A Brush With The Supernatural
I don’t know if it’s a good thing or not (said Donnelly) but all the big, grand personalities have disappeared from the chalk face. In the old days at St. Geoffrey’s, the staff room would be full of the unprincipled villainous or the downright certifiable. I mean, these days, you never see the likes of Yorick Warwick, or poor old Tom Hobbes, or Edeltraut Runkelstirn turning up for interview. Nowadays it’s all bureaucrats with ‘skillsets’! I mean, skillsets, for Jayzus’ sake! It sounds like something you’d find wrapped in colourful paper under a Christmas Tree. ‘Oh, yes! Little Willie’s having a wonderful time with his Skill Set! He’s already built a machine for taking the stones out of horses’ scrotums since breakfast time!’ Yah! Well, anyway.
But strange things can still happen, things beyond the scope of normal events! Case in point: I was sitting in the staff room the other day, when the door opened and nothing very much happened as a result. However, after a while, I became aware that a vague presence had wafted in and was now hovering by the bookcases. Daisy Barnet saw it too, and said, “Oh Vernon? Come and meet Ignatius. Ignatius Donnelly, this is Vernon Soking.”
The vague presence shimmered over towards us and manifested a white, moist thing shaped like a hand. I felt obliged to shake it. Have you ever, old man, had occasion to squeeze a fish? That was the sensation. I had to hold my hand away from my body afterwards and made a mental note to give it a good scrub before lunch. I mean, I could have caught warts! Brrrr! (Here, curate, put a double in there, will you. Good man.) But the point is, this creature had come to teach history. This Soking object was going to be sent in to classrooms in front of the children of paying parents. Poor old Tom Hobbes had biffed off into the pedagogical twilight with a spring in his step, no doubt thanks to his blackthorn full of the dynamo juice. I think his plan was to keep chickens and let their gentle clucking soothe him into oblivion. However that may have been, the upshot was that we got the ethereal Soking instead. I didn’t think we were up on the deal myself, but then I always had a liking for poor old Hobbes and his occasional obsessions. That Gentleman’s Standfast had come to the aid of a lot of us in the course of time, as well. The reviving ichor that it contained had helped quite a few of us through the stickier moments of the trivial round and the common task.
But now we were embarking upon a new era in the history of St. Geoffrey’s. We stood as on the brink of the mist-veiled lake, the darkling tarn. You know what I mean, old man. We couldn’t tell what lay before us, but it didn’t look promising. But amazing as it sounds, this Soking specimen seemed to manage quite well. From time to time we’d ask some youngster or other how the History lessons were going, and they’d just shrug and say, “Okay.” So that was a good sign. Evidently he would seep into the classroom and become material enough to leave the pupils in no doubt about the causes of the Franco-Prussian War, or give them the full dope on the Repeal of the Corn Laws, and of course, when the bell went, they would just up and go, and none could say for sure how he made his exit. I assume he just became a cloud of mist and vanished through the ventilator, like an Indian yogi.
Well this was all creepy enough, but it all became truly something out of a Hammer Horror when, one day, he was seen on break duty in two places at once! Daisy Barnet came into the staff room, and said, “Have you seen Vernon?” The lovely Deborah replied, yes, she’d just seen him from the Art Room window, coming through the north gate.
“Who’s that, then?” demanded Larry Snudge, pointing out of the window at your identical man, watching the chislurs by the south wall! Deborah said, “Oh!” And that about summed it up. Old man, he could never have covered the distance in the time. It was downright theosophical!
Something similar happened at a parents evening. Daisy Barnet had shut the door and was apologizing to the parents on behalf of the teachers who weren’t present, and included Soking among the absentees. She looked up from her notes, and there he was, large as life, having organized his molecules into an empty chair opposite her. The thing was beginning to give us nightmares. A particularly nasty incident was reported by Iain Macdonald, who unlocked his music cupboard one day to get out some various bits of musical paraphernalia, and found Vernon Soking inside, staring him in the face. Macdonald staggered backwards, and collided with Mrs. Hodge. Brooms, mops and buckets went flying everywhere. Soking just said, in a sepulchral tone, “I hope you don’t mind. I was just borrowing a music stand.” And he shimmered off into the shadows. I mean, it was a free standing cupboard, old man! Locked with a padlock! Can you explain it?
Well, as is obvious to the meanest intelligence, these sorts of occult shenanigans had to be dealt with somehow. Peter Potocki just smiled an enigmatic smile when we taxed him with it. Graham Ridgeway took the scientific view that the whole thing was impossible, and dismissed it out of hand. The Laws of Physics didn’t allow for Vernon Soking, therefore he couldn’t exist. Not in the way we experienced him, anyway. But there he was, unscientifically present, teaching youngsters and drawing a salary, in spite of the laws of nature.
In the end, some of us decided to consult Ingmar Svensson, the melancholy Swede who had found God and wouldn’t put Him back where he found Him.
“You’re the senior Religion teacher,” said Snudge, “It’s up to you to get to the bottom of it.”
Svensson checked Soking’s timetable and saw that he would be teaching History in Room 7. He waited for the bell; it rang and out came the chislurs.
“Is Mister Soking in there?” he asked one, who drawled an affirmative over his shoulder as he passed. So, in went Svensson. The room was empty. Svensson turned away with a nameless dread, and all at once, Soking was at his shoulder.
“Can I help you?” he asked. Svensson took him by the arm and steered him back into the classroom. He said he could definitely feel flesh and bone beneath the tweed of the sleeve.
“I came in just now and you weren’t there,” Svensson began.
“I was looking for a pencil I dropped under the desk,” Soking countered.
“How did you get from the south gate to the north wall so quickly?” Svensson went on, doggedly pursuing the investigation into the paranormal.
“I took the short cut.”
“What short cut?”
“Round by the bins and through the kitchens, of course. What’s the matter, anyway? Why all these questions?”
Well, this was a facer, and no mistake. How was Svensson to explain that we all suspected him of being supernatural? I mean, it’s not the sort of thing that leads to the quiet feast of reason and flow of soul in the staff room is it? I mean, such things tend to cast a pall, though admittedly, there was precious little chance of intellectual conversation anyway, with Beryl Middleton going on abut how clever her own kids were, and how she would never send them to St. Geoffrey’s unless they were diagnosed with an IQ that placed them somewhat lower than a gibbon, and that they were all three paragons of achievement in all fields of scholarly attainment.
Anyway, the hell with her and her bloody kids. The point was, Svensson rose to the challenge.
“I just want to make sure that you’re settling in all right,” he said, airily, or as airily as he could muster.
“Very kind, I’m sure,” said Soking, and that was that. So off Svensson went, but on an impulse, he dodged back almost immediately, flung open the door – and Soking had gone! True as I’m sitting here, old man. There was no sign of him. Svensson looked under the desks and in the cupboards, remembering Soking’s ability to get past locks and bolts by some sort of spectral osmosis. Nothing. Not a sausage.
So we did the only thing possible that reason dictated. We decided to exorcise him.
A few of us got together one night in the boys changing rooms and drew a big pentacle on the floor. Edwin Mitchell got the design from Malcolm Tregorran, whom he visited sometimes up in the Facility for Spiritual Rearrangement. Svensson brought along bell, book and candle, and Larry Snudge and a couple of others put on long dark robes and chanted a few arcane rhymes in Latin and Hebrew – God knows what we were actually saying, old man – and, as the ritual was reaching its climax, a voice from behind the lockers said, “Hello! What are you chaps up to?”
It was Soking! We had conjured the bastard up, and now were all shrieking like girls in those old American films when a mouse comes into the boudoir. I’ve never been so terrified in my life! Only Svensson kept his head.
“We must finish the ritual,” he shouted, “Or terrible things will happen!”
“They already have!” said Snudge in a quavering alto. But Svensson stood his ground and spoke in an operatic bass, a lot of tremolo; you know the style, old man, and, on the cry of “Aroint ye! Aroint ye! Aroint ye, homunculus!” from Svensson, poof! There was a sort of explosion, like someone popping a paper bag, and the room was full of greasy smuts, filling the place like black snow. And Soking was gone! We never saw him again.
Well, I don’t mind telling you, old man, we wondered if we were guilty of some sort of murder on a psychic scale. I put the thing up to Peter Potocki, who told me not to be ridiculous. He had received a letter from Soking, saying that he had had to rush off to Greenock to visit an ailing relative. Graham Ridgeway said that the black smuts were probably the result of using cut-price black candles. I mean, scientists can always find rational explanations for the weird and wonderful, but I know what I saw, old man, and it was bloody odd! Anyway, Soking never came back. Say what you like, I believe to this day that we exorcised him. Yes, make it another double, would you old man? Thanks.