By now, it was clear. The objective was the door at the far end of the echoing corridor down which he was reluctantly being dragged. The floors over which they walked seemed to emit a cold radiance that permeated the soles of his rubber sandals and he noticed in minute detail that the door, looming larger as they approached, was comprised of a wooden lower half, the off-white paint of which was faded, scratched and peeling. It was surmounted by rectangles of wood-framed glass that distorted ghostly figures and flashes of light from within the unknown room that lay beyond.
Although brief explanations of school and education and ‘the time of his life’ had, in fleeting moments and by various mouths, been aimed at him, he still had no idea where he was being taken. Just in case his mother, whose hand he was stuck to with the perma-glue of emotion, thought of making a run for it leaving him alone in this forbidding landscape, he imagined himself as part of the same organism; the two were one, indivisible.
His mother, thinking only the sugar-coated thoughts of abstract love, had dressed him in what she considered was his efficiently masculine, laced with a subtle maternal flourish, Sunday best. She had followed the instructions from the school rigorously but couldn’t avoid adding, well, her own idiosyncrasy – just to emphasise that ‘she cared,’ you understand.
He wore short dark-grey trousers, sensible sandals with rubber soles, grey socks, one of which was pulled tightly up to just below a knobbly knee; the other, being made of material that appeared to have an aversion to the traditions of personal etiquette, pooled around his thin ankle, a short maroon jacket emblazoned with the freshly sewn-on gold and puce-green badge of the school and, for the moment hidden by a thick duffle coat, a newly starched white shirt and precisely ironed tie sporting school colours and tied so tight that it almost cut off the blood to his brain. And… a dark blue knitted balaclava, decorated with a white heart at the back and sporting a large bright yellow bobble on the top that was almost the size of his head. A hole had been conveniently located at the front of this latter assemblage and it was through this that a large nose, into which, he had been assured on many occasions, the rest of the face would soon grow, poked. Pale blue eyes, topped with thin dark eyebrows watched in horror as proceedings unfolded in front of them, and a tuft of brown hair, that could have been described as mousy but was classified as dish-water blond by his older brothers, framed his face like wilted leaves on a parched flower. The balaclava was his mother’s personal touch that had the aim of ‘keeping his head warm.’
The headmaster, walking beside his strangely demure and silent mother, seemed to be the size of a mountain; his head almost disappearing in a dense haze of misunderstanding. Only his mouth, from which a deep voice spouting words that made no sense issued, seemed to be in technicolour focus. Through a mist of poorly disguised despair he heard, “I am sure, err,” a small cough – Ragnoor’s snort-detector sounded the alarm, “Heliosvart… will be demonstrably happy in our hallowed halls. You must not worry, Mrs, err,” – Serena tried weakly to cover the blinking orange alarms sounding throughout the organism, “Pimple…, err.” The terrible sound of looking down a long nose through pince-nez glasses at a piece of paper held at outstretched arm’s length, suffused, a deep slow-reverberation, through the treacle-like audiosphere, “Pümplevǫrt,” he said finally in practiced tones – Serena ran out of the way, her hands over her ears, “Our school has been the making of many boys who have gone on to be not only the foundation stones but also the very scaffolding, nay, the bricks and mortar of our Empire,” and, in his headmasterly mind, the regal fanfare accompanying these words drowned out the sound and smell of fear emanating from the object of small significance, which, at that moment was obviously trying to be even more so, at his side.
Afternoon sun slanting through Victorian wobbly-glass windows blinded Fefe as the door opened onto a chasm of silence. Starkly silhouetted shapes, black vultures waiting for something to expire, slowly resolved into neat rows of desks uniformly arranged in perfect quadratic synchronisation and populated by what seemed to be like, at least from the viewpoint of a ten year old boy, three million uniformly uniformed boys who all sat with their hands uniformly placed, one on top of the other, in front of them. A thick rumbling spike-ball; a sea-urchin converted to spears of invisible sight, was turned towards in his direction and skewered him in a dense circle of ice-cold attention.
“Sorry to interrupt, Mr. Stonehouse,” intoned the man with his head in the burble-cloud, and in a voice that reflected no such repentance, “I have a new arrival for you.”
Turning towards the instantly attentive, uniformly erect crowd, the headmaster continued in a voice that expected uncomplaining and immediate obeisance, “Boys. This is … Mr Plookenstom-Pümplevǫrt. He answers to the name of Heliosvart although, I understand,” his oily smile delivered via pursed lips in the direction of Fefe’s mother was accompanied by a slight genuflection of his head, “that it can be shortened to Helios…”
Stunned, as if by a sudden bolt of electricity, and detectable only to those with an excess of malicemakers – which, as everyone knows, come richly endowed with sensors that, much like heat tickling sweat glands, stimulate the malicemakers to action, and are usually, though not exclusively, to be found embedded in young males of the species who are unencumbered by the niceties of civilised human interaction and are always ‘up for a laugh’ – silence frissoned a deliciously anticipatory chortle through the air and the last restraining screws on the lock on the cage snapped under extreme pressure. Serena, too young to understand about consequences or how to approach them, curled herself into a protective ball and held her hands over her head.
Mr Stonehouse moved forward to gently take Helios’s shoulder and his mother made to release his hand, pushing him slightly in the bumbling, yet not unkindly educator’s direction.
Ragnoor exploded out, leaving the door of the cage swinging loosely on its hinges, small nuts and bolts pinging off the imaginofloor and wall. Heliosvart’s face turned from muted puce to cherry red in an instant, his mouth opened, expanded logarithmically, then emitted a despairing wail that ricocheted off windows and walls and the open mouths and wide eyes of the startled, delighted spectators. With the same intensity as an inadvertent swimmer grasping a fragile, completely ineffective lump of cork in storm-tossed seas, Fefe grabbed hold of his mother’s legs and held on for a life that, at that precise moment, was not only dear, it was impossibly luxurious. His mother, face beetroot at suddenly being, if not the focus, then at least in close proximity to the epicentre of such unwanted attention, tried unsuccessfully to prize him off, and Mr Stonehouse bravely attempted to embark on a mission of assistance by exerting some pressure on Fefe’s arm, thus causing the strength of the bellowing to rise several decibels that rattled the ancient windows and nearly knocked Mr. Rumples, who was at that precise moment cleaning said windows but on the outside of the building, off his ladder. The headmaster took a step back and looked down his nose distastefully and very loudly, his mind already selecting the most appropriate instrument of torture that could be applied once a suitable moment of isolated calm could be set aside.
Looking helplessly from Mr Stonehouse to the headmaster, Fefe’s mother finally kneeled down to his level and whispered something in her son’s ear. At first, it appeared to have been a fruitless action as Fefe, in the grip of Ragnoor’s protestations, was as far away from being reasoned with under the glare of raw, predatory, pointedly-focused deliberation as a tin of bandyscrotum beer is to be being converted, by shamanic mysticism, into a bottle of seventy-five-year-old Klëînworsel champagne. But, the words of desperate consolation had somehow mobilised Serena and she was patting Ragnoor comfortingly; sufficiently comfortingly to permit his mother to lead Fefe, the occasional humid wail interspersed with huge stuttering intakes of chalk-dry breath trailing behind him like a clammy cloak, out of the classroom and into the sanitized corridor that smelled of dead dreams.