Authors: David Park
Helen Jackson and Eileen Lindsay
here was still time to change his mind. All he had to do was knock off the indicator light and drive away. The line of oncoming cars preventing him making the right turn through the open gates and into the curved driveway, showed no sign of breaking. Behind, the road was still clear with no following car to be confused by a change of signal. He stared at the high, wrought-iron gates, their intricate design dating them to an older period, and the tall birch and elm trees which formed a screen behind the redbrick wall, obscuring any view of the building. All he had to do was knock off the indicator and drive on past â that's all he had to do. Its noise grew louder, blocking out the sound of the radio, steady and precise like the rising beat of his heart. He stared at the faces of the passing drivers, but it felt as if he was invisible to them and no one returned his glance, or turned their eyes towards him. And then suddenly the road was clear, the noise of the indicator greater than his senses could bear, and he was driving through the open gates.
The driveway was bordered on both sides by thick wedges of shrubbery and overhanging trees whose skinny black branches darkened it with shadows, the only colour where their last shot leaves shivered in the wind. As he drove underneath, one fluttered on to the windscreen and lay trembling like a veined and yellowed moth. A car went by with a nurse driving, one hand pushing her thick black hair into shape, as if she had just taken off her cap. Round the first bend he had a view of the house â old, imposing, probably Victorian, wearing a beard
ivy which had been clipped back sharply from upper windows. A red splurge of Virginia creeper fanned across a wide wall and neat box hedging edged the gravel driveway leading to the front doors. The white window frames looked new but only the television aerials seemed incongruously modern. It felt like driving into the past, a journey that no longer brought its old reassurance, because he knew now that even the past could change and was fixed only in the faltering and flawed frame of memory.
He touched his brakes as a man in blue overalls pushed a wheelbarrow across the drive. The man nodded and smiled a gap-toothed greeting as he crossed in front of the car, and for the first time his secret conviction that he would be able to recognise the man he had come to visit struck him as arrogant and inconceivably foolish. Twenty-seven years had passed, and while the image he carried in his head from that moment in boyhood would remain with him for ever, he forced himself to admit that it could hardly be expected to bear any relation to the present. He looked again at the man pushing the wheelbarrow. He was about the right age but apart from that he could see nothing which might link him with the object of his visit. He couldn't even tell if he was a gardener employed by the hospital or a patient and his uncertainty increased his growing feelings of doubt about what he was doing.
As he parked the car he tried to regain some of his old self-confidence which helped him take charge of things, and as he walked towards the front entrance he strode out with sure and deliberate steps, but the very consciousness of his actions told him that he had lost what had been instinctive. An elderly couple, hand in hand with a girl he assumed to be their daughter, moved slowly towards him, patiently guiding her hesitant and crooked steps. They smiled at him as he stood aside to let them pass and the girl said hello in a loud childish
her head lolling to one side. He returned her greeting in the friendly, interested tone he reserved for children, the words rising towards the recipient, but when they had passed he glanced furtively over his shoulder as they made their way along the path, and he was afraid. It was something he had come to recognise â the taste in his mouth, the loosening and then tightening of his stomach.
He looked up at the ivy-framed windows and was suddenly aware of faces watching him. The light on the glass robbed them of their features and bleached them pale and unshapen. One of the windows was half open and a curtain shifted gently in the breeze. The inside of the building added to his confusion. He hadn't known what to expect but the unspoken word âinstitution' spawned a range of distorted images, many of them, he knew, outdated and originating in old films, but he had been unable to replace them with anything more corporeal until this moment. What struck him first was that, despite it conforming to his preformed stereotype in terms of its age, it had an open and spacious feel about it. Even the foyer he now found himself standing in had a light, informal air, and people â he assumed they were patients â seemed able to walk about where they willed. Sometimes they were assisted by a nurse or orderly and in the distance he could see someone being pushed in a wheelchair. Waiting at the sliding glass window marked âReception' he felt like a small boy in his own school, unsure whether to knock or wait until someone noticed his presence. A girl with Down's Syndrome carrying a neat pile of ironed laundry stopped when she saw him and rolled her eyes in exasperation.
âHas no one come out to you? They're desperate in that office.'
He shifted uneasily, unsure of what to say, but she didn't wait for any response, simply opened the office door roughly
shouted that there was someone waiting. He watched her march off down the corridor with the air of someone very much in charge. When the glass slid open and a receptionist appeared they both smiled a kind of apology before he told her his name and the reason for his visit. She searched in a book on her desk and then phoned to inform someone of his arrival.
âSister will be with you in a minute, if you'd just like to wait.'
He nodded and tried to make himself less conspicuous as he looked about. It felt strange to be on the outside of something looking in and he tried to blend into the background, unobserved, as he sought to gauge the nature of the place. Everywhere was clean and polished and although the distinctive smell of communal cooking drifted from somewhere, there were few of the characteristics of a hospital. There was a lot of wood panelling around, and the building had been modernised in a way that preserved some of the original features. He could hear a piano playing on some higher level and an occasional burst of ragged hand-clapping, strangely unsynchronised and staccato. But apart from the building itself, it didn't feel a million miles away from some sort of school, and as he told himself that it encouraged him as he prepared for the arrival of the Sister. He assumed it would be the one he had spoken to on the phone. He remembered that her tone had been neutral, even suspicious, and wondered how he should handle her. He had told her his real name and the person he wanted to see, and although she had stopped just short of asking him the reason for his proposed visit, he had constructed a vaguely credible response, throwing in a couple of times the fact that he was a primary school headmaster â something he found himself doing increasingly in situations where bona fide credentials were required. People
headmasters and, in the country at least, like doctor or bank manager, it was one of the few remaining titles still able to engender a modicum of respect.
He would shake her hand, call her Sister a few times to convey a respectful acknowledgement of her status, dredge up a sprinkling of charm and she would be all right. He watched a girl approaching down the wide staircase, her hand trailing lightly along the bannisters the way a child is comforted by the continuity and solidity of touch. She was about thirty and almost pretty, with fair hair swept back from her face and held in place with a brightly patterned hairband that was out of sync with her age. When she reached the bottom of the stairs she smiled at him, a naÃ¯ve coquettish smile that he sometimes saw on the faces of children. He thought she was going to speak but as her head jerked back in an action he recognised, he raised his arm protectively in time to stop her full-throated spit splattering against his face.
âI'm sorry about that. Sandra's having a bad day.'
The Sister handed him a tissue to clean his jacket, then walked off down the corridor after the girl. When she caught up with her, she put her arm round the girl's shoulders in a gesture of both sympathy and control, then guided her into a room out of sight. It was a few minutes before she returned and the small damp spots on his jacket were the only evidence of what had happened. He followed her up the stairs, aware that her posture and pace discouraged small talk and told him that she had other duties she considered more important than this to fulfil. As they walked he was suddenly conscious that he'd come empty-handed. But what did you bring twenty-seven years too late to someone who might not know who you were or be able to understand? He wanted the Sister to speak to him, to give him her approval, advice on how he should handle the visit, but she seemed deep inside her own world,
to his needs. As she led the way she paused from time to time to close a door or glance into a room. He had to say something; he didn't want it to be like this. From somewhere down the corridor the hand-clapping reached a broken crescendo then slowly faded into a solitary, insistent beat, over and over until it, too, vanished into its own silence.
hey stood in their rows with curious upturned faces like so many stooks of corn. A few did elaborate stage whispers behind screening hands, some were smiling without realising it, while others shuffled and fidgeted in anticipation. Someone hacked out a rasping cough and immediately it was echoed by a sympathetic chorus. The youngest children stood close to the stage, some of them holding hands with their neighbours, the oldest ranged along the back of the hall, the occasional head of a tall child sticking up like a sunflower, all of them staring up at him with expectant faces. Even their teachers who stood stiffly at the sides like warders stared intently, keen to evaluate his first public performance. It felt too rigid, too impersonal.
He had a crazy impulse to do something outrageous â an Elvis Presley impersonation, swing like Tarzan on one of the climbing ropes which lay tethered lifelessly at the side of the hall. It was an impulse which often came when faced with an audience, born out of nervousness but also the knowledge that a performance was required. He re-shuffled the cards inside his head until he had them matched and sequenced.
âGood morning. Welcome back to the first day of a new school year. I hope you all had a good summer. It won't surprise you, I'm sure, to hear that I've a few things to say, but I think you'd probably be a bit more comfortable if you all sat down.' He motioned with a slow drop of his hand, the rows collapsing instantly as if they had been sliced by the swing
a scythe. Only the teachers remained standing, shifting a little in a self-conscious realisation of their conspicuous stance.
âFirst days are a time for introductions. Most of you won't know who I am, so I'll start by telling you my name. I'm called John Cameron â not too hard to remember â although when I was the same age as some of you younger ones, I used to have trouble spelling it, but I'm sure you're all too clever to have that problem. Before too long I hope to get to know each one of you, but you'll have to be patient with me until I learn your names.
âToday, I'm the new boy in school and it feels a little strange, but in some ways I'm not really a new boy at all, because quite a long time ago, on a bright September morning just like this, my mother brought me through the same school gates you came through and delivered me into the hands of a very strict lady called Miss Winters, the infant class teacher. Of course the school wasn't exactly the same then as it is now â it was much smaller for a start â but some things aren't too different. That day was the beginning of a happy time and I'm sure that with your help and co-operation, today is also going to be the beginning of another happy time in my life.'