A Parting Gift

 

'It's just a load of arse, innit?'

No one knew exactly where it had come from or how it had got there, but one Monday morning it suddenly appeared in the corner of the school lobby, an eight-foot tall statue in blue marble. Bill, the caretaker, was the first to see it. He was not impressed. Bill shook his head and tutted and assumed Mrs Dinglesby had supervised its delivery over the weekend without bothering to tell him. As usual.

It was not the first time such a piece had appeared somewhere in the school grounds. In fact, ever since Silver Lake had become an academy, there seemed to be plenty of money to throw around on such additions to the décor of the place, the most recent being 'The Bluebirds of Happiness'. Two local craftsmen had been commissioned to produce something that would represent the values and outlook of the school, as well as brighten up the playground. They had devised a piece consisting of several small stone representations of birds painted navy blue, which stood dotted around the edges of the concrete play area outside, gradually losing their wings, beaks and feathers to footballs, stones and the odd kick. They were now most of them so deformed, one wag in Year Six had rechristened the piece, 'The Blue Turds of Crappiness'. The eight-foot blue statue was just one further example of the school's folly, thought Bill.

The statue was certainly blue. It was carved out of a rare cerulean marble and clearly had cost someone a lot of money to produce. The Head believed it must be a present from the departing chair of governors and made a mental note to send an effusive thank-you note until she remembered he was in Barbados for six months. It was a very fine thought on his part, she supposed, although he really could have given her some notice of its impending arrival. The new chair of governors wanted his son to start at Silver Lake the following week and, Mrs Dinglesby vaguely remembered, the boy had some kind of aversion to the colour blue. They'd have to put a sheet over the statue or something.

The new addition to the lobby was receiving a good deal of attention, yet nobody could agree on what it was meant to represent. Mrs Dinglesby saw a nymph bathing in a waterfall, but Mr Token insisted it showed the fall of Icarus. Mrs Russett, who fancied herself something of an artist, thought it was Oberon, king of the fairies, riding a unicorn; while Miss Owen, who was in her forties and single, thought it was a depiction of Cupid firing an arrow.

 

Oblivious to these interpretations the statue stood in its corner, confusing or amusing visitors in turn. Parents admired it, believing perhaps that their precious offspring had had some hand in its construction. The cleaners dusted it with all the due care and attention they brought to the rest of their cleaning, which is to say not very much. The teachers either ignored it entirely, like Elizabeth Needle, the self-styled custodian of Year Six, who viewed the statue as an unnecessary distraction from the important business of preparing children for their end-of-year assessments; or took the children to view it in small, supervised groups, like Miss Honeybunn, who cooed incomprehensibly to her class of five year-olds about the statue's smooth and delicate patina. Others, such as Mrs Turncoat, felt it was irrelevant unless and until she heard it praised by either the Head or Deputy, at which point she became the statue's biggest fan. The Deputy Head herself found a Latin inscription at the bottom of the statue. 'Ars Gratia Artis,' she read out aloud and then scurried away to prepare an assembly for the older children on the meaning of the phrase, an assembly which left most of the Key Stage Two pupils with the belief that the statue was called 'Arse Grassier Arses'. None of the pupils was particularly surprised about this, however: after 'The Blue Turds of Crappiness', anything seemed possible.

Then one day there was an incident. Little Sammy Jones in Mrs Needle's class was sent to the Deputy Head for failing to complete any of his work that morning. The Deputy sat behind her desk, hands clasped together, every muscle on her face taut with concentration. Sammy sat on a small chair opposite. He looked up into her face when she asked him in her kindest voice what the matter was and told her straight: it was the statue.

'The statue? What about the statue?' asked Miss Slump. The statue was in the lobby, four floors down from Sammy's class. How could a piece of stationary blue marble be causing a child four floors up to stop working? Samuel Jones was a model pupil - obedient, hardworking, very good at maths. It would be mst unlike him to make up a story like this. Besides, the boy's face was all honesty as he explained how the statue was calling to him, making his head hurt on the inside, stopping him from concentrating on anything else. Yet Miss Slump could not really take this at face value, could she? 'Hmmm,' she said. On the one hand, an honest child. On the other, an unbelievable story. A decision had to be made and making decisions - especially tough decisions - was what she got paid for. She thought about it. She came down firmly on the side of disbelief. 'It's all you can think about, is it? Well, we'll soon see about that.'

Miss Slump ordered the boy to stay in her office throughout his lunchtime. Work would be brought down from the classroom for him to complete, dinner would be brought along from the kitchen for him to eat, and he would stay with her until both were finished. Sammy complained. He whined. He even cried. But the Deputy Head held firm. She was not going to be played for a fool by a smart-aleck little pest, certainly not! In the end, after much howling and claiming that he could not see the words plainly printed on the paper in front of him, little Sammy did complete his work and Miss Slump felt grimly justified.

The following morning, little Sammy's mother came thundering up the pathway to the school. She wanted to meet with the Head, but the Head was out at a meeting, so she met with the Deputy instead. Sammy's mother was quite irate. She demanded to know what the Deputy Head thought she was playing at, making her little boy suffer like that. Miss Slump did not lose her cool. She explained calmly and quietly to the woman the course of action she had followed, why she had followed it, and the successful outcome that had ensued. In return, Mrs Jones explained how troubled Sammy was at home and how this had been going on for some time. At home, she told the Deputy, Sammy cries and cries and won't be comforted. He won't go to bed without the light being left on, complains of headaches when it is. He wakes up screaming from nightmare after nightmare, it's no wonder he can't concentrate at school!

'What's bothering him?' asked the Deputy.

'That bloody statue!' said Sammy's mother. 'He dreams of it, you see, says it's coming to get him. Wakes up in a cold sweat, he has a terrible time.'

It was agreed that Sammy should go to see his doctor and have some time off school. Miss Slump pointed out that, after all, there were many hundreds of children at Silver Lake and none of the others were suffering in the way Sammy's mother had described. The problem was clearly Sammy's problem and nothing to do with the school. Why, it was ridiculous to think a mere statue, a lump of stone, could make anyone react like that. Ridiculous!

Nevertheless, the Deputy discussed the issue with the Head. Mrs Dinglesby reminded her that the statue had been given to the school by the outgoing chair of governors and, as such, it would be extremely inappropriate to do anything other than display it proudly in the lobby near the entrance to the school. When the new chair of governors, Mr Markem, took up his post, she would discuss the matter with him and he could decide what to do with the statue. Until then it must remain where it was. As for Sammy, his doctor prescribed some medication to help him sleep and, after a few days at home, the model pupil - or at least a more fragile version of his former self - returned to school. It was arranged that he could enter and leave the building through an alternative entrance, thus avoiding the statue and hopefully helping his delicate mental state.

No sooner had this issue been resolved, however, than two further incidents presented themselves. One morning the office manager, who had many important tasks to do that day, was forced to leave her office by the loud sobs she could hear coming from the lobby. She found a mother in floods of tears on the floor next to the statue. When brought in to the school office for a cup of tea and a sit down, she claimed that the statue had tried to take her daughter. The Head and Deputy were summoned at once but, the Head being out at a meeting, it was left to the Deputy to deal with the situation. After the incident with Sammy Jones, Miss Slump was careful not to express any disbelief at the woman's story, although it certainly stretched her powers of credulity to the limit.

The sobbing woman was the mother of Marsha Penmow, a Year Four pupil, who had been late in that morning due to a dental appointment. Mrs Penmow had been taking her little girl through the lobby on the way to class when Marsha had felt a tug at her coat. Assuming it was some other latecomer performing a childish prank, she had turned around to berate whoever it was and had been surprised to see her coat caught, as she believed, on a protruding part of the statue. When she had stopped to try and free the material, however, she only felt herself being tugged harder towards the marble. Giving a cry for her mother, Marsha had been pulled right up against the stone itself and then, so her mother claimed, partially inside it.

'Are you saying that she was…swallowed by a statue?' said the office manager, who lacked Miss Slump's determination to believe.

'I'm just telling you what happened, Misses. Don't you call me a liar!'

'We're certainly not calling you a liar, Mrs Penlow,' interjected the Deputy Head. 'Please continue.'

'Well, I grabbed hold of her, didn't I? I grabbed hold of her and pulled with all me might. There was me pulling one way and the bleeding statue pulling the other. But I won out! My little girl is fine and well and back in class by now, I dare say. There's nothing wrong with her, which is more than I can say for that statue of yours, and more than I can say for meself, too. A little bit of brandy wouldn't come amiss, to be honest.'

Another cup of tea was fetched and Mrs Penlow's spirits were restored before she was sent on her way with various promises for the matter to be investigated. No sooner was this done, though, than Miss Slump became aware of a whole class of children gathered in the lobby. It transpired that Miss Owen, who was  the sort of teacher never to let an opportunity for educational stimulation pass her by, had decided to base an entire scheme of lessons around the statue, which she now believed was a representation of Queen Hermione from The Winter's Tale. Her Year Five class had been reading an abridged version of Shakespeare's play and that very morning they were to enact the scene in which the supposed statue of the queen appears to come to life. There they all were, crowded into the lobby, eagerly awaiting Hermione's reconciliation with her Leontes, when the Deputy Head marched in upon them and demanded to know what on earth was going on.

'It's my Literacy lesson, Miss Slump,' said a surprised Miss Owen.

'Literacy?' thundered the Deputy. 'What on earth has Shakespeare got to do with Literacy?' Then, realising what she had just said, she moved swiftly on. 'This statue has become a health and safety concern. I am afraid you must all return to class until the matter can be dealt with.' Seeing her colleague about to object to this, Miss Slump added, 'Unless, of course, you have completed a risk assessment. Have you completed a risk assessment?'

'No, I haven't,' remarked a dejected Miss Owen, who had never completed a risk assessment in her life. 'Come on, children, let us go.' And then, as Miss Slump growled and grumbled and shooed the pupils from the place, she quietly added, 'We shall exit, pursued by a bear.'

Miss Slump was about to breathe a sigh of relief when she heard a cry for help behind her. She turned just in time to see Victoria Williams, both literally and figuratively the slowest of Miss Owen's cohort, apparently being sucked into the statue. The poor girl's clothes were tightened in a bunch around her waist, as if someone were pulling them from behind. The look on Victoria's face was pure fear. Then suddenly her body seemed to fold up like a concertina, her arms and legs sticking out in the air like wayward fence-poles, and she began to disappear by some sort of osmosis into the statue. The marble undulated and bubbled like an ocean whirlpool and gradually absorbed the child - skin, hair, clothes and all - before Miss Slump's astonished face. Suddenly startled out of inaction, Miss Slump stepped forward to grab the girl, but it was too late. She could only watch in disbelief as Victoria's head followed her vanishing body into the blue marble, succeeded by the last anyone ever saw of her arms and legs. In the next moment, the whole dreadful process was over, everything was solid and still again, and Miss Slump stood alone in the lobby.

Mrs Dinglesby was instantly summonsed from her meeting in a local bistro and she and Miss Slump conferred anxiously together. The main topic of their discussion, naturally, was how to minimise the impact of this event upon the school. Thankfully, Victoria Williams had no family of her own and was a looked-after child. Mrs Dinglesby was fairly certain she could use her influence to keep the matter quiet within the social services department and a suitable sum could be found in petty cash to ensure the silence of the foster mother, who had no great fondness for Victoria in any case. Furthermore, the girl's academic levels were far below those expected for her age, and the sudden disappearance of her data from the records would actually benefit the school. Certainly, the Head and Deputy agreed, it could have been a lot worse.

The next thing, of course, was to arrange for the removal of the statue. It could not now stay until the new chair of governors saw it; the sculpture was clearly too dangerous to let it remain on site a moment longer. Mr Markem's son was due to start the following week and his father had promised to bring him in a few days beforehand so the boy could get the feel of the place, which meant they could turn up at any time. There was not a moment to lose. The caretaker could take the statue to the local dump after he came back from his lunch break. It was, however, as Miss Slump pointed out, a very heavy statue and Bill would need help carrying it out of the building. Then Mrs Dinglesby hit on the solution.

Catherine Dinglesby was a woman of action. Not for her the dithering of some Heads, the inability to finish a sentence or even string a few words together into a coherent, meaningful utterance. Her every pronouncement was clear, quick and to the point. When some leaders said 'Jump!' they wanted staff to ask 'How high?' but when Catherine Dinglesby said 'Jump!' she wanted her staff to say nothing at all. They should be too busy jumping already and any teacher foolish enough to raise a query received a hard stare from her steel-grey eyes, which was enough to freeze their blood and turn their vocal cords to stone. This modern Medusa ruled her school like a not-so benevolent dictator. She didn't need discussions and she didn't need consensus and it was for times like this that she had that attitude. And it was for times like this that Silver Lake needed Catherine Dinglesby.

'After lunch, Slump, we'll have an assembly for the whole school. I'll take it myself. You and every other member of staff you can round up will help Bill shift the statue into his van. Then he can take the blessed thing away and get rid of it and we shall return to business as normal. Got that?'

Miss Slump knew better than to answer and was already scurrying away to inform the rest of the staff.

In her assembly that afternoon, Mrs Dinglesby read the story of an enormous vegetable that a farmer was trying to extricate from the ground. The way she told it, the farmer needed to enlist the help not only of his wife, but also of every animal on the farm. Mrs Dinglesby invited pupils to come up to the front of the hall and imitate the different animals as they all joined together to try to pull the enormous vegetable from the soil in which it was so resolutely stuck.

At the same time, a similar scene was being enacted in the lobby. Bill and Mr Token, being the only two males in the vicinity, had immediately taken charge of the heavy lifting. Mr Token had managed to put his arms all the way around the statue and Bill had put his arms around the chest of Mr Token. They both leaned forward so each had his weight on the front foot, then pulled back with all their might. But it was no use. The statue would not budge an inch (or, as Mrs Needle insisted on saying, two-point-five-four centimetres). Leaving Mr Token where he was, Bill stood back and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. The rest of the staff had assembled as instructed earlier and the caretaker decided now that their help was definitely going to be required. He directed them in order of size, the aptly named Mrs Large first of all, to grab hold of the person in front of them around the waist and form a long chain starting with Mr Token and the statue. When a sufficient number had done as Bill told them, he joined on the end and gave the command to pull.

Nothing. Not a millimetre.

In the hall, the horse had its hooves around the sheep, the sheep clung tightly to the cow, the cow kept firm hold of the dog, the dog wrapped its paws around the cat and the cat purred up against the farmer's wife. The farmer put his arms around the horse's midriff and they all pulled and pulled but the vegetable would not move. We're going to need another animal, children. Which one will it be this time?

Mrs Large had a tight grip of Mr Token; Mrs Russet held onto Mrs Large; Mrs Wasani had Mrs Russet; Mrs Sternflap reluctantly embraced Mrs Wasani; Miss Honeybunn held onto Mrs Sternflap. A chicken put its wings around the horse; a pig placed its trotters on the chicken. Mrs Goodreach grabbed hold of Miss Honeybunn; Miss Owen had her arms around Mrs Goodreach. A goat chewed at the chicken's feathers while clutching it around the waist. Then the farmer and the caretaker took their respective positions at the end of the lines. Everybody pulled. Everybody heaved. Goodness me, children! It still won't budge!

It was at this moment that Mr Markem decided to bring his son Thomas into school. Thomas had had a difficult educational career thus far. He had been excluded from three different schools due to swearing and random acts of unwonted violence against school property, all of which had stemmed from a peculiar phobia he had about the colour blue. Anything that was too obviously blue seemed to enrage him, much as seeing red is supposed to enrage a bull (the sky on a summer's day was a particular source of irritation). His father was determined to find a school where Thomas would be understood and his needs met, and if that meant becoming the chair of governors first and taking charge of the admissions procedure himself, then so be it. At first, the rest of the governing body had not been too sure about Mr Markem's appointment, especially when they heard about little Tommy, but when he showed them how much money he could offer the school in sponsorship deals, they soon changed their minds. Mr Markem was a very rich man. He had made his fortune producing and selling videos of a dubious nature, but he had left this business behind him many years before and had tried ever since to use his fortune to buy respectability. He was now the owner of a fairly profitable educational resources supplier, resources which he was in a position to offer freely to the school that would make his Thomas happy. Unfortunately for all concerned, that school was not to be Silver Lake Academy, but at the time the proud father and his nervous son entered the lobby, that fact was not yet known by anyone.

A bull! That's right, children. The farmer called a bull to join the line! All the animals leaned forward, each one bent over the back of the one in front, and the farmer joined the bull right at the end. That's it, everybody grab hold of the person in front. Now, one-two-three-PULL!

And so it was that at the precise moment most of the Silver Lake staff were bent over one another's backs, each of them ready to heave with all of their might, the new chair of governors walked into the building. What he saw reminded him at once of one of the less salubrious scenes in one of his dubious videos. It seemed that the staff of Silver Lake were engaged in some sort of Bacchanalian sex orgy, bent over one another's backs like rutting beasts! Mr Markem stood with his mouth open, his whole body frozen in horror.

Markem junior, on the other hand, stared only at the statue. He had no idea what on earth it was supposed to be, but that didn't matter. Only one thing made an impression on little Tommy Markem and that was the hideous, bright blueness that radiated in every direction from this huge lump of sculpted stone. Tommy wanted to be a good boy; Tommy did not want to burst into a violent rage on his first visit to Daddy's new school. So, covering his head with his arms, the terrified youngster turned and ran from the place, his swift departure jolting Markem senior out of his torpor and leading him also to turn tail and run. The two of them fled, out of the lobby, out of the building, along the path and through the school gates, never to return.

The voice of Mrs Dinglesby, Headteacher of Silver Lake Academy, rang out loud and clear in the school hall. 'They pulled,' she said. 'They pulled and pulled and pulled until finally - whoosh! Out it all came and they collapsed in exhaustion one on top of the other, howling and barking and whining at the top of their beastly voices.'

Later that evening, as he watched his father tear up all the plans for his involvement with Silver Lake, Thomas Markem swallowed the last of his medicine and tried to console his poor old parent. 'Never mind, Dad. You don't want to be the chair of governors of a school like that anyway. Not a school that would have a statue like that one in its lobby.'

'No son, I certainly do not. I don't want to have anything to do with a school that would have a bunch of degenerates like that for a staff.'

'It was a stupid statue, Dad. I mean, what was it supposed to be anyway?'

'Disgusting, that's what it is! You mark my words, we're better off without Silver Lake.'

His son nodded.

'It's just a load of arse, innit?'