In the library, Hannah smells cigarette smoke. No one in the library is smoking. It must be coming through a gap in the door; the top part because most of the doorway is covered by the mound of books. He’s just outside. Is he taking fast drags or slow ones? What will he do when he finishes?
Mr Marr is trying to talk but she can’t make sense of what he’s saying. She bends her face closer to his as if his words lose their shape and meaning as they travel the distance between them. But it’s worse now because she can hear how hard this is for him, the rasping of his breath as he struggles to speak. Perhaps he sees that he’s upsetting her because he stops and his eyes meet hers as if it’s him who’s worried about her, rather than the other way round.
Frank hands her his laptop which is on a news channel. A presenter is talking about them. It’s the presenter Dad says wears too much lip gloss and that the news isn’t a cocktail party and she shouldn’t talk about people being killed while showing off so much. He means showing off so much cleavage though he wouldn’t say that to Hannah in case he embarrassed her but she knows exactly what he means. Dad’s normally pretty laid-back about that kind of thing, but he really doesn’t like lip gloss and low- cut tops on newsreaders. Distracting, he says. She thinks that people probably like to be distracted when the awful things are on.
Frank gives Hannah his headphones. ‘You’re live now, Face-Timing,’ he says.
‘You’re sure you don’t want to?’ she asks and Frank nods.
She puts on the headphones and looks at the screen.
Bloody hell, she’s on telly. Instead of the map of the school there’s a picture of her in a box; the presenter with the cleavage and lip gloss is talking about her –
‘We have a pupil at Cliff Heights School . . .’
She and Dad are going to find this hilarious tonight, when they watch it on T V. Of all the presenters in all the world . . . Dad’ll say to her.
‘I’m Melanie,’ the presenter says. ‘What’s your name?’
Even though the gunman in the corridor knows they’re in here, she keeps her voice quiet.
She sees that on TV they’re blurring her out below her face, so that you can’t see the blood, or maybe it’s the bra, maybe that’s just too much cleavage for TV, although definitely not the cocktail-party kind. She finds this a little funny. She imagines someone getting out a pot of Vaseline or lip salve and smearing it over the lens. But in here nobody takes any notice of her just wearing a bra, when yesterday it would have been shocking and unthinkable.
‘Our headmaster has been shot,’ she says. Totally shocking, totally unthinkable. ‘He’s bleeding and he’s very pale and cold. We need to know when an ambulance will get to him. He’s in the library by the door.’ Surely they’re giving it an armed escort or something, surely they’ll get help to Mr Marr.
‘Okay. My producer is finding out now.’
‘Are you okay, Hannah?’ Melanie asks.
The smell of the cigarette is making her nauseous. She imagines Dad’s arm around her, his terrible French accent, Courage, mon brave.
‘Yes. It’s not me who’s hurt, it’s Mr Marr who’s hurt.’
‘Can you tell me what’s happening?’
Maybe the gunman is watching this on his phone as he has his cigarette. The arsehole smoking gunman knew to charge up his phone fully this morning, probably brought a juice-pack with him. If he’s watching this on his phone she’s not going to show him she’s afraid and she’s definitely not going to give him any information. She looks at Melanie in her lovely safe TV studio.
‘I don’t think that’s a very good idea,’ she says. ‘Do you know when an ambulance will get here?’
‘I’ll let you know as soon as I do. We’ve heard it all began with an explosion . . .?’
Like the explosion was the beginning of a story: ‘What’s the story in Balamory?’, ‘Postman Pat and his black-and-white cat.’ She’s being sarky about Melanie – Your fault, Dad, you prejudiced me against her.
‘A teacher’s told us that they were warned about a possible explosion in the woods at 8.20, the reason for the amber alert,’ Melanie says. Hannah imagines the producer’s voice in Melanie’s discreet little earbud giving her info.
‘The school is right in the middle of the woods?’ Melanie asks. So not a CBeebies TV story but old-style Grimms’ Fairy Tale woods: a huntsman taking Snow White into the deep dark woods to kill her, to return with her lungs and liver; a girl in a red cape being stalked by a wolf through the trees.
But the explosion in the woods an hour ago wasn’t the start of the story; a prologue maybe, an introduction; not the beginning. Because it began – whatever ‘it’ is and it’s not a story, not to any of them inside it – it began when someone shot their headmaster in the corridor of their school. That’s when life as they’d known it before ended and something else began and reset time. Because she thinks the something else is measured in lifespans and how long Mr Marr has left to live, maybe how long all of them have left, started at that moment.
‘Did you hear the explosion?’ Melanie asks, because for her the starting point is neutrally impersonal. But the police might need to know more about the explosion, it might be important.
‘Yes. We were in the woods . . .’ she says.
She sees Mr Marr looking at her, keeping his eyes on hers, and she finds it comforting; she thinks he knows that.
She remembers running through the woods with Rafi, holding hands tightly, cold, numb fingers together, so she could feel his bones, like two in-love young skeletons; which is morbidly weird but frankly she is a weird person and at a party four months ago told Rafi one of her weird (but not morbid) thoughts and wanted to grab the words back again because she had this huge crush on him. But he understood. Understood her. And it had been like their minds were touching.
The in-love bit isn’t true, not for Rafi anyway, because he is charismatic and has an extraordinary story and so that kind of thing happens to him on pretty much a daily basis; but it was unique for her – she touched a boy’s mind and he touched hers. She hasn’t ever told him she loves him.
F**k’s sake, back to the woods, Hannah. Quarter past eight, but wintry dark, making you want to press a switch and turn on the lights. Rafi’s hand was pulling her along, helping her go faster, so she wouldn’t be late for English and he wouldn’t miss the start of the dress rehearsal. She’d left her puffer behind yesterday in the common room but she didn’t want to slow down. Rafi must have heard her wheezing because he stopped running. She sounded like an old man, not a gentlemanly one but a gross one who smokes sixty a day, huffing around in a tartan dressing gown.
‘It’s so quiet,’ she said, blaming the quietness of the woods for Rafi being able to hear her sixty-a-day old-geezer wheeze.
A cold touch on her face and she saw snowflakes, most getting caught in the trees, and it seemed for a moment that it was just her and Rafi alone in the dark tree-limbed world.
Then Rafi abruptly turned away from her. ‘Have to go,’ he said, hurrying away with his long-stride walk, a slight limp in his right leg. She wanted to tug him back to her, call after him, but made herself still and quiet. Every time Rafi left her she thought he’d seen what everyone else saw: a weird plain plump girl with too-pale skin and too-red hair and now with an old- geezer wheeze and totally undeserving of him.
‘Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent,’ Dad had told her last week; ‘Sensible lady, Eleanor Roosevelt.’ She thought Dad trawled wise female sayings to make up for her lack of mother, though he really didn’t need to and Eleanor didn’t help as she watched Rafi disappear round the bend in the path.
She remembers the woods closing in, the trees treacherous, as if moving stealthily towards her once she was alone; remembers the loss of Rafi in the hand he’d been holding, colder than the rest of her. She’d shoved her hands into the pockets of her puffa jacket but couldn’t get her fingers warm. She’d looked up at the snowflakes, doing skittish dancing above the trees, most too weightless to fall, and saw a glint, vividly bright in the dull winter sky.
She should have remembered the glint before; should have told Mr Marr. But after the glint there was so much else.
‘I think someone may have been watching us,’ she says to Melanie.
‘Watching you . . .?’ Melanie says like she’s a lip-glossy parrot – You were right about her, Dad – but this is on TV and the police may watch and it might be important.
‘There’s a high ropes course in the woods for Outdoor Ed; really high,’ she says. ‘We don’t use it in the winter. But someone was up there because I saw something glinting, like binoculars.’ Birdwatchers had gone up there last summer term and the PE teacher had spotted them because of their glinting binoculars and ‘read the twitchers the riot act ’. But how likely was it to have been a birdwatcher on a freezing November morning?
‘How much longer till there’s an ambulance?’
‘I’m sure help will be with you as soon as possible. Can you remember anything else?’
Is Dad watching this? The thought of him watching her makes tears start; her face tightens. Frank’s phone is on 12% charge and she’s afraid it’ll run out before she gets a turn. She smiles at the screen in case Dad can see her.
‘So you thought someone might be watching you,’ Melanie says. ‘What happened then?’
It’s warm in the library, the Victorian cast-iron radiators blasting out heat as usual, but the memory makes her shiver. Frank must notice because he asks in a whisper if she’s okay.
‘Hannah . . .?’ Melanie says.
Courage, mon brave.
Her trainers were leaking. The cold wet of the bracken seeped into her socks. Her fingers stung with cold. Her wheezing was getting worse. She stopped and put her fingers to her lips, trying to use her breath to warm them. She turned, just in case Rafi was coming back towards her, hoping.
A brutally loud noise, an assault of sound startling birds out of the trees, as if their branches had been shaken, sending them wheeling up into the sky. And then gone. The air still, the woods quiet, the birds back in the trees. Nothing to prove it had ever happened. She’d thought it hadn’t been that loud. She was upset about Rafi and pathetic about the woods and had jumped at a loud noise. It was probably someone fooling around with fireworks or a farmer with a pigeon-scarer thing; something like that.
Taking her fingers away from her mouth, the cold air sharp against her damp skin, she’d looked again for Rafi and seen a thin pall of smoke moving between the snowflakes and the trees.
‘I heard a loud noise,’ she says to Melanie. ‘And then I saw some smoke, but I didn’t think it was anything bad. Just a pigeon scarer or something and a bonfire.’
‘Really . . .?’ Melanie asks, like she would have thought
Clearly a bomb! and not think of normal things to explain it, like a bonfire and pigeon scarer. But being fair to lip-glossy Melanie, it’s not her fault that Hannah didn’t tell anyone.
Before Mr Marr was shot, she’d said sorry to him for not realizing and telling him because if she had maybe everything would be different. He told her other people had heard it too and not realized. One teacher had complained about some kind of rumpus in the woods; ‘Rumpus, like Where the Wild Things Are,’ Mr Marr had said, trying to make her smile, because he’s kind and knew she felt bad about not telling him and that she was afraid. It wasn’t just that he reassured her, it was that he took time with her; even with everything else going on, he took time to do that.
Then he’d put his arm around her to hurry her away from the front door and said, ‘Love is the most powerful thing there is, the only thing that really matters.’
And now he’s lying shot in the head and the foot. He’s still watching, keeping his eyes on hers, but as if it’s getting harder for him. Frank is at the back of the library again and she doesn’t blame him for leaving the area by the door.
‘You said we earlier?’ Melanie says. ‘We were in the woods ? So someone else was with you?’
The producer must be talking into Melanie’s little earbud again. She imagines all the people behind the scenes finding things out; maybe looking things up about her, looking at her Facebook page and Twitter and Instagram. You’ve got to make it all private, Dad was always on at her. Any nutter can look you up.
‘Your boyfriend is Rafi Bukhari?’
Should have listened to you, Dad.
‘He’s a Muslim from Syria?’
‘Tell the ambulance to hurry.’
She smiles at the screen again in case Dad is watching then she ends the FaceTime call with Melanie and takes off the headphones.
On Frank’s laptop, Melanie’s mouth is opening and closing as she speaks, tiny on the laptop screen and far away and not connected to her and the others trapped in school, because that’s the truth. When she was talking to Melanie, even though she didn’t much like her, it stopped her from feeling like they were totally alone.
Mr Marr has closed his eyes and she doesn’t think he’s still conscious.
She’s been imagining an ambulance with paramedics hurrying to the rescue, blue lights winking, siren calling – I’m here I’m here I’m here – but they can’t get to Mr Marr because of the gunman in the corridor and another one in the woods, and she thinks she knew that, secretly, all along but just wanted to believe help was coming for him. An armed escort had felt unlikely even as she’d thought it to herself. And even if that is what’s going to happen, they’re miles from any city so how long will it take? She’s frightened it will take too long.
‘We’re almost out of 4G data,’ Frank says, coming back towards her holding his anorak. ‘Not enough for FaceTime or the internet. Just emails now.’
He’s so cold. He must be lying in snow. Why’s he lying in snow? A game with Reception children? He must have just fallen asleep. His muscles are frozen, unable to flex, so his whole body jerks with the shivering. He opens his eyes. Hannah is bending over him. Not a game. His mind an island thick with fog. He tries to move. Can’t move. Try harder. Still nothing; as if the command and control centre in his brain has been disconnected. Why’s he thinking of a command and control centre?
It’s the soldier in you. Not too late to join me and the boys in the Paras.
I’m forty-five years old and a pacifist, Rob, he tells his older brother. And you’ve been dead for fifteen years.
But for a moment his brother reaches across from his single bed in their new foster home to Matthew’s and takes his hand and the dense fog thins a little.
He’s in the library. Something terrible has happened. And he just fell asleep and left them. What’s happened?
Hannah moves and in his line of vision he sees that she’s cover- ed in blood. Please God let it be his and not hers. Must be his surely because she looks afraid but not in pain. She’s just wearing a bra and she must be so cold, much colder than him. He’s got someone’s clothes covering him, he can glimpse the edge of a coat, and he must give it to her but he still can’t move.
He sees Frank wrapping an anorak around Hannah and is grateful to him.
What the hell’s happened?
A flashback to this morning; a dealer flicking memories in front of him, no control of them. Putting the bins out in the dark. Crushing down the stiff black bin bags. The car iced up. Hands cold on the ice scraper. The print of a fox in the deep frost. The coldest day for five years. Snow forecast. Everything normal apart from the cold.
Lighting a fire in his office, the wood catching. Warmth taking the chill off the large Victorian room. Nothing to alert him.
An image spikes through his semi-consciousness: little hands are playing with clay, snow falling around them. But the young children aren’t in coats. They are inside the pottery room. It’s snowing outside the windows and one of the children looks up at it. Huge glass windows with no shutters: no protection. In the woods. Far from help.
Questions not memories barge their way into his mind, sharp- edged and brutal.
Are the children in the pottery room safe? Did junior school get out?
Who is safe? Who is missing?
What in C***st’s name has he allowed to happen?