The sun shone on the blackboard, partly obscuring the title as it was formed by the dancing, screeching stump of chalk. Finally, it was finished, and the teacher stepped back. Perhaps deliberately, she stepped into the light, throwing the brighter section of the board into shadow, and displaying her work legibly for the whole class.
Michelle Barnard groaned as she read it. Exam practice was one thing, but she'd already decided her approach for the creative writing question. She'd thought of a vague and plotless story that could easily be adapted to incorporate any random elements requested by the examiners. It even lent itself to any one-word titles that might be given as a 'starting point'. It was about a man on an empty beach. He died at the end. Of cancer, or maybe AIDS. Empty beaches were always inexplicably popular with teachers. People dying had to be handled carefully, but a terminal illness was always a good move. Cancer or AIDS were guarantees of an 'A' grade.
She looked over at Bob, who was sat at the other side of the classroom, noting down the title with an air of grim resignation. There was another guaranteed 'A' grade. Bob would be taking it seriously, he'd already be mentally sketching out a dozen possible storylines. Bob would spend the rest of the day listening to other people's conversations to try and get authentic-sounding dialogue. Michelle just had to work out the easiest way to include the apples.
Old Mrs Dreipomme, the teacher, asked, as always, if there were any questions. Inevitably, there were plenty. Dull, stupid questions, posed by the dullest and stupidest class members. Michelle looked at the hordes of the mundane, a flock of crippled imaginations. All of them asking the same questions, in subtly different ways.
Would this type of question appear in the exam? Well, seeing as they'd just been told that the title was lifted from a past paper, quite possibly.
Was this a coursework piece? Two months after the coursework deadlines and with the words 'exam practice exercise' actually on the board, Michelle couldn't resist turning round to shoot an incredulous glare at Rebecca, who'd voiced this issue.
So was this the sort of question that could appear in the exam, then?
Michelle was surprised to see Bob's head bang against his table, scant seconds before her own skull impacted on the cool wood-effect, plastic-coated chipboard.
The bell rang, and the students left the classroom briskly, heading en masse for the canteen. Michelle found herself alongside Bob. As usual, the young man seemed nervous; as they made their slow progress down the crowded corridor his flat grey eyes were darting from side to side. Michelle marvelled at the way in which even his fair curly hair seemed to twitch as he moved. She also smiled as she noticed the round red mark on his forehead, which she suspected was a twin to her own.
'Frustrating, isn't it?' she remarked as she indicated the bruise.
Bob grunted. 'And blessed are the mediocre, for they have numbers on their side,' he muttered.
Michelle grinned, broadly. 'Let's do lunch.'
They did lunch outside, on a small hillock by the side of one of the playing fields. Stunted saplings were dotted around, the legacy of one of the school's 'green' phases. Most of them looked dead, their flexible orange support tubes all that prevented them from collapsing.
From their vantage point, the sixth form canteen was clearly visible. At least sixty young people munching through sandwiches and luke-warm casseroles.
'Look at them,' sneered Bob around a mouthful of banana. 'Almost every single one buys the Big Issue once every couple of months, as long as the vendor doesn't smell too bad. They all dye their hair red and wear T-shirts against animal testing. They all protest quietly about new roads and think that the rainforests are probably very nice places to visit. I'm the only Oasis fan in the whole sixth form, and they accuse me of being too "mainstream". Just think about that.'
Michelle did think about it. She thought that just because the majority felt that uprooting whole forests to shave twelve minutes from the journey to London was wrong, that shouldn't necessarily mean that the reverse was true. Surely the majority get it right from time to time. Look at the Avengers movie.
However, all she said was: 'Well, they've not done anything special since What's the Story,'
Bob said nothing, contenting himself with tearing the banana skin into ever smaller pieces and throwing them at the seagulls that swooped around the fields.
Michelle decided to change the subject slightly. 'Do you think they're so identical? They won't all write the same story, will they?'
Bob considered this as he rummaged in his bag for the yoghurt he'd bought from home. 'Anything special in East Enders at the moment?' he asked, after much thought.
Michelle shrugged. 'I think Claire's going to be caught in bed tonight with her older man, the one who's supposed to be her uncle or something.'
'I suspect you've just summarised half the efforts of our class then,' muttered Bob, thrusting the yoghurt back into his bag petulantly as he realised he'd forgotten to bring a spoon. 'Plenty of potential suitcases in that storyline.'
'It's stupid,' said Michelle, suddenly. Bob was surprised, and looked up at her fully for the first time. She blushed, in spite of herself. She hated being in the spotlight like this.
'Some of them'll get 'A' grades, you know,' she made herself continue. 'But they haven't the faintest idea how to write, or a single ounce of imagination. Don't you think it's stupid, Bob? You can't pass French if you can't speak the language, you can't pass Maths if you can't count, but you can study English at degree level and be utterly incapable of writing anything worth reading.'
Bob seemed honestly taken aback by Michelle's abrupt bitterness. 'Well, I'm sure some of them will try and be a little bit creative about it. Maybe swap the genders or something,' he mumbled, then started to twitch around again.
'Like Marie, do you think?' Michelle asked, already cheering up. She liked Marie, with her pale make-up and seemingly endless supply of black crochet cardigans. If only her own hair wasn't so miserably mousy-coloured, and her parents so utterly opposed to her dyeing it, Michelle often thought she'd like to try being a Goth.
Bob just snorted. 'Marie the Goth? Hardly. She'll just put a corpse in the suitcase and maggots in the apples.'
'Well, that's not been in any soap operas lately.'
'True,' conceded Bob. 'But she's still being crushingly unimaginative, just from a slightly different cultural perspective. Let's face it, there's nothing strange about finding corpses in Gothic fiction.'
'I don't know,' said Michelle, defending her friend. 'I think she'd at least put in a few film references. She can't stop talking about The Truman Show at the moment.'
'Hmm,' said Bob, looking deeply uninterested.
Michelle stood up, abruptly, and brushed sandwich crumbs from her chinos.
'It's PE after lunch,' she remarked. 'I've had nearly seven years of that old dyke trying to teach me netball. Let's skive.'
As they had absconded, Michelle and Bob missed the small drama that occurred a little later as Mrs Dreipomme walked across the staff car park, heading towards her battered Ford. The plummeting vanity case narrowly avoided her head and thudded into the tarmac, bouncing slightly.
The elderly teacher started as she read her own name on the luggage tag. Clasping the case to her chest, she gazed at the bright sky with puzzlement and dawning suspicion.
An hour later, Michelle reflected that she'd been right about Bob's seriousness. They'd run out of school on a beautiful afternoon in early May and headed straight for the nearby meadows. Instead of going for a swim in the nearby river, however, or even just lazing in the sun, Bob was already nervously making notes.
Michelle told him about her all-purpose story. Bob was still for a long moment, looking at his page of notes, his expression unreadable.
'Not a bad idea,' he said eventually.
'I just don't know where to put the apples,' Michelle confessed.
'Well,' said Bob. 'You've already got a slightly surreal setting with your empty beach. You could include a character juggling three apples from time to time.'
'Why?' asked Michelle idly, as she plucked daisies from the grass.
Bob had already returned to his notes, and finished his sentence before answering the question. 'You'd confuse the examiners and suggest deeper levels of meaning that aren't really there.'
In spite of her own cynical attitude towards her Meisterwerk, Michelle felt a little offended by this response. But Bob was continuing, thoughtfully. 'I suppose the sci-fi nuts might try something a little more imaginative.'
This thought had crossed Michelle's mind as well, but after Bob had been so dismissive of Marie, she hadn't wanted to annoy him further. 'Craig and Peter?'
'Yes. Peter only really watches Blake's Seven and all that, he'll just make the suitcase a disguised bomb or something, but I think Craig might try something a little more imaginative.'
'I know he reads a lot of fantasy,' Michelle mused, squinting suspiciously at one of the many squirrels that was showing off in the trees bordering the meadow. 'The suitcase could act as a doorway between worlds, or something. Like the Narnia wardrobe, only portable.'
At the word 'Narnia', Bob's distracted expression settled quickly into a dark glower.
'You read them too, Bob,' Michelle reminded him. 'You never stopped going on about them at primary school.'
Bob sighed. 'That's going to be one of the best things about going to university. Escaping the expectations of all these people who've known me since I was five years old.'
Michelle had had enough now. 'And what have you ever done to prove those expectations wrong?'
'What?' Bob was almost unbearably flustered, but becoming defensive quickly. Michelle almost backed down, but felt she owed it to the boy to continue, as much as anyone else.
'My first memory of you was you walking round the playground telling anyone who'd listen that you kept "slipping out of reality" and had your own elephant gun,' she ignored Bob's wince and plunged on before he could pretend he'd been being ironic at the age of six. 'You've spent your whole life trying to convince people you're special, different, that you're better than them. But you've never actually done anything to prove it, have you?'
It was a rhetorical question. Michelle knew exactly how Bob was going to respond, and she was not disappointed.
'When I've finished my -'
'You've been working on your "novel" for five years now, Bob. You're eighteen now, it's not going to make the front pages, even if it did get published. None of the people you patronise see you as a legendary wit preparing to stun the world, they just see an arrogant boy with some huge chip on his shoulder because he wasn't picked for the football team.'
Bob had obviously heard the phrase that an attack is the best form of defence. 'Aren't you just as bad?' he asked, indicating the faded red mark on her forehead. 'Only an hour ago, you were complaining about our whole class, about their lack of imagination. What do you call that, if not arrogant?'
Michelle floundered for a moment, and stretched out on her back in the long grass. When she did reply, it was clear that she was getting tired of the argument. 'I don't think success should depend on anything other than talent. And people without talent annoy me because I think they're going to succeed anyway. And, you're right, I do think I have talent, but I prefer to keep quiet, and let the results speak for themselves,' she continued quietly, her eyes closed. 'When no one notices you, it's easier to take people by surprise.'
Bob reached out and took her hand, gently. Michelle opened one eye and looked up at him silently for a few moments, her face screwed up against the sun's fierce glare.
'Question is,' said Bob, smiling sadly. 'Which of us is right? Or at least, which of us is less fucked up?'
Michelle sighed, and rubbed her face with her free hand. Then she sat up straight.
'Fucked up?' she asked with a groan. 'No idea. But I think we're both going to be equally sunburnt.'
As Michelle and Bob wandered away from the meadow, still hand in hand, the spot of ground where they had been sitting gave a shudder, and started to crack.
After a few short moments, a small hole had appeared in the ground and a large battered trunk flew from it. The muddy object landed heavily next to the hole and the dust settled.
Then it extended an uncountable number of tiny, human-looking feet, and wandered towards the river, rattling its padlocks in open aggression.
They decided to go to Bob's house. It was nearer, after all, and Bob had even offered to show Michelle his notorious novel. She wasn't going to miss that for anything.
No one seemed to be in the large semi-detached house when they arrived, although Bob suggested his mother was probably at the bottom of the garden somewhere. The two students made straight for the living room, and the large stereo system. Bob's hand was drifting towards Oasis's Be Here Now, when he happened to catch a glimpse of Michelle's carefully polite expression. With a small shrug of defeat, he loaded his sister's copy of Generation Terrorists into the CD player and collapsed on to the large black sofa, pulling Michelle after him.
Michelle glanced at her left hand, still grasped limply by Bob. Somehow, they'd remained linked throughout the whole journey without either of them remarking on it. She cleared her throat as James Dean Bradfield told the room about unsavoury banking practices.
'The growing up thing seems to be the most difficult part,' she observed. 'I mean, I can include it in my beach thing pretty easily. I can say that accepting our own mortality is the final step in reaching true maturity. But there's not a huge amount of options, unless you want to resort to -'
'Horrible rite-of-passage gunk,' Bob concluded for her, and smiled as Michelle nodded her agreement with a mock shudder.
'Of course, you can always stick in a sexual awakening,' mused Michelle, looking casually at their entwined hands. 'So to speak.'
Bob actually gulped at that, and Michelle felt his hand twitch in hers. 'That's dodgy in a school essay, though,' he mumbled, his other hand reaching ever so slowly towards her shoulder. 'I know we're in sixth form now, but I still don't think they'd be too impressed to be marking a bunch of sex scenes.'
Michelle turned to face Bob fully, and smiled slightly. 'You're probably right,' she sighed before continuing. 'I've done it before, though.'
'You have?' Bob was having trouble speaking, but his hand had finally reached Michelle's shoulder. She smiled as his fingers brushed tentatively against the folds of her creased T-shirt.
'Oh yes. Of course you can't get away with the gory details,' she was almost whispering now, but even so Bob was surprised at hearing her voice. He snatched away his hand, then replaced it, a little more confidently. Michelle waited until he was stroking her whole arm before she continued, in even softer tones.
'You just continue the narrative right up to the point where it's obvious what's going to happen, and then you include a convenient cut-scene via another character.'
Bob's courage was finally sufficient for him to slide his hand slowly up the T-shirt's loose sleeve. Michelle sighed, wondering whether it was worth it. Then she decided, and her free hand reached out to touch his face.
Mrs Dreipomme had just arrived home from the school, and was relaxing in her tidy living room, surrounded by comfortable, time-worn cushions and a background of Mozart.
With a sigh, she realised she was wasting time. She couldn't afford to fall behind on her marking, not with her sixth form class's essays due in at the end of the week. She stretched out towards the fruit bowl.
As well as the three bruised Granny Smiths she had been resigned to, the teacher was surprised to find her fingers brushing against something else. Something wooden, with detailed carving. She pulled it out.
She looked with horror at the detailed little doll, the horrible wooden thing whose varnished features mocked her own. She recoiled from its ghastly fixed sneer. And she remembered. Remembered the dolls. Remembered the workshop.
Mrs Dreipomme's cup of tea cooled slowly as a broken spirit wept.
An hour later, a boy smiled softly at a girl in the late afternoon sunlight. It was clear that he was troubled, however. That he felt he should now be thinking in different terms: of a man smiling softly at a woman. That he should be thinking differently. That growing up had now happened, definitively.
But all he could think of was how long it was going to be until dinner.
Before he could say anything, however, Michelle put a finger to his lips.
'Nothing like this is going in your story, Bob.'
The boy coloured slightly, but nodded. Michelle shifted her finger, stroked Bob's face gently, exploring it in detail with the single digit.
'Good,' she said eventually. 'And - Bob?'
With that, she hopped lightly from Bob's bed and surveyed his room, to which they had fled for discretion's sake. She could feel Bob's anxious gaze on her back as she took in every corner of his inner sanctum, his psyche laid bare and at her mercy.
It was... neat. No clothes on the floor, no empty drink cans decorating the windowsill. Even his books seemed to have been arranged according to size, their spines neatly lined up to prevent any from protruding and spoiling the sense of order.
Michelle had always lived at the epicentre of a paper tempest, where things were always where she left them, but usually buried under all the other things she'd left there. There were clothes that she hadn't worn for years, simply because she always took the ones nearest the top of the pile. She knew, with every fibre of her being, that she could not say a single positive word about Bob's attention to tidiness without sounding utterly insincere.
It was with profound relief that she spotted the loose pile of paper tucked away under his depressingly empty desk.
'You promised!' she reminded Bob as she seized his novel in progress and, having thrown herself into the room's one chair, began to flick through it casually.
'So what are you going to write?' she asked as she scanned the opening pages. These were old and faded, written in pencil. Every so often there were adjustments and corrections in bolder ink.
'I was thinking of going for the Goth option, actually,' Bob admitted with a guilty smile. 'Something less surreal, for a change.'
Michelle nodded and hummed, not really listening. She was reading faster now, unable to believe her eyes. A fantasy story, with far too many fight scenes and talking horses. She just managed to stop herself groaning as she recognised the name of another of Bob's old tormentors cropping up as a minor character before being ripped to shreds by rabid dogs. She just managed to suppress a snigger as her speeding eye noted the third use of the phrase 'pulsating bosom'. And all the time, she leafed through the thick pages ever faster, trying desperately to find the part where the whole stilted set-up was revealed to be some sort of illusion or ironic statement...
'Well?' asked Bob. She looked into his flat eyes and saw an unequal conflict of emotions. There was a hint of anxiety, naturally, but for the most part all she could see was a gleam of smugness as he waited confidently for the banal compliments that had been his lot in life to this point. Clever Bob. Well done.
'Well,' evaded Michelle. 'Perhaps you should try something else. Five years is a long time to stick at the same story. You must have changed your ideas about its direction, its values. Maybe you should start over.'
There. She had been polite, though she could see he was really hurt by the criticism, that he'd seen through her evasion. Well, get used to it Bob. That mediocre majority you love sneering at has caught up with you. Perhaps it was never so far behind as we imagined.
'I've got work to do,' she added softly, and got up.
'Going to flog out your stock story?' Bob asked as he followed her from his bedroom and towards the front door. Was it a touch of bitterness in his voice, or indifference? Or was he just trying to make conversation, trying to persuade her to stay?
'No,' said Michelle as she pulled on her shoes. 'I thought I'd try something different, surprise myself.'
'Such as?' the boy demanded suspiciously.
Michelle straightened, and opened the front door, letting in a flood of cool evening air. On the threshold, she turned and grinned broadly.
'I don't know,' she admitted. 'But I've got a good ending.'
She stepped outside, and began to walk away down the path.
'Don't go!' cried Bob impetuously. She ignored him, continued talking over her shoulder.
'Something ambiguous, surreal even.'
Bob started as he heard a hollow thump on the roof of the house. Michelle was a fair distance away now.
'Definitely non-naturalistic,' she shouted back over another cluster of thumping noises. Something flashed past Bob's line of sight and landed in the garden.
'But with a definite touch of irony,' she concluded, before turning the corner.
Bob hadn't heard her final words, however, as he stood, tears flowing freely down his face, watching the skies rain apples.