The second hand ticked on and on and on. George Stewart flicked his scraggy, wheaten coloured hair out of his eyes. Soon, he would have to endure his mum’s dreaded bowl-cut hairstyle.
Don’t look at the clock.
George instead examined his hands. Using his index finger, he picked out the blue-black dirt from under his nails. He dug out a decent sized chunk from under his right thumb nail, sniffed it, and then wiped it under his desk.
Fifteen minutes to break time.
“Basalt rock and limestone formations—” Mr. Baily ceased his white board scribble and turned to Ewing and McLean. His glare locked onto them like laser guided missiles, and their sniggering ceased. “Formations are prominent along the Antrim coast. Can anyone remember the difference in colour between limestone and basalt?” Mr. Baily said.
Don’t watch the clock.
“Come on, wakey, wakey! Answer me.”
Johnny Mac’s lip curled up. “How are we supposed to know what colour rocks are? They’re underground.”
“Not only under the ground. We’re fortunate to have many cliffs along our coast. What do you think they’re made of? Sugar? Anyway, we went over this a few weeks ago.”
Katie Curran raised her hand. A chorus of tuts clucked round the room.
Mr. Baily wagged his finger. “I don’t want to hear that. Go ahead, Katie.”
“Basalt is darker in colour, Mr. Baily, while limestone is white in colour.”
Mr. Baily nodded. “She puts you all to shame. She wasn’t even at this school two weeks ago.”
Katie’s cheeks reddened, and she lowered her head. Hate filled glances assailed her. It was difficult for the new girl, especially as she had attracted so much attention from the teachers. Gushing praise had been heaped upon her by giddy and grateful teachers. But the more the teachers drooled over her academic prowess, the louder became the taunts and jeers of the jealous students. She seemed not to notice their jibes. Her features were as cool and collected as ever. But George knew her pain all too well. She could not hide from him the faint trace of suffering in her eyes. They called her a dummy, because she never spoke to the other pupils. Even the girls avoided her, flicking their heads away as she walked past. With no friends, Katie had drifted from class to class until she drifted to George and Dougie. George’s Dad explained the meaning of the proverb, birds of a feather flock together, so it had been natural for her to seek out George and Dougie—the other untouchables. Even as they had gotten to know her better, her frosty demeanour barely thawed. She hardly ever smiled. But Dougie never smiled either, and even George only smiled once per week on average. She was a nice person. She listened to their prattle and always tried to answer their questions. Even questions regarding computer games, chess, and occasionally football.
George checked that Dougie was still alive. His glazed eyes stared off into unknown distances. Dougie’s chest rose and fell with each breath—boredom had not yet taken him from the land of the living.
“But sir,” Johnny Mac said, “them cliffs over by The Headmaster’s Cave are not made of basalt?”
Knowing whispers spread around the room. Johnny Mac swayed back in his chair—his wicked grin beamed over the class.
“Them cliffs? Actually, Johnny,” Mr. Baily said, “the primary rock formations of those cliffs on this stretch of coast are formed from basalt. But of course, you’ll also find limestone formations.”
Johnny Mac nodded thoughtfully, playing up to his audience. Poor Mr. Baily was falling straight into his trap. George and Dougie exchanged knowing glances as Mac raised his hand again.
“Even The Headmaster’s Cave?”
A chorus of laughter flooded the room, and all eyes latched onto George and Dougie. They melted into their seats.
Katie raised her eyebrows at the strange spectacle.
George shook his head. The routine had become old a long time ago. The jokes about The Headmaster’s Cave, or to be more correct, the bullying, had started years before. He had at first defended himself and his family, but that had only made it worse.
Mr. Baily’s face screwed up. He held up his arms. “Okay, okay, that’s enough. I don’t know what’s going on, but it stops now. You waste my time, I waste your time at morning break.”
It took another minute before the room had quieted.
“Now, to answer your question, Johnny, though I suspect you already know the answer, the cliff face rock around The Headmaster’s Cave is also composed of basalt.”
Johnny Mac shot George a withering look from across the room. There was nowhere to hide—the seating plan was much like a giant U-bend, so everyone observed everyone else.
“Can anyone tell me how caves are formed?” Mr. Baily said.
Johnny Mac raised his hand, and Mr. Baily rolled his eyes.
“This better be good.”
Johnny Mac coughed and the room fell silent again.
George winced as a drum roll played out in his mind. Even his own thoughts conspired against him.
“Actually, I don’t know, sir, but Georgey-boy can tell you. He’s an expert in caves, especially The Headmaster’s Cave—that’s his speciality!”
Hateful sniggers mocked George. Their tone reminded him of his early school years when they had sung the nursery rhyme, The Farmer Wants a Wife. For some reason, he had always been the Bone—“Ha, Ha, look at the bone! Ha, Ha, look at the bone!” What would it be like when he started Secondary School in five months? Head flushed down the bog? Stink bombs down his shirt?
Mr. Baily folded his arms. His face reddened, and it was as if thunder clouds were gathering above his ginger hair. “I don’t know what your game is, Johnny, but march yourself over to Principal McCluskey’s office for disrupting this lesson.”
Johnny Mac shrugged.
“Now!” Mr. Baily handed him a note.
Johnny Mac stuffed the note into in his blazer pocket. He heaved himself up and waltzed toward the door before stopping. His smirk darkened his features, and then he mouthed: “You are dead,” to George. With that he sauntered out.
The room silenced with the troublemaker gone. But George’s heart sank into the pit of his stomach.
You are dead.
What could he have done differently? George didn’t send him to Principal McCluskey. What would be in store for him?
The last time he’d upset Mac, he’d had to endure the dreaded spittle torture. They’d caught George on the football field and wrestled him to the ground. They held him down while Mac stood over him. The thick spittle snaked from Mac’s mouth until it seemed like it must splatter over George’s face. But Mac sucked it up just in time before it bombed him. This happened again and again and again—the spittle dribbled further each time, only to be sucked up at the last nanosecond. But the inevitable happened, and gravity pushed the spittle beyond the point of no return, splattering George’s face with Mac’s green-white spit bomb. The smell!
Grinning, they had released their captive, and George ran to the toilets with the greener still clinging to his face. With each stride, his stomach retched as the foul smelling spittle slathered about his nose and mouth.
The bell rang. Thirty chairs scraped across the floor. Books and pencil cases, pencil sharpeners, and felt tips were thrown into bags. The herd of hungry students left the classroom for first break. George and Dougie waited for the others to leave before heading out themselves. Katie waited in the corridor for them, but she was not alone. Johnny Mac and his gang pressed toward them.
“You an expert?” Mac said. “That’s a joke, lads. Georgey-boy is far too yellow to visit the cave. Isn’t that right, Georgey?”
George lowered his head.
“Even Dougie Dorkus wouldn’t be afraid. Isn’t that right, Georgey?”
George folded his arms but kept his mouth clamped shut. Dougie hunted in his school bag for his chocolate bar, apparently unconcerned by the developing confrontation.
“Let us past,” Katie said.
Mac sneered at her. “Keep your cake-hole shut, Four-Eyes.” He pressed closer to George, sniffing the air as if he were something he’d stepped on. “Why don’t you say something, coward? Your ancestor was yellow as well. The Headmaster would never have taken me!”
“The cave is closed. No one is allowed down there,” George said tentatively.
“Oooh!” the bullies called out together.
“And you shouldn’t talk about things you know nothing about. You’ve never been there either,” George said.
Watson and Moore raised their eyebrows.
Mac’s jaw clenched tight, and he grabbed George’s blazer. “I’ll give you a kickin’ here.”
“Leave him alone,” Katie said.
Mac ignored her. “Outside The Headmaster’s Cave there’s a big tree. I carved my initials into it—J-Mac.” Mac pushed George against the wall.
“Pick on someone your own size,” Katie said to him.
“He is my size, Speckie!” Mac stepped back. “Getting a girl to fight your battles?” Mac hackled up phlegm and swished it around in his mouth. “See you later, Georgey-Boy.” He left them with a sneer as Watson and Moore sniggered behind him.
Dougie continued to gorge his chocolate bar.
George slumped back against the wall as Johnny Mac disappeared around the corner.
“Are you okay?” Katie said.
George nodded. “Next time just leave it. You’ll make it worse.”
Katie’s brow furrowed. “Whatever.”
Now Dougie caught their attention. He had an annoying habit of humming as he ate his chocolate. And worst of all, he never shared. In the past, George had asked for the end chunk, but Dougie, with a sly grin, had immediately licked it before offering it to George. Naturally, George had declined the offer.
They plodded down the corridor without speaking, for their mood was as cold and grey as the weather outside.
“Have we computer’s today?” Katie said.
“Last two periods,” George replied.
“Yessss!” Dougie said, as he laid out the chess pieces on his travel chess set.
The ground was damp, and the benches under the covered area were occupied, so they played on their feet. A roar floated over from the football match as a goal was scored. George liked football. Happier memories flooded back. In those days, they had still allowed him to play. He played in defence—one of the few—while the others ran around like rabid squirrels trying to score. They never shared his view that defence was as important as attack.
Perhaps if he got a football for his birthday they would let him play again? Probably not. Mac’s mother bought him a new ball—and only the best—whenever he wanted.
The Ross twins sped past. A year below George, they were as crazy as a bag full of weasels. Intensely hyperactive, even without a dose of E Numbers, they ran around the playground pretending to be animals. Barry sprinted past shouting, “Sniffa dog—sniffa dog”, while Barney sang, “We will make it, we will varnish it, we will make it, we will varnish it,” over and over again. Even the bullies stayed well clear of them.
The girls milled around in intimate groups, whispering and giggling to each other. Others played at Hopscotch or skipping. No one was ever interested in Dougie’s and George’s chess games. It was like they wore an invisibility cloak while they played. Only Katie showed an interest, studying their moves.
“So French Defence today,” Dougie said, after George moved his black pawn forward one square.
“Is that what’s it called? Sounds cool,” George said.
More moves were made in quick succession before George blundered. Did Dougie realise George’s Queen was a sitting duck? Dougie hemmed and hawed as he cast his gaze over the board.
Move the pawn—the pawn.
If Dougie’s Knight took the Queen it would be game over.
“Yes, I.T. is good way to end the day. I like Friday’s. Don’t you, Dougie?” George said, trying to distract his opponent.
Dougie grunted. His hand hovered over the pawn.
He hasn’t seen it!
“Why don’t you take his Queen, Dougie?” Katie said.
George punched his palm. “Ah, come on!”
“What?” Katie said, raising her hands. “It’s only a game.”
“He didn’t see it,” George groaned.
Dougie’s Knight gobbled up George’s Queen. “Of course I saw it. I was just messing with your head.”
Huffing, George knocked over his King. “Thanks, Katie.”
Katie grinned. “Don’t mention it.”
Now both Katie and Dougie grinned together.
“It was worth losing the game to see the two grumpiest faces in school smile. I hope the world isn’t going to end,” George said.
“You should be a comedian. It’s just a pity you’re not funny. Mac mentioned The Headmaster’s Cave. What was that about?” Katie asked George.
“Stupid stories, that’s all. I don’t want to talk about it.”
“He doesn’t want to speak about it because his family was involved,” Dougie said.
“Everyone else knows the story, George. So tell me,” Katie said.
“No, and not everyone knows.”
“It happened over one hundred years ago. There was a headmaster—”
“Okay—” George threw up his hands “—I’ll tell you.” He eyed Dougie. “Some people have no loyalty.”
“It’s as much my story to tell,” Dougie said.
“There’s a cave down the Ballymagee coast. It’s called The Headmaster’s Cave because some crazy Headmaster a long time ago snatched some children. People said he took them there, but the children and the Headmaster were never found again.”
Katie held her hand over her mouth. “Oh, that’s terrible.”
Dougie set the chess set down. “He snatched them away and killed them in that cave. It’s haunted.”
“That’s terrible,” Katie repeated.
George shook his head. “My mum said it’s just a story. They probably got swept out to sea.”
“Some people have seen the ghosts of children in the cave and in the woods nearby,” Dougie continued. “They even heard screams echoing from the cave.”
“I don’t believe the stories,” George said.
Dougie’s eyes narrowed, and he leaned closer to the wide eyed listeners. “Once, a boy even saw a clump of hair with the scalp still attached to it outside the cave.”
“That’s disgusting. We should to go there.” Katie’s glasses slipped off the bridge of her nose as she jumped with excitement.
“You can’t. The Headmaster’s Cave was closed by the police a long time ago.” George lifted a pawn and twirled it in his fingers.
“Yes,” Dougie said, “after two more kids were killed.”
Katie gasped. “Two more? Maybe not such a good idea then.”
“They drowned. They were stranded when the tide came in,” George added. “The coast around there is dangerous. That’s why they closed it off—not because of ghosts.”
Katie flicked back her blonde, silken hair. She lifted her head, and her eyebrows furrowed. “But what I don’t understand is, what’s it got to do with you?” she said to George.
“Someone from my family was one of the seven children who disappeared.”
“Mine as well,” Dougie said.
“Oh…I’m sorry,” Katie said.
“Don’t be. It was over one hundred years ago,” George said. “Now you know the story.”
“So their bodies were never found. Don’t you want to find out what happened to them?” Katie said.
Of course he wanted to know the truth. The mystery had dogged his family for generations—a skeleton in the closet that kept knocking to get out. And the fact that his parents always changed the subject when he asked about the mystery never helped either.
“No—no I don’t want to know.”
Katie raised her eyebrows. “I don’t believe you, and I think we should go.”
“Your parents wouldn’t let you go in a million years. They could never let their precious daughter miss a piano lesson,” George said.
“I don’t care about piano lessons, and I don’t care what my parents say,” Katie snapped.
“I want to know,” Dougie said.
The bell rang for end of break.
Good, no more questions.
Ms. Banister rounded up the stragglers. They fumbled the chess pieces back into the box. Katie skipped to class. George had never seen her so excited. It was almost like she wanted to travel there. Strange. No one wanted to go to The Headmaster’s Cave. Not even the high school kids ventured down there. Sure, Dougie was a little bit nutty at times—or special as George’s mum had said—and he had talked about going there once or twice before but hadn’t gone through with it when George refused. No one wanted to go to The Headmaster’s Cave. Maybe Katie wasn’t as smart as he’d first thought.
There weren’t enough computers for everyone, so two or three students sat at each computer. The noise rose as students complained their passwords were not working. Also, their ancient computers, clearly not powerful enough to cope with their new software, took an eternity to boot up. Poor Ms. Hislop, red-faced and flustered, jetted round the room, trying to log students into the network.
Twenty minutes later, everyone was online. She bravely carried on with the lesson but was getting nowhere. Students were too busy browsing the Internet to listen to her lesson on Microsoft Word.
“Okay!” Ms. Hislop bellowed.
The chatter died to furtive whispers.
“Now I’ve had enough! If I catch anyone surfing the Internet, then you’ve no business being in my class.”
You could hear a pin drop.
“Now, for the last twenty minutes, I want you to test your school intranet email. The technician has assured me the bug has finally been fixed. Please check now.”
The chatter picked up again as students went about their task. The click of keys reverberated around the small room as they typed in their usernames and passwords.
“Will I go first?” George said.
Katie and Dougie grunted.
“I don’t know why we even need to. We all have our own email addresses anyway,” George said as he punched in his log-in details. Much to his surprise, the system accepted his information. He leaned back and waited for the inbox to flash up. “Wow—” George leaned closer to the screen “—I actually have an email.”
Dougie’s eyes widened. “Really?”
Katie positioned her chair closer to the computer screen.
“22nd of April, the 120th anniversary,” George said, reading the Subject field.
“What does it mean?” Katie said.
George clicked into the email. His mouth dropped open.
“Dear George, Sunday the 22nd of April will be the 120th anniversary of the disappearance of seven children at The Headmaster’s Cave’. Henry Morris, your ancestor, was one of those who tragically disappeared. Like you, I have yearned to uncover the truth of this enduring mystery. George, the mystery has been solved! I will meet you this Sunday outside The Headmaster’s Cave. Best regards, L.”
“Weird,” Katie said.
George swivelled in his chair. He half expected the other students to burst out laughing, but they were too busy to be aware of his discomfort. Even Johnny Mac was on task, minding his own business. A secretive glance at his closest neighbours’ monitors revealed nothing unusual—no strange emails. And it wouldn’t do to wander around, drawing attention to himself.
“Do you recognise the address?” Katie said.
George hovered the cursor over the address. “No. It must be a joke. It has to be.”
“Let me try my email,” Dougie said.
They exchanged seats, and Dougie typed in his username and password.
“The same subject—22nd of April, the 120th anniversary.” Dougie opened the email. “The same message, and addressed to me. Margaret Greer—she was my Great-Great-Great Aunt.”
“But your surname’s Norris,”
“Aunt from my mother’s side. My mum thought she could get compensation, but the lawyers told her to sling her hook.”
“This is amazing,” Katie whispered. “The mystery has been solved.”
George tutted. “Amazing? It’s a setup. Someone in class is playing a joke on us. Who else would have our school email apart from the other students?”
“Maybe, maybe not,” Katie said.
With her pinched expression, George recognised she was far from beaten. Her mind seemed to whirl, seeking an alternative theory to convince him.
“Do you recognise the email address?” George asked Dougie.
“Haven’t a clue.”
Ms. Hislop’s call to pack-up brought the conversation to an end. The noise levels rose again as students shoved their books into their bags. Computers were powered down. The students were in good spirits, talking about the coming weekend, but nothing to indicate a joke had been played.
“They would have said something by now,” Katie said.
“Even if it’s not a joke, I’m not going to The Headmaster’s Cave. It’s against the law, and my mum would kill me. And I’m not going to meet some stranger. I’m not crazy,” George said.
The bell rang, and students milled through the door. George held his breath. Had a joke been played after all?
No laughter, no jokes, no bullying.
They left Ms. Hislop as she fixed the chairs into a sensible order. They walked side-by-side down the quiet corridor. The other students were long gone.
“Still think it’s a joke?” Katie said.
“Don’t care. I’m not going.”
“Well, I am,” Dougie said.
“I’m coming with you, Dougie,” Katie said, triumphantly.
“Huh, your parents won’t let you, Katie,” George said.
“I’m sick of doing what they tell me. I’m going.” Katie punched her arms into the air. “At last some excitement in this dump of a town.”
George clenched his jaw. “Katie, I know you’re not that stupid. Going to the cave is crazy enough, but to meet a stranger there? I’ll not let you.”
Katie’s eyes narrowed as George’s message sank in. Her earlier enthusiasm vanished with a sigh.
“It’ll be okay, Katie,” Dougie said. “It’ll be an adventure.”
“How would you know that?” George asked Dougie.
Dougie swatted George’s question away. “I’m not afraid of a stranger who wants to help us.”
Katie placed her hand on Dougie’s arm. “Maybe he’s right. Let’s find out more about this stranger first. Then I’ll go with you, Dougie—” she made a curt nod toward George “—with or without him. I promise.”
Dougie shrugged. “Suppose.”
“We can show Katie our rope swing, or show her the stream were I saw the kingfisher,” George said.
“Better than piano lessons, I suppose,” Katie said.
“Suppose so,” Dougie said flatly.
“So, we meet at the pallet factory tomorrow morning?” George said.
“Not too early,” Dougie said.
“I’ll see you both at ten. Don’t be late.”
That was settled. Flanagan would go with them, and it would be fun showing Katie the rope swing. Then they would really see how brave she was. All in all, it was a much better idea than travelling to a dangerous cave to meet a stranger. No doubt Johnny Mac was laughing his head off at the thought of them going on a wild goose chase.
Well, George would be happy to disappoint him. It wasn’t brave to journey to that cave—just stupid. Nobody went to The Headmaster’s Cave.