Blake felt a tap at his shoulder. For a second he saw a fingernail – thick, old – that its owner withdrew.
‘Yours… are they?’ came a voice from behind him.
‘I’m… sorry?’ said Blake, turning. He looked at his fellow passenger, who leaned back in his seat, smirking, in a tweed flat-cap.
‘Well, that’s a start,’ the man continued. He was ancient, but trim, neat… alert. Over the collar of the man’s raincoat Blake noted the knot of a tie. The man’s coal-black eyes gleamed.
‘What is?’ said Blake.
‘Being ‘sorry’,’ said the man. He nodded to the fracas at the front of the bus. The disorder in which Blake had reluctantly intervened minutes earlier had resumed: a gang of lads – in school uniform of varying degrees of dishevelment – were scuffling, swearing, shouting. A phone was snatched, hurled.
‘Your… products,’ continued the man, his last word managing – to Blake’s ears – to both ring with relish and drip with disdain. ‘Chris, isn’t it?’ he added, folding his arms, crossing his legs at the knee.
‘Yes,’ said Blake.
‘Thought I heard them call you that.’
Blake avoided his eyes, glanced through the window at the passing shops. He tried for a moment to calculate whether, in the morning, he could make it to the garage before school… get the car back then. That would make this the last trip. And he’d be back to his radio, his heater, his… space. No More Bus.
The boys in the front were no longer scuffling. They were fighting now. One – was it Kyle Pritchard? – was being pinned down, punched.
‘Been there long?’ The chirp at Blake’s back resumed. Blake again turned.
‘King Edward’s?’ the man continued. ‘Have you been teaching there long? You’re new on here… the 44.’
Before Blake could answer a bell began dinging. Not the orderly single ding made by a passenger requesting the driver to stop, but a dinging for the hell of it, over and over, that came from where the boys were. The driver responded with a barrage of muffled threats from his post at the wheel downstairs.
‘Oh I’m sorry, it’s not called that now, is it?’ the man behind Blake continued. ‘Mount Pleasant Community,’ he said, elongating the ‘u’. ‘Yes: that’s its name now.’
The bus stopped heavily. The boys at the front swung forward, gripped bars, as if rocked by a blast. They kept their feet… beat the driver as his game. They yelled, laughed.
‘Ah!’ announced the man. ‘I’m here: my stop. Nearly missed it, talking to you. Saved, though, by the bell… thanks to the actions of your lads.’
Blake turned from him, looked through the window at the houses in the road. They were large-ish, older places. He knew the area a little from his boyhood: he’d never gone there as such. It was the far side of the shops at the parade. He knew of it, that was all. The route was one that, with the car, he never used. Quicker to get home on the link road. His house was on an estate on the other side of the by-pass. New-builds, cut-off: he had to drive to get anywhere, but it was okay, it was quiet, there was never any trouble.
Suddenly Blake sensed himself in the trajectory of something falling… plummeting. Beside Blake’s seat – collapsing, crumpling, crashing from a height – came the figure of the old man. His shape – in his raincoat he had the vague look of something winged – fell towards Blake as if he were something avian that had been shot in mid-air.
Blake thrust out a hand, half-caught the man under his elbow, slid over the seat, helped him stand.
‘Thank you,’ said the man. He swayed, took hold of a strap. ‘I’m—’
‘Come on. I’ll help you off,’ said Blake. The boys at the front watched as he assisted the man down the steps.
Outside, in the bus stop, the man leaned heavily on a panel sprayed with graffiti. ‘I shall be all right now,’ he said. In the fumed backwash of the departing bus he drew short, shallow breaths. ‘My home is… around… the corner. No dis… tance… at… all.’
‘I’ll see you there. Take your time,’ said Blake. After some moments he put the man’s arm across his shoulders. ‘Right. Let’s go and get you in.’
The house was covered with a creeper. Its twisting stems (the leaves shed) clung to the place like a scruffy beard. One end had something like a battlement. The wooden gate was green and soft. On a path between tangled patches of weeds and wet, matted grass Blake and the man encountered a condom – used, wrinkled – on the mossed, clay tiles. The man prodded it with the toe of his brogue shoe. He turned, looked Blake in the face. ‘The baboons do it here. In my garden. Can you believe it? I’ll have them one night, though, I tell you.’
Blake changed the subject. ‘Do you live here with anyone?’
‘With?’ the man came back at him. ‘With? Oh no. Independent. That’s me.’ He straightened now, took himself from Blake’s shoulders. At the front door he dug out a key. Blake waited on the porch steps. The man beckoned him, had him push open the door, which was warped and chafed the frame. The man pulled out the key, put his hand in his coat pocket.
The smell from the hall made Blake think of an uncle’s house – an elderly relative they called ‘uncle’ but, in fact, some distant cousin – to which his mother had taken him as a boy. He remembered flytraps of yellow-brown tape hanging from ceilings, like tongues.
‘Come in,’ said the man.
‘I’d like to,’ said Blake, ‘but, if you’re feeling better, I really need to—’
‘No, come in,’ said the man. ‘You must.’ He was looking him in the face, smiling.
Blake felt something against the front of his jacket, to one side of the zip, above his waist. He looked down and saw a blade that was long, pointed.
‘I’ve asked you nicely,’ said the man. ‘Now… Get in!’
Blake heard the door slam behind him. ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ he said. The man removed his raincoat – swift, dextrous now – swapping the blade from one hand to the other, the gleam of his eyes restored. ‘This is kidnap,’ said Blake. ‘Are you mad?’
‘Mind your lip!’ said the man. He tossed his cap to the hook of a stand, waved the blade at Blake’s chest.
Blake stepped back. ‘What the hell is that thing? Put it away!’
‘This thing,’ said the man, ‘is a British Army bayonet. Infantry issue. World War One. It’s seen service, and, if need be, it shall do so again.’
The two of them paused. From a passage off the hall came the heavy ticking of a clock.
‘Look,’ Blake began, ‘let me go – right now – and, as far the police are concerned I might just forget this.’
‘Police?’ said the man, cocking his head. ‘What’s this to do with them? This is a school matter.’
‘What do you mean by that?’ asked Blake.
The man gestured to a door. ‘In there!’
He threw a switch. The room’s darkness gave way to a sickly, yellow light. ‘Sit! he barked. Blake complied. ‘Good,’ the said the man. ‘That’s good.’ Blake began to look around him. What he took to be the room’s windows were curtained with heavy crimson drapes. In the middle of the room stood a large desk, behind which was a chair. Blake noticed how they were on something like a podium, a rectangle that had a patterned carpet over it, where the floor had somehow been raised. To one side of the desk, on an easel, was something he’d seen in films… photographs, but had never encountered physically: a blackboard. The man glanced at it, looked back at Blake.
‘Tea?’ his captor enquired.
‘I’m sorry?’ said Blake.
‘So you keep saying,’ said the man. ‘Your tea, though… how do you take it? Milk? Sugar?’
‘Milk, two sugars, please,’ said Blake.
‘Right,’ said the man. ‘Coming up!’ He spun away, spun back. ‘Oh, before that I just need to do… this.’
The handcuffs issued a faint snap as the man, with pickpocket speed, shackled Blake where he sat. And where he sat, Blake now realised, was at a chair and a table arranged very much like a school desk. He yanked at the cuff that now joined his left wrist to the leg of the desk, which he saw had been bolted to the room’s parquet floor.
‘You won’t get out of those,’ said the man, as he watched Blake struggle. ‘Made in the days of proper coppers. Built to last.’
‘I advise you to let me go. Now!’ Blake said. ‘You could get ten years for this.’
‘Oh not that again,’ said the man. ‘Who’d believe you? Think! An old fella like me? Doing a thing like this? Anyway, the world and his wife saw you helping me off the bus. You volunteered.’
‘You planned this, didn’t you? Your… fall. There was nothing wrong with you. Why me?’
‘Oh stop grizzling man. Do you think that’s what they whinged at Waterloo? Do you think that’s what they said at The Somme?’
‘Some of them.’
‘Just stay there, and hold your tongue. No one can hear you. We’re back from the road, the walls are thick. It’s just you and me. Now… I’ll get the tea.’
‘Who are you?’ Blake asked.
In the doorway the man turned. ‘My name is Clist,’ he said. ‘But, you can call me Mr Clist, or, if you prefer it, Sir.’
Clist returned with a tray, on it crockery and a teapot in a lime-green cosy. He poured a cup , which Blake took. Blake sipped, stopped, threw the cup across the room. ‘For Christ’s sake, what the hell am I doing here?’ he demanded. ‘What the hell are you doing with me?’
Clist drew back. ‘That… Chris,’ he said, ‘is no way to conduct yourself. Any repetition of language of that kind in this class and—’
‘And what?’ shouted Blake.
‘I advise you to keep your cool, young man… or you might very well find out. Any more of that behaviour, and you’ll be here after hours.’
‘After hours? What the hell do you mean?’
‘We have work, Christopher. Work. Or, rather, you do. Papers. Papers to sit – and pass. And when you have passed them you may go. No further action required. Easy as that,’ Clist smiled. ‘Now tell me, what is it you teach?’
‘Media,’ said Blake, ‘… and international relations.’
‘International relations! Heavens!’ said Clist, who was holding the bayonet again, tapping it against a palm. ‘At Mount Pleasant Community! And ‘media’, too. Well, that must make you very busy: all of those newspapers to read, all of that… telly… to watch.’
Clist walked to the desk in the centre of the room, set down the bayonet, pulled out a drawer. ‘Very different in my day, Chris.’
‘Oh, I taught there… when it was King Edward’s, of course… English… thirty years… language and lit.’
‘Is that what this is about?’ asked Blake.
‘In part, I suppose, yes.’
‘Well, for Christ’s— I’m sorry. I mean, for goodness sake, schools are schools – they’re nothing to do with me.’
‘Oh come now,’ said Clist, looking up. ‘That’s hardly the attitude.’
‘I helped you get home,’ said Blake.
Clist went back to looking through the drawer. He pulled out two small pamphlets. ‘I know,’ he said. ‘Your behaviour was honourable. Pass these and you may go. No more protests from me.’
‘What are they?’
‘Relics from my day.’ said Clist, putting on spectacles. ‘Matriculation papers at Ordinary Level for English language and mathematics. The Metropolitan Board, 1953. Originally set for boys of sixteen. We were – what do they call it – single-sex back then. Should be within your ambit, Chris,’ Clist peered at Blake over his half-moon glasses, ‘even if, admittedly, outside your particular fields. Shall we say ninety minutes for each?’
Clist placed the papers on Blake’s desk. Blake looked at the covers.
‘This is ridiculous,’ said Blake. ‘What if I refuse?’
‘There are two ways in which we can deal with this,’ said Clist. ‘This way, which is the easier way, or another, which I promise you will be much harder.’ He glanced back at the bayonet on his desk. ‘Which would you prefer? Now, if you’ve any means of assistance,’ Clist continued, ‘I shall need to relieve you of them. Phones, calculators – I wasn’t born yesterday, young man. Let’s have them.’