The Price of Escape


I hadn’t seen Rufus in years, not since high school in fact. He was marginally taller but otherwise had changed little from the picture I had of him in my mind – freckles and dimples, a divot in his chin, nervous smile.

“How are you doing?” I asked him then launched into the usual recital of my own life after high school. Started studying law but dropped out and ended up in music production, worked with some big, big names in the music biz. Married Jen, you remember Jen, maybe you don’t actually. Had two daughters, our little angels, good as gold. Finally I asked him: “So what about you? What have you been doing?”

“Oh you know,” he shrugged. “Still the same.”

“The same what?”

He hesitated for a moment. “Still at school.”

“Ha ha – another one of you nutters who went and became teachers! You’re braver than I am, I can tell you! I think Martin Telford went into teaching as well.”

“No, you don’t understand,” Rufus continued. “I’m still at school. I never left.”

I continued to grin, trying to work out the joke. Of course he’d left school – he had been at the graduation ceremony and the leavers’ party afterwards. Or had he? Now that I thought about, I couldn’t picture him having been there; perhaps he’d never turned up.

“I don’t get it Rufus, we left high school over ten years ago.”

“Yeah, not me.” He undid his jacket at this point so that I could see that he was indeed wearing our old school’s blazer and blue and white striped tie. I laughed but only because I couldn’t think of any other way to react. Inside I was starting to feel a little off-balance, that sensation in a dream when things just stop adding up.

“What the hell are you talking about Rufus,” I said, harsher than I had intended. “I don’t see or hear from you in years and now you spin this nonsense on me? I mean what the hell?”

Some passers-by had turned to look at what the commotion might be. Blushing, Rufus steered me towards a nearby bench, took a deep breath and started back at the beginning.

All through our time at Canderwell High, the head teacher had been a Mr Brookes. Brookes had dressed and acted like some hotshot investment banker, all braces and pinstripes, and personality-wise was simply a horrendous human being. Whilst you could begin to sympathise that most other teachers were just acting towards their pupils’ own good or were stressed or misread situations, not Brookes. He was genuinely evil. He would pick out kids and berate them for the most ludicrous of reasons, a slight twinkle in his eye all the while. There was always a nervous queue outside his office, trembling at the yelling from within. Even the other staff seemed uneasy in Mr Brookes’ slithery presence.

Myths had been built up around the infamous head teacher by us kids – apparently he had shouted so much at one kid, the boy had wet himself and insisted his parents move him to another school the following day. Or there was the rumour that Brookes still kept a cane in his office and would sometimes bring it out to practice long, arcing swishes against imaginary school children. One myth that had completely slipped from my mind though was the “Price of Escape” – a tale that each year a few unlucky kids would be unable to graduate from their final year because they had supposedly damaged school property at one point or taken too many suspicious sick days. The guilty would have to complete a day of laborious cleaning around the school as well as supply Mr Brookes himself with a hand-written apology as penance before being allowed to officially leave the school. I had never actually known anyone who had lived through this ritual first, or even second, hand and had just dismissed the whole thing. But for Rufus, it seemed, the Price of Escape had become a reality.

Aged 13, he had broken a window in the art department – entirely by accident albeit whilst mucking around. He had taken a berating at the time and his father had ended up footing the bill. The crime had not been forgotten by Mr Brookes though and on our final day of high school, he had called Rufus into his office. Mr Brookes quietly reminded Rufus of the situation and how a full, written apology would be required before Rufus could graduate. Rufus had politely replied that he would be doing no such thing and walked out, heading home early. The next day however there was a phone call for him from Brookes and the next day as well and then letters started to arrive – all highly aggressive and demanding the necessary apology. This campaign lasted all summer, methodical and unrelenting. The situation started to grate, not just against Rufus, but his parents as well who found it to be the latest in a string of topics to fight about. By the end of the summer, Brookes had not relented, Rufus’ parents were in the early stages of an ugly divorce and Rufus had had enough. Instead of looking for a job or applying for university, he waited till the first day of term, put on his tie and blazer and went back to school.

The teachers were initially bemused at his arrival, sitting cross-armed and awaiting to be told what classes to attend but soon Brookes arrived to witness Rufus’ defiance first hand. The head quickly concluded that if Rufus would still not apologise then he would simply have no option other than to repeat his final year. Unwilling to back down, Rufus accepted. That day he went to all the necessary classes, taking notes and answering questions. He came back the following day and did the same, and the next day, and the next. It was a laugh – he knew a few people in the lower year so fitted in quickly. But a year later and the situation had remained unchanged, Rufus was still at school whilst his classmates were once again preparing to graduate.

“See you next year?” Brookes had asked Rufus with a slight grin, laying down a renewed challenge.

Rufus went and travelled during the summer but came back in time for the new term. This time, members of staff started to complain but Brookes quickly suppressed such undercurrents. Rufus decided to take a few new subjects, seeing that he might as well take the opportunity to broaden his horizons. The routine began again.

The situation had gone on for so long now that every passing day, week and year made it harder for Rufus or Brookes to back down. After a few years Rufus had to be withdrawn from sitting with the main classes, studying himself from textbooks and receive the odd private lesson. He was however, gradually becoming adept in every subject the school ran. He had developed a friendly relationship with the teachers, even helping some with marking or preparing new course material. In the evenings and weekends he worked stacking shelves or in a local meat-packing plant. Along with the money he got from two embittered parents, he managed to rent a small flat and live a fairly comfortable, if lonely, life.

“So that’s that,” he said finally and shrugged.

“So you’re really telling me,” I said, struggling to put the words together. “That you’ve wasted the past thirteen, fourteen years of your life just to make a point to that twisted, old git?”

“I can’t let him win now,” replied Rufus.

I did something then that may have seemed cruel but I honestly did it for the best of intentions. I slapped him. Hard. The sound carried on the still air and when Rufus turned back, a crimson handprint was clearly visible against his pale skin. I’d forgotten what it was like to hit somebody – the experience was both nauseating and strangely intimate.

“Nobody’s going to win, you bloody idiot,” I said. “You’ve both lost – you and Brookes. The only thing you can do now is walk away and live your life. He’ll still be there, miserable and despised but with no control over us anymore. Just forget about him!”

Rufus just stared back at me.

“You were my friend once, so I’m doing you this kindness now,” I continued. “Don’t you go back to that school tomorrow, don’t you dare. I’m going to phone them up tomorrow and if you’re there then I swear I’ll phone up every newspaper I know and tell them this story. Do you understand?”

He got up at that point and without another word, just walked away. I tried to call him back but he didn’t respond.

I didn’t call up Canderwell High the following day as I had threatened to do. I’d lost my nerve and didn’t want to face the reality that Rufus might indeed have still been there. So I just left it at that. I’d done enough damage I reckoned.

* * *

It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I answered my door one Sunday afternoon to find Rufus standing there, grinning. He looked a world away from last time – hair cut short, trendy shirt with a tee underneath. No school uniform.

I invited him in and as we waited for the kettle to boil, Rufus thanked me. Although he’d been furious with me at the time, it turned out I had provided him with just the push he needed. He hadn’t gone back to Canderwell the following day after all or the day after. He’d gone and done a few courses at college whilst he figured out what he wanted to do with his new found life. He’d actually considered teaching but couldn’t face the thought of stepping foot in another school. Instead he’d leveraged his unique understanding of the education system to become an editor, and occasional author, of educational textbooks, a career he was thoroughly enjoying.

I told him I was happy for him, relieved even. He said he was too. He looked happy, back on kilter. It had taken him a few years longer than the rest of us, but Rufus had finally made it out of Canderwell High.

As some sort of conclusion, I should tell you what became of Mr Brookes at this point but the fact of the matter is, I don’t know. I never bothered to find out.

Title image courtesy hellosputnik

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Published in: on January 26, 2012 at 9:38 PM  Comments (8)  

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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Being stuck in the educational system would be some kind of nightmare but I wonder that no one ever went to the local authority about Mr Brookes!

    • Yes, don’t inspect the story too closely or it’ll fall apart – why did none of the teachers complain, or the parents of the other children? I guess part of the unlikihood is what makes it creepy!

  2. As a teacher, I more than once wished I could require an apology as a condition of passing. It’s probably just as well that we can’t.

    • My wife’s a teacher as well and I’m certain there’s plenty of youngsters deserving of this fate but then again it was real we’d probably end up with school’s full of stubborn-minded 30-year olds!

  3. Great premise, horrifying thought! That’s a wonderful last line too. My father in law trashed some trucks on his last day of National service,and he thought he would have to spend the rest of his days in the military.. He still has nightmares about it!!
    Nice one!

    • I’d struggled with the ending for awhile, trying to think of how Brookes would get it just desserts. Then it occurred to me that being forgotten about would be an even worse fate!

  4. Well I guess it helped Rufus develop a sense of himself in the end. A good story with a scary premise – nice writing!

    • Yeah, I definitely wanted Rufus have taken something positive away from the experience. Glad you enjoyed it Helen!


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