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It was the beginning of the year and Sludworth College had hired a new chemistry teacher. At the time there was little intrinsically noteworthy about this. Sludworth went through one chemistry teacher every year. Now though this year’s instalment of the annual ceremony has assumed a certain post partum significance which will become clear in the telling of this narrative. The chemistry teacher’s coming was announced following two new PE teachers (the pain) and preceding a new art teacher (female; GCSE art would be a hoot – if only I’d taken it! But I could always reap the benefits in an A level.) His name was Dr Hopkins. The Head Man claimed for him an ‘impeccable record of teaching at the most prestigious institutions’ and that he was ‘a former chemistry professor at Oxbridge.’ He went on about this last fact for a bit. The rest of the address was, like all these addresses, eventful only in that it was uneventful for such a long time. God did not make the human organism capable of enduring our Head Man’s addresses! Our form tutor, a portly, bespectacled man, fell onto the back of the seat in front and started snoring loudly. Gromit and Nedward passed the time sniggering at a lewd picture of Stokes’ sister on Gromit’s phone. Whizzle sucked all the ink out of his fountain pen in the hope that it would produce some kind of altered mental state. By the end of the Head Man’s address, me and the other boys had all but forgotten Dr Hopkins.
It was thus something of a surprise when we turned up to our first lesson in the second year of GCSE chemistry to find it being taught by a tall, lank-framed man who told us that his name was Dr Hopkins, but we were never to call him anything but “sir.” On the one hand, this Hopkins looked exactly like the average Sludworth science teacher: middle-aged, bespectacled, with a drab pullover and trousers not to match, on the other hand there was a certain sinister quality to the man which I could not quite place. One might dully infer from his spectacles and grey hair that the man was in his late fifties, yet to me he seemed ageless. He might have been fifty, he might have been as old as the Greek philosophers, and made of the same eternal stone! When he spoke his voice was high and reedy, yet it had an unexpectedly sonorous edge to it. I could not help thinking that my class was going to take more for GCSE than it had bargained for. I had opted to take GCSE Higher Tier Chemistry, along with Dirk, Nedward and Stokes, on the principle that we were scientifically minded enough to ace GCSEs, without being nerdy and doing it in the sixth forth. Dirk was a small but wiry lad whose father had served in the forces and now worked as an IT consultant in a packaging firm. Nedward was a pudgy boy, generally a good egg but he spent to much time playing age of empires and his dad did something nobody could understand. Stokes was the real lad of the class. No-one knew precisely what his dad did but he was rumoured to be minted. This wealth was evidenced by the fact that Stokes never did any dirty deeds himself but was always ready to pay a lower year to do them for him. Now for myself. My name on the register is Phillip Phillips. By a peculiar form of word association known only to schoolboys, this became Flipping Screwdriver. I am, by my own estimation, a not unpopular lad, and several orders of magnitude more academically gifted than some of the others. In all my time at boarding school, I have without exception considered chemistry teachers to be pathetic wrecks of human beings, incapable of winning favours with women or their own laboratory chemicals. Nonetheless, their trivial antics and sub-schoolboy humour provided entertainment and much opportunity for ridicule and schaudenfreuder, and I saw as yet no reason why this Dr Hopkins should be any different, wither or not he walked on the ’Bridge.
This first lesson showed him to be one of those teachers who fancied himself ‘master’ of the class but didn’t quite have the knack to pull it off. Stokes and Nedward, over on the far table did a classic mixing the sulphuric acid with the hydrochloric. Dirk wolf-whistled at “sir” to uproarious laughter from the rest of the class. By the end of the lesson he was fuming, but powerless to do anything more. We were almost sorry to have to leave for Geography. After this first day, the rest of the week passed uneventfully. Some boys got caught drinking, another had his laptop confiscated after he was caught using it to view lewd images. It was the next Monday morning when the first significant sign of things to come revealed itself. Dr Hopkins’ laboratory assistant was missing. The teacher said he had ‘an accident over the weekend’ and made moderate play of being regretful about it. Because of this, Hopkins was not able to perform the thermit reaction he had planned to and the lesson was entirely theoretical. It takes a certain knack to fall asleep while sitting upright against a laboratory bench (you sit right next to the table and use it for support. It’s about as comfortable as a dorm bed.) This lesson required full use of my talents and I nearly got caught out when Dr Hopkins noticed I was blinking.
The name “Dr Mephistopheles” for our new chemistry teacher was my own brainchild, and once I had suggested it to the lads, it stuck for good. I was drinking in my dorm with Stokes and Dirk, looking on the internet at pictures of Jean Claude Van Damme and of women on motorcycles. Being of an uncommonly intellectual calibre, I was streaming BBC Radio 4 for some intellectual background listening when we heard of Mephistopheles, and his connection with Faust, which was an eighteenth century play. Instantly, as if we had always known it to be true, we realised that Dr Hopkins looked like Mephistopheles.
Dr Mephistopheles – also known as ‘The Meph’ – was notorious for setting hideously impossible preps. Handing them in late was no longer a calculated indolence, we actually couldn’t do them on time, even if we tried! Soon rumours began to fly: that Oxbridge had fired him because he had, for an experiment, made his PhD student perform a Voodoo ritual with LSD; that he was in possession of chemical knowledge ‘from way back’; that he had molested a Dean.
By now it should be quite clear that The Meph was not Sludworth’s average chemistry teacher. He had secrets. Dark secrets. Nonetheless, for a while things continued normally at Sludworth. Our GCSE Chemistry class got used to the strangely mechanical manner of The Meph’s assistant, and the teacher himself was easy to ridicule; after the ’Bridge comes the plank. Besides GCSE was but an insignificant part of Sludworth life, illicit drinking and drug taking being more important. This, however, was quickly to change. One Sunday, whispers of a terrible occurrence flew round Sludworth. On Saturday night, ten lads had been out drinking and smoking cannabis. When they were already fairly drunk and high, they were approached by strange hooded figures. These (presumably) men had attacked the group. Six of the boys had escaped relatively unharmed, but because their brains were so addled by the drugs and the alcohol they were unable to unambiguously determine what had happened to the other four. One claimed that three of them were stabbed and one of them was clubbed. Another said that one was clubbed and the other three were dragged off screaming. Matters became even more peculiar when the other four came back seemingly unaffected by the rumoured events of Saturday night and claiming that the gruesome tale told by the first six was ‘complete shit’. All that had happened, they explained in reasonable if exasperated tones, was that the group had split up in the small hours of the morning and they had come back to their dorms a different way to the other six. Their injuries were simply the expected result of ‘tripping over all sorts of shit, high’. The other six were in a quandary, especially as four of them swore, on their mothers’ lives, to have seen The Meph himself among the dark figures.
It was thus with much trepidation that I sat through chemistry on Tuesday morning, watching Dr Mephistopheles’s strangely altered assistant going about his laboratory chores. Could he really have been out on the school grounds with a group of thugs on Saturday night? If so, why did the four boys who were said to have been gruesomely attacked so assiduously deny the affair? At the end of the lesson The Meph set us a long prep. That evening we found out that it was a really long prep. And impossible. Stokes offered twenty quid to anyone who would break into the chemistry lab, copy down the answers to all the questions and bring back the trophy to the dorms. Eager to increase my social standing with the lads, I volunteered. Stokes looked sceptical saying, “Screwdriver? I don’t think you’re up to it.” I dismissed his objection with the airy reply that I was ‘totally capable’ of stealing the answers to the prep.
Late that night, the whole of my GCSE Chemistry class was gathered in Stokes’ dorm, a cosy room, which he had made more homely by decorating the walls with FHM posters. Stokes gave me a short but intense grilling to check I knew what I had to do, after which I breezed out the dorm. I stole out of Dunciad House and struck a path across the Sludworth grounds. It was a cold, windy and cloudy night. The House was a dark mass of a building, lit only by the phosphor twinkle of someone watching dirty videos on their laptop. I headed in the direction of the science labs. Each blast of cold wind sent a chill down my spine. All I had to do was force open the window and head straight for the cupboard on the far side of the lab. Shit! It was not at all likely that anyone would be there to meet me. I stole round the maths department and caught sight of the science labs. I stopped short, stunned! In the middle of the night, the lights were on in one of them. I continued on, maybe the biology teacher – that absent-minded fool – had left the lights on. However, as I strode towards the labs, it became perfectly clear that the biology lab was dark and the lights were on in the chemistry lab. Could Dr Mephistopheles have left the lights on? Surely not, he was an Oxbridge professor for fuck’s sake! Still, even if he had left the lights on, that would only prove that Oxbridge profs were absentminded fools, it would not stop me from copying down the answers to the chemistry prep at this hour of the night. Yet, as I came closer to the chemistry lab, a peculiar instinct told me to take the utmost caution when approaching the building.
Sure enough, when I got near, I saw people inside. The Meph and his assistant were in the lab! And a third man. After a moment, I recognised him as a certain groundsman, burly, uncouth and unpopular with the boys and the teachers, who had gone off sick – no one had thought anything of it at the time. I crouched down, preparing to crawl under the windows. I could see the assistant and the groundsman standing perfectly still with a certain slack expression on their faces. The Meph was speaking. He looked pleased with something. Maybe if I put my ear to the keyhole I could… I crept under the windows to the door and stuck my left ear close to the lock in a haphazard fashion. Sure enough, I could hear snippets of conversation through the keyhole.
Mephistopheles: “…and that other boy, I know for a fact his parents mint their own money. All we have to do is give him the correct instructions and his parents’ wealth will be mine!”
(indecipherable utterances from lab assistant and groundsman.)
Mephistopheles: “…parents evening in a week’s time…. now if you cross the wires on the parents cars they won’t be able to escape…. will all meet in the Duke’s Room…”
Lab assistant: “what about those other six, that we didn’t catch?”
Mephistopheles: “I wouldn’t worry about them… high as fuck! No one would believe .... (speech indecipherable)… yes imagine, the parents would simply donate their wealth to me!”
I took my ear away from the keyhole, incredulous. Could I really have heard what I thought I had? Dr Mephistopheles really had been out that Saturday and done something unthinkably gruesome to those four boys. But what could he possibly plan for the parents evening? I peaked cautiously above one of the windows and saw The Meph holding a vial of some black substance. He offered it to his assistant, who took it and pocketed it. I rushed back to the keyhole…
Mephistopheles “…you know how to use the powder. Make sure the subject is dead, and then sprinkle it over their… (speech indecipherable)… Our numbers and our wealth will surely increase!”
I heard footsteps coming across the lab. Towards the door. Shit! Fuck! I sprang upright and bolted as fast as I could till I reached the corner and ducked round it. There was the clicking of a key; I peaked round the door, and saw The Meph step out of the lab. “…sure I heard something,” I heard him say. There were mumblings from the two other men. The worst of it was, I didn’t manage to get the answers to the prep. I was never going to get that twenty quid from Stokes! I walked back to Dunciad House with legs of jelly. I had zero advice for doing the long prep, and a story that no one would believe.
I trudged back up the stairs to the dorm. When I opened the door to the expectant faces of Dirk, Stokes and Nedward, I knew that the moment of truth had arrived. I paused. How to play this? They were waiting for the answers to that wretched prep. So I said dramatically, “The Meph was in the lab.” Nedward exclaimed, “what!?”
“The Meph was in the chemistry lab, with his assistant and that inbred groundsman who got sick.” I took a small breath. Now was the moment of truth. “That’s why I didn’t get the answers to the prep.”
“Screwdriver you knobber!” burst out Dirk.
“Please!” I blustered. “I can explain!”
My incredible tale met with a mixture of amazement, confusion and distrust. Dirk thought I was just trying to ‘worm my way out of beats with a load of hogshite.’
Stokes, however, was more open-minded. “Shit,” he said, “what if he’s right?” Stokes closed down the pictures of Pamela Anderson he had been browsing in order to shed some light on my report with serious research. Googling “black powder” and “dead people” soon revealed the terrifying phenomenon of Hatian zombies. The Hatian sorcerers would often kill a man and then sprinkle a mysterious black powder over him, turning the man into a zombie, who would obey the sorcerer’s will like an undead robot. Once Stokes had found this, I had no doubters. The strange events associated with Dr Mephistopheles’ arrival made perfect sense: the ‘accident’ with his lab assistant who had come back strangely altered; the four boys who had been abducted, and finally the uncouth groundsman who had gone off sick and surfaced in the lab tonight as The Meph’s co-conspirator. With my efforts so validated there was only one thing to do. “We’ve got to stop them!” cried Stokes. “We’ve got to bust The Meph before parents evening.”
God! The next week was the most nerve-racking and dreadful I have ever experienced! We didn’t even notice the week’s detention that The Meph gave us for all handing in blank prep sheets. Stokes paid two more boys forty quid in total to spy on the night time activities of the chemistry lab. They found it to be dark. Presumably The Meph had given his henchmen all the instructions necessary for his plan to be carried out. How incredibly lucky it was that I had been sent out to steal The Meph’s prep answers. (Not everyone understood this at first. Stokes nearly gave me serious beats.) Meanwhile, we had to come up with a way to foil The Meph before parent’s evening without him or his killer zombies finding out what we were up to. Various ideas and contingencies were thrown around. We had to find some way of getting rid of Dr Mephistopheles before he could do any damage at the parents’ evening. Could we steal the black powder before The Meph and his killer zombies were able to use it? But I had seen The Meph give the powder to his assistant, who probably still had it on his person. Someone suggested that Dr Mephistopheles might try to poison the wine in an attempt to quickly off all the parents and turn them into zombies. At this point, I was grilled on whether or not I had overheard any plans to poison the wine at the parents’ evening – to avoid beats, I said that yes definitely I had heard such a plan. However, we soon realised that trying to avert such a scenario would be too conspicuous. Besides, there was still his plan to sabotage the parents’ cars. How could we stop that? Dirk came up with a seemingly impossible but daring plan. He suggested we blow up the chemistry lab with a homemade bomb, which would do away with The Meph and his assistant at once. The inbred groundsman, with no orders to take, would be left standing listlessly, an improvement from when he was alive.
I was tasked with doing the in depth research on possible ways to make a bomb, something I threw myself at with the ardour of a young man. Googling “homemade bomb” and “chemistry lab” soon turned up several possible recipes for a workable bomb. I soon found a website which gave instructions for a small bomb that we could easily build. Excited, I sent a mass text to the entire chemistry class. Due to a mistyped contact, this was to be my greatest mistake. But I was not to know that yet. In order to get the ingredients for the bomb, we would have to break into the chemistry lab and steal them from The Meph’s cupboards. On Thursday night, the entire chemistry class gathered once again in Stokes’ dorm. We would all do this together because, being lads, we were all in this together. We crept out of the dorm, tiptoed down the stairs and out of Dunciad across the school grounds. There was a chill wind. The boarding houses were dark and forbidding, lit only by the occasional phosphor twinkle of someone watching a blue movie. We came in sight of the science labs and saw that they were dark. A good sign. Whispering loudly, and confident of our plan, we carefully walked nearer to the chemistry lab. Dirk prepared to force the window open.
Suddenly, our entire group was startled by a dark figure appearing from around the corner. It was The Meph! After him slid the inbred groundsman, his asissant, and four boys. I couldn’t tell who they were in the darkness. Dr Mephistopheles spoke in his reedy yet strangely sonorous voice. “Welcome class, I’ve been expecting you. I didn’t want you to make a bomb without the proper training.”
“Shit,” said Stokes, “how did he know?”
“Why,” said Dr Mephistopheles, “Phillips texted us.” Everyone looked at me. In a dreadful flash I realised what had happened. That text about the bomb website must have been sent to a zombie, who reported it to The Meph. “Screwdriver” said Stokes “you’re a fucking wanker!” He was entirely right! “Get them!” shouted Dr Mephistopheles. Luckily for me, there was no time for blame games. We all started to run. The inbred groundsman grabbed Nedward and I heard the hideous screams of him being strangled and dragged off. I caught sight of one of the boys and in a flash recognised him as one of the four who had been abducted on that dreadful weekend and denied the occurrence. We ran, and all the while the zombies were close behind us. “Shit!” muttered Dirk, the Head Man’s hummer quick! My dad was in the army, he taught me how to hotwire a car in 30 seconds.” The Head Man’s Hummer was a block of darkness against the night of the main car park. Someone found a stray beer bottle and smashed the window. “Don’t let them get away!” shouted Dr Mephistopheles. Dirk meanwhile was already doing the business. I dived through the window and felt someone grab my leg, trying to pull me out. I kicked. And then the Hummer started with a roar. I fell onto the glass covered seat, Stokes and Dirk piling on top of me.
We scrambled into position, and Dirk quickly took the steering wheel and floored the accelerator. A zombie boy who had been clawing at the window fell away. Behind us we could hear The Meph shouting indecipherable curses at us. We drove in a bumpy curve over the school grounds. Then Dirk took a sharp right to take us back round the school buildings. “What the hell do we do now!” he shouted.
“We have to kill The Meph and his zombies! Run them over, anything!” shouted Stokes. Dirk frantically spun the wheel and the Hummer careered round in a not-nearly-fast-enough U-turn. Immediately though, we heard the sound of another engine coming up to meet us. A dark shape barrelled towards us. Dirk frantically threw the Hummer to the left to dodge it. The vehicle slewed round over the grass with a screech of brakes. “Shit,” shouted Stokes, “switch the fucking headlights on!”
“I can’t find the fucking headlights!”
An inarticulate cursing revealed that The Meph was inside the other vehicle. Suddenly a flaming object glanced off the side of the Hummer and scattered fire.
Dirk muttered “Shit! He’s got Molotovs!”
He accelerated again. We should have predicted the Molotovs. If we GCSE chemists could build a bomb, how much better would an Oxbridge professor be at the job? Another Molotov exploded on the back window with a glittering crash.
The Meph and his killer zombies were gaining on us. Another Molotov might do us in for good. Dirk suddenly shouted “time for the Kamikaze move lads!” He swung the Hummer around in a wide curve. We ran a ring round The Meph’s car; it was lit up inside and as we manoeuvred, I could see it drifting past and round, off to the right. “The Head Man is not going to be happy about this!” Dirk frantically flung the wheel clockwise and anticlockwise, trying to get the aim right. We were heading for the vehicle; we crashed past it and we could see The Meph’s face twisted with rage in the back. “KNOBBER!” all three of us shouted into his window. There was a sharp crack on the roof. Had The Meph got a Molotov in on the side? “Fuck!” shouted Dirk, “I’ll see if I can bring her round again!” Another bumpy curve. The Meph came round in front of us. And we drove right at the vehicle! A Molotov whizzed through the air and flashed in front. We were still on target. Closer. Closer. A shuddering crash. I was thrown forward. I hit something…
A Young Offenders Institution is certainly a different place from the isolated and idyllic life of Sludworth. Nonetheless, the fact I managed to kill my chemistry teacher – something most of these kids can only dream of – has saved me from being messed around much. And to think, when I was expelled from Sludworth and the police called me in for questioning, my parents were horrified that I had been involved in the manslaughter of Dr Mephistopheles. If only they knew. But they would never believe me.
micheledutcher - r.tornello: It builds tension in a proper manner, follows through, very Poe like. Not to creepy, but just enough, and expected in a manner of speaking. Not my usual cup of verbiage, but a nice change.
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