Friday, August 10, 2007

York 2007: Make Them Scream

The Ghost Tour

1. The Concept

C: "So the idea is: We wait till its dark, turn all the lights off, take them round the school and scare them."
K: "And at the end, we throw water bombs on them."
C: "They hate that."
R: "But how do you scare a child?"
C: "Children are scared of the dark. That's the main thing. And we hide and make scary noises and someone tells them ghost stories."
R: "Who's going to do that?"
K: "I think Andrew would be good at that."
C: "It has to be Andrew. The shit he comes up with is priceless. I don't know where it comes from."
R: "So I still don't quite get it. We get the kids - in groups? Yes? - and take them around the school. Andrew makes up stories. We throw water at them. The end."
C: "Yep. But they really do get scared."
A: "Okay listen. If you seriously want me to do this, then we have to do it properly."
C: "What do you mean?"
A: "I mean that if I'm bringing them round the school I want to scare them to death. I mean that my goal, literally, will be to scare the students so much that at least one student actually dies from the terror. I want creative control or I'm not doing it."

2. Brainstorming

A: "Right. So after the White Lady and the Zombie Room, I want to calm it down a bit."
K: "Take them into the grotto."
A: "Grotto? You mean the games room?"
K: "I call it the grotto because it's underground."
A: "What can we use in there?"
R: "The lockers! Get one of the kids to open a locker. Then when they are about to open it, just scream at them!"
A: "Can I get a foghorn? Maybe? And then we need a big finish."
K: "What about another White Lady?"
A: "What would be great is if we could get a big piece of meat shaped like an arm. And we could chain someone to a radiator and give him a saw and when the kids arrive he starts to saw his arm off."
K: "The meat would go bad."
A: "Think of the smell though. That'd be perfect."
K: "No-one wants to carry a rancid piece of meat about all day."
A: "Fine. I've got a better idea anyway. Have you noticed how Sasha's hair is sort of Japanese?"

3. Practice

A: "And then when we get up here I'll tell them about the girl who was trapped in the school waiting for a phone call, and we can make the phone ring and scare them."
J: "That's strange..."
A: "What?"
J: "Someone left the light on in that classroom. I'd better go check it out."
(When Jason and Lucy go into the classroom, I hide in the darkness.)
L: "Maybe it was me actually. That's my room."
J: "Where's Andrew?"
L: "Oh, no."
J: "He was just here."
L: "I don't like it."
J: "Andrew?"
L: "Jesus, Andrew, this isn't funny."
J: "Andrew! Where the hell did he go? He was just here."
L: "Andrew I'm going to kill you! Come out, now. Jason... What...?"
J: "This is really creeping me out!"
L: "I'm going."
(I hear them run away. I follow them down the corridor and use my key to unlock the library, which is never used. I wait. A few minutes later I hear Jason come back - with Keely.)
J: "He just disappeared. Seriously."
K: "This is so creepy..."
J: "I keep expecting him to jump out at me. He must be up there somewhere."
K: "Maybe he went-"
(I have crept up close behind them and suddenly shout 'JASON!' They freak out.)

4. Screams

The first group comes into the lobby. I ignore them. They are the youngest students, already worked into a frenzy after being forced to watch Scream. Some of them giggle at my bizarre makeup. Carolyn has painted my face white, with black Joker lips and an entire can of hairspray keeping my hair in a manic explosion. They stop giggling when I stare at them. Their apprehension is palpable.
"Before we begin," I whisper, "I must ask if any of you have weak hearts." Their eyes widen. "Are any of you taking medication? No?" I pause. Most of the students are already holding on to one another. "There has been a school here forever. Many students have come through those doors there... some have died. The Romans brought Death. The Vikings brought Death. The Plague brought Death. The War brought Death. This is a school," I tell them, "of Death."

We walk along a black corridor. I don't mention the White Lady. The students notice her walking through the door. Then Sabrina throws loads of spoons down the stairs and the noise is tremendous. The kids recoil but I force them up the stairs, where Sabrina - made up like a zombie - chases them down the corridor. The kids have been startled into a state of hyper-awareness.

"Come in here. Come in. Don't worry. Nothing bad ever happened in here." I think about what I have said. "Nothing... except for the zombies." I have turned the torch off so there is no light at all in the room, but I can sense the students shiver. I give them a narrow beam of light and very slowly lead them around the room as I tell the story.

"In 1919, a local man named George Lazenby began using this room. He had lost both his sons in the Great War. He cursed God and vowed to learn the secret of eternal life. He began to perform strange experiments, taking arms and legs from dead people and giving them to sick people to make them live longer. The results were amazing... George Lazenby became an international celebrity.

"In France, they called him George Le Zombie...

"But George Lazenby went too far... He began using children in his experiments, and police came to arrest him.

"They never found him...

"But the people of York believe that if you say his name five times he will reappear..."
(Some students plead, 'Andrew, no, no, Andrew.')

"Le Zombie... Le Zombie... Le Zombie! Le Zombie!! Le ZomBIE!!!"
Jason, unrecognisable in zombie makeup, impossibly emerges from nowhere.

5. Tears and Betrayal

I take the kids into the 'grotto' and turn the light off. They have a bit of a panic while I take a breather. I take a short walk and find a girl on the stairs, crying. In my head, I punch the air. I have scared a child.

I sit next to the girl and give her a little hug, and promise that there is nothing else in the tour that is scary. She sniffles, and nods, and seems to think about standing up, but then she notices the foghorn in my back pocket, and she resumes crying.

"This way. Come on." The students follow me, looking everywhere, alert for the danger they know is there. They know something is going to happen because I promised them it wouldn't. There is a lot of whimpering. We arrive at the end of a corridor. We hear something strange. It is a tape of Keely singing 'Ring a ring o'roses.' It is really creepy. There's an invisible bubble around the door, it seems, as the students simply refuse to go through. I push some of them inside. The others follow.

I shine the light around the room. "Oh...," I say, "There's nothing here. Unless it is around this corner." I gather the students so they can see and wave the torch around. They are aware of a shape at the far end of the room. Slowly I move the beam closer to the shape, and we see a flash of white, and more white, and the students relax. It's only the White Lady again. That's not scary at all. But something is different. The figure has long straight hair which covers her face, and I shine the light on something - yes - a baby. The students gasp. I move the light up towards the face, but very slowly.

"Who are you? Are you all right?" I ask. Some students have edged forward to get a better look. At exactly the right moment, the light hits the face, and the eyes open, and the head jerks back as the mouth opens and screams, and the creature runs through the students, and the students have turned into jelly. Scrambled jelly.

We have scared the children. They will have bad dreams. Maybe they will have flashbacks. It is extremely satisfying.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Moss Side Stories


York, Summer 2006

The kids stood on the roadside; Italians to depart, French to say goodbye. After 10 minutes of this, they progressed to the hugging and last minute exchange of emails. A mere ten minutes later they were told for the final time that this final time was really the final final time and if they didn't get on the coach they would have to walk back to Rome.

They wailed, they gnashed teeth, they got on the bus. As a final symbolic act, the most uncool Italian kid, the geeky twelve year-old with the bottlebottom specs, the one voted 'Most Likely to Be Bullied Forever', the only kid in the entire school uncool enough to actually want to learn English, wept bitter tears into the arms of the genetically cool 17-year old French heartbreakers, and their hugs were not sarcastic or forced, they were, to my astonishment, genuine and full of affection.

I stared ahead with my eyelids half closed. "Time for class," I said.


North Manchester, January 2007

"Andrew, it's Emma's leaving party this Friday. We'll go have some drinks, maybe some food. Are you coming?"
I stared ahead with my eyelids half open. "I'll go," I said.



The worst lesson I ever taught. The remainder of the group were French, all with tears in their eyes, wounds fresh and raw. The Italians had gone. Their friends had gone. Their reasons for living had gone. Nothing could console them. I stared out the window.
One French boy, a good kid in a group of good kids, his eyes red and his lips awobble, asked me if I wanted him to do any work. I showed him my journal, full of seemingly random words and dates and little pictures. A bed, a car, a matchstick Zidane. I gently explained how each picture reminded me of something that had happened. I began telling the stories behind each picture, and slowly more of the class listened to me, until they all together heard the story of the Big Hangover, the mystery of Junction 45, and why the word 'ashtray' reminds me of the World Cup final. I encouraged them to make their own diary, with cute little pictures, if they wanted. And if they wanted to cry instead, I wouldn't shout at them.

Then I stared out the window again.
"Teacher," said a boy. I turned to look at him. It was Éugénéménté, an intelligent, wilful, sensitive lad, who probably carried a note from his mother exempting him from playing rugby, but who probably played anyway and was quite good at it. "Teacher," he said, his eyes big with tears, "Don't you feel sad?"
His words overwhelmed me. He was saying, 'Andrew, you're not sad, you DICK. Why not? I know you should be sad. You've lost people you were close to, too. They were your friends who left. Is that what life does to you? Does it make you so sad you can never feel sad again?' And in that moment I felt as wretched as any time in my entire life, and tears filled the backs of my eyes. I realised if I cried then I would never stop.
"Éugénéménté," I said, "I have been to many countries and left many countries and met many people and left many people."

He looked at me and nodded, and he understood, and that was the only thing I ever taught him.


Manchester City Centre, January 2007

I looked at my mobile. Nearly midnight, and I had to go to Trafford. "I have to leave now," I told one of the ladies.
"Stay a bit," she said.
"No because there are no lights in my house and I have to go to my auntie's house in Trafford."
"What's wrong with the lights in your house?"
"They exploded."
"So? You can find your bed."
I motioned my hand forward, up, and backward, miming the route from my front door to the bed. "It's far," I moaned. I turned and looked at Emma for the final time. A vicious voice in my head said, 'You're a writer; write something to say to her.' Emma looked at me. "I have to go now, Emma." And having said that, I left.


Town Centre

There were no buses to Trafford, so I took the 42 toward my house in Moss Side. The bus was half-full of people who had left parties early. I looked out the window.



I felt my way into the bedroom and found a bag of fireplace candles. I lit one to
see the way, then blew it out in case it burned my house down during the night. My face was expressionless. I can't prove it, because I was alone and my lights had exploded. But if
there had been any lights, and if there had been someone watching my face for whatever reason, they wouldn't have seen an expression.

I got into bed and stared ahead with my eyelids half closed. 'Andrew', said a voice, 'aren't you sad?'