A new day dawned on Adams’ Grammar School. It was a Tuesday in early March, bright with the promise of Spring. The sunlight glinted off the golden hands of the ancient school clock, momentarily dazzling Mr R. Jones, veteran teacher of history, as he moved busily about the grounds in search of the disappearing textbooks. The school seemed to light up with every footfall, painted with a brush of tranquillity and joy. He passed Mr Cripps’ lesson, in which a stimulating lecture on igneous rocks had been interrupted by visitors. The younger man was now busily engaged in describing the wonders of chemistry to the prospective parents. They were highly impressed, if not a little bemused.
Mr Jones drifted past a window, through which a pair of Sixth Formers could be seen socialising in their common room. One checked his watch, and trotted merrily off to his next lesson. The other retired to the library for study, settling down under the warm, comforting glow of the lights. His studious endeavours would put him in good stead for the test next lesson.
Despite his urgency, the experienced teacher could not help slowing to appreciate the beauty of the day. The gentle warmth and the cool, refreshing breeze invited a kind of joyful lethargy. It was as if comfortable blanket lay over the school, suppressing all ideas of exigency or obligation. In the staffroom, Mr Brown sat down with his customary cup of tea, and, somewhat tentatively, ate pone. Mrs Howarth, who was an expert on the foods of Native Americans, had advised him that it was a quite delicious meal. Sitting opposite him, Mrs Howarth laughed silently.
At the Matron’s office, Daevid Mike was nestled in a comfortable armchair, drinking a refreshing glass of water and eating a chocolate biscuit. This was doing very little for his sprained ankle, but nonetheless he found himself feeling content. The Matron herself was attending to her flowers, which were thriving in the fine weather. She thought that they were particularly beautiful this year, and dreamt of winning the grand prize at the local flower fair.
Freeing himself of the spell, Mr Jones rushed into the main school. As he climbed the stairs, he waved a greeting to Tom Hall, who was struggling under the weight of a bulging bag filled with history textbooks. As the fifteen year old schoolboy reached the bottom of the staircase, he tripped over the foot of Mr North. The geography teacher was striding purposefully from within S9. Seeing Tom Hall flying through the air, the zip on his bag bursting and textbooks spilling everywhere, he uttered an amiable, “Happy landings, bald eagle,” before striding off to his destination. Mr Jones was able to recover the books on his second circuit through the school, just in time for what would prove to be a most eventful lesson.
An airborne rugby boot struck the Adams’ Grammar School sign, sending vibrations into the soil. The earthworm emerged from the darkness of its hole, and began to crawl languidly along the shimmering grass. It was a simple creature, blissful in its ignorance of the world in general. Lacking nothing that it needed, and wanting nothing that it did not need, it was in a state of perfect harmony with the universe. It was not aware of the dreadful fate that was about to befall it.
Within the stygian gloom of S8, the second English room, Ronald Collinson wallowed in self-pity. He was not coping well with coursework. The last several weeks, he had been unable to find sleep until two in the morning at the very earliest. Like a ravenous beast, homework consumed the time in which he should have been sleeping. Even within his slumber, it would not leave him alone. His dreams were filled with the insidious drip of ink, the horrifying scrawl that was his handwriting and the thunderous thud of textbooks thrown to the floor. Twice already this school year he had been without sleep all night. Yesterday had been the third. It was a torturous ordeal, to remain without rest for an entire night, hearing the nightingale give way to the owl, and the owl to the lark. Sliding grades, red-rimmed eyes, and a constant feeling of coldness were all signs of his fall from a productive student, eager to learn, to a nervous wreck.
Mr Gibbs, the English teacher, was not making it any easier. As he droned on about the supposedly wondrous effects of placing a second sentence on any description, Ronald found his head nodding against the table. The pain was the only thing keeping him awake. The rest of the class were listening with rapt attention, pausing only to take notes. You might have heard a pin fall. You could certainly hear the sound of skull meeting wood.
“What are you doing, boy?” growled Mr Gibbs.
“Nothing, sir,” replied Ronald, his cheeks colouring with embarrassment.
“That, Collinson, is exactly the point. I want your homework diary on my desk, now!”
Ronald searched through his bag. As time progressed, his movements became steadily more frantic. His face ashen, he ceased his fruitless endeavours. He felt hollow inside, and his mouth was dry. He gulped audibly, and stuttered unintelligibly for several seconds.
“Spit it out, boy,” roared the enraged English teacher.
“I’m sorry, sir,” he stammered. “I’ve left it at home.”
There was a stunned silence. This was not the Ronald Collinson that the pupils had known for the last three years. It was as if he had been replaced. Christopher Iliffe, sitting next to Ronald, remembered tales of daemon changelings replacing children in their cots. In many ways, that story resembled the current situation.
“See me first thing tomorrow,” said Mr. Gibbs. “This is completely unacceptable. Your form tutor will be informed.”
Justice done, the lesson progressed in the normal manner until Mr. Gibbs asked for the coursework in. It was the final copy, and Ronald had spent all night perfecting it. He knew that it was good. He had poured his soul into it, expending all his energies on that one purpose. In his exhaustion, every word had required the utmost concentration. But he had forged ahead, and ultimately he had prevailed.
He had also forgotten to print it.
With increasing panic, he awaited Mr Gibbs. Fighting back tears, he looked up into the face of his doom. With senses honed by long years of dealing with delinquent schoolchildren, he instantly guessed the problem.
“Where is your homework, Collinson?” he asked.
“I don’t have it, sir,” he said, his voice harsh as he suppressed his misery.
“That’s grand, but it won’t get you marks. Why is it that the rest of the class manages to hand their homework in, and you do not?”
“I’ve done it, sir, really. I just haven’t printed it.”
“That’s no excuse, boy. Don’t you understand the importance of this? Going to a Grammar School isn’t a ticket to a GCSE. We can give you the knowledge, but you have to make the effort. You’re a waste of time, Collinson, a complete waste of time. Teachers could just sit at the front of this class, doing nothing, and we’d still get paid. But, because of our good natures, we often stay up until after midnight marking homework. Despicable little boys like you that make me wonder why we bother.”
Chris saw that Ronald accepted this tirade in silence. It was clear that the teacher was extremely angry. This was expected. What he found surprising was that Ronald was similarly aggravated. He was shaking with rage, his fists clenched so tightly that his knuckles had turned white. Clearly, the boy was having difficulty controlling himself, and he reminded Chris of a ticking time bomb. He didn’t want to be around when it exploded.
Mr Gibbs enquired who Ronald’s Head of House was. Not trusting himself to speak, Ronald remained silent. This might have led to trouble of even greater magnitude, but Andrew Bedworth, who could be quite considerate when required, came to the rescue. He informed the teacher that the esteemed Mr Thomson occupied that position.
When Ronald left the classroom, he was still vibrating. His face had turned an unhealthy mixture of red and white, he seemed unable to unclench his fist and he did not dare to open his mouth lest he start screaming. When he finally spoke, his voice was a long, drawn-out hiss, hoarse and so quiet as to be almost inaudible. But Chris Iliffe heard, and the words chilled him to the bone.
“I’ll kill him,” Ronald said.
Elsewhere, the earthworm continued along his peaceful journey. When the shadow blocked out its sun, it was quite relieved. It was far too hot for a subterranean creature, and it had begun to feel more than a little dehydrated.
It could not see the shadow move.
The shoe was raised. It was brought forward with a painful slowness that belied a rapid stride. By some horrible chance, or perhaps by cruel design, it landed on the patch of ground where the tiny life wriggled.
And so the earthworm died.
Chapter 2: Carrion
The following day was one that had long been anticipated and dreaded by the boys of Adams’ Grammar. The Gordonly Cup was a hotly contested prize, encompassing as it did so many of the extra-curricular activities that the students enjoyed. The battle was fought with every last drop of effort that the children could muster. No expense had been spared, all possible preparations had been made and the participants were truly as ready as they would ever be.
It was, in essence, a talent show. But this bland description could not begin to capture the spirit of the affair. Unlike the lesser performances staged by institutions all over the world, the competition was not restricted to singing, dancing and humming, although it was certainly not devoid of these activities. There were magicians, gymnasts and jugglers. There were poets, orators and actors. There were acrobats, toadeaters, campers, cooks, inventers, footballers and a myriad of other performers, each and every display a unique expression of the self.
Judging such a diverse variety of events might have been a hellish experience, were it not for the infectious feeling of good will that saturated the air. This was the one event at which full attendance could be expected. Such widespread devotion to duty was a miracle in itself. But there was more. Despite the prestige that would be granted to the victorious House, there were few attempts to cheat. These isolated incidents were rigorously suppressed by the students themselves, whose sense of morals and justice had been heightened by several days of inspirational speeches from the teachers.
The events had in fact been scheduled to occur a week later, but the fine weather, and the fact that the Headmaster wished the visiting parents to see this most spectacular of events, had brought it forward. This had been surprisingly well received by the pupils, who had found their confidence being slowly sapped away as the days went by.
The corpse of the earthworm had already begun to decay. It bore no resemblance to its previous form. It was not so much the physical change, although the mutilated carcass was a far cry from the simple perfection of the living worm. It was more the feeling that something good had gone from the world. It had been an innocent creature, without feelings of anger, hatred or enmity. There had been something pure about that, leading to an almost palpable aura of peace emanating from the earthworm. Now all that was left was an empty husk, devoid of movement, devoid of life, devoid of soul.
Bob Trafford sat with his friend Simon Treadwell, waiting for the time when he would have to go on stage. The year tens of Webb House had decided on a group performance, and these two were the most talented actors in the year. Bob knew that his form and his house were relying on them. It was an unpleasant sensation, but one that he had grown accustomed to over the years. He looked perfectly at ease, joking comfortably with his classmates, his self-deprecating humour ringing of falsity. Only his frequent, concealed glances at the curtain that separated him and the stage betrayed his apprehension. The same could not be said of Simon. Sweat coated his brow, and he spoke with an audible tremble. The curtains opened. They walked through, at the head of their form, to introduce the play.
When it began, there was no trace of that nervousness. Both spoke clearly and with strength, leading the others through their parts with an almost supernatural ease. The play itself was an adaptation of Macbeth, and, despite the bright sunlight, it was easy to imagine the terrifying storm in which the witches were found. Those three ceased to be Mr Jones and his two assistants; they became horrifying old crones with long strangler’s fingers and chilling gazes.
Far too soon, the theatrical production was completed. The audience had been sitting in stunned silence at the sheer power of the play for over an hour, too filled with wonder to speak. There was no doubt that Webb House would win the Cup that year.
The actors left the stage, and returned to take the last bow. With perfect precision, they formed into rows. Behind the scenes, Jack Trussler signalled for the giant green floodlight to be turned on, in order to illuminate the triumphant form.
The light did not turn on. The audience heard a scream above their heads. Something fell from the rafters, and was caught by the lighting cables. There was a moment of confusion, a second of profound bewilderment. Then all other emotion was consumed by horror.
The misshapen, blood-covered body of Mr Gibbs was dangling just above the stage like an obscene marionette.
Although the stench of putrefaction was hidden to the insensitive noses of the humans, and the tiny body invisible to these higher animals, there were certain creatures in the school that were aware of it. The predators of the earthworm are many, and none are above feeding on carrion. The scavengers flocked about the tiny carcass, fighting to take the insubstantial meal. The activity disturbed yet more of the earthworms, and the cloud of animals increased in size. Only one, a large, ancient, bluebottle, stayed apart from the rush for meat. It stood to the side, watching.
Congregating in the staff room, the teachers were in a state of panic. The death of a tutor within the school grounds was almost unheard of; the murder of one, unthinkable. Some of the staff paced across the room, gazing wildly at their colleagues. Others rifled through pages of homework, trying not to think. Many simply refused to believe the evidence of their own eyes, and sat unmoving, staring rigidly at the opposite wall, defying anybody to tell them that it was true.
When the Headmaster walked in, flanked by his two deputies, he was met with the deep silence that only true despair can bring. Mrs Baggaley looked up at the Headmaster, but found no comfort in his imposing figure. She made a slight whimpering sound, trying to speak, but was silenced by a gesture from Mr Warren-Smith, the Pastoral Deputy.
The Headmaster himself seemed unconcerned. His face was a study in calmness, his movements were natural and his words were unhesititant. “You will be aware why you have been called here,” he said. “You must understand that the untimely death of our mutual friend and colleague, Neil Gibbs, was nothing more sinister than a dreadful accident. You must remain calm, and act in the normal fashion. You must relay this information to the students.”
As the man spoke, it became evident that he was under far more stress than he was admitting to. His expression had become fixed, as if a single movement of the muscles in his face would shatter the emotionless front that he had adopted. His repetitive, commanding speech was an outward sign of his struggle to maintain control. He stood there for a moment, and then began to shake. He issued a convulsive sob, turned on his heel, and left the room. The deputies remained.
Mr Coyle, the head of the art department, was the first to recover. He responded with anger. “Do you really expect them to believe that?” he sneered. “We all saw the body. It was murder! Accidents don’t leave you looking like that.”
Mr Barrett looked at the rebellious tutor for a long time. His piercing stare seemed to cut through the art teacher, the sunlight that shined off the deputy’s reflective glasses making it impossible to meet his gaze. Mr Coyle withstood this scrutiny for several seconds, and then seemed to sag. Only then did Mr Barrett speak. “They will believe,” he said, exuding cold authority, “What we tell them to believe.”
Rumour normally spread like wildfire. The boys of the school were inquisitive, and were generally keen to impress others with their knowledge of events. But nobody wished to talk about this. Only to their closest friends did the children confide their fears. The reaction was generally one of disbelief. Even those who had been sitting in the front row tried to convince themselves that it had been some sort of macabre joke, or an ill-conceived attempt at enhancing special effects. Nobody dared to utter the word that was at the front of their minds. Nobody could bring themselves to say, “Murder.”
Only one boy did not attempt to avoid the reality of the situation. Christopher Iliffe had an image in his mind, an image that he could not remove, no matter how hard he tried. There was an ashen-faced boy, his pores dripping anger. He opened his mouth, and the words that emerged took the form of a deathly whisper.
Ronald Collinson had vowed to kill Mr Gibbs. And now he was dead.
Chapter 3: Purgatory
The funeral was not a quiet affair. Mr Gibbs had died without family, and the Headmaster had been quick to state that he was the man’s devoted friend, his loyal confidant and benevolent employer. He had insisted that the ceremony be extravagant, and open to the public. It was absolutely essential that all could see the body, whole and clean. The ministrations of Matron had removed all signs of the violent death Mr Gibbs had suffered. It had been an arduous task, and one distasteful to the good woman. Now, the beaten back of his shattered head hidden from view, it was easy to believe that his untimely demise had been nothing more than a tragic accident.
The teachers of the English department had all contributed. Mr Biles-Liddell had asked a friend from his home country of Scotland to play pibroch at the event, and the haunting melody that emerged from the man’s bagpipes reduced many to tears, although most had not known the dead man. The soulful poetry read by Mrs Jopling seared the grief-stricken minds of those present, the message of misery and mourning burning into their souls. Miss Dodd had taken it upon herself to oversee the arrangement and decoration of the Church. The room was covered with dark velvet drapes, hanging grandly from the ceiling as if to show their ownership of it. The coffin was made of polished mahogany and lined with burnished gold. One might have thought that it was the burial of one of the great kings of old. As Mr North astutely commented, all people are equal in death.
And everything, from the eulogy to the music to the appearance of the corpse itself, was a sham.
Watching, Chris Iliffe thought it grotesque. He knew that the grandiose aspect of the ceremony was nothing more than a distraction from the terrible fate that the teacher had suffered. It was open week. The parents were alarmed; they had to be convinced that the school cared. That it was a loving, caring place. Sickened by his school’s entrepreneurial attitude, he finally came to a decision.
For the entirety of the previous week, his troubles had pursued him as he walked home. He had been becoming more and more convinced that he was the only one that could bring the killer to justice. For days now, he had been cut off from the others. He had fled from company, and when forced into social intercourse his responses had been vague. He was being forced to think truly deeply, to explore his mind and his heart. To be forced to shed light on the dark recesses of their innermost thoughts is something that no person should ever be subjected to.
And still, he had resisted. He did not want any part of it. The course the future would take was in his control; the fate of a person, perhaps an entire school, depended on his silence or his knowledge. He began to understand the folly of all those who seek power. He saw that power was no benefit, but the darkest curse. Wishing fervently for the responsibility to be taken out of his hands, he found himself praying for the first time in his life.
But there, sitting in his pew, listening to the meaningless reading that the headmaster had prepared, he finally realised what he must do. No longer could he be content to sit and watch as this travesty of justice occurred.
The corpses of the earthworms writhed as they were set upon by the horde of carrion feeders. Even as more died in the fracas, more of the worms rose from the ground. In a vicious circle, more predators arrived, more prey wriggled to the surface. And through it all, the bluebottle watched.
As the pile of corpses rose, however, it found that it could no longer hold off its voracious hunger. It judged its moment, and struck. Confused, the shocked creatures scattered. The bluebottle closed on its prey.
Immediately after the ceremony, Chris travelled to the local police station. Although the weather had been good for several weeks, he felt as though he was wading through mud. He could not banish the gnawing feeling of guilt from his stomach. He would be destroying the life of somebody he knew. But he had to put aside such misplaced feelings of regret; Ronald Collinson had killed a man. That was literal destruction; that was why he had to be removed from society. He was a danger to those around him, to the people Chris cared about.
And there was his own well-being to consider. Chris was tired of jumping every time somebody talked to him, sick of having anything cheerful he might try to say turn to ashes in his mouth. He wanted to be released from this agonising mode of existence, to be able to continue his life as it had been before.
It was therefore with a heavy heart, but not without relief, that Chris arrived at the police station. He waited for several minutes without entering, frozen on the threshold of freedom. Then, with a sigh that reverberated through his entire body, he entered.
Walking like a lost soul through the strangely empty playground of the school, Ronald Collinson felt the cold hands of death grabbing at his heart. It was not his own demise, but that of Mr Gibbs. After months of listless tiredness, he suddenly felt uncomfortably alert. He continued to act in the same zombie-like fashion, lethargic and so to react, but his brain was constantly active. He despaired over the evil he had done to his English teacher. Horror, sadness and guilt warred ceaselessly within him, leaving no room in his mind for interaction with other humans.
Therefore, when men wearing the blue uniforms of the police approached him, he ignored them. He heard the shouts of his name, but he failed to understand. He continued walking, retracing the path he had followed on the day he had promised that Mr Gibbs would die.
When the policemen took his shoulder and steered him in the direction of the makeshift office they had set up, he did not resist. Hearing the sound of running feet, he looked to his right and saw Christopher Iliffe running directly away from him. Something in his stance awoke Ronald from his state of separation from the world, and, as he realised the thoughts of the police, the features of his face formed an expression of uttermost horror.
Chapter 4/10: Beyond the Gates
“I don’t like it, Jim!” insisted Constable Tunason. “There’s something not right with this. Children don’t do this sort of thing!”
“Yes, they do,” sighed Detective-Inspector Hanler, his voice terse. “It is a sad fact that some youths are so disturbed that anything is possible for them. He’s nearly fifteen. He’s not a toddler, Ken.”
Constable Tunason was forced to admit that Hanler was correct. There was no denying that all the evidence pointed towards it. There had been a death, indisputably a murder. Despite the insistence of the Headmaster and his deputies that the cause of death was nothing more sinister than a badly constructed stage and a clumsy stumble, it was apparent that the majority of the pupils and teachers had seen the gore-drenched corpse. After the first truthful descriptions of events, the verbosity of the others had seemed to increase.
The boy had a motive, and an opportunity. Moreover, he did not seem to be entirely well. His speech was slurred, his face a deathly pale, his eyes red-rimmed and mad. The murder weapon had eluded the investigators so far, but any sort of blunt object would have sufficed.
Hanler rubbed his face wearily. It was cases like this that made him wonder why the world was in such an abysmal condition. He felt that he was fighting, not against criminals, but against crime itself. An unwinable war, in which a reprieve was too much to hope for.
There was a knock at the door of the little, ramshackle office the police had taken over for the duration of the inquiries, and the drooping heads of the two constables rose to attention.
The bluebottle shot forward, scattering those creatures with the audacity to stand in its path. Its sole intent was to feast upon earthworms, to profit from the world’s loss. As it drew closer, it flew with greater and greater speed, its foul eagerness and diabolical desperation to reach its goal overcoming caution.
Then, suddenly, its life was snuffed out. A great, plastic grid came down upon it, travelling with a rapidity that surpassed even that of the fly. With a whine that might have been soul-wrenching were it but audible, the bluebottle died.
“It was me,” said Mr North.
“What was you, sir?” enquired Hanler.
“I did it. It was me,” he repeated in a dull monotone.
“Are you saying that you killed Neil Gibbs, Mr North?” asked Tunason.
But, for the next half of an hour, no more information could be extracted from the traumatised geography teacher. Tunason made a cup of coffee for himself and Hanler, and added a third cup as an afterthought.
After the long period of silence, the teacher released a muffled groan. Sagging in his chair, he uttered a dispirited ‘wax on, wax off.’ The detectives were unable to understand the idiom, but took it as a good sign.
Stirring his coffee, Hanler once again asked if Mr North was the murderer.
“Hold your horses, Swifty,” said the geographer in a small, detached voice. “All good things come to those who wait,” he snivelled, his voice turning hoarse.
There was another pause, shorter this time. Mr North took a deep breath, as if trying to flush his crimes from his body, before saying, “It was for money. I… Drugs. Alcohol. Gambling. I was in debt; my house was going to be repossessed. I have a family to feed. You can understand, can’t you? Can’t you?” His voice had taken on a pleading, desperate tone.
“Go on,” said Tunason, as gently as he could manage.
“It was the only solution. The debt collectors were taking everything. He offered me money. Money was hope. I had to do it.”
Mr North then went on to relate how he had waited after the end of lessons on the day indicated by his benefactor. He spoke in vivid detail, as if trying to expel his consuming guilt from his body. He explained how he had waited for Mr Gibbs to appear by the school library, and had proceeded to attack him, gloved hands trembling, with a large globe of the Earth. When this broke, Mr North informed his horrified audience, he used the shattered edges. The struggle was violent, but brief, for the English teacher had been surprised by Mr North’s sudden assault. He had taken the body to the stage, and scoured the library carpet of bloodstains.
As Mr North spoke, he began to sound steadily calmer. His eyes glazed over and his expression froze into a rictus of horror. When he neared the end of his tale, he had regained some of his former joviality. But it was a mere shadow of his true self, an attempt to feign control. And, as he reached his final sentence, his voice dwindled into nothingness.
“Who paid you?” asked Hanler, blunt as always. There was no sympathy for murderers.
And, in a tone which suggested that this was an irrelevant detail, Mr North said, “What? Oh, it was Barrett.”
The two policemen entered the office of the Deputy Head. His sharp, piercing eyes bored into them as they approached, although he was the model of courtesy as he asked what they wished for.
“We have reason to believe,” said Tunason, “That you were involved in the murder of Neil Gibbs. We would like to ask you a few questions, Mr Barrett.”
The teacher’s head snapped up, but his expression was hidden by his reflective glasses. The glare from the two pieces of glass that covered his eyes was somehow oppressive. Tunason suddenly felt painfully aware that this was a man who had encouraged cold-blooded murder. But Hanler was not cowed. He stood, defiant, as the man spoke.
“I was at home, with my wife. I have witnesses. If you do not mind me saying so, I find your accusations quite unjustified,” said Mr Barrett as calmly as a still lake.
“I think you’re lying, Barrett. North’s talked. We know everything,” said Hanler.
“Then, sir, you will know that I am not a murderer.”
“No, you’re not. You’re something worse. You’re a vampire, and a parasite. You prey on the misfortune of desperate men for your own gain. You destroy innocent lives.”
“Not quite innocent,” said Mr Barrett, his stance unchanging. “Gibbs was blackmailing me. He wanted to line his pockets through my misfortune. I admit that a small amount of money may have been diverted to bettering my own position, but it was hardly a great crime. Threatening me with his knowledge of my situation, however, was. It was only justice.”
“There is no justice in death!” said Tunason, barely keeping emotional control. Mr Barrett turned to face him, and he quailed under that steely gaze. Suddenly dismissing the younger policeman, he awaited Hanler’s response.
“Mr Barrett, you are under arrest. You have the right…” said the Detective-Inspector, before being cut off.
“I simply cannot allow that to happen,” said the Deputy Head, smiling. “It would endanger my career. You must understand that career is life. With a better job, we earn more money. We buy food with money. To make sacrifices for others is unnatural, even monstrous. That is the nature of the society we live in, the nature of the world itself. From the day we learn how to talk until the day in which we are released from this mortal coil, we are expected to better ourselves at the expense of others. I will not allow you to take my livelihood from me. Therefore, gentlemen, I bid you adieu.”
With that, the man swallowed the contents of a small glass on his desk. The liquid trickled down his throat. There was a moment of utter silence, of complete stillness. Then, with a strangled gurgle, Mr Barrett slumped forward. His reflective glasses smashed into a thousand tiny, twinkling shards of broken glass as they hit the varnished wood of the ancient furniture.
“Cheated again,” sighed Hanler, the accumulated sadness of years sounding in his voice.
A new day dawned on Adams’ Grammar School. Once again, Mr Jones found himself searching for a set of textbooks, which were now several months older. Running about the school, he passed a patch of ground on which an old, discarded rugby boot lay. Covered in dirt and mildew, it no longer seemed so out of place. Close by were the very last remnants of the fading body of an earthworm. The murder that had taken place so far beneath the noses of the schoolchildren had gone unnoticed. But the Earth was grateful.
In years to come, crops would grow fed by the nutrients released in those deaths. These, in turn, would provide sustenance for the murderers, policemen and innocent victims of the future. Neil Gibbs had never been aware of his importance in this great cycle, but the earthworm had. The horror of the loss of life, the wish for vengeance, all the emotions which so complicate human existence, are irrelevant detail to the world, millennia old. But the trade that was life for life, the ending that created beginnings, was of infinite significance.
The children of the earthworm were content, travelling slowly through the underground passageways that were their realm. One, indisputable fact defined their existence. Complex man might find the two words that express it trite or foolish, but creatures of the divine simplicity of earthworms are able to perceive their profundity.