Exam

Dr Montgomery was eating salmon at his desk. To be more specific, Dr Montgomery was eating an entire salmon at his desk. The bracket of his leather chair creaked under his weight as he hunched over the fish, tearing thick strips of flesh from its side with his razor-sharp teeth. The mortar board hung low on his head, and the tassel drooped into his meal, the tips of the strings becoming sticky with pink juices. He slobbered and grunted and, with a wrench, ripped off the fish’s head and swallowed it whole. Derek chewed the end of his pencil and tried to concentrate on his history exam.

At his desk, diagonally across from Derek’s, Bertie Collins was sweating profusely. His skin was gleaming like peach innards and his asthma was laying siege to his breathing. He hadn’t even picked up his pencil or opened his exam paper yet. In Derek’s opinion, it was Bertie Collins’ fault that they were all in this mess. After all, he was the idiot who’d spent most of his childhood life riding the waves of adulated disgust he received whenever he took his dick out whilst answering the register.

“Bertie Collins?” Ms Margarite, their previous teacher, would ask.

“Here, Miss!” Bertie would respond, leaping atop his desk and jabbing his pantline down with both thumbs to reveal his bobbling cock, which he would wiggle amidst the fearful cries of the girls and the debauched whoops of the boys. Their scorn and reverence were all one, and he drank them in with a boyish hunger, cackling and bobbling. They always knew when Ms Margarite was going to cry because her bottom lip would tremble. Whenever they got her tears going, the boy would holler with triumph and bang on their desk like sadistic tribesmen, and the girls would either laugh along or more often just chatter to themselves. Order would only be resumed once Mr Knight had burst in, rubbed Ms Margarite’s shoulders and barked at the class that “you little bastards are all going to hell.”

Bertie would wait a week or two to let Ms Margarite grow back her confidence, and then the spectacle would repeat again, and again, until she finally broke. It takes a great deal of effort for a child to be mentioned by name in a teacher’s suicide note, but Bertie and his traumatising member had pulled it off.

Derek regarded him with scorn. If he didn’t stop sweating and at least open the exam paper in front of him, Bertie was going to get himself killed, and Derek didn’t need that kind of attention. They only had until last bell at three to finish and the consequences of failure were the empty little desks surrounding them. Bertie turned to him, sorrowful snot bubbles growing and shrinking from his nostrils in harmony with his shallow breaths. Bertie nodded his head towards the classroom door and he mouthed “run for it?” Derek shook his head, nodded at the paper in front of Bertie and returned to his own.

To what extent were the terms of the Treaty of Versailles responsible for the outbreak of the Second World War?

Derek began scribbling in earnest, machine-gunning facts and figures and dates to the page and was just rounding off his second mention of the Munich Putsch when a balled bit of paper bounced off his chest and onto his desk. He covered it with his hand as Dr Montgomery lifted his head with a snort, his small black eyes peering at them, a small flap of salmon flesh hanging from the side of his mouth. Derek kept his hand cupped firmly over the piece of paper and returned to his writing. He knew better than to return the gaze of Dr Montgomery; he never blinked and if his tiny black marbles saw trouble on you, well… He only hoped Bertie had the good sense to also keep his head down. After a short but agonising pause, he heard the familiar whinging creak, and wet tearing sound of Dr Montgomery returning to his meal.

He shot the filthiest daggers he could muster at Bertie. He would be damned if he was going to let Bertie get him killed as well. Bertie nodded frantically at the piece of paper, his eyes bulging out of their sockets. Derek manoeuvred the little ball in front of his pencil case and stretched it out with his fingers, his writing hand still making the ghost of pencilling motions. He laid the piece of paper flat and the message on it read:

We need to do summit!!

The do summit was underlined three times. Derek surreptitiously turned over the piece of paper, brought it to where his writing hand was hovering over the page and scrawled a message on the back of the paper. Then, safely obscured behind his pencil case, Derek held his reply up for Bertie to read.

Why don’t you show him your dick?

He had underlined your dick three times.

Bertie shot daggers at him, and started to send shifty, nervous glances towards the door. Derek kept his head down and starting writing. Bertie was going to get himself killed.

Still, Derek couldn’t shake the fact that the idiot might be right. Something would have to be done eventually. Dr Montgomery had eaten all but three of his classmates. Only he, Bertie, Simon Fleet and Sally Wilkinson remained from class 11C. Derek was just about keeping his head above water, but his grades weren’t anything special. In fact, they were slipping. The chilling threat of his life being scratched out from inside him made studying near impossible. His mind just wouldn’t work.

Hell, if you’d have taken Gareth Yates in conversation about any of the intricate stuff – maths, chemistry, all that tricksy numbers and dots shit – he could’ve rattled until midnight, but, like Derek, he froze up under pressure, and was one of the first to bite it, or to be more specific, get bit.

Either way, the dates and names were all starting to blur for Derek and, locked away in his bedroom each night, he would find himself reading and re-reading the same sentences for hours, the thought of Dr Montgomery’s tiny black eyes resetting his thoughts over and over and, well, maybe he would have to do summit.

A few rows ahead of him, Simon raised his hand. He had finished first. He always had, even when his competition numbered more than three. Dr Montgomery lifted his head from his now skeletal salmon and snorted a hot breath of air in the direction of the raised hand. Simon sprang to his feet, paper in hand, and gently laid it on Dr Montgomery’s desk before taking his place in the red corner. He had all the righteous smug of the bullied. This was his time. The hierarchy of the playground had fallen on its tits and his tormenters were at the bottom of the food chain.

Derek’s speciality was un-undoable knots. He had often tied Simon to the school railings by his tie before school and, when first bell rang, he would walk away, leaving him squirrelling at the knot in a nasal frenzy as everyone went in for the register. Sometimes the teachers came to get him with scissors, sometimes they marked him down as absent and moved on, and no one ever helped him. No one. Not even the nice kids, because Simon wasn’t your average path-of-least-resistance target; there was just something so hatefully smarter-than-thou about this little punk, like he went looking for the scorn, like he expected to be treated like shit, wanted it because that’s what he thought his intelligence deserved from dumb shits like Derek.

And now he stood there, smirking in the red corner, knowing he’d sailed it. He always would, and it must’ve given him a little tingle, knowing that the smarts were on top and the meatheads were getting chewed.

Dr Montgomery examined the test paper, tiny black eyes peering at it over spectacles that had been fixed by nails to his temples. His breathing rasped, and his fur steamed in the afternoon heat of the classroom. Simon waited patiently, but Derek saw the unmistakable glimmer in his eyes. Simon would drink in moments like these, his heady glee the same shade of joy that Bertie had always exhibited mid-cockout. It was a rare, private triumph that came with knowing your exact position within the malformed social colony of the schoolyard, and liking it.

Simon caught his eye and played a fingertip along some of the red that made up the red corner. Some of it was still wet and sticky, and Simon teased it between his thumb and forefinger, never breaking Derek’s gaze. Was that Lewis, Samantha, the Hennessy girl who’d just transferred in from Westbridge? Simon didn’t care, they were all just red now. As Simon had once muttered to Derek a few days ago when they arrived the school gates together:

“It’s not hard, Derek. Be well-read, or be…well… red.”

Dr Montgomery snorted, and tore the exam paper to shreds with his long scissor-blade claws. He inhaled the white scraps with a huge huff, and pointed towards the door. Simon had passed history, just as he knew he would and, giving Derek a final sideways glance, strode out of the class. Dr Montgomery took the skeletal remains of the fish in his claws and munched them down like twiglets, before picking out another from the salmon basket and feasting again, head hung low, mortar board obscuring his gaze. Derek’s kept his eye on the door. Simon had left it ajar ever so slightly. Perhaps if Derek just ran for it… Maybe Simon’s successful paper and a feast of salmon had put Dr Montgomery in a lenient mood, if he had a lenient mood. Derek had given up trying to infer the Doctor’s intentions from whether or not he had eaten salmon. He used to think that it calmed him, and that a post-salmon malaise might provide Derek with the window he needed, but it was impossible to predict Dr Montgomery’s behaviour. After killing Lewis – when he was placid – he had eaten salmon. However, before killing Lewis – when he was furious – he had also eaten salmon, so Derek wasn’t sure. Maybe if he–

A terrible snort rocked the classroom, followed by a choking sound. Derek looked up. Dr Montgomery had inhaled his mortar board’s tassel. With a burst of motion, Bertie shot to his feet, knocking his desk aside, which clattered into the empty desk to the right. He sprinted up the classroom, slammed open the door and ran, his footsteps echoing on the linoleum floor of the hallway. Dr Montgomery let out an ear-splitting screech, and two leathery flaps of skin, ridged with bone to make wings, extended from under his teacher’s gown. He flew out of the classroom in a blur, the flapping of wings echoing after Bertie’s clopping footsteps. Any rebellious urges Derek had felt instantly evaporated, and was turning his mind back to his paper, when he received a small tap on the shoulder.

It was Sally Wilkinson, a small, mousey girl with a shock of thick freckles whose desk was directly behind his. They had never really spoken before. Sally belonged to the vaguely-defined subclass of schoolmates who were just there. Inoffensive, unbullied, generally unregarded, Sally’s sort creeped Derek out. They were the kind of people who probably had notebooks at home filled with charcoal drawings of amputations or something. He had seen Sally talking with Charlotte Hawkins a couple of times, but she had been the second girl to go, and since then Derek had never heard her speak a second word. She looked at him now with a look of nervous panic, then lent forward and kissed him.

It was awkward. She was lent, half-standing half-crouching over her desk, straining to reach him, and only caught a glancing kiss to the corner of his mouth. She lent over further and adjusted her head to kiss him full on the mouth, her tongue slipping into his mouth where it sat like a beached seal. After a few seconds she returned to her seat, wiping her mouth and not meeting his confused glare.

“What was that for?” stammered Derek.

She looked up at him, just for a moment, her eyes welling with tears.

“I’m not very good at history” she whispered, and returned to her paper as a scream echoed in the hallway. Bertie screamed at the top of his lungs, before the sound was cut off by a wet ripping, a crunch, and then silence. Derek regarded his lonely upturned desk, and permitted himself one last thought of Bertie in his prime, willy free, wearing the squeals and whoops of his classmates like a red cape. Then he returned to history.

Dr Montgomery entered to the classroom, mortar board slightly askew, a thin flap of sweaty skin hanging from his teeth. As it caught the light streaming through the window blinds it glistened, like the innards of a peach. With a slurp, it disappeared behind Dr Montgomery’s thresh of teeth and, with a creak, their teacher retook his seat at the head of the class. Behind him, Derek heard the barely audible gasping of Sally Wilkinson bursting into silent tears. He didn’t look around.

The next twenty minutes were a waking nightmare, the clock hurtled towards three with scant regard for Derek’s deteriorating mind. Every fact he had ever read was compressing itself inside his head, deflating, crumpling into a worthless mass of gibberish. He threw a glance to the clock every minute, and every minute was aghast to discover that two minutes had passed. He scribbled and scribbled, trying and failing to ignore the wet smacks of flesh emanating from Dr Montgomery’s desk. He knew this stuff. He knew it, but the grim spectre of Dr Montgomery and every possible cruelty that could be enacted upon his fragile future, they all held a whisk to his brain and turned the handle.

Derek sweated and scribbled until the clock finally ticked its way to three. Dr Montgomery rose on his hind hooves and barked. Derek placed his pencil back in its case and heard Sally do the same behind him. He rose to his feet and, wavering slightly, walked the aisle of empty desks until he was stood within a foot of Dr Montgomery’s desk. The air at the head of the classroom reeked off blood, mothballs and chalk dust, and Derek felt a slight curl of vomit tickle the base of his throat. He placed his paper before the tiny black eyes of his teacher and took his place in the red corner.

The first child to stand in the red corner – it was pale yellow back then, the faded friendly paint of the classroom walls – was Gwen Frisk. It was Dr Montgomery’s first day as their teacher, and everyone’s first day back at school after a suitably proper ‘leave of reflection’, awarded them in the wake of Ms Margarite’s passing. They had taken their seats and the boys were already making crude jokes about the recently departed, the leave of reflection a perfect amount of time to refine a comedy routine about a dead teacher. Though he hadn’t yet arrived Dr Montgomery was written on the blackboard in chalk, above a symbol that no one in class recognised. Bobby Danner said it might have been a rune, but no one really cared. The girls were anxious for a catch-up chat, and the boys were anxious to ask Bertie what it was like to be a killer.

Derek was half-heartedly listening to Gregory Watts egg Bertie to get his cock out for the new teacher, when the new teacher walked in, his hooves clopping on the classroom’s lino. The class went silent, waiting for an explanation that never came, the urge to whisper suddenly stifled by those scissor-blade claws. When register was taken and Bertie’s name was called, his cock stayed in his pants.

Their first exam was English Lit. Since most kids were of the opinion, I Speak English So… the exam itself was a half-hearted affair. Everyone was itching for the first day to be done so they could swap theories about who or what Dr Montgomery was. At pencils down, their teacher has risen on his hind hooves and barked so loud that one of the girls in the back squealed. A few of the boys giggled, but that petered out sharpish when Dr Montgomery pointed a claw at Gwen Frisk. With a snort, a second claw tapped at his desk, scratching a groove into the wood. Gwen rose, slowly, and trying to decipher the actions of the hairy creature in a teacher’s gown, placed her paper in front of him. Dr Montgomery gestured to the corner and Gwen stood there, confused, irritated but respectfully silent as he scrutinised her work, rolling her eyes at her girlfriends. When he was done, Dr Montgomery’s cut her paper into pieces, inhaled them with a snort and opened Gwen’s belly across her waist.

They lost a third of their class that day.

Derek stood now in the red corner, the gummy red sticking to the soles of his shoes with an unpleasant pulling sensation. He shuffled nervously, muffled schlacks accompanying each lift of his feet. He looked over at Dr Montgomery, tiny black eyes absorbing every fact about Hitler, Himmler, Hindenburg and anything else Derek had managed to jot down in time. His heart was racing, he didn’t know what to do with his hands and Sally Wilkinson kept looking at him. He blinked and looked away, then looked back. She was still at her desk, her paper clutched in her hands, her little eyes dropping tears down her cheeks, leaping from freckle to freckle like stepping stones. He wanted to kiss her again. He looked away.

A ripping sound indicated that Dr Montgomery was finished with his paper. The blades of his fingers tore through his work, reduced his facts and figures to a clump of confetti and sucked it up with a snuffle. He extended a blade to the door and Derek’s heart leapt. It had been enough. He practically ran out of the classroom, turning back only when he’d reached the hallway. Sally was placing her exam on the claw-marked desk. He waited for her to look at him. He mouthed “I’ll wait for you” and walked away, forming plans in his head about kissing her again, one of those hollywood kisses with leaning and face-holding.

Derek waited at the school gates for an hour before calling it quits.

When he got home, his mother didn’t ask him how school had been, she didn’t even ask him why he was late. She just hugged him and whispered “I’m so proud of you, my darling.”

They sat down to dinner in silence, the thin clanking of cutlery overlaid by some classical shit his mother insisted accompany every dinner. Derek wasn’t particularly hungry, but wolfed it down anyway. It was one of his favourites – homemade yorkshire pudding filled with baked beans and topped with melted cheese. He had been eating a lot of his favourite meals recently, all of them placed down before him with an apologetic little glance by his mother.

During the school’s leave of reflection, when the children were out in droves, toasting Ms Margarite on the back of a dozen little daytime adventures, the parents and the school faculty had met in secret to discuss the problem of 11C. The school’s gymnasium had been appropriated for the cabal, rows upon rows of fretting mums and bristling dads sat in the stands, their attention commandeered by a series of trestle tables arranged on the gym floor, at which sat the school’s most senior figures.

Headmaster Bob Curtis, a staunchly religious man with the sort of posture you could trace with a ruler, gestured for silence. The nervous chatter died away and talk began.

Everyone was concerned. Exam season was just around the corner and everyone knew how important exams were. Mrs Forbrusque, the head of the upper sixth nodded her head sagely and reminded everyone that exams were very important, prompting Mr Carter, head of the lower sixth to remind everyone that exams were indeed very important. Bob Curtis gestured for silence. Once he had it, he was careful to impress upon the assembled parents that exams were very important, and that with this in mind, he had a scheme he wished to propose. Everyone, he explained, knew that he was a godly man, and he was willing, if the parents agreed, to bring one of his gods on staff.

There was an awkward silence, followed by a faint dribble of uneasy chatter. Bob Curtis again gestured for silence, which was of course afforded to him, and assured the mums and dads present that “the fellow is tough, but fair, and has a pass rate of one hundred percent.”

The chatter that followed this pronouncement was a lot more animated and dozens of parents could be seen mouthing “one hundred percent” to their partner accompanied by did-you-hear-that eyes.

Bob Curtis once again summoned silence with a raise of his hand, before placing an ornate walnut-coloured case on the table in front of him. He opened the case to reveal a large silver knife with a opal handle resting on a small purple cushion. The air tensed when he took it in his hand and he continued by saying that sacrifices must be made, for the children’s future. At the end of the row of tables, Mr Knight put up his hand to volunteer. Mr Knight had been awfully quiet since Ms Margarite died. Bob Curtis nodded curtly to him, turned to the sea of parents and proposed a vote. Derek’s father was one of the first to raise his hand and, before long, every mum and every dad had raised their hand in support because, after all, exams were very important. Mr Knight rose from his chair and laid prostrate across the trestle table in front of the headmaster.

Derek cleaved apart the last piece of yorkshire pudding, soggy with orange juices and popped it into his mouth.

“Last one tomorrow” his father grumbled.

“Yup” replied Derek, with his mouth full.

“What is it?”

“Chemistry.” There was a pause, the only sounds in the air some faint Rachmaninov and Derek’s chewing.

“You’re not good at chemistry, are you?” said his dad, not looking up from his plate.

“No.” replied Derek. His mother rose from the table, napkin held to her mouth, and left the room. His father, who had never admitted fault in his life, returned to his dinner.

Derek lay in bed after a number of hours of futile revision. Polymers, cathodes, CH4 and various equations rushed in and out of his mind without stopping for breath. The only thing that took hold of him, the only thing that he could think of was Sally Wilkinson in the red corner. He thought of her still, as he laid in bed, unable to sleep. He thought about running away but remembered what happened to the Wilson brothers.

They and a handful other kids had not returned to class the morning after English Lit. They had asked Derek to come with them, said they’d just hide out in the woods a few days until the police sorted this whole mess out. Derek was close with the Wilsons, being one of the only people in school who could tell them apart. He said he’d think about it. The next day, their absences were scratched into the register by Dr Montgomery, and nothing more. Derek wished he’d taken the Wilsons up on their offer after the Physics exam, when 11C shrank by five. However, when he returned to the classroom after lunch, he saw, lined up on Dr Montgomery’s desk, a row of heads, including two that nobody in the room but Derek could tell apart.

He stared up at his bedroom ceiling and decided against running. He would just have to take his chances in the red corner like everyone else. He tried to list the inert gases of the periodic table in his head. He got some of them, not all of them.

The next morning was cold, a sheet of grey smothering the sky with a ruffled pattern of rain-pregnant cloud. Derek’s father had left for work before he got up, and his mother has said goodbye to him with a hug and his favourite lunch, which he’d already eaten before reaching the school gates. He still had a couple of minutes before first bell and stood there for a while, trying to think about important things but only thinking about things like what TV shows he was going to miss. He wasn’t bothered by the other children; since their numbers had started dwindling no one talked to the 11C kids, just in case Dr Montgomery was catching.

“Chemical formulation of propene?” spoke a gummy voice behind him. Simon had sidled up behind him, the two survivors of 11C, alone at last. Derek regarded him cooly, trying to suppress the nervous tremor in his hands by stuffing them into his pockets. Simon continued, “How do you crack a hydrocarbon?” smiling a knowing smile. Simon was a chatty little fuck with no regard for other people’s stress. He’d always jumble people’s thoughts by prodding them for answers before an exam, and piqued their self-doubt immediately after, a loud voice barking at shell-shocked children: “did you get x for question 2?” etc.

Derek tried to ignore him and walked further along the railings, determined not to let Simon occupy what could very well be his last moments. He had no idea how to crack a hydrocarbon, but he had a solid grasp of how to crack Simon’s head open if it came to it. He kicked the railing in frustration, because Simon had indeed slipped an egg into his mind and he was going to be thinking of pissing hydrocarbons all the way to his desk. He had perfectly lovely things he should be thinking about, like breaking windows with the Wilsons, cooking pancakes with his mother, whenever his father was in a good mood and would sneak him a beer from the fridge, or Sally Wilkinson and her freckles, but the mystery of hydrocarbons filled him with a cool fear and his hands were shaking again.

“I’m hopeless at the inert gases” said Simon, before proceeding to list each and every one of the inert gases. Derek’s insides were tightening.

“Please, Simon, just fuck off.” He failed to hide the wobble from voice, his pitch squeaking slightly, which set Simon into a minor fit of giggling.

“It’s just you and me, isn’t it?” said Simon when his titters had dissipated. “Wouldn’t it be great if we had him again next year? They should move us all into one class and he would gobble them up one by one” he giggled some more, he eyes lighting up with a cruel energy as he pointed out other members of year 11. “Him. And Her. Definitely him.” He pointed them out one by one and, as he did so, Derek couldn’t shake the thought that one day people like Simon would run the world, and that their bullied schoolboy resentment would not die in the schoolyard.

First bell rang out, and Derek, still dizzy with rage, began violently tucking his shirt into his waistband, preparing for the walk to class, when Simon said the one thing he dearly ought to have kept to himself.

“All of them, gobbled up, just like Collins, Lewis, and that silly bitch, Wilkinson.”

Simon knew the boiling point of a hundred different elements, but he didn’t know Derek’s, and gave out a startled little yelp when he found himself grabbed by his florid tie and tied via an unbreakable knot to the nearest railing. Simon’s face flushed with anger and kicked out at Derek who sidestepped his little flail and brought the neck-knot of the tie right up to Simon’s throat, pulling it taut, preventing him from pulling the tie over his head. Simon squealed again as Derek walked away to class. The schoolyard was thinning out rapidly and no one was coming to help the hogtied Simon. A fierce string of expletives followed Derek into the school’s main hallway, until the animated clatter of children drowned him out.

Derek sat alone, the only child in a field of empty desks. Two of them had exam papers on them – his and Simon’s – and Dr Montgomery’s tiny black eyes slowly moved to regard Simon’s absence. He then grunted a grunt that bore a slight similarity in cadence to Derek’s name.

“Here, sir” replied Derek. Simon’s name followed, and went unanswered. Dr Montgomery howled a pitched cry that pierced right to Derek’s core, before extending his flesh-coloured wings with thick flap, and flying out of the room with another hell-rent shriek. Maybe Dr Montgomery would free Simon and come back for him, punishment flying on bone-rimmed wings, or maybe he wouldn’t care for Simon’s excuses. It didn’t matter to Derek. He flicked through the exam paper in front of him and confirmed that he could indeed answer none of it. Question 5 seemed to be all about cracking hydrocarbons.

Derek took to his feet, clambered onto his desk, undid his trouser buttons and pulled his pantline down with both thumbs. The light of the morning felt warm and pleasant on his liberated genitals and, for the briefest of moments, the sound of wings returning to the classroom was subsumed by the roars of his classmates. Derek closed his eyes and the classroom was whole again; the Wilsons, Bertie, Sally, all of them lending voice to a schoolyard chorus of delight and disgust, a tiny little memory of youth.

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One thought on “Exam

  1. I was noticing quite a bit of quasi-poetic constructions and a few hints of cynghanedd (or other non-cynghanedd types of alliteration) in the first (or indeed, non-first) paragraph(s): “bracket … creaked”; “thick strips”; “flesh from”; “mortar board”; “sticky … pink”; “adulated disgust”. It reminds me of the “thick pink bulk” of a deceased pig in Ted Hughes’s poem. Thusly the human condition, albeit transient in the briefest of senses when compared with the unimaginable vastness of the passage of time since the abolition of the dinosaurs, is nevertheless coloured and enriched on its minuscule path by the wonders of such artistic expression as is displayed so vobulously and frasmotically by this elaborately constructed passage of phonemes and morphemes, mashed, stewed and cooked to perfection by the brain-power of the author. Compunctuous contrafibularities to the architect for composing such a trans-globular pattern of pixelated photons on the humble screen of my armadillo. That’s what it would be called if we had the same word for “laptop” and armadillo”, notwithstanding that we don’t.

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