You could just about see the roof of the old building, jutting out from behind a crooked tree, and I never believed my granny when she said that it’d once been the parish school – it was tiny. Barely a bungalow, with a few windows and an outhouse. Ginger told me that the last year of admissions was 1974, but that all the local children had gone there… including one in particular.
The Big Man would call into my grandmother’s house every morning and sit. While she often avoided making eye contact, she’d invariably give him his place. He was a farmer man with whom everyone in our parish was acquainted. Known far and wide for his céilí visits, he’d tear ‘round the roads on his vintage tractor, or call up to her house on a Friday night looking for a lift into town to drink. Often, he’d offer to take a young lad or young lass up the lane with him to cut turf after school, always bringing them home safe with sandwiches and tea in their bellies. When she was a child, my own mother recalled how she’d actually hear The Big Man’s old International going past the window, casting a shadow as she cowered near the curtains. She looked solemn as she’d talk about young Jim Little, nine-years-old, who’d be stood on the link box of the tractor, leaning and talking into The Big Man’s ear. They’d seen her staring one day and smiled.
The old schoolhouse itself was down the back of our hill, at a quiet little crossroads, and I’d always fly down towards it on my bike. I loved to hit the flattening curve of the road and push on beyond the junction, where the scenery opened up on a patchwork of fields, grazing goats and distant woodland; all falling away to the southern horizon. But the building looked so lonely and troubled, with its crooked and miserable tree standing sentry. I never liked to slow down.
Ginger often teased me that the old school was really a witch’s house, and she’d dare us to go up to it. One day I felt brave enough to stop my bike and look. The sky above was a benign blue, and was streaked with cloudy wisps on that fateful day. I slipped past the tree and climbed the gate.
I broke the glass. Smashed all of it. The heaviness of the pieces clattering inside the empty building felt dangerous, and a terrible excitement grew inside my tummy, and more. I approached the final window; the last one untouched. It was curiously decorated, with colourful designs and stained glass. Indeed, the closer I looked, there appeared to be a stylish inscription running along it; though it was difficult to make out through the grime.
The sunlight of the day still lay at my feet, yet the sky was crudely purple in the curious window. A harsh white glare seemed to pulse, and a whisper of voices suddenly arose. But from where?
As my mind played tricks, a sense of real and tangible evil became overpowering. I envisaged a swirling mass of black thorns ensnaring me in the reflection, tightening my chest and thundering me closer to the abyss.
I brushed the filth of the glass away, and everything became clear:
‘Decorative installed by the parish committee of Lisnawery, 1972.
Dedicated to the memory of Master James Little, Class Five.’
Was that a movement behind me? Stifling a scream, I turned around. A little red tractor was sat in the middle of the crossroads, purring, and polished to perfection. The Big Man’s face was still smiling, but it wore a shroud of death and decay. He turned off the engine and slowly began to climb down. A young buck – none other than Jim Little himself! – simply sat on the link box and stared. His features weren’t ghoulish; rather, they were lost and nondescript. Solemn and plain. The face of a childhood snuffed out.
I turned and ran.
Photo by Free-Photos is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA
Jason is a proud native of Tyrone, living and working in County Down.
More words: www.bamni.co.uk/author/jasonconlon/