Wednesday, 31 October 2012

The Newsagent

Let's not beat about the bush: the boy's fat. There's no other way to put it. He has a thatch of yellow hair and angry eyes that smoulder with something unpleasant. Eyes are the window to the soul. At the very least, this is a boy who's pulled the legs off of a spider or given some innocent cat a good kicking. He wears a white shirt that accentuates the red in his cheeks.

Mr Watts walks the length of the room to where the boy is sitting. He walks behind the row of desks and looks over his shoulder. Some urge wants him to identify this boy, put a name to the unpleasant face. His name is printed on his exercise book and it stops Mr Watts in his tracks. Hits him like a slap in the face, puts a chill in his heart. Not the Christian name, that's innocuous enough. But that last name – he knows it. It's so singular that he just has to be one of them.

Mr Watts travels back in time some forty years to stand outside a newspaper shop. It's a small shop with window frames and door painted black like a funeral parlour. There's a rack next to the door loaded with the day's newspapers with their garish red and black names. The local rag – The Western Gazette has its letters printed in a Gothic typeface that makes him think of words chiseled onto a very old and creepy tombstone.

Inside, the shop is narrow and long. That peculiar smell – an olfactory amalgam of newspapers, nougats, toffees, walking sticks and tobaccos hits his nose. Brown and black combs, banded to card, hang from the ceiling. A tall and ancient gaunt man in a black suit waits behind the counter. He wears a blue bow-tie and his cheekbones are very prominent. His hair is white and slicked back with Brylcream. He could have been a matinee idol if he didn't look so cadaverous. Instead, he looks like a character from a Hammer Horror. He looks the boy up and down - looks right through him with his glassy blue eyes and asks him to go through, behind the wooden counter where, he says, he has something for him.

Oh, he doesn't want to through there. Oh, how he'd like to turn and run but can't, his legs paralysed under him, his eyes transfixed by that cold, marbled gaze... The old newsagent reaches out, his old hands mottled with black ink from the constant handling of newspapers.


Mr Watts comes back to the here and now. Says that name out loud as if uttering some evil spell, horrifying himself by hearing it alive again, real in the air of the classroom. The boy says yes. He walk backs to the front of the class feeling the eyes burning into him.

The clock on the wall says that there are only five minutes to go. Mr Watts sets the homework and threatens detentions for those that do not complete.

It's a Friday. Mr Watts collects the homework. The boy has shifted and now sits at the front of the class, directly opposite Mr Watts. The class are rowdy, in high spirits this last day of term before the school breaks for the autumn holiday. The boy cracks a joke: it is a good natured joke about how Mr Watts should bring in a hand bell to get the class's attention. The angry smouldering has left his eyes. Mr Watts begins to think that he's got it all wrong, got himself worked up over nothing – probably nothing more than anxiety created by the stress of the workload.

He flicks through the blue exercise books before dismissing the class. It's a relief to see that the pupils seem to have completed the homework assignment. He doesn't, this last day of term, want the hassle of setting detentions. He gets to the final book. It belongs to the boy. He turns to where the homework should be. Nothing. Just a blank page. Except for one thing: a black thumbprint in the middle of the page. Mr Watts stares at the whorls of the print. It's too big to belong to a child. It belongs to a man's hand. He looks up. The boy smiles. The ugly, red look is back in his eyes. Mr Watts is silent for a moment. Then says, 'class, you can go.'

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