In winter months, from his seat in the middle desk of the middle row, Howard used to look out the window of the History Room and watch the whole school go up in flames. The rugby pitches, the basketball court, the car park and the trees beyond – for one beautiful instant everything would be engulfed; and though the spell was quickly broken – the light deepening and reddening and flattening out, leaving the school and its environs intact – you would know at least that the day was almost over.
Today he stands at the head of the class: the wrong angle and the wrong time of year to view the sunset. He knows, however, that fifteen minutes remain on the clock, and so, pinching his nose, sighing imperceptibly, he tries again. ‘Come on, now. The main protagonists. Just the main ones. Anybody?’
The torpid silence remains undisturbed. The radiators are blazing, though it is not particularly cold outside: the heating system is elderly and erratic, like most things at this end of the school, and over the course of the day the heat builds to a swampy, malarial fug. Howard complains, of course, like the other teachers, but he is secretly not ungrateful; combined with the powerful soporific effects of history itself, it means the disorder levels of his later classes rarely extend beyond a low drone of chatter and the occasional paper aeroplane.
‘Anyone?’ he repeats, looking over the class, deliberately ignoring Ruprecht Van Doren’s upstretched hand, beneath which the rest of Ruprecht strains breathlessly. The rest of the boys blink back at Howard as if to reproach him for disturbing their peace. In Howard’s old seat, Daniel ‘Skippy’ Juster stares catatonically into space, for all the world as if he’s been drugged; in the back-row suntrap, Henry Lafayette has made a little nest of his arms in which to lay his head. Even the clock sounds like it’s half asleep.
‘We’ve been talking about this for the last two days. Are you telling me no one can name a single one of the countries involved? Come on, you’re not getting out of here till you’ve shown me that you know this.’
‘Uruguay?’ Bob Shambles incants vaguely, as if summoning the answer from magical vapours.
‘No,’ Howard says, glancing down at the book spread open on his lectern just to make sure. ‘Known at the time as “the war to end all wars”,’ the caption reads, below a picture of a vast, water-logged moonscape from which all signs of life, natural or man-made, have been comprehensively removed.
‘The Jews?’ Ultan O’Dowd says.
‘The Jews are not a country. Mario?’
‘What?’ Mario Bianchi’s head snaps up from whatever he is attending to, probably his phone, under the desk. ‘Oh, it was … it was – ow, stop – sir, Dennis is feeling my leg! Stop feeling me, feeler!’
‘Stop feeling his leg, Dennis.’
‘I wasn’t, sir!’ Dennis Hoey, all wounded innocence.
On the blackboard, ‘MAIN’ – Militarism, Alliances, Industrialization, Nationalism – copied out of the textbook at the start of class, is slowly bleached out by the lowering sun. ‘Yes, Mario?’
‘Uh …’ Mario prevaricates. ‘Well, Italy …’
‘Italy was in charge of the catering,’ Niall Henaghan suggests.
‘Hey,’ Mario warns.
‘Sir, Mario calls his wang Il Duce,’ says Dennis.
‘But he does – you do, I’ve heard you. “Time to rise, Duce,” you say. “Your people await you, Duce.”’
‘At least I have a wang, and am not a boy with … Instead of a wang, he has just a blank piece of …’
‘I feel we’re straying off the point here,’ Howard intervenes. ‘Come on, guys. The protagonists of the First World War. I’ll give you a clue. Germany. Germany was involved. Who were Germany’s allies – yes, Henry?’ as Henry Lafayette, whatever he is dreaming of, emits a loud snort. Hearing his name, he raises his head and gazes at Howard with dizzy, bewildered eyes.
‘Elves?’ he ventures.
The classroom explodes into hysterics.
‘Well, what was the question?’ Henry asks, somewhat woundedly.
Howard is on the brink of accepting defeat and beginning the class all over again. A glance at the clock, however, absolves him from any further effort today, so instead he directs them back to the textbook, and has Geoff Sproke read out the poem reproduced there.
‘“In Flanders Fields”,’ Geoff obliges. ‘By Lieutenant John McCrae.’
‘John McGay,’ glosses John Reidy.
‘“In Flanders fields,”’ Geoff reads, ‘“the poppies blow”:
‘Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived –’
At this point the bell rings. In a single motion the daydreaming and somnolent snap awake, grab their bags, stow their books and move as one for the door. ‘For tomorrow, read the end of the chapter,’ Howard calls over the melee. ‘And while you’re at it, read the stuff you were supposed to read for today.’ But the class has already fizzed away, and Howard is left as he always is, wondering if anyone has been listening to a single thing he’s said; he can practically see his words crumpled up on the floor. He packs away his own book, wipes clean the board and sets off to fight his way through the home-time throng to the staff room.
In Our Lady’s Hall, hormonal surges have made giants and midgets of the crowd. The tang of adolescence, impervious to deodorant or opened windows, hangs heavy, and the air tintinnabulates with bleeps, chimes and trebly shards of music as two hundred mobile phones, banned during the school day, are switched back on with the urgency of divers reconnecting to their oxygen supply. From her alcove a safe elevation above it, the plaster Madonna with the starred halo and the peaches-and-cream complexion pouts coquettishly at the rampaging maleness below.
‘Hey, Flubber!’ Dennis Hoey scampers across Howard’s path to waylay William ‘Flubber’ Cooke. ‘Hey, I just wanted to ask you a question?’
‘What?’ Flubber immediately suspicious.
‘Uh, I was just wondering – are you a bummer tied to a tree?’
Brows creasing, Flubber – fourteen stone and on his third trip through second year – turns this over.
‘It’s not a trick or anything,’ promises Dennis. ‘I just wanted to know, you know, if you’re a bummer tied to a tree.’
‘No,’ Flubber resolves, at which Dennis takes flight, declaring exuberantly, ‘Bummer on the loose! Bummer on the loose!’ Flubber lets out a roar and prepares to give chase, then stops abruptly and ducks off in the other direction as the crowd parts and a tall, cadaverous figure comes striding through.
Father Jerome Green: teacher of French, coordinator of Seabrook’s charitable works, and by some stretch the school’s most terrifying personage. Wherever he goes it is with two or three bodies’ worth of empty space around him, as if he’s accompanied by an invisible retinue of pitchfork-wielding goblins, ready to jab at anyone who happens to be harbouring an impure thought. As he passes, Howard musters a weak smile; the priest glares back at him the same way he does at everyone, with a kind of ready, impersonal disapproval, so adept at looking into man’s soul and seeing sin, desire, ferment that he does it now like ticking a box.
Sometimes Howard feels dispiritedly as if not one thing has changed here in the ten years since he graduated. The priests in particular bring this out in him. The hale ones are still hale, the doddery ones still dodder; Father Green still collects canned food for Africa and terrorizes the boys, Father Laughton still gets teary-eyed when he presents the works of Bach to his unheeding classes, Father Foley still gives ‘guidance’ to troubled youngsters, invariably in the form of an admonition to play more rugby. On bad days Howard sees their endurance as a kind of personal rebuke – as if that almost-decade of life between matriculation and his ignominious return here had, because of his own ineptitude, been rolled back, struck from the record, deemed merely so much fudge.
Of course this is pure paranoia. The priests are not immortal. The Holy Paraclete Fathers are experiencing the same problem as every other Catholic order: they are dying out. Few of the priests in Seabrook are under sixty, and the newest recruit to the pastoral programme – one of an ever-dwindling number – is a young seminarian from somewhere outside Kinshasa; when the school principal, Father Desmond Furlong, fell ill at the beginning of September, it was a layman – economics teacher Gregory L. Costigan – who took the reins, for the first time in Seabrook’s history.
Leaving behind the wood-panelled halls of the Old Building, Howard passes up the Annexe, climbs the stairs, and opens, with the usual frisson of weirdness, the door marked ‘Staff-room’. Inside, a half-dozen of his colleagues are kvetching, marking homework or changing their nicotine patches. Without addressing anyone or otherwise signalling his presence, Howard goes to his locker and throws a couple of books and a pile of copies into his briefcase; then, moving crab-like to avoid eye contact, he steals out of the room again. He clatters back down the stairs and the now-deserted corridor, eyes fixed deter-minedly on the exit – when he is arrested by the sound of a young female voice.
It appears that, although the bell for the end of the school day rang a good five minutes ago, class in the Geography Room is still in full swing. Crouching slightly, Howard peers through the narrow window set in the door. The boys inside show no sign of impatience; in fact, by their expressions, they are quite oblivious to the passage of time.
The reason for this stands at the head of the class. Her name is Miss McIntyre; she is a substitute. Howard has caught glimpses of her in the staff room and on the corridor, but he hasn’t yet managed to speak to her. In the cavernous depths of the Geography Room, she draws the eye like a flame. Her blonde hair has that cascading quality you normally see only in TV ads for shampoo, complemented by a sophisticated magnolia two-piece more suited to a boardroom than a transition-year class; her voice, while soft and melodious, has at the same time an ungainsayable quality, an undertone of command. In the crook of her arm she cradles a globe, which while she speaks she caresses absently as if it were a fat, spoiled housecat; it almost seems to purr as it revolves langorously under her fingertips.
‘… just beneath the surface of the Earth,’ she is saying, ‘temperatures so high that the rock itself is molten – can anyone tell me what it’s called, this molten rock?’
‘Magma,’ croak several boys at once.
‘And what do you call it, when it bursts up onto the Earth’s surface from a volcano?’
‘Lava,’ they respond tremulously.
‘Excellent! And millions of years ago, there was an enormous amount of volcanic activity, with magma boiling up over the entire surface of the Earth non-stop. The landscape around us today –’ she runs a lacquered fingernail down a swelling ridge of mountain ‘– is mostly the legacy of this era, when the whole planet was experiencing dramatic physical changes. I suppose you could call it Earth’s teenage years!’
The class blushes to its collective roots and stares down at its textbook. She laughs again, and spins the globe, snapping it under her fingertips like a musician plucking the strings of a double bass, then catches sight of her watch. ‘Oh my gosh! Oh, you poor things, I should have let you out ten minutes ago! Why didn’t someone say something?’
The class mumbles inaudibly, still looking at the book.
‘Well, all right …’ She turns to write their homework on the blackboard, reaching up so that her skirt rises to expose the back of her knees; moments later the door opens, and the boys troop reluctantly out. Howard, affecting to study the photographs on the noticeboard of the Hillwalking Club’s recent outing to Djouce Mountain, watches from the corner of his eye until the flow of grey jumpers has ceased. When she fails to appear, he goes back to investi–
‘Oh my God, I’m so sorry.’ He hunkers down beside her and helps her re-amass the pages that have fluttered all over the gritty corridor floor. ‘I’m so sorry, I didn’t see you. I was just rushing back to a … a meeting …’
‘That’s all right,’ she says, ‘thanks,’ as he places a sheaf of Ordnance Survey maps on top of the stack she’s gathered back in her arms. ‘Thank you,’ she repeats, looking directly into his eyes, and continuing to look into them as they rise in unison to their feet, so that Howard, finding himself unable to look away, feels a brief moment of panic, as if they have somehow become locked together, like those apocryphal stories you hear about the kids who get their braces stuck together while kissing and have to get the fire brigade to cut them out.
‘Sorry,’ he says again, reflexively.
‘Stop apologizing,’ she laughs.
He introduces himself. ‘I’m Howard Fallon. I teach History. You’re standing in for Finian Ó Dálaigh?’
‘That’s right,’ she says. ‘Apparently he’s going to be out till Christmas, whatever happened to him.’
‘Gallstones,’ Howard says.
‘Oh,’ she says.
Howard wishes he could unsay gallstones. ‘So,’ he rebegins effortfully, ‘I’m actually on my way home. Can I give you a lift?’
She cocks her head. ‘Didn’t you have a meeting?’
‘Yes,’ he remembers. ‘But it isn’t really that important.’
‘I have my own car, thanks all the same,’ she says. ‘But I suppose you could carry my books, if you like.’
‘Okay,’ Howard says. Possibly the offer is ironic, but before she can retract it he removes the stack of binders and textbooks from her hands and, ignoring the homicidal looks from a small clump of her pupils still mooning about the corridor, walks alongside her towards the exit.
‘So, how are you finding it?’ he asks, attempting to haul the conversation to a more equilibrious state. ‘Have you taught much before, or is this your first time?’
‘Oh –’ she blows upwards at a wayward strand of golden hair ‘– I’m not a teacher by profession. I’m just doing this as a favour for Greg, really. Mr Costigan, I mean. God, I’d forgotten about this Mister, Miss stuff. It’s so funny. Miss McIntyre.’
‘Staff are allowed to use first names, you know.’
‘Mmm … Actually I’m quite enjoying being Miss McIntyre. Anyhow, Greg and I were talking one day and he was saying they were having problems finding a good substitute, and it so happens that once upon a time I had fantasies of being a teacher, and I was between contracts, so I thought why not?’
‘What’s your field normally?’ He holds open the main door for her and they step out into the autumn air, which has grown cold and crisp.
Howard receives this information with a studied neutrality, then says casually, ‘I used to work in that area myself, actually. Spent about two years in the City. Futures, primarily.’
Excerpted from Skippy Dies by Paul Murray. Copyright © 2010 by Paul Murray. Published in 2010 by Faber And Faber, Inc. All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.