenzied knocking at my door, and when I opened up, I was face to face with a gasping, mad-eyed Victor. His yellowing face was flushed bright red at the cheeks and he was sheened in sweat.
‘What is it?’ I asked, surprised. ‘What’s the matter, Victor?’
‘The children,’ he said. ‘They have disappeared. We were playing a game in the forest, and then there was this … how do you say it? … ah, I can’t explain it properly to you. Please, come with me.’
I quickly tied my laces and followed him out and across the grounds towards the boundary fence. He led me to where it was lowest and together we clambered over into the woodland. As we went deeper, the daylight started to fade and a sense of disquiet settled around us. The smell of earthy decay grew ever stronger. Victor pushed on ahead of me, turning every now and then to beckon me forward. It was extremely unsettling, seeing a man so ordinarily calm in such a state of panic. What could possibly have got him so worked up? When we broke into a clearing and he stopped and pointed ahead, I understood.
A crooked tree, an Elm perhaps, its naked branches hung with a variety of footwear. Teetering between detachment and horror, I counted the shoes, already quite sure of the outcome. Nine pairs exactly, swaying slightly, Victor’s wheezing lungs, my heaving chest. Closing my eyes and leaning forward, I put my hands on my knees and took in several deep breaths. From some unspecified place came the horrible cawing of crows, sounding rather like twisted laughter. Fighting nausea, I looked up at the tree again in the ridiculous hope that my eyes had been playing tricks on me. They hadn’t.
‘It is like a nightmare,’ said Victor, despondent, despairing. ‘The parents, they will kill me if something has happened.’
‘How long have they been missing for?’ I asked him.
‘I can’t be sure,’ he said, looking down at his wristwatch. ‘About an hour perhaps.’
‘Where have you looked?’
‘I went down that way,’ he said, nodding over to an area left of the tree, where the woodland was a little sparser and there were the makings of a narrow trail. ‘But this forest, it is so big, they could be anywhere I think.’
‘Okay, let’s try looking at this logically.’ I moved towards the tree, legs shaking, my eyes on the ground for any evidence of footprints. Anything to give a clue as to where the students might have been taken. ‘It’s not as if they’ve just vanished into thin air.’
‘Wait,’ he said, a sliver of hope in his voice. ‘I think I see something.’
I looked across to where he was pointing, as big and dense a holly tree as I’d ever seen. A big dense holly tree with nine French students bursting out from behind it in fits of laughter. Victor’s roar rose up behind me and I knew that I’d been well and truly had. Bloody bastards, the lot of them. Torn between outrage, relief, and amusement, I felt my face flush hot with a mighty rush of blood. I truly didn’t know what to do with myself. Tempted as I was to wallop Victor, I just couldn’t do it. He’d got me fair and square.
‘I’m sorry,’ he coughed, sides heaving. ‘But it is a very funny joke, no?’
The students milled around us, smiling, laughing, and I started laughing with them. There was nothing I could do to stop myself. Aside from nearly giving me a coronary, they might actually have broken me out of my torpor. Five days I’d been moping about the place, fixated on something that wasn’t there, locked tightly away in the prison cell of my overworked head. Feeling as though a burden had been lifted from my shoulders, I rugby tackled Victor and rubbed a handful of mud and leaves into his face. Maybe it was time I started learning not to take things quite so seriously.
* * * * * * * * * *
Friday, last day, and I was still feeling mildly euphoric. The morning’s lessons had been the best of the lot, the children more comfortable with me, and I with them. We’d tackled the topic of the footwear tree, coming up with many a theory as to its purpose. My favourite one was put forward by Olivier, a wiry little lad from Italian parentage. He reckoned a roosting place for vampires, who on returning from their feeding would simply slot their feet into the waiting shoes. Of course, the theory had holes, as vampires surely slept by day, but it amused me greatly nonetheless.
The afternoon was spent packing and tidying up. I cleared my classroom of books and papers, and wrote out the reports to be sent back to the parents. An easy job with only nine, so I spared no detail and offered up some glowing praise. They had been a particularly good bunch, and I was kicking myself for not enjoying it as much as I could have. Five, six days away from my usual routine and I’d almost lost the bloody plot. Still, a man who never made a mistake never really made anything at all. That’s what I kept on telling myself, and to some extent I found it rather soothing.
After dinner, Victor stood and made a little speech of thanks on behalf of the children. Then he produced a bottle of apple brandy, which he said his father had made the previous summer. Big round of applause, shrill whistles too, and I stammered out a bashful, heartfelt thank you. I arranged to have a drink with Victor when the children had gone to bed. He said just one or two, big day tomorrow, lot of travel, and so on. I reckoned I could push him to three or four at least.
That evening we sat in Victor’s bedroom, bigger than mine and without the pervasive smell of damp. I’d smuggled two glasses from the canteen earlier, not brandy balloons, but then we weren’t drinking brandy. We were drinking high-octane rocket fuel with a subtle, aromatic nose of vinegar. The first slug scorched away the lining of my throat and stomach, making me splutter and bringing hot tears to my eyes.
‘It’s wonderful, no?’ said Victor, wincing. ‘Better than your English beer I think.’
‘You could run your car on this,’ I said, topping our glasses up.
‘I do,’ he replied. ‘It’s also very good for cleaning the paintbrush.’
An hour or so passed by, and we’d polished off half the bottle. My head felt light, my vision wavering pleasantly. ‘Really, though,’ I said. ‘Have you enjoyed your stay?’
‘But yes, and most important the children have had a good time. It is what these holidays are all about. It doesn’t really matter if I don’t enjoy it.’
‘But you have enjoyed it?’
‘Yes, yes.’ He looked at his wristwatch and made a yawning, stretching movement.
Knowing a hint when I saw one, I put the lid on the bottle and finished off my drink. ‘So,’ I said, ‘seven o’clock for the minibus. Give me a shout if you like, and I’ll come and wave goodbye. It’ll be very emotional. I can chase you down the driveway crying and waving my arms around in the air like this.’
‘I will try to shout you,’ he said. ‘But don’t drink too much of that, my friend. Otherwise you’ll have an horrible hangover in the morning.’
Back in my room, I poured myself another glass. He was probably right about the hangover, I could already feel my organs dehydrating. But then, I hadn’t had a drink all week and I could always sleep on the Megabus if I wanted to. We’d already gone through the damage forms and Victor had all the paperwork he needed. All I had to do was give the Lettings Bitch the keys and ask her to call a taxi from her office, wherever the hell that was. I drained my glass in one and, grimacing, poured myself another. Deciding on a cigarette, I took my drink and bottle and tottered cheerfully down the corridor.
I knew outside was bitter cold, but didn’t seem to feel it through my high-octane coating. A moon cut like a sickle hovered overhead. My cigarette fizzled in the near dark and I closed my eyes and abandoned myself to the swimming motions in my head. Going home tomorrow, I thought, catch up with friends and tell them all about this weird retreat. It may have only been a week, but I’d missed my little life. Not my flat or my hopeless city, but the folks I’d left behind. ‘Home,’ I said, my voice booming into the empty night. ‘Home isn’t bricks and mortar, home is the ones you love.’
‘Bravo, Mr Jude,’ came the unmistakeable voice of the walking cadaver. ‘That’s possibly the most sensible thing I’ve heard you say all week.’
I opened my eyes, and she was standing there beside me, smiling thinly in the moonlight. ‘What brings you out here?’ I slurred. ‘Looking for hemlock or something?’
‘I shall choose ignore that, seeing as you’re rolling drunk. I just wanted to see that everything was organised for the morning. Will you be leaving with Mr Blazy’s group?’
‘Uh, no, I was actually … uh … I was going to ask if you’d arrange a taxi for me.’ The effort of talking, of concentrating, was making me feel nauseous. A cold sweat had broken out on my neck and forehead. ‘If that’s okay, of course.’
‘I’m sure it can be arranged, Mr Jude,’ she said. ‘What time did you wish to … oh no … oh no you don’t … oh, you beastly little man, how utterly revolting!’
I just couldn’t stop myself. My stomach had finally decided to evict the brandy, great foamy gushes spattering into the flowerbed beside me. Doubling over, I couldn’t remember ever having felt so wretched. The earth was spinning beneath me and an electric chill ran up and down my spine. Had someone offered me the choice between this and death, I’d have gladly chosen the latter.
Several minutes later, I was patted on the back and handed a glass of water. Draining it down, I leaned back against the hut and drew in the cool night air. ‘Thanks,’ I whispered hoarsely. ‘Must have been something I ate.’
‘I won’t even dignify that with a response,’ she muttered. ‘Now, what time would you like your taxi, Mr Jude? Judging by the state of you, I’d say you’d be better off staying in bed as long as possible.’
‘No can do,’ I replied, suddenly feeling very tired. ‘I’ve got to see the French group off at seven.’
‘I’m sure they’ll understand,’ she said as she walked away.
I slept the sleep of the dead that night, no dreams, no bladder awakenings, no nothing. I wasn’t even conscious of having been asleep when I came to in the darkness of my bedroom. My head felt strange, so strange that I didn’t dare touch it. It felt as though my brain was loose inside my skull, and the slightest movement would break it into pieces. I looked to my wristwatch for the time, but I must have taken it off before getting into bed. Probably in a heap of jeans and tee shirt on the floor. I climbed out of bed and fumbled for the light switch. No heap of jeans and tee shirt anywhere. Perhaps I’d hung them up.
Imagine my surprise to find in the wardrobe nothing but a pale grey, shapeless tracksuit. A pair of German sauna flip-flops in place of my desert boots. My mouth all dry and panicked, I went to the little sink to get a drink of water, and in the mirror saw my shaven head, my thinning yet beloved thatch now vanished. And imagine my further surprise to find the bedroom door locked firmly from the outside. I don’t know if what I heard that second night was some form of precognition. I do know that the screams this time were definitely real.
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