Arnold Smillie enters his turreted study, all ease and good-humour. It is his penultimate day as headmaster. Tomorrow he will bid farewell to the ‘rigors’ of education, easing himself instead into retirement: golfing and lunching and many other ‘ings’ at the New Club. ‘Relaxing’ he muses to himself. ‘Reading’ yes, one of the many crisp papers that lay spread on the leather coffee tables.
His send-off would be satisfyingly predictable; an assembly, triumphant and celebratory; then lunch with glasses raised rounding off this week of tributes. He thumbs through the pile of envelopes stacked on his desk and peels one open. A bunny lies in a hammock: ‘Goodbye tension……hello pension.’ He glances inside: ‘All the best Arnold, David.’ Ah yes, his snivelling depute. The next reveals a sketch of various gardening equipment: wellington boots, a trowel. He flicks it open. The writing is a blood red scrawl:
‘A career built on bullying, misogyny and misplaced power. How many lives did you ruin? Hope you DROP DEAD!’
Minutes pass. Still he stares. Then in one explosive movement, he tears the card into pieces and throws them into the bin.
He moves around the room shuffling papers. Glancing back at the bin he spots a shred of card, the words ‘drop dead’ still complete. He tips the pieces out onto the floor. The flimsy plastic liner is thrust aside, the torn fragments tossed back. He rakes through his drawer until he finds an old lighter. He hoists the window open and stands lighting one piece after another. Small puffs of smoke waft out into the crisp morning air.
The words are gone.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Sleep for Smillie that night is a fractured affair. He arrives at work on this, his final morning, a little blurred. Forced smiles and frivolous comments drift over him as he paces to his study. He shuts the heavy door behind him, relieved at the silence.
Another pile of cards has been transported from pigeon-hole to desk. He fans the pile with one finger. Then snatches at one randomly and rips open the envelope. ‘On your Retirement’ a sparkly banner hangs over a fishing boat. He hesitates, then opens the card. ‘Wishing you a long and fulfilling retirement….thanks for everything you did for Jamie’. He smiles broadly. Of course! This is what it’s all about. Now the anticipation of the day’s events come flooding back. He reaches for his gown hanging on the back of the door and pauses for a second to brush off a fleck of something: a tiny piece of ash? He swings the gown around him like a toreador when there is a knock at the door. Smillie opens it. His secretary, Pearl stands behind a bouquet of flowers, lilies with their staining pollen fronds snipped off smothered in glistening cellophane. Her face juts out like a freakish grinning doll. Pearl likes to talk. Smillie reaches for the flowers and shuts the door. He scans the card.
‘In hopeful anticipation of your imminent funeral. May you have a brief retirement until you DROP DEAD.’
His jaw clicks.
He quickly repeats his method of burning the card and then, oozing charm, presents the flowers to Pearl. It is she who truly deserves them.
The hall is full. Smillie sits on the stage, above his expectant school. Children perform, class by class, songs, re enactments and tributes to their beloved headmaster. Smillie fixes a smile and forces laughter at the appropriate moments. But his mind is busy. Who? Who sent those poisonous words? They must be exposed. Punished. Suddenly he is interrupted – a child with a whining voice mentions his name. A poem is being recited. Smillie grins robotically, eyes glazed. A past member of staff is the only answer. No current member of staff would dare.
He tunes in again, graciously stepping forward to accept a large mound of portraits made by little ones. He returns to his seat and looks down at the bulky stack of cracked poster paint images of himself with a big moon face and thick red lips. Leaning down to put the pile under his seat he notices a large envelope already there. Reaching for it, he slips a trembling hand inside to pull out an oversized card. Instant relief washes over him – it’s from the staff. Multi-coloured, inky messages are scrawled everywhere: ‘Warmest wishes!’, ‘Enjoy those long lies!’. He’s just about to close it once more when he notices in the top right corner, gouged in scarlet:
‘Drop. Dead. Odious. Monster!’
Someone here? His eyes search. Who is watching him open that card? They stand to sing the school song. Smillie’s eyes race up and down the aisles.
And then he sees her.
In the middle of a row, towering between two pupils. She is emaciated, with clammy skin and dark ringed eyes. Her hair hangs, long, red and dank.
He rubs his forehead. It is damp. Memories deeply buried resurface. Everywhere mouths are opening and shutting, singing with gusto. He dares to look at her again. She is mouthing something too. Something different:
Sweat claws the back of his neck. Why was she here looking like death warmed up? He turns to whisper to his depute. He’ll remember that insufferable woman. He looks at Smillie blankly. Stupid fool. Smillie swings back, gesturing angrily to where she is standing. Adrenalin surges. She’s gone. He blinks. Then re-focuses. Someone is saying his name. The singing has stopped. Beady eyes are staring at him. Then staccato applause envelops his ears. It is sharp and offensive. He feels a hand press on his arm. He snatches it back glaring. A woman beside him is leaning in, saying something. Then everything comes back into sharp focus. It’s a presentation of course.
He stands slowly and is met with more clapping – slower this time and a little stilted. Black spots spawn and spread in front of his eyes. He walks forward. Dazed, his fumbling fingers reach for another damn envelope and a cardboard tube. Whisky. He turns to give thanks. Words are uttered. Aloud or from some dark place inside. But not the right ones. It makes no sense.
She’s dead Arnold. Dead. You know that don’t you?
He pretends he’s overwhelmed. He is overwhelmed. He sits down. Drops of sweat begin to trickle down his face. The fixed smile aches.
Words flow and flash in his mind: Harassment. Intimidation. Bully! That damn word again! Always that word. Anger burns in his veins. It wasn’t as though he’d actually killed the girl! She’d chosen that route herself!
Weak, tiresome idiot! Unfit for purpose!
In blinkered bewilderment, Smillie staggers back to his office. He shuts the door and stands at his desk, steadying himself. His throbbing head weighs downward. There’s a knock. An envelope slides under the door. Pearl no doubt, not wanting to disturb. He moves awkwardly to the window to rest his head against the cold glass. Through the mist of his breath, pupils are running and squealing. Then all is quiet for a moment and a scant figure glides across the quad. A woman with long red hair. She stops and looks up at Smillie, a smirk slashed across her stony white face.
A sound from the door. More cards appear under the door. Smillie glances back. She has gone. Panic is replaced with fury as card after card appear pushing, shoving, ramming under the door. Hundreds of cards are now piling up. Smillie kicks them out of the way and heaves the door open. Nobody is there. He storms round the corner to Pearl’s desk. She stands up from her computer with doe eyes. She has no idea what he means. She hasn’t left her desk for the last half hour. Smillie snarls in his retreat. Pearl sits back down, a trace of a smile on her lips.
Slamming the door Smillie rips open card after card.
Toxic, shouting, screaming words are scrawled everywhere.
Drop Dead Arnold Smillie!
Reaching for the lighter, he rips at the shiny cards, shoving them into the bin. He flicks the lighter repeatedly. The pieces singe and choke but the words remain. There’s too many! He reaches for the cardboard tube of whisky, pulls the cork and douses the bin. With a flash the cards begin to curl and burn. Into the smouldering fire, more and more pieces are tossed. Smillie staggers up to open the window, he trips on his gown. Its billowing folds sweep into the grasping blaze. He wriggles it off his shoulders and stamps furiously on the smoking fabric. But licking, thrusting flames leap out of the bin and catch on the net curtains. They shoot up the window, spreading fire to the dusty drapes. They ignite.
Smillie hauls at the window. Smoke alarms trigger fire alarms……
It’s too late.