Ivan stepped out of the taxi, handing some notes to the driver after fumbling in his wallet and looked up at the tall, towered building that was Waverick Institute for Boys.
It was like a miniature castle, with all the original stonework on show, far removed from the schools he had taught at in London. Gathering up his suitcases with a small gulp, he made his way over to the intricate metal gates, seeing an intercom on the side of the wall next to them and pressing it. He heard the intercom hiss, as though it had been a long time since it had been used, before a low, yet distinctly feminine voice spoke through it.
‘May I help you?’ the speaker asked.
Ivan cleared his throat. ‘Yes, my name is Ivan Cornersberg and I’m here to fill the position of English teacher,’ he replied, finding a quiver fill his throat that was beyond his control.
‘Ah, yes, I was told that you would be coming. Please stand back while I open the gates.’
Ivan did so, not a moment before the large gates began to open, squeaking slightly on their hinges. Once they were open enough for him to walk through, he picked up his suitcases once again and made his way down the long, serpentine pathway, edged almost to perfection with yellow stone slabs which separated it from the large area of lawn either side.
He reached the door of the main entrance, just as impressive as the gates had been, and used the cast iron knocker to knock three times. He heard the knock echo through the hall beyond and, after half a minute the door opened, revealing a butler dressed in a black tail coat and trousers, with a pocket watch chain hanging across one side of his waistcoat.
‘Good morning, sir,’ the butler said, standing aside to let Ivan in. ‘My name is Francis and the headmaster has bid me to welcome you to Waverick Institute for Boys. He informed me that I am to be of every possible service to you as long as you are employed here.’
‘Thank you,’ Ivan said, marvelling at the butler’s fine suit. Compared to that, he felt rather shabbily dressed in his tweed jacket and plain black trousers. He had never heard of a butler working in a school before, but then he was in the country. Perhaps that was the norm out here. ‘Where might I find the headmaster? I have an appointment with him in ten minutes.’
‘I’m afraid he is teaching at the moment, sir, but I shall take you to his office where you may wait until the bell rings for luncheon.’
The butler picked up his suitcases for him, his face twitching only slightly at the weight of them. He led Ivan down a straight, long hall, carpeted in a rich red that made the English teacher feel as though he was sinking slightly with every step he took. The butler turned sharply to the right just before they reached the end, down a smaller hall that Ivan wouldn’t have noticed by himself.
The headmaster’s office was at the end of it; a single door standing out proudly against the stonework of the walls. The butler took out a small, brass key and put it into the lock, hearing it click before withdrawing it. He opened the door and led Ivan inside, placing his bags next to a tall bookshelf filled with books on all sorts of topics. Ivan scanned some of their titles; An Astronomer’s Guide to the Northern Sky, From Broth to Brunch: Notes by Acclaimed Chefs on Popular Dishes, Military Tactics of the Past One Hundred Years, Popular Bedding Plants and How to Arrange Them. The headmaster obviously had a broad range of interests.
Standing behind him, the butler coughed, making him jump. Ivan had quite forgotten he was still there. ‘Please wait in here until the headmaster arrives. I’m afraid I must lock you in, however, for some of the boys have taken to sneaking in here lately and upsetting the headmaster’s desk,’ he said, his tone polite yet with a definite edge to it. ‘By your leave, sir, I shall depart.’
Ivan nodded to him. ‘Yes, thank you, I’ll be fine,’ he said, sitting down in a velvet covered armchair opposite the headmaster’s desk. The butler bowed low and left the room. Ivan heard the click of the lock as he was locked in, alone. He looked around, taking in the headmaster’s leather chair, and the desk in front of it, which was carved out of one solid piece of mahogany. There was a small box upon it, made of cherry wood and inlaid with what looked like ivory. Ivan hoped it wasn’t; with all the news of elephants disappearing from the wild due to poachers shooting them for their tusks, he felt it would be in rather poor taste. He was tempted to examine it to put his mind at rest if nothing else, but as he got up, he heard a key placed into the lock and swiftly sat back down again.
The door swung open and a short man with his face hidden from view by a large pile of books shuffled his way inside. One of the books toppled off, and Ivan stood up, just managing to catch it before it hit the floor.
‘Ah, thank you,’ the man said, not looking at him and putting the pile of books onto the desk. ‘I was hoping I could manage, but…’
He peered around the books, and his ruddy face broke into a smile. ‘Ah, Ivan. I wasn’t sure if you would be here yet; I’ve just been teaching one of the classes that you might be taking over. Lively one, that,’ he said, sitting down in the leather chair opposite Ivan, and then having to readjust the pile of books he had set down in order to see him properly.
Ivan looked at him, confused. ‘Didn’t the butler tell you I was here?’ he asked.
‘Butler?’ the headmaster said. ‘Oh, you mean Francis? He’s not really a butler, you know, he’s actually our caretaker. Bit of an odd one, dressing up like that and speaking in such a funny manner, but he’s good at his job and the boys take no notice of him, so we just decided to leave him to it.’
‘Oh, I see,’ said Ivan, sitting back in the armchair. He looked over at the headmaster. Though he hadn’t seen his brother-in-law properly since the incident, he thought he looked more overworked than usual. His face, although still quite broad, looked thinner than it had been and his hair line had receded back a lot. Still, Ivan knew that he had changed as well; no one could go through what he had over the past year and stay the same.
‘Now, down to business,’ the headmaster said, resting his hands on the desk in front of him and crossing his fingers. ‘I know you’ve had a lot of trouble finding work recently, and I’m sure…given the circumstances, it’s been hard living alone.
‘As I told you over the phone, Mr Summers, our previous English teacher, became ill just before the start of term and had to leave. Now, I’ve been teaching his class for the past few weeks since then, but with my work as headmaster, it’s proving to be very difficult to do both. I know you agreed to take the position when I called you, but I wanted to show you Waverick before you made your final decision. As you have no doubt already seen, this is no London school. Here at Waverick Institute for Boys, we take the needs of every student very seriously and so our classes are small, with ten students being the maximum in each class. How do you feel about this?’
‘Well, I’m sure it’ll take me a while to get used to it, but this may be the very thing I need,’ Ivan replied.
‘Glad to hear it,’ the headmaster said, smiling. ‘As we are a boarding school, I should tell you that only one or two of our students go home for the holidays, as most of their parents work overseas. I will warn you now that they can be a handful, though if you start with the right approach, they can be just as eager to learn as any. Are you still happy to take on the position after hearing this?’
Ivan nodded. ‘Of course I am. If I’m honest, Marcus, then just being out of London and being allowed to teach again is a weight off my shoulders.’ He sat for a moment, thinking. ‘I must ask you, though, do the students and other staff know about what happened?’
A small crease appeared on the headmaster’s brow. ‘Yes, they do, but I have told them all that I have the utmost confidence in you and had I any doubt about your innocence, then I would have been the first one to turn away from you.’
Ivan breathed a long sigh of relief. ‘Well, at least I don’t have to hide anything.’
‘Of course, that would be an intimidating situation for anyone to have to walk into,’ the headmaster said. He opened a drawer in his desk and took out a sheet of paper, headed at the top with a crest depicting an eagle with a rabbit in its talons; Waverick Institute’s crest. He pushed it in front of Ivan and handed him a pen. ‘Here is your official contract. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask.’
Ivan scanned the document quickly. It looked like a standard teacher’s contract, like any other he had signed. He took up the pen and scribbled his signature and the date at the bottom, before passing it back to the headmaster.
‘Excellent,’ the headmaster said, taking it and putting it back in his drawer. ‘I’ll just give Francis a ring so he can show you up to your room. Oh, I will ask you not to call me Marcus in front of the students, though. You must address me as headmaster. They tend to get cocky if they know your first name,’ he added, before picking up the receiver to an old fashioned rotary phone on a shelf behind him. Ivan smiled. He hadn’t seen one of those since his visits to his grandmother’s as a child.
As the headmaster turned away, Ivan took a moment to check his own phone, an old Nokia which had served him faithfully these past ten years. The signal bar at the top had disappeared; he ought to have known as much, he hadn’t seen any signal towers at all on his ride down there. He sighed, knowing that it was just one of the things he would have to get used to, but knew that there were benefits to it, too. After all, with no signal, he couldn’t receive any hate messages left by people he didn’t know that had somehow gotten hold of his number.
‘Francis will be with us in a moment,’ the headmaster said, putting down the receiver and turning back to him. ‘Want a drink while you wait?’ he asked, opening a cabinet to his side that was stocked full of brandy.
Ivan laughed. ‘I think it’s a little early in the day for me,’ he said, watching the headmaster pour himself a glass.
A moment later, there was a knock on the door and, at the headmaster’s command, Francis, the butler—or caretaker, whatever he was— came into the room and bowed to them both.
‘You summoned me, headmaster?’ he asked.
‘Yes, I did,’ the headmaster said, eyeing up Francis’ attire and shaking his head slightly. ‘Would you please show Ivan up to his room?’
‘If that is your wish, headmaster,’ Francis replied and, picking up Ivan’s suitcases once more, he strode out of the room. Ivan jumped up to follow him before he headed out of sight.
‘I’ll see you at dinner tonight, Ivan,’ the headmaster called to him, giving him a wave.
The next morning, dressing hurriedly after realising that he’d set his alarm clock half an hour later than he was supposed to, Ivan rushed out of his room and down the staircase taking him to the entrance hall. He looked across at the four corridors leading out of it, trying to remember which one led to the dining hall. Taking a guess, he chose the one leading left and followed it down.
Seeing the sturdy wooden door at the end, he sighed with relief. He had chosen correctly. He went in, wearing what he hoped was a friendly, yet authoritative expression as the crowd of students looked up at him from their breakfast plates. He had seen them briefly at dinner the previous night, but had retired early due to a sudden headache.
The other teachers, whom the headmaster had told him usually arrived at dinner half an hour later than himself and the students, due to the marking they always did after class, had not met him yet and so also watched him with curiosity as he made his way up to their table. He sat in the empty seat next to the headmaster and his secretary; the middle aged woman who had answered the intercom when he had first arrived.
‘Sorry I’m late,’ he apologised to them all as he shuffled in his chair.
‘Not to worry,’ a man sitting opposite him said, with a finely trimmed beard and glasses. ‘I remember my first day here; I was so unprepared that I walked into a geography class and tried to teach them maths. It was only until I was half-way through my explanation of Pythagoras’s theorem that I realised that Miss Jenkins here was waiting patiently for me to stop talking so that she could teach her class.’ He nodded to the young woman next to Ivan and smiled at her.
‘I remember that,’ she said, also smiling. ‘But I believe the best award goes to Mr Heathers, at the end there. He teaches biology, and muddled up his explanation of reproduction so badly that the boys kept getting meiosis confused with mitosis and it took him the rest of the term to get them to relearn it correctly. Of course, that’s partly because his eyesight is so bad that he didn’t realise their mistake for a good few weeks.’
‘What’s this?’ Mr Heathers said from the end of the table. Ivan saw that he was an elderly man in his seventies, well past the age of any of the teachers he had known in London. ‘What’s all this talk of my toes?’
Miss Jenkins shook her head. ‘He’s also quite deaf,’ she said to Ivan despairingly.
They finished breakfast and the headmaster led Ivan to the English classroom. To his surprise, the students were already there, despite it being at least two minutes until the bell. He recognised a number of them from the breakfast hall.
‘Class, I am pleased to introduce you to your new English teacher, Mr Cornersberg. I assure you that he is much more knowledgeable than me on this subject, as I am sure you were all hoping.’
A boy at the back, with his tie done up roughly, sniggered. ‘We don’t mind, headmaster,’ he called out. ‘At least with you, we got away with messing up our usage of there, their, and they’re.’
The headmaster looked at Ivan with a pained expression. ‘Spelling and grammar have always been a weakness of mine,’ he admitted. ‘Now then, I suppose I should leave you to it?’
‘Thank you, headmaster,’ Ivan said, giving him a nod as he left the room. He turned to his class, feeling a nervousness that he hadn’t felt since his days as a teacher in training. ‘As the headmaster just informed you, my name is Mr Cornersberg. I’ll write that on the board for you so that you can write it correctly on your books.’
He turned to the blackboard and chalked his name on it, unused to using them now that most schools preferred white boards or computers with projections of the screen. Somehow, it felt nice to be using such basic equipment again, without all the fuss of technology.
‘Now,’ he said, rubbing the chalk from his fingers onto his black trousers without thinking. A few of the class smirked at the white prints now on them. ‘The headmaster has given me some notes left by your teacher from last year, Mr Summers, I believe. According to them, you have already done one piece of coursework analysing Far From The Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, yet he feels that most of your pieces were not strong enough to include in your GCSE portfolios. Not to worry, though, as we’ll be working on a different piece of work that you might engage with slightly more. Tell me, has anyone heard of To Kill A Mocking Bird by Harper Lee?’
The class progressed smoothly and, as Ivan had suspected, the boys engaged with the book much more than the previous one they’d had to study. He had brought enough copies of it for them to have one each and by the end of the class, they had covered the whole of the first chapter and had time to analyse it, too.
As the bell rang for the second period, the class left and Ivan collected the copies of the book and stacked them on his desk, preparing another set for the year above them, this time Shakespeare’s Othello. He put a copy on each desk before returning to his own and counting the copies of To Kill A Mockingbird, making sure that no-one had walked off with one accidently.
As he picked up the top copy, a note slid out from under the cover. He looked at it curiously. There was a single word scrawled upon it in thick, capital letters.