by David Brookes
It took much longer than expected for Phoebe to find the school. Jason had told her that the area around the school wasn’t a place you’d want to leave your car unattended, so she left her Nissan at home and came by train.
She pulled her coat tightly around her, clutching the collar at her throat, and made sure that her woollen hat was low over her ears. There was melting frost all along the street. When she looked at the smoke-stained buildings of the school, she saw the rime along the roofs and gutters, still sparkling and solid on the protruding stones of the walls.
Jason met her outside the main building. He wore gloves and a scarf, and blew on his cold hands. He looked as though she’d kept him waiting, although she was early.
‘Glad you made it,’ he said, white plumes drifting out from his smile. ‘It’s been a long time, Pheebs.’
‘I didn’t think that if I ever saw you again, it would be at a school,’ she replied. ‘I thought we would be grown up.’
She rarely met new people nowadays, though Jason wasn’t exactly a stranger: they’d spent five years of secondary school together between ’63 and ’68. Phoebe wasn’t sure if she should be hugging him or greeting him with a shake, and so offered her small hand for him to grasp. He seemed a little embarrassed to be shaking a woman’s hand.
‘Come inside,’ he offered. ‘I’ll get somebody to make you a hot drink.’
They mounted some grey steps and entered the main campus block. The corridor was narrow and a little dusty. A dozen cork notice boards were mounted along the left wall, bristling with pins but no notices. The right-hand wall was mostly glass and showed the rest of the school grounds, glittering with its layer of frost and glossy where the sun had melted it into reflective pools. The paving was spotted with ancient, paper-thin pieces of discarded gum.
She said, ‘It looks almost exactly like St. Christopher’s.’
‘I thought the same,’ he said, taking off his gloves as he walked. ‘When I bought the place, the deeds came with a whole mess of other papers full of the most interesting information. I checked the years, and both schools were built in 1914. It’s no wonder they’re so similar. They might have even shared the same architect. Here we are.’
A glass corridor, a modern extension erected some time between the school’s construction and its abandonment, took them from one building to the next. In the second building there were classrooms on either side, filled with wooden desks and blackboards — proper blackboards, with chalk. None of the white-board-and-pen luxuries that Phoebe’s kids’ schools had.
There were some rooms with closed doors that looked like offices; all looked unused except one, which had SAMPSON stencilled on it. It was Jason’s surname; he’d always come two names after Phoebe’s on the register: Ritman, Ross, Sampson. She remembered that much.
He told her, ‘If ever during your stay you need to speak to me and you can’t get me on my mobile, I’ll probably be in here. The science comes with paperwork, I’m afraid, and it takes up a lot of my time.’
‘Do you live here?’
He nodded. ‘Me and a lot of the others. I know, someone like me should be able to afford a house or two of my own, right?’
Phoebe nodded. She’d heard on the grapevine about Jason Sampson’s success. Back at school they’d call him Wednesday Jay, because he couldn’t ever stand to go to school more than two days running and always had Wednesday off “sick.”
His insight and intelligence were what had made him so disgustingly prosperous, earning him moderate fame despite his reclusive nature. It had been a surprise when she’d learned that the award-winning science grad was hanging out in an old school.
‘Mostly we just chill out in here,’ he told her, and pushed open a door.
It was a very clean well-lit room, carpeted nicely in blue, with warm lighting making up for the weak winter sunlight that came in through the tall windows. There were several people inside, two playing pool in the corner and the others reading.
He took her to a small kitchen next door and talked to her while a kettle boiled noisily on the side.
‘Did you tell your husband where you are?’ he asked, taking a glass bottle of milk out of a little fridge.
‘No,’ she said, then, ‘I mean, I’m not married anymore, not for about eleven years.’
‘Your kids? I know you have two — Johnny and Craig?’
‘Johnny and Greg,’ Phoebe corrected. She opened a few cupboard doors until she found the sugar and passed it to him. ‘I didn’t tell them, either. Johnny won’t notice because I only speak to him over the phone anyway. He moved to live in Australia after he graduated. He’s got a fiancée there.’
‘That’s nice,’ said Jason.
The spoon clinked around the inside of the cups. Milk swirled into the black coffee.
‘Greg will find out that I’m not in, but he only visits every other day. He’ll just knock and shout at the window from the garden until he realises I’m out and then go away again, and forget.’
‘He’s the less accomplished one you mentioned in your e-mails.’
‘That’s a nice way of putting it.’
Phoebe accepted her coffee and held it in both hands. The chill from outside was already leaving her. Jason seemed like a warm person, but this made her uncomfortable. She’d made a point of not spending more than a few minutes at a time with any person, no matter who they were. What was the point when she was as she was?
‘Greg’s the addict,’ she said. ‘He doesn’t have a clue where I am now. He doesn’t even know about... you know.’
‘You didn’t tell him?’
‘I tried to. You can talk right at him sometimes and it just won’t sink in.’
‘Well, that won’t happen here.’ Jason smiled in the way that close friends smile. ‘How’s the coffee?’
‘Fine,’ she said. Then, seeing his expression, added, ‘Is it... Did you put some in?’
‘A few drops. You can’t taste the difference, can you? Even in water, you won’t taste it. Obviously you’ll see the colour — I couldn’t change that no matter how hard I tried — but after a while you’ll forget it’s even there.’
Phoebe looked into her cup. ‘And it’ll be in the drinks, and all the food, this cure?’
‘This is not a cure,’ Jason said firmly. ‘You must understand that from the outset. It’s as good as. But it’s not a cure.’
Phoebe nodded slowly and took another sip of the hot coffee. I’m already on my way, she thought. It’s already started.
She said, ‘’“As good as” is good enough for me.’
* * *
They didn’t start immediately. He left her to acclimatise to the place where she would be living for the next few weeks.
During the afternoon she was allowed to wander freely around the school, which brought back memories of her own school years, including what few forgettable experiences she’d shared with Jason.
There was nothing exciting — they’d barely spoken to each other — but they’d been in detention together once and got the ruler. Afterwards they displayed their twenty red knuckles and each tried not to let the other see them cry.
Once or twice they’d been in on the same card game and won or lost copper pennies. Phoebe remembered them competing head to head in a sports day sack race. She’d beat him by a full ten feet. She had much more energy then.
Twice she saw lone patients walking from one block to another. She wondered why they were there, what reason they might have to undergo Jason Sampson’s unorthodox treatment.
The bedroom that had been assigned to her might once have stored stationary and notepads; there were shelves on all four walls. The shelves were bare but for half a dozen books, and four of them were about science and mathematics that Phoebe didn’t think she was capable of understanding. Another was Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre. The last was a collection of Garfield comic strips, bound in a glossy cover.
She read the Garfield until she felt tired enough to sleep.
* * *
Copyright © 2014 by David Brookes