The family spent the weeks of the summer trying to convince themselves that this was home.
Only their mother seemed happy at the change of environment. Michael was stoical (that was a word he would have liked to use), Pete was indifferent in the way only a four-year-old could be and Chris was merely somewhat annoyed. The two eldest boys had time to investigate their new environment and took daily excursions out and about the close vicinity. They didn’t want to venture far as they were not prepared to leave their mother alone for too long. Although she had made massive strides of late, the boys shared the knowledge of the darker times but never openly spoke about it. However, their circle of discovery was forever widening and soon they found themselves in the area where their new school would be. A sign read West Lake Park and Chris thought he had heard of it.
“Fancy taking a look?” Chris had suggested.
Seeing no harm in that, Michael had agreed so they ploughed on through street after street of houses that bore an unnerving similarity. They put their radar on, knowing that this could be dangerous territory and once or twice spotted other teenagers giving them curious looks, weighing them up, working out their purpose. Eventually, they came to a sign that announced the school that they would be attending in a few short weeks and followed its directions.
Set back from the road, protected by its own bus terminal, the building rose from the ground in a grey stare. It was originally a school built for the children of people who expected more from life. Time, however, wears dreams down and buildings have a habit of reflecting that. St Agnes had fallen from grace. Its walls had taken on the make-up of the late twentieth century’s obsession with carbon fuels. Once stone, now blackened, it offered little encouragement. Saplings, planted to bring life to the grounds had been snapped and broken. Smaller names scrawled on walls in an effort to escape detection now fought with much bolder graffiti.
Mud prevailed where grass originally grew and formed trails on most days that could be traced throughout the building. Huge fistfuls of it hung from windows and ceilings. The bike shed encased a carpet of cigarette butts and sweet wrappers. Even the school name had been party to a touch of modernization as the sign standing outside the gates boasted Sh.AGNESS. It was to this place of learning that Michael and Christopher made their way one wet August morning.
“Looks lovely,” Chris muttered.
Michael couldn’t disagree. What he saw was a rundown comprehensive that only retained the name of a school because there was nothing else it could call itself.
“Shagness. What a great name.”
Christopher and Michael had not expected much more from the school. Even though they had come from a different part of the city, they had heard of it and its reputation. In particular, Chris had heard of how Shagness could produce some of the dirtiest football teams in the entire county and how their travelling support would go out of their way to intimidate the opposition and its teachers. After most games, anyone daft enough to have parked their car within the vicinity of the conflict would find tyres slashed, windscreens smashed or just a calling card of Shagness scratched into the paintwork. St Agnes was anything but saintly.
The brothers had decided to check the place out before the start of term. Their expectations were not to be disappointed. As they stood behind the spiked metal fence that surrounded the school, they shared a thought for the nice leafy comprehensive they had had to leave.
“We can’t afford to keep the house anymore,” Mum had said. “I don’t know how it happened but your father’s life assurance policy didn’t cover what we owe. If we don’t sell, then the bank will repossess.”
They had all had a terrible time since the accident, their mother, in particular, taking the brunt. She had never been the same since his death and the anti-depressants the doctor had prescribed only kept the demons at arm’s length. Now the demons were real and in the guise of moneylenders. Something had gone wrong. She was sure that they had done everything to guard their future. She knew, or thought she could remember, that they had taken out life-cover for both of them and that they were more than covered in the event of the unimaginable happening. But the unimaginable had happened and the life assurance had seemingly become a figment of her imagination.
In their rush to sell the house, they finally struck a deal with a man who said he wanted to develop it into flats. After each survey, he found something new that needed to be done and bartered down the price. When their mother had attempted to stem the leak in the projected capital, he threatened to pull out of the deal. In the end, he got what he wanted at a price he could never have hoped for. The Andrews’ family became downwardly mobile and found rented accommodation in another part of the city which most people did not even wish to drive through.
“Can I help you lads?”
They turned around to find that there was a man speaking to them.
“School doesn’t start until Monday and then it’s only for teachers. It’s unusual to get students trying to get in any earlier unless they’re wanting to set fire to the place.”
The man who was speaking to them was probably in his early fifties. He had shoulder-length wavy hair that had once been brown but was now giving in to the ravages of grey. He had what was left of a summer holiday tan that would keep him in a sense of well- being for the first six weeks of term. There was a rotundity around his middle that spoke of his appetite for good food and wine. At just under six feet, Graham Hunter was the epitome of what the general public would see as a teacher.
“We were just looking,” Michael answered. “We are new here and both of us start on Tuesday.”
“In that case then I’ll be pleased to welcome you to St Agnes’s Comprehensive School. As you may have gathered, it is an institution that has seen better days, but who is to say that better days are not just around the corner? Anyway, Aggy, as I like to call her, has been around for over forty years and has been home to me for much of that time. My name’s Mr Hunter and, for all my sins, I’ve been teaching History here for over a quarter of a century. I might even be seen to be part of the history of this place myself, but I’d challenge any court in the land to prove it. Pardon me asking, but you look familiar, are you Chris Andrews who had trials for United?”
Chris looked up surprised and nodded.
“I thought it was you. I’ve seen your picture in the paper. From what I hear, you’ve got a lot of talent.”
“I’m okay,” said Chris shrugging his shoulders in the way that he often did to ward off praise.
“He’s better than okay,” Michael chipped in, “he’s brilliant.”
“Yes I’ve heard that. Just be careful and keep it under wraps for a while. There are some very small-minded lads here who pride themselves on quashing talent. They won’t like it if a new kid turns out to be something special. And you,” he said turning to Michael, “must be his brother. You have the same look about you both.”
“Yes, I’m Michael. I’m his eldest brother and am not very good at football.”
It was Chris’s turn to pipe in.
“Michael is the brains of the family. He writes brilliant stories and is probably going to be the one who will be really famous.”
“A writer. Now that is something. I always thought that I would be a writer, but I never quite made it. I’ve had a few short stories published but nothing more. I thought that I had the great novel within me and that teaching would allow me to flourish my literary pen and carve a name for myself. Alas, it doesn’t appear that it is ever going to be.”
Both boys felt an instant liking for the teacher in a way that they had not felt for a long time. He was easy to listen to and hard to dislike. If nothing else, he promised to be something worthwhile at their new school.
“Now I’m not supposed to do this, lads, but I’ll give you a tour of the place. It’s always better without the teachers and the students.”
When they got back to the gates, a small group of local lads had gathered. Some were riding their BMX bikes in lazy Es obviously eating up time. Others had positioned themselves on the seats of the bus shelter and were engaged in a mixture of smoking and spitting, mainly they were waiting.
“The smoke signals have been going up,” Mr Hunter sighed resignedly.
Michael looked at him and asked what he meant by that.
“You haven’t met them yet, but that is a welcoming party from the local estate. They like to think of themselves as a crew or a gang. Unfortunately, they are waiting for you.”
“Why?” asked Michael perturbed.
His younger brother looked at him no longer amazed by his lack of street knowledge.
“Because we are on their territory, in their manor and we didn’t have an invitation.”
Again, the look on his older brother’s face illustrated confusion.
“Chris is right,” said the teacher. “The school is right in the middle of gangland and this one belongs to a group called the WLP, West Lake Park, the name of the estate. I think it would be better if I gave you a lift home.”
By this time, the members of the gang had spotted them and were starting to turn around.
“Hunter, are those your boys?”
“Are those your rent boys?”
Each of the group took the lead from the previous and added their own take on the enquiries before the teacher led the two back towards the car park. The name-calling intensified and reminded Michael of the noise a pack of hyenas made after they had surrounded their prey.
“I would say don’t worry about them, but that would be silly. Be very careful of those lads and don’t be caught out by them. They are like a pack of animals and I shudder to think what they could do or have probably done already. When you come to school, always make sure you take the bus or get a lift. Never, and I mean never travel through the estate on foot. Do you promise me that?”
There was genuine concern written across his face as he asked this and the brothers nodded with a yes chorused from between them. All understood, the teacher opened the doors of his vehicle which was a partly restored VW camper van. Transport from another age. The gang was outside lining the exit throwing taunts and accusations as they left. One lad, in particular, wore a twisted expression of contorted aggression.
“That, as you will find out, is Mr Podrall, one time leader of the merry men, now second in command to a usurper named Flowers. The other lad is new to the school and is, I know I shouldn’t be saying this to you, a very dangerous character that makes the rest look like Telly Tubbies.”
His passengers laughed at that, but got the picture. The VW pulled away onto the main road leading out of the estate and with that, another chapter was about to be written about lives that were to be anything other than ordinary.
Their narrative was following an unseen course.