Harry Keogh felt the warm sun on the side of his face, beating through the open classroom window. He knew the solid, near-indestructible feel of a school bench under his thighs, its surface polished by tens of thousands of bottoms. He was aware of the aggressive hum of a tiny wasp on its tour of inspection of his inkwell, ruler, pencils, the dahlias in a vase on the window ledge. But all of these things lay on the periphery of his consciousness, little more than background static. He was aware of them in the same way that he was aware of his heart hammering in his chest - hammering far too quickly and loudly for an arithmetic class on a sunny Tuesday afternoon in August. The real world was there, all right - real as the occasional breath of breeze fanning his cheek from the open window - and yet Harry craved air no less than a drowning man. Or a drowning woman.
And the sun could not warm him where he struggled under the ice, and the wasp's buzzing was almost entirely lost in the gurgle and slosh of icy water and the burble of bubbles from his nostrils and straining, silently screaming jaws! Darkness below, frozen mud and weeds; and above -
A sheet of ice, inches thick, and somewhere a hole - the hole he (she?) had fallen through - but where? Fight the river's rush! Kick against it and swim, swim! Think of Harry, little Harry. You have to live for him. For his sake. For Harry ...
There! There! Thank God for the hole! - oh, thank God!
Clawing at the rim, the edges of ice sharp as glass. And heaven-sent hands coming down into the water, seeming to move oh so slowly - almost in slow motion - dreadfully, monstrously languid! Strong hands, hairy. A ring on the second finger of the right hand. A cat's-eye stone set in thick gold. A man's ring.
Looking up, a face all aswim, seen through the chop of wavelets and the liquid flurry of water. And through the ice, his frosty outline kneeling at the rim. Grasp his hands, those strong hands, and he'll lift you out like a baby. And he'll shake you till you're dry for frightening him.
Fight the current - grasp at the hands - kick against the river's rush. Fight, fight! Fight for Harry...
There! You've got the hands! Grip tight! Hold on! Try to lift your head up through the hole and breathe, breathe!
But... the hands are pushing you down!
Seen through the water the face wobbles, shifting and changing. The trembly jelly lips turn up at their corners. They smile - or grimace! You hang on. You scream - and water rushes in to replace the escaping air.
Cling to the ice. Forget the hands, the cruel hands that continue to hold you down. Just grab at the rim and lift your head. But the hands are there, breaking your grip. They thrust you away, under the ice. They murder you!
You can't fight the cold and the river and the hands. Blackness is roaring down on you. In your lungs, in your head, in your eyes. Stick your long fingernails into the hands, claw at them, tear the flesh from them. The gold ring comes loose, spirals down into the murk and mud. Blood turns the water red - red against the ultimate black of your dying - blood from the cruel, cruel hands.
No fight left in you. Waterlogged, you sink. The current drags you along the bottom, tumbling you. But you no longer care. Except... you care for Harry. Poor little
Harry! Who'll care for him now? Who'll look after Harry ... Harry . ...Harry - ?
'Harry? Harry Keogh? Christ, boy! - are you here at all?'
Harry felt the elbow of his pal Jimmy Collins digging him covertly, however sharply, in the ribs, causing him to draw air explosively; he heard Mr. Hannant's rasping voice crashing in on his eardrums above the receding tumult of water. He jerked upright on his bench, gulped again at the air, thrust his hand up foolishly, as if in response to some question or other. It was an automatic reaction: if you were quick off the mark the teacher knew you knew the answer and he'd ask someone else. Except... sometimes it didn't work out that way, teachers didn't always fall for it. And Hannant, the maths teacher - he was nobody's fool.
Gone now the sensation of drowning; gone utterly the bitter cold of the water, the pitiless torture of thrusting, brutally inhuman hands; gone the entire nightmare - or, more properly, the daydream. By comparison the newer situation was a mere trifle. Or was it?
Harry was suddenly aware of a classroom full of eyes, all staring at him; aware too of Mr. Hannant's purple, outraged face glaring at him from out in front of the class. What had they been dealing with?
He glanced at the blackboard. Oh, yes! Formulae - areas and properties of circles - the Constant Factor (?) - diameters and radii and pi. Pi? That was a laugh! It was all pi to Harry. Pie in the sky. But what had been Hannant's question? Had he even asked a question?
White-faced now, Harry peered about the classroom. His was the only hand in the air. Slowly he drew it down. Beside him, Jimmy Collins sniggered, coughing and spluttering to hide it. Normally that would have been sufficient to set Harry off, too, but with the memory of the night- or day-mare so fresh in his mind, he had little difficulty staving it off.
'Well?' Hannant demanded.
'Sir?' Harry queried. 'Er, could you repeat the question?'
Hannant sighed, closed his eyes, rested his great knuckles on his desk and leaned his stocky body on his straight arms. He counted ten under his breath, but loud enough for the class to hear him. Finally, without re­opening his eyes, he said: The question was, are you here at all?'
'God, yes, Harry Keogh! Yes, you!'
'Why, yes sir!' Harry tried not to act too innocent. It looked like he might get away with it - or would he? 'But there was this wasp, sir, and - '
'My other question,' Hannant cut him short, 'my first question - the one that made me suspect perhaps you weren't with us - was this: what is the relationship between the diameter of a circle and pi? I take it that's the one you wanted to answer? The one you had your hand up for? Or were you swatting flies?'
Harry felt a flush riding up his neck. Pi? Diameter? Circle?
The class grew fidgety; someone sniffed disgustedly, probably the bully, Stanley Green - the pushy, big-headed, swotty slob! The trouble with Stanley was that he was clever and big ... What was the question again? But what difference did it make without the answer?
Jimmy Collins looked down at his desk, ostensibly at a work book there, and whispered out of the corner of his mouth: 'Three times!'
Three times? What did that mean?
'Well?' Hannant knew he had him.
'Er, three times!' Harry blurted, praying that Jimmy wasn't having him on.'- Sir.'
The maths teacher sucked in air, straightened up. He snorted, frowned, seemed a little puzzled. But then he said, 'No! - but it was a good try. As far as it goes. Not three times but three point one four one five nine times. Ah! But times what?'
'The diameter,' Jimmy whispered. 'Equals circumfer­ence...'
'D-diameter!' Harry stuttered. 'Equals, er, circumference.'
George Hannant stared hard at Harry. He saw a boy, thirteen years old; sandy haired; freckled; in a crumpled school uniform; untidy shirt; school tie like a piece of chewed string, askew, its end fraying; and prescription spectacles balanced on a stub of a nose, behind which dreamy blue eyes gazed out in a sort of perpetual appre­ hension. Pitiful? No, not that; Harry Keogh could take his lumps, and dish them out when his dander was up. But ... a difficult kid to get through to. Hannant suspected there was a pretty good brain in there, some­where behind that haunted face. If only it could be prodded into life!
Stir him out of himself, maybe? A short, sharp shock? Give him something to think about in this world, instead of that other place he kept slipping off into? Maybe. 'Harry Keogh, I'm not altogether sure that answer was yours in its entirety. Collins is sitting too close to you and looking too disinterested for my liking. So ... at the end of this chapter in your book you'll find ten questions. Three of 'em concern themselves with surface areas of circles and cylinders. I want the answers to those three here on my desk first thing tomorrow morning, right?'
Harry hung his head and bit his lip. 'Yes, sir.'
'So look at me. Look at me, boy!'
Harry looked up. And now he did look pitiful. But no good going back now. 'Harry,' Hannant sighed, 'you're a mess! I've spoken to the other masters and it's not just maths but everything. If you don't wake up, son, you'll be leaving school without a single qualification. Oh, there's time yet - if that's what you're thinking - a couple of years, anyway. But only if you get down to it right now. The homework isn't punishment, Harry, it's my way of trying to point you in the right direction.'
He looked towards the back of the class, to where Stanley Green was still sniggering and hiding his face behind a hand that scratched his forehead. 'As for you, Green - for you it is punishment, you obnoxious wart! You can do the other seven!'
The rest of the class tried hard not to show its approval - dared not, for Big Stanley would surely make them pay for it if they did - but Hannant saw it anyway. That was good. He didn't mind being seen as a sod, but far better to be a sod with a sense of justice.
'But sir - !' Green started to his feet, his voice already beginning to rise in protest.
'Shut up!' Hannant told him sharply. 'And sit down!' And then - as the bully subsided with a loud huh! 'Right, what's next?' He glanced at the afternoon's programme under the glass on top of his desk. 'Oh, yes - stone collecting on the beach. Good! A bit of fresh air might wake you all up. Very well, start packing up. Then you can go - but in an orderly manner!' (As if they'd take any notice of that!)
But - before they could commence their metamorphosis into a pencil-clattering, desk-slamming, floor-shaking horde - 'Wait! You may as well leave your things here. The monitor takes the key and opens up again after you've brought your stones back from the beach. When you've picked up your things, then he'll lock up again. Who is the monitor this week?' 'Sir!' Jimmy Collins stuck up his hand. 'Oh?' said Hannant, raising thick eyebrows, but not at all surprised really. 'Going up in the world, are we, Jimmy Collins?'
'Scored the winning goal against Blackhills on Saturday, sir,' said Jimmy with pride.
Hannant smiled, if only to himself. Oh, yes, that would do it. Jamieson, the headmaster, was a fool for football - indeed for all sports. A healthy mind needs a healthy body ... Still, he was a good head.
The boys were exiting now, Green elbowing his way through the crush, looking surlier than ever, with Keogh and Collins bringing up the rear; the two of them, for all their differences, inseparable as Siamese twins. And as he'd known they would, they stood at the door waiting. 'Well?' Hannant asked.
'Waiting for you, sir,' said Collins. 'So I can lock up.' 'Oh, is that so?' Hannant aped the boy's breeziness. 'And we'll just leave all the windows open, will we?'
As the two came tumbling back into the classroom he grinned, packed his briefcase, did up the top button of his shirt and straightened his tie - and still got out into the corridor before they were through. Then Collins turned the key in the lock and they were off - brushing past him, careful not to touch him, as if fearing they'd catch something - dashing after the others in a clatter of flying feet.
Maths? Hannant thought, watching them out of sight along the shining corridor, slicing through the square beams of dusty sunlight from the windows. What the hell's maths? Star Trek on the telly and a stack of brand new Marvel comics in the newsagent's - and I expect them to study numbers! God! And just wait another year or so, till they start to notice those funny lumps on girls - as if they haven't already! And again: Maths? Hopeless!
He grinned, however ruefully. Lord, how he envied them!
Harden Modern Boys' was a secondary modern school on England's north-east coast, catering to the budding minds of the colliery's young men. That did not mean a great deal: most of the boys would become miners or employees of the Coal Board anyway, like their fathers and older brothers before them. But some, a small percentage, would go on through the medium of examin­ations to higher education at academic and technical colleges in neighbouring towns.
Originally a cluster of two-storey Coal Board offices, the school had been given a face-lift some thirty years earlier when the village's population had suddenly grown to accommodate greatly expanded mining operations. Now, standing behind low walls just a mile from the shore to the east and half that distance from the mine itself to the north, the plain old bricks of the place and the square windows seemed to lend it an air of frowning austerity out of keeping with its prosperous self-help gardens, a cold severity not at all reflected in its staff. No, for all in all they were a good, hard-working bunch. And headmaster Howard Jamieson BA, a staunch sur­vivor of 'the Old School', saw to it that they stayed that way.
The weekly stone-gathering expedition served three purposes. One: it got all the kids out in the fresh air, allowing those teachers with a predilection for nature-rambling a rare chance to turn the minds of their wards towards Nature's wonders. Two: it provided gratis much of the raw material for garden walls within the grounds of the school, gradually replacing the old fences and trellises, a project which naturally bore the head's stamp of approval. Three: it meant that once a month three-quarters of the masters could get away from school early, leaving their charges in the care of the dedicated ramblers.
The idea was this: that all the pupils employ Tuesday's last period to walk a mile down leafy country lanes to the beach, there to collect up large, flat, rounded stones, of which there were plenty, and to carry them back one per pupil to the school. And as stated, along the way one male teacher (usually the gym-master, who was ex-Army Physical Training Corps) and two of the school's younger, unattached female teachers would extol the glories of the hedgerows, the wonders of the wild flowers and the countryside in general. None of which was of any real interest to Harry Keogh; but he did like the beach, and anything was better than a classroom on a warm, droning afternoon.
'Here,' said Jimmy Collins to Harry as they strolled, two abreast, midway in a long line of kids, down through the paths of the dene winding to the sea, 'you really ought to pay attention to old Hannant, you know. I mean, not about all that "needing qualifications" stuff -that's up to you - but during lessons generally. He's not a bad 'un, old George, but he could be if he decided you were just taking the mickey.'
Harry shrugged dejectedly. 'I was daydreaming,' he said. 'Actually, it's sort of funny. See, when I daydream like that, it's like I can't stop. Only old Hannant shouting - and you giving me a jab - pulled me out of it.'
Pulled me out... the strong hands reaching down into the water... to pull me out, or push me under?
Jimmy nodded. 'I've seen you like it before, lots of times. Your face goes sort of funny...' He looked serious for a moment, then chuckled and gave Harry a playful thump on the shoulder. 'Not that that's a big deal - your face is funny all the time!'
Harry snorted. 'Listen who's talking! Me, funny-look­ ing? I'd play Kirk to your Spock any time! Anyway, what do you mean? I mean, how do I look, you know, funny?'
'Well, you just sit very still, all stary-eyed, scared- looking. But not always. Sometimes you look a bit dreamy, like. Anyway, it's like old George said: you just don't seem to be here at all. Actually, you're very weird! I mean, it's true, isn't it? How many friends have you got?'
'I've got you,' Harry feebly protested. He knew what Jimmy meant: he was too deep, too quiet. But not studious, not a swot. If he'd been good at lessons, that would perhaps explain it, but he wasn't. Oh, he was clever enough (at least he felt he could be clever) if he wanted to concentrate on it. It was just that he found concentration very hard. It was as if sometimes the thoughts he thought weren't really his at all. Complicated thoughts and daydreams, fancies and phantasms. His mind made up stories for him - whether he wanted it to or not - but stories so detailed they were like memories. The memories of other people. People who weren't here any more. As if his head was an echo-chamber for minds which had... gone somewhere else?
'Yes, you've got me for a friend,' Jimmy interrupted his train of thought. 'And who else?'
Harry shrugged, went on the defensive. 'There's Brenda,' he said. 'And... and anyway, who needs lot of friends? I don't. If people want to be friendly they'll be friendly. If they don't, well that's up to them.'
Jimmy ignored the mention of Brenda Cowell, Harry's grande passion who lived in the same street. He was into sport, not girls. He'd hang himself from a goal-post before he'd be caught with his arm round a girl in the cinema when the lights went up. 'You've got me.r he said. 'And that's it. As for why I like you -1 just dunno.'
'Because we don't compete,' said Harry, shrewder than his years. 'I don't understand sport, so you enjoy explaining it to me - 'cos you know I won't argue. And you don't understand me being so, well, quiet - '
'And weird,' Jimmy interrupted.
'-And so we get along.'
'But wouldn't you like more friends?'
Harry sighed. 'Well, see, it's like I have friends. Up in my head.'
'Imaginary friends!' Jimmy scoffed, but not unkindly.
'No, they're more than that,' Harry answered. 'Arid they're good friends, too. Of course they are ... I'm the only friend they've got!'
'Huh!' Jimmy snorted. 'Oh, you're weird, all right!'
Way up at the head of the column, 'Sergeant' Graham Lane came out of the woods into bright sunlight, pausing to hasten on the double rank of kids behind him. This was the narrow mouth of the dene, also the mouth of the stream which had cut its gulley through the sea cliffs. To north and south those cliffs now rose, mainly of sandstone but layered with belts of shale and shingle, and banded with rounded stones; and here the stream passed under an old, rickety wooden bridge. Beyond lay a reedy, weedy marsh or lake of brackish water, only ever replenished by high tides or storms. A path skirted the boggy area towards the sandy beach; and beyond that, there lay the grey North Sea, growing greyer every day with debris from the pits. But today it was blue in the bright sunlight, flecked white here and there by the spray of diving gulls where they fished.
'Right!' Lane called loudly, standing arms akimbo and very much The Man, in his track-suit bottoms and T-shirt on the nearside of the bridge. 'Off you go, over the bridge, round the lake and on to the beach. Find your stones and bring 'em back to me - er, no, to Miss Gower - for grading. We've a good half hour, so anyone who fancies can have a quick dip as soon as he's found his stone - if you've got your costumes with you. But no nude bathing if you please, remember there are other people on the beach. And stick to the pools left by the sea. You all know what the current's like just here, you young buggers!'
They knew, all right: the current was treacherous, especially on an ebb tide. People were drowned up and down this coast every year, strong swimmers too.
Miss Gower - Religious Instruction and Geography - from her position roughly half-way back along the column, had heard Lane's gravel-voiced, parade-ground instructions. She gave a little grimace. Oh, she understood well enough why she was to grade the stones: it was to allow Lane and Dorothy Hartley a bit of freedom, so they could have a little 'ramble' along the rocks and find themselves a spot for a quick hump! Purely physical, of course, for their minds were totally incompatible.
Miss Gower tilted her nose and sniffed loudly; and now, as the pace of the kids towards the front began to speed up, she called out: 'All right, boys - hurry along. And remember this week's wild-life quest. We need some good razor-shells for the natural history room. Whole ones, still hinged together if you can find them. But please - empty ones! Let's not carry any rotting molluscs back, shall we?'
Farther back, along the path under the trees, where the rear was brought up by Miss Hartley and the monitors of her English and History classes, Stanley Green trudged, hands in pockets, his clever but vicious mind dark with thoughts of violence. He had heard Miss Gower's memo to the kids: no dead shellfish. No, but he'd like to fix it for a dead 'Speccy' Keogh! Well, maybe not dead, but severely mauled. It was that dumb kid's fault he had those maths problems to work out tonight. Dumb shit, sitting there like a zombie, fast asleep with his eyes wide open! Well, Big Stanley would open his eyes for him, sure enough - or close them!
'Hands out of your pockets, Stanley,' pretty Miss Hartley said from behind him. 'It's five months yet to Christmas, not quite cold enough for snow. And why the hunched shoulders? Is something bothering you?'
'No, Miss,' he mumbled in answer, his head down.
'Try to enjoy, Stanley,' she told him, a little archly. 'You're still very young, but if you keep on taking your spite out on the entire world you'll get old very, very quickly.' And to herself she added, like that frustrated bitch, Gertrude Gower...!
Harry Keogh was not a natural born voyeur, just a curious boy. Last Tuesday down here on the beach he'd stumbled on something, and he hoped to do so again today. That was why, after he delivered up his stone to Miss Gower, he checked that no one was watching him and cut away across the dunes and round towards the other side of the reedy marsh. It was only a little more than a hundred yards, but in half that distance he'd already picked up fresh footprints in the sand. A man's and a woman's; and of course he'd seen 'Sergeant' and Miss Hartley heading this way, as he'd suspected they might.
Earlier, Harry had conveniently 'forgotten' his bathing briefs; this had left him free to pursue his own interests, for Jimmy had subsequently gone off to swim with the rest of the boys. What Harry was looking for was simple: he wanted pointers. Sitting next to Brenda in the cinema and pressing his knee against hers (or, when she leaned close to him, squeezing her upper arm so that his knuckles touched her small breasts through her coat and jumper) was all very well and even sort of exciting, but it seemed pretty tame when compared with the games teachers Lane and Hartley got up to!
Finally, coming over a dune and crouching down he located them sitting on a patch of sand within a semicircle of tall reeds - the same spot where he'd seen them last week. Harry backtracked and quickly chose a place at the crest of another dune where he could lie down and peer through a clump of crabgrass. Last week she (Miss Hartley) had been playing with 'Sergeant's' thing, whose size Harry had found extraordinary. Her sweater had been up and 'Sergeant' had had one hand up her skirt while the other fondled and tugged at her firm, large- nippled breasts. When he'd come, she had taken a handkerchief and delicately soaked up the glistening semen from his belly and chest. Then she'd kissed him on the tip of his thing - actually kissed him there - and start to put her clothes right while he just lay there like a dead man. Harry had tried hard to imagine Brenda Cowell doing that to him, but the picture just wouldn't develop in his mind. It was too alien.
This time it was very different. This time it was going to be what Harry really wanted to see. By the time he got himself settled down on his stomach, 'Sergeant' had his track-suit bottoms right off and Miss Hartley's short white, pleated tennis skirt up around her waist. He was trying to get her knickers off, and his thing - even bigger than last week, if that was at all possible - was jerking about on its own like a puppet on some unseen string.
From beyond the dunes, far off down the beach, Harry could hear the kids shouting and laughing where they swam and splashed in one of the big tidal pools; the sun burned the back of his neck and ears where he lay perfectly still, his chin in the palms of his hands; sand fleas jumped only inches from his face. But he allowed nothing to distract him; his eyes remained riveted to the sexual activity of the lovers in their reed bower.
At first she seemed to be fighting 'Sergeant', trying to push his hands away. But at the same time she unbuttoned her blouse so that her breasts jutted up naked in the sunlight, their pointed tips unbelievably brown. Harry sensed a sort of panic in her, reflected in his own suddenly pounding blood. It was as if she were hypnotised, with 'Sergeant's' penis a snake where it swayed over her belly - mesmerised into lifted her bottom so that her lover could remove her panties, and into bending her knees and parting her legs. In there, she was dark as night - as if she wore a smaller pair of black knickers under her white ones. Black, yes, and then pink where she put her hands under her thighs to open herself for 'Sergeant'.
Harry caught a glimpse of her, pink, white, curving, dark, brown, but that was all. Climbing between her legs, his incredible penis disappearing into her in a moment, 'Sergeant' allowed no more. All that was left were feet and legs and the gym teacher's tight buttocks starting to lunge, shutting off the view. The watching boy gasped, felt himself grown hard inside his pants, rolled on his side to relieve the throbbing of his genitals - and spotted Stanley Green coming over the dunes, scowling, his little pig eyes full of venom!
On the trail of the lovers, Harry had found a perfect razor-shell, both valves intact and hinged together. Now he studiously scraped away sand, 'found' the shell, slid down the dune holding it carefully in one hand. Aware that his complexion must be bright red, he turned his face away from Green, pretending not to see him until the youth was almost on top of him. After that there was no avoiding it. No avoiding a showdown, either. 'Hello there, Speccy,' the bully growled, approaching in a half-crouch, his arms spread wide, defying Harry to run. 'Fancy finding you here, 'stead of pissing about with your mate the big football star. What're we doin' here then, Speccy? Found a pretty shell for Miss Gower, have we?'
'What's it to you?' Harry muttered, trying to sidestep the other, get round him and away.
Green moved closer, snatched the double shell out of Harry's hand. It was a shiny olive colour, old, brittle as a wafer. As he deliberately closed his fist on it, so it crumbled into fragments. 'There,' he said, his voice full of an unpleasant satisfaction. 'You goin' to tell on me, Speccy?'
'No,' Harry breathlessly answered, still trying to dodge past, seeing in his mind's eye 'Sergeant's' backside going up and down, up and down, in the reed hollow not fifteen yards away on the other side of the dune. 'I don't tell on people. And I don't bully, either.'
'Bully? You?' Green found it funny. 'You couldn't bully a fart out of a frog! All you're good for's falling asleep in class and acting like a big tart! That and getting people in trouble.'
'You got yourself in trouble!' Harry protested. 'Gig­ gling like that.'
'Giggling?' Big Stanley caught his arm, pulled him close. 'Giggling? Girls giggle, Speccy. You callin' me a girl, then?'
Harry shook himself loose, put his fists up. Trembling in every limb, he said, 'Piss off!'
Green's mouth fell open. 'Rude, is it?' he said. Then he shrugged, half-turned, as if to go, and when Harry dropped his guard turned back and caught him a punch at the side of his mouth.
'Ow!' said Harry, spitting blood from a split lip. Off balance, he stumbled and fell; and Green was just ready­ ing a kick when 'Sergeant' Lane, tucking in his T-shirt, came storming over the top of the dune scarlet with rage and frustration.
'What the bloody hell - ?' he roared. He caught the flabbergasted Green by the scruff of his neck, swung him round, aimed his instep accurately at the seat of the bully's pants and let .fly. Green yelped as he flew face­down in the sand.
'Up to your usual tricks, are you, Big Stanley?' 'Serge­ ant' shouted. 'And who's your victim this time? What? Skinny Harry Keogh? By God, you'll be strangling babies next!'
As Green scrambled to his feet, spitting sand, the PT master pushed him in the chest, sent him flying again. 'See, it's not so pleasant, Stanley, when you're up against someone who's bigger. And that's how Harry feels about it. Right, Keogh?'
Still holding his mouth, Harry said: 'I can look after myself.'
Big Stanley, for all that he was a year older than Harry and looked older still, was on the point of blubbering. 'I'll tell my dad,' he said, scrambling away.
'What?' 'Sergeant' laughed, hands on his hips as the bully backed off. Tell your dad? That fat beer-gut who arm-wrestles for pints with his mates in the Black Bull? Well when you do, ask him who beat him last night and nearly broke his arm!' But Stanley was off and running.
'You all right, Keogh?' Lane helped him to his feet.
'Yes, sir. Mouth's bleeding a bit, that's all.'
'Son, you stay away from that one,' said the master. 'He's a bad lot and he's much too big for you. When I called you skinny, I didn't mean it; it was just to point up the difference in your sizes. Big Stanley's not likely to forget this in a hurry, so look out for him.'
'Yes, sir,' Harry said again.
'Right, then. Off you go.' Lane made as if to return across the dune, but just then Miss Hartley appeared, looking all prim and proper. 'Shit!' Harry heard 'Sergeant' say under his breath. He wanted to grin but was afraid it would split his lip even more. So turning his face away he made for where the rest of the boys were gathering around Miss Gower, ready for the return trek.
It was the second week in August, a Tuesday evening, and it was hot. It was funny, George Hannant thought as he mopped his brow with a handkerchief, just how hot it could get on an evening like this. You'd think it would cool down, but instead the heat seemed to close in on you. During the day there had been a breeze, not much of a breeze but a breeze; now there was none, it was still as a painting out there. All the heat of the day, soaked into the earth, was coming out now, coming at you from all sides. Hannant mopped again at his brow, his neck, sipped an iced lemonade, knew that that, too, would soon start to run out of him. It was that kind of weather.
He lived alone not far from the school, but on that side of it away from the mine. The other side would have been too depressing, too oppressive. Tonight he had papers and books to mark up, lessons to plan. He didn't feel like doing either one of these things, or anything else for that matter. He could use a drink but... the pubs would be full of miners in their caps and shirt-sleeves, their voices coarse and guttural. There was a decent film on at the Ritz, but the sound system was deafening at the front and the courting couples in the back rows invariably annoyed him, their sweaty fumblings distracting his atten­tion from the screen. And anyway, he had that marking to do.
Hannant's home, a semi-detached bungalow on a tiny private estate overlooking the dene and its valley where they narrowed towards the sea, was cut off from the school by the broad swath of a cemetery with its old church, well-kept plots, high perimeter walls. He usually walked through the place to school each morning, back again in the evening. There were benches circling huge, gorgeously-clad horse chestnut trees, their leaves already turning in places. He could always take his books and papers there.
Actually, it wasn't a bad idea. The occasional old-timer, a pensioned-off survivor of the colliery, would get in there to sit with his dog and stick, chewing baccy or drawing on an old pipe - and spitting, of course. Rotten lungs were a legacy of the pit; rotten lungs and spines like eggshells. But apart from the old lads it was usually quiet in there, away from the village's centre, the pubs and cinema, the main road. Oh, when the conkers began to fall there'd be kids to contend with, of course; what's a conker without its child on the end of a length of cord? That was a nice thought and Hannant smiled at it. Someone had once said that from a dog's point of view, a human was a thing to throw sticks. So why shouldn't a horse chestnut have a point of view? Which might well be that boys were for whirling them on strings - and for splitting them wide open. One thing seemed certain, boys weren't for learning maths!
Hannant showered, towelled himself slowly, methodi­ cally dry (hurrying would only produce more sweat), put on baggy grey flannels and an open-neck shirt, took up his briefcase and left his home. He walked out of the estate, into the graveyard and along the broad gravel path which bisected it. Squirrels played in the high branches of the brandy-glass-shaped trees, shaking loose the occasional leaf. The sun's rays came slanting down from across the low hills to the west, where that great brazen ball seemed permanently suspended, as if it never would relinquish the day to night. The day had been beautiful; the evening, despite the heat, was incredibly beautiful; and both of them (Hannant weighed the heavy briefcase in his hand) would have been quite wasted. Or if not wasted, spent fruitlessly - if there was a difference. He snorted mirthlessly, picturing young Johnnie Miller in a couple of years' time, 'down the pits', hewing coal, relieving his boredom and passing his shift by calculating surface areas of circles. What the hell was the point of it?
And as for kids like Harry Keogh - poor little sod -why, he had neither muscles for the mine nor much of a mind for anything else. Well, perhaps a mind, but if so a mind like an iceberg, only its tip showing. As for how much of it lay under the surface - who could say? Hannant only wished he could find a way to capsize the little bugger, while there was still time ... He had this feeling about Keogh: that whatever he was going to do or going to be should begin to show in him now. Like watching a strange seed throw up a shoot, and waiting to see what the flower would be.
But talk of the devil... wasn't that Keogh there now, sitting on an old slab in the shade of a tree, his back to the mossy headstone? Yes, it was Keogh; the sun, glinting off his specs where it struck through the hanging foliage, had given him away. He sat there, a book open in his lap, sucking on the chewed stem of a pencil, his head back, lost in thought. And Jimmy Collins nowhere in sight; he'd be at football practice with the rest of the team, up in the recreation ground. But Keogh - he wasn't a member of any sort of team.
Suddenly Hannant felt sorry for him. Sorry, or ... guilty? Hell, no! Keogh had got away with it for far too long. One of these days he'd go off like that - out of himself - and never make it back again! And yet Hannant sighed, let his feet wend him around the plots and between the rows of headstones, along ill-defined paths to where the boy sat. And as he got closer he could see that Harry was once again lost in his own thoughts, daydreaming away in the cool shade of the tree. For some probably irrational reason this made Hannant feel angry - until he saw that the book in Keogh's lap was his maths homework book, which made it seem that he was at least attempting to work out his punishment.
'Keogh? How's it going?' Hannant said, seating himself on the same slab. This corner of the cemetery wasn't unknown to the maths teacher; he'd walked here and sat here himself on many, many occasions. In fact it wasn't that he was the intruder, rather that Keogh was the odd-man-out here. But he doubted if the boy knew or would even understand that.
Harry took the pencil out of his mouth, looked at Hannant, unexpectedly smiled. 'Hello, sir ... Er, sorry?' Er, sorry! Hannant had been right, the kid just hadn't been there. King of the daydreamers. The Secret Life of Harry Keogh! 'I asked you,' Hannant tried not to growl, 'how it was going?' 'Oh, it's all right, sir.'
'Drop the "sir", Harry. Save that for the classroom. Out here it makes conversation difficult. What about the problems I gave you? They're what I meant by how's it
'The homework questions? I've done them.'
'What, here?' Hannant was surprised; and yet thinking about it, it seemed entirely fitting.
'It's quiet here,' Harry answered.
'Would you like to show me?'
Harry shrugged. 'If you like.' He passed over the work­ book.
Hannant checked it, was doubly surprised. The work was very neat, almost immaculate. There were two answers, both correct if his memory served him right. Of course the working would be equally important, but he didn't check that just yet.' Where's the third question?'
Harry frowned. 'Is that the one with the grease-gun, where - ?' he began.
But Hannant impatiently cut him off: 'Let's not piss about, Harry Keogh. There are only three questions .out of the ten which could possibly qualify. The rest concern themselves with boxes, not circles, not cylinders. Or am I being unjust? The book's a new one to me, too. Give it here.'
Harry lowered his head a little, bit his lip, passed the book over. Hannant flipped pages. 'The grease-gun,' he said. 'Yes, this one,' and he stabbed at the page with a forefinger. It showed this diagram:
the measurements were internal; barrel and nozzle were cylindrical, full of grease; squeezed dry, how long would th e line of grease be?
' Harry looked at it. 'Didn't think it qualified,' he said. " Hannant felt angry. Two out of three wasn't good Enough. Three wrong answers would almost be better than this crap. 'Why don't you just say it was too difficult?' he tried not to bark. 'I've had all I can take of bluff for one day. Why not simply admit you can't do it?' ; Suddenly the boy looked sick. His face shone with sweat and his eyes seemed a little glazed through the lenses of his spectacles. 'I can do it,' he slowly answered; then, more quickly, with acid precision: 'An idiot could do it! I didn't think it qualified, that's all.'
Hannant believed his ears must be deceiving him, that he'd misunderstood the boy's answer. 'What about the formula?' he rasped.
'Not required,' said the other.
'Shit, Harry! It's pi times the radius squared times length equals contents. That's all you need to know. Look -' and he quickly scribbled in the workbook:
Contents of Barrel:
3.14159 x .75 x .75 x 4.5
3.14159 x .25 x .25
Contents of Nozzle: 3.14159 x .25 x .25 x 1.5
3.14159 x .25 x .25
He gave Harry the pencil back, said: 'There. After that most of it just cancels itself out. The divisor is of course the surface area of a cross-section of the line of grease.'
'A waste of time,' said Harry in such a way that Hannant knew it wasn't just rank insubordination, indeed in a voice which hardly seemed like Harry Keogh's voice at all. There was authority in it. For a moment... Hannant almost felt intimidated! What was going on behind the kid's glasses, inside his skull? What was the meaning in his not-altogether-there eyes?
'Explain yourself,' Hannant demanded. 'And make it good!'
Harry glanced at the diagram, not at the teacher's suggested solution. 'The answer is three and a half feet,' he said. And again there was the same authority in his voice.
As Hannant had said, the text-book was new to him; he hadn't properly worked through it himself yet. But just looking at Keogh he'd be willing to bet the kid was right. Which could only mean -
'You went back to the classroom with Collins after the beach,' he accused. Td told him to lock up, but before he did you opened my desk, looked up the answers in the answer book there. I wouldn't have believed it of you, Keogh, but -'
'You're wrong,' Harry cut him short in that same flat, emotionless, precise voice. Now he stabbed at the diagram with his finger. 'Look at it for yourself. The first two questions required formulas, yes, but not this one. Given a diameter to four decimals, what's the surface area? That requires a formula. Given a surface area to four decimals, what's the radius? That requires almost the same formula in reverse. But this? Listen:
The barrel's diameter is three times greater than the nozzle's. The circle's area is therefore nine times greater. The barrel's length is three times greater. Three times nine is twenty-seven. The barrel contains twenty-seven times as much grease as the nozzle. Barrel and nozzle together therefore contain twenty-eight nozzles' worth. The nozzle is one and a half inches long. Twenty-eight times one and a half equals forty-two. And forty-two inches equals three and a half feet, sir...'
Hannant stared at the boy's expressionless, almost vacant face. He stared at the diagram in the book. His mind whirled and it seemed that a cold wind blew on his spine, causing him to shiver. What the hell - ? For Christ's sake, he was the maths teacher, wasn't he? But there was no fighting Keogh's logic. The question hadn't needed formulae, hadn't needed maths at all! It was mental arithmetic - to someone who understood circles. To someone who could see past the trees to the wood. And of course his answer was, must be, right! If Hannant threw his formulae away, he would have been able to do it too - with a little thought. But Keogh's application had been instantaneous. His scorn had been real!
And now Hannant knew that if he didn't play this right, he'd probably lose this boy right here and now. He also knew that if that happened, he wasn't the only one who would lose. There was a mind in there, and it had... hell, potential! Whatever Hannant's confusion, h e forced a grin, said: 'Very good! Except I wasn't just checking out your IQ, Harry Keogh. It was to see whether or not you knew your formulae. But now you've really puzzled me. Seeing as how you're so smart, how come your classwork has always been so lousy?'
Harry stood up. His movements were stiff, automatic almost. 'Can I go now, sir?'
Hannant stood up too, shrugged and stepped aside. 'Your free time's your own,' he said. 'But when you get five minutes, you might still bone up on your formulae.'
Harry walked off, his back straight, movements stiff. A few paces away he turned and looked back. A beam of sunlight striking through the trees caught his glasses, turning his eyes to stars. 'Formulae?' he said in that new, strange voice. 'I could give you formulae you haven't even dreamed of.'
And as the cold chill struck at his spine once more, Hannant somehow knew for a certainty that Keogh wasn't just bragging.
Then... the maths master wanted to shout at the boy, run at him, even strike him. But his feet seemed rooted to the spot. All of the energy had gone out of him. He'd lost this round - completely. Trembling, he sat down again on the slab, leaning back weakly against the headstone as Harry Keogh walked away. He leaned there for a moment - then jerked forward, started upright, threw himself away from the grave. He tripped and sprawled on the close-cropped grass. Keogh was disap­pearing, lost among the markers.
The evening was warm - no, it was damned hot, even now - but George Hannant felt cold as death. It was in the air, in his heart, freezing him. Here, in this place, of all places. And it came to him now just exactly where and when he had heard someone speak like Harry Keogh before, with his authority, his precision and logic. Thirty long years ago, almost, when Hannant had been little more than a lad himself. And the man had been more than his peer. He had been his hero, almost his god.
Still trembling he got to his feet, picked up Keogh's books and put them in his briefcase, then backed carefully away from the grave.
Cut into the headstone, lichened over in parts, the legend was simple and George knew it by heart:
JAMES GORDON HANNANT
13 June 1875 - 11 Sept. 1944
Master at Harden Boys' School
for Thirty Years, Headmaster
for Ten, now he Numbers
among the Hosts
The epitaph had been the Old Man's idea of a joke. His principal subject, like that of his son after him, had been maths. But he had been far better at it than George would ever be.
P/S: Copyright -->www_novelfreereadonline_Com