Summertime, and those last few days of school term left before we broke up for the holidays. Weeker time. Even kids that hated each other always reconciled, however temporarily, when this time of year came round.
That last week, when there were no more lessons left to be taught and we kids were much too restless to learn anyway, Teacher brought us all into the assembly hall and put on Jaws or Transformers: The Movie or Star Wars on a big old Panasonic television that she’d roll in on casters with the help of the weirdo caretaker Mr Henderson. I thought that Mr Henderson was weird because Mr Henderson used to stand and lick (and sometimes sniff) the palms of his hands while staring hornily at me and my playfellows. Around his neck he wore a little vial which he claimed contained the ashes of his long dead wife. Now and again he’d open this vial and take a sniff of these ashes also.
It was said that Mr Henderson, back in the school he used to work at, one day told a little girl that if she were to put her hand in the pocket of his workman overalls she’d find a sleepy snake he kept in there. He told her that if she tickled the snake’s belly he’d wake up and do a big hard stretch, and as he were so happy at being tickled awake, lots and lots of sweets would rain from the sky. I remember thinking, when I heard this, that any child over the age of 4 should be not only molested but put through a wood chipper for believing a story like this.
Anyway, the story goes that Mr Henderson was not put in jail for this crime, and after doing some street sweeping and things like that for a few months as way of punishment, the law said he was allowed to go back and work in schools again. And so he was sent to our school, Paddington Primary. In the first few days following his appointment, much shouting could be heard coming from the Teachers’ staff room, with things like ‘abomination’ and ‘Tories’ and ‘fault of the Tories’ being said. Whatever.
It was the day Teacher had put Jaws on that I noticed Mr Henderson staring at Brian Olivier’s legs. He was licking the palms of his hands and smelling them, crinkling his nose up and jerking his head ever so slightly to the left, sort of like you’d do if you’d just taken a quick sniff of fresh new cats’ shite and recoiled. He had deep yellow stains on his overalls, and I checked to see if there were any bulges in the fabric, if his big dirty old member was stiffening in hopeless anticipation. It was peculiar to note, taking a gander myself, that Brian’s leg skin, and exposed skin in general, was emitting a brilliant, bright and unmistakable…sheen…in some of the bright June sunshine that made it through the holes in the tatty assembly hall curtains that Teacher had pulled shut in order to keep the glare off the Panasonic. It gave him the appearance of being made out of latex or general old action figure plastic. Like he’d just been taken out of the box.
Brian was a little twat. A master of trivia and how to do algebra, Teacher thought he was a wonder and model future citizen. So I took with great relish the new and strange-feeling intuition I had when it occurred to me that, somehow, Brian would not return after the summer.
As I told my friend Bob Rose, “Shithawk Olivier will get cancer!”
And isn’t it the bomb!? After the holidays, we all gathered in the assembly hall for Teacher’s back-to-school speech, Brian’s ma takes the lectern instead and tells us Brian’s terribly ill and won’t ever be joining us for lessons again…Leukaemia…!
After, in the playground for elevenses, Bob Rose told all our mutual playfellows what I had predicted. I expected wonder and not a little fear. To be lauded and graciously handed lunch money and the toys of others to play with.
But not a bit of it.
It wasn’t till I predicted that Deidre (a character in popular TV soap opera Coronation Street) would get cancer – an intuition prompted by the bulging sinews showing through the actress’s increasingly scrawny neck – that the crazies in The Unit (at least) took a shine to me. Turned out a lot of them were big fans of the show just as I was.
The Unit was a class for spogs, segregated from the regular kids by the Teachers due to their violent and sometimes sexually suggestive behaviour. There was ‘Scatt’, who in P7, while being ferried to school by an Education Board commissioned taxi, stabbed the driver in the neck with a compass. After that they’d to insert a cage to divide the front and back seats. Then there was Danger Mouse, whose main claim to fame was repeatedly, over a course of weeks, attempting to make one of the girl spogs pregnant by forcing her to let him stick his dick in her bellybutton. It was this type of behaviour plus his steadfast and primordial refusal to learn how to read and write that made him the most hated spog amongst all the Teachers, even the sound ones. Then finally, among so many other forgotten ones, there was frightened little Billy, trembling and shy, and he was the first one anointed by me in my new capacity as a prophet, and I called him ‘Trembling Billy’.
And so he and the rest of them, they became my first people, my chosen ones, like the tribes of Israel we’d been learning about in Divinity. But that wasn’t it; I wanted the whole of the school, every soul, rapturously enchanted by my strange and beautiful powers. So I set Bob Rose to work, spreading the Coronation Street Deidre-cancer-prophecy about the rest of the school population…then it happened. A month or so later she, the actress playing Deidre, appeared on the front of The Sun with her best gurn-bake on, talking about only having months to live. It was then I went supernova…
Like a triumphant king returning to his subjects having won a bloody war, I was feted wherever I went. Even kids from the neighbouring schools came to get a look at me – The Prophet of Paddington Primary – some being dragged along by their elderly grandparents, who, being mega-fans of Coronation Street’s Deidre, bought into my powers without hesitation when news of my uncanny predictions reached their old ears. On meeting me outside the school gates, they shoved fistfuls of lollies they’d pinched from local dentists’ surgeries into my hands to give me as offerings.
I did a little book swotting on prophets of Olde, deciding Rasputin was my Top of the Pops. I dressed and went about as he did; stopping getting washed so I’d smell of shite as he did. I stopped wearing school uniform, too, instead coming in in an old moth-eaten brown housecoat.
Finally Teacher had had enough one day and sent me home.
“Being a prophet does not preclude you from wearing school uniform, Daniel! Why, some of your playfellows think you’ve upped and joined The Unit!”
But my status as prophet did not diminish when I returned in proper school uniform. In fact it gave me greater access to the rest of the school in spreading my missionary, especially to the straggling non-believers who before had seen me as some aloof and filthy mystic. Now I dressed as they did and appeared the same. It wasn’t long till I had the mind of every child held in the palm of my hand, just as I had wanted. I walked among them all, my flock, one of them yet far apart, with powers of prophecy they hitherto believed only existed in Sunday School fairy tales.
In the following weeks I officiated over two cute little playground weddings, first between a P5 couple and then a P3 couple. Many asked me to tell their fortunes, including a couple of the Teachers.
Then, after Trembling Billy had a seizure, I declared that I would perform an exorcism on him, a magickal ceremony that would, I claimed, rid him of the devilry that had possessed him. I made a big production of it, slapping his face and tearing out big clumps of my own hair. I contorted my face so much I imagined I resembled a dog’s arse, and screamed out with an evil high-pitched voice (having sucked up a helium balloon first, in secret, before starting my divine task). Then, when Trembling Billy wet himself, and then started having another seizure, everyone (myself included) reacted with shock and panic, prompting me to declare it as a sign the evil spirits were leaving his body. Thinking on the hop, I ordered the hard-nut Unit spogs, Scatt & Danger Mouse, my Elite Guard as I’d come to call them, to jump up and down in the pool of dark yellow piss so as to make sure the discarnate spirits couldn’t possess anyone else. Afterward, after the ambulance men came and took Trembling Billy away, everyone was truly amazed…and truly worshipful. Were my shoelace to come undone, say, I’d hardly have time to notice it before some boy or girl was at my feet, tying it for me.
Though while the coolest kids in school all started scrambling for my attention, I still remained close to my Unit vassals – my first people. It was one part vanity, two parts their obedience and gullibility, I suppose.
It was also being in their company so often that allowed me to observe how much dirty old Mr Henderson hung about them. It was maybe he knew that The Unit spogs didn’t matter; that their complaints of his strange advances would be ignored. Now, say it was it a little fucker like Brian Olivier making accusations – Teacher herself would’ve called for him to be hanged. As it was, the Teachers probably wished The Unit spogs dead, and that Mr Henderson would be the one to kill them…two birds, one stone and all that.
So while I could depend on The Unit’s 100% loyalty, I still didn’t like the apparent hold Mr Henderson had over them. Many a day I would find him standing right in amongst them, bewitching them all with that little vial full of his dead wife’s ashes. Now and again he let the odd spog sniff them as he did. He appeared to me as like a black hole surrounded by fiery, raging, volatile stars; ferocious bodies all pacified, one by one, in the face of his murky vortex. But the one Mr Henderson had set most firmly in his sights was Trembling Billy, – the most peaceable and therefore the softest target of all The Unit’s forgotten children. The weakest of a weak minded bunch, but, unlike the rest, weak too in the body and in the spirit.
A full year had nearly passed since I had first declared myself as the Prophet of Paddington Primary. My surveillance of Mr Henderson continued unabated, and it was as if a mutual awareness had arisen between us – I watching him, and he, in watching me watch him, having a go at frightening me with his sinister, horny leering. What I noticed most of all though was his keenness in sniffing about Trembling Billy, loading him up as he did with sweets and comics, gifts that only made his life worse when the stronger spogs beat him up then stole these things. Yet a change in Trembling Billy was occurring; something beyond the beatings from the spogs or the belittlement by the Teachers. It was something unseen, yet glaringly there in its absence. It was something that was gone in him and was not coming back. His soul has been razed, but oh, so gradually. And always by his side that Mr Henderson, that dirty old bastard, reserving the bonbons and football cards just for him.
A grinning balefulness clouded all the way around Trembling Billy then, so it got that what could formerly have been seen wanting in him went unseen, even by me…
It was the first real hot day of the year. By now Trembling Billy was like a ghost in the snow. He occupied, bodily, the space he stood in, but that was all. On this day, and to my shame, I too took advantage of him. It was an act of ultra-lazy complacency, a regality borne of the type of power only the Cult of Personality can grant you. What was, at the time, a little thing, a gross indulging in convenience at best, near brought my end. They say that it was down to rumours that they decided to assassinate my hero Rasputin, well, from little acorns, as it goes…and just like Rasputin, my little acorns were the seeds that sowed my downfall.
I was lounging under the big fairy tree, out in the fields behind the school, thinking of my prophecies and the people I would touch with them. All around my little Unit disciples ran and frolicked, with Trembling Billy uncommonly conspicuous that day by his being in the middle of things, the other spogs pushing him to and fro and spitting on him as they did. Feeling tired after trying to muster a vision, I put my hand down my trousers and decided to start touching myself, one of those early, enchanting forays into the Everlasting Gobstopper world of masturbation. When I was done I was really, totally knackered then, but more than that I had the overwhelming need to take a slash. I looked down toward the school, feeling downhearted at how far away it seemed and how hot the high summer sun was. I knew I couldn’t go openly, behind the fairy tree, say, as some of the girl spogs screeched like hyenas at even the mention of the word ‘willy’, something that was sure to attract the attention of the Teachers. Though I wasn’t going to go there anyway, even if it were the only hiding place around, as I didn’t want the smell of piss lingering when I sat back down to prophesy once more. Yet I needed to go so bad, but was so lazy I couldn’t muster even the dimmest spark of energy. Still, I refused to allow myself to plumb the depths I had in years previous when I just let myself go down my leg. So, after some thinking time, I gathered The Unit around me and told them to go into the woods a few fields away to find me a wild rabbit to sacrifice. I ordered them all to go…all but Trembling Billy.
When they were away, I took him behind the tree and pointed to a spot just in front of me.
“Kneel before me…kneel before your prophet and Grand Master, Trembling Billy…” I intoned. Like a Project Monarch sex-slave, Billy dropped to his knees and went to open his mouth.
“Not yet, young thing,” I told him, slightly perturbed by his dumb obedience. “Now I will urinate in your mouth. You must not swallow. You must run away, down the hill, and find somewhere to spit it into, behind a bush or something…” Trembling Billy nodded and opened his mouth once more. I inserted my flaccid aching thing in there, stinging inside, all along the piss pipe, from holding it in so long. I drained my little spuds into the dead-eyed head of him then, and it felt real good, with his tight, shallow little mouth so sticky and warm around my johnson.
When I was done I took a good look around to make sure nobody had spotted me and that’s when I saw him, his seedy face tucked in between some gorse bushes at the far end of the neighbouring field: Mr Henderson, that dirty old bastard. He rose up then, sniffing his vial of ashes and smiling at me imperiously.
Urgently I told Trembling Billy, “Now, run as fast as your legs will carry you, and don’t stop till you find some hiding place to spit my piss into. And if you tell anybody I did this, I’ll chain you to a radiator and burn your family alive in front of your very eyes!”
Trembling Billy, his cheeks bulging with my piss, nodded and rose immediately, taking off toward the school. I took a look back at Mr Henderson and showed him the one-finger. He stood there like a shiftless golem, sniffing and sniffing those ashes, but I was still not afraid of him.
Returning to my fairy tree, some unquantifiable yet blissful time spent prophesying to myself had passed when I then heard my name bellowing from the school bullhorn. It was the voice of Teacher, her crone squawking reverberating through the fields and hills all around.
“Return to school at once, Daniel Pongo! The police are on their way…”
With great haste I ran and called The Unit out of the woods. When I had them gathered around me I fed them a cracker.
“The powers of evil have amassed at the school. They want me to stop my ministry and take you all away forever. We will not have it! Advance toward the school and attack wildly any teachers or police you encounter.”
They turned and ran schoolward, while I checked to see where Mr Henderson was, which was still among the gorse bushes, only now he’d his arm raised, beckoning me over toward him. I summed up my options: surrender to the forces railed against me or go off and find refuge with a nonce. The latter option at least gives me a hope, however slight, that if I could escape his clutches I might escape all this intact. So I surrendered myself to the gods and headed in his direction, and as I went I swore that I would, in a cruel and deadly act of vengeance for his presumed squealing, murder everybody from the pet goldfish up which belonged to and was beloved by Trembling Billy.
On reaching him, Mr Henderson scooped me up under his big, muscular arm and carried me to his work shed. When inside, and after he’d locked the door, he put me down on his holey old sofa and switched on a dim, bare bulb hanging from the mouldy ceiling above. Finally he took a slim manila folder out of his desk drawer and sat down beside me with it. From the folder he produced many, many grim photos, all of them showing poor Trembling Billy in a series of revolting poses with himself, an Alsatian and numerous assorted hooded figures in dark robes, – images so horrific and disturbing I can’t even bring myself to describe them now, despite the time that has passed.
“I see we share a passion for a particular trembling little spog, Daniel!?” said Mr Henderson, sniffing his palms.
“Not like this I don’t!” I said, nodding at the photos. “You’re a sick nonce. You know, were I to tell people what I’ve discovered here I’d probably get immunity from the Teachers for what I done to Billy!”
A strange and ominous shift occurred in his aura then. He moved toward me grinning benignly, and I, for my part, sat motionless under his gaze. Then he pounced, grabbing me hard round the throat and bollocks and throwing me across the room against the opposite wall, near breaking my back. Quickly he put the photos back in the folder and tossed it into the little potbelly stove burner glowing dimly in the corner of his dingy shed. I lunged forward trying to stop him, but the pictures were all gone.
“You were saying…” he purred, the melting photos that nourished the fire reflected in his mirrored Aviators.
Mr Henderson’s grip was tight on the back of my neck on the way down the field. I imagined this was how he held Trembling Billy as he escorted him to whatever sick production he had arranged for him. I began to feel sorry for Billy then, and resolved to kill only him and not his family in revenge for his squealing. But then it came to me that I wouldn’t need to kill even him and another prophecy started to form in my mind.
Down in the playground The Unit had put up a strong but fruitless fight against the combined forces of the police and Teachers. Mr Henderson played the hero of the hour, saying he’d caught me just before I’d gotten into the woods.
Down at the station I was told that they were going to put me on some sort of juvenile watch-list of sex predators, but that I didn’t have to worry about being charged with a proper crime as I was too young. Paddington Primary wrote a big deal formal letter to mother, informing her I was to be expelled due to practising Satanism and abusing Trembling Billy.
A few days later Bob Rose called round to mine to tell me what’d happened.
“One of the Teachers had stopped Billy in the hall and, noticing he was ‘the colour of an unwashed car’ told him to spit out what was in his mouth into her hands.”
“Would you fuckin’ credit it?!” I went. “And why’d he go all the way to the school? I told him, just spit it into a bush or somewhere, for fuck sake.”
“Well, y’know,” said Bob Rose stroking his chin like he was a wise old grandpa, “them Unit kids don’t process like the rest of us do. Fool probably thought: where piss go? Piss go in toilet. I spit piss in toilet. Toilet at school.
“Anyway, I hope you won’t kill Billy now, Danny? He was gonna do as you told him. It weren’t his fault Teacher intercepted him as she did.”
“You’re right, brother…”
So after 3 weeks languishing at home I sat down and composed what was to be my final prophecy. In it I described the suicide of Trembling Billy and the subsequent arrest of Mr Henderson. The prophecy went in an envelope and that I sealed with wax. On the reverse I wrote:
THE PROPHECY HEREIN CONTAINS INFORMATION THAT SHOULD BE TREATED WITH THE UTMOST URGENCY. IF ACTION IS NOT TAKEN IT WILL COME TO PASS V.SOON…MR. HENDERSON IS EVIL – DANIEL P.
Then I sent it to Paddington Primary. Unsurprisingly there was no word back.
Two months later I still hadn’t found a school that would take me. Mother told me if I didn’t get an education I’d have to start earning a crust instead. I told her all I needed to do was save up enough to buy one Big Mac. That I’d eat this Big Mac, then spend the rest of my life shitting and eating and shitting and eating and shitting and eating it, continuously, till I died, and people would praise me for my eco-friendly, zero-waste diet. But her, Mother’s, reaction to this was to punch me in the ear, throw me out the house, squealing after me, “…and don’t come back till you find yourself a way to make some dough!”
So I went downtown and started hanging around the bookies on Bradbury Place, ending up eventually running messages for a bunch of old Chinamen who couldn’t bear to tear themselves away from their gambling forms for even a millisecond, not even to go buy another box of their beloved Chesterfields, which’s where I came in.
One day, it’s getting close to dinner time, and I’ve been on the go from sunup bringing those Chinamen dumplings and Chesterfields, dumplings and Chesterfields, till it got that I thought I was going to fall asleep standing up.
Then the 6 o’clock news comes on their old black & white and they say “Go home! Go home! You tired!”
I went on and walked slow up the Dublin Road to my bus stop, clutching the Chinamen’s wages in my pocket, when I spotted some of the shady kids from P7 coming along. They spotted me too and came over. They seemed keen to talk.
One of them said, “Trembling Billy hung himself from the Jungle-Jim the other day, Danny. Nobody knows for why.”
“I know for why,” I said. “Mr Henderson’s been doing stuff to him. Mr Henderson will soon be arrested.”
The P7s were greatly taken with this, and I was chuffed to think that not only was I the talk of the older kids but the Teachers as well, now they’d probably opened my prophecy.
One of the other P7s suggested I apply my powers beyond the playground and onto ‘the street’, whatever that meant. But I declined, warning against the temptations of the world outside, the adult world, full of avarice and mendacity.
“Don’t grow up too fast,” I warned them. “They say the best years of your life are your school years…well believe them, for I know it to be true…and so will you all, one day…”
Though what I really knew to be true was that these were lies I spoke. That I was the grand architect of an entirely treacherous conceit, deceiving myself as much as anyone else.
A prophet? Pah!
Take the first prediction, shiny skinned twat-attack Brian Olivier – you’d to only look at him to see he wasn’t long for this world. I’d just chanced upon the leukaemia. Maybe the reason Mr Henderson was staring at him that day Teacher put Jaws on was because he knew that too, and was thinking how much he’d like to slice him before he kicked the bucket.
Ditto for Coronation Street Deidre’s sinewy neck, what looked like a droid’s with its wiring showing underneath. Anyone could tell she was for the Big C, too.
Trembling Billy’s exorcism was a production, and the rest, like those words of wisdom to the P7s, just the reprocessed homespun sayings of a million old women. Add into the mix a gift for weaving a crude turn of phrase – some well selected, loaded words generously cast out upon the tic-tac-toe of The Unit spogs’ inner-minds – and you have all the constituents of a fraudulent, yet lordly, child-prophet.
At the end, critically, and when I thought it mattered most, I chose to maintain this guise. In believing I had, as I had always wanted, the whole of the school, every soul, rapturously enchanted by my strange and beautiful powers, I composed my final prophecy in the hope that this, coupled with the urgency of my message on the envelope, would be the thing that saved Trembling Billy, my first anointed one, from the end of a noose. But mine was a tarnished commodity now, and nobody listened.
I realised then that this well-worn counsel to the P7s was to be my last – my last glib pronouncement and the end of my vague portents, too. For, as I said, the one thing, the only thing, I did know to be true was that from out of these lips of mine those words I left them with that day were the falsest I ever gave voice to.
— Richard Barr has had several stories published in the last few years, including in Lancaster University’s The Luminary and The Big Issue. More recently he’s been published in The Honest Ulsterman, New Critique, Sonder Magazine, Misery Tourism and Bristol Noir. Stories this year have featured in Terror House Magazine and Punk Noir, with work upcoming in Janus Literary.