The Classroom (excerpt from Autumn)

Michael Collins stood in front of a class of thir­ty-three fif­teen- and six­teen-year-olds, tongue-tied and ter­ri­fied. Under his breath he cursed Steve Wilkins, his idiot of a boss, for forc­ing him to do this. He hat­ed pub­lic speak­ing and he hat­ed kids, teenagers espe­cial­ly. He remem­bered hav­ing to sit through things like this when he was at school. ‘Indus­try into Schools’ days they used to be called: days when, instead of lis­ten­ing to their teacher drone on for hours, kids were instead made to lis­ten to unwill­ing vol­un­teers like him telling them how won­der­ful the job was, no mat­ter how much they real­ly despised their work. Michael hat­ed com­pro­mis­ing him­self like this, but he didn’t have any choice. Wilkins had made it per­fect­ly clear that his per­for­mance today would be direct­ly linked to the quar­ter­ly bonus he was due to receive at the end of this month. Wilkins had come out with some bull­shit about how his mid­dle man­agers were ‘fig­ure­heads of the com­pa­ny’. Michael knew that in real­i­ty, his mid­dle man­agers were just there for him to hide behind.

‘You gonna say any­thing?’ a scrawny kid in a base­ball cap sneered. Michael tried to stay calm and not react, but the way his sheaf of notes were shak­ing was prob­a­bly mak­ing his ner­vous­ness obvi­ous to the entire class. Sadis­tic teenagers were always quick to seize on any appar­ent weakness.

‘The work we do at Car­ra­dine Com­put­ers is extreme­ly var­ied and inter­est­ing,’ he began, his voice waver­ing as he lied through his teeth. ‘We’re respon­si­ble for—’

‘Sir—!’ a lad said from the mid­dle of the room, wav­ing his hand fran­ti­cal­ly in the air and grinning.

‘What is it?’ Michael answered, almost against his bet­ter judgement.

‘I think you should just give up now, sir. No one’s listening!’

The rest of the class – those who weren’t read­ing mag­a­zines, draw­ing on their desks or lis­ten­ing to music through bare­ly-con­cealed ear­phones — began to jeer. Some at least tried to hide their snig­gers behind their hands; oth­ers rocked back on their chairs and laughed out loud. Michael looked to the teacher at the back of the class for sup­port, but the moment he made eye con­tact with her, she looked away.

‘As I was say­ing,’ he con­tin­ued, not know­ing what else to do, ‘we look after a wide range of clients, from small, one-man firms to multi­na­tion­al cor­po­ra­tions. We advise them on the right soft­ware to use, the sys­tems to buy and—’

Anoth­er inter­rup­tion, this one more phys­i­cal as a fight broke out in one cor­ner of the room. One boy had anoth­er in a headlock.

‘James Clyde, cut it out,’ the teacher yelled. ‘Any­one would think you didn’t want to lis­ten to Mr Collins.’

Great. As if the apa­thet­ic behav­iour of the stu­dents wasn’t bad enough, now even the teacher was being sar­cas­tic. Sud­den­ly the sti­fled laugh­ter was released and the whole room was out of con­trol. Michael threw his notes down onto the desk and was about to walk out when he noticed a girl in the far cor­ner of the room, who was cough­ing. It cut right through the rest of the chaot­ic noise, and sound­ed hor­ri­bly painful – a rasp­ing, hack­ing scream of a cough, which sound­ed as if each painful con­vul­sion was rip­ping out the very insides of her throat. He took a few steps towards her and then stopped. Her chok­ing was the only sound he could hear; the rest of the room had become silent. He watched as her head jerked for­ward, show­er­ing her hands and her desk with sticky strings of spu­tum and splash­es of blood. She looked up at him, her wide eyes ter­ri­fied. He realised she was suffocating.

Michael glanced at the teacher again and this time she stared back at him, fear and con­fu­sion clear on her face. She began to mas­sage her own neck.

A boy on the oth­er side of the room began to cough and wheeze. He got halfway out of his seat, then fell back again. A girl just behind began to cry and then to cough. The teacher tried to stand, but instead fell out of her seat and hit the floor … With­in thir­ty sec­onds of the first girl start­ing to cough, every sin­gle per­son in the room was tear­ing at their throats, fight­ing to breathe. Every sin­gle per­son except Michael.

Numb with shock and not know­ing what to do or where to go to get help, Michael moved jerk­i­ly back towards the class­room door. He tripped over a student’s bag and grabbed hold of the near­est desk to steady him­self. A girl’s hand slammed down onto his and he stared into her face, death­ly white save for dark trick­les of crim­son blood which ran down her chin and dripped onto her desk. He pulled his hand away and opened the class­room door.

The noise inside the room had been hor­rif­ic enough, but out here it was even worse. Screams of agony were ring­ing out through the entire school. From every class­room, and from the more remote places – assem­bly halls, gym­na­si­ums, work­shops, kitchens and offices – the morn­ing air was filled with the ter­ri­fy­ing noise of hun­dreds of chil­dren and adults suf­fo­cat­ing, chok­ing to death.

By the time Michael had walked the length of the cor­ri­dor and was halfway down the stairs to the main entrance, the school was silent. A boy was sprawled on the ground at the foot of the stairs. He crouched down next to him and cau­tious­ly reached out his hand, pulling it away again as soon as he touched his skin. It felt clam­my and unnat­ur­al, almost like wet leather. Forc­ing him­self to over­come his fear, he rolled the boy over onto his back. Like the kids in the class­room, his face was ghost­ly-white, and his lips and chin smeared with blood and spit­tle. Michael leant down as close as he dared and put his ear next to his mouth, pray­ing that he would hear even the slight­est sounds of breath­ing. It was no use. He was dead.

Michael walked out into the cool Sep­tem­ber sun­light and crossed the emp­ty play­ground. Just one glance at the dev­as­tat­ed world beyond the school gates was enough for him to know that what­ev­er had hap­pened inside the build­ing had hap­pened out­side too. Ran­dom fall­en bod­ies lit­tered the streets for as far as he could see.

He didn’t know what to do. He con­sid­ered his options as he walked: one, go back to work and look for peo­ple there? Two, try the hos­pi­tals and police sta­tions? He decid­ed on option three: to go home, change his clothes and pack a bag, then head deep­er into town. He couldn’t be the only one left alive.