My next gig is at the Mascara Bar, Stoke Newington, with the Morning Star’s “Well Versed” poetry column. Appearing on the night: Tim Wells, Phil Jupitus (in his Porky the Poet guise) Chimene Suleyman, Niall O’Sullivan, Angry Sam, Lucy Ayrton and more!
Steve Trevelyan eyed the English Heritage inspector nervously, trying to keep in step as they walked around the building. Being a head teacher seemed to involve a lot of walking, thus far. You had to tour people around the school, pointing out bits of leaky roof where tiles had fallen off, peeling paint, patched-up walls, and grey artex-coated prefab huts where students steamed the windows and vandalised the desks . A lot of walking. The man from English heritage was peering at a joist and scribbling something on his clipboard. Steve strained to see what it was, but then felt he might be being too obvious and straightened up, clearing his throat nervously. He hovered, hands behind his back. He didn’t feel like he was in charge of the situation. He was supposed to be the head- no, sorry, the principal, of this school. He would have to take control.
“So, what do you think?”
The man from English heritage squeezed his lips together and nodded, rather like a plumber about to give the bad news about a boiler. A tweedy, bespectacled plumber.
“It’s certainly an interesting building. It would have been very innovative, at the time”
“In the 50s?” Steve asked, keen to appear in the know.
“Mm, exactly. The sad thing is that- as with a lot of modernist pieces of the time- it was done rather inexpensively. They used materials that wouldn’t last. Compounded by a complete lack of proper, planned maintenance”- there Steve felt the man’s tone to be rather accusatory- “you’ve got a building that’s just not fit for purpose”.
“Right”, Steve said excitedly. All he needed was for the man to give permission, and it would be showtime. Raze-it-to-the-ground-time. Shiny new academy time.
“Considering the poor quality of the original materials, and the damage to the structure, I shan’t be recommending that we attempt any preservation.”
Steve grinned broadly, and went to shake his hand. The man smiled and said,
“Of course I will have to contact the DCMS to say that we won’t be listing the building, and get three counter-signatories…”
But Steve was already imagining the glassy, sparkling new school, with his name on a gold plaque at the front gate: Steve Trevelyan: PRINCIPAL.
Unless you’ve been to a war zone, you simply can’t imagine how deafening the noise is. The same could be said, Steve mused, of lunchtime in a secondary school in East London. As he strolled importantly around the playground, students who were standing right next to each other spoke at mega-decibel. Girls jabbed fingers, spat words and kissed teeth. Boys over-reacted to cusses with an exaggerated roar. The pneumatic drill juddered skull-splittingly. The diggers hummed. It was almost unbearable. Still, it would all be worth it.
Later, as they crammed into the grubby old assembly hall for the last time, Steve gave his students what he felt to be inspirational messages to see them through the summer. Just a few years ago they’d had the riots, and he worried about what some of them got up to over the long, hot stretch. He spoke a lot about the new building, and how it would be a new start for the school, a new start for all of them. As the students streamed out of the front gates, ties off, shirts untucked, he felt a swell of love and pride for every single one of them. Except Tarelle Tucker, he frowned, as said student smirked past, arm slung round a year 9 girl.
Finally, it was all coming together. Steve was in school every day of that first week of holiday, signing off this and that, supervising the works. His wife was annoyed, but Steve secretly just enjoyed seeing it all happen. Talking to the workmen and hearing their plans. They were currently digging up the old foundations so they could lay brand new ones. Then, on the Friday afternoon, the foreman rapped on his office door. Steve beckoned him in.
“I think you’d better come and see this.” The man said, rather breathlessly.
No way. No bloody way, Steve thought. You’ve got to be kidding.
He was standing over a pit, underneath the wooden foundations of the old school building. Inside the pit was a pile of human bones. They were a tawny colour, blackened in places. He could clearly see skulls, ribs, feet, shinbones. How many there were, Steve could only guess. They were muddled together. He tried to count how many skulls he could see. Bits of jawbone poked through the muddy pile. There must have been at least twenty. God knows how deep it went.
“What should we do?” the foreman asked.
Steve knew what he was expecting him to say. Or rather, do. Call English Heritage. Call environmental health. Call someone. Hand this over to someone. But the thought of archaeologists and “experts” poring over these bones, dusting and bagging and photographing, filled him with anger. It would slow down the whole process. They definitely wouldn’t be ready in time for start of term. And what if they declared it a heritage site or something? Stopped the building work? No. He had promised those students. They deserved a new school. Years of leaking roofs, dingy, flickering lights, rotten beams-
He looked around.
“Who knows about this?”
The foreman looked surprised.
“Well, just- me. And Jay, and Kasper”, he said, gesturing to the other two workmen. “They’re the ones what found it”.
Steve looked down for a second. Then he said “can you get rid of all this?”
“Get rid of it. Take it all away.” Sensing a protest, he said more quietly, “I’ll make it worth your while”.
The foreman sniffed. “Well… How much?”
Steve thought for a minute.
“a hundred pounds each”?
The foreman looked across at the other two. Kacper shook his head. He started to mutter in another language.
“He’s Polish, innit?”
“Well, you know- religious an that. ‘E don’t want to disturb it”.
Steve thought again. He addressed Kacper in a clear, slow voice.
“If we call the heritage people they will come and put these bones in bags. They will do tests on them. They will put them in a museum. But if you take them, you can give them a proper, Christian burial. Hmm?”
Kacper frowned, then said in a perfect English accent,
“a hundred and fifty”.
They had a deal.
Steve’s mobile was buzzing in his suit pocket. He slipped it out and answered it.
“Where are you? It’s almost dark.”
“Just finishing off something”, he told his wife, as he watched Kasper and Jay lifting a sheet of blue tarpaulin into the back of a truck.
As Steve climbed into his BMW and shut the door with a satisfying thunk, it was starting to rain. Great. Now he’d have to listen to his wife say for the forty-eighth time that they should have gone away somewhere. Maybe they should, he mused, putting key in ignition. They could at least get a week somewhere sunny. The engine purred. He could stay in touch via email on his blackberry. He put the car into reverse, and as he glanced in his wing mirror he yelled, and spun around. There was no-one there. The back seat was empty. His hands gripped the steering wheel tight. He had seen a face. A pair of eyes, haunted and full of hate. And the face around them- it had been…he shuddered as he tried to picture it again. Cratered, disfigured… He shivered. He definitely needed a holiday.
Laura took a deep breath, and continued to write the learning objective on the board.
She knew exactly who was speaking. Davontae Brown. She had hoped this year he might be in someone else’s English class. No such luck.
“Ah man, this teacher…” he moaned, to no-one in particular. She took her time, doing a full stop. Be calm; be the adult, she told herself, and turned, saying in an even voice,
“Yes Davontae, what is it?”
“I need the toilet”.
He stared at her, challengingly. They both knew he had just come from a half-hour break-time. They both knew the rules said you couldn’t leave a lesson. They both knew. But if she refused, he would destroy her carefully planned lesson. How could she save face?
“Well, I am going to assume that you have chronic diarrhoea, Davontae, or you wouldn’t possibly ask to leave the learning environment.” She started to find the laminated hall pass.
He shrugged. “Need to go piss fam.”
There was a titter. Laura had lost the battle. On the first day back.
“Hurry up” she said, unconvincingly, as he sloped out, clutching the pass.
Steve caught sight of his tanned reflection in the glassy walls of his new office. He smiled. That fortnight in Mauritius had done him a world of good. He was looking great. The school was looking great. The staff were happy, and motivated. The students were happy and motivated. He smiled again, and opened his diary. Then he heard the scream.
They were working. Actually getting on with the task. Laura was amazed. She surveyed the room full of students- learning, engaged, abuzz- and nodded to herself, pleased. Perhaps this new building really was making a-
There was a furious, metallic scrambling sound. Davontae, at the door. This child, she thought. Even something as innocuous as opening a door he can turn into an act of disruption. The door swung open, and he threw himself into the room. She opened her mouth to rebuke him, when she saw the boy’s face. Something was very wrong. She had seen plenty of expressions pass over Davontae Brown’s face- defiance, boredom, disinterest, a sneer- but never this. Davontae Brown looked utterly terrified.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, stunned.
The boy just stood, rooted to the spot, trembling, staring, his breathing ragged. Then it was as if both of them suddenly became aware of the rest of the class, watching, dumbstruck. He visibly tried to shrug it off.
“Let’s step outside” said Laura, and started to usher him out.
“No!” he said, his voice suddenly a child’s, full of panic. There was a murmur of amusement in the class.
“What is it, Davontae? What happened?”
He shook his head. “Some ju-ju shit, man”, and kissed his teeth. The class laughed.
Laura angered. It had been perfect before he got back.
“Outside” she said, and this time she meant it.
“I just found her like this”, the PE teacher said to Steve, as they crouched next to the girl’s body.
“Have you called an ambulance?”
The PE teacher nodded. “ and Janet’s called her mum.”
“Has she fainted before?” Steve asked the group of girls standing around. They shook their heads and shrugged. He stood up.
“So what happened?”
A tall girl stepped forward.
“She just looked in the mirror, and then she screamed”.
An unkind-sounding murmur came from the back of the group. Steve ignored it.
“Did she say anything, or..?”
“She just started screaming, then she dropped.”
Suddenly, the girl started shaking violently. A spume of foamy spit started to bubble at her lips.
“She’s fitting”, said the PE teacher. “Get this lot away”.
The girls were crowding round, craning their necks and shrieking in fear and disgust. Steve swept them backwards. A siren wailed outside.
“What happened, Davontae?”
The boy looked around him, agitated, frowning.
“I went toilet.” He said sulkily.
“And?” Laura demanded.
“I had a piss, an’ then”- he took an unsteady breath- “I was just walking out, and I saw it, in the mirror”.
“Well, me. But…” he winced “my face, was all fucked up. Sorry”
She waved away the swear word. “How?”
“I don’t know, like- messed up- my eyes were red, man, like just red, it was nasty. And my skin was all”-
His fingers touched his cheek. For a moment, Laura thought he might cry. Gently, she said :
“Davontae, have you taken anything? Smoked anything?”
He looked at her sharply.
“Nah, man. Swear down”.
“Alright. It was probably just a trick of the light.”
Laura opened the door, and pointed to his seat.
What a week it had been.
Two girls in the hospital with mysterious hysterical disorders (that was what the doctor had said. “Hysterical”. Like this was a Victorian asylum or something.) Whispers in the corridors, and the staffroom. A year seven boy had wet himself rather than visit the toilets. The phones were ringing off the hook every morning with calls from worried parents. This was not how it should be. It made no sense to Steve. The psychological effect of the new building should be motivating, energising, calming. The architects had specifically made it light and airy. It was a beautiful school. Why was this happening? He rested his head in his hands.
There was a knock at the door.
It was a humanities teacher. A very religious African lady. He couldn’t be doing with-
She had popped her head round the door.
“I’ve actually got a meeting in a minute, so”-
“Some of the children are speaking in tongues Sah.”
Steve’s head went back to his hands.
Laura sat at her desk, refreshing her email. Nothing. Well, not from him, anyway. She sighed and dragged the pile of exercise books closer to her, then popped the lid off her red pen. The sun was sinking outside.
Steve quietly shut the door to the facilities office. He looked around. The school seemed pretty empty now. It was half past six.
He skimmed through the papers in the filing cabinet until he found what he was after. Spreading the map out on the desk, he pulled a pen out of his pocket. Where had it been? Roughly… here. He drew a blue X. Then he laid the acetate over the top.
His mouth suddenly felt dry, and he struggled for breath.
Just by the sports hall. That was where he’d found it. Right underneath the new toilets.
Laura frowned as she corrected “there” to “they’re”. She glanced at the clock. It was almost seven. How come everyone else seemed to have gone home? Did they do their marking in front of the telly? Laura couldn’t do that. Her housemates always distracted her, or spilt wine on the books. She clicked refresh on her emails. Nothing. Then she heard an almighty commotion.
What the hell was going on?
One of the cleaners had gone mad.
That much Steve could ascertain.
She was wailing and screaming and hitting one of the male cleaning staff. She was shouting. Steve couldn’t understand.
“Woah- woah- calm down, please”, he said, trying to step in. She was flailing wildly. Her eyes were wide and white, like a spooked horse.
“What’s she saying?” he said to the man.
He shrugged. “I don’t know. She not speaking Yoruba.”
One of the English department appeared. What was she called? Lucy? She was watching uncertainly.
“What happened to her?” Steve asked, as the woman rocked back and forth, clutching her tabard, moaning.
“She went to clean the toilet and then”-
The man held his hands up.
“Ok”, said Steve, rather nervously. “Can we call someone to come and get her?”
The man nodded. Steve felt suddenly rather sick. He needed to go home.
The English teacher was following him.
“If you don’t mind me asking- what the hell is going on?”
“I don’t know. Just- a few teething problems I guess.”
She wasn’t buying it.
“Why these toilets though? I mean- I can believe that the kids are winding each other up about it- but surely she doesn’t know? She’s from an agency, no?”
“Yes”, Steve said, irascibly.
“So she couldn’t have heard anything?”
“People talk”, Steve said dismissively, and started to walk off.
He stopped. “What?”
“She was speaking in medieval English.”
“I did my MA in Middle English. I’m pretty sure she was saying ‘qualm’. It means, well, death, sickness… plague. We still use the word now, though its sense has softened over time, so it…”
She trailed off. The head teacher was staring at her, with the same sweaty terror Devontae Brown had.
“What happened, Sir?”
“I didn’t know this would happen”, he said, his voice pricked and panicky. “I just- I knew if we reported it they’d…”
“The builders found some human remains.”
“They looked really old. I told them to take them away because I knew it would hold up the school. You have to understand, I was acting… I was trying to do the best for the kids…”
Whilst Steve jabbered on, Laura was thinking.
“How many were there?”
Steve swallowed. “Lots.”
“It was a plague pit.”
Steve looked at her uncomprehendingly.
“Every time there was a big outbreak, the Churches ran out of room to bury the dead. They dug huge pits and just flung people in. Well, the people who couldn’t afford to go elsewhere.”
“This is ridiculous,” Steve laughed grimly.
“There are accounts from the black death where families just rolled their sick relatives up in rugs or blankets and dumped them in the graves to die. Imagine that- lying there amongst a pile of rotting corpses.”
“Enough”. Steve started to walk away. “Go home; I’ll see you in the morning.”
Laura watched him depart, then shivered, and did as she was told.
An emergency assembly had been called. Steve needed to put a stop to all this. He stood on the stage, his plexiglass lectern gleaming.
Row by row, the students filed in. It was eerily hushed.
“Now I am sure you’ve all heard some of the rumours that are flying around, and I’d like to categorically state”-
He stopped. Looked at the faces in the front row. They seemed sweaty, blanched; like boiled sausages. He tugged at his collar, which was suddenly tight.
“To categorically state…”
Now the rest of the hall seemed pale, seemed bathed in a glistening sheen of sweat. The head of art, standing at the wall, had dark rings under the eyes, and was shaking. He looked like a crack addict.
“That there is nothing…”
A year seven started to splutter a bright spool of blood. It slowly dribbled to the floor. Steve pulled at his shirt. He looked around. Chairs scraped the floor as students trembled and rocked.
“Nothing at all…”
Every face he could see was changing. Huge blood-boils inflated and burst. Sores wept. Fingers and toes spotted, blackened. Sweat and blood ran rivers through the legs of plastic chairs.
Steve gave up on his speech. He looked around for a way out. Every exit was blocked. He glanced up at the high, green windows. If he could just clamber up…
The front row started to shuffle out of their seats. With blistered arms outstretched, they moved towards him. The next row followed, and the row after that, til they were closing in on him. He closed his eyes, and there was only blackness.
“What happened?” said Laura, watching the stretcher slide into the ambulance.
“He was giving a speech, and he just- freaked out” said the head of art, shrugging. “Started gibbering and staring at everyone, backing away. Then he got to the back of the stage and collapsed. It was so weird.”
“Is everyone else ok?”
“Well, it’s caused a bit of a ripple. Don’t expect he’ll be back as head now.”
“Well, yeah… having a breakdown like that, in front of all the kids? He’d never live that down. I expect they’ll let him go off on long-term sick, get Sheila to cover for him til they find someone else.”
“Hmm” Laura said, “well. I’d better set up for next lesson.”
Somewhere under the ground a deep, guttural laughter rose through the earth, shaking the first leaves from the trees.
This is a video featuring most of the poets working on the TFL travel better London campaign. Some are poets in residence at tube stations, some (like me) are “pop-up” poets appearing at various stations. So far this has involved mad dashes across London, leaving school and popping on my TFL t-shirt in my superhero-style change…