|......Considering my background, upbringing and especially, the poor education I received, it's amazing how well I have succeeded in life. Yet, here I am, in healthy and prosperous late middle age, the owner of a small, but thriving import/export business. I employ a loyal and contented workforce that, I am assured, takes great pleasure in working for me; I am well respected among my colleagues in the business community and within my large circle of friends. I have a large house in the country, complete with swimming pool, an adoring and adorable wife, two children any man would be proud of and a lifestyle many would envy.|
......All in all, I have come a long way in life.
......A far cry from the scruffy, rebellious little rogue, destined for a life of crime or worse, I started out as.
......You might say that I was born on the wrong side of the tracks. I was the only son of what today is liberally described as a 'single mother'; back in those days, they were known by something less politic. If I had a father, I never met him. I suppose my mother did her best to raise me properly, but her heart wasn't really in it; she was too fond of a drink and the company of a certain kind of man, the more of each the merrier.
......The fact that I was pretty much left to fend for myself from an early age perhaps goes some way to excuse some of the things I got up to.
......I wasn't a bad child: I just lacked the right kind of guidance.
......You might find it surprising if I told you I enjoyed school. Existing as I did in a neighbourhood that should have been bulldozed many years before it actually was, you probably don't need me to tell you that my childhood friends were cut from much the same cloth as I. The majority of them came from the same class of home life as myself, 'dysfunctional families' as I believe the phrase is these days. Then, we didn't have such fancy terminology; it was the norm to carry bruises acquired from drunken parents, to be half-starved and to dress in little more than rags. It was all we knew. My peers shunned schooling; there was much more education to be gained out on the streets. That to a large extent that education consisted chiefly of learning the finer points of burglary, shoplifting and other forms of petty crime stood many of them in good stead. I am aware of several of my childhood acquaintances that went on to make a lucrative career from crime.
......Those that were able to stay out of prison, that is.
......I, on the other hand, along with several of my more bitter and brutal contemporaries (I bow my head in shame now to recall how proud I was to number myself in that fraternity), had other means of hitting back at society.
......Having just taken a moment to go over what I have already told you, and knowing what is to come, I am acutely conscious of the picture you may be forming of me. Not wishing you to dismiss me as a complete ruffian and thug, I feel I must take this opportunity to exonerate myself a little. I'm not asking you to pardon my behaviour at that time. I was a little horror, I know it and I am deeply ashamed of it. I have since more than made amends. However, please bear in mind, I really did have an appalling upbringing; there's much I have not and will not tell you about it.
......Having got that off my chest, I promise I will now carry on with my story without further interruption.
......As I said earlier, I enjoyed school. I didn't learn a lot there, at least not before the time I'm telling you about. The school I spent most of my formative years at was much the same as the rest of the environment I knew in my youth. A slum. Educational resources were minimal to say the least. The teachers were like the pupils: at the very bottom of the pile. They were employed there because there was nowhere else for them to go. No one else would have them. Some were waiting out the last years of their careers; others were just starting out and were quickly disillusioned. They didn't last long. Others clung on by bluffing their way through.
......The rest were brutal sadists.
......The wisest teachers were those who knew their subjects. By that, I don't mean what they were supposed to teach, but whom they were supposed to teach. They knew that we the pupils were fated for the lower echelons: factory fodder at best, unemployment and crime for the main. These teachers took the easy course.
They let us get on with it.
......That's why I enjoyed school.
......It was a doddle.
......Yes, but more than that.
......And this is where I must hang my head in shame once more.
......I was a bully.
......There, I've said it.
......Oh, the simple fun to be had from tormenting younger, weaker children!
......Not all of us were no-hopers and poor kids; there were a few more well off, brainier ones somehow struggling to get some sort of education. The swots. How we made them suffer! Even better, there was a tidy little profit to be gained from offering them protection.
......Not for us the risks of theft and burglary.
......Now you begin to see why I liked school.
......The greatest pleasure of all, however, our way of striking a blow at the adult world we regarded as the enemy, was plaguing the life out of the teachers.
......I haven't mentioned my best friend, Billy Noble, yet. Noble by name, complete brute by nature. Billy was the ringleader in every act of terrorism that was instigated at school; I was his loyal sidekick. It could be said that without Billy and me, the existence of the teachers would have been a lot easier.
......He and I were the bane of their lives.
......I won't detail all the things we did. It would take too long, and you really don't want to know. All I will say is that even after all these years I'm still revolted, disgusted and ashamed of them.
......Suffice to say, Billy and I ruled the school and made the lives of many a misery.
......No, the purpose of my story, the events I'm telling you about, occurred in my last couple of years at school.
......By then, even the most hard-bitten of the teachers had completely given up on a basic hard core of their subjects. And I do mean hard core. These were the ones for whom there was no hope at all. The very dregs. The future muggers, rapists, armed robbers and the like.
......Their solution was to segregate this hard core of around thirty into one class, shut the door, and leave them to it.
......It became known as the 'Class from Hell'.
......Of course, Billy and I were honorary members.
......If you had been brave or foolish enough to step into this class on any given day, you would have seen something like this. For a start, it was quite dark and dingy; most of the windows were boarded up. There was no point in endlessly replacing the broken glass. You wouldn't have seen the usual maps and artwork on the walls that you'd expect to find in a schoolroom, but there was a startling amount of pretty graphic graffiti. The battered desks and chairs, those that hadn't been broken up, also bore the evidence of misplaced artistic talent, being liberally carved and decorated.
......You would be sure to see the card games going on at the back of the room; there was always one in progress. You might have been surprised at the size of the stakes, however.
......Did I mention that the school was a mixed one? No? Well, it was, you would have found girls there too. Some of them were as bad as the boys. We had sexual equality long before it was thought of. This being the case, you may have been disturbed to find quite a lot of open sexual experimentation taking place.
......Who says we didn't learn things?
......If a missile of some sort didn't hit you, the noise would. Thirty-odd voices shouting and balling at one another in a small room can be painful.
......The ripe language might have bothered you somewhat though.
......Right in the front row of the class, in pride of place, you would have seen Billy and me. We wouldn't be facing forward; we would be turned round, our feet up on a desk, watching the antics of the rest of the room.
......We probably looked like two minor potentates, surveying our domain.
......We were an evil bunch.
......You wouldn't have stayed long.
......Visitors seldom did.
......The problem for the teachers was: they were still supposed to actually attempt to teach us something. They had to make a token gesture. This being so, before your hasty retreat, you might have observed the slumped and beaten, abject form of the current incumbent of that unhappy position.
......The token gesture.
......When I say current incumbent, I mean we went through a lot of them. They all tried. They all failed. Not one of them could control us. None, that is, until ...
......But I'm jumping ahead of myself.
......As I've just implied, many teachers tried to tame the Class from Hell. From the distance of all these years, I pity the poor souls who had to face us. Some, the fresh, inexperienced ones, straight from their training colleges, started out with noble intentions. Armed with their newly gained qualifications, they were going to be the one that finally got through to us. It would be they who reformed us, educated us, and magically transformed us into model citizens. The pride of the school.
......How sadly mistaken they were.
......I'm not going to tell you what we put them through. It would be too painful to describe. More for me than it would be for you.
......Let it be enough for me to say that the outcome was usually the rapid departure of the hopeful reformer. More often than not, to a new career in something less stressful, in several cases (I hang my head) to nervous breakdowns.
......I will gloss over our 'greatest achievement', the time when the body of a young teacher of more sensitive nature was found hanging in the staff cloakroom.
......By his own hand, I hasten to add.
......Then there were the other side of the coin. The disciplinarians, the martinets, the tough, experienced ones, who tried the rod of iron approach.
......That did not work either
......We all received that kind of treatment at home. It was what we were used to. It was a normal part of our lives. It was what we expected; we embraced it; we thrived on it.
......It made us worse.
......No, as I said earlier, the clever ones were those who let sleeping Rottweilers lie. The ones who let us get on with it.
......What care they if we were starting out on the rocky path to ruin? They were getting paid whether we did well or not. Why should they attempt the impossible? I believe that the longer surviving ones even received special bonuses.
......We wore even those down eventually.
......And now I finally get to the crux of my story.
......My, it's thirsty work, this story telling.
......Oh yes. Yes please. That's very kind of you.
......You couldn't make it a double, could you?
......Ah, that's better. Now, where was I? Oh yes, the crux.
......Then came Mr Gabriel.
......We were between teachers; the last one had made a hurried departure. I saw him several years later working on a supermarket checkout. He looked much happier. We were all expectantly awaiting the arrival of a new victim to knock into shape.
......Mr Gabriel walked into the class unannounced and stood in front of us.
......We were disappointed; he looked easy prey.
......He stood not much more than five foot; he was bald and skinny and wore a wispy moustache. He was very unprepossessing.
......Most of the class ignored him and continued on in their usual manner.
......However, Billy and I, being the heads of the class, so to speak, carried on eying him up and working out what we could do with him.
......The only remarkable thing about him was the object he carried in his right hand. We could make out a square shape covered by a black velvet cloth. He took a moment to assess the situation with eyes that bore a little secretive twinkle. He then turned slightly and placed the object on the desk beside him. Turning to the class again, he gave a little cough, "Ahem."
......The noise level dropped slightly and a few eyes turned towards him.
......Without a word, he reached to his side and delicately grasped the velvet cloth.
......A few more eyes turned to him.
......Then, with a flourish like an accomplished magician, he removed the cloth and revealed its secret.
......The class went silent; all eyes were now fixed on the object.
......On the desk was a small cage, about one foot square. It was what the cage contained that silenced us.
......Though I've never forgotten that first revelation, that first time we saw it; though it has haunted me ever since and kept me awake at night, I have never been able to describe it satisfactorily.
......It was beyond description.
......I saw scales, talons and teeth. Billy saw fur. Others thought it was hairy, yet others thought it was completely hairless and bald. Everyone saw it differently. We couldn't even agree on what colour it was. I was sure it was green, Billy swore it was black; some said red, some a sickly white. A few didn't thing it had any colour at all. All agreed it was repulsive. The one thing we all granted was that its eyes were its most prominent feature. No one saw those eyes and forgot them. They bored into your soul. They were definitely black, like deep, subterranean pools, and they stared at you personally and nobody else. They knew you, everything about you, from the day you were born right up to that moment and beyond. One look from those eyes and you were a willing slave.
......There was more to come.
......Mr Gabriel continued to silently watch the class with that twinkle in his eyes we all came to know so well. Then he stuck a finger in the cage and prodded the thing. That's the only name I can give it. How he could bear to touch it, I'll never know. Then it spoke.
......You know that noise chalk makes on a blackboard? Everybody hates it. It goes straight through you. Now, magnify that sound a hundredfold. You might just be able to imagine what the thing sounded like.
......"Right, you evil little bastards," it said, "I know all about you lot. We're all going to get on together, aren't we?"
......And I swear we all nodded in assent.
......"Because if we don't," it continued in that voice that rattled the teeth in your head, "I shall visit you in you beds tonight and rip you to pieces. Got it?"
......I could have sworn it was talking directly to me, but afterwards Billy said he was sure it was speaking just to him and several more said the same thing.
......With that, Mr Gabriel nodded to himself in satisfaction and went behind his desk, leaving the cage and its contents in full view of us all. In a weedy, but confident voice, he spoke for the first time, "Hello class, my name is Mr Gabriel, and I am your new teacher. This is my little pet. I hope you like him, I take him everywhere with me. I believe that we have a lot of work to do together, so, shall we get on with it?"
......There was a subdued chorus of "Yes sirs."
......"I think we will begin with English, you seem to be sadly lacking in that subject. You boy," he said, looking at me, "Come and hand these books out, would you?"
......I reluctantly stood up and, giving the desk and the cage a wide berth, went to take the pile of books Mr Gabriel handed to me.
......The thing in the cage watched me every step of the way. I had to pass much too close to it, and as I did so, I noticed for the first time its other terrible property: it stunk. It smelled like something that had died many days ago and was taking a long time to rot away. It was awful. How I hadn't noticed it before, I'll never know, but I will never forget that smell.
......After hurriedly receiving the books, I scuttled away from the desk and obediently handed them out.
......So began our first lesson with Mr Gabriel.
......No doubt, you are expecting me to tell you next that from that day on the whole class knuckled down, worked long and hard, and achieved all kinds of success under the tutelage of Mr Gabriel and his 'pet'. Then we all lived happy ever after.
......That wouldn't be much of a story, would it?
......Remember I told you Billy was an evil brute? Well, he wasn't as easily cowed as the rest of us.
......Oh, he behaved himself for a while. The thing in the cage sitting on the desk, with its eyes drilling into you made you loath to do anything else. So, all way through that first lesson Billy was unusually studious.
......It was at break time, out in the playground away from the thing, that some of his old bluster returned.
......Being his right hand man, he came to me first. "Tom," he said, "We can't have this. Our lives are going to be a misery unless we do something about Gabriel and that ... that ... whatever it is he calls his pet. I'm not going to stand for it. We'll have to get rid of him. Are you game?"
Now, normally, I would have been only too keen to fall in with anything that Billy suggested. After all, Billy and I were cocks of the roost, kings of the castle. But I could still see the thing in the cage in my mind's eye. What's more, I could still smell it, even though I was out in the fresh air. I was reluctant to say the least. I was still sure the thing had been addressing me personally.
......I think Billy did too.
......"Let's leave it for now, eh, Billy?" I replied hesitantly. I didn't want to offend him. "We can sort him out later when his guard's down."
......He looked at me in disgust, "Ugh, turning soft, are you? Well, you just listen here, Tom Riley, I'm not frightened by a puny little teacher who thinks he can lord it over all of us. And I'm certainly not scared of some furry little creature that has no right to be alive."
......Saying this, he walked off in a rage, shaking his head.
......I was devastated. I knew I was losing my best friend. I suddenly felt very lonely, but there was no way could I bring myself to defy the thing in the cage.
......After that, I saw Billy going up to other members of the class and talking earnestly with them. He must have received the same sort of response he got from me, because he walked away from them all looking more and more dejected.
......I lost track of him then. I found out later he had sneaked into the caretaker's cupboard (not that much care was taken in that school). Another of the less desirable elements of the school apart from the pupils was the rats. The place was overrun with them. Billy had helped himself to a packet of poison.
......After the break, we all paraded dutifully back into the classroom. Mr Gabriel was waiting for us. He had covered the cage, but on our arrival, he swept off the velvet cloth before commencing the next lesson, which was Geography.
......I sat in my usual place by Billy's side. He didn't speak, no doubt, he didn't dare, but he gave me one of his more cocky looks.
......The afternoon wore on. It must have been the strangest sight anyone could have ever seen or expected. The 'Class from Hell' silent, heads bowed over their books and studying avidly while Mr Gabriel conducted the lesson in his barely audible voice. I think everyone had discovered that the best way of forgetting about the thing was to concentrate on what we were being taught.
......And all the time the cage sat on the desk and the thing watched us.
......Then came Billy's moment. I knew he had been waiting, I could sense the tension in him as he watched for his opportunity.
......Then it came.
......A pupil from another class entered the room and, after casting a fearful look at the cage, told Mr Gabriel that the headmaster wished to see him.
......"I will be back in a moment, class, carry on with your work," Mr Gabriel told us. He then accompanied the messenger out of the room, leaving the cage on the desk.
......Now was Billy's chance.
......Like a flash he was up from his seat and we all watched as he cautiously approached the desk. The thing looked up at him, its eyes glittering. "Hello, Billy, come to play have you?" It was the first time it had spoken since Mr Gabriel first unveiled it and its voice was even more penetrating. I always knew Billy had guts, but what he did next amazed me. I could never have done it for the life of me. He took from his pocket the packet of rat poison and sprinkled a generous portion into the cage.
......The thing looked up at him, "Ah, you want to give me a little treat, do you? A little peace offering. How kind of you."
......Billy just smiled in a smug sort of way, turned from the desk and just got back to his seat as the door opened and Mr Gabriel returned.
......I'm sure we all looked guilty, but Mr Gabriel didn't seem to notice. He resumed his seat and went on with the lesson.
......Meanwhile, we all watched the cage.
......The thing was eating the poison. Now, I don't know what rat poison tastes like, but I'm sure you're not supposed to enjoy it. The thing evidently did. There was much smacking of lips, though strangely, Mr Gabriel didn't observe it. Perhaps he was used to odd noises coming from the cage.
......We all kept casting surreptitious glances at the desk, watching and waiting for the thing to curl up in its cage, hopefully dead.
......It did not happen.
......The thing finished every drop of the poison, ran an appreciative tongue over its lips and looked up at the class. I'm sure its tongue was forked. One thing I am positive about: for the rest of the day, although its eyes seemed to be everywhere, it struck me that it watched Billy the most keenly. I think it was smiling too, but on a face like that its difficult to say what was a smile and what was a sneer.
......It didn't die, either.
......At last, the day was over. I left hurriedly, as did everybody else. I think all of us just wanted to get out.
......That night I didn't sleep much. When I eventually did doze off, it was to waken shortly afterwards in the grip of a nightmare that featured the thing crawling through my bedroom window and sitting on the pillow next to me, looking at me and smiling.
......The weird thing is: next morning my room smelled awful. It was as if something had died there.
......I thought about not going to school the next day, but somehow I hadn't the courage to play truant. It turned out that everyone else must have felt the same. There was a full class. There were also many bleary eyes, as if no one had had a good night.
......Mr Gabriel was already there, waiting for us. So too was the cage. It was sitting on the desk with the black velvet cloth covering it when we went in, but as soon as we had settled, he removed the cover with that same flourish.
......And there it was, the thing.
......Somehow, it looked a little fatter to me that morning, or maybe it was my imagination.
......"Good morning to you class," said Mr Gabriel. We all meekly responded. He stuck his finger in the cage and prodded the thing. The thought of touching it makes me shudder. "Hello, boys and girls," it said in that voice.
......I swear a few of us mumbled a reluctant "Hello" back. I know I did.
......I said there was a full class. That's not quite true. There was one notable absentee.
......Billy's seat was empty.
......Mr Gabriel looked round the room with that twinkle, "Ah," he said, "I see one of our number has not joined us this morning. Does anyone know where Billy Noble is today?"
......"No? Ah well, perhaps he is not so well."
......He then proceeded with the first lesson. Mercifully, he asked someone else to give the books out. Somehow, I couldn't have gone near the cage that morning.
......The morning went much the same as the previous one. In short, we dutifully got on with our work. With Billy not being there we seemed to have lost any trace of our rebellious streaks. There was the thing there all the time watching us from its cage too.
......It was just before break time when I happened to glance up and see through one of the few remaining windows a police car pull into the playground. I didn't think too much about it at that time, police cars were a common sight at the school.
......It was when we were out in the playground that the grapevine swung into action.
......Billy Noble had been murdered in the night!
......There were many conflicting stories at first. You know how these things are. Eventually the truth came out, though I don't think anybody ever knew the full facts. Billy's mother (much worse than mine) had gone into his bedroom that morning to find a slaughterhouse. There was blood all over: on the walls, the bed and the carpet. Bits of Billy were strewn everywhere.
......I won't go into any more detail. You've got the picture.
......One thing I will add, however. They managed to collect all the bits of Billy and put them back together for the funeral. But there was one bit they never found.
......His heart had been ripped out of his chest, and though they hunted high and low, they never did locate it.
......Needless to say, when we all trooped back into the class like the good little children we were suddenly becoming, we were even quieter than before.
......If Mr Gabriel noted anything amiss, he didn't say anything. He twinkled at us, uncovered the cage and told us what we were doing next.
......I won't bore you much longer, I have to go soon, and there's not much more to tell.
......I stayed on at school for the next two years or so. For all that time, Mr Gabriel was my teacher. I know I said I enjoyed school before then, but I learned to enjoy it even more. Mr Gabriel seemed to know everything about everything. He taught me and the rest of the class about every subject under the sun. I used to go home at the end of the day with my head bursting with new knowledge. And I loved it. I never knew there could be so much joy in learning.
......All that time the cage was ever present. Even though after the first few weeks Mr Gabriel could have dispensed with it. I'm sure he had us under some sort of spell.
......When I left school, I went on to Business College. The rest is history, as they say.
......I will not say I was always an angel. Who among us is? However, whenever I've been tempted to stray, whenever a little of the old Tom Riley as reared his head, the memory of the thing in the cage comes back to me. Strangely enough, when it does I always smell that smell, that stench of something rotten. Odd that, isn't it?
......Mr Gabriel stayed on at the school after I left. He was there until it was eventually demolished. What happened to him after that, I don't know. But I bet he still carries that cage around with him.
......Well, it's been nice chatting with you, but I really must get off now, there's a terrible smell in here.
......Thanks for the drinks. Perhaps we'll meet again some time?
......Oh, before I go. You haven't said if you have children. If you do, tell them from me: if their teacher ever gets a pet, make sure it's them.
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