The school was a single, heavily-beamed, chapel-like room. A pair of oil lamps dangled on long chains from the whitewashed ceiling. There was a brick fireplace with an old wood stove, and a series of linked desks with fixed benches. Samples of the work of former pupils were laid out on the desks, under glass like museum exhibits.
'Any of this yours?' Midge asked as Juby, who was looking at other things in other parts of the room.
He shook his head. 'Long before my day. Didn't go to school here anyway.'
A large blackboard stood on a sturdy easel to one side of the fireplace. The board's main headings were painted on. The rest, changed daily this month if no other, were neatly hand-written in chalk.
Welcome to Rouklye School
Sunny, hot, cooling sea breeze
Juby stepped up onto the slightly-raised platform at the far end of the room, squeezed himself onto the bench fixed to one side of the broader-than-usual desk that stood there, and stuck his chin on a fist to gaze out of the broad end window. He's an odd one, Midge thought. The way he looks, behaves. Even his name was odd. 'Juby Bench'. Really?
A small giggle behind her. She turned to see who'd come in. No one had. Her spine tingled, but when she saw a young family passing beyond the window she decided that one of the children must have briefly looked in. To pass the time until Juby deigned to head on out, she strolled along the desks examining the work under glass. There were crayon and pencil drawings, childish poems about nature, weather, home life. There were also sums, spelling tests, things about religion, and 'lines'. The work didn't seem all that old-fashioned, and she found it hard to imagine that the kids who'd produced it would be very old now – those who were still about at all. Most would be long dead, like Billy Brooker. It wasn't so easy to be amused by their school work, or their names, when you remembered that.
She extended her fingers to the unlit fire, imagining the warmth of a good blaze on a freezing winter's day, then moved along to the piano, an old upright. Tempted to sit down and plink-plank-plunk a bit, a glance at Juby, preoccupied by the window, dissuaded her. Instead, she went to a display case that offered a selection of hand-written entries from the school register, which seemed to have doubled as a diary.
July 13th, 1911 Not so good an attendance this week. Children are kept away while mothers carry food to the hayfield.
May 24th, 1912 Ernest Mawer has been away all week with a swollen face. Irene Day has been away since Wednesday owing to sickness.
Aug. 2nd, 1912 Irene Day leaves today being 14 years of age next week. I am rather sorry to lose my older children.
Oct. 26th, 1913 Attendance again lowered by the absence of Tommy Ochart who has not been to school since the holiday owing to having no boots.
'Show you my house if you like.'
She glanced toward the platform at the end of the room. Juby's hulking silhouette at the desk.
The word skidded to a halt. There were two silhouettes at the desk, the second sitting across from Juby: a boy, thin and rangy, no less wild-haired than the man. She tried to speak, but her tongue refused to let go of the roof of her mouth.
A sudden cacophony behind her caused her to spin round as half-a-dozen kids burst in, followed by a quartet of adults. The adults clustered in the doorway, peering about without quite entering, while their less inhibited progeny threw themselves on the desks, laughing, squealing, shouting – 'Miss! Miss! Please, Miss!' – and sticking their hands in the air to attract an invisible teacher's attention.
An angry growl from the far end. Midge turned to see Juby jump to his feet. The other figure – the boy – was gone. Juby charged through the room, head down like a bull intent on getting out of the china shop come what may. She stepped smartly aside, as did the people crowding the doorway, and followed him at a more temperate pace, mumbling apologies to the parents.
The light outside was so blinding that she couldn't see him at first, but when she managed to make him out she forgot to breathe for several seconds. He stood against the churchyard wall opposite, in the shade of an elderly horse-chestnut, the sun, pouring through a break in the foliage, bleaching him away almost to nothing - then to nothing at all. For a very fleeting moment it was as if he wasn't there. Didn't even exist. But then he was back again, and looking her way, as if waiting for her to join him.
That night she would describe this scene in the first of several proposed letters to Nessa Friedman, intending to mail them just before Ness returned from holiday. She would make no mention of the boy sitting across from Juby in the schoolroom – an illusion too ludicrous for words, even to her best friend.