Sinister Schoolmaster Shenanigans
If my grandfather could return, and if Henry’s guinea-pig could do the same, then Mark could do likewise. Grandpa clammed up when I tried to get any pertinent information out of him, but he had let slip that thing about Brandy, the West Highland White dog that my mother had loved so much: “He wasn’t dreamed of.”
It’s quite feasible that Henry had dreamed about Ern the same night as I dreamed of Mark, even though he denied it. I’m pretty positive my grandmother had dreamed of her late husband that night too, as he was never far from her thoughts. That was their way in. That was why Mark spoke of business in Middlesborough. I was his portal back into the world, but now he had to travel to see his family. But why was he hanging about in Stafford?
I donned my disguise then took it off, as it was idiotic. I kept the Groucho glasses, however.
I heard a honk outside, and saw a grey bus in Rickerscote Lane. The back door of the house shut and Grandma and Grandpa were off on another walk. I went into the cellar for my bike. The bus had gone when I set off for town.
The usual disappointments awaited. I checked the market. Just a heap of old Beanos, no Marvels at all, not even British reprints. But something was going on in the Market Square.
A tall figure in a dark cloak stood by the same grey bus I saw near the house. It was parked right where you’re not supposed to park, and people were shuffling towards it. The folks boarding the vehicle deferred to him like Latverian peasants to Doctor Doom. I donned the Groucho glasses and stuck my head out from behind the post box to assess this character. He wasn’t ranting and threatening like Darkseid. He did not smirk like Thanos. He was much spindlier than The Kingpin. In fact, he looked like a slightly less-sinister version of one of my old schoolmasters at King Edwards, minus the chalk dust. The prospective passengers swayed slightly as he conducted them on board. I tried to look at his eyes, but retreated behind the post box when his gaze turned toward me.
The crinoline lady was boarding the bus. She looked sad. Her Ted friend looked angry, but got on board anyway. The schoolmaster turned my way and I hid. When I emerged, they had gone, bus and all.
I put the Groucho glasses back on, just in case, and headed in the direction of the Colonnade.
Nobody home. I decided to hang around, in my cunning disguise.
An hour later, lots of strange looks, but no Mark.
I heard the bus honk again, and went for my bike. Not so many people were boarding now.
It occurred to me that The Sinister Schoolmaster had been in Rickerscote to pick up my grandfather, so I headed home to warn him.
In the kitchen, my grandfather was looking a bit green about the gills.
Before I could say anything, Henry came in and announced, “Ern’s turning into a zombie!”
“I’ve been feeding him fish brains all day. He can’t get enough. It’s brilliant!”
“Where d’you get the fish brains?”
“Fish, stupid. Watch this.”
The distinctly green Ern let out a feral roar – no mean feat for a guinea pig. Then he set upon the fish brain and gobbled it down like a tiny Malteser. Then, with a little bit of dribbling and smacking of lips he went back to his business of chirping.
“Does he bite?” I asked.
“Only at the fish brains, so far. I’m hoping he’ll get more vicious later on.”
“Because then I can invite Kev round to feed him. It’ll be a laugh.”
“Why do I always get distracted by your guinea pig when there are more urgent matters in the kitchen?”
“He’s your guinea pig too. I just clean out the poo more often than you do.”
“Yes, but you like it.”
“True. But, er…”
I left Henry pondering his off-the-cuff response to see how Grandpa was doing.
“There’s a Sinister Schoolmaster who’s rounding up all the Returneds, Grandpa.”
“Care to elucidate?”
“No. You’re better off not knowing.”
“But my pal Mark is out there somewhere, and he may be in danger.”
My grandfather dropped the evasion and looked genuinely concerned.
“Did you dream him?”
“Oh, yes. And how.”
“Then you’re the one in danger.”
That fooled me. I had been worried about Mark all along and I was the one in trouble? Maybe that was why he was avoiding me.
“How so? Please, Grandpa. You were always so nice before, you know.”
For the first time since his return, Grandpa Corden stood and embraced me.
“I’d hoped to keep you out of it somehow. Your mum and your grandma were both so committed. They both dreamed me.”
“That ties them. To the process. Look.”
Grandpa showed me his hands. A definite green tinge. Then he gestured to Grandma and my mother, who waved greenish hands at me.
“But…So… The…” I really did not know what to say.
“We have Grandpa back and to hell with the consequences,” said my mum.
“I understand,” I said.
“Yes. Wait…” I examined my hands. No green. “Did I imagine Mark?”
“Probably not,” said my grandfather. “He’s avoiding contact so you don’t turn until he’s done his business.”
“You make him sound like Ern, Grandpa.”
“If you’re determined to see him, this may help you.”
Grandpa handed me a neatly-folded piece of paper.
“What’s this? A magic talisman?”
“No. It’s a bus timetable. He’ll be trying to get to Middlesborough. You’ll find him at the National Express stop, wherever that is.”
I wasn’t surprised that Grandpa had no idea where the National Express bus stop was. He died before National Express was invented. Even I had no idea where it was, and I was a poor student – the very demographic that the business was meant to ‘serve’.
It turns out it was near the bins on the County Council car park. The County Council had the best and biggest car park in town, and it was always packed from about 8.30 a.m, until seconds after 5.00 p.m. The rest of the day it was totally empty, and that was when National Express sprang into life.
If you’ve ever been wretched, felt no self-pride, had no hopes or aspirations, intentions or goals, then National Express is the transport for you. Hours and hours circling strange roundabouts? Check. Painfully slow negotiations of Byzantine traffic-calming measures? Check. Pointless stops where nobody gets off, nobody gets on? Check. National Express has it all. It even has weird ‘hosts’ who keep you ‘entertained’ with tales of celebrity passengers whom no one has heard of, who will point at stuffed Elvises (actually, only one stuffed Elvis) in a doorway in Digbeth, expecting the passengers to give a shit, and who will thank you for enduring the tedium of their company as you return home in the most ignominious of circumstances – I don’t like buses, is what I’m saying here. Unless they are driven by my paternal grandfather and I get to ride in the front, but that’s a whole other story.
I arrived at the car park at 5.10 in the afternoon and there were still one or two cars there. I sat by the bin on my fishing chair and drank a bit of pop.
Two hours later I pulled out the 2000 A.D. I got at Smith’s.
“Kevin O’Neil’s really good these days, isn’t he?” said a familiar voice.
“Mark! Mate, you’ve been avoiding me.”
“I know,” said Mark, apparently embarrassed by my soppy behaviour, “but there’s a good reason.”
“This?” I said, showing him my newly-green fingers.
“Sigh.” (He actually said, ‘sigh’ – we always did. Just like, ‘gasp!’) “Yes. That’s it.”
“I don’t mind. Really.”
“Have you seen no zombie movies at all?”
“No. I mean, yes, of course. But they’re just movies, right?”
“Yes, but no, but – fuck. I’m not supposed to be here.”
“My grandfather’s not supposed to be here either, but there’s no denying that he’s back, and it’s great.”
“It is, but it’s not, too, and here’s my bus!”
There was a honk, and a bus with ‘Middlesborough’ on the destination plate appeared in the yard.
I pushed Mark into the bushes.
“Make yourself scarce. It’s a trap! The Middlesborough bus should say ‘Manchester'” I hissed. I knew my bus timetable, and so did my grandfather, apparently.
The bus door opened and Sinister stepped out. I strode toward him, trying to be confident.
“Listen, you tall, grey bastard…”
He ignored me completely, got back in the bus and the whole thing just sort of melted away.
Incredibly, a National Express bus (marked ‘Manchester’) showed up less than 30 seconds later. Nobody got on, and nobody got off. Then it just melted away, like a diesel fume spectre.
Mark had also vanished. I cycled home.
Picture source: Mykl Roventine