Toby was returning to the place he had never left. When he had been a hero, just that once, in front of everyone, the whole class, later reported on to the whole school. When he had been everything he’d thought he ought to be as a teacher and perhaps also as a man. When he had failed more profoundly than he had ever failed, too.
The young woman had been standing beside him at the rail ever since the ferry had left port. He was watching the Millennium Tower recede into the distance. It had been little more than a stump when he’d last come out here. And “stump” is what the locals had taken to calling it, given that it had been at least five years on from the millennium before it was completed. Even now, it was hard to say whether it had ever reached its potential.
Perhaps nothing ever did.
Toby realised that he was being watched, but he felt safe enough. He hadn’t lived in these parts for years. He hadn’t seen anyone from the school since the day he’d left. When they had given him an engraved tankard and a framed photo of him on the island. Another reminder, of course, of his heroism.
She was going to talk to him, he knew. He braced himself against the railing and the spray. He tried to look as if he was studying the skyline against the grey of the gathering clouds. But she wasn’t having it. She knew that he’d clocked her.
Toby stiffened. It had been such a long time since he’d been addressed so formally. For the longest time, it was every day. And then it had to stop. He had to stop.
“It is, isn’t it? Sorry, but, you are, aren’t you? Mr Troughtman, from Steepletown School?”
And there was something else Toby hadn’t heard in over a decade.
Of course, she could be anyone from the school. A relative or one of the children from one of the other classes. Someone who’d seen him in the distance out there on the playground, on duty, with his tea and in his tie. When he had worn a tie. There had been 360 children in the school each of the years he had been there. 360 when he arrived and a new set of 90 every year. That was getting on for – what? – a thousand over the time he had been there? Maths had never been his strong point. Add in parents, and presume the children only had the conventional two each, and he’d reach – what? – 3000 odd people who might well recognise him. Add in the brothers, sisters, cousins, friends and all the rest and, yes, there were plenty who might know the former Mr Troughtman if they saw him again.
But how many would come up like this and ask him?
The modern Toby, of course, wouldn’t say. The modern Toby would keep staring until the interloper went away. Or he’d do something that made her go away. But there was something about the way she said his old name. There was something in hearing it as if nothing had ever happened. As if he had never revealed who he truly was.
The pause was too long, but it could be blamed on the sea and the wind. Not that Mr Troughtman would need the excuse. Mr Troughtman would turn with teacherly beneficence and he would recognise her – because teachers always did – and he’d use her name and he’d –
“Emily,” he said.
She smiled. Immediately. And that answered any number of questions.
The main question he already knew the answer to, though. She wasn’t a cousin or a parent or someone who’d have known him from a distance as he pretended to be in charge of 360 screaming children on the playground.
She was one of his own.
His first class. Her face and name came back to him instantly.
As for the other questions – she didn’t know. She couldn’t know. She wouldn’t be smiling.
They were sitting opposite each other in the near deserted café. Mr Troughtman had chosen tea. Toby might have found that amusing if she hadn’t asked him what had brought him over here.
“Strange, isn’t it?” she said, “that we’d both be here again, after all this time?”
“So you don’t live on the island?”
Once upon a time, she’d been all gingham and pigtails. The tallest in the class, he remembered. One of those girls who seemed to be at least three years older than the most mature boy. Now, the gap in their ages was somewhat less obvious. He hadn’t even gone grey. He ought to have done.
“Oh, no. I’m over here…well, funny this, I came back over here because I was in the area and I got to thinking about the residential way back when and, well, I thought it might be nice to see the place again. See the camp again.”
She didn’t ask him why he was here. Maybe, Toby thought, it was that thing that teachers had to deal with of children thinking that they lived in the school. Perhaps she thought he’d always be found lurking somewhere in these parts, as if his own free time was spent dragon boat racing or quad biking or up abseiling towers. Mr Troughtman had a think about this. He told Toby that it made a great deal of sense. And it answered some of the other questions, too.
She didn’t know that he was returning to the scene of the crime.
Or, at least, where the criminal thoughts had first begun.
Mr Troughtman accompanied Emily from the café out into the small town centre. Toby was surprised to find how well he could still fit within the garrulous persona. The pair of them talked about their lives since the school. No. Emily talked about her life since school. She’d married, had children, and then Things Had Gone Wrong. She didn’t ask her former teacher why he was on his own. That was another thing about teachers. They weren’t expected to be functioning human beings, either, with wives or partners or children. Which, in his case, had been fine.
Because he hadn’t been. Functioning.
He couldn’t be.
That Emily, too, was heading out to the camp was a surprise, and one that Toby only realised when they both made the same turning. It was open during the summer months to visitors – to all-comers, in fact. He’d found out that much online, so it was no surprise that she had, too.
There were the usual family parties and scout groups. The usual smattering of individuals there to use the swimming pool or the gym. The Centre obviously had to keep itself going when the term-time school parties ceased. Or was it the other way round? Were the school parties how they kept themselves afloat out of season? It hardly mattered. Whatever the reason, they had to move with the times or else they would become stuck, paralysed in one moment, and what would become of them then?
No good would become of them then.
Toby had determined upon the pretence that he was meeting friends. The bored gum-chewer on the front desk hadn’t cared, although he had mistaken the pair of them for an item, and Mr Troughtman had politely disabused him of the notion. Toby had thought that Emily would then peel off – take herself down to the creek, say – once they were through the turnstile, but she tagged along and this was starting to trouble him. He could accept bumping into her on the ferry. It was the closest he had been to the school in the longest time, so that wasn’t so much of a coincidence. But for them to be going to the same place and then the same spot in that place, that was too much.
It had seemed so very high. Teacher Troughtman had the video camera with him on the trip in part to avoid having to be too active. Teacher Troughtman knew that he had to cover for Toby’s fear of practically everything. Heights most of all. Teacher Troughtman had gone up the abseiling tower even so. And all because a kid had been too scared to contemplate the ladders.
“If I can do it, so can you,” he’d said, and he’d let the kid into his fear, being properly heroic for the first and maybe only time in his life.
“I remember it, of course,” Emily said, looking up at the forty foot tower that, to Toby, was taller than even the then-Millennium stump had been.
“Oh, it was nothing,” Toby said. He’d had so many questions of her and yet here they were, at the foot of the tower, and both picturing entirely different scenes.
“You got him down,” Emily said, “and we you cheered on.” She laughed, raising her hand to shield her eyes as she looked at the top. There was no-one up there right now. Toby had already checked to see that the gate at the bottom was the same one that had been there years before. One simple padlock. One bolt across. Nothing that couldn’t be interfered with. If you had come prepared.
“I got him down, yes,” Toby said.
Emily turned to look at him. “But I suppose you’ve got lots of other stories.”
He hadn’t told her about what had become of his career since. That not one of the shitty little jobs he’d taken had involved teaching. Or children.
“A few,” he said.
“If I can do it, so can you,” Mr Troughtman had said as he had hung in his harness next to the boy whose name Toby tried hard not to recall.
He had expected – what? – that the child would be grateful? That he would look at the adult prepared to risk his neck, when he was clearly so afraid of heights himself, and that would inspire him to launch himself backwards down the tower. He could hear the rest of the class cheering from down below and he knew that, for once, he might be doing the right thing as perceived by others.
But he had been wrong about the reaction.
The kid had just looked at him, eyes still red from the tears. He had taken in Toby’s fear as disguised through Mr Troughtman’s teacher front and he shook his head and a look of something very like disgust had worked his way across his face.
Oh, he had made his way down the tower to the bottom. He had been applauded as Mr Troughtman was also applauded for facing up to what he feared, and then doing it anyway.
But the boy had done it because he hadn’t wanted to be the disgusting, risible failure of an adult that he had seen alongside him. Because he was going to start right there, on the abseiling tower, and he was going to strike back against the very possibility.
That was why he had done it.
And then Mr Troughtman had taken the applause for his heroism. And then it had gone to Toby’s head and he had believed so very many other lies in the years since.
And so he had never left this place.
He can’t tell Emily to use his first name. He turns back from the memory that might as well be now and he focuses on the young woman. He can’t smile.
“It was quite the thing, getting Billy down the tower.”
And here he is again with the lie. His one heroic act. Genuinely heroic. That had led into a complete misunderstanding of his character. That had led him to adopt that character. Emily should be told. He should debunk her incorrect notions. He should.
“I often think of it,” she says, “when things are bad. Like now. I often think of what it took to overcome the fear, to do it anyway. To get through that moment.”
“Yes,” Mr Troughtman said, not letting Toby answer for him. “Billy was very brave that day. That’s true.”
The woman touched him gently on the arm. “I don’t mean him,” she said, “and you do know that. We might have been kids, Mr Troughtman, but we didn’t miss these things. I didn’t, anyway.”
Toby Troughtman allowed himself to come down again from the top of the tower. And not in the way he’d maybe imagined, on the way over, on his own, without anyone knowing he was heading out here, and without anyone suspecting the tower’s pull on him and how much he wanted rid of it.
Or what he might do to be rid of it.
He allowed the moment to pass.
He looked for Emily to say something. To maybe thank her.
But, of course, she wasn’t there, and it was only him and the tower and the opportunity to turn and put it behind him. Just for one day.