The Rebels short story by Iris Carden
We were the rebels, the kids most likely to cause headaches for Sister Maria, the ancient nun who was in charge of the boarding school.
The group compromised myself, my best friend Kirsty, my brother David, and his best Mike.
On this night, we planned to explore the old caretaker’s cottage. My great grandfather had been the first caretaker at the school. He had lived, and died from an apparent heart attack, in that cottage. By the time we were in schools, caretakers lived off site and came in during the day to work in the grounds, or clean the school or dormitory.
A tree outside my window was the way out for Kirsty and me. David and Mike would get out of the boys’ dorm through a window in the laundry.
We met on the netball court and walked across the campus to the old house, which was both dilapidated and absolutely out-of-bounds. In the half-dark, counting on light from the full moon coming through the dusty windows, we explored the small house.
It still held its basic furniture. Old mouldy couches were so full of dust that we all coughed when Kirsty hit the back of one. In the bedroom, on a small table, there was a glass holding a pair of false teeth. Our great grandfather hadn’t been the last caretaker to live in the house, so we laughed at the idea that someone had left in such a hurry that they left their teeth behind.
The floorboards creaked in the most disconcerting way. There was a moaning sound, which we thought was the wind blowing through one of the broken windows.
In a bathroom, we found a very old tub, which had a deep layer of sludge in the bottom. The way the shadows played in the feint light, it almost appeared as if there was a person lying in the tub.
We continued exploring, fascinated at the decay, at the evidence of a life forgotten. In the lounge room, was a huge bookcase. “Hey,” David said, “I think that’s a first edition Dracula.” He pointed to the top shelf.
Before anyone had the opportunity to think it might not be a good idea, David was climbing the book case. It happened in an instant, an instant that will stick clearly in my memory for ever. The bookcase groaned and fell on top of David, crushing him.
After that incredibly clear moment, the rest of the night is a blur. Flashing lights red, blue. My friends screaming and crying. People in uniforms demanding answers. Sister Maria frantic in a way I’d never seen before. Every part of it is washed with shock and tears.
I returned to school after the funeral. I don’t think I broke a single school rule for the rest of my time there.
Recently, I went back to the school for the hundredth anniversary of its foundation. I took my newborn daughter with me.
During the official part of the day, I started to feel like a child again, sitting listening as old people, mostly old men, droned on and on. I looked around, and noticed, among the many children in the familiar blue and white uniforms, a boy who looked like David. He didn’t look just a bit like David, but so much like him that I could have believed it was him. The boy looked at me and smiled with David’s smile.
After the ceremony, I sat on the outer edge of the crowd, beside Sister Maria who was now officially retired and confined to a wheelchair. She told me her story, how as an orphan she was cared for by nuns who admitted her to that school, and how she basically grew up there and never left. As a child I’d never even thought of her as a person with her own story. I had only thought of her in relation to the position she had in my life. Now I felt sad for this woman who had once held so much power over me, for the extremely limited life she’d led.
“May I see the baby?” a voice said. An elderly man was leaning over me.
I moved my daughter’s wrap a little, so her face was more clearly visible.
“She’s beautiful. Just like your grandmother.” The man said.
“Did you know my…” I started to ask, but the man was already walking away. He met up with the boy who looked like David, and together they disappeared into the crowd, walking in the direction of the old caretaker’s house.
I looked back to Sister Maria, to see she was very pale, and shaking.
“Sister, what’s wrong?” I asked.
“That man… That man was your great-grandfather.”
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Ah the ghosts of our relatives eh, come back for one last goodbye.