• CHAPTER ONE •
Wednesday, October 17
Cecil Humphries, the government minister for education, despised most things, amongst them:
Being called by his first name.
The color yellow.
But at the top of this list was children. He hated them, which was rather unfortunate given that he was in charge of the well-being of every child in Britain. He knew, however, that the public was rather fond of them, for some reason he couldn’t fathom, and so he had reluctantly accepted the position, sure that it would boost his
flagging popularity and take him one step closer toward his ultimate goal: to take the job of his old school friend Prime Minister Edward Banks. Unfortunately for him, the public was far more perceptive than he gave them credit for, and kissing a couple of babies’ heads (then wiping his mouth afterward) had resulted only in a series of frustrating headlines, including:
HUMPHRIES LOVES BABIES
(BUT HE COULDN’T EAT A WHOLE ONE)
The more he tried to improve his image, the more it backfired on him, which only intensified his hatred of anybody under the age of eighteen, if that were at all possible.
It was only fitting, therefore, that the person who would ruin his career and leave him a quivering wreck in a padded cell for the rest of his life would be a twelve-year-old boy.
• • •
The beginning of the end for Cecil Humphries began on an uncharacteristically warm, sunny day in Liverpool. It had been four days since he had been photographed by a well-placed paparazzo stealing chocolate from the hospital bedside of a sick child and only two days since he had been pelted with eggs and flour when the photograph appeared on the front page of every newspaper in the country. Even for someone well accustomed to bad press, this had been a particularly awful week.
Humphries looked out of the window of his chauffeured car, saw the smiling children, and sighed.
“Never work with animals or children. Anyone ever tell you that?” he grumbled. James, his assistant, looked up
from his notes, nodded obediently, and said nothing, as he had learned to do.
“Different school, same brats,” he continued as the car pulled up outside the school entrance. “It’s like reliving the same nightmare every single time: a disgusting mass of grubby hands, crying, and runny noses.”
He took out a comb from his jacket pocket and ran it through what remained of his hair.
“You know which ones wind me up the most, though?”
“No, sir,” said James.
“The cute ones. Can’t stand them, with their big eyes and irritating questions.” He shuddered at the thought. “Do try to keep those ones away from me today, would you? I’m really not in the mood.” Humphries adjusted his dark blue tie and leaned over to open the car door.
“What’s the name of this cesspit?” he asked as he pulled back the door handle.
“Perrington School, sir. I briefed you about it earlier.”
“Yes, well, I wasn’t listening. Tell me now,” said Humphries, irritated.
“You’re presenting them with an award for excellence. Also, we’ve invited the press to follow you around while you tour the school and talk to the children. It’ll be a good opportunity for the public to see you in a more, um, positive light. And we’ve been promised a very warm welcome,” explained James.
Humphries rolled his eyes.
“Right. Well, let’s get it over and done with,” he said, opening the car door to a reception of obedient clapping and flashing cameras.
• • •
The teacher walked into the staff room and found Humphries and James sitting alone on the pair of brown plastic chairs that had been provided for them in the corner of the room.
“I am terribly sorry about that,” said the teacher, handing Humphries a tissue from the box she had brought in with her.
Humphries gave a tight smile and stood up. He took the tissue and tried, in vain, to dry the large damp patch of snot on the front of his jacket.
“No need to apologize. I thought they were all utterly charming,” he said with as much enthusiasm as he could muster.
“Well, that’s very understanding of you. He must really like you—I’ve never seen him run up and hug a complete stranger before! I hope it didn’t distract you too much from the performance.”
“No, not at all,” he said, handing James the wet tissue. James took it from him, paused to look around, and, not seeing a bin anywhere, reluctantly put it away in his pocket.
“They’ve been working on that for the last three weeks,” said the teacher proudly. “I’m so glad you liked it. Anything in particular that stood out for you?” she asked.
Humphries hesitated and looked to James who gave a barely visible shrug.
“Yes. Well, the whole thing was marvelous,” he said. The teacher waited for him to elaborate.
Humphries considered telling her that the best bit was when it finished, then quickly thought better of it.
“Hmm. Ah. Yes, I know. I rather enjoyed the part where the donkey hit the angel on the head. I thought the little girl’s tears were most believable.”
“Oh. Well, that really wasn’t planned,” she said, and quickly changed the subject. “Hopefully, the senior pupils will be a little less unpredictable. We’ve assembled everybody in the hall. There’ll be about three hundred students there.”
“And the press?”
“Yes, they’re all there. We’ve set up an area for the cameras and journalists at the side of the hall.”
“Good, good,” said Humphries, looking genuinely pleased for once. “Shall we go through?”
“Yes, of course. Follow me,” said the teacher. She led them out of the room, down the brightly decorated corridor, and through the double doors to face the waiting assembly of students.
Humphries walked in first. He stopped, smiled, and waved slowly, taking in the surroundings. The large hall was packed with children sitting on the wooden floor, all smartly dressed in their maroon uniforms, and the teachers sat in chairs that ran along both sides of the hall, positioned so that they could shoot disapproving glances at any pupil daring to misbehave. Humphries spotted the press area at the front and made his way toward them slowly, a wide, false smile on his face, stopping along the way to shake the hands of students, never taking his eyes off the cameras. He climbed a small set of steps and took a seat at the side of the stage. The headmistress took this as her cue and made her way to the podium.
“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, it is my pleasure today to welcome Cecil Humphries, the education minister, to our school. Receiving this award is, without a doubt, the single greatest honor that has been bestowed on the school in its one-hundred-twenty-four-year history. Established as an orphanage by Lord Harold . . .”
Humphries stifled a yawn, cocked his head, and tried his best to look interested as the headmistress began a twenty-minute history of the school and its achievements. He felt his eyes grow heavy, but, just as he thought he might not be able to stay awake a second longer, the headmistress turned to face him. He quickly sat up and straightened his tie.
“. . . and so I’d like you all to put your hands together for our esteemed guest, Mr. Cecil Humphries.”
Another round of applause, and Humphries approached the podium. He looked over at the headmistress and gave her his warmest smile (which would be better described as a grimace), then turned back to the audience and cleared his throat.
“Thank you so much for that wonderful introduction. One of the most pleasurable aspects of my job as education minister is to visit schools and see the wonderful achievements of pupils and staff. Today has been no exception, and I thank you all for the warm reception you have given me. It is—”
Humphries was interrupted by a loud ringing sound in his ears. He shook his head and coughed, but the noise persisted. Looking up, Humphries saw the audience watching him expectantly. He tried to ignore the sound and leaned forward toward the microphone.
“Excuse me,” he said, louder than necessary. “As I was saying, it is—” He stopped again. The high-pitched whining was getting louder, and he was finding it difficult to hear himself speak.
“I’m sorry, I seem to—”
He felt his ears start to throb in pain. He clutched his head and pressed at the side of his temples, but the noise kept rising in volume and seemed to expand and press against his skull until he thought it might explode. He reeled backward, struggling to stay standing. Out of the corner of his eye he saw James making his way toward the stage in a half run with a concerned look on his face. The pain was getting worse, and he felt the blood start to rush to his head. He struggled to look calm, aware that the cameras were rolling, but the pressure was building up against his eyes until his eyeballs started pushing out against their sockets. He put his arm out and felt for the side of the podium to try to steady himself, but the room started to spin, and he fell to the ground. He tried to push himself up, but sharp, stabbing pains began to spread across his whole body, each one as if a knife were being pushed into him and then turned slowly.
And then, as suddenly as it had begun, the ringing stopped. Humphries looked around, dazed, and slowly stood up, trying to gather his composure. He heard the sound of a child laughing, and the expression on his face turned from confusion to fury.
“Who is that?” he asked. “Who is laughing?”
Humphries looked out at the audience as the laughter increased in volume, but all he could see were shocked faces.
He turned and saw that James was beside him.
“Nobody is laughing, sir. I think we need to leave,” whispered James, but Humphries didn’t hear him, as the sound of the child’s laughter was joined by the laughter of what sounded like a hundred others.
“They’re all laughing. Stop laughing!” screamed Humphries at the stunned crowd, but instead the sound got increasingly louder until it became unbearable. He fell to the ground once more, his hands clutching his head, the veins on his forehead throbbing intensely from the pressure.
“Arghhh . . . HELP ME!” he shouted, his fear of dying overriding any embarrassment he might have felt at such a public lack of composure.
He looked up and saw a mass of flashing bulbs coming from the press photographers’ pen to his right. Struggling, he turned his head slowly away, his face twisted in agony, and searched the crowd for somebody who could do something to help him. At the front, a teacher stood up and appeared to start shouting for help. All about her, children were crying in fear as they watched Humphries begin to roll around on the floor in agonizing pain, but the sound of them was drowned out by the unbearable noise of children laughing in his head. He felt his temperature begin to rise suddenly and watched helplessly as his hands started to turn purple. Desperately, he looked down from the stage for help and caught the eye of a pale young boy sitting in the front row below him, cross-legged and staring intently at him with an expressionless face.
Humphries froze. It was at that moment, with a sudden jolt of clarity, that he realized what was happening,
and panic swept over him. Using all the strength he could muster, he pulled himself to his feet, and, eyes wide with terror and face a mottled purple, he jumped down from the stage and collapsed on the ground as the children in the front row scrambled to get away. The only child who remained was the pale boy in the crisp new uniform, who sat perfectly still and maintained a steady gaze as Humphries crawled forward in his direction, screaming unintelligibly, and then slowly raised his hands toward the boy’s neck. Worry turned to panic as the crowd realized that Humphries was about to attack the child. The headmistress sprang into action, hitched her skirt up, and jumped down from the stage, grabbing the young boy by his shirt collar and dragging him out of harm’s reach. Humphries raised his head slowly and turned to face the cameras. He opened his mouth and screamed,
As soon as the word left his lips, Humphries collapsed to the ground, his eyes open but expressionless, his body quivering in fear, just as he would remain for the rest of his life.