Sundew

Christopher Ray

 

There it lay; the most foreboding location on the school site. Its latent menace lay far ahead in the summer months. For now, it was dark, unfathomable, like a rectangular Loch Ness, waiting for its moment.

 

Spatula was an annoying arse. Thirty-two in the class and fate had positioned me at the adjacent desk.

 ‘Stop calling me Spatula,’ he moaned. His surname was Spooner. ‘Look Spoon,’ I hit back. ‘Be grateful. You were Spoony the Loony. Spat is as good as it gets with a name like that.’

I liked the word spatula. I’d come across it in science. Utensil-sounding.

My nickname was Cowpoke. Some nicknames were plays on words, others rhymes or derivations. Gregan was Greek-Urn, also known as ‘The Greek’ or ‘Urn’. Kobic was ‘Phobic’, Morris was ‘Minor’, Chambers was ‘Potty’ or ‘Pottsy’ from chamber-pots and so on.

All the masters had their appellations too, passed down the blazered generations till there were some whose origins could only be guessed at.

 

I was Tom Husband. Plain ‘Hubby’ until The Urn’s tragic Latin translation which bestowed on me a more original moniker. Faced with the sentence ‘Ubi es caupo?’ his brave but clueless response was, ‘Hubby is a cowpoke’ sir, to uproarious mirth. ‘Gregan, you will take thirty minutes for your poor grasp of the language and translate the whole of Page 22.’ Poor Urnie. A complete page of the ‘New Latin Course’ was not a trifle. My copy had been defaced by a previous objector and renamed New Satin Corsets, often leaving me vacant, imagining the lingerie instead of the lingo.

 

The Grecian Urn was a scruffpot. No sartorial elegance there. A tousle of wavy, unruly hair as if it had once experienced rollers but had never since witnessed a comb; a snubby nose and a loose tie that took evasive action, swiveling either under one collar lapel or the other despite its noose of a knot. Nothing of beauty to tempt the likes of Keats into a glorious ode.

But maybe if Bram Stoker had been differently inspired we could have had encountered Spatula: Prince of Darkness. Greasy, slippery, swarthy, protruding top teeth. A black cloak, a trickle of blood from his mouth and he would be the finished article. And many were often of a mind to produce that trickle.

‘Cowpoke’, he whined, audibly. ‘Don’t cheat off me.’

‘I’d only do that Spat if you were getting it right.’

‘Well I caught you looking.’

‘Yeah, just for a laugh.’

‘Husband and Spooner. You are doubtless aware that you were in a no-conversation zone?’ Thus spake the predatory Mr. Graves. We were in awe of his hawk-like surveillance. He would sweep in, hook-nosed, with black gown flying and settling behind him like a crow’s folded wings as we instantly jolted upright to stand at our desks. We therefore answered his rhetorical query with trepidation.

Me, ‘Yes sir.’ Spat, ‘Yes sir.’

‘And were you breaking that rule?’

Me, ‘No sir.’ Spat, ‘Yes sir.’

‘I will take Spooner’s view given the evidence of my own ears and eyes. So Spooner, take fifteen minutes at lunch and Husband, thirty for you. Report to the detention room by 1pm. And now, back to your descriptions of the reason for, and role of, the League of Nations….’

 

One freezing February lunchtime, The Greek, Pottsy and I were trudging between buildings when we decided to make a slight detour.

‘God, look at that bloody thing,’ said Gregan.

‘Its only a matter of time,’ I contributed, spreading the dread.

The coal-black waters hinted at gravel-pit depths. We stood peering at our future through the glistening, damp railings.

Potts visibly shivered. ‘And that awful muscle-bound woman. If she’s actually female.’

Miss Constance Mallory. Malodorous Mallory. A swimming instructress who apparently never took to water. With a physique and aroma to be feared.

 

 

P.E. master Miller the Gorilla folded his knuckles under his opposite biceps and expanded his chest tightening his pristine, white vest to show the contours of his torso.

‘As you know by now boys, the cross-country race is a three and a half mile marked course around the fields.’ It was probably his favourite announcement of the year. A leer stretched his mean mouth. ‘This year you will also be running on the outskirts of the adjacent sewage farm. Good fresh air lads.’

That time again. March. The school year was absolutely congested with enjoyable events.

 

‘Didn’t you at least get a shower Thomas?’ demanded my mother as I wheeled my bike past the back door. She stood there wide-hipped in dress that reached her thick shins, a hefty brown cardigan guarding her bosom.

‘Came tenth,’ I grinned. Out of three hundred. School colours. My current colour though was mud. Treacly, clingy, once-oozy, now solidified black mud that coated me like an exotic skin treatment.

‘You smell disgusting. Don’t bring that filth in here. Use the outside tap to get the worst off.’

Maybe I was fast as I’d only been smoking lightly for a year or so. Others had far more fags in their lungs. The early stages resembled a massed charge in a squalid war zone. Soon, there were boys gasping on their knees, hands scrabbling for a lost, sucked-down shoe, bodies writhing in the mud over which I leapt. Spatula was not one of them. If he’d been prone, I would run straight over the back of his vest and trodden his face into the slime. Not vindictive. Payback.

We had no shower in the bathroom. By the third shallow bath the lukewarm water was sloshing clean and my skin was returned to a healthy glow. A heavy fist on the bathroom door. ‘I suppose you’ve used all the blasted hot water now. Well you can wash up with cold tonight if you have.’ Dad was also not keen on my success in such a healthy pursuit.

 

My wholesome presence was grudgingly accepted at the meal table. My sister Rayna, three years younger, sat cowed in the thundery atmosphere, avoiding conversation. A simple sparking word could start a blaze. Dad was combustible. I knew how she felt. But I was different. An arsonist.

‘Came tenth though,’ I repeated cheerfully. ‘School colours for that.’

‘Well next time don’t worry about where you finish. Just walk round the edge of the blasted course and come back decent.’

‘Well it’s funny how you bother about all my other results but you don’t care about my efforts today. It was really tough. If I’d been tenth in maths you’d be praising the Lord for his intervention.’

His fist again; this time on the table making the spare cutlery leap and clatter. ‘Thomas don’t you dare take the name of the Lord in vain! And if you came tenth in maths it would be a blasted miracle, a fluke or a fix.’

‘But I’m good at running. And swimming.’

‘Where’s that going to get you? Now shut up. We’ve heard enough.’

 

I had earned a bronze medallion the previous summer. For lifesaving. They said they had been quite proud of me. I had dedicated hours to the training but, unfortunately, it was another commitment outside of my school life where they most desired to see me focus. They knew I was reasonably academic. I could understand though, that they detested the way I appeared to be turning out, thinking that I didn’t apply myself, that I was squandering intellectual opportunities. My grievous offences were mounting. I could see what Dad could see, with his own narrowed eyes. That by the time I was twenty-one, I’d be equally frittering my time away at some college or university, out of their control; that now, twenty years later, the sacrifices of his generation were in the process of being fruitlessly trampled down by a galling new breed of teenager.

 

There was a little warmth in the lengthening days and though the sun teased us with promise, the wind was resistant to change and streaked a chill through our blazers and the gaps in our shirts.

‘Not long now,’ The Greek observed in a mournful tone.

‘Still two months, Stavros,’ I replied, using a variation on the theme.

‘Spiros if you don’t mind,’ chided Gregan, his mouth full of a cobb stuffed with Golden Wonder.

‘Half term in June,’ stated Pottsy. ‘Then it’s the dive of doom.’

We pictured it as we stood at the railings chomping on our breaktime nosh. Shivering white bodies with visible ribs, toes curled around the concrete edge, looking malnourished but in reality just fit. No spare on us in those days. Any calorie intake was instantly dissipated.

Even under a clearing April sky, the pool glared blackly with hardly a ripple, retaining its malevolent presence. ‘Bet we’re in the first group,’ sighed Gregan. ‘Just be our luck. Before a few bodies have warmed it up a notch.’

‘Will I nudge Spat in or will you?’ I asked.

‘Whoever’s nearest gets the pleasure,’ said Pottsy.

 

 

It was raining really wet rain, a driven mist that could not be escaped. Even in heavy rain you could dodge some of the drops or make a run for it. Some would hit, some would miss. But with a hard, wind-blown spray you were sodden in moments, the fine droplets soaking and seeping into every woollen blazer fibre, producing that fuggy, doggy, damp smell as they steamed and dried. So in preference to the silence of the library at indoor lunch break, a few of us decided to do some gentle keepy-uppies at the back of the classroom. I caught the small plastic ball on my knee a couple of times then once on each foot before flicking it on. It should have been to Pottsy but into the ring stepped Spatula. It bounced on his knee then as it came down, he stretched and clumsily toe-ended it vertically. The ball assumed an unnecessary velocity and we stood mesmerized as the shards of the dusty ceramic lightshade and bulb cascaded tinkling around us. The door opened, and on the doorstep shaking his umbrella was our form-master, Rommel. Mr. F. Marshall. He had the military bearing; medium height, wiry, straight back and clipped moustache. Rommel marched across the courtyards, with synchronized opposite arms and legs. ‘Achtung, was haben wir hier?’ he might have barked. The ball rolled to his feet as if submitting to its new owner.

‘What the devil is this debacle?’ he demanded as he surveyed the scene. Dust was still settling on our shoulders like brown dandruff. ‘Stand by your desks all of you.’ The six of us moved to stand behind our chairs. ‘You are doubtless aware that the form room is out of bounds at lunch unless supervised or permission has been given?’

‘Yes sir.’ A subdued chorus.

‘Right,’ he growled pointing to the back of the room. ‘I’m asking this once. Who is responsible?’

There was silence. No-one would snitch on Spat though we were dying to. I gave him a nudge. Honest Spat. The one who would own up if it looked like honesty would save his skin. In my peripheral vision I could see his angled top teeth pushing out his lower lip as he sucked on them. I gave him another subtle nudge. He nudged me back.

Rommel changed tack. ‘Right, whose ball is this?’

‘It’s mine sir.’

‘Not any more, Husband. And I will hold you responsible, not only for this serious incident but also for inciting others to participate in this activity. You will each serve an hour’s detention with the exception of Husband who will serve two. And Husband, I shall forward a letter to your parents requesting the amount due for the repairs. Is that understood?’

 

‘Three quid Spat cost me,’ I told the others. ‘Diabolical.’

‘A small fortune,’ agreed Urnie.

 ‘That’s not all. Dad gave me a right lashing, promising me he’d deduct the same every week from my pocket money unless my results improved. It’s tipped him over the edge. He’s going all out for control. Wants me straight home and then in every night for a fortnight. Threatened me with taking my guitar for firewood.’

 

 

‘It’s one of your wenches.’ Dad thrust the receiver at me.

‘Hello Tom, its Alice.’ She had heard her introduction.

‘Sorry. Just Dad’s sense of humour.’ I noted that he deliberately left the lounge door open a fraction.

After the brief relief of her call, I slumped in my chair. The grate was empty, devoid of comfort. No more coal till next autumn. A chill had settled over the house as it waited for warmer days. Maybe my guitar would be useful fuel. Mum sat on a two-seater settee with Rayna. I had a chair next to Dad who had begun to doze. I didn’t dare ask if I could get up and change the channel. I didn’t want that kind of blaze. I cupped my hands around my empty tea mug, preserving its residual warmth as long as possible, dreaming of Alice, suddenly realising what an ache this enforced detachment had aroused. And it was only half way through week one.

 

 

‘Come on, which part of a flower contains the female reproductive parts?’ Mr. Lancer required an instant answer. ‘Boil’. Teaching ‘Boilogy’. I had a petulant specimen on the back of my neck. Mum said it was because I failed to wash properly. My theory was the regular rubbing of my dirty blazer collar. A few confident hands were raised.  Mine was not among them.

‘And who can name the parts contained within it and their purpose?’

I kept my eyes raised to the right corner of the room, my chin cupped in my hand making an art form of looking intelligent, hoping that Boil would pick on someone less resourceful to talk about female reproduction. I didn’t trust myself.  How long I was like that I don’t know. When I regained consciousness we were discussing carnivorous plants. Fascinating things. And beautiful, like our droplet-studded sundew. Luring insects to their death. Good job too. No-one likes flies.

 

‘Group one line up.’ Constance Mallory patrolled the pool perimeter, with a tall and muscly stride. Our intelligence was that she was in her early fifties. Her dark eyes often clouded and a coarse bush of long greying hair was wild and unbrushed above her broad shoulders. She was twice the man, or rather woman, that we were. Her cheekbones remained prominent but her bucolic face was a map of broken red capillaries, her top lip matching the hirsute nature of the visible parts of her arms. Her black tracksuit hugged tightly to the stack of her chest, her lower rear shelf and what were probably once shapely thighs, concealing the forest we could only assume was also adhering to those limbs and recesses. She had a distinctive smell, mid-way between an essence of lavender and body odour. The two aromas battled for supremacy, each trying to mask the other until they merged into that stale potpourri.

Constance attracted conjecture. Further intelligence suggested she had spent some time of her younger life on a dangerous beach in South Africa as a lifeguard. That she had saved two lives. With her qualifications and experience, she had been employed during the war in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force checking equipment on Air-Sea Rescue launches. We had no way of knowing the truth. Such probing conversation with staff was considered off-limits.

I studied her, putting her back in her twenties, beautiful, dark-haired with a sexy, Amazonian figure, swim-suit clinging wet beneath the South African sun, challenging the waves and currents to reach a desperate swimmer, dragging the lucky victim to shore and displaying total efficiency in the successful resuscitation. Developing her history, I speculated that maybe she had also suffered a fatality; a life she had strived to save that utterly devastated her and might account for her misty eyes and a seeming aversion to re-entering the water.

‘Stop shivering laddie,’ she snarled. I jerked back to the present hoping it wasn’t my vacant look she was addressing. ‘Yes you, Pugh.’ His bony knees in the middle of his spindly legs were visibly quaking. Poo was a skinny wretch with absolutely no insulation. ‘The temperature out here is a balmy sixty-eight. Ambient room temperature, Pugh. Do you shake like that in class?’

‘No Miss Mallory. Just nervous.’

‘Nervous? Why? The water temperature is also a mild fifty-eight degrees. I have taken the measurement myself. It is within school limits, so you will be overjoyed to hear that your health-enhancing swimming practice is about to commence. You, my lucky lads, have the privilege and pleasure of the first dip of summer.’

‘Jeez, fifty-eight,’ I whispered. ‘My balls have only just descended. Now they’ll be evacuating my sac and heading north again. Urnie snorted trying to suppress his giggle. Mallory picked it up, her antennae swiveling in our direction.

‘Something to say, Gregan?’

‘Just clearing my breathing ready for action Miss.’

‘All clear?’

‘I think so Miss.’

‘Good show Gregan. In you go then.’

‘What Miss?’

‘Lead the way Gregan. I like a man who’s ready for action. IN!’

Urnie bent down, sat on the side and dangled his legs in the numbing water. Under the clouds it remained dark and his shins disappeared into the murky depths.

‘Did I say, sit and paddle laddie? No I said IN! Straight in. Now!’

Urnie held his nose and slipped in, his momentum swallowed beneath the surface. He emerged and scrabbled to the side, panting for breath.

‘Now all of you. Step forward one pace and IN!’

 

Freed from Dad’s previous restrictions, I cycled home past the girls’ school, hanging around by the park gates hoping she’d walk that way. Suddenly she separated from a crowd, her auburn hair billowing in the summer breeze like a flamed goddess. I watched her hitch up her navy skirt from regulation length to well above the knee. She turned towards the park, saw me and ran up the path into my arms. I just had time to let the cycle fall into a flower-bed.

‘Hey Tom, I’ve missed you.  So much. You’ve been doing all that heroic work. How are you?’

‘Marvellous,’ I replied. ‘Sorry, Alice. Thanks for calling to check on me. But it wasn’t work or anything heroic. Had two detentions, a whacking great fine and Dad insisted that I stay home every night. Those two weeks felt like half my life. I could have broken his curfews but that would only have antagonized him even more. It was best to let him make his point this time. I couldn’t talk about it on the phone with him hovering and earwigging. That’s why I stressed I was studying hard, for his benefit. Sorry. Walk you home?’

‘Yes please. Well I have to say I was impressed to hear about the studying but also a little dubious! I think the heroism now applies to respecting your Dad’s rules. What happened then, to start all that?’

Bike in one hand, Alice holding the other, we strolled across the changing fields, where patches of summer grass were abandoning their early vibrant green to develop a more parched and patchy skin of straw. I made light of my tale of woe.

‘You’re so nice, Tom. Someone else would have taken revenge and punched that Spooner. You have real integrity. That’s probably why… I love you.’

I had never heard those words before. I nearly tripped over the adjacent pedal. I let the bike fall and turned to her. She cupped my face and, bright-eyed, kissed me full on the lips. ‘One day, dear kind Tom Husband, I want a husband like you.’

 

 

 

I heard the thrashing and lost sight of his head. It re-surfaced and as he went to yell, he went under again. Usually with Spatula, I would have put it down to gratuitous attention-seeking. But not now. I looked at Mallory and instantly calculated that she was going nowhere near the water. Much as it would have been entertaining to watch Spat struggle to the point of drowning, I wasted no more time and dived into the breath-taking cold.  I reached him in three strong strokes, pulled up his head and cradled his chin in my palm, placing myself beneath him. ‘Stay still Spat,’ I ordered. ‘Don’t fight me.’

‘Cramp!’ he gulped.

‘I know. Just go with me.’ I kicked hard to the side where the group of anxious witnesses was now gathering. I held on, lifting from below while they reached down and heaved him up. Mallory intervened. ‘Let me see him,’ she ordered. I hoisted myself out. ‘Prompt action, Husband. That’s what we like to see. Commendation for you.’

The sound of Mallory referring to me as “Husband” didn’t appeal. Spatula lay prone on his back. He gave me a grateful smile of thanks as I straightened his leg, bending his foot to stretch his calf.

‘Ouch, thanks Cowpoke. I appreciate it. Ugh.’ He belched up a mouthful of recycled pool water.

I wonder if you’ll appreciate this, I thought. ‘Miss Mallory. I do think he’s ingested a good deal of water. Wouldn’t this be a good time to demonstrate the Holger-Neilson method?’

Spatula jerked his head in instant terror. I smiled benignly as if to say it was for his own good. ‘Marvellous idea Husband.’ Here was a part she could play. Resuscitation. Artificial respiration. ‘Turn over Spooner.’

‘I’m fine now Miss,’ he gurgled. ‘It was only a touch of cramp.’ He belched up another small puddle that didn’t help his case.

‘Turn over. Immediately.’ He meekly complied. ‘Gather round boys, but give me room. Register this method in your puny brains.’ She rolled up her sleeves, dowsed her hairy forearms in the pool to slick them, ran one across her forehead to cool herself for the exertion ahead, then dowsed it again.

 

In our delight to be out of the freezing pond, we forgot our goose-pimpled limbs and the edge of the wind, as Mallory got to work over him. He was now turned face down on the concrete, positioned with his hands under his forehead. She half-knelt with one knee and one foot either side of his head. Her hands reached to his shoulder blades and pinned his chest to the ground with a downward thrust. Then she manoevered his folded elbows upwards like a dead chicken’s wings. This method she repeated pushing firmly down, audibly crushing the air out of him then lifting his bent arms higher with each repetition as he sucked oxygen back to his emptied lungs. She got stuck into her work, kneading him and pulling on his arms, drops of pool-water still adhering to her hairs like tiny reflecting jewels. He was shifted nearer with every vigorous repetition till he was almost between her thighs. He would now be inhaling the glorious twin scents.

Mallory forgot time and the audience, enraptured by her own prowess as her powerful hands mechanically pumped and pulled, alternately folding herself over him, then throwing back her head, her eyes closed tightly. It was if she were back on the sands of that Cape Town bay, striving to save the life she’d dragged from that ripping surf. Spat tried to turn his head. I witnessed the pleading look in his eye to call an end to this torture and heard him whimpering in desperation. Was that a drip on his cheek or a running tear? I smiled in acknowledgement of his utter distress, trapped like an insect in a carnivorous plant. Constance Mallory, though, despite the radiance of her beaded gems, was nowhere near as alluring as sundew.

 

 

Christopher is a writer of short fiction based in the south of England. Most recently his writing has appeared online at Ad Hoc fiction, 101 Words and he has had pieces accepted for publication later in the year including Spelk Fiction. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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