Thursday 13 December 2007 was one of those days that changed Houghton Lower School for a good many years to come. Miss Samantha Davis, the student placement working with Mrs Elaine Smythe in Year 3’s Kingfishers class turned entirely from teaching into bereavement counselling.
Ms Kelly Norris, stand in teacher for Mrs Smythe, never taught at Compton again and the Board of Governors finally achieved at a long-standing ambition to convince the Local Council that traffic on Norton Road was an accident waiting to happen, with works on a pedestrian crossing and associated school crossing signage duly completed prior to spring half-term in 2008.
The school itself broke up early that year and Christmas for the entire school community would be remembered for a very long time. For some life would never quite be the same.
The school day had been an extraordinarily successful one, with rehearsals for the nativity play scheduled for the following Wednesday being exemplary. The whole school was positively buzzing with that end of term euphoria leading away from school work and culminating with the ever popular Christmas disco. One featuring a guest appearance by Santa himself on the last day of term.
The Year 3 Kingfishers sat crossed legged on the form room floor. The chairs had temporarily been borrowed by the Caretaker for seating at the end of term service the following day. Mrs Smythe was absent and attending a team leadership course with Mr Richmond, the Deputy Head. The temporary class teacher, Ms Kelly Norris, was finalising the day and holding a class meeting to discuss the nativity play and an important road safety letter addressed to parents.
To these ends the discussion had moved into the correct way to exit the school and cross the road to the bus stop on the other side. It was an exercise all the Year 3 and 4’s were largely familiar with. Ms Norris stood up and moved to sit on the edge of her temporary desk and peered over some spectacles. Several children subsequently tried desperately not to giggle; an effect not missed by the stand in teacher, mostly because it was deliberate and preempted knowing she was about to become the butt of a joke. Normally, this factual foresight would leave her deploying avoidance tactics, but she so enjoyed the infectious smiles of the LeSage twins it was impossible not to roll with it.
She bit her lip. “Chloe, can you tell the class what you might look out for when crossing the road?”
“Yes Miss,” replied Emily.
The over glass peer flicked between Chloe and Emily. Ms Norris had worked with this class several times and still had no idea which twin was which. Even now there were those sublime smiles in unison saying “Miss, you really have no idea who said yes do you?” Nevertheless, she was going to have one last go. Her gaze dropped neatly onto the twin that had spoken.
“I was speaking to Chloe, Emily.”
“But Miss, I’m Emily,” said Chloe.
Dammit thought Ms Norris not a clue, if they were just not so cute. She gave a resigned smile and continued.
“Very well, can you tell us what the first thing you do before crossing the road?”
“Easy,” said the real Chloe, “go to Olly the Lolly and wait for him to stop the cars.”
Olly worked for the Local Council looking after the crematorium grounds and was their part-time Lollipop Man. He was actually a David, who preferred Dave, but being child friendly was quite fond of the children’s nickname. Besides, if it helped road-safety then it was fine by him. Today something unexpected had occurred and a strange phone call had delayed him, traffic was an unusual bitch and he was running late.
Ms Norris rolled her eyes above the lenses and waited for the inevitable giggles to start again, which of course they did. First by Thomas Grays who had spent an entire term talking to the wrong twin, much to general amusement. Since that point the twins had labelled their bags with a “C” or an “E” to avoid confusion, except when they swapped bags when it didn’t. Thomas had taken it in excellent humour, but like Ms Norris, had developed a degree of uncertainty that after today followed him throughout his adult life.
From him it rippled round the class until the LeSage twins finally broke into the sort of broad smiles and laughs that just make even the most stoic of people sit up and join in. Ms Norris was no exception and soon the whole group was in one of those hysterical giggling fits in which no-one can quite pinpoint what was so funny in the first place.
Ms Davis, quietly sat at the back observing, always amazed by teaching Key Stages 1 and 2. It seemed to her an absolute privilege to be working alongside colleagues that so enjoyed what they were doing with children at an age where wonder and innocence still held sway over prejudice and adolescence where it all, well, changes and growing up moves the goal posts.
As for the twins, it was early in her teacher training and she was entirely captivated by their vitality for life. The infectious personalities that drew in friends and enthralled teachers alike. Handful, for sure, in their teens and would cause more than one broken heart; if, of course, they could actually separate enough to actually let the other have a boyfriend and if not, she blinked and wiped away the laughter tears, Samantha, you are a trainee teacher and that thought is entirely inappropriate!
The discussion got no further forward as the end of day bell echoed round the school. Still, chuckling Ms Norris stood up.
“Don’t forget your book bags, important road safety letter inside and Mrs Smythe will be back by lunch tomorrow so you are stuck with me in the morning. For those crossing the road, wait to be dismissed at the gate by the teacher on duty and for those crossing the road please look both ways and wait for Olly to stop the traffic before crossing.”
She felt the giggles rise again at the mere mention of Olly, this is one hell of a class.
Chloe and Emily picked up their things and exited the school by the rear door together.
“Elly, do you know if Dad’s home early tonight as I think we should go out for tea, maybe pizza or something. I love mum to bits but we need to learn to cook ‘cos she is rubbish.”
They had almost reached the front gate. Mr Mathews was directing operations.
“Not sure, I think so. Pizza sounds good and I reckon it will be easier to persuade Dad so we should ask him first so Mum can’t say she has already said no.”
They both laughed, broad smiles greeting on-looking parents waiting for reception and year 1 and 2 children. They were entirely aware a smily united front got them what they wanted most of the time.
Mr Mathews tapped their heads, “You two can go, bus is on time watch the road while crossing.”
Automatic words and actions. Mr Mathews never did gate duty again.
The girls turned left and began the short walk to where the crossing point was. They never ran here on account of the strict messages from school, in particular Mrs Smythe, who often stated a trip or stumble could send you into the road and in front of a vehicle that might not be able to stop. Olly was there waiting to hold up the traffic.
Emily looked up, that’s not Olly she thought, he’s too tall. Her world began to slow down.
The Not Olly smiled, beckoned them on and began to stride into the road bearing the big circular STOP sign with the pictorial children.
“C’mon Sis,” Chloe grabbed her hand. “Olly’s stopped the traffic.”
Emily moved forwards, eyes on the Not Olly. Something was off, not wrong as such but off.
Dave, meanwhile had parked his car in the space just in front of the bus waiting for its filling of children from Houghton Lower. He was rummaging in the back of his council van and donning his bright yellow-green Olly jacket. Bloody traffic just stopped for no apparent reason and now he was behind schedule.
The girls were now at the crossing point. The Not Ollie indicated it was clear to cross. Chloe, as always, was first to move. Emily was about to follow but her world was turning to treacle. She heard an unmistakable voice;
“Emily Louise LeSage.”
She felt hairs on the back of her neck bristle and… cold, she was suddenly icy cold. If ever there was that feeling of someone walking over your grave, this was it. She paused and turned looking for the owner. Chloe’s fingers slipped out of her grasp as she continued to cross. Emily shrugged off the voice, must be my imagination.
She turned back to the road to follow her sibling and at that point everything changed. She looked toward her sister through eyes that were no longer perceiving things at full speed. Chloe was part way across, back to oncoming traffic and staring at the Not Olly who was just… not there anymore. Emily’s peripheral vision picked up a red Ford Escort van with “West Builders & Sons” stencilled on the side. It was not slowing down.
She could hear warning screams from people nearer the school. Chloe looked very pale, eyes wide – almost as if she had seen a ghost or, she thought with a touch of deja vu, somethings walked over your grave. She could smell fumes of rubber as the vans tyres locked looking for grip on the tarmac.
Inside the van two men sat open-mouthed shouting. She noted one drop a mobile phone and a cigarette slump downwards, released from a mouth that was now shaped like a big “O.”
In front of her Chloe’s body buckled as the van plunged into her hips. Her back arched and there was a short scream, the like of which Emily never wanted to ever hear again. Chloe was scooped onto the bonnet and disappeared over the driver’s side of the van. Crashing unseen, by Emily, onto the floor near a pothole previously reported by Dave, and awaiting Council repair.
Emily blinked in disbelief. She could hear shouting, screaming and van man crying in shock, “She just stepped off the curb.”
There was a clang as the big Olly pole Dave had at the ready on the other side of the road fell from his grip. It was fortunate Chloe was out of her sisters sight. Not so for Dave, who resigned his duties as Olly that same day and spent his remaining working life at the crematorium a broken man.
Emily was stuck shaking. Her hand still warm from where Chloe was holding it not seconds before. Her sister’s book bag was right there waiting for her to pick it up again when she got up. Their were people milling, adults and children alike screaming and running about. Someone sensible was calling the emergency services on a mobile. Mr Mathews was ushering children back into the school.
Thomas Grays mum, Rose, was first to reach Emily. With tears streaming down her face she scooped her into her arms trying desperately to stop Emily from thinking of walking to the van to reach her sister. Rose picked her up and turned back to the school. For no particular reason little Thomas, ashen, pale and crying picked up both Emily and Chloe’s book bags and followed his mum watching the world pass around him in a whirl of disconnected images.
Rose reached the staff room and sat down rocking Emily. It was deathly quiet. From his office the Head made the worst phone call of his life, staring out of a window overlooking Norton Road. He could hear the sound of sirens drawing closer, see students, staff and parents in bits all over the playground. He knew in his staff room there was a child that had just witnessed a horrific accident involving not just a friend but an identical twin sister. For some reason he also knew she was dead and the rush of paramedics to the scene was not going to change that.
He also knew he would not work here anymore.
In the staff room Emily could feel her heart beating like it was going to break, her mind could see Not Olly laughing. She watched her sisters body break over the van again and again like some film stuck on a repeating gore sequence. She felt sick, she could hear Chloe’s ungodly scream in each repeat and behind that, Don’t leave me sis. Distant and plaintive. She would hear this voice many, many times. She was suddenly aware she was not crying. And that was when she shut down and her world went black.
She awoke several hours later under observation in some hospital or other. It was several weeks before she spoke. But she heard, and the words were always “Don’t leave me sis.” That and something about post traumatic stress and strange people in pediatric wards opening and shutting their mouths like van man, but she just stepped off the curb. It was like an awake coma, moving from here to there in automatic gear. Some tube pumping stuff into her stomach. She later discovered she was apparently being force-fed. Don’t leave me sis and Not Olly laughing.
It was after the following summer half-term that she bravely entered Houghton Lower again. She only did this for one week and never moved from the desk she once shared with Chloe. Her hazel eyes no longer rich in the vitality of life once commented on in the staff room by the now missing Kelly Norris. No longer was there the infectious smile and witty banter. In fact reflecting back Mrs Smythe could not actually recollect hearing her say anything at all, but it was the child’s eyes that scared her the most. They were truly haunted and in a different place. You could look into them and see the depths of an abyss from which you might never escape.
It was the saddest week Mrs Smythe ever endured.
The LeSage family moved that summer.
© G Jefferies and Fictionisfood, 2016. All rights reserved.