Hailbury Boarding School, Hertfordshire, September 1974
Tick tock. The pendulum of the clock on the classroom wall beat out an insistent, regular rhythm, reminding everyone of the inevitability of time passing.
The history master at Hailbury always spoke with passion on the large topic of “the past”, passing this on to his students with ease. Rushbrook’s kindly face, crowned with a black thatch of hair, inspired admiration and boundless enthusiasm. Therefore, unsurprisingly, his were the lessons that every teenager in the room most looked forward to.
So it came as even less of a surprise when two hours on the Crimean War whizzed past in a flick of Rufus’ tail and everyone left in stunned silence at Rushbrook’s ability to make an interminable series of battles appear fascinating.
Everyone except Percy. He couldn’t help but get the feeling that there was something different about this man – something unknown. Perhaps a switch had been flicked within him following his sudden engagement to Janet a few weeks previously, which made him more aware of the little things which made people tick. He saw someone far removed from the genteel professor of everybody else’s imaginations – someone sinister.
The clock on the wall continued to swish its pendulum slowly back and forth, back and forth. Rushbrook’s eyes darted furtively around the room, noting the windows, the open door, and the lone student at the back. Gazing quizzically at him, he enunciated ‘Perkison!’ sharply, then picked up his bag and left.
Percy suddenly noticed a dazzlingly white object drifting past the blackboard. It was a sheet of paper, coming to settle on the ground in the aftermath of Rushbrook’s hasty exit. Ever the curious type, forever waiting for adventure to find him, he crossed the room in haste, little believing that what he had spent his lonely childhood longing for was about to meet him head on.
He turned the sheet over. On the other side there appeared to be a series of nonsensical letters put together. Gibberish.
He couldn’t make sense of it. What could it possibly mean? And why would it have been left lying around in a classroom?
Percy then noticed another sound, separate to the ticking of the clock. It was the sound of footsteps echoing down the corridor. He no longer had any time to think. He had to act.
He scrambled to get away from the piece of paper, but in so doing knocked into a desk and fell back to the floor not a few feet from where it lay. He cursed, holding his knee, and looked up to find Rushbrook standing in the doorway, staring at him.
He expected his History master to ask him what he was doing, or shout his name in anger. But Rushbrook did neither. He simply stood there silently, rigidly, waiting for something to happen. Yet there was one crucial difference. His once kindly face was ashen, a shadow of what it was, and his cold blue eyes stared out from it without a trace of humanity. Time seemed to have stopped.
As Rushbrook reached into his jacket, Percy wondered where Janet was, but then he was overtaken by the impression that he might never see her again anyway. Yes, he had known that there was some kind of war on, but that was far, far away from here, in the rolling hills of the English countryside. Surely not here, surely not now…
Rushbrook silently bent down to pick up the piece of paper, keeping the gun trained on the adolescent across from him.
Percy Perkison was just a boy who had wanted some kind of adventure to find him. Only now did he realise that adventures are, by their very nature, unpredictable. How he longed to be home, to be playing in the green meadows with Freddie and Rufus again, and to return to the world of childish imagination that he called home. Only now did he realise that he was far away from that. This was not in his imagination. It was real, and, for the first time, he was afraid.