The street where Donald Morrison lived with is mother is called Robber’s Vennel. It hides in the old part of the city. It is halfway down the street from the castle. There is a hole here. To be honest it’s more of gap, a gap that cannot be seen from above. Above it is a bridge named after one of the Georges. Its low walls and steep surrounding buildings play a cruel trick. Before electric lights made the place safer, escaping pickpockets and thieves would often jump over the wall at either ends of the bridge, thinking they had escaped, only to spatter to their deaths one hundred feet below. Nowadays, trams go down to the hole and most of them come out. It has become a magnet for tourists and nightclubs but it is still dark down there: shadowed, gothic and Dickensian. In the cold misty evenings you suddenly feel alert and find you’re not as entirely as convinced as you were a moment ago, that ghosts and night-time things do not exist.
At the end of Robber’s Vennel Donald Morrison is waking up. He is thirteen years old. The first thing he did was to check the curtains for the man, the man who was there last night. Donald was sure he’s seen something. It was a man with a hooked nose and a hooked chin, and he stood in the corner of his room, hiding behind the thick yellow curtains. Donald remembered seeing the man’s chest move up and down as he breathed. Actually, maybe he was being stupid? But he thought it’s best to check.
Last night Donald had sat on the window ledge and stared into the night. He thought the night was a good place for things to happen and if often did. Last week some people vanished from the cinema. No one talks about the cinema now, not even at school.
The tram in this town is long and grey, with an aqua blue line shaped like a lightning bolt splayed across its side. Its most cheerful feature is a happy sounding bell. “Ding-Ding,” said a little boy at Donald’s ear, “Ding-ding!” Donald wanted no interruptions. Justine Frazer’s house was coming up and he needed to prepare himself. “Ding-Ding!” And there she was. Donald stared at her pale, freckled face. Every day he hated her freckles. Not because of what they were but because of where they were. They were carried around on her wonderful face all day. They looked so perfectly placed Donald wondered if they were put there on purpose. There is no doubt, however, about her eyes, shy and as green as cabbage. Donald was scared of how much he loved her. She turned down the passageway to school. He watched her black, black hair swing slowly away from him.
Ross Stark was by the school gates, waiting for his twin. When Garrick arrives they throw insults at whoever they can. As Donald passed Garrick appeared behind him. The brothers muttered to each other that Donald was a ‘gay poof.’ He used to tell them that he wasn’t a gay poof but they had worn him down over the weeks, and now he lets them get on with it. Garrick Stark had long boney fingers and he used them to wrap into a circle and make the sign of the wanker. Like lions the Starks moved quickly and coordinated well. They distracted with abuse and confounded and frightened by their talent for finishing the other’s sentences. They always stood at the school gates so they could practice their spitting. That day they took turns to spit on Donald’s back.
“Poof,” said Ross.
“Gay,” said Garrick.
Inside and Mr Tinsel was waiting with a clipboard and paper. Mr Tinsel was a balding, ginger geography teacher. He looked like a divorce and enjoyed exasperation. “Morrison?” said Mr Tinsel, “It’s quarter to nine and you are going to be late for RE.”
“Yes,” said Donald, but I don’t have RE.”
Mr Tinsel looked at the paper in his hand and mumbled the word ‘shit’ and noticed the spit on Donald’s back. He waited for a moment and looked at the door.
“Ross and Garrick are outside,” said Donald.
“I don’t care if it’s John Wayne,” said Mr Tinsel. Donald did not know what this meant and was too bored to ever ask.
“Go on. You’re late, Morrison. Go to RE.”
In fact Donald was early and didn’t have RE; Tuesdays were double maths but he hated to question a teacher’s authority. Authority was all Mr Tinsel had left. He enjoyed calling pupils by their surnames because he imagined that’s what they did in the army or at a proper school, the kind he attended. He had indeed forgotten Donald’s first name but that didn’t matter to Adrian Tinsel. First names are for staff rooms and adults. When that little shit Morrison fears redundancy and cancer then he can have a first name, but not before. Banging and swinging doors announced the arrival of the Stark brothers.
“Falling downstairs backwards is one way to die, yes. Think about it. You’re on the top step, you’re pushed by someone and you fall down a step, but you’re wearing socks and the stairs are polished wood so you fall quickly to the next step and then the next one. You struggle to grab the banister but there’s nothing you can do, your face hits every step! You want to cry out in pain but with each open mouth an angry step bangs it shut, biting into your tongue until the twenty-second step and by then you’ve bitten your tongue in half. You start to lose consciousness. And as you fade away to the light you think about the girls you never kissed and how sore your tongue is,” said Red Wallace. Red would appear each day by the bike sheds and deliver his Service on the Mount.
All the boys thought the same thing: “Wow!” Red Wallace was always talking about falling down stairs or hurting your mouth. Ever since he yawned while falling on a pencil he had been obsessed with mouth injuries. The day before a school trip to France, Red had been practicing his quarter-staff twirling with the top part of a picture frame. He looked up to catch it and it fell in his mouth, ripping the skin off the roof so he could feel it flapping on his teeth. The next day he wore a navy blue handkerchief over his face. He thought he looked like a ninja. When he could speak again he said the ninja always have their face covered, not only to help them to hide, but to stop the swallowing things they shouldn’t, such as weapons.
Red Wallace could have beaten any boy to a pulp but he needed his audience breathing. He came to the school in primary five when he moved up from the south. He was the biggest thirteen year old the boys had ever seen. He had hands as big as mugs and a wide, round face like a plate. Red Wallace was six feet tall and Donald knew Red Wallace used his size to tell lies: “Dad’s in prison for stabbing,” “I once tried heroin but I didn’t like it,” and “Justine Frazer will touch your balls for a quid,” If Red said it, it was true. The boys believed Red because they idolized him, but Donald knew deep down it wasn’t true. He had heard this story twice before. The first time Donald had burst into tears and claimed a wasp, a queen wasp mind, a big one, had stung him on his eye. The second time he heard this filth he went home and wrote Justine a letter which, of course, he never sent:
Dear Justine Frazer,
Hello, I hope you are well. You don’t know who I am but I know who you are. I go to school with you and you are in most of the same classes as me apart from technical drawing on Wednesday when I think you have Art, anyway, you will never know who I am, think of me as a friend. Red Wallace says you touch boy’s balls for a pound. I don’t believe this and neither does most of the year. Some of the boys in PE say you’ve touched their balls for fifty pence and some have said that you did it for nothing. But everyone I’ve told says it’s probably not true but I thought you should know that Red Wallace is the one who started the rumours. Let me assure you Justine that most of the school and none of the teachers think you’ve ever touched any balls for free or for a pound. You must know that Red Wallace is a liar but he is very big and we are one and we’re all scared of him. Good luck with your mock exams,
And there she was. Justine glided passed him. With her were Nicola Kind, Other Nicola and Emma. Justine was out in front, leading them to some place wonderful. They echoed her every move and their hair bounced in time with Justine.
The boys forgot what Red was saying. Something about balls? Something being kicked? Falling? Balls? It’s double maths.
Behind the girls and walking at normal speed were Donald’s greatest hates: Leslie Anne Mapps, the maths teacher. She lived in an equation of homework and passive aggression. Her greatest regrets in life are the murders she will never commit and the pupils that will forget her. Leslie Anne Mapps: Maths teachers/homicidal witch. “Go to the assembly hall at once, boys,” she said.
“Chemistry is cancelled,” Said Mr Munro, the school’s headmaster “Due to unforeseen circumstances at the chemistry huts, 2 C will attend Ms Mapps maths class. Mr Hams will bring in more chairs.” A small collection of boys puts up their hand.
“Yes, First Year?” said Mr Munro.
“What’s happened please?”
“With the chemistry huts?”
“You’ll have to speak better than that. What are you asking, child?”
“What’s happened to the chemistry huts?”
“We don’t having any teachers….Why don’t you listen when I speak, boy? Is there a reason you never listen? Do you listen to your parents?”
As Headmaster Munro was saying this it flashed across his mind that he may be talking to one of the school’s seven orphans.
“Sir? What happened?”
“Unforeseen circumstances. Unforeseen events. Do you know what unforeseen means?”
“Yes, but I don….”
“So, you join the Maths classes.”
Every boy and girl raised their hand.
“We shall now sing hymns for our lord.” He stood straight and proud with his prayer-book in his hand before bellowing the Lord is My Shepherd.
Standing at the back of the assembly hall as the children sung their hymns was the janitor, Mr Hams or ‘Hammy.’ He was waiting for the chairs. He enjoyed stacking them up, one on top of the other until they looked like they might fall. He knew this impressed the first years. The hymn finished and everyone was told to have a good day. Hammy stacked his chairs with a rhythmic thump.
Ross and Garrick were standing by the locked chemistry huts. They saw Mr Gloves coat and bag by the desk but no Mr Gloves. The chairs were on the tables for the cleaner. There had clearly been no classes since yesterday.
“Did you see it happening?” asked Ross
“No,” said Garrick.”
“You should be in class,” said Mr Tinsel. He hated telling the pupils to do anything. Only the first years do what they’re told. Mr Tinsel was called Mr Chuckles by his fellow teachers because of his naturally depressed looking features. The first time he found this out he was genuinely hurt. The name had slopped down his big sad face like a sticky octopus.
“We were just going,” said Ross.
Ross wanted Garrick to say something to Mr Tinsel, something devastating. But Garrick was looking across the playground and was very impressed by the amount of chairs Hammy can place on top of each other.
“Mr Gloves, eh?”
“Aye, Mr Gloves. Completely vanished.
“Go.” said Mr Tinsel.
Without looking at them Leslie Mapps moved Mr Gloves case and coat under the table. She sighed deeply and played her game to herself.as the pupils pushed inside. Her game was called “Who’d be missed the most?” Not one of the children wanted to be there but the excitement at the day’s events has made double maths all part of a great adventure. The little sods almost looked happy. Which one could die? Ms Mapps didn’t really want end a life between her tight, white hands. No, this child would die from neglect. She would keep her in her tent in the back garden. One day Ms Mapps would disappear like the others had and this child will starve to death. Ms Mapps saw herself as a heroine, saving children from a cold cruel world.
“Where do we stand?” said Garrick Stark.
“There’s no seats,” said Ross Stark.
Ms Mapps hated these boys as much as anyone, but today she noticed furious acne on their cheeks. They’ll have to take that home with them. This brought some comfort but not enough.
“The janitor is bringing more seats. You’ll just have to stand.” She said this looking out of the window to see if Hammy was coming. A girl sneezed and everyone laughed because it sounded like a cartoon mouse.
“A gay mouse,” said Ross.
“Poof mouse.” said Garrick.
“How can a girl be a poof? Eh?” said Other Nicola. “Girls can’t be poofs – only boys can.”
“You’d know,” says Garrick.
“What does that mean?” said Justine.
There was an awkward silence. Other Nicola forced a laugh to break it.
It didn’t work. All this while Donald had been trying to slip into the room and hoped he would not be asked anything by anybody. Hammy was behind him so everyone turned around and saw Donald who was still standing near the door. The Starks looked at each other.
“I’ve brought the chairs,” said Hammy.
That evening Donald was at home alone and thinking about how best to annoy his mother. It had to be the right amount of annoyance. He didn’t want a bollocking but he didn’t want to be ignored. He had already moved the electric fire two inches to the left and he had put the coffee in the plate cupboard. He sat on the couch bored. He went to the bay window and looked down on the black, wet pavement. He tried to make an animal shape from globs of his chewing gum. He made half a rhino and gave up.
He hadn’t given Justine the letter, of course he hadn’t. At least the Stark brothers will never see it. The Starks would have had him on the rack. They’d read it out loud in a pretty lady voice as they spat at him and cut his body’s strings. He had to burn it. It was the only way. If he buried it, it could be found. If he cut it into pieces and flushed it away then it could clog up the toilet. A man would come to fix the u-bend and tell his mother that it looked like a love letter blockage. It wasn’t a love letter anyway. It was a message of support, of solidarity, and of…damn them all to hell if it was a love letter. And ‘Anonymous’ meant nothing. He may as well have written, “Please kiss me Justine Frazer, I’m Donald Morrison, the gay poof.” No. He should burn it.
Donald’s mother was back from work. Maggie Morrison was always tired. Her eyes look punched and her face was the colour of a laundry’s floor.
Maggie Morrison only wanted a son that makes her a cup of tea and doesn’t move the electric fire. She put her shopping bags down on the kitchen table, put her keys in the bowl by the phone and went through to the living room. Donald was squeezing the letter in his hand hoping to make it disappear by will. When Donald saw her he rammed the letter into his back pocket.
“What are you doing?”
“Nothing,” said Donald , Would you like a tea?”
Donald walked passed his mother. She stopped him.
“Why has the fire been moved?”
Donald didn’t answer. He looked at his mother as if she is insane. He had been practicing this look in the bathroom for some time. He instantly relaxed his face, which in itself looked like he was having a tiny stroke.
“Why has…” started Maggie but couldn’t be bothered to finish.
“Tch,” said Donald and made a cup of tea as loudly as possible. When the kettle was boiled he turned it off at the wall
“Tea,” he said.
“Thanks, son” said Maggie. The fire had been turned on and orange light spread across the living room; aluminium blades span softly over little red bulbs to give the impression of flickering flames. A midge’s body hissed on the bars.
“How was school?” she asked.
“Red’s a liar” mumbled Donald .
“We had to move classes”
“I hate the Stark brothers”
“Gloves has vanished”
“Mr Gloves. Chemistry, I think”
“Probably. Don’t know, think so”
“Yeah, it would have been chemistry but we can’t find Mr Gloves”
Mr Gloves is the head of science. It’s thought that’s he was a homosexual because of his moustache and soft hands. Two years ago he threw a chair at a boy and every pupil hoped to make him throw one again. This is the only reason he would be missed.
“Oh.” continued Maggie. She can’t picture Mr Gloves but wonders where he was. She winced because Donald forgot to stir the tea.
“That’s a shame.” she says.
“Hmm,” says Donald.
Donald had dreamed about sports balls and woke with a jump. He pulled himself up and turned the radio on. There are men talking in mature, calm, intelligent voices that he could listen to all day. He could talk to them on any subject; the apocalypse or his dad. Donald said some of their words aloud to himself and enjoyed how they didn’t sound local. “Photograph” he said. “Pianist” Good words, informative words, teacher’s words. “Agricultural.” Then the men started to sound dull. The announcer chats cheerily to the two men about some show and what they did at the weekend, they shared a joke about garden centres, “Haha.” Then the announcer sounds suddenly serious. “The news has been cancelled due to illness.” Donald sat on his bed and stared at the radio. It’s time to go to school.
In his walk to the tram stop he noticed that street every flat was in shadow, apart from number 12. It shone out like a palace of brown sandstone; its door were a proud and deep green. It looked strong and safe. Next to the door was a panel of brass doorbells. Donald was sure they didn’t work because he had only just grown out of pressing them all and running away but no one ever came out. Then the front door opened. Donald watched as a short man with sensible tie and a blue borrowed looking kagool, pulled the door open and stepped outside onto the pavement. As he stood there on the curb he let the door close slowly behind him.He was a confident looking man, despite the kagool. He has a long hooked nose and a long hooked chin.
“Hey!” Donald waved. “Hey! Excuse me! Were you at my mum’s? Do you know me?”
The kagooled man changes his mind and goes back in. Donald ran across the road but the door had closed before he got there. He put his ear to the door and heard a door slam and echo through the stairwell. Donald kicked the green door. He had never seen such a closed door before. Donald felt a chill and panicked. He rang every bell in frustration. He stood still for a moment then ran away.
In school Ross and Garrick Stark were throwing a jotter to each other. A smaller boy looked on, bored with the Stark’s routine. Ross and Garrick look bored too. They threw it to the ground as they see Donald.
“Look at the way he walks,” laughed Garrick.
“He walks like a spastic,” said Ross.
“How?” Asks Garrick.
“Like a poofy spastic,” said Ross
“Aye. Like a gay spastic.”
they said together.The twins sucked snot and flem into their throats, pulled their heads back and spat as one. They miss Donald and it pours down the school a wall. Garrick was the most put out by this failure; he had gone to the effort of putting green in his flem. Mr Tinsel stood inside the doors, like he does every day and pretended he saw nothing.
“Ross and Garrick are outside, Mr Tinsel.” said Donald.
“What class do you have today?” asked Mr Tinsel. He didn’t look at Donald but he did look at the shapes the Starks were making in the bubbled glass doors. He dreamed of one day setting a dog on the boys. He thought the slightly shorter Stark looked like a biter and the taller one looked like a lanky prick.
“Chemistry,” said Donald.
“You know about Mr Gloves?”
“And the huts?”
“Well…,” said Mr Tinsel, “Well,” he said.
Mr Tinsel thought about big dogs, enormous dogs that obeyed him and only him. They have rows and rows of sharp teeth that grow back like a shark’s and a savagery equalled only by its loyalty and devotion to its master.
“Good lad.” He said to the dog in his mind.
Donald left Mr Tinsel behind and walked down the corridor. He wanted to tell everyone about the man who came out of number 12 and how strange he’d looked. How he looked like the man in his curtains. He was disappointed to see that there were hardly any pupils or teachers anywhere.“There is no English department today.”said Ms Mapps, seemingly from nowhere. “Everyone is off sick.” Ms Mapps stood up to her full height, a full two inches over Donald.
“Do I have a class with you Miss?”asked Duncan.
Her breath cames out in a huff and swirled around them both.
“What? No. Not today. You go to assembly.” Donald glanced back down the corridor.
“You go to assembly,” she said quietly. “Just go to assembly.”
The mood at school was foul. No one wanted to talk or run in the corridors. Donald went to assembly. Mr Munro stood on the stage at the end of the hall. He was alone in his brown suit and his novelty tie did not reflect the mood that morning; a dozen cartoon ducks were giving the thumbs up. Teenagers shuffled into their seats, scraping chairs and coughing to fill in the quiet. Donald cleared his throat. It didn’t need clearing but just in case he saw Justine. Actually, where was Justine?
“Good morning, school.” Said Mr Munro.
His pupils looked back at him. “Goodmorningmrmunro.”
“Now first things first. There are to be no English classes today. Due to unforeseen circumstances the entire English department is unavailable this morning. As an alternative we have a surprise guest this morning. A man from the government! He’s going to tell everything. He pointed to a man standing at the end of the hall. It was the man from number 12.