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Friday 12 April 2013

'The Sealed Building' by Michael Whitehouse

When I was a child, the school which I attended was peculiar yet wonderfully interesting. Whether it was the fact that it was surrounded in places by overgrown bushes and opposite a strangely crooked wood which ignited my imagination, or perhaps the funny, eccentric, and sometimes fearsome teachers and kids which populated it, I do not know. I’m not sure of when it was built, but it certainly stood out from the houses and quiet streets which surrounded it, covered as it was in a bright fiery red paint which drew your eyes to it immediately. There I went from the age of five up until I was eleven or twelve, and like most children, I have both fond and cruel memories of it.

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 - and after meeting my friends, walk through the rusted brown gates into one of two playgrounds.

It was rumoured that in the past the two grounds existed to separate boys from girls - both an understandable and utterly outdated concept. By the time I had went to 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 purpose seemed a bit of a mystery as most of the teachers seemed to skirt around the topic entirely, but of course stories spread amongst the wild imaginations of children, and in my school this fondness for outlandish tales of tragedy and forbidden places often led to bizarre rumours and whispers, particularly pertaining to the sealed building - obscurity is a fertile ground for the fantastical ruminations of youth.

When me and my and friends were in the younger playground, we would sometimes sneak down a narrow passageway which would lead to the other and peek around the corner. There we would see the older kids playing football or just hanging around - it is amusing how younger children look to their older peers - thinking that they seemed to be having so much more fun than us. But before we would be chased away 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.

Some of the older kids liked to scare themselves and us, and told us dramatically that it had been used as a science department and that there had been a hideous accident there, one which 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. Then there was the account that it 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, utter garbage.

There was, however, one account of why the place had been abandoned which 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 and getting up to mischief. But yet, despite this mundane explanation, there were still in fact 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 - other than the aforementioned passageway - and, to further the feeling of imprisonment, was characterised by tall metal fencing which rose up in places where a brave classmate might have attempted their great escape. Yet, there was one old gate which 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 indeed 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 and it was much to my horror when 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 and when someone new to that playground showed weakness, or fear, this would often result in them being picked on.

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 fear and cowardice. 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 to reach my hand up and over to 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 probably detrimental, aspect of my personality to that time. You see, failure in front of strangers to this day does not bother me, but friends, family, 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 nerves 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 school, 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, passed the woods, to their homes in the surrounding area.

As the school became ever emptier, and the teachers themselves began to leave, I walked down the 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 amongst the students that a child had been abducted while playing there years previously, whether that was 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 which the teachers kept a watchful eye on, but as far as I knew was never used. I assumed that it had served a legitimate purpose years previously, 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 wanted to truly attempt 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, while a potent sensation at a young age while in hindsight completely exaggerated, was enough to give me the courage to at least attempt the climb.

I had considered asking one of my friends to join me as I was nervous that a teacher might still be there, that I would get into trouble, and so needed a lookout, but this would only have given me someone to fail in front of. I decided to attempt it on my own. After waiting for what seemed an age, I slowly climbed over the gate, which rattled unnervingly under my movements, echoing out around the 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 I knew as little as an audience of one could effect my confidence, I partly wished that I had not been alone, as 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 which 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 outcome, 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 far as I had ever reached, 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 something difficult to convey to someone who has no problem 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 I could feel my grip begin to loosen.

It is strange how the mind works, for just as I was ready to admit defeat once more and retreat, the insults and jeers of my classmates rang throughout my awareness as if they were present, down there, 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 and then before I knew it, there I was.

Letting out a laugh of excitement, a sensation of relief washed over me. I could not wait for the next day. To be up there on the roof, proving those who had been cruel to me, wrong. Peeking over the edge I still felt trepidation at the height, but nowhere near as much as I had done before, my triumph quelling 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, but it had long since peeled and cracked suggesting 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 feet. Yet, no matter how nervous I was, the sense of triumph which 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, as of someone patrolling their territory, for those brief moments that roof, that building was mine.

Just as I turned to finally make my way back to ground, I noticed that in middle of the roof there was a hole. I’m not sure how I hadn’t noticed it before, although 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.

Yes, there was a hole, and the light from the evening sky passed straight through it, illuminating what lay inside. I put my eye as close as possible to the opening without blocking the light and 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 students years ago once washed there hands or flicked water at one another for amusement, and three stalls - cubicles with strong 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, a layer of stagnant water which 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 which 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 there 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 thought 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 and 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 was 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 went up there in the first place, I felt hunger approaching and knew that by now my parents would be worried about me. 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. Maybe if they were on the other side of the yard I could climb 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 lunges and stung my eyes. Then, I witnessed something which 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 had been sealed off perfectly from the outside world, yet there it was: A puff of cigarette smoke which escaped first from the mouth of someone unseen below, and then 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, and 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 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 to did the smell of smoke. Then sound and smell were joined by something which chilled my very soul. I panicked, and let out a cry as the door quivered with impact as of someone 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 head master - 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, and then phoned for my parents to come and pick me up.

     I trusted Mr McKay implicitly and as I fought the tears back I described everything which had happened. The roof, the smoke, the cubicle. As I told him my story, the blood drained from my head master’s 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.

He told me that years before I had went to the school there had been a tragedy there involving a twelve year old girl, one who he refused to name. She had a reputation for being difficult. The teachers tried their best, sympathising with her as she came from an abusive background, but they found her almost impossible to control, as 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 had thought I’d experienced and using it to concoct a story designed to scare me away from ever going back to that place.

Unfortunately, a few unwelcome things transpired after that. I did indeed avoid the roof of that sealed building at all costs. My fear of heights was nothing compared to the dread which that building then 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 made fun of. As far as they were concerned, I never got up there. Lastly, I did have a recurring dream throughout my childhood, one which I would wake from 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.


Written by Michael Whitehouse
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