They had weighed it before and after the gassing and there really was a difference, as if the chaplain’s vital spark had density as well as energy. They wondered if Beech had a soul and if so how they might have weighed him in sufficient detail. Presuming he was dead of course, which many did as he’d been gone a few days now and the nights were perishing.
In the abomination known as double maths the following day the teacher, Mr Hastings was explaining some of the precepts of statistical analysis and chose to do so with a question that managed to chill the blood of some of the more nervous pupils.
‘If there are 399 pupils in the hall for dinner and one of them goes missing – possibly for ever, possibly until his bleached bones, picked clean by the crows, are unearthed beneath a hedge – then what proportion of the student body is considered lost?’
In the maths class the silence was glacial, not only because the boys couldn’t work out the sum in question but also because they didn’t like the fact that Terrence Beech was being used as casually as a decimal point. It didn’t seem to be in good taste, or even necessary.
They needn’t have worried because in the following Thursday’s double lesson Terrence made an appearance, sitting at his usual desk, surrounded by a silvery aura that glistened like a snail. He was silent, in keeping with the majority of ghostly apparitions but there was something fixed about his eyes, glazed like the icing on a doughnut, staring at Hastings as if he knew something about him, something bad. Which was indeed the case because Hastings was involved in the young boy’s disappearance and that in a way that most people would scarcely believe.
Hastings had recently started an affair with a young girl in the village which had led to tensions and an incident involving a crossbow, not that those were directly involved with the Beech disappearance. But they made him nervy, especially as he was man with a secret to hide, in being matron’s brother and as a consequence drawn into a family spiral with her brother in law, the hunter and trapper. It was he who’d first mooted the idea of making and setting a man-trap to catch the peeping tom who’d been sighted three times in the past week.
Hastings thought it was an extreme reaction to a sad pervert, hidden in the privet bushes outside the gym and once seen slinking past the croquet lawn wearing what someone swore was an actual mackintosh. But they made the trap, with jaws made from triangles of steel manufactured in the metalwork class and a spring mechanism that had been rescued from an old locomotive, a powerful arrangement that clamped shut the mouth of the trap in the blink of a bat’s eye.
It caught Beech rather than the peeping Tom, pretty much took off his legs below the knee and Hastings and Swem had to put him out of his misery even as a boy soprano sang ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ in the refectory, which helped muffle the sound of the claw hammer blow which put a bleak, precise hole in the boy’s forehead, dispatching him like a trout.
They disposed of the body in an adit leading into a disused coal mine and once they’d finished that foul deed Swem laid down a network of false scents and trails presuming there’d be dogs involved in looking for the boy. He dropped pieces of blood pudding in patches of leaf litter, scattered drifts of bone marrow he would normally use on the tomatoes on paths and driveways. And that might have been it, other than for the Dostoyevskian trouble for their consciences.
But Beech came back, haunting Hastings in every waking hour and walking into his sleep as well. The teacher lost interest in eating, picking like a wren at a mice pie.
And lessons were adapted to reflect the mystery of the schoolboy plucked from the woods and his ghostly manifestation, the way he turned up to stare and stare. In English they studied passages from a book called Possession: the Uses of Haunting in the Hudson Valley which showed how various American ghost stories changed and mutated over time.
Some days dead boy Beech would be there for all the science lessons of the day, his very existence flying in the face of the empirical and thwarting the validity of experiment. Hastings grew thinner, more vexed with every passing hour, while Swem the hunter and trapper could not go outside without Terrence coming as silent witness to any of his actions. It was beyond disconcerting, so Swem started to drink heavily, at all hours, hoping to banish the spectral fifteen year old via rivulets of booze.
The boy, meanwhile, now lived in a realm far beyond science – though a place, in truth, without a single angel or trace of heaven. And he would haunt his murderers diligently, even on Christmas Day, sitting just beyond the plates of pudding and leftover ham, staring with Antarctic eyes, ones that would never shut, eternal witnesses to his killers’ dissolutions.