End-of-term wind-up

10th January 1997 at 00:00
According to the law of Scotland, a mortification is money left for a charitable purpose, so you could quite well have a school called McKinlay's Mortification. I used to work there.

One hot summer afternoon I had a class of three, all the others having gone swimming. As I crossed the playground, I saw a squad of men in blue spacesuits crawling up the face of the buildings. We weren't supposed to know anything about them, but they were there to remove asbestos from the roof-space.

You can't do much about teaching three people two weeks before the end of term, so I left them to their own devices so long as these were strictly legal. Sharon was the first to break the silence.

"Listen. What's that noise? Just up above our heads?" "Ock", I said, "it'll be Obadiah, looking for his clock".

"What clock?" asked Graham.

"Who's Obadiah?" asked Sharon.

"Obadiah had a job winding the clock at the Old Building," I said obligingly. "Your dad was at the old school, wasn't he, Graham?" "So was mine," said Kevin.

"Well, maybe you've heard about the music room that was up a rickety wooden stairs and behind the piano there was a wee tiny door, so wee that no full-sized person could get through it?" "That's right!" said Kevin, "My dad told me about it. They all wondered what it was for."

"It led into the back of the school clocks but because the door was so wee, only a very wee man could wind it up, so Obadiah got the job. Every Friday afternoon, he would climb the staircase, come into the room, walk across the floor between the piano and the class, say 'Excuse me, Sir' and go through the door. Then you'd hear him winding up the clock, crrrnnk, crrrnnk - he never forgot, he always had the time - and then go back the same way he came, back down the stair and into the janitors' room."

"Hey," said Kevin, "I'll have to tell my dad. He's always wondered what that door was for."

"Well, now you know," I said. "But then we got all these new people, nearly as many again, and they had to build this new school. But it didn't have a clock, and six months later poor wee Obadiah died of a broken heart."

For a moment I felt quite guilty, especially when I saw the tear in the corner of Sharon's eye.

"Sometimes, though, when it's quiet like this, Obadiah's ghost comes backs and you can hear him crawling among the rafters, looking for his clock and making cranking-up noises, and then he goes away again weeping."

Graham, half-asleep in the summer torpor, lifted his head. "Ach, she's kiddin' yez on," he said. "It's no a wee man lookin' for a clock. It's a big man whippin' asbestos oot the roof."

Sharon turned round and biffed him one on top of his head. "Shut up, you! That was a great story!"

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