The Darkest Hour of Laurence Smitheringale

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

Chapter 3 (v.1) - The Darkest Hour

Submitted: April 19, 2016

Reads: 183

Comments: 5

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Submitted: April 19, 2016

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Four weeks later, Wadworth sat in his quarters listening to the radio and making himself some powdered egg on toast.  He prepared it with the concentration of a man for who concentration on the present was the last line of defence. Any surrender to memory could leave his nerves in shreds again.

Someone knocked at his door just as “It’s That Man Again!” with Arthur Askey was starting on the radio. Behind the door he found, Fullman, the little first- former. The boy was a reminder of the very thing memory he spent every moment repressing. Whenever Wadworth passed him in the grounds he looked the other way.

He blanched from the harmless little boy like he was a dangerous enemy. “Uh… Yes what is it?”

“Please, sir. The headmaster has asked me to come tell you to meet him at his cottage. It’s very urgent, sir.” 

Fullman, actually meant the acting-headmaster, Channon. No one had seen the Smitheringale since the night VE day, not since his Steward had run and left him to his fate. Wadworth squirmed. He didn’t think his nerves could take this. He had only just gotten himself back to a state he could get back to full duties at the school. “Er.. did he say what it was about?”

“No, sir. Just that I should fetch you and then go to Miss Watkins and tell her to call the police.”

“The police?” Wadworth felt the taste of the powdered egg rise in his gullet.

“Yes, sir.”

Wadworth took his hat and coat from the hook with trembling hands. “Very well then.”

It was a rainy Tuesday afternoon. Wadworth, sheltering under an umbrella, transversed the riverlets running across the courtyard and then his boots squelched through the mud of the cottage pathway. Big plump raindrops slid from the beech leaves onto his brolley.

He found Channon standing pensively at the front of the cottage sheltering under his own umbrella. He looked as uncomfortable to see Wadworth as Wadworth  was to approach him. A pained, polite smile struggled onto his handsome face. “Ah – Wadworth.”

“You wanted me, sir?”

“Yes.”

The steward waited for instruction but for a long time the acting- Headmaster stood silently, his wellingtons shuffling awkwardly on the wet gravel. “How are you, Wadworth?”

“Me? I’m fine, sir.”

“How are…your..um..nerves.”

“Oh, very good, sir. Dr Walters has been a great deal of help. I’m fully recovered. I don’t know what came over me that night, sir. I can’t explain it…”

“Don’t worry. No need to explain. War does that to people. Why I remember a good quarter of the lads who came back from the first show needed… help, of some kind or another.”

Wadworth gave an embarrassed nod. “Sir.”

“Well, since you are fully well, I need your help with something.”

“Fullman said it was a police matter, sir”

“Yes. We’ve found a body.”

Even if Wadworth’s nerves had really recovered they certainly wouldn’t be now. A surge of panic rose in him. His voice was a whimper. “Good God – is it the Headmaster.”

Channon features writhed in uncertainty. “It seems so. But I’m not sure. I found I couldn’t look at it for more than a glance. It’s in the old boathouse but the whole scene is so disgustingly awful and strange. Smitheringale’s isn’t the only body in there. I need you to come and identify it properly and make sure I’m not imagining things.”

Channon led him around the side of the cottage to the back-garden. The army were closing the base and the school had been given their land back. The barbed wire had been clipped and rolled back. The – ‘Danger- Army Training Base. Keep Out’- sign, lay on its side in the mud.

As they tramped to the bottom of the garden, Wadworth could hear in his head a desperate pleading voice. Wadworth- John- I knew you would come. Please me help.

He whimpered.

“All right, Wadworth?”

“Yes, sir…I’m just searching my memory and.. er, the old boat building you say? It can’t be the Headmaster’s body then, sir, because that building was bricked up on the instruction of the Headmaster three years ago. It was just before the army commandeered the land. I remember it clearly, sir.”

Channon nodded grimly. “I remember it too. But, that’s where we’ve found him. I did tell you it is dammed strange.”

Once they tramped over a nettle strewn meadow the building was in view. It was squat, dilapidated grey brick close to the bank of the River Kennet. The rain had the Kennet on the verge of bursting over. A pool of muddy water had lapped around the walls. The brickwork that had sealed the front door had been broken down and lay scattered on the ground in front of it, as if the building itself had sneezed them out.

. “I got some workmen out this morning to open the place up and see what state it’s in. I thought it might make a decent boat-shed. It would be good for the boys to have a rowing team again after the army taking over this stretch of the river for so long.” Channon pointed. “The foreman threw up every time he tried to tell me what they found.”

Wadworth’s feet wouldn’t go any further forward. He stared at the building with dread. “Perhaps we should wait for the police, sir.”

“The first thing they will want to know is the identity of the body; make some sort of sense out of the scene. I think we have a duty to do that at least.”

Duty. The word awakened a longed for sense of bravery in Wadworth. The consciousness of a duty failed. He nodded. “Yes. You’re right we should.”

Their wellingtons splashed through the water as they approached the door. The building breath was rotten. Wadworth gagged and covered his mouth.

“Yes – I forgot to warn you about that sorry. It’s even worse inside. Do you have a handkerchief?”

They lowered their brolleys. Channon handed him a torch and he swept its beam around the bare stone floor and waterfalls from the leaking roof. “I can’t see anything.”

Channon pointed his own torch to a cellar door in the floor. “It’s down there. And see that big chest there in the corner that had been put over the stone hatch and filled with stones.”

They crept to the hatch’s edge inching towards it nervously and stood at its edge as if the ten foot drop was a mountainous cliff face.  The dark room was cold and damp but Channon removed his hat to wipe sweat from his brow. He spoke up because of the rain-rattle on the room. “Now look at this.” His torch swept over a small portion of the cellar floor they could see. “See those tins of spam they could come from anywhere, I suppose. But those jars of honey they could only be from Mrs Gilligan at Kennet School. Their her fancy labels aren’t they?”

Mrs Gilligan had been school cook. 

Wadworth said, “But sir, Mr Milligan left…”

Channon interrupted. “Three years ago, yes. Someone was bringing food here three years ago. And as I said, Smitheringale’s isn’t the only body down there. There is a couple of German flyers bodies there too.”

The room seemed to spin around Wadworth.

Fullman’s frightened little face. “Like a flyers uniform sir.”

The figure in the brown leather coat crouching at the end of the path.

The two figure slowly, slowly turn to face him…

“I don’t understand, sir.” Wadworth said, but part of him was beginning to.

“Because part of it is inexplicable but here’s the part I think I do understand.” The rain began hammering on the roof in a fury. The waterfalls down the wall became a torrent. Channon almost shout. “Remember that German bomber crashing in the woods. When was that? Four years ago? The crew were never found. Now it was that summer that Smitheringale declared this place off limits for – some reason or other. Correct?”

Wadworth nodded in a daze.

Channon’s stare followed his torch beam down into the cellar. “Down there, the floor is covered in tins of food and bottles. Someone was feeding those German flyers, Wadworth. Someone was sheltering them.”

Wadworth shook his head. “No, no, that makes no sense, sir. Why would he? Smitheringale was no Nazi. He was the first person I heard talk angrily against them, when he heard they burned books.”

 “Yes, I’m sure.” Channon nodded thoughtfully. “But – Four years ago. Do you remember that time, Wadworth? Really remember it? Not – Our Finest Hour. Not the version we’ll tell our grandchildren - the truth. That endless roll of defeats and retreats: Norway, Belgium, France.  In Cyprus we outnumbered them two to one and our boys still put their hands up. I don’t think old Smithers would be the only one among us to think to himself ‘Damn it all Blighty, I think we’re going to lose this one’.”

The men hung their heads and stared deep into the cellar and their own hearts.

Channon continued “Lose! Lose to the Nazi’s. One can hardly even imagine it. What comes after that? Does anything come after that? Now say a chap wanted to hedge his bets; wanted to guarantee himself a few years being left in peace after defeat with his translations of Agamemnon and he - who know how – stumbled on them in the woods, found them sleeping in his shrubbery- I think that chap might consider a couple of Luftwaffe boys hidden in the cellar to be just the ticket.”

“No – not the Headmaster. Surely he wouldn’t?” Wadworth shook his head in desperate disagreement even though he knew what Channon was saying was true.  

Channon nodded. “But then the Yanks and the Russians came on board. The tide of the war turned. Suddenly that insurance policy wasn’t worth the premiums. Late nineteen forty two. Wasn’t that when Smithers ordered this place bricked up?”

Wadworth nodded miserably. “Good grief. He left them here to die in the dark didn’t he? They must have died of thirst.”

“Oh no, there’s a water tap down there luckily – although that depends on your definition of luck.” Channon turned his beam to a corner of the floor where there was a mound of tiny bones with. Furry little heads and tails dangling. “Rat skeletons. Stripped to the bone. I think that must be the true definition of starvation.”  

Wadworth’s head spun and his stomach lurched. He doubled over and threw up his powdered egg over his shoes. Channon continued to stare at them dreamily. “They’ve kept awfully well haven’t they, considering?”

Wadworth staggered towards the exit. Channon grabbed his arm. “Don’t go, Wadworth. Please.”

“I can’t go down there, sir.” The steward sobbed. “I’m no hero. I found that out a month ago.”

“Please, I need to see it again to know I haven’t gone mad but I can’t go alone.” Channon said. “Remember that night when you thought you saw the Headmaster being accosted by men who were…who were in some sort of disguise. Wouldn’t you rather know that it was something genuinely incredible instead of that you went mad?”

“I’d rather be mad.” 

Channon snarled. “No hero, are you? Well I’ll tell you one thing- you’re a damned servant and I’m your headmaster. You’re coming down there with me.” Channon wrenched his arm and pulled on it. In his terror Wadworth lashed out. His torch connected with the Acting- Headmaster’s nose, knocking him over.

Wadworth staggered back stunned at himself. He swept his torch around the floor around until it found Channon’s bloodied face. Channon groaned, “Have you gone mad?”

“I think perhaps I have, sir. I don’t know what came over me,” said Wadworth. His voice was blank and unapologetic.

Channon dabbed at his nose with his handkerchief. “You really haven’t gotten over your fit of fucking lunacy, have you?”

“No, sir – I don’t fear I ever can. The Headmaster on the day he disappeared kept wishing that everything could go back as it was. But I don’t think that’s possible is it?”

Channon stared for a moment at the blood on his handkerchief. “No. I suppose it’s not.”

Wadworth helped him to his feet. “Wadworth – you go if you really want to. I’ll go down alone.”

“No sir. I’ll go with you.”

Channon brushed himself down. “You really don’t have to, if you’re too scared.”

“I am scared but I will go with you sir. Consider it one last service. I think I’ll have to leave the school after today.”

Together, the Ac ting-Headmaster of Kennet School and its head steward crept down the stone cellar stairs into the deeper darkness and the vile stench. The sound of the rain hushed. The sound of their breathing overcame it. Their feet disturbed rattled tin cans and rolled glass jars.

They clung to each other as their twin beams swept through the debris on the floor. Their breathing became very loud and fast. Channon gasped- “There!”

A foot.

The torches crept up the foot to the body: then the two bodies: then the entanglement of the three. They edged nearer and the circle of their beams widened, until they were broad enough to illuminate the whole scene. That’s when Wadworth started to scream.

Three bodies. Or rather two skeletons and a corpse.  Smitheringale lay between the two skeletons. The Headmaster had the unmistakable chalky pallor of the dead but he hadn’t decayed. Wadworth could see from the state of him that he hadn’t died on the day he disappeared. He had been alive the best part of that past month – he had been alive down here with these things! The skeletons were dressed in the uniforms of Luftwaffe men; their bony hands poked from the sleeves of long brown leather coats, caps sat on bare skulls.  

Smitheringale might be a fresher corpse but the skeletons dominated the recently deceased. He lay on his back while they lay half on top of him and half on the broad black spread of his academic gown. Their limbs entwined his body. The Headmaster’s waistcoat and shirt were rucked up passed his chest. Bite sized chunks had been torn from his belly, creating a ghastly yellow and red belt of exposed fat, muscle and organs around his middle. One of the airman’s skulls was down at the Smitheringale’s middle. Its fleshless face was smeared with dried blood. Pieces of gristle dangled from its teeth.

Being eaten was the kind of thing that would make a man scream in pain. But Smitheringale couldn’t have screamed before he died. His mouth was full. A large rat had been forced into it. Its rear body, hind legs and long tail dangled from his stuffed maw. The second airman’s bony hand was posed by Smitheringale’s mouth in a shoving position. Its other skeletal hand was at Smitheringale’s body, between his nipples, the tip of its index finger was bloody. A ragged swastika had been carved into the flesh of the Headmaster’s chest.

 

THE END


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