Assembly

On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.

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Assembly

“This is a very special assembly,” the rector said, looking out at the rows upon rows of young, upturned faces, floating above a sea of identical and impeccably clean uniforms.

Sitting off to one side of the dais, I found myself becoming nervous, and then I felt some amusement at the reaction. After all, I’d been here many times before — but not for decades.

I glanced over to the part of the vast hall where I’d sat as a pupil, all those years ago, and I could see that the house system hadn’t changed since then — at least in terms of the colours of the small, round pin-badges worn by the house that sat there. I was tempted to turn my head to look at the wooden record-boards which I knew still hung on the wall behind me, cataloguing decades of the inter-house competition. Perhaps my own house had won the cup many times since I’d left. But it would be too noticeable a gesture. I allowed my attention to focus once again on the rector.

He wasn’t the same man from my time at the school, of course. My own rector had been a man called Robin G. Lockwood, and even back then he had a knighthood. The school had produced several Prime Ministers and other figures of note in its almost one thousand years of operation, and the board of trustees included several lords. The contemporary rector, whose name was Currie, looked younger than I could remember Lockwood ever being, but I knew that my own age was clouding my recollection. Even the police officers looked like adolescents these days.

Currie was talking about my career, and the books I’d written. I’d have thought that some of them were edging towards unsuitability for at least the youngest half of the pupils in the hall — the school catered to ages approximately eleven to eighteen — but institutional pride seemed to override such concerns. Besides, pupils of the Academy were renowned for their maturity. It was an implicit entrance requirement, alongside the many and rigorous explicit ones. There was an outbreak of polite but omnipresent applause, and I could see that it was time to fulfil my reason for being here. I stood up, put a warm and hopefully disarming smile on my face, and walked towards the nearby lectern.

“Thank you very much for that effusive introduction, Mr. Currie,” I said, looking out at what must have been the entire student body of the school. Same uniforms, same arrangement, same hall. Different faces, but not meaningfully so; the wide-eyed youngest children at the front, progressing smoothly — though with increasingly spotty faces — to the mini-adults towards the back, with their affectedly disaffected expressions.

The latter group somehow looked the most heartbreaking, because I knew they were already well into the part of life where we rush to throw away the most valuable time of our existence, hurrying to catch hold of the brass ring of adulthood even though it comes for all of us anyway. I wished that I could tell them what so many other guest speakers had probably already advised, to cling to whatever innocence they could for as long as possible, but I knew it would fall on deaf ears. Youth is wasted on the young, and maturity is wasted on the old.

“I’d like to take this opportunity to expressly deny that any of the events in The Demon Academy were based on my own time here at the school,” I said, and got the expected big laugh from the children.

It had been the book that launched my career, really, and of course some significant parts of it were indeed drawn from my high school years, but I’d come to learn that such literary auto-vampirism was not only inevitable, but actually the only way that any book had ever been written since the dawn of time. The author and the work are never separate. Food for introspective thought when you were a writer of tales of horror and the macabre.

I ran through my loosely-prepared speech, having not only done a hundred of these things before, but also drawing on years of my own fantasies about what it would be like to be back here, triumphant in my adulthood and notoriety, protected via mutual consent from the harsh judgement of teenaged sensibilities. I had already automatically failed their social tests by being middle-aged, so I could be judged on my own merits instead.

It seemed to be going well. The children were receptive, my occasional deadpan remarks to the gathered senior staff members were well-received, and I seemed to be making sense and delivering something approaching motivational wisdom. It was a bit like one of the panel interviews before a book-signing, except with an audience not yet old enough to have a driving license.

I continued to speak, and I found I was able to look around the huge chamber and notice little things that I remembered from when I’d last been here. So little had changed! I was sure that each pupil had a mobile phone in their pocket now, of course, very much unlike when I wore the uniform myself, but there had been no message alerts or ringtones at all. I wasn’t surprised. Respectful behaviour was mandatory.

I faltered for a moment when I thought I saw something else familiar. A particular mop of hair, just on the cusp of being too unruly to meet the personal appearance code of the school. I’d known a boy with the same hairstyle, and he was a part of my time here that I preferred to forget. His name was Jonathan McKew, and he made portions of my life a misery for several years. One of the relatively small subset of children who had gained entry to the school through their parents’ position and money rather than their own academic achievements, he was never destined to take the usual university route. I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that he’d ended up in prison, or the army, or as something sociopathic like a stockbroker.

I had to focus on the present, and finish my talk. I picked up the thread of my thoughts easily enough, made another joke or two, and ended with a sure-fire winner: reciting the school’s motto in Latin. Predictably, the applause was thunderous, and I’m not ashamed to say that I let myself stand there and bask in it. I looked around, like a king returned from triumph in war, and the distant walls echoed with the sound of their praise.

I saw the mop of hair again, and this time its owner lifted his head. He was perhaps ten or fifteen rows back, just where McKew would have sat at the age when he was tormenting me. This boy didn’t seem to be clapping, and somehow it seemed appropriate. I chastised myself for the petty idiocy of assuming that a common hairstyle could be correlated with personality defects. I was about to look away, but then I saw his face.

It was McKew. As large as life, and still the same age, and next to him was the other boy, whose name I could no longer recall but who was always there at his shoulder, a sidekick in the mundane evil of children. They were both there, still in uniform, and they hadn’t changed at all.

I felt my heart stutter, and for some reason I chose that moment to turn my head and crane my neck to see the enormous wooden boards that tracked the house cup’s owners over the most recent decades of the school’s long history. There was still perhaps twenty years worth of space on the rightmost and newest board, which was twice my height at least. The final entry, coincidentally with the name of my own former house engraved, was for the year 1996.

The applause had faded, and suddenly I felt exposed. I wondered how I could most politely extricate myself from the situation and get out of the stifling building and to my expensive car, back to the safety of its air conditioning and satellite navigation and digital dashboard and wholly electric propulsion. I looked at the sea of faces, and there was McKew again, sitting in his same seat amongst the crowd of blazers and ties and shirts and blouses, and I had no idea how it was possible.

“Take your seat,” the rector said, and I glanced around at the source of the words in disbelief. It was old Lockwood now, of course it was, with his knighthood and his impossibly tall and slender frame, draped in a black academic gown. He hadn’t aged a day either.

I looked down, and I was in uniform — what else would I be wearing, after all, at school? — and now there were a few sniggers and exchanged looks amongst the hundreds of children in front of me. I felt faint, and embarrassed, and I couldn’t even remember why I was up on the dais in the first place. Lockwood’s expression was pastoral but firm, and I nodded dumbly. After a moment, I rounded the lectern, and I made for the nearest short set of steps that led back down to the floor.

I walked up the aisle which bordered my house, ignoring the scores of curious faces watching me, and especially ignoring the cruel delight of McKew. I found an empty seat, just where I always sat, and I had never been so grateful to disappear back into the anonymity of the assembly.


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