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‘The Sealed Building’ by Michael Whitehouse

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When I was a child, the school I went to was a peculiar and fascinating place. Whether it was the overgrown bushes that flanked it, the strangely crooked wood that lay opposite or the funny, eccentric, and sometimes fearsome, teachers and kids who populated the hallways and classrooms, that ignited my imagination, I do not know. I’m not sure when it was built, but it certainly stood out from the houses and quiet streets nearby, covered as it was in a bright fiery red paint that drew the eyes of passersby. I attended Kings Park Primary School from the age of five up until I was eleven or twelve, and, like most adults looking back at their playground days, I have both fond and hurtful recollections of it. One memory, however, has haunted me all these years, through dreams and fears I cannot fully comprehend.

Each day, with a rucksack on my back, I would wander past the crooked wood and wave to the ‘lollipop lady’ Mrs Collins - a kind old woman who’s job it was to stop traffic with her bright yellow sign, letting us cross in safety. After meeting my friends, we would walk through the rusted brown gates into one of two playgrounds before the school-day began.

It was rumoured that, in the past, the two grounds existed to separate boys from girls; even by then an outdated concept. By the time I attended the school, the first playground had been assigned for those aged five to eight, the second for those aged eight and up. In the older kids’ playground there lay a small red brick building, which stood on its own, disconnected from the main school complex. It had long since fallen into disuse and, in fact, had been sealed from prying eyes, its doors and windows walled up with stone and mortar making it impossible to see what was inside.

Its previous purpose was a bit of a mystery to us, as most of the teachers seemed to skirt around the topic entirely. Stories, unsurprisingly, spread between the wild imaginations of the children, and, in my school, this fondness for outlandish tales of tragedy and forbidden places often led to bizarre rumours and whispers. These were particularly connected to the sealed building and the reasons behind why we could not enter it; obscurity is a fertile ground for the fantastical ruminations of youth.

When my friends and I were in the younger playground up until the age of 8, we would sometimes sneak down a narrow passageway. It was flanked on one side by the towering main school building and by a tall grimy red brick wall on the other. This passage separated the playgrounds, and so, by evading the watchful eyes of our teachers, we could reach the end of that passageway and peek around the corner. There we would see the older kids playing football or just hanging around. Looking back, it is amusing how younger children look to their older peers. We thought that they were having so much more fun than us. We should have been focusing on the playful innocence of our own age group. But before we would inevitably be chased back to our own playground by the janitor or a passing teacher, my eyes would always lead to that sealed building. There was something lonely about it, isolated, and while it was surrounded by the yells and vibrancy of a school yard, its appearance suggested a grave silence to me, one which was the antithesis of childhood Spring.

Some of the older kids liked to scare themselves - and us - and told us, dramatically, that the building had been used as a science department resulting in a hideous accident, one that had produced strange and gruesome things which had to be kept from the world; even as a child of eight I knew made up nonsense when I heard it, though I did revel in the telling of the tale. Then there was the account that the building had been a previous and rather brutal head teacher’s office decades earlier, and that he had died there in a fire. His ghost obviously still haunted the place and it was better that the vengeful old sod be contained there, fuming at his desk as children enjoyed themselves and played nearby - again, nothing but childhood whimsy.

There was, however, one account of why the place had been abandoned that seemed more plausible to me. The building was, in fact, a toilet. Yes, a normal toilet; no frills, no secret laboratories, no dead spirits of an overbearing head teacher. It had simply been sealed up when new facilities were installed in the school to stop the children from climbing inside. But yet, despite this mundane explanation, there were still tales to be told about the red bricked, disconnected building in the older kids’ playground.

Although I had heard the stories, it wasn’t until I was in my fourth year at the school that I became intimately and, at the time, uncomfortably involved with it. The older kids’ playground was flanked on three sides by a rectangular section of the school itself, with the fourth side separated from neighbouring houses by a mouldy and dark red wall. It was isolated from the other playground - except for the aforementioned passageway - and, to further the feeling of imprisonment, it was characterised by tall metal fencing that rose up in places where a brave classmate might have attempted their great escape. Yet, there was one old gate that did allow access of sorts, but, like prison guards, the teachers tended to check on it regularly.

There in the corner of the grounds lay the old building. Its windows were enclosed in brick, as were its two doors, but the roof seemed unusual to me, being flat in places and surely gathering puddles of rainwater during the wetter seasons. I was, at that age - and embarrassingly still to this day - terrified by heights. Much to my horror, I discovered that climbing up onto the roof of the old toilets was seen as a rites of passage of some sort. Don’t misunderstand me, we weren’t forced to go up there, but children can be cruel; when someone new to that playground showed weakness or fear, this would often result in them being bullied.

Over the coming weeks, I watched as each of my friends climbed up onto the roof when the opportunity presented itself, dangling their legs over the sides nonchalantly once up there; one-by-one claiming their right to be in the older playground, while I succumbed to ever increasing taunts about my fears. Don’t disbelieve me when I say, I did try. Several times a ball would be kicked accidentally onto the roof and my classmates would turn to me to retrieve it. I even made it up the side of an old drainpipe on a few occasions, far enough even to reach my hand up and over and touch the roof’s surface. Yet, each time, I would fail. Fear would grip me and, with each admission of defeat, the name-calling and embarrassment intensified.

I can trace back a curious and detrimental aspect of my personality to that time. You see, failure in front of strangers does not bother me to this day; but under the gaze of friends, family or even acquaintances? The very idea makes me break out in a cold sweat. Later in life, I followed the stereotypical path of chasing fame as a teenager and I would have no problem playing in bands in front of those I did not know, but put a familiar face in the audience and my anxieties would take hold. The stakes of failure would be raised that much higher, in my mind at least.

For this reason, I chose an odd time to truly face my fear. One day after our lessons had finished, I waited outside the gates, watching as the other children slowly syphoned out of the two playgrounds, kicking their feet through the autumn leaves. Parents escorted the youngest of my fellow students, while those of an older age walked with their classmates - some eagerly, others not so - making their way down the hill, by the woods, and then to their homes in further parts of Kings Park.

As the school became ever emptier and the teachers themselves began to leave, I walked down a nearby street, entering the gardens at the back of the building. I always found the rear of my school to be an interesting place. It consisted of shrubs, bushes, and an old ash football pitch. Our teachers never seemed to use the area for anything, and we were actively encouraged to keep clear of it. Again, there were stories among the students that a child had been abducted while playing there years previously. Whether that is true or not, I do not know.

Once I was as certain as I could be that everyone was gone, I sneaked through the bushes up a small incline to the rear of the playground. There, embedded in the wall, was the narrow brown gate that the teachers kept a watchful eye on. As far as I knew, it was never used. I assumed that it had served a legitimate purpose years before, but for me and my friends, it was the place where we would climb over to run around the school grounds at the weekend when no one was there - it was an exceptional place to play one man hunt, with so many nooks and crannies to hide in.

As cautious as I was, I truly wanted to get up onto the roof of the old toilets. In my eight year old head, I had visions of sneaking up there in the morning and surprising my friends, or running up there to heroically retrieve a girl’s ball - in childhood we think that those around us really care about our actions, but in truth they are of little consequence to anyone other than ourselves. Yes, I had been bullied a little for not being as strong or as fearless as those around me. And that sense of public failure, of insecurity, was a potent sensation at a young age and enough to give me the courage to at least attempt the climb away from prying eyes, should I have failed.

I had considered asking one of my friends to join me. I was nervous that a teacher might still be in the main building somewhere, and so needed a lookout, but this would only have given me someone in front of which to fail. I decided to attempt it on my own. After waiting for what seemed an age, I slowly climbed over the gate. It rattled unnervingly under my movements, echoing out around the empty playground. Then, after hesitantly observing the hundreds of windows, which dotted the school, for movement, and happy enough with the absence of light emanating from them, I stepped silently to the sealed building.

Even though as little as an audience of one could effect my confidence, I partly wished that I had not been alone; the building and its deserted surroundings left me feeling uneasy. I knew, however, that if I just got up there once, that I would have conquered my fear and would be able to climb up onto the roof with ease in future. Hopefully putting any name-calling to rest.

I stood staring at the drain pipe that would be my avenue to success, clinging as it did through rusted fittings to the side of the building. My mind back then was often clouded with the worst possibilities, focusing on the most negative potential outcomes, and as I began to climb slowly, I imagined that the drainpipe would wrench away from the wall throwing me against the concrete ground at any moment. The truth is that it did not move, no matter how much I believed that it did. Without a witness, I was now as high as I had reached before, able to stick my hand up above me and touch the edge of the roof. My heart raced with excitement as I began to believe that I really could do it, that success was in sight.

I then made the mistake of looking down to check my progress. The experience of height is difficult to convey to someone who has no issues with it. While in reality I was probably no more than seven or eight feet off the ground, I perceived this as a monumental distance. I felt my stomach churn, my heart beat erratically, and the world below begin to spin and distort. Worse still, a loss of nerve permeated my body leaving me feeling weak, and my grip began to loosen.

It is strange how the mind works. Just as I was ready to admit defeat once more and retreat, the insults and jeers of my classmates rang throughout my awareness. It was as if they were present down below, taunting me. With what was, for me, a huge effort, I found myself continuing to climb upwards, my hands reaching out to the damp roof. With one final effort, I pulled myself up onto the top of the sealed building. There I was - I had done it.

Letting out a laugh of excitement, relief washed over me. I could not wait for the next day. I’d climb onto the roof, proving all my detractors wrong. Peeking over the edge, I still felt trepidation at the height, but nowhere near as much as I had done before; my triumph had quelled my anxiety. Still, I was not too keen to remain there for long, so I decided to investigate my surroundings briefly, then climb back down to the safety of the playground and head home, ecstatic.

The roof was painted in a similar fiery red colour to the main school building, though peeled and cracked. This suggested that it had been a long time since someone had been up there to give it a new coat. Standing up cautiously, I felt my legs waver slightly as my stomach churned again at the thought of how high up I was - laughable really as the height of the roof was probably no more than ten or eleven feet. Yet, no matter how nervous I was, the sense of triumph that I felt coursing through my body was truly wonderful. I walked slowly from one side of the roof to the other, careful not to trip as I did so. The short walk from the drainpipe to the opposite ledge and back filled me with a feeling of conquest, like a soldier patrolling their territory - for those brief moments that roof, that building, was mine.

Just as I turned to finally make my way back to the ground below, I saw that in the middle of the roof there was a hole. I’m not sure how I hadn’t noticed it before that moment. It was quite small, big enough for me to fit my hand through and little else. Curious, I took a few careful steps and then knelt for a closer look.

The light from the evening sky passed straight through the hole, illuminating what lay inside. Putting my eye as close as possible to the opening without blocking the light, I was surprised by what I saw. Down there in the darkness like a perfectly preserved tomb, the old-fashioned white tiling remained intact. I could see the sinks where, years before, students once washed their hands or flicked water at one another for amusement. There were also three stalls; cubicles with deep, dark brown doors, lying there as if still used. The air inside was tinged with dust and age, yet if someone had told me that the building had been sealed only the day before, I would have believed them. All but for one thing belied the age of the interior: a layer of stagnant water covered the floor, no doubt accumulating there from rain dripping in through the opening in the roof.

Then I became aware of a strong smell, one that left my eyes stinging slightly and my mood apprehensive. Yes, there was no doubting it, someone was smoking a cigarette nearby. My heart sank as I lay down, motionless, cursing myself for taking too much time on the roof to celebrate my victory. A teacher or perhaps the janitor must have stayed behind to work late and was probably standing in the playground below. I knew that they must have been close, as the smoke smelled thick and oppressive.

I lay curled up on the cold wet concrete waiting for whoever was there to leave. The now almost caustic smoke seemed to be increasing in strength. Several times I had to hold my breath, frightened that I would cough and be caught. I do not believe I exaggerate when I say that I lay motionless for half an hour, yet it took me all that time to make a simple, yet unsettling observation. While I could smell the smoke - indeed feeling as if I were inhaling just as much as the unseen smoker themselves - I couldn’t see it. I would have expected to have seen the smoke rise up and over the roof top, but not even the slightest wisp was evident.

The autumn sky was now dimming, and I grew frustrated as the cold damp stone below me sent chills through my body. Wishing that I had never gone up there in the first place, I felt hunger approaching and knew that parents would have been worried about me by then. I persuaded myself that I could at least dip my head over the edge of the roof and quickly take a look to see who was there below. Maybe if they were on the other side of the yard, I could have climbed down unseen. I slid across the roof as quietly as I could and slowly peered downward, sure to not make any sudden movements to attract attention.

There was no one there. The playground was empty and the darkened windows of the main school building seemed as vacant as they had done before. Yet the smell and taste of cigarette smoke still filled my lungs and stung my eyes. Then, I witnessed something that rooted me to the spot. A single curling strand of smoke slid upward through the hole in the roof; someone was down there. Someone was inside that room beneath me. This seemed impossible. As far as I was aware there was no way inside. The building was sealed, but there it was - smoke escaping first from the mouth of someone unseen below, and then up through the hole in the roof to where I had been lying.

My triumph of finally facing my fear of heights seemed a distant memory. Now all I could think of was getting off of that roof to safety down below. But the hole lay between myself and the drainpipe, and curiosity being as gripping a mindset as any, I decided to take a quick look inside before quietly making my escape and leaving the building behind. As I approached the opening, the smell of smoke grew stronger still, and as I peered inward the thought of don’t look filtered through my mind. But it was too late. I had looked. At first, there was nothing. The room below seemed darker than it had done before, but this could be explained by the dimming sky and my eyes adapting to the change. What could not be explained was the noise I heard coming from inside.

It seemed distant at first, indistinct and uncertain. Then it gradually took form, to me sounding like someone choking. I smiled to myself thinking that it was probably the cigarette smoke and that maybe some local kids had a den down there, but then suddenly, in the gloom, my eyes were drawn to one of the cubicles. Its door was closed and yet I was not convinced that it had been before. I tilted my head closer to the hole, but my angle of view shrouded the inside from inspection.

As the choking sound increased in volume, so too did the smell of smoke. Then sound and smell were joined by something that froze my very soul. I panicked and let out a cry. The door quivered with impact as if someone were violently kicking it from the other side. Smoke now filled my lungs and, as my eyes watered, I could barely see anything both inside the building and out.

Then, it stopped. The choking sound had disappeared and the smell of smoke had simply vanished. For a moment I started to think that I had imagined it all. I gasped for air, drawing deep into my lungs, only for terror to take me once more. In the dark silence, in the cold, damp, and forgotten room below, the sound of footsteps in water filled the air. Then, the cubicle door slowly began to creak open.

I can’t say entirely what took place after that. I believe I’ve blocked much of it from my memory. Apparently the headmaster - an intimidating yet kind man by the name of Mr McKay - had been in his office working late on the other side of the building. When he was disturbed by the sound of my screams, he rushed outside and found me on the roof curled up into a ball, paralysed with fear, sobbing. After some reassuring words, he helped me down and took me to his office where he once again guaranteed that I was safe. My parents were then phoned to come and pick me up.

I trusted Mr McKay implicitly. While we waited for my parents to arrive, I fought the tears back and described everything that had happened: The roof, the smoke, the cubicle. As I told him my story, the blood drained from his face. I have long thought about what he told me in that office after hearing my account. Perhaps he wished to frighten me so that I and others would never venture up there again, and looking back it does seem to be a strange thing to share with an already frightened child otherwise. But he seemed genuinely disturbed by the events I had conveyed to him, as though the story just seeped out.

He told me that years before I went to Kings Park Primary School, there had been a tragedy there involving a twelve year old girl, one whom he refused to name. She had a reputation for being difficult. The teachers tried their best, sympathising with her coming from an abusive background, but they found her almost impossible to control. She often threatened violence and had been suspended several times for fighting with other students.

One day she decided to skip a class and had managed to persuade two other girls to join her by promising them a cigarette each. So, as the story went, the girls sneaked away when the bell for class rang, and hid in the toilets. The details of what occurred afterwards were less than forthcoming, but what was clear was that the poor girl had a seizure of some kind and died there and then. The other girls claimed that they had already left before this happened, but there were rumours and accusations of which most only whispered but many believed. It was suggested that the girl had been with her friends when the seizure took place and, out of fear of getting caught smoking and skipping class, they lifted their friend into the stall, closed the door over, and then left her there. Whether they believed that she would perhaps recover or not was the subject of much speculation. The scratches and bashes on the inside of the cubicle suggested most definitely that she had continued to convulse while there, perhaps even in an uncoordinated attempt to escape and call out for help.

In the aftermath, the building was closed off and the school and community attempted, as best they could, to put the tragedy behind them. Perhaps Mr McKay made the whole thing up just to terrify me, taking what I thought I’d experienced and using it to concoct a story to scare me away from ever going back to that place. I do not know the truth. Unfortunately, however, a few unwelcome things transpired after that. I did indeed avoid the roof of that strange place at all costs. My fear of heights was nothing compared to the dread that the building now held for me. My schoolmates of course did not believe my version of things, accusing me of lying about the entire story just to avoid being pushed around. As far as they were concerned, I never made it up there. Lastly, I did have a recurring dream throughout my childhood, one which has stayed with me to this day. I would wake from it in a cold sweat, curled up in my bed, screaming. I know that in it I would be lying on that roof, peering down through the hole into that abandoned place, but the memory always seems vague somehow. All that is left is an impression; of a cubicle door creaking open, and something staring up at me from within.

Published inShort Stories

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