The December Incident

Neil Whitfield

December 1976, England

A heavy snow was falling. The wind crept through the gutters and cried through the eaves, wrapping the old buildings in a shroud of grit and ice. The millstone walls looked gaunt in the listless winter light. The windows, heavy-lidded with lintels of immutable rock, looked down on the snowbound lawn with a resigned sadness. High in the main house, above the gothic lacerations of the grand architrave, a sallow face stared out into the swirling white.

“Sixty years,” the deputy headmaster took a sip of instant coffee and a drag from a cigarette. “Sixty years, man and boy, I’ve been at this school and I’ve never seen the likes of this. It’s like the end of days.”

“You’re cheerful this morning,” said Mrs. Crabtree brightly, turning the page of her newspaper.

“It’s grand Yorkshire weather, Dave,” said Mr. Vine, the head of English, “and it has its benefits. The busses from Rochdale, Skipton, and Ilkley have already telephoned the office: there’s no way they’re getting over the moors. If I were a betting man, which I am, I’d say half the boys in town will blob as well. They only need half an excuse not to walk up the hill.”

“Fine by me,” said Mrs. Crabtree.

“It sounds like there’ll be more teachers than pupils today,” said the deputy headmaster wearily, extinguishing his cigarette and turning away from the cold glass, “but that doesn’t negate our responsibility as educators. It may be the last day of term but term-time it undoubtedly still is. So that includes those of you,” his eyes to Mrs. Crabtree “who intend to allow the boys to play games or listen to the wireless,” he straightened his tie, “and I’ll thank you to address me as Mr. Sewell when we’re on school premises.” He left the room.

“Aye-aye, Captain,” said Mr. Vine as the staffroom door clicked home.

“What’s his problem?” asked Mrs. Crabtree.

“The headmaster is snowed-in at Harrogate which means Sewell is in charge. So he’s got a broomstick up his arse.”

“Clearly,” she agreed.

“And… y’know…” he added slowly, “it’s the 21st.”

The pupils began to arrive in small groups. A few walked from the nearby villages, cocooned in duffle coats and thick-knitted scarves. Some of the local farmers brought the boys up from Oerdale in batches, ten at a time, huddled on the flatbeds of Landrovers, their cargo arriving at the school gates dusted white and inches from fever.

“Nowt like a bit of Dunkirk spirit!” the drivers shouted as the half-dead teenagers shuffled miserably into the building.

Inside, the school was no more welcoming. Gone was the usual cacophony of gathering children, replaced by the echoes of too few feet in too big a hall. The boiler fought against the relentless cold, offering barely enough warmth to melt the spirals of frost from the window panes. The pipes boomed rhythmically as the pressure spiked and fell, shaking through the building like the last beats of a dying heart. The boys made their way quietly to their lessons as the school bell rang, their spirits subdued by the chill of the meltwater in their woollen blazers.

An excruciating quiet. The school felt purgatorial; uptight like an exam room with no questions. A hospital at night. The scrape of chairs; the syncopated tick of several wrong clocks. There was no chatter or excitement, no talk of Christmas just three days away. When the break bell rang at ten o’clock, a few boys ran to the snow, thrilled by the novelty and extremity of it. But most did not, deterred by the blizzard that scratched at the high windows like a ravenous animal, desperate to get in. As the last of his physics class left his room, Mr. Sewell lit a cigarette and began to prepare for his next lesson.

“Sir! Sir!” it was Perry, a fifth-year, running in from the hall, his coat and shoes crusted with thick snow, “Sir, the football pitch – you need to come now, Sir!”

The cat was dead, hanging from the goal by its neck. A group of boys stood around it, fascinated. One prodded it with a ruler.

“Is that really necessary, Harris?”

“I was seeing if it was dead, Sir.”

“Of course it’s dead, boy. The only living things stupid enough to stay out in this weather are you idiots. Please, all of you, clear off.” A moment of hesitation. “Now!” he shouted, and the boys dispersed. Mrs. Crabtree was there, a bobble-hat pulled down over her ears.

“Do you suppose it got itself trapped and froze?” she asked as Mr. Sewell pulled at the netting, working the animal loose.

“There is no such thing as an accident,” he grumbled.

“Maybe someone found it dead and hung it there to be helpful… you know… so Mr. Cruikshank would find it?”

“I don’t care to theorize, Cathrine,” he said, holding the corpse by its frozen pelt, “it makes little difference to the outcome.”

“Should I call the vet? To dispose of it?”

“That won’t be necessary,” he turned towards the school house.

“Shame,” said Mrs. Crabtree, shuffling behind him, “we should send a notice. Someone will be missing the poor thing.”

“I’ll deal with it,” he replied, “it’s my cat.”

The boiler room was in the chapel crypt at the far end of the grounds. It had been converted for the most unspiritual reasons: proximity to the water main. Even so, it remained a solemn and brooding chamber; a grim oubliette into which no one, if they could help it, ever set foot.

Fitting, he thought, carrying the cat towards the furnace. It should have been the warmest place in the school but his body shuddered with a deep, pervasive cold. The furnace door was already open, a neat rectangle of raging fire, framed by the blackness. A vision of hell. He wrapped the corpse in a hessian coal sack, then pushed it unceremoniously into the flames.

He saw something as the flesh burned. A face staring back at him, a photograph curling slowly in uncanny defiance of the fire. A face he knew: Max Breare. Mr. Sewell looked down, away. By his feet was a brown cardboard box, one flap open at the top, the other marked in pen with the words:

December Incident, 1962. Do not remove.

The ‘December Incident’. A euphemism. The box should have been locked in the office with the ledgers; what was it doing here? A hand touched his shoulder. He recoiled, turned and screamed.

“Forgive me!” said a familiar voice.

“Jesus Christ, Cruikshank!” Sewell exclaimed, “you frightened the bloody life out of me!”

“Forgive me, Sir, I’ve come down here for my flask,” the caretaker held up a battered Thermos and gestured over his shoulder into the dark at a filthy deck chair, a newspaper, and a miner’s lamp, hidden in the corner. “It’s the only place the little bastards can’t find me,” he explained.

Mr. Sewell took a deep breath and composed himself with a shake of the head. He pointed at the cardboard box.

“What’s going on here?” he asked, “Where did you get this?”

“I’m sorry, Sir?”

“This box. The furnace door was open. Why were you burning these… this… who told you to…”

“Sorry, Sir, I don’t know. I was just at the office. We’ve had a call from town: we’re to send the boys home immediately. I was just collecting my flask and…’’

“Excuse me?”

“The storm is getting worse, Sir. They worry some of the lads will be stuck here overnight.”

“We can’t have that,” said Mr. Sewell absently, his mind elsewhere.

“Johnny Bowden is going to plow the lane so I can get the old bus down, if she starts, but it means someone needs to stay here and close down. You know, for the holidays.”

It took a moment for the deputy headmaster to decode the request.

“Oh! Quite!” he said at last, “Yes. That’s fine, I can do that. No one knows the school better than me.”

“I dare say so, Sir,” said Mr. Cruikshank. The old man nodded his thanks and left with his orders, his flask tucked into the fold of his elbow. Mr. Sewell paused for a moment before closing the furnace door and picking up the box.

It was noon before the last of the teachers left. Mr. Vine drove the final car in the convoy, the vehicle swerving back and forth across the compacted snow like a sloppy drunk. Mr. Sewell watched from the staff room window. Another cigarette, another instant coffee. He tipped the last of the milk down the small sink and rinsed the bottle.

He began the final close-down in the classrooms, straightening the chairs, locking the windows, and emptying the wastebaskets. He turned off the lights and locked the doors as he worked his way systematically from room to room. He topped up the antifreeze in the heating system, cut the gas supply to the kitchens, and watered the plants in the biology lab. By three o’clock, it was already night. The storm still raged, but now instead of swirling white, the outside world was flecks of charcoal grey, tumbling into blackness like a sulphurous spew of volcanic ash. The wind howled down the chimneys and wheezed beneath the classroom doors. The snow drifted deep and buried the driveway completely. The walk home, which would already have been dangerous, would soon be impossible. The idea of being trapped here alone terrified him.

Where is your spine, boy? What are you made of? Stop crying and get on with it!

There was one last job to do, one more place to check: The old dormitory. The school hadn’t had boarders since 1965; they were an expense and a constant labour, and after ‘the December incident’ the school’s reputation had been irreparably diminished. The stairs to the dormitory spiralled upwards through the oldest part of the building like the spire of an old church, driven like a stake through the school’s medieval heart. The ascent was disorientating, unlit.

You’re thinking about it again, aren’t you? You can hear them, can’t you?

You can hear me.

His leather soles scraped on the raw stone. The steps were steep and awkwardly spaced, too short for a full stride, too high to take in pairs. He huffed with the effort, his aging lungs inflamed by the dust and the stale, cold air.

“For God’s sake!” he muttered.

You may have forgiven yourself, Sewell, but we have not.

“God is my judge, not you.”

A tragic accident – isn’t that what you told them?

The staircase ended abruptly at a red door. The old paint flaked along the grain of the wood in vertical lines; a fine dust covered the doorknob.

“I did nothing wrong,” he said indignantly, and threw open the door.

The boys stood by their beds. No mattresses, just rusted springs on old military frames. The oil lamps were lit, flickering with an unnatural blue light as plumes of ice blew in through the broken windows. The boys looked as they had the last time he saw them: young, frightened, drawn, and pale, their skin glistening with a delicate crystalline frost. They had once been such a raucous bunch; the Wormald brothers, Danny Caldwell, Andrew Collier, and the troublemaker, Max Breare.

“You brought it on yourselves!” he told them, just as he had on the morning of December 22, 1962, when he had discovered their bodies.

“You turned off the heating,” said Breare, his lips cracked and frozen, his skin hanging loose from his rotting bones.

“You refused to behave!”

“You made us run in the snow, Sir,” said Caldwell meekly, “with bare feet, in our pyjamas. We were already half-frozen when you locked us in.”

“Boys must learn discipline; all actions have consequences!”

“But what about your actions?” asked Johnny Wormald, the youngest, “what consequence awaits you, Sir?”

“What actions are those, boy? The heating malfunctioned.”

“Not in your quarters it didn’t, Sir,” said Collier.

The boy reached into him. Sewell was beset by visions of death and regret: a heart bristling with arrows, a mother dead on her birthing bed, a black sun sinking into a red sea; the flesh burning away from the face of an old friend. Black bile filled his throat and poured from his mouth, running down to his chest and soaking into his shirt. He knew the truth. He had repeated the lie so often he almost believed it. They had been the cruel ones. The name-calling, the insolence, the marijuana, and the girls, smuggled in at all hours of the night. They had been the abusers.

“It was an accident!” he insisted, “I only meant for you to be uncomfortable. A little chill, that’s all, a bad night’s sleep before a long day… to teach you a lesson… It was an accident!”

“If it was an accident, there would be nobody to blame.” Breare stepped forward into a pool of moonlight, a straight razor unfolded in his hand, “we were children.”

“Okay,” said Sewell, his hands raised.

This is all in your mind, you old fool, an imaginary blade can’t hurt you! This is a madness brought on by the cold and the dark. A paranoid delusion; guilt made real.

Breare slashed forward with the blade. It seared across the soft flesh on Sewell’s hands, splitting the skin and spilling his blood onto the dormitory floor. The pain was real.

“Wait!” he begged, “tell me what you want! I beg you, please! It was my fault, but I swear I meant no harm!” he closed his eyes in prayer, “Father forgive me for I have sinned!”

“It is not his forgiveness you need!” said Breare, “for your cruelty, for what you did, you beg to us.”

“Please!” he said, “Not one day has passed that I would not have exchanged your lives for mine!”

“And not one day will pass that you will find peace. Nor forgiveness. You will spend your eternity unresolved, in this place, just as we have.”

The razor slid across the old man’s throat. His gullet filled with blood, filled his mouth with the taste of rancid iron. He grabbed his neck to stem the bleeding but the blood flowed between his fingers. He fell forward, gasping for air, convulsing to the rhythm of the open artery.

Then suddenly it was black. He lay on the wet floorboards in the falling snow in the silence of a winter’s night. The spectres were gone, his throat was healed, the vision was over. His hands were numb and purple with the cold and he could feel the ice in his nostrils and heavy on his eyelashes. Shivering, he pulled himself to his feet and staggered to the door.

He turned the handle. It was locked, his keys were gone. Come now, syncopated tick of several wrong clocks. Come now, cold fingers of death.

Originally from the UK, Neil Whitfield is a professional writer living and working in New York City. This is his fiction debut.