School Property by Robert Johns

Brewster drove his vintage green Rover P6 down the Swainmouth Road in a South-Westerly direction, heading towards the outskirts of Badgers Crossing. A short distance away he would cross the River Swain and turn into the gates of Montague Boy’s School, his destination. The sun was starting its descent and its dazzling golden rays were piercing into Brewster’s right eye. He got a second or two of respite as the jagged and jumbled rooftops of the Old Works blocked the sun briefly but otherwise, it was an absolute pain to drive in. His car crested the old stone bridge over the Swain and Brewster started to look for his turn off. An old wooden board, hand painted by some ancient sign writer declared that this was the location of the school. The golden letters were faded against the dark blue peeling background. Perhaps, thought Brewster, the school should bring itself into the modern era. Get an all-weather sign perhaps.

The driveway to the school was long and pitted with potholes and Brewster began to wonder if the school was doing so well financially. Leafless trees lined the long driveway and, as he neared the end of the mile-long avenue, he could see the school behind the thin trunks of the trees. It was a large Gothic-Renaissance building, the sort that would have been designed by Pugin, with tall chimneys, high roof lines and Perpendicular windows. To the right side of the building was a tall tower, not unlike the tower at the Houses of Parliament which housed the famous bell, Big Ben. The school was lit from inside as pupils made their way from study rooms to dormitories and Brewster noticed a stooped elderly man at the main entrance, watching as he parked his car.

“Good evening, Sir,” the elderly man greeted him cheerfully in a West Country accent, “Might you be Mr. Brewster?”

“I am,” Brewster swapped his briefcase into his left and held out his right for the old fellow to shake, “Charlie Brewster.”

“Ah,” the old man’s eyes gleamed with recognition and he shook the offered hand, “You write them spooky tales duncha? Pleased to meet you. The name’s Gilmartin. The caretaker.”

“I was expecting to see Mr. Sheridan,” Brewster said. Then, adding quickly so as not to cause offence, “Not that there is anything wrong with you, you understand?”

“Heh, heh,” chuckled Gilmartin, “Don’t ee worry about offending me. I’m old enough to not worrys what people think of me. Mr. Sheridan’s ‘ad to go up country on short notice. ‘Is sister or summat. But don’t ee worry; I can show you everythin’ you want to see. Mr. Sheridan briefed me proper he did. Follow me, Mr. Brewster.”

Gilmartin turned and led Brewster down the main corridor. He walked quickly, in spite of his bent posture. His hair was white and thinning, with a large bald patch on the top of his head. His face was gaunt with three or four skin cysts. He wore a tatty grey cardigan and black cavalry twill trousers. On his feet were a pair of black slip-on shoes with rubber soles. As they walked past the classrooms, all closed for the night, a couple of boys in grey flannel blazers ran past.

“Oi!” shouted Gilmartin, “You know the rules boys!”

“Sorry, Mr. Gilmartin.” They apologised in unison, before disappearing up a nearby wide stone staircase.

The corridor was panelled with stained oak and presently they came to an alcove with an ornate surround. Gilmartin stopped and fished inside his cardigan pocket for an old, tarnished key and pushed it into a hidden keyhole. There was a squealing of dry metal on metal and then a creaking groan as a door opened.

“This ‘ere is the Blackwood Memorial Library.” Gilmartin said.

The library was akin to an old chapel without any pews. Rows of single-seat desks ran down the length of the library which must have been about twenty metres long. There was a gangway down the middle of the library and an imposing partner’s desk at the far end of the room. Above the partner’s desk was a bronze plaque that listed the old school boys who had perished in the Great War fixed onto a partially glazed partition wall. The frosted glass made it difficult to see what was behind the partition. Each wall was lined with books in glass-fronted bookcases. Above the bookcases were oil portraits of previous headmasters. Some were nearly black with age, others brighter with colour. Hanging over the door in which they had entered was the portrait of a young boy. Brewster asked who he was.

“Maxwell Blackwood,” Gilmartin told him, “One of Mr. Sheridan’s top pupils. Poor bugger died a couple of years back in the swimmin’ gala. Sad bizniz. Anyhow, Mr. Sheridan sez you was lookin’ for a book of stories?”

“Er… yes,” Brewster replied, “I heard that there was an old headmaster that they used to call ‘The Skipper’. He used to gather the boys in the refectory and tell them ghost stories. Mr. Sheridan told me that the stories were written in a book which was kept here.”

“Ah, I ‘member ‘The Skipper’.” Gilmartin looked fondly at one of the more recent portraits. It was of a man with a bushy beard and staring eyes. A terrible looking scar crossed his cheek and nose. “Professor Troughton. He used to tell ‘em boys tales that used to keep ‘em up all night.”

“You knew him?”

“Oh yes,” Gilmartin replied, “He started teachin’ ‘ere back in the early eighties. Used to be a sailor ‘e did. In the Navy. He came ‘ere after doing his doctorate. I reckon summat bad ‘appened to ‘im in the Navy ‘coz ‘e could ‘ave bin an admiral. Very clever man. ‘Ell of an imagination too.”

Gilmartin struggled with the lock on one of the glass bookcases and then managed to open it. The fragile glass in the door rattled. Gilmartin leaned in close to the bookcase and mumbled to himself. Then exclaimed loudly and backed away from the shelf clutching an old leather-bound notebook in his hand.

“This must be the book you’re looking for, Mr. Brewster.”

Brewster sat at the partner’s desk and opened the notebook. It was written by hand in a neat cursive script.

“I ‘ave to say, Mr. Brewster, you can only read that book in this library. You can’t let it out I’m afraid.”

“Oh no, I quite understand.”

“Now then,” Gilmartin said, “I’m going to put the kettle on. Can I offer you a cup o’ tea or anythin’?”

“Tea, please,” Brewster said and watched as Gilmartin shuffled out of the door. Brewster returned his attention to the notebook, not realising that Gilmartin had locked the door to the library as he left.

The stories in the notebook were the most terrifying tales he had ever read. There was a tale of a far-off land populated by savages and the most twisted and bizarre creatures. Another tale told of revenge in the worst possible way – a man’s face bursting open with larvae at a posh dinner party. And, as he read on, the stories became even more fantastic and fearsome.

Brewster imagined how popular these stories would have been if he had published them. They were the brainchild of the most amazing imagination, as Gilmartin had said. He read on, jealous of Troughton’s storytelling genius.

The key turned in the library door and Gilmartin shuffled in carrying a silver tray with a china teapot and two cups, rattling in their saucers.

“I brought your tea Mr. Brewster.” He proclaimed cheerfully.

“Oh thank you,” Brewster replied, “I must say, these stories are incredible! Are they all his own work?”

“Yes, they are. The professor used to sit in that very chair and write them,” Gilmartin explained, “Right up until the small ‘ours.”

“And what happened to Professor…?”

“Troughton? Oh, he left ‘ere to teach at a university. Somewhere up country. Funny thing is, he stopped writin’ to me only a few years back.”

“He used to write often?”

“Oh yes, Sir,” Gilmartin poured the tea, “’E used to tell me ‘ow ‘e was gettin’ on. Always used to ask if the other ‘eadmasters told tales like ‘is.”

“Did they?”

“Oh no, Sir.” Gilmartin added milk to the cups, “To be ‘onest, they weren’t into all that storytellin’ an’ stuff. I did ask once if ‘e wanted me to send ‘is book back onto ‘im. You know what ‘e said?” Brewster shook his head, “’E said to me: ‘Gilmartin, that book is part of that school now. Make sure it stays there.’”

Brewster took a sip of his tea and flicked through some more pages. He saw sketches of strange beasts and insects and a map, drawn in a thick pencil, of an island. The tales contained within were like an insight into a tormented nightmarish mind. This was pure gold to an author! These ideas were a licence to print money!

“I don’t mean to ‘urry you, Sir,” Gilmartin said, putting his cup noisily into his saucer, “But I was wonderin’ ‘ow much long ‘ee was going to be? Only, I ‘ave to start lockin’ up before too long.”

“Oh, I am sorry,” apologised Brewster, snapping out of his idealistic daydream, “An hour, if that’s okay? I have driven an awful long way.”

“That’ll be fine, Sir.”

“Listen, I hope you don’t mind, but I would prefer to work alone if that’s okay?” Brewster added.

“Not at all, Sir,” Gilmartin said, rising to his feet slowly, “But I ‘ave to tell you that I shall ‘ave to lock you in ‘ere. On account of the wealth of the books you see. I ain’t implying you’re a thief or nuffin’ but rules is rules an’ them’s school rules I’m afraid.”

“No, no. I quite understand.” Brewster said.

As soon as the door was closed and the key turned, Brewster reached into his briefcase and took out his camera and began photographing the pages of the notebook. He was just finishing when he heard the key turn in the lock and the door scrape open. Gilmartin walked in and announced that, regrettably, it was time to lock up.

Brewster handed the notebook to Gilmartin and fastened up the briefcase. He was certain that Gilmartin had not seen the camera. Brewster followed Gilmartin back to his car where the old caretaker wished him a safe journey. A freezing fog was starting to roll in across the surrounding fields.

“I know you ‘ad a read of them stories, Sir,” Gilmartin said, “But I’d appreciate it if you kept ‘em to yourself. Them’s is Professor Troughton’s stories an’ they is school property. I’m sorry, but I’m duty bound to tell ‘ee that.”

“No, no. I fully understand. Well, goodbye, and thanks again.” Brewster got back into his car and started to drive away as Gilmartin made his way back to the school building.

A nagging feeling of doubt clawed at Gilmartin as he walked purposefully towards the Blackwood Memorial Library. He wasn’t sure he could trust Brewster. He unlocked the door and glided along the parquet floor to the partition wall and rapped on one of the panels. It clicked open and Gilmartin peered into the gloom and listened as a quiet, chattering voice spoke. As it did, Gilmartin’s face changed to an expression of rage.

Brewster drove down the driveway and paused at the junction with Swainmouth Road, ready to turn right. It was so difficult to see in the fog. He edged out cautiously and gently accelerated away from the school gates. Only as he was motoring away did he allow himself to gloat about his ingenuity in photographing the pages of the notebook. Once he mined those pages for story ideas he was going to be the most famous horror writer ever imaginable! In his mind he began to spend his future wealth, creating a wish list of luxuries.

Brewster drove on through the thick fog, driving on autopilot as he let his mind go free. He crossed the first bridge over the River Swain and made good progress towards Badgers Crossing. As he neared the last bridge before the town centre the fog lifted slightly and Brewster’s heart missed a beat. There, in the middle of the road, with glowing red eyes was Gilmartin. He stood upright and his right arm extended towards Brewster. His mouth was opening and closing with unheard words. Brewster was almost upon him and wrenched the steering wheel to the left. His car swung off the road and skidded straight into a large tree. The vintage car didn’t have the safety features of more modern cars, especially not airbags and Brewster was thrown with a violent force against the hard steering wheel with a sickening slap.

Through fading sight, Brewster lay in the remains of the steering wheel watching as Gilmartin emerged from the fog. The old man walked around the wrecked car to the passenger door and opened it. He leaned in and gripped the briefcase before opening it and removing the camera. Gilmartin looked accusingly at Brewster and the words: “School Property” were the last words Brewster heard before he died.

Notes On This Story

In timely fashion, following my blog post about my school reunion, here is another short story from honorary Badgers Crossing resident and all round good chap, Robert Johns. As well as his own original characters he used the Writer’s Guide and map I created to build the story. In School Property Robert often refers to places and characters in Dark Reflection, the first story I ever wrote (as an adult).

Here’s what Robert has to say about it:

The story is based on a visit to my old school that I undertook just before Christmas. The memorial library is the same as in my old school and when I was there I was allowed to borrow the history of my school. A small, yet very precious book.

The characters of Brewster and Gilmartin are fabrications but the unseen Professor Troughton can be found in a few of my own short stories which, if you read them – the notebook makes a bit more sense too. As for Gilmartin’s informer… well who knows?

Visit Robert’s website where you can find links to buy his stories and also read his blog of ghost hunting adventures.