From the swings in the recreation ground, Tim could see his classroom across the bare, scorched grass of summer. Soon, rain would turn everything green again, but for now the world was ready to burn. Looking out of the window was Miss Roberts. She often stood there, always staring in the same direction, always towards the swings.
Today had been the first day of a new school year. Her warm words of welcome had not matched the weariness in her body.
The swings had wooden seats, worn smooth by generations of use, the iron chains tarnished and cold under Tim’s fingers. He started to swing, tucking his feet under the seat and flinging them forward to gain momentum, using his body, going higher with every pass.
Sometimes, the neighbouring, empty seat, would echo his movements. Tim was never concerned when this happened, or why it creaked, as though it bore a burden. He sometimes imagined a friend sitting next to him, creating in his head a boy slightly taller than himself, with dark, straight hair, flopping over his eyes whenever his head fell forward.
Miss Roberts watched them, both Tim and George, as they swung, side by side, back and forth. Tim was one of her current pupils. A quiet, intelligent boy, not unlike his companion had been. But where Tim was real, George could only be a memory from long ago, when she had been new to teaching. He had been a boy who could fade into the shadows, quietly hide in plain view. Until the day he vanished forever.
When George first spoke, it was in little more than a whisper. But an imagined friend, who voiced opinions about a teacher, was a novelty. Nobody was a huge fan of Miss Roberts. She was strict, sharp, always wanting everything done perfectly and on time. In truth there was nothing really wrong with her, she just wasn’t as much fun as some of the other teachers.
During break the next day, Miss Roberts took Tim to one side. She asked him whether he had been alone in the recreation ground after school. She pointed out of the class room window, across the field, to emphasise the location she was referring to. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes.
“Were you talking to George?”
Tim felt a lump form in his throat, and he couldn’t speak.
“I’m sorry,” she said quickly. “Foolish of me to ask.”
Miss Roberts turned pale. She reached out to put a hand on the radiator. Tim edged away, unsure what to say or do. Miss Roberts blinked quickly, several times, her mouthed twitched, and she fainted.
When she came round, the children had been ushered out of the classroom. The head and a teaching assistant were kneeling beside her. She started to explain, saying she had been late that morning, her alarm clock hadn’t gone off and that she had skipped breakfast. But the head told her that a paramedic was on their way, protocol she said, and insisted she get a proper check up. Miss Roberts agreed, but she knew there was nothing a doctor could prescribe to cure guilt.
For a few days after that, Tim avoided the swings. He wasn’t scared, although he might later have admitted to being nervous. When he did return to the playground, he wasn’t surprised to find his companion beside him on the swings once more. George no longer felt like a figment of his imagination, but was almost real, in an unreal way. Tim asked how he knew Miss Roberts and George said that she had been his teacher too. George had his elbows hooked round the chains of the swing and was counting on his fingers.
“Thirty-six years ago,” he said.
Tim had no idea how old Miss Roberts was, other than she looked older than his mother, but not quite as ancient as his gran. Tim asked George why he was here.
“To help her, I think,” George replied.
George had been in Miss Roberts thoughts every day since the accident. She almost gave up teaching after his death, but her friends and colleagues persuaded her to return to the classroom. It had been difficult to start with, but she fell into a routine. And she followed the rules, perhaps too rigorously at times. The relationship with her boyfriend ended. He said that she had become un-fun. Miss Roberts pointed out to him that un-fun wasn’t a word
“And that is precisely what I mean,” he had replied, and left.
He had been right in some ways. She was diligent, responsible, thorough. She would do her best to ensure no child ever suffered such a fate as George had. She ran her classes with exacting precision. The registers were marked with the same fountain pen, and the same colour ink, every day. Nobody complained about Miss Roberts teaching, but she didn’t make many friends either, not amongst staff, pupils or parents. There never was another boyfriend, even though she had not been without suitors.
Tim dragged his feet on the ground to slow the swing. It maintained a gentle swaying motion. George’s swing did the same. Wanting to know more, but wary to ask, Tim stared at the classroom window. A few brief showers had been enough to start new growth and the playing field already had a green haze to it.
“You want to know what happened don’t you?”
Tim nodded, and George told him how he had died. Tim caught the smell of burning as he listened, or maybe it was only in his imagination.
Miss Roberts had been watching the two of them deep in conversation. But she was too far away to hear what was being said, even with the windows open. Her hands gripped the windowsill tightly, a splinter dug into the palm of her right hand. The terrible error she had made all those years ago still felt like yesterday. She knew that she would have to ask Tim again, but was now no longer sure what was real, and what imagined. Maybe she was finally losing her grip on reality. She even feared that she had only imagined Tim, that even he didn’t exist.
The next day, during the lunch break, when she was on playground duty, Tim fell and grazed his knee quite badly. It was her opportunity to talk to him alone. She took him inside, washed the cuts and applied a dressing, whilst she tentatively questioned him.
“Tell me about your friend in the recreation ground?” she asked, not looking up.
It would hopefully appear an innocent question if George was only in her imagination, but Tim responded immediately.
“He’s not really a friend Miss, he just turns up sometimes.”
Trying to stop her hands from shaking, she asked Tim how they met.
“George isn’t actually real Miss. He told me he had died in a fire, thirty six years ago. “I think he’s a ghost Miss. Do you believe in ghosts? Please don’t tell anyone else, they won’t believe me.”
Miss Roberts promised not to reveal Tim’s secret, but asked what George wanted.
“He doesn’t know Miss.”
The next time Tim saw George, it was not on the swings, but in the school playground. Tim was sat on the warm tarmac in the sunshine, his back against the classroom wall, reading a comic. George sat next to him.
“Does she remember me?’ he asked.
Tim drew his elbows in tighter to his sides, not wanting to make contact with George, not now he knew how George had died. For a moment, Tim thought the sun had gone behind a cloud, then realised it was Miss Roberts shadow. She was in front of him, and spoke quietly so nobody else could overhear.
“You can leave me with George. I’ll take care of him.”
Miss Roberts knew that George had been waiting many years for her to acknowledge his presence.
“They said it wasn’t my fault George. But it was.”
The two of them sat in silence. Miss Roberts had spoken out loud, not caring if anyone heard her. Tim had only retreated a few yards and was pretending to read his comic.
“I was scared Miss.” George mumbled.
Tim turned a page in his comic, then turned it back again a few seconds later. He hoped they would forget he was there, listening.
“I was scared too Gorge, and confused. I didn’t know you were still in the building. I didn’t check.”
“You couldn’t have saved me Miss. Both of us would have died.”
Tim knew there had been a fire in the school many years ago, but it was ancient history. There was, he remembered, a brass plaque in the hall, a memorial to the event, but he had never read the inscription. The door beside him was ajar and, despite pupils not being allowed in the building during breaks, Tim edged through the gap unnoticed.
It was strange being inside the building when everyone else was outside. There was unusual silence where his every step echoed ominously. Making his way to the hall, Tim ran his fingers along the engraved words under the date on the plaque.
‘In memory of George Sutton’
There was a loud explosion behind him, and Tim clasped his hands to his head. All he could hear was a painful ringing sound, and there was smoke everywhere.
The explosion startled Miss Roberts. She looked to the side and saw that Tim wasn’t there. Turning back, George had also disappeared. People were shouting, and the other teachers, who had been in the staff room during break, were now in the playground, lining up the pupils into form groups. Miss Roberts quickly scanned her group, looking for one boy in particular. He wasn’t there.
Smoke was pouring through broken windows and the main entrance doors but Miss Roberts didn’t hesitate. She squeezed through the door Tim had been sat next to, pulled her cardigan across her face to guard against the smoke, and made her way the sunless classroom.
Tim wasn’t aware of what had happened. His head hurt, he was coughing uncontrollably, breathing was difficult, smoke obscured his vision and sense of direction. He felt hands under his arms as they lifted him from the floor. He hadn’t even realised he was laying down. Something wet covered his face, stopping the smoke from choking him.
Within seconds he was outside. Two strangers were bending over him, one holding some sort of mask over his face.
“You’re going to be okay, you’re safe now, try to breathe slowly.”
Tim was taken to hospital. His parents arrived and told him not to worry, that the doctors said he was going to be fine.
“What happened?’ he asked.
Outside the school, as firemen checked and secured the building, George walked with Miss Roberts across a lush green field, towards the playground.
“I think I’m too old for swings, George,” she said, smiling at him.
But Miss Roberts settled on the seat next to George. Her hands closed around the shiny new chains, and, in perfect unison, they began to swing. Back and forth, back and forth, they swung ever higher until both George and Miss Roberts slowly faded from view, and the swings came to rest.
After that day George never joined Tim on those swings again.