Tag Archives: horror story

Marcus: Chapter 6: Stone Circle

I altered this picture original here https://www.flickr.com/photos/74568665@N03/11932361453

To go to chapter 1 and follow the story through from the very beginning, simply click on this link

A pair of black eyes sparkled in the moonlight as Marcus barred their way through the bushes. Taz grabbed Tash’s hand, preparing to run. Marcus simply shook his head then gently held a finger to his lips.

He beaconed them to come closer. Neither of them wanted anything to do with that idea but they knew they had little choice.

They took three tiny steps towards him. He looked barely human and his breath smelled like an old peat bog (earthy, damp, and cold). He whispered so quietly they could barely hear him:

“I need this to stop. He has me bound by dark magic. I have to do what he tells me. He uses me to stay young, to stay alive. He’ll use you too. I’ve been doing this for so long I can’t even remember my own name. He called me ‘Marcus’. Those Romans claimed everything by naming it. I can tell you how to stop it though.”

Roman’s? Dark magic? What was he talking about? Nothing about Marcus made any sense. At least he seemed to be helping them. It was their only choice.

Taz and Tash looked at each other. Without saying a word they knew what they were going to do, turning back to face Marcus they both gave him a sharp nod.

*

Meanwhile, in the school, Mr Thomas had re-tied Nicky and used an old belt to tie James to a pipe in a different part of the basement. They couldn’t see each other from where they were. Trying to shout back and forth resulted in Mr Thomas bashing on the old pipes with a hammer with a clang that made their teeth rattle.

He slumped down to sit on the floor on a grubby spot that they could both see:

“You know, it’s really quite odd. I don’t choose. He doesn’t choose. The strange thing is, I need four and that’s always what turns up in the end. It’s like the universe is telling me something.”

For a tiny, fleeting, moment, a look of regret passed over his face. James watched in hope. Would he let them go? Had he changed his mind? (James didn’t want to imagine what he was changing his mind about). Mr Thomas wiped sweat from his brow, pulled himself back up to a standing position, and grunted in frustration:

“What’s keeping that boy? We only have a few hours left!”

*

The Marcus-shaped creature sat down in the cold leaves inside the bush. He patted the dirt, beaconing Taz and Tash to sit with him:

“He made a mistake this time though. All he told me was to get you back to the school before the witching hour. It’s not much time but it should be enough.”

“I am a Pict. When I was ten years old I was taken miles from home to a healer here. He took me to their healing circle but in the middle of his magic he was interrupted by a small band of Roman soldiers carrying their wounded leader. They dropped him beside me and the magic linked us.”

“It destroyed me. Turned me into this. But the commander healed, he grew stronger and, as we both discovered later, he became immortal.”

Tash frowned:

“But that would make you?…”

“Almost two-thousand years old, yes. Look, we don’t have time for questions. Mr Thomas is the Roman. He will stay alive forever so long as he can drain the energy from children. Like he did with me. Like he has done every quarter century since.

“You need to go to the stones. They built a golf course around them, to the East of the town. The stones can undo this mistake. He can’t follow you there and he can’t complete the ritual with only two of you.”

Taz got up and prepared to run:

“Sounds good to me. Tash are you ready?”

“I’m not sure. I want to make sure my sister will be safe. Can you promise that?”

Marcus shook his head:

“I’m afraid I can’t. I have no choice but to do whatever he asks. I will do everything I can though.”

His black eyes closed, his brow furrowed:

“There’s one more thing. I think you misunderstood. I can’t just let you leave. I have my orders. I need to take you back to the school now. My advice is to find any chance you get and run for those stones. Even if only one of you makes it, that might be enough.”

Tash and Taz looked at him with unblinking eyes. How were they supposed to get away from him? Marcus stood up and a cloud of shadow grew from inside him. He spread out until all they could see was a greenish-black face and cold black eyes:

“What are you waiting for? RUN!”

His final word shook them out of their fear. Their legs thundered away. Getting to the golf course was almost all uphill but neither of them slowed, there was no choice but to run.

They couldn’t see Marcus any more but they could feel that he was near. Every now and then the smell of peat and damp would swirl past them along with the slightest whistling.

Marcus wasn’t allowed to go easy on them; as Taz found out half way along the High Street.

He had lost track of Tash and was dodging past a group of teenagers sitting around a bench in the square when he was slammed to the ground from the side. Even through his jacket he could tell the pavement had scraped his back badly.

The teenagers ran over to see if he was OK. Taz looked up and saw a group of concerned faces and beyond that a black cloud, growing thicker.

The whistling started again, along with a voice:

“I’ll take it from here.”

When the teenagers turned and saw the swirling black mist behind them it was all too much. A couple of them tried to pull Taz up and help him but his leg was hurt. He couldn’t walk.

As the mist grew together into the distorted form of Marcus they gave up entirely and ran. Marcus leaned over Taz:

“I am sorry Taz. You’re the fastest too. I need to take you to the school now. I hope you understand.”

A steep hill led down from the square to the school. It wasn’t a short trip and Marcus dragged Taz kicking and screaming all the way to the school gates.

*

Tash had seen Taz streaming ahead of her and knew there was no way she could keep up. She would only get one chance; Marcus was clearly going after the fastest of them. She would have to choose her moment exactly.

She kept an even distance from Taz until the square. His fall took her by surprise but she was quick to respond.

While Marcus dragged her friend kicking and screaming down King Street Tash ran in the opposite direction. Up one of the steepest hills in town.

Her legs burned and her lungs spluttered as they were filled with piercing cold. She couldn’t stop. This was for her friends. This was for her sister.

She knew if she let her legs rest. If she stopped even for a few seconds. She would never be able to start again.

Doubts popped into her head. Why was she trusting a Pictish mould-ghost (or whatever Marcus was)? She had never heard of this ‘stone circle’, what was it supposed to do? They were just rocks after all. How could they do anything to help real flesh-and-blood people?

She had let the doubts shake her, slow her down. Her attention had wandered and she took a false step onto the road, slamming down hard and jarring her leg.

There was no time to deal with the pain. No time for anything. She breathed in another deep lungful of the torturous icy air. Gritted her teeth, and continued her run, now in the middle of the road.

The doubts started slipping around in her mind again, knocking against each other and popping up in little groups.

One question came up more often than any other. It was the hardest to dismiss as well: How was she supposed to find the right stones?

The answer was so much worse than she could imagine. As she reached the gates to the golf course she found the grass populated with dozens of glowing children. Ghoulish green shapes, all with the same black eyes as Marcus. They wore such a collection of odd clothing that one thing was clear. These were the children who had come before. Two-thousand years of victims (or what was left of them).

None of them had seen her yet but she they were looking. Far beyond the walking ghouls one patch of ground seemed less popular. It was hard to see, even in the moonlight, but Tash was almost certain she could make out the shape of a small circle of rocks a few hundred feet from where she was.

Towards the centre of town she heard police sirens. A lot of them. She was almost out of time.

Keep up with the story

You can click here to read on to Chapter 7: Impossible Choices.

Social media feeds are an oddity. What you say can be seen by millions but it can also slip away and be missed with ease. I always post new chapters on social media (Facebook and Twitter) but there’s no guarantee that we’ll both be on at the same time.

With this in  mind, if you’re enjoying ‘Marcus’ and you want to be sure you get a link to the newest chapter as soon as it’s out, you can also get an e-mail reminder by clicking this link. Mailing list members also get access to printable files so you’re not forced to read it all from a screen.

Thanks for reading, all the best, John

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Marcus: Chapter 5: The Boiler Room

To go to chapter 1 and follow the story through from the very beginning, simply click on this link

The boys scrambled for the door. Taz stuffed the keys in his pocket as he went. That thing had Marcus’ voice. Was it Marcus? It certainly didn’t look anything like Marcus!

This was no time for questions. It was time for running. Like they’d seen on every scary movie, in every scary book, the boys ran for the stairs. They ran for higher ground, even though all it could do was trap them.

They raced for the top floor. The corridors were wider there. That part of the building was newer. If they ran that way they could take the second set of stairs, double back onto the floor below and make a second attempt at getting into the boiler room.

Taz was determined not to leave his friend behind again:

“James, come on! It’s easier if you take the steps two at a time. Trust me.”

James copied Taz’s leaping run up the stairs. Sure enough they got up faster than he would have believed possible. His fear of tripping pushed firmly to one side in the face of his fear of the thing behind them. They raced through the top corridor, barging through the door at the end, just as the door they had just come through creaked open.

Marcus poked his head round with a grin. He yelled something after them but they didn’t stick around to find out what it was. They took the other stairs in jumps. James wasn’t even sure if his feet were hitting the ground. Nothing about this felt safe but it was better to risk a twisted ankle than wait around for Marcus to get them.

They came out at the very back of the school. At the far end of a very old corridor. The walls were arched and it smelled of bleach from the gym hall toilets. They ran on and turned into the big stairwell again. Leaping down steps without counting.

Taz ran ahead and grabbed the keys out of his pocket. There were dozens of them.

He skipped the tiny ones and the huge old iron ones and tried the most likely sizes and shapes. As the keys rattled against the door he was sure he could hear movement from behind it, and a girl’s voice!

Something wasn’t right though. The girl’s voice was muffled more than it should be. Taz slid key after key into the lock until finally, with a satisfying ‘click’ he found one that worked.

Taz flung the door open to find a darkened room, not much bigger than a store cupboard. He turned on the light. The room was empty; Nicky wasn’t here.

James came in to see why Taz was taking so long:

“Where is she?”

A tiny, echoing, voice came from below:

“I’m down here!”

At the far end of the room the boys spotted a ladder leading down to a level below. To rescue their friend they would need to climb under the school. Marcus would be here any minute.

In a rush of inspiration Taz leapt for the door and slammed it shut. He grabbed the key and locked them in:

“This way he won’t know we’re here yet.”

There was a lot of space under the school. A lot more than they expected. More in fact than there would ever need to be. James started to wonder if this underground bit was older than the school.

He and Taz got back to the task at hand:

“Nicky? Nicky are you here? We’ve come to get you, we need to take you home.”

A muffled cry from a small cupboard nearby told them everything they needed to know. A strip of old electrical cable linked her right ankle to one of the heating pipes. She looked up with a face covered in muck and sweat.

Up till that point the boys hadn’t wanted to believe that this was real. Neither of them had imagined Nicky like this. Nicky had to shake them out of it:

“Please! Help me!”

They leapt forward and started working on the knots. The plastic coating on the cables slipped as they pulled at it. The seconds ticked by with the sound of their own heartbeat pulsing in their ears.

Marcus would figure it out quickly. They had locked him out but he could be waiting for them by the door when they came back up.

Nicky wobbled as she walked, her sleeping legs waking up as she moved them. The boys grabbed an arm each and helped her along to the stepladder. At that point she was on her own. They couldn’t pull her up so she forced her legs to move, despite agonising pins and needles.

The boys let her climb up first, shuffling from foot to foot as they suppressed the urge to ask Nicky to hurry up. Finally she reached the top and James and Taz hauled themselves up to join her.

There was no way of knowing what might meet them on the other side of the door. James pointed out that the longer they waited the more likely it would be that they would find Marcus there.

Taz pressed his ear up against the door, sticking his tongue out as he concentrated:

“I can’t hear anything…”

The door handle turned.

*

Taz scurried along the floor on all fours, putting as much distance between himself and the door as possible. James and Nicky grabbed him by his shoulders and pulled him towards them.

A metallic scraping sound came from the other side of the door. A huge clump of keys clicking against the handle. No other sound could be heard as a key clicked gently into the lock and produced a tiny ‘squeak’ as it opened the door.

A huge shape filled the open door. The lights in the stairway had been turned on leaving the figure’s face in shadow. As he stepped forward the three friends finally felt able to breathe. Mr Thomas, assistant janitor and saviour of the hour, gaped at them:

“What on earth are you all doing here?”

He stepped closer to them, frowning:

“Marcus was supposed to keep you tied up!”

They had seconds to digest what Mr Thomas was saying. Taz was the first to respond. Heaving his friends up he hauled them with all his might to speed past the man and leap through the open door.

They held hands tight and ran as one, slipping a little on the freshly polished floor, bumping into corners.

Mr Thomas poked his head out of the boiler room:

“Marcus! We have an escape attempt!”

A greenish-black shape blurred past them and took the shape of a ten year old boy:

“I really am sorry but I can’t let you leave.”

There was something odd about Marcus’ expression, somehow he really did seem sorry. All the same he clearly intended to keep them there.

The trio launched themselves right at him, knocking him to one side as they made for the door. They remembered too late that this wasn’t the way they’d come in. Nicky fiddled with the lock, no key just a twist catch. As soon as they heard the ‘click’ all three of them flung the door open and ran out into the night.

They made directly for the gate but the greenish-black shape was back. This time, away from the lights in the school, Marcus didn’t look at all like himself. Black eyes blinked at them from behind pale green eyelids.

The three friends stepped back from the creature in front of them. In his fright Taz let go of James’ hand. A gust of wind threw him aside and he heard the words ‘Tig! I got you!” hiding inside the wind’s howl.

Taz pulled himself up and found the playground deserted. James, Nicky, even Marcus. All gone.

For a fleeting moment he considered running back into the school. There was nothing he could do. He needed help.

Taz’s legs thumped onto the pavement like pistons. He ran in a flat-out sprint all the way to Tash’s house. There was no clear way of getting hold of her without ringing the bell but he knew her parents wouldn’t believe what he had to tell them.

He’d have to knock on her bedroom window. Thankfully Tash’s house was a bungalow so at least he wouldn’t have to do any climbing to get to her.

Taz crept round the side of her house and found that her bedroom light was already on. She hadn’t even closed her curtains. When he looked in he saw that she was sitting up in bed, tear-reddened eyes staring blankly at her bedroom door. When Taz knocked on her window she fell off the bed.

Tash dashed to the window and pulled it open:

“Taz? What are you doing here? It’s the middle of the night.”

Taz had no time to waste (he was also ridiculously out of breath):

“Marcus…He has Nicky and James. He was working with Mr Thomas the whole time. Adults won’t believe us. We have got to go. Now!”

Tash hadn’t even put her pyjamas on. She knew she wouldn’t sleep with Nicky missing. Now she had a chance to save her sister and help her friend. Her parents would never forgive her if she left without saying anything but, as Taz said, they couldn’t risk them not believing them. She scribbled a quick note down and left it on her pillow:

So sorry, had to go. Mr Thomas and Marcus have Nicky and James in the school boiler room.

Didn’t think you’d believe us. Leaving with Taz now. Love you, Tash

They climbed out the window and into the night. Tash led Taz to a shortcut to the school through some bushes at the back of her house. He stopped cold in the middle of the bushes. Tash couldn’t understand:

“What is it?”

Taz shook his head and closed his eyes:

“The whistling, can’t you hear it.”

Tash hadn’t heard anything at first. She did now. A quiet, gentle song, echoing against the cold hard walls around them. It was getting closer.

*

Click here for Marcus: Chapter 6: Stone Circle

Marcus: Chapter 3: 3:00AM

To go to chapter 1 and follow the story through, simply click on this link

James woke up, his throat dry, vague memories of nightmares drifting away. He grabbed a drink of water, perched on the end of his bed, and glanced at his alarm clock. A sickly green digital display blinked 3am.

What had broken his sleep? The whistling had permeated his dreams, the sound was still ringing in his ears. The cold water roused him further. The last traces of sleep vanished. The whistling was coming from the street outside.

It only lasted a few seconds more. By the time James was at his window the whistler was gone. From that point on he didn’t sleep a wink.

*

His eyes were red with tiredness when he arrived at school. Tash was the fist to notice:

“You look horrible! What happened to you?”

James filled her in on everything that had happened the night before. She tried to comfort him by explaining it all away. After all, it had all been muddled by his nightmares. There was no way to be sure about what he’d heard. Even as she comforted her friend, Tash’s throat grew dry and her heart raced.

Once they had shared the story with Taz and Nicky they were left with the difficult task of deciding what to do next.

Taz wanted to go on acting like nothing had happened. Nicky insisted that there must be a simple explanation and that the simplest way to get it was by talking to Marcus. James and Tash looked at them both, an expression of absolute disbelief plastered over their faces. James spoke first:

“I can’t believe what I’m hearing here. Ignore it or talk to Marcus? Those can’t be our only options.”

The others nodded in agreement. They needed more details about ‘their’ Marcus. Operation ‘ask Marcus weird questions and hope he doesn’t notice’ was scheduled for lunchtime. It happened sooner than that.

As they all lined up, ready to file into the school James found himself standing in front of Marcus. He felt guilty for snooping yet worried for his safety as well. When he turned back to take a look Marcus was smiling quietly, looking up at the pink sky and enjoying the tiny bit of autumn sun. (What was the phrase ‘pink sky in the morning…’?)

He didn’t look like a vampire, or a ghost for that matter. He wasn’t see-through and he wasn’t being fried by sunlight. Two of James’ suspicions almost completely evaporated. Perhaps the others were right. Maybe Marcus really was just an honest kid who simply resembled the boy in the photograph by some freak chance.

Marcus was at the front of the queue grinning at a story one of the girls was telling him. She went back to talking to her friend. With the grin still fixed on his face Marcus turned to face James and whistled a short, simple, easy-going tune. For James there was nothing easy-going about it.

*

When the bell went for playtime James gripped his chair. Tash and Taz, edging for the door, spotted his discomfort and forced their way back through the crowd. He could barely admit to himself how he was feeling. He faked a sore stomach and asked Mrs McClain if he could stay in.

He waited for the inevitable ‘no’ (teachers seemed to love saying ‘no’). She picked up a book from her desk and made her way to the door:

“I’m heading to the staff room just now. If you’re sure you’re not well you can come downstairs. Bring your homework jotter so you’ll have something to do. We can phone your parents if you still feel ill after break.”

Tash and Taz were led out of the room and sent off to the playground. Tash looked back at James in horror, mouthing “Are you nuts?!”

The murmur of the staff room turned into a swell of sound as Mrs McClain opened the door and led James in. It was quite possible that the teachers were louder than the pupils out in the playground.

James made himself comfortable at a table in the corner. He could barely make out any words but the smoosh of noises from teacher-chatter helped put his mind at ease. Then one word stood out:

“…Marcus has been very strange today. He’s normally so friendly and pleasant as well. I might have to get him to sit outside the classroom to work if he keeps disrupting the class like this. You wouldn’t believe what he said…”

James didn’t get to find out. One of the other teachers had put the kettle on, it drowned out everything else.

Did Marcus know about their research trip to the library the night before? Had he been watching them? Was he the one who whistled outside at 3am?

James concentrated on his maths homework, the clean simple numbers helped take his mind off everything. Before he knew it the bell was ringing and he was following Mrs McClain back up to the classroom.

Taz and Tash were two of the first ones in. They sat down at the table beside him and he told them what he’d overheard. Taz nodded with his eyes wide open:

“That’s about right. He was in a really weird mood today when we played football. Didn’t play fair, said some pretty nasty things. Then tackled Robbie really hard. He got sent to see Miss Bruce after that.”

None of them could remember a time when Marcus had been sent to the headmistress before. Taz and Tash seemed to be coming over to James’s side, though James had gone even deeper in his doubts about Marcus. Had he got sent to Miss Bruce’s office on purpose? Had he seen the picture on the wall?

The day dragged on. All three of them tried with all their might to get lost in school work. Thinking too much about Marcus left them all with headaches but nothing could take their minds off him for more than a few seconds.

When the bell went to go home they were the last in the class to leave. Taz didn’t even try to take the stairs two at a time as they made their way out to the front of the school. Tash was quiet. James couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen her quiet.

When they reached the front gate Nicky was waiting for them:

“What took you guys so long? I don’t think I’ve ever been the one waiting for you.”

They were about to explain their feelings about Marcus when he came strolling out of the front door. He didn’t head for the gate straight away. Instead he looked around, acting as though he had forgotten something. He turned to take the little lane to the right of the school that led up to the seniors playground but swung past them on his way:

“Hi Nicky, thanks for the wee chat. Hope it cleared some stuff up. Forgot my jacket. See you guys tomorrow.”

His smile looked practised but Nicky didn’t seem to notice. She waved and smiled.

Once Marcus was out of sight the others didn’t waste a second in turning to confront Nicky. What did she say? How much did she tell him? How much did he know?

Nicky had missed James’ story about the 3am whistle. She also hadn’t heard any of the stuff about the disappearing children. All the same she had still told Marcus about the photograph. He knew they were on to him, and that they were researching him.

Nicky frowned at them all:

“You’re getting it all mixed up. Marcus explained it all. The picture was his Grampa. He saw it himself in Mrs Bruce’s office at lunch time. They have the same name, that’s all.”

They couldn’t convince Nicky to see things any other way. She liked Marcus and had made up her mind that the others were getting caught up in spooky stories.

They skipped the library, choosing the comfort of home and their tea over more research. Nicky tried to comfort James before he left them to head into his house:

“Maybe you’re still in Halloween mode. It was weeks ago now. Just relax and let it go. It’s just a weird old photo.”

James gave her an awkward smile and went in.

*

James woke up in the middle of the night to more whistling. He pinched himself, splashed his face with water. This was no dream. The floorboards creaked as James made his way to the window. He felt the cold from the rattling window before he moved the curtain back. Down in the street, exactly where the whistling was coming from. Jack saw nothing.

The whistling stopped, replaced by a crunch, like footsteps through thick frost. The time flashed on his alarm clock: 03:00 am.

James returned to bed exhausted. He was drifting off when he heard the police sirens screaming past. The clock read 03:10 am.

*

Tash was white as a sheet the next morning at school and Nicky wasn’t there at all.

CLICK HERE TO READ ON TO CHAPTER 4

Marcus Chapter 1: The photograph

To pre-order your copy of Marcus in paperback click on this link (out September 2018)

27th November 1992

It was a ‘no jackets’ sort of lunch time, the wind stung James’ face as he ran after his friends, but he didn’t care. They hadn’t stopped running since they got outside, his hair stuck to his head with sweat, and there was a fire in his belly as he raced to ‘tig’ Scott, a boy so small and so fast they nicknamed him ‘Taz’ (after the Tasmanian devil cartoon).

No one at this school kicked James. Or stole his gym shoes. He didn’t have to spend lunchtime talking to the dinner ladies. He could even leave his coat in the pile by the railing and he knew it would be there when he went back for it. This place was like heaven.

There was only one really weird thing about Crieff Primary. It was something none of the other kids seemed to notice. James wasn’t the only new kid in school. Another boy, Marcus, had started a few weeks before James did. Marcus wasn’t the weird thing, it was the way everyone else treated him that was so odd.

It was like they had all known him their whole lives. He knew loads about people; could remember their names, what their favourite TV shows were, their favourite games. It was safe to say that Marcus made making friends look easy. He was like the perfect kid. James wanted to hate the guy but he just couldn’t.

Marcus slipped past him, narrowly escaping a ‘tig’. He swung round with a huge grin as soon as he was far enough away:

“Come on James! Let someone else get a turn being ‘it’.”

The fire bubbled in James’ belly and he forced his legs to sprint him ever-closer to Marcus. Eyebrows raised Marcus turned on his heel and jetted off.

The more James pushed himself, the more the November air bit at his lungs. It went beyond being fun and started to hurt. His temples throbbed like an ice-cream headache as he made his final lunge at Marcus. His fingertips brushed his shoulder as he forced the word ‘tig’ out of his aching lungs.

He knew Marcus felt it too but the ‘perfect’ boy shook his head with a laugh:

“You’ll have to try harder than that Jamie!”

What!?? They both knew he’d caught him. Marcus was ‘it’ now but he ran off laughing anyway. And what was he playing at calling James ‘Jamie’? There were two people in the world who called him ‘Jamie’; his mum and his granny (and his granny couldn’t call him it any more since she was dead).

James stopped running, blood rushing to his face as the fury swelled inside:

“You KNOW I got you!” he raised his voice louder, announcing it to as many folk in the playground as would listen:

“I GOT MARCUS! HE’S IT!”

A few girls took jumpy steps away from Marcus but most of the others just frowned. Marcus shook his head and made a face as if to say ‘so he says’ and most of the others relaxed. It was a tried and tested sneak tactic for some kids to pretend they hadn’t been caught. It was one of the ways slower kids could still join in.

No one seemed to believe that Marcus would fake it though. James could tell his face had gone that weird pink-speckled way it did when he was properly upset. He flung his arms out to his sides:

“Fine. I’m out. I’m not playing any more!”

Taz zipped towards James, a frown covering his face, clearly worried about his friend. That only got James more annoyed. Taz crossed his fingers (the sign that he wasn’t part of the game for now):

“You OK? Look, maybe you just thought you got him.”

Balling up his fists to keep the rage at bay James looked his best friend straight in the eye and swore. It was a phrase he’d heard a couple of times on the TV, he wasn’t even sure he’d said it right. The shock on Taz’s face left James ashamed but it was the yell from Mrs Eastwick (the playground supervisor) that really made James’ guts drop:

“James! Did you say what I think you did? That’s it, ten house points gone and you can go straight to the headmistress’s office!”

At least Marcus had the good sense to look sorry for what he’d done as James was paraded past him on the way into the school. Lunch time was over.

*

James had never been sent to the headmistress’s office before. He’d never even really been in trouble, either at this school or the old one. He could feel the macaroni cheese he’d had for lunch lurching up his throat a bit as he took the steps down to the front of the school.

The corridor outside the headmistress’s office stank of bleach. It didn’t help the sick feeling. Mrs Eastwick told him to sit on a spongy seat while she went in to see Miss Bruce.

The seat was way more comfortable than the ones they had at their desks. It was clearly an old one from the staff room, a ‘grown-up’ chair for people visiting the school.

James’ mum and dad had sat out here with him when they were asking about moving him to Crieff Primary. Miss Bruce had been smiling the whole time and had even got James a mug of hot chocolate to drink while they had talked about the school and about James’ hobbies and favourite subjects.

Miss Bruce was not smiling when she opened the door to her office:

“Come in James. Thanks Maggie, I’ll talk to James about this. You’d better get back up, it’s twenty minutes before the bell.”

Mrs Eastwick gave a sharp nod and hustled back up the stairs.

James was ushered into the office and given a seat opposite the desk. There was no offer of hot chocolate. No smiles. Miss Bruce sat down and looked at him. Not one word had been said since Mrs Eastwick left and James half expected the bell for the end of lunch to go before Miss Bruce would say anything. She sighed:

“James, what happened out there? I could hardly believe it when I heard what you’d said to Scott.”

James tried to explain about Marcus, and how he’d got him. He explained how no one had believed him. They all sided with Marcus. They all loved Marcus. Miss Bruce shook her head, and held a hand up telling him to stop:

“But it wasn’t Marcus you said that horrible thing to. It was someone who came and tried to help you, your friend. From what I can tell Scott seems to be your best friend?”

James nodded. There wasn’t much else he could say. Pins and needles prickled his face. He could feel Miss Bruce judging him. He felt ashamed.

She got up from her desk and made her way to a wall filled with strange little shelves. There were papers slotted into each one, photocopies of different forms and worksheets (it was where she’d got the forms for James’ mum and dad just a few weeks ago):

“I really hadn’t expected to have to write up one of these for you James. I’m sorry to have to do it.”

She placed a small pile of paper on her desk, the kind that copies what you write onto the layers below. James couldn’t remember the name for it. Miss Bruce looked up from her writing:

“OK, so this is a demerit slip. A copy of this will go to your parents and we keep this carbon copy in your school record.”

She pulled the two sheets apart. The copy sheet was blue and she took it over to a cabinet and sorted through to find a folder with James’ name on it.

He could see photocopies of different certificates and awards in there. There was even a copy of his certificate for winning first place in the Burns poetry reading in primary one. Now all the things he was proud of would be joined forever with his smudgy blue ‘demerit’ slip.

Miss Bruce closed the filing cabinet and was about to say something when someone knocked on the door. It was Mr Thomas the janitor’s assistant:

“Sorry Miss Bruce. It’s the boiler. I think I’ll have to call someone out to have a look at it.”

James was left in the office as Miss Bruce followed Mr Thomas out to inspect the problem. Despite the old radiators in Miss Bruce’s room James felt cold. His jacket was still up in the playground. His hands were white and numb.

He got up and went over to warm his hands by the radiator. Facing the wall his eyes had little to focus on. There were old pictures of the school decorating it. Most of them black and white. One of them caught his eye, there was a little card typed out and put behind the glass in the frame:

Pupils practising gas mask use. Crieff Primary. Picture from Strathearn Herald 4th November 1942

And there, right above the card, holding the rubber straps of his gas mask, was Marcus.

*

Chapter two of ‘Marcus’ will be available next Sunday. To get it delivered directly to your inbox click on this link.

Thanks for reading, let me know what you think, all the best, John

TO READ ON TO CHAPTER 2 JUST CLICK HERE