The Return of Henry

8:10am.  

In the darkness, Becky and Alice crawled forward.

The space above would have been enough for them to sit up, but not stand. The air was dank. Somewhere nearby water dripped.

"I don't like it here," said Becky. "It's much darker than it was above the toilets."

"There'll be a vent soon, like there was before. I just want to see where these passages go, we might find a secret room," said Alice.

The two girls shuffled forward. It was quiet here, and a little cold too. Becky shivered.

"There's something in the floor up ahead - light's coming from below," said Alice. "Let's see what's under it."

The two shuffled up and peered down through the grill. There was a youthful teacher underneath, clutching a pile of exercise books. His head was a mass of curly dark hair.

"Ain't seen him before," said Becky quietly. 

"He must be new. Looks quite dishy," whispered Alice. 

Underneath, Miss Booth's head appeared into view. They could only hear snatches of conversation. 

"Mr. Groot, isn't it?" they heard her say. He said something back, but they couldn't make it out. Miss Booth spoke and perhaps because they were used to her voice, they could understand her clearly.

"Yan? Ah you're from the Netherlands, right? Hello I'm Ginny Booth, I teach Art here for my sins."

"Ah nice to meet you."

The two teachers wandered off.

"Yan's a funny name. I thought Booth had left. That's what I heard. Anyway, better get back down for registration," said Becky.

"We've got ages, it's only just gone ten past eight.. " 

Alice indicated a passage that went off at right angles to the one they were in. 

"What do you think's down that way?"

"Let's go and see," said Becky.

* * *

Mrs. McClusky closed the door to her office, and turned right into the corridor, on the way to the Staff Room. The start of term was always a difficult time, with a new intake of First Years, the inevitable staff changes, and an annoying Deputy Head to keep at bay. A year at Grange Hill hadn't made Mr. Hargreaves any easier to cope with. As she walked, a shiver ran down her back and she remembered the rumour a few years ago about there being a ghost in the school. Then she realised that her shiver was because the place was so chilly. She touched a radiator, and found it as cold as a stone. She tut-tutted and decided to take a detour to Mr. Griffiths' room. Outside the caretaker's office, Mrs. McClusky was surprised to see a tall boy there wearing dark glasses, but dressed quite smartly in a blue suit. 

"Can I ask what you're doing on the premises?" she asked in a no-nonsense tone of voice. 

The young man raised his glasses. "It's me, Miss. Luke. Luke Gardner. I left a couple of years ago."

"Luke...  well how unexpected. We don't get that many visits from old boys. What are you doing skulking around the basement?"

Gonch Gardner looked a little nervous at that question. "Oh um, just a social visit to the caretaker. I've come to ask his advice about... about plumbing, yes, plumbing that was it. We always got on, Mr. Griffiths and I, what with the donkey and all that. Happy Days. Mr. G is still here is he, not pensioned off?" 

Mrs McClusky tilted her head and offered a smile that said she didn't believe a word of it.

"Plumbing is the reason I'm here too," she said. "Are you really pursuing a career in it? With that suit? When I saw Veronica she told me you were at college doing Business Studies. All the little side businesses you ran here must have helped enormously."

"Indeed they did, Miss! Yes, Ronnie's correct - I am doing Business Studies. It's just a little problem we've got at home, with pipes and stuff. Anyway, Mr. Griffiths doesn't seem to be here, and I was going to head off to the Staff Room."

"Well, I know you used to be part of school life here, but you can't really go wandering around it now on your own."

"Oh you can trust me, Miss."

"I'm not sure I can. I seem to recall you were in my office for one reason or another fairly often. Renting P.E. kits, providing homework services, donkey rides! Just to mention a few."

Gonch smiled a disarming smile to cover his astonishment - how did she know about all that? 

"Times change, Miss, I'm a reformed character."

"I doubt that." Mrs McClusky sighed. "Well anyway, Mr. Griffiths isn't here, and I've a lot to do. It was nice to meet you again, Luke, all the best with your studies. I trust I can leave you to find your way out of here?"

"Of course, Mrs. McClusky, you can trust me." said Gonch. The headmistress furrowed her brow, but to Gonch's relief, walked away. He looked at his watch impatiently, and studied the noticeboard for the tenth time. 

 

A short while later, Mr. Griffiths puffed and panted his way around the corner. He raised his eyebrows in surprise at seeing Gonch.

"Mr. Gardner. I'm not sure I'm entirely happy to see you back, with your little schemes. Don't think I've forgotten about those shenanigans with the donkey."

"Oh forgive and forget, surely!" protested Gonch. 

"So what do you want then, son? I'm a busy man you know." Mr. Griffiths went into his office, and Gonch followed and closed the door.

"You're looking well Mr. G. You've not changed a bit, and...."

"Oh spare me all the silver tongued patter, Gardner, I know you're after something, and I'm a busy man." The caretaker put a teabag into his cup and switched the kettle on.

"Well, it's about the central heating system..."

"Not you as well - all the staff seem to be going on about the heating, and Mr. Hargreaves.... anyway, what business is it of yours since you're not here any more?"

Gonch raised his hands pacifically. "No, no. Nothing to do with that. One of my interests is in plumbing, and since I know you are such an expert, I wondered if I can have a look in the attic. So I can see how the water flows from the tank through all the radiators and get an understanding of how the water moves through the system."

Gonch made a wavy line in the air to illustrate his point.

"Plumbing eh? That's quite a good line of work you've gotten into. My nephew's in the trade, and he's doing very well for himself, nice car he's got and all." Mr. Griffiths noticed Gonch's smart suit, and his eyes narrowed.

"Hang on, you're no plumber in those clothes. You winding me up?"

"Absolutely not. It's just a side interest. So the attic at Grange Hill. How do I get into it. Just to take a look round, like?"

"Hmmm. Well there's a few ways, there's an outside ladder, but that door's stuck I think. Oh the main way's through the top corridor past the biology lab. There's a small room, and inside's a ladder that slides down. You'll need a key. But I'm not sure you should be rooting around up there. You'll get your suit dirty too."

"Oh nothing that can't be brushed off. Just a quick look can't harm can it. Mind if I take a torch?" Gonch grabbed the rubber handled lamp from the caretaker's desk

."You don't need the torch, so you can put that back before I never see it again. There's a light on a piece of string as you go up. I'm too often up there to have it unlit - we stick all the old junk up there. Here's the key, but mind you bring it back."

"Thanks Mr. G, I knew I could count on you. It's nice to have met you again..."

"Yes, well, just be careful up there: it's mostly floor boarded, but watch what you're doing, I don't want to have to call in the builders because you've gone through the floor."

"Your concern is noted, with much gratitude," said Gonch, and left before the caretaker could reconsider.

* * *

As Gonch climbed the stairs, he thought about seeking out his old mates, those that were still here, of course. Time was too short though - he had lectures to attend, and the journey to college was one that depended on an unreliable bus service. Another time, he told himself, but then almost literally bumped into a familiar person. "Mind where you're... Gonch!" 

"Calley, how delicious to see you. You're here early."

Calley studied Gonch. "I'm not usually, but I'm falling behind. I'm finding 'A' level coursework hard. Look at you in your smart suit - and you're so tall now. Trevor's here you know, well still at school I mean, I donít imagine he'll be this early though. I'm on the way to the Common Room."

"Ah the long forbidden Sixth Form Common Room, what a shame to have missed the delights of that privilege."

"Same old Gonch. You always could talk the hind legs off a donkey."

"I hope you're not referring to Harriet, I've already been given grief about that, from Mr. Griffiths and Bridget. I trust it wasn't you who grassed me up?"

"Oh Gonch that was a very long time ago. You know McClusky, nothing escapes her eagle eyes. Sometimes it amuses her to pretend to be surprised. Come on, Georgina will be here too - she'll like to see you again."

"And your shadow - Ronnie, the former love of my life - is Veronica Birtles around, or did she get an early release for good behaviour?"

Calley shook her head sadly. "No, she's got a job. I see her all the time, though. Are you still with Mandy Freemont?"

"Ah Mandy the Brainbox. No, I regret to say we dissolved the partnership due to mutual differences."

"Gave you the elbow did she? Never mind." Calley smiled.

"So, Ronnie's working now? I know she wanted to do something with animals."

"Yes, she's got a job in the butchers shop in the high street. Not permanently, but she needs the money."

"Well she sort of got her wish if she is working with animals then, just a shame that they're dead ones" said Gonch brightly.

Calley sighed. "Your sense of humour doesn't improve with age," she said. "Anyway, you coming up to the Common Room or not?"

Gonch shook his head. "Another time, I'm afraid. I've got something to attend to here, then I'm off to Business Studies at the College."

"That figures. Are they teaching you, or are you teaching them? How to rent P.E. kits, and sell toast and get everyone else to do your dirty work? Anyway, how come you're here?"

Gonch smiled. "Nothing to concern you, Calley. Just a little business to attend to, but I absolutely, definitely promise to come and see you again, but I've got to go!"

"'Bye Gonch," said Calley, shaking her head, while Gonch climbed the remaining steps to the top floor, two at a time.

Alice and Becky had reached a dead end after five minutes of crawling. 

"Now what," asked Becky.

"There's a ladder. Come on," said Alice.

"I don't much like climbing ladders."

"Not scared of heights are you - it's only a little way."

Reluctantly, Becky followed Alice up the metal ladder. There was a much wider passage, and another vent ahead. 

"We're above the corridor. The Biology lab's up ahead," said Alice. 

"There seems to be much more light - I think we've reached the attic" said Becky. 

"Come on," said Alice, and increased her crawling speed, with Becky trailing behind. As Becky had surmised there was a little more light in the attic, though it was patchy. A stream of light from a hole in the roof illuminated a diagonal strip of dust. Against one wall, there were some large water tanks, and pipes snaked off in all directions. Elsewhere there were all manner of boxes and chests, and items thrown randomly onto the coarse wooden boards that made up the floor.

"What a dump," exclaimed Alice, standing up with some relief, and brushing down her skirt. "All this junk, why do they keep it all!"

"Beats me," said Becky. "Perhaps it's easier than deciding what to throw away. Look, some old stage costumes." 

Becky took out a white lace shawl, and artistically draped it across her shoulders. Alice took a cowboy hat and put it on her head, but it was substantially larger than her head. "Well I do declare!" said Becky in a South American drawl, and giggled uncontrollably. Suddenly the attic was bathed in light, as several fluorescent lamps reluctantly flickered into life. Alice's jaw dropped in horror and Becky gasped. Both girls blinked as their eyes adjusted to the white light. At the other end of the attic Gonch's head appeared, followed by the rest of him as he climbed assuredly up. He immediately saw he wasn't alone, and smiled quizzically at them.

"We can explain," said Becky before Gonch could say anything, but Alice frowned at her: this was clearly just some Sixth Former with no more right to be there than they.

"Shut up Becky," said Alice, and then to Gonch, "So what are you doing up here then?"

"You can think of me as .... a temporary caretaker assistant," he said brightly.

"You look too young," replied Alice sceptically. 

Gonch tut-tutted. "I don't remember First Formers being so cheeky a few years ago," he said, looking in the box where Alice and Becky had been rooting.

"First Former! - shut up, we're Year Eights," said Becky.

"Ah the new nomenclature for classes."

"The new what?" said Alice.

"Never mind. Never mind. You might be able to help me actually.

"Oh yeah, why would we want to do that?"

"Gardner's the name, Luke Gardner. They used to call me Gonch."

"I'm Alice, this is Becky. Why 'Gonch'?" said Alice.

"Why this, why that. Does everything need an answer. Anyway, it doesn't matter, ladies. Knowledge, that's what I offer. Schemes and systems, all proven and tested."

At this point Gonch mentally banished the harsh memories of the many failures that had been the culmination of all the operations he'd undertaken.

"He don't half talk a lot, this one!" said Becky to Alice. 

"Shouldn't you be in registration?," asked Gonch.

Becky looked at her watch. "Got ten minutes yet," she said.

"So what do you need from us?" asked Alice.

"It's for my girlfriend," said Gonch.

"You've got a girlfriend?" said Alice disbelievingly.

"Yes, do you have to look so surprised? She's doing fashion and design, and needs a mannequin. I promised her I'd get her one. They are quite expensive, but I told her I knew where there was one."

"What's a mannequin?" asked Alice

"Like a shop dummy. There used to be one, I got into a bit of trouble with it. They might have thrown it out, I suppose, but it was definitely up here, I saw it when I was made to shift some gear up here for Robson. That was years ago though.... So you gonna help me look? I got to get on to college soon."

"Okay, okay, come on Becky, let's look at the pile over there," agreed Alice, grudgingly.

"Thank you girls." Gonch started to search through the pile of theatre props and old costumes. The place was quiet as the three of them methodically dumped everything out of boxes onto the floor.

"Oh hello, what have we here?" said Gonch after several minutes. He held aloft a toaster with no plug on it, the lead cut hopelessly short. He shook it, and it rattled dysfunctionally. 

"Funny looking mannequin!" snorted Alice.

"Oh - It's like seeing an old friend. What have they done to you, poor chap?" Gonch shook his head and put the toaster down. Becky looked at him as though he were mad, and all three continued searching.

It wasn't much later that Alice triumphantly brought out a rather sad looking dummy.

"Is this it? It's a bit scruffy," she said.

"Henry! Oh well done, Becky, you've found me old friend, Henry."

"Wrong way round - I'm Alice," said she. "Henry is it? You're round the twist I think!"

"One man's madness is another man's sanity," said Gonch sagely, happily taking Henry back. "He'll be alright with a bit of soap and water."

"Good," said Becky. "Look at my hands - filthy now."

"Well I better get going," said the happy entrepreneur. "Hang on, you were supposed to be telling us all about money making schemes," protested Alice.

"Well I shall seek you out when I come back - I've got friends here you know. Old colleagues and business partners... But here's the best advice - keep an ear out to what's going on. Information - that's the key to success. If you hear what people want, if you see what they're up to you can stay one step ahead in the game. You can get what they want, and sell it to them before they even realise they're looking for it!"

"Hmmm," said Becky feeling certain they had just been ripped off.

"Nice to have met you, see you again, I'm sure. Turn the light out when you're done, there's a switch on a string where I came in - and can you give this back to that nice Mr. Griffiths," said Gonch putting a silver key into Alice's grubby palm, and walking towards the ladder.

"Hey wait," said Alice, but it was too late: Gonch had disappeared through the hole. 

"We better get going, get cleaned up and into registration," said Becky.

"You're just hoping Yan the Man will be our form teacher." asked Alice.

"What that bloke Gonch said - he's mad, right? He just waffled any old rubbish, didn't he?" asked Becky.

"Not entirely," said Alice thoughtfully. "Think about it - these passages. Like when we saw the Dutch teacher - we can keep an eye on people, find out what they're up to. It can work to our advantage."

"Yeah, maybe," said Becky."

"We'll explore some more later, maybe find some really great places to spy on people. Get the upper hand on everyone."

Becky nodded. "Let's go back down the way he went. I've had enough crawling around today." 

Alice agreed, and the two girls left the attic, and headed off to the toilets to clean themselves up.

Gonch glanced at his watch - plenty of time to stash Henry at home, and then get to the bus stop. Just when he thought he had got away scot-free, Gonch ran into a teacher he'd never met before - the Deputy Head: a tall imposing man in a dark suit.

"Who are you? One of the Sixth Formers? Leaving so soon? You're filthy. What on Earth have you been doing, lad? Rummaging in the bins?" asked Mr. Hargreaves. "Are you new here? What's that thing you're holding?"

"Gardner, sir." Gonch opted to answer just the easy question.

"You look a bit too young to be the gardener."

"No, that's my name - Luke Gardner. I was fetching some, um, still life items for Miss Booth's art class from the attic. Mr. Griffiths said I could go up there."

"I see. Miss Booth eh? You're a bit behind the times, laddie."

Gonch gulped. "Oh has she gone sir? Who's doing Art then. I must have mistaken her..." he stopped, realising he had dropped himself in it, if Miss Booth had left.

"Gone? Of course she's not gone... she's just differently named."

Gonch shrugged his shoulders, confused, and Mr. Hargreaves helpfully elaborated.

"She's Mrs. Farrington now. She got married. You should listen more, information - that's the key to success."

"That's just what I told some Second Formers, sir."

"Well it's good that your time here has taught you something of value then, Gardner. I'll see you later, no doubt." The Deputy Head turned on his heels smartly, and left.

"Not if I see you first," muttered Gonch, raising his eyebrows, and escorted Henry out of the building as quickly as he could.

 

 

 

 

THE END

(c) BBC (Characters) Geoff Phillips (story)