The Darkest Hour of Laurence Smitheringale

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic

Note for US readers - in the UK a 'public school' is actually an exclusive kind of private school. I know that doesn't make sense but that's what they are called.

Chapter 1 (v.1) - Chapter One- The watcher in the woods

Submitted: April 19, 2016

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Submitted: April 19, 2016

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Victory in Europe Day, 8 May 1945, Berkshire, England.

“All I want is for everything to go back the way it was,” said Laurence Smitheringale, Headmaster of Kennet Public School to John Wadworth, his head steward, as they cycled along the canal towpath. “I can’t wait for it all to be over.”

The fighting and killing finally was all over. But that’s not what Smitheringale was referring to. He tossed back his long black gown which was, as always, threatening to become entangled in his bike spokes. “All this noise and disruption. A training camp next door. The foreigners in the village- Poles, Americans. Men in uniform everywhere. It’s created absolute chaos for the boy’s education – and my studies.”

“Yes, Headmaster.” Wadworth was distracted by joyful ruckus from the other side of the canal. The celebrations at the Newbury Road Inn had spilled outside. A couple of the aforementioned foreign groups were flinging their national flags around but it was the Union Jack that was dominant to the point the Newbury Road and the eastern tow path resembled a frothy river of red, white and blue. There were shouts and cheers and girl’s shrieks and soldier’s coarse laughter and canvas backed trucks honking their horns. Then, one great, jubilant chorus of Rule Britannia engulfed everything: singing so violent in its joy and relief that it shook the leaves from the trees.

Smitheringale grimaced. “Oh good grief. I can’t wait to get away from here.”

Wadworth knew that if Smitheringale could have jammed his fingers in his ears as he cycled and wiped out all sensory evidence of celebration he would have. Wadworth’s feeling weren’t as simple. Since his initial joy at hearing the news, a strange feeling of melancholia had crept over him. He felt it now in earnest as he looked over at the celebrations on the other side of the canal. It was a mixture of yearning to be over there with them with a conviction that he didn’t deserve to be.

Wadworth and Smitheringale’s side of the canal was edged with woods and they had the tow path to themselves until it reached a roadbridge; three women in the brown whipcord dungarees of the Women’s Land Army came along holding a flag and singing “Pack Up Your Troubles”. Smitheringale had to squeeze his brake to avoid being caught in the Union Jack like a fish in a net. The women laughed but the Headmaster wasn’t amused “Oh, for goodness sake.”

“It’s really over,” cried one of the women ecstatically to Wadworth flinging her arms wide. She was very pretty with milk white skin and plump red lips. Bleached blonde curls escape from her green woollen headscarf. Her happiness infected Wadworth. He felt again the uncomplicated joy of this wonderful day.

Wadworth’s normally, stiff formal face softened. “Yes, it really is.”

“I can’t believe it.” Tears welled in her eyes. She moved closer to him. Her arms curled as if they were about to go around him; Wadworth felt his shoulders and upper arms tingle where her hug would land.

“Neither can I,” Wadworth breathed.

“I’m so happy,” she puckered her lips and they moved in on him. He felt her breath on his cheek.Then, just as the crimson heaven of her embrace was about to touch him, one of the girl’s friends grabbed her around the waist and pulled her back.

“Don’t waste any kisses on army dodgers Beryl,” the other girl sneered. “Let’s go and find ourselves some lads in uniform.”

The three girls hand in hand, carrying their flag and Wadworth’s unclaimed kiss rushed off over the bridge towards the celebrations at the Inn. The disappointed steward had unconsciously struck a posture with his right foot stuck out. He had spent the first thirty years of his life hoping women wouldn’t notice his clubbed foot and then had spent the last six years hoping they would. He would have been tempted to cry out and draw their attention to it if the sad lump in his throat would have allowed him.

“Come along Wadworth,” the headmaster grumbled.

Wadworth gloomily nodded. He envied the headmaster at that moment. How soothing it would have been to not care for kisses or put any value on heroism; to care nothing about the war except as an interruption of the running of Kennet School and classical translations.

“Yes, Headmaster.”

They turned their bicycles left down a thin woodland lane that led away from the mossy smell of the canal. Soon, the Inn’s noise faded and was submerged beneath soft waves of birdsong.  Wild bluebells flourished amongst the tree roots and clouds of their sweet azure perfume hovered around them. Wadworth inhaled the scents as he cycled and sighed as he watched a tiny white flock of butterflies flutter across their path. It was a beautiful spring day. Wadworth started to share his master’s hope that the war was nothing more than a bit of temporary unpleasantness that could soon be forgotten.

Suddenly – or as suddenly as the speed the two of them could cycle – a physical reminder of the conflict swept into view. This corner of Berkshire had felt its fair share of troop movements but actual combat with the enemy, however, had been absent but for one incident. Five years ago, Kennet’s boarders were woken by a loud crash at midnight. Daybreak found the mangled remains of a Junkers Ju 87 in the woods with bullets from a Spitfire raked across it. Two sets of footprints led away from the crash site. Wadworth and other members of the Home Guard, armed with truncheons and pitchforks, trawled the woods for days afterwards but there was no sign of the pilots.

Wadworth and Smitheringale passed the rusted wreck of the German plane now. Every boy at Kennet had scratched their initials into it. Its left wing had been bounced on so much then it bent downward, like it was an injured pigeon. Saplings thrust up all around the metalwork as they were trying to hold the plane to the ground.  The ruined war machine was in their view for a few seconds and then all trace of conflict disappeared behind the green curtain of the peaceful woods.  

“One can only imagine, the damage done to the education of the boys these last few years,” Smitheringale carefully navigated around a deep rut in the path.

“We’ve done our best headmaster,” said Wadworth absently as he wondered if the girl had been about to kiss his cheek or his mouth. 

“Yes, we have.” Smitheringale nodded. “But the loss of our best staff alone has been appalling. Now at least we’ll get Mr Barker back from the navy now. His absence has been such a loss to the Greek department.” 

They cycled on until, like a great ship hoving over the horizon, the honey-coloured stone towers of Kennet Public School emerged from the sea of leaves and branches ahead of them.

Smitheringale wasn’t known for his sudden movements, sudden decisions or sudden thoughts. But now suddenly, and with a swiftness that not just surprised but shocked, the Headmaster brought his bike to a screeching halt and skidded sideways. Wadworth opened his mouth to shout in surprise but Smitheringale exclamation beat him to it: “Oh my God, Wadworth! Did you see it?”

“Oooww.” Wadworth had clobbered his elbow on his handlebar. He had never raised his voice at his headmaster before but: “Headmaster! – what on earth…see what exactly?”

Smitheringale face was contorted with terror. “You must have saw it surely. It was right there.” Wadworth looked at him with appalled fascination.

“It was right there,” Smitheringale pointed a finger at the woods. Wadworth looked. The wood here, was mostly smooth skinned young ash trees ash and slender silver birches but a little way back from the path the majestic trunk of a great oak could be seen. There was a thick canopy of leaves overhead but what spring sunshine came through was of vibrant gold. What ground wasn’t carpeted in russet bracken was covered in bluebells. The atmosphere was as unfrightening as could be imaginable.  

“What is it Headmaster?”

“There!” Smitheringale bawled, pointing at a tree branch that bent languorously as if stretching after just having woke up.  The petals of some bluebells gave a little, turquoise shiver.

“It’s just the breeze, Headmaster.”

“No – Listen!”

Wadworth listenened: a puny tap-tap as a tiny woodpecker assaulted the mighty oak, a birdcall from the distance told Wadworth that the first cuckoo of spring – and of peacetime -  had come to the county. From behind that: footsteps. The crunch of breaking vegetation.

“It’s probably just a deer. Or one of the boys playing.”

Smitheringale shook his head and wagged a scolding finger. “No, no, no- It’s intolerable. This cannot be.” He folded his thin body around his bicycle as is he was trying to hide himself in the frame. As he pushed his bike along the path his wheels squeaking mousily. He made a couple of attempts to mount his bike but the pedals threw off his shaky feet and his trembling hands couldn’t grip the bars. He got off and pushed it along the pathway, constantly glancing over his shoulder. Wadworth followed in bewilderment.

As the tower of Kennet school rose higher above the trees and its clock and twin steeples of its chapel came into view another ruckus could be heard, easily as loud as the celebrations at the Inn but in a higher pitch and exclaimed with the indefatigable enthusiasm of schoolboys. The two men’s bikes left the dirt of the woodland path where it meet the crunchy gravel of the driveway. The noise from the school was deafening. Wadworth winced, not at the noise but at Smitheringale’s impending reaction. He had seen the Headmaster thrash a boy for coughing too loudly during evensong. This racket was louder than even the celebrations when the Kennet cricket team put Bannerman School out thirty five for eleven

But, astonishingly, Smitheringale seemed oblivious to the noise. He looked completely lost in himself staring down at the gravel as he walked his bike, occasionally glancing back to the woods.

“Um..the boys have obviously gotten the news, Headmaster.”

“What..oh, yes.” Smitheringale mumbled indifferently.

What on earth has gotten into him, thought C. He was exactly his usual self an hour ago. In fact Smitheringale  had always been his usual self every day every hour of every day that Wadworth had known him. This quivering wreck walking beside Wadworth now was not just unusual but unrecognizable.

They reached the front of the school-building itself. Boys were running around in front of the main doors swinging their (now unnecessary) gas mask boxes at each other. Three boys had climbed the oak tree that grew in front to hang a huge Union Jack from its branches. Judging from the noise echoing from the school’s inner quadrangle the scenes in there were even more tumultuous.

Mathew Channon, the modern languages masters’, cherry red MG was parked in front of the quadrangle entrance. Chanon, sixty years old but, as always, dressed decades younger – his houndstooth check, tweed suit too tight, his hair swept over his bald patch - stood with one foot on the running board and one hand on his hip. He puffed on a pipe, evidently regarding the boy’s mischief with amusement,

“How are lessons going, Mr Channon,” asked Wadworth.

“A little unruly.” Channon chuckled. “I saw Barker chasing some boys with his cane trying to get his lads back into double geography but the rest of us have just left them to it. Heavens know what will happen when old Smithers gets back – oh, I’m so sorry Headmaster I didn’t see you there.”

Channon straightend up and waited for the rebuke. It didn’t come. Smitheringale ashen face showed no signs of acknowledging anything but his own anxiety. Wadworth wasn’t surprised that Channon hadn’t see him. The headmaster’s fear seemed to have diminished him. He looked smaller.

Channon regarded Smitheringale ashy pallor. “Headmaster are you all right?”

“Headmaster is not himself,” said Wadworth.

Channon nodded understandingly. “Yes. Today days emotional for all of us.”

“No, I don’t think it’s that. It was something you saw in the woods – wasn’t it headmaster?” said Wadworth.

Smitheringale didn’t reply, only hung his miserable face.

Wadworth glanced back towards the woods. He saw something that made him jerk in fright. A figure crouched, where the woodland path met the driveway. It was half hidden behind a tree.  Wadworth could just make out that it was a man of large size and that he wore a brown coat. From his movements- the furtive darting back and forth from behind the tree - he seemed to be trying to stay out of sight and he seemed to be watching the front of the school.

Wadworth gave a little gasp and raised his hand to touch the Headmaster and bring it to his attention. At the last moment, he decided it would only make Smitheringale worse and stopped himself.

“Erm… should we go inside?” asked Channon after they had all stood awkwardly for some moments. No-one ever normally suggested what should be done in the headmaster’s presence.

In a daze, Smitheringale nodded, propped his bike into a rack and headed into the quadrangle through the archway. Channon moved close to Wadworth and whispered, “What on earths got into him?”

“I’ve no idea, sir.” Wadworth glanced back at the woods. The figure had gone.

Inside the quadrangle, the joyous yells of dozens of schoolboys echoed off the hundred and twenty year old stone walls. Boys were out on the window ledges and climbing the sandstone balconies. A courageous sixth-former had clambered the thin ledge to where Athena, the Greek god of knowledge, dominated a second floor alcove. The watching crowd yelled approbation when he wrapped his arms around her waist. They yelled all the louder when he planted a kiss on her marble cheek.

“This normally wouldn’t do at all of course, Headmaster, but I think today we it’s healthy to allow the boys to let off a bit of steam – ooff.” A boy accidently bumped into Channon while chasing his friend. Channon slapped the side of his head. “Watch it, Townsend.”

“Sorry, sir.” Townsend carried on running.  

The men stood under a deluge of coloured streamers that the boys were throwing from windows. Smitheringale seemed not to notice as a particularly thick pink streamer landed on his head and trailed down dangling from the tip of his nose. Wadworth emitted a snort of laughter at the sight and then clapped his hand to his mouth in shock at having done so.

Tim Harris, a maths teacher hung his head out of a first floor window, the teachers- room window. He shouted to be heard over the cheering. “Channon, Wadworth - I say, you chaps, come up quickly. The radio has just said that the Prime Minister is coming on soon to officially announce the end of the war. You don’t want to miss it.”

“Good show.” Channon clapped his hands.  “Come on Wadworth  -you too Headmaster, surely?”

Smitheringale scowled.  The expression made the pink streamer on his nose quiver. The presence of a radio in the teacher’s common room had been one point on which Smitheringale strict discipline had crumbled. When he took over as headmaster radio was becoming ubiquitous but Smitheringale had been adamantly against. When the war broke out, however, staff were so anxious to hear the news, he had faced a serious uprising. Smitheringale had capitulated with bad grace, muttering darkly about the end of civilization.

“I think I’ll just go to my study,” Smitheringale groaned, in the same chalk-faced daze. He was oblivious as Wadworth removed the streamer from his face.

“Yes, sir.”

“Oh, come on sir.” Channon chided him, good-naturedly. “History is being made today.”

Smitheringale snarled. “No.”

“Very good, sir.” Channon retreated.

“Wadworth, can you help me up the stairs? I feel very weak.” The Headmaster offered his steward his arm. Wadworth stared at the object with same astonishment as if Smitheringale had offered him his wallet. He couldn’t remember ever touching Smitheringale  before unless maybe his fingers had brushed him when he helped him on with his coat. Smitheringale disliked physical contact. He disliked noise, disliked trivial conversation.

“Do you feel unwell, sir,” asked Wadworth as he helped the Headmaster through the stout oak doors of the north tower.  Some of the boys stopped in their celebrations and mischief to point and stare. They had never seen Smitheringale like this before: ashen-faced, trembling and vulnerable. He looked  so vulnerable. For the first time ever, Wadworth felt pity for him.

“I do feel a little worn down, Wadworth.”

“It came on in the woods didn’t it, sir.”

Smitheringale’s roar echoed harshly off the stone walls of the stairway. “There was nothing in the woods.”

“Hhmm.” Wadworth’s loyal grip on Smitheringale’s  arm slacked a little. “Yes, sir.”

Smitheringale gaze wandered around the ancient stairway as they climbed. “Anything and everything I have ever done has been for the good of this institution of for the boy’s education. I hope people remember that.”

“No-one could doubt it, sir.”

At the top of the stairs, one little first-former sat on his own. His curly haired head hung low and he dangled his legs into the stairwell.

“All on your own, Fullman?” Wadworth asked him. “Not celebrating with the other boys?”

“Yes, sir,” Fullman raised his unhappy little face. “No sir.”

“Don’t you want to go out and have some fun?”

“Yes, sir. It’s just…my father’s a prisoner in Singapore, sir.”

“Ah yes… well, now that Hitler is finished it’ll be no time before we sort the japs out.’

“Yes, sir,” The little boy barely nodded. Wadworth’s heart sank.

The teachers-room was the closest door to the stairwell. Wadworth could hear the excited chatter from inside. He thought for a moment then said, “You know, Fullman the prime minister is coming on the radio any moment. He’s going to announce the end of the war.  I think, just this once, you can pop into the teachers room and listen to the broadcast, if you stay at the back. Wouldn’t that be a treat?”

He was gratified to see the child’s face brighten a little. “Yes sir. Thank you, sir."

 The teachers-room and the headmasters study were at opposite ends of a long corridor. After he watched Fullman sneak inside, Wadworth was about to move Smitheringale on down the corridor but paused. The open door showed the staff room it was packed and buzzing with excitement. Wadworth asked tentataively, “Are you sure you don’t want to go in and listen, Headmaster? You might regret it later if you don’t.”

Smitheringale relented wearily. “For a few minutes maybe.”

Wadworth helped him into a leather armchair at the back of the room. The schools teaching staff were all male and were either too old or  - like Wadworth –too unfit to serve. Most of them were standing. Too excited to sit, they shifted from one leg to the other, shaking the others by the hand, slapping each other on the back, chatting and sharing news. Only Channon and Selby, a Latin master, noticed Smitheringale and Wadworth enter.

“Good show. You decided to come after all headmaster,” said Channon.

Silent, Smitheringale’s venerable head hung low until his beard almost touched his knees.

Selby oiled up to him, sycophantic as ever. “Headmaster I’d like you to know that have did my best today to maintain some semblance of discipline in the school. Even today standards must be upheld.”

Smitheringale lifted his head for a moment looked at Selby as if he was addressing him in a language he didn’t speak and then went back to his silent trembling.

Two char-ladies crept to the door and asked if they could come in and listen as the radio in the scullery was broken. Normally, this would be out of the question but Channon glanced at the headmaster near catatonic state and decided it made little difference. “Please stay at the back ladies and be discreet.”

“Oh yes sir. Oh thank you sir.”

Channon caught sight of Fullman crouching shyly at the back sofa and raised an eyebrow. With mock sternness, he asked, “Have you been given permission to enter the teachers room, Fullman? It’s not allowed you know.”

Wadworth said, “er..Mr Wadworth said..erm..”

Channon winked. “Well, I supposed if I don’t see you there is no harm done.”

Fullman blushed and grinned. 

Tim, the maths teacher, shouted from the end of the room. “Everyone – it’s about to start. Quiet please.”

The room hushed and the big pinewood Zenith Tombstone radio took command. An announcer was explaining  “ This is the BBC broadcasting from London..”

“Are we sure this is it?” Selby complained.

Channon bumped his arm. “Ssshh!”

“The next voice you hear will be the Prime minister speaking from the Cabinet office.”

The room was electric with anticipation. In the hush as they waited out the radio silence Wadworth felt for a moment that it was too good to be true; that the celebrations might all be wrong that the news of victory was a false rumour; that the war had to continue for another year. As he looked around at the pensive faces in the room Wadworth could tell he wasn’t the only one struck by such an irrational fear.

Yesterday morning at two forty one am at General Eisenhowers Headquaters,…”  as soon as that inimical, reassuring voice –rich with character from decades of cigar smoking and brandy drinking- started to speak the room as one gasped with relief. It was no false rumour. It was all true. It was all over. The char ladies began to whimper in relief before he had even finished his first sentence.

“…General Jodl the representative of the German High Command and of General Admiral Doenitz, the designated head of the German State, signed the unconditional surrender of all German land, air and sea forces to the Allied Expeditionary Forces.”

The room erupted in cheers. Churchill’s voice fought to be heard over applause. Wadworth amazed himself by shouting “Hooray!” louder than he had shouted in his life. His larynx ached at the unexpected exertion. He felt peace pour through his veins like a magic elixir.

“…Hostilities will end officially at one minute after midnight tonight but in the interests of saving lives cease fire begun yesterday to be sounded all along the front…”

All around the room people seemed to be opening up their bodies. Stretching out and shrugging off the hideous, always present dread that had perched upon their shoulders for six years. Wadworth felt his own dread lift too; a non-combatant who had sat out the war in the countryside, he hadn’t realise how debilitating it had been until he felt its absence. The relief was heavenly. He would remember this day for more than not getting a kiss from the land-girl.

“…the Germans are still in places still resisting Russian troops but should they continue to do so after midnight…”

Wadworth glanced down at the headmaster’s to see his reactions. He still hung his head gave no indication of listening to the Prime Minister. Not a flicker of reaction. He wasn’t trembling any more but his anxiety had seemed to have numbed him rather than been relieved.No lifting of fear from his shoulders. His shoulders curled deep into his body, his head hiding further into his gown.  

“….will of course deprive...zzzzz……the laws of war…zzzzz…” Waves of static interference interrupted the PM speech.

Channon shouted, “Tune it will you, Tim we’re losing the signal

Tim gently turned the radio’s nob. The signal got worse. “…zzzz…PM>>>. Zzzzzzzzmmmmm..”

The room groaned with impatience and disappointment,

“Come on Tim.” “What are you playing at.” “We’re going to want to miss it.”

Tim fiddled earnestly. “I’m doing my best chaps. It’s not me.”

The static seemed to metamorphosis. It took on form, its whistles and crackles seemed to meld into a voice- a strangled agonized voice. “.. ratten! .. our dear channel islands..ratten!” it shouted in bursts over the PM announcement.

The irritation in the room got louder. Channon shouted, “What the devil is that.”

“Sounds like German.” Tim kept fiddling.  “A propaganda broadcast maybe?”

“But the war is over.” “And they are always in English anyway.”

Wadworth watched Smitheringale who was, for the first time acknowledging the radio broadcast. He raised his head and glared at the radio as if it was a mortal enemy. The big black dial of the Zenith Tombstone, like a cylcops’ eye, glared back. The foreign voice grew louder drowning out the PM. It was joined by another voice in the same language, equally pained sounding. They babbled over the top of each other in shrill and desperate tones.

“Botte hungren wir..zzz...”  “Lassen sie…zzz.. uns night hier.”

Several of the teachers had rushed to the front, convinced Tim’s knob adjusting skills were to blame. As they all collectively fiddle with it the voices only got louder and shriller. Painfully loud. Wadworth put his hands to his ears.

“..Ratten…”  “…zzz…wir sterben…zzz” “Ratten..zzzzzzzzzz.”
“No!” Smitheringale jumped to his feet and screamed. Even amongst everything else going on in the room this grabbed everyone’s attention. The thirty seven teaching staff of Kennet Public School turned to their master in astonishment as he ranted and gnashed his teeth animalistically.

“No leave me alone. I did nothing wrong. I did what was need to be done.” He pointed at the radio accusatorily. The folds of his black gown flapped like crows wing as his body thrashed in terrified rage. “Go back to hell both of you.”


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