The first thing that I recall when I think about the boarding school is that I had no memory of arriving there. I awoke, as if from a dream, to find myself standing completely alone on the vast stone steps leading up to the heavy wooden double doors. A vague memory of Papa yelling something at me faded to the back of my mind, and was gone before I could really grasp it.
From where I stood at that moment, I could see directly below me, a rose garden. Roses of all colours seemed to be in bloom, and the path between the beds lead to a lake. Beyond that, I could see no more.
Deciding that I should knock on the door, to see if anyone were available to aid me in discovering my whereabouts, I turned and came face to face with an older gentleman. The man in question seemed to tower before me, smiling down at me. He wore a gray suit, and his hair, kept short, was also gray. His eyes stared at me through big, round glasses. He hadn’t been there just moments before when I first became aware of my surroundings, and I had not heard a door open. Upon further inspection, I could see that the front door remained closed. I looked for another possible door from which he could have silently emerged, and saw none.
“Good morning Clayton.” He addressed me by my surname, and did not advance forward to shake my hand but instead stood with his hands clasped behind my back. I said nothing.
“Ahh, it seems you’ve lost your tongue. Not to worry young man, it’s perfectly normal. Shall we?” He turned towards the main building, and started to walk towards the doors. My legs carried me, but I made no conscious decision to move. We stopped outside of the doors, and he looked down at me.
“Welcome to Ushaw Boarding School.” He beamed. “I am Mr Grey, the headmaster.”
I blinked and we were inside. That is not to say that the action of my blinking lead me inside, but more that I missed the moment of us crossing over the threshold, and so the moment was gone in the blink of an eye.
We were standing in a large foyer, a room which felt cold and foreboding. There was no decoration at all save for a large floral rug, and a painting of Mr Grey which hung on the wall behind the reception desk. The receptionist in question was missing from their post. There was staircase to my left, and that was all. The flowers in the rug matched the rose garden, but I had this strangest sense that if I looked at it for long enough, the roses would start to move, and change. I disliked the feeling, and so I chose to focus on a blank spot on the wall straight ahead of me.
“Now, you’ll be meeting your classmates soon, and they will show you to the dormitory. Before I introduce you, do you have any questions for me?” I could not decide if he unnerved me or comforted me. He spoke to me in a kind manner, and yet I felt a constant sense of unease.
“I’m sorry sir, but where am I? How did I get here? Where is Papa?” As these questions stared to pour out of me, I could feel panic rising from the depths of my stomach.
“You’re at Ushaw Boarding School. I cannot tell you how you came to be here, those are the rules. Your father, as far as I am aware, is back at home. Now, come along.” He turned towards a frosted glass door that I hadn’t previously noticed.
Again, without really knowing how it had happened, I was standing in front of a classroom of children. On first sight, they all appeared to me the same age as me, and from a quick head count there were 8 boys and 3 girls. I looked around to find that Mr Grey had gone, and had been replaced by an older lady all dressed in black, with black hair tied up in a tight bun on her head. It gave me the impression that it was pulling her face tight to stop the skin from sagging.
“Boys and girls, this is Clayton, our newest student. He arrived this morning. Clayton, I’m Ms Black, and these are your new class mates.” She gestured to the children in front of me. Off in the distance, a bell rang.
“Stephenson, can you show Clayton around please? Everyone else come with me.” The class silently followed Ms Black through the door, and left a blonde haired boy standing in front of me. He had piercing blue eyes, eyes that looked sad and lonely.
“Hello. I’m Stephenson.” I stepped forward to shake his hand, and he took a step back. I frowned, looking down at my feet, feeling my cheeks go red.
“Don’t take it personally Clayton. We aren’t allowed to touch.” He explained. I looked up to see he was no longer standing in front of me. Turning round, I found him standing by the door.
“You seem a little disorientated. I better show you the dormitory first, in case you need to lie down.” With that, I found myself lying on a bed. I sat up and saw that I was surrounded by eleven identical beds. Similarly to the foyer and the classroom, there was no decoration at all.
“Are you feeling better now?” He asked.
“Not really. What’s going on?” I looked around desperately for a clock but saw none.
“You’re at Ushaw Boarding School. We go by our surnames here, and some of us stay for a long time. Some of us go back home, and some of us... well some of us go somewhere else.” He explained.
“Where?” I asked.
“That’s not for me to say. Do you remember how you got here?” I shook my head in response.
“That’s okay. Some do, some don’t. It can take some time. In the meantime, try to adjust to being here.” He spoke to me in soothing tones.
“I want to speak to my father.” I said in a small voice.
“We don’t do that. We aren’t allowed to communicate with anyone outside of the school.” This news filled me with dread.
We seemed to exist in a sort of timeless, distorted reality. Without knowing how I had gotten there, I would be in a classroom starting a new lesson, or leaving the dining hall not being aware of what I had eaten. No one was able to tell me why this was, but just that I would get used to it.
One afternoon I found myself standing at a landing window looking out over the rose garden. It was a spot that I gravitated towards. I longed to stand amongst the roses but we weren’t allowed out into the grounds apart from ten minutes a day in a closed off yard at the side of the building. I felt drawn to them, and viewing them left me feeling peaceful. On this day, as I stared out of the window, the roses had all lost their colour. Some of them had wilted, and many of them were dead.
Stephenson appeared noiselessly next to me.
“What happened to the roses?” I asked him.
“What do you mean? They’re always like that.” He told me.
“No they aren’t, they were in bloom yesterday.” Stephenson looked straight into my eyes. I shifted uncomfortably.
“I see. I once saw them in bloom, but it’s been a long time for me. You must be having a bad day.” I hadn’t the faintest idea what he was talking about.
That night I dreamt my father was standing over me. Mr Grey stood beside him and they talked about me as if I wasn’t there. I tried calling out to him, but he couldn’t hear me. I tried desperately to listen to the exchange between my father and Mr Grey.
“Why has this happened?” My father questioned.
“It’s to be expected. His condition has been promising so far, but it is fragile. I am still hopeful that he will do well in school.” Mr Grey’s tone changed half way through his sentence. He turned and smiled directly at me, clasping his hands behind his back.
“Wake up Clayton.” He spoke to me, and I awoke suddenly. Stephenson stood over me, in the darkness.
“You were talking in your sleep. You were dreaming.” He sat on the bed next to me.
“Yes, I was. My father and Mr Grey were standing right here talking about me.” I explained.
“Yes, that happens. He doesn’t like it though.” Stephenson lay down and closed his eyes, leaving me alone.
I’m not sure how long passed between that dream, and my next memory, but when I checked later that day, the roses were in bloom again. I was starting to understand some of the strange rules the mysterious school had in place, and from that I surmised that I was having a good day.
I was looking out of a window down into a yard attached to what I thought was a disused building. In the yard, there were boys and girls of differing ages running around laughing and playing games. They were watched by an adult, who smiled at the children.
Stephenson appeared from nowhere, as he often did.
“Who are those children?”I asked him, fully expecting one of the cryptic answers I was so used to receiving.
“They’re the other children. They go to the new school. They aren’t like us.” He told me.
“What do you mean? Stephenson, I feel like I never really know what you or anyone else is talking about.” He looked around for a moment, and then dropped his voice to a whisper.
“That’s a good sign, Clayton. The more you start to understand, the longer you’ll be here.” He stepped closer to me so I could hear him better.
“How long have you been here?” I whispered back to him, not fully understanding why we were talking as though we might get caught.
“I don’t know. A long time. I think I’m here for the long haul.” He suddenly looked very sad, and very pale.
“Can’t you tell me what’s going on?” I pleaded with him.
“No, it’s against the rules.” I looked back out at the children in the yard, now lining up ready to go back inside. When I turned again, Stephenson was gone.
As the weeks went by, I started to wonder if I hadn’t gone mad. Maybe this wasn’t a boarding school, but it was an asylum and my mind had created the school as a way to try and cope with what was happening. I had moments of clarity where I could clearly see my father standing calling out to me in distress. In the night, I ached all over, and had more dreams about Papa and Mr Grey. I was repeatedly told I was at a school and yet I could never recall any of my lessons. Only Stephenson really talked to me. The others would partake in friendly chit chat but that was all.
I started to pay attention to the other students around me at every chance I got. One day, I noticed that someone was missing. Stephenson told me that he thought she had gone to the other place. I wondered if this was the other school that operated behind us. He told me it wasn’t, and that that place was different. Some days the other children seemed full of life, and other days they were pale and sickly looking. I would see them standing looking at the roses, sighing longingly. I started to realise that some of them were apparently just the same as me, with no clue what was happening or how they had come to be there. Others, like Stephenson seemed to be resigned to their fate, whatever that should be.
I had never before seen Mr Grey’s office, but on this particularly bright and sunny day, I was sitting opposite him. Yet again, I had no recollection of getting there. The last thing I remembered was waking up in the morning. This room was also bare. There was a big mahogany desk, but the desk had nothing on it. There was a rug on the floor that matched the rug in the foyer. The roses on this rug were particularly bright and perfectly still.
“Well Clayton, it seems you aren’t fitting in here.” He sat behind his desk, leaning forward with his hands clasped together in front of him.
“Have I done something wrong sir?” I asked him.
“Not at all young man. It seems you’re needed elsewhere.” He smiled that unsettling smile at me.
“Am I going to the other place? The place that Smith went to?” My heart beat furiously in my chest.
“I can’t say, for I don’t know. Life is but a mystery, and I am no more than the headmaster of this here school. Now, in a few minutes I am going to unlock the front door, and allow you to walk into the rose garden to say a final farewell to the school. It has been jolly nice having you here, and I wish you the very best of luck with whatever awaits you out there.” Just like that, I was standing on the stone steps, where this had all began. I looked back up at the building and saw Stephenson standing at one of the many windows, looking down at me. He raised a hand, and in turn I raised mine to him. It seemed as though he faded before my very eyes.
For the first time in what felt like a long time, I was filled with a burst of energy. I looked down the stone steps at the rose garden, and ran to it. The garden was in full bloom, every flour bed was alive. As I inhaled the gorgeous scent rising from the flowers, it occurred to me that I hadn’t smelled anything this whole time.
I could hear my father’s voice, faintly at first but becoming clearer. The garden started to fade, and just as suddenly as I found myself standing on those stone steps, I became aware that I was lying in a bed - a hospital bed. My father stood beside the bed, talking to Mr Grey.
“Papa?” I croaked. They turned to look at me.
“Master Clayton, you’re awake!” Mr Grey gasped. My father crouched to my side and took my hand.
“Oh my sweet boy, I was beginning to lose hope.” I held his hand tightly, not wanting to let go. Tears stung my eyes.
“Mr Grey, what are you doing here?” I couldn’t understand what was going on but if I had left the school, why was he here. He stopped what he was doing, and looked at my father. My father nodded.
“My name is Dr Grayson, and I have been in charge of your care for the past month. A car ran into you in the street, and your father brought you in. You’ve been in a coma ever since.” He went about examining me.
“But father, how did I get to the boarding school?” I asked him.
“What on earth are you talking about? I would never send you to boarding school. Do you remember what happened?”
“No. Papa, I am so confused.” My father looked at the doctor, who stopped examining me and sat next to us.
“It is quite common, for the mind to dream up a different place while in comatose state. For now, try to stay calm. We have some work ahead of us but now you are awake you should be well and home soon enough.” He resumed his examination.
Weeks turned into months and I eventually stopped talking about the boarding school. No one would believe me, I was just repeatedly told that it wasn’t real and that I needed to move on. I never mentioned again.
Until now. The truth is that I had tucked the memory deeply away in my mind, but now that it’s come back to me, I thought it time to make a record of it.
A few weeks ago, I received an interesting phone call from someone claiming that we were old school friends. He said he wanted to meet with me. We agreed that he would meet me at my house. When I opened the front the door, the only thing that struck me as familiar were the eyes.
I welcomed him in, made a pot of tea and invited him to sit in the comfy armchair by the fire. Every step he took seemed to be a struggle. He was emaciated, as though he had wasted away. His hair was thin, long.
“I’ve been looking for you.” He told me. He held his tea close to him, absorbing the warmth from the cup.
“I’m sorry to say that I can’t place you.” He observed me from his chair.
“I always wondered what had happened to you.”
“What did you say your name was?” I feeling of unease had started to creep into me.
“I’ve been in a coma for the past twenty years. I woke up two months ago, and yours was the only name I could remember.” He told me. I counted back twenty years, and as I did so, I realised that I hadn’t lost touch with many friends from school, not really.
“Twenty years... well that means you must have... but you can’t have. We were friends you say? I’m sorry; I really am having trouble placing you. If you could just give me your name, I’m sure I’ll know you?” I think I knew before he told me, where I had seen those eyes before.
“Stephenson. My name is Stephenson.”