Secret in the cellar
Last lesson, Friday afternoon – numeracy. Time crawled so slowly, I thought it had stopped.
I liked numbers. They made sense to me. They didn’t slip and slide off in all directions like words did when I was writing. They moved obediently into neat rows and columns so Mrs Taylor could give each answer a bright green tick.
I’d finished the sheet, even the extra questions. I wanted the bell to ring. I checked the clock again. It still said 3.15. Fifteen minutes to go.
I yawned. Our classroom was hot and stuffy. A trapped bluebottle buzzed angrily against the window pane beside me. The bell of an ice cream van tinkled in the distance.
‘Have you finished, Anna?’ Mrs Taylor’s voice startled me.
‘Yes, Miss,’ I said.
‘Then I need your help,’ she said. ‘I think I left the rounders’ box on the hall steps. Would you go across and check?’
‘If it’s there, pop it in the cellar. I’ll lock up later.’
‘Can I go with her, Miss?’ my friend Lily asked.
‘I think at ten – ’
‘I’m nearly eleven, Miss,’ I interrupted.
‘I think at nearly eleven,’ Mrs Taylor smiled, ‘she’s old enough to manage on her own. Off you go, Anna.’
Our school’s a mixture of new and old buildings. The dining room was built in my first year. The junior classrooms were opened when Dad was here. The infants’ classrooms and the hall were built in Victorian times. To get to them you have to cross the juniors’ playground. The bright sun made me blink. I yawned again. I passed through the archway in the wall that divides the old and new part of school. The golden letters from the plaque which explains this winked in the sun.
The box wasn’t on the steps. I went in. The hall was cool and empty.
Perhaps someone else had put the box away. I’d been through the little low door under the stage once or twice. It led down to a cellar full of PE things, Christmas decorations, scenery, costumes and bits of old furniture. The door was ajar. I pushed it open and felt my way down the steps.
‘Hello,’ I called out, feeling a bit silly. ‘Is anyone there?’
There was no answer.
The cellar was dark. The only light came from through the door behind me and two narrow gratings in the back wall. I groped for the light switch and nearly fell down the last step. The door swung closed.
Everything went black. For a moment I panicked. Then my eyes got used to the gloom. I turned to open the door when I noticed something odd. Someone had tidied the place.
The wishing well had gone. The plastic Christmas trees had disappeared. Sleeping Beauty’s castle walls had vanished. There were no stacks of crash mats or piles of beanbags. An old blackboard and easel stood in one corner. Otherwise the place was empty. I shivered. I was suddenly very cold.
Then I heard a noise. It sounded like someone crying.
‘Who’s there?’ I said. There was no answer.
My trembling fingers searched for the switch. ‘Just a minute,’ I called, ‘and I’ll put the light on.’
But I couldn’t find the switch. I climbed carefully up the steps again to open the door. I felt for the handle. It had disappeared. I checked again – nothing. What was going on?
I heard the sobbing again. Whoever was down there with me was even more frightened than I was.
‘OK,’ I said, ‘I’m coming.’ I peered across the cellar. ‘Where are you?’
There was no reply but in the far corner where some light shone through the grating something moved. I hoped it wasn’t a mouse, or worse, a rat.
‘Hello,’ I said.
It was little kid, one of Mrs Carey’s infants I guessed. The ruffles round the neck and cuffs of his shirt made me think it was a girl at first, but it was a boy. He sniffed loudly and wiped his nose on his sleeve. Knobbly knees poked out through his long shorts. He wore lace-up boots.
He looked up at me.
‘I can’t do it, Miss,’ he said.
‘What?’ I asked. I wondered why he was here. Why hadn’t he been missed? Weren’t people looking for him? I hadn’t seen anyone on my way across.
‘I can’t do it, Miss,’ he sobbed. ‘I’ve tried, but I can’t.’
‘I’m not a teacher,’ I said. ‘My name’s Anna.’ I went to take his arm to help him up. ‘I’ll take you back to your classroom.’
‘Does Sir say I can come out now, Miss?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said ‘but Mrs Carey will be pleased to see you. Come on.’
He pulled away from me. ‘I can’t, ‘he said. ‘Sir said I weren’t to come out till I could write my name.’
This made no sense. Since Mr Clark left when I was in Year 4, all our teachers were women. I wondered if maybe this Sir was Mrs Carey’s new classroom assistant but I couldn’t believe he or anyone had sent the kid down here. Maybe he’d run off and was too scared to face the grown-ups.
He stared at me, his eyes dark splodges in his pale face. Slowly he stretched out his hands. Even in the dim light, I could see his knuckles were bleeding.
‘You’ve hurt yourself,’ I said.
‘I told you. I couldn’t do it,’ he mumbled. ‘Here’s me slate.’
He gave me a toy blackboard with a few scribbles chalked on it. Did he mean the teacher had beaten him because he couldn’t write his name? Teachers weren’t allowed to hit you. Had another kid attacked him? Perhaps he’d fallen and scraped himself.
Whatever the truth was, I felt sorry for him. He was hurt and frightened. I wanted to help but I didn’t have much time. Mrs Taylor would want to know about her box and Lily and I had to catch our bus.
‘What is your name?’ I said.
‘Ma calls me Jimmy,’ he said, ‘but Sir says I’m James Portman and I’ll come ter nothing.’
That made me jump. James Portman. I knew that name. Just for a moment, I wondered where I’d heard it. Then I realised I hadn’t heard it, I’d read it, and not once but hundreds of times. We saw it every time we came over to the hall for P.E. or drama. I’d seen it just a few minutes ago, passing under the archway into the Victorian part of school.
Sir James Portman, former pupil of Woodford School
Lord Mayor of Bedford
1892 – 1970
There’s more written underneath. I’ve passed it so often I know it off by heart.
These buildings, completed through his generosity, were
officially opened by his family
In loving memory.
I looked at the board Jimmy had given me. It wasn’t a toy I realised. It was the kind of thing schoolchildren used to write on in the olden days. I thought about other things – the empty cellar, Jimmy’s odd clothes, Sir, the beating. Jimmy wasn’t a pupil in my school. Not today anyway.
Several shivers chased each other down my spine. Same name, right age, same school – was it a coincidence or was he the same James Portman who’d left money to Woodford. Would this bony boy become a rich and important man? Would he have a loving family? Even though the teachers had said he’d ‘come to nothing’ would he still want to leave money to his old school?
‘Do you know the date?’ I asked.
‘It’s Friday, Miss,’ he said, proudly. ‘I knows that.’
I nodded. ‘And do you know the year?’
‘Yes, Miss, I do.’
The little hairs on the back of my neck tingled. ‘Tell me, Jimmy,’ I said.
‘It’s the-year-of-our-Lord-eighteen-hundred-and- ninety-nine,’ he said, all in a rush.
‘1899,’ I repeated. No wonder everything looked so different. I did the maths. Sir James died in 1970. I was born twenty-six years later. In 1899 he was seven and I was – minus 97 years old. How could we be here together?
Was Jimmy a ghost? Or was I? Was he in my time or was I in his? How had we bumped into each other? If this was the nineteenth century how was I going to get back into the twenty-first? These questions and others whirled round my brain but I couldn’t catch any one of them long enough to work out an answer.
A thunderous banging on the door made us both jump.
‘You there, boy!’ shouted a deep voice.
‘That’s Sir,’ he whispered. I could feel him shaking and I was trembling too.
‘Your time’s nearly up, Portman,’ said the man’s voice. ‘Two minutes and I’m coming to get you.’
There was only one thing to do. ‘Give me some chalk, Jimmy’ I said, ‘and I’ll write your name for you.’
‘I got a slate pencil, Miss,’ he said handing it to me.
‘But I won’t be able to help another time,’ I said, ‘so you must promise me that you’ll practise till you can do it for yourself.’
‘I promise,’ he said.
I wrote his name across the slate, spelling it out as I went.
He traced the letters lightly with his fingertips and smiled for the first time. ‘James Portman,’ he said.
‘That’s right,’ I said, ‘a name to be proud of.’
He looked serious again. ‘Are you an angel, Miss?’ he asked.
‘No,’ I said, ‘I’m a girl, I told you. Look,’ I twirled round, ‘no wings.’
‘But you’re so thin, Miss,’ he said.
Lily would have laughed at that. She’s into fashion and looking good. ‘I wish!’ I said. ‘My friend Lily says I eat too much.’
‘I don’t mean about eating,’ said Jimmy. ‘I mean I can almost see through you.’
‘Through me?’ I asked, still thinking about Lily. ‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean like yer not really here.’
But there was no time to ask him what he meant. A key turned in the lock and I shuddered. I didn’t want to meet Sir even if I was a ghost. ‘You go, Jimmy,’ I said.
‘Yer sure I’ll be all right alone, Miss?’ He looked worried again.
‘You’ll be fine, James Portman.’ I thought about what the plaque said. ‘Who knows, one day you might be more important than all of them.’
‘Yer funny,’ he laughed. ‘Shall I see you again?’
I had to be honest. ‘I don’t know, Jimmy,’ I said, ‘but remember what I’ve told you. Yeh?’
‘I’ll remember,’ he said.
As the door opened, I hid behind the old blackboard, holding my breath.
A stern voice barked. ‘So, child, are you ready?’
‘Come on out then.’
The cellar darkened as the door swung closed behind them but the teacher’s voice was clear. ‘Stand up straight and show the class.’ Then I heard the bell.
The door swung open again and someone flicked the light switch.
‘Anna?’ It was Lily.
‘What are you doing? You’ve been ages. Mrs Taylor sent me to find you.’ She looked round. ‘That’s her box, isn’t it?’
I got up blinking. The place was back to normal. The box of bats and poles was by the side of the steps.
Lily waved her hand over my face. ‘Earth to Mars,’ she said. ‘Come on, Anna. Wake up. The bell’s gone, time to go home.’
‘I wasn’t asleep,’ I said, following her out. ‘At least I don’t think so.’
She waited for me to explain. We went through the archway. I looked up at the plaque. I thought about telling her. Then I changed my mind.
‘I think I just lost track of time for a while,’ I said. ‘I’m OK now.’
‘Better go and tell Mrs Taylor,’ said Lily. She grinned. ‘Then if we’re quick I’ll treat you to an ice cream on the way to the bus stop.’
Julia Pirie is a Guest Author
Copyright © Julia Pirie - reproduced by kind permission of Julia Pirie