The little devil always had that unpleasant sneer. Henry was ten years old and beautiful. He had bright eyes and thick black hair. Even though he rarely smiled, the girls were already interested. He stood in between two the night of the bonfire. I stood with my back to the blaze. Henry, his two female fans and four other children faced the bonfire and me.
I spoke quietly so that the parents would not hear.
‘Everything as we rehearsed,’ I said.
The parents stood around the village green with the older children and watched. Independent teenagers stood in groups, and the adults without children stood alone.
I cursed bonfire night and asked myself why a raw schoolteacher could not have picked a village whose residents simply lit a fire and set off fireworks. Why did I have to be responsible for the silly annual Guy Fawkes song?
‘Right children, sing please.’
I looked at Henry. The sneer was still there on the face of the little devil. If you don’t want to sing, Henry, just keep quiet, I thought.
The children began to sing. Around them on the edge of the village green, their parents smiled. The light from the fire and the dry winter evening made everything feel cosy. Even the village oddities looked surprisingly normal.
The song that the children sang was not what we had rehearsed. Henry had his sneer but the other children sang with lusty innocent enthusiasm. The parents looked at me accusingly. Even the teenagers were embarrassed. I could feel the heat of the blaze behind me. The children sang the chorus.
Oh my God, I thought, this is dreadful.
The parents rushed forward and grabbed their children. They put their hands over the mouths of the children. A strange sound emerged from the small suppressed faces, something like a hum. Henry, the little devil, still sneered. The parents surrounded me.
‘This is not what we rehearsed,’ I said.
Reverend Ashton took responsibility.
‘I don’t think we should have an inquest here,’ said Reverend Ashton.
The children continued to sing under the hands of their parents. The hum persisted. The parents looked at me as if I knew what to do next.
‘I think these children should go home,’ I said.
Henry still had the sneer on his face. He obviously did not give a damn about the bonfire and the fireworks.
‘We should continue with the bonfire and we can have a meeting afterwards,’ I said.
I assumed that their parents were so desperate to subdue the filth that they were unable to speak. They said nothing.
‘Take them home,’ I said. ‘We’ll meet at the school after the fireworks.’
The parents took their children home. The parents walked without taking their hands away from the faces of their children. The children still sang and made their strange hum.
Without those parents, the rest of the night was a failure. The teenagers had been upstaged, and the village oddities in the sparse crowd were more exposed than normal. After the fireworks had finished, I helped the men douse the fire until it was properly extinguished. The year before, my first year in the school, the fire had been left to burn itself out. This year it was different. We wanted to leave no trace.
After the bonfire, I met the parents in my office in the small school. All had left someone to guard their child. The group was a mix of mothers and fathers. Some couples had found a friendly neighbour to babysit and in those instances both parents had attended.
Mr Franklin was a successful Civil Servant who worked in Leeds. He had one child, an ordinary looking boy who was quite clever.
‘We have to do something,’ he said.
‘We have,’ I said. ‘The children have missed the bonfire and the fireworks.’
Reverend Ashton was still keen to take responsibility.
‘I can provide compulsory after-school activity in the church,’ he said.
‘You don’t understand,’ said Mr Franklin. ‘The little monsters are still singing. It is the most unbelievable filth.’
‘My other children are at home having to listen to this,’ said Mrs Dee.
She was a stay at home mother but more and more she was helping me at school. I liked to think we were friends. Mrs Dee was also the mother of Henry.
‘They have to go to sleep some time,’ I said.
‘If they don’t, we can give them a paracetamol,’ said Mr Franklin. ‘That should knock them out.’
Mr Franklin was always more decisive than the rest, not like we imagined Civil Servants at all. We had a plan and everyone was agreed. Tonight, the children would sleep whether they wanted to or not. Tomorrow, I would give a stern lecture in school, and tomorrow night, Reverend Ashton would begin evening moral development tuition. We also agreed that every parent would speak to their child and say the same, make it clear to their child how ashamed they were of such appalling behaviour. I thought of Henry having to listen and I saw again the evil face of the little devil. I did not envy poor Mrs Dee.
The next day at eight am, I was in school as normal. The children arrived at eight thirty and classes commenced. None of the children who had sung the detestable song were in school. I rang Mrs Dee first because I knew her best.
‘Something terrible has happened,’ said Mrs Dee. ‘Something really terrible has happened to all of us.’
Mrs Dee was crying. I tried to calm her.
‘The children have disappeared,’ said Mrs Dee.
‘All of them?’
‘They are not in the village. The men are out looking. Henry was not in bed this morning.’
I found it impossible to imagine Henry ever doing anything stupid, nasty perhaps but not stupid.
Mrs Dee cried and said nothing. She became hysterical.
‘Have you told the police?’
Mrs Dee was now unable to speak but there was something about her cries that made me think that she had nodded yes.
‘I’m sure the police will find them,’ I said.
I was wrong. The police never did. For a while, we were a very famous village. I appeared on television and even received fan mail from rather attractive men. I was tempted to meet one or two but Mrs Dee, who by then was no longer hysterical, thought it a bad idea.
Eventually, it was November again and the people in the village had to decide whether to have another bonfire. Not everybody was agreed but the village had a strong tradition of unique bonfire rituals, and it was felt that this should not be lost. Reverend Ashton would give a sermon and lead a prayer as normal. A song from the children would have to wait for a later year when memories were not so sharp although few of us in the village ever imagined that being possible.
Inevitably, the bonfire was a sombre affair. The fireworks were lit with little cheer and enthusiasm. I thought it would be a good idea for me to stand close to the fire. Perhaps, the noise and the heat of the flames would stop me brooding about what had happened at our last bonfire. I listened to the blaze roar but I soon realised that I could hear something else. The noise was very faint so I leaned forward to listen properly. I was not sure but it sounded like the detestable song that the children had sung the year before. I stepped forward until the heat was almost unbearable. I recognised the filthy chorus. I was now standing really close and convinced. The song came from the fire. And then I saw something inside the huge bonfire, something hidden behind the charred timber and bright flame. The children were there in the fire. Their faces were a terrible sight; small faces filled with fear, pain and anguish. But in the middle of them all was, Henry, and he was neither afraid nor suffering. His beautiful face was grinning with the evil sneer I hated. Henry, the little devil, was happy.
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Hope that you had a good Halloween. Be careful close to the bonfire next week.