Dear Dave

Friday, 3 April 2009

The cellar

Dear Dave,

My twinges of illness the other week never amounted to very much. I ended up being so busy preparing for Lewis' party that I didn't have time for the plague. This week, though, I feel like my limbs and eyelids have lead weights attached and I'm just stumbling along in the direction of the school holidays. Last year at this time, with Easter being early, we were already away on our infamous trip to Bruges. This year's spring term seems dragged out in comparison. We could all do with a break to recuperate. Everything is an effort and I'm so tired I can barely rub two words together in a straight line.

This is strange because I've recently had more sleep and less to do than at most other points in the last nine years. I think my body has realised there's under six months until Marie starts full-time education and it has already begun to shut down higher brain functions in preparation for being able to lie on the sofa groaning for six hours a day. (I don't have huge expectations for what I'm initially going to achieve with my extra freedom...)

This lethargy is reminiscent of the way nothing much gets done in school during the final days of term because everyone's exhausted and can't see the use in starting anything anyway. Far better to wait and begin fresh after the holiday. In the meantime, the teachers get to tidy the cupboards while the kids watch The Lion King on DVD.

I'm not at the stage of playing Marie looped Disney yet but that point may not be far off. Getting all my children through their pre-school years has been a lengthy process - who knows how long the wind down will be?

Malton House (my nephew Ned's school where I do IT support) finishes on Friday and there's not much work being done. The boys have been sitting around playing their PSPs most of the week and the cupboards are looking pristine. I've taken the chance to pull members of the computer club out of class so they can learn important employment-related skills such as problem solving, customer interaction and task management. Essentially, I've been ordering them about, getting them to do my job for me. We're making great progress. I reckon almost three-quarters of the computers at the school are now vaguely doing what they're supposed to. Result!

I was there yesterday, patrolling the corridors in search of malfunctioning technology, when howls of annoyance erupted from a nearby classroom. I peeked through the glass in the door and saw a load of teenage boys waving handheld consoles around above their heads in a frustrated fashion.

I sighed and drew my walkie-talkie out of its holster in preparation for what was to come.

Almost at once, the voice of the school secretary crackled out. "Computer Guy, this is Dispatch. We have a 5-27. The headmaster's internet connection is down. I repeat, internet connection down! Respond immediately."

"Dispatch, this is Computer Guy. I am en route. Estimated response time is three minutes. Priority one."

I started jogging along to the photocopying room. Technically, running in the corridors is against school rules but there was no telling what the headmaster might get up to without the distraction of the web. The previous time he'd lost access to live chat about embalming badgers, he'd organised a lengthy staff meeting to stress the importance of keeping the pupils supervised at all times. With the teachers out of the picture, it was left to me and the secretary to keep things under control. The boys ran riot. The only way to regain control was to set the dinner ladies loose on them. In the ensuing chaos, there were several breakages and a number of minor injuries. One of the greenhouses went missing. (It was subsequently discovered on the rugby pitch with the head of biology's car parked inside. We had to delay the search, though, while we waited for someone to own up for summoning a rather irate mountain rescue team.)

Unwilling to repeat that incident, I hurried to reach the main router, my backpack of spare parts, manuals and Duck tape jingling as I went.

I knew exactly what the problem was.

Sure enough, when I reached my destination and picked my way past boxes of toner and some large pot plants, I found the router just as I'd left it, apart from one small difference:

The cable was back in.

This cable has been giving me gyp for a while. It's an unassuming black wire which sneaks stealthily out of a hole in the carpet in the corner of the room and hides behind furniture on its journey to an almost out of reach port at the back of the router. It would be easy to ignore.

Well, that's to say, it would be easy to ignore if it didn't occasionally suck the school's entire bandwidth dry and cause everything to crash. Whenever I unplug it, however, it's mysteriously reconnected by the next time I check.

Wise to this, I've rigged up a secret camera.

After disconnecting the cable and rebooting the system, I opened a drawer, pulled out the laptop that was recording images and had a look at the footage. Most of it was of an empty room; much of the rest was photocopying. A couple of minutes was of a pot plant edging in from the side to block the shot while someone I couldn't quite identify plugged the cable back in. There was a pause. Then the pot plant wobbled shiftily out of the way again.

I considered moving the camera to a different location but I figured it wouldn't do any good. My prey was apparently smarter than that. My only option was to try to determine where the cable went. Lifting the carpet slightly, I discovered the wire disappeared into a small cast-iron grating in the floor. I took my torch out of my backpack and shone it down. There was a vent below which descended into the depths.

I was going to have to investigate the cellar.

I sighed but I was resigned to my fate - I'd known for a while I'd have to go there sometime. I'd noticed a number of pupils wandering in that direction go quiet and take a sharp turn on seeing me. Equipment in the vicinity of the door had a tendency to disappear. I'd even spotted Mr McIntyre sneaking down there with heavy packages a couple of times. Something was clearly going on... but I'd thought it safer not to ask. I'd also put off checking for myself because, quite frankly, it's dark down there and there are some pretty huge spiders.

Still, it had begun to impact on my job, so I couldn't put it off any longer. Reluctantly, I headed towards the kitchens. I passed through the old ballroom of the vast Georgian building as I went. It now serves as an assembly room and it was the only part of the school showing any signs of industry. Preparations were in full swing for a production of My Fair Lady in conjunction with the girls' school down the road. Lights and props were being arranged and the final adjustments were being made to the sound system as the band practised. I waved to my niece, Lisa, who was playing the piano. She smiled back. A fourth year boy had the misfortune to be walking between us and tripped over his own feet as a pretty girl beamed in his direction. The pile of books he was carrying rained down around him. I helped him up, waved to Lisa again and hurried on.

The side corridor leading to the cellar was empty as I approached but the door was slightly ajar and a naked bulb somewhere below cast a dim light onto the stone steps.

I hesitated before proceeding. There could have been anything down there. Images of crocodiles, giant serpents, aliens and excitable barbers flashed through my head. It was probably best to let someone know where I was going.

"Dispatch," I whispered into my walkie-talkie, "I'm entering the cellar. If I don't check in within half an hour, please send back up. Over."

"Copy that, Computer Guy. Be careful down there."

"I intend to be. Computer Guy out."

I prodded the door open cautiously and crept down the steps. It wasn't as dark as I'd imagined, nor dank and full of chained skeletons. The first chamber was piled high with old-fashioned desks and some very uncomfortable looking chairs. Three tunnels led out of the room but one was going entirely the wrong way and another was pitch black and the light switch didn't do anything. I took the third option, even though I could hear hammering from that direction. It didn't sound particularly frenzied or extra-terrestrial in nature but I picked up a leg from a broken table and hefted it like a baseball bat, just in case.

An absolutely enormous arachnid winked at me from its dusty web in a corner of the ceiling.

After a couple of twists, the tunnel ended in a wooden door. The hammering emanated from within. I wasn't very sure I was below the photocopying room and I contemplated turning back. I didn't much fancy venturing into the darkness of the alternative route, however. I dithered and then opened the door...

I found myself face-to-face with a life-size plywood cut-out of a horse.

While I was still blinking in confusion, my nephew Ned popped up from behind it with a hammer in his hand. "Oh, s'you," he mumbled and went back to nailing a support into place.

"Er..." I replied.

Ned finished hammering and came round to my side of the horse to add some details with a small pot of black paint.

"Don't you have some revision to do?" I said weakly, putting down my makeshift club.

Ned shrugged. "Shouldn't you be fixing some computers?"

"Yeah, very funny, I am actually working, thank you very much - I'm trying to track some cable. You, meanwhile, have only a few weeks until some exams, the failure of which will result in you being sent to a boarding school so far north it might as well be the dark side of the moon with added heather. Why have you snuck off to paint a horse?"

"S'for the show," he said.

"Oh, OK..." I couldn't shout at him for doing something he was supposed to be doing. I was confused, though. If he really was supposed to be doing it, then... "Why are you hiding in the cellar?"

Ned continued to paint. "Only place I get left alone."

"Are you being picked on again?" I said, keen to find out what was going on but becoming conscious I was asking a teenager lots of questions. If I pressed too hard, he was simply going to shrug me off.

"I wish. Everyone's my friend now."

This seemed unlikely but I waited and he didn't elaborate. I was forced to continue interrogating him. "How come?"

"Lisa's in the band this year."

I began to glimpse the problem. "Oh..." Lisa was a pretty girl dropped into a school full of boys who thought the easiest way to her phone number was through her brother. The teachers had no doubt also pointed out on several occasions what a talented musician she is. Ned doesn't like school much but at least it's the one place he's normally free from being outshone by his popular and overachieving sister.

There was another pause as I wondered what to say. In the end, I was distracted by the horse. "This is really good. Did you do it all yourself?"

He grunted in a positive sort of fashion.

"I didn't know you were good at art."

This didn't go down well. Despite having his back to me, there was something in the manner he tensed up that meant I could tell he was scowling. "Yeah, doesn't seem anyone does."

"Sorry," I said without much conviction. Given his normal reluctance to communicate, how was I supposed to know he could paint? Nonetheless, I'd obviously touched on a sore point. "Want to talk about it?"

He shrugged. "Not really."

There was silence...

...and then a bit more...

I decided to cut my losses and abandon the subject until another occasion. "Right, I'd better go find out who's stealing the broadband."

"It'll be Mr McIntyre."

"I guessed that. Where is he?"

"Left at the bottom of the stairs."

It figured. That was the tunnel with no light. "What's he doing down here?"

"Dunno," said Ned. "Can I come look?"

"I suppose so," I said and we headed off

The spider was nowhere to be seen when we reached the room of abandoned furniture. This made me nervous. I tried the light switch for the tunnel a couple more times but nothing happened. Taking out my torch, the beam felt tiny and weak as I shone it along our path, illuminating only a short stretch of flagstones before being eaten by the gloom.

"Why've you got a torch?" asked Ned.

"I spend half this job under desks fiddling with wires. I get fewer electric shocks when I can see what I'm doing... Want to go first?"

"Nah."

"Fair enough..." I started forward slowly, keeping an eye out for trouble. The aliens and crocodiles in my head had been replaced by pit traps and giant, rolling boulders...

"Don't move!" said Ned sharply.

I nearly leapt out of my skin. "What?"

"Spider."

"Where?" I said, swinging the torch around in a panic.

"On your back."

That finally got me to stop moving. "How big is it?"

"Flippin' enormous," said Ned, scooping it up in his hands and shoving it close to my face so I could take a look. "There. I think it winked at me."

"I have a phobia of spiders," I said, backing away.

"I know." He grinned and put the spider in amongst the pile of chairs.

I muttered various things under my breath. Then, once I'd regained my composure, we pressed on. The tunnel snaked along past cupboards and storerooms for some distance before ending in a door. Bright light and the hum of electronics seeped out from underneath.

"This must be it," I said, lifting the latch and letting us in.

I was expecting to find Mr McIntyre reclining with a beer in front of a huge telly. (That's what I'd be doing if I had a secret lair in a dingy cellar.)

I really wasn't counting on discovering a classroom.

Far from being dingy, it was well-lit and nicely carpeted. The walls were lined with bookshelves and cabinets, there was a vending machine and an overhead projector was displaying a spreadsheet. The place was kitted out better than most of the rooms upstairs, in fact - it had everything apart from windows. There was no sign of Mr McIntyre but around thirty boys were sitting in rows, their eyes fixed on the computer screens in front of them as they moved mice around frantically.

"What's going on here?" I said loudly.

Barely anyone stirred. Only the boy nearest me looked up briefly. "Business studies, sir."

"In the cellar?" I stepped round behind him to see what he was working at. "Hang on, you're playing World of Warcraft."

"Nah," said another boy from the back of the room, "that's Age of Conan, sir. This row is World of Warcraft."

He was right. I checked the screens and the pupils were playing everything from EverQuest to Second Life.

It was turning into one of those days where I was getting used to being confused. "OK, let's try this again. What exactly is going on here?"

"Practical session," said the first boy. "We're running a company providing goods and services to players of massively multiplayer online games."

It took me a moment to work out what he was talking about. "Oh! You're playing the games and then eBaying the virtual loot for real cash."

"The marketing department doesn't like it put like that, sir, but that's the idea."

"Cool," said Ned, slouching over to an empty workstation. "Can I have a go?"

I dragged him away. "Don't even think about it. You've got a horse to paint and exams to revise for. The last thing you need is an online addiction." I pointed him in the direction of the door. "Off you go."

Ned turned and almost walked into Mr McIntyre - a short, wiry man with a bald head and a grey goatee. He always gives the impression of having had a previous career as a stage magician. I suspect it has something to do with the way he flourishes his black teaching gown and projects his voice in a melodramatic fashion.

"I see you've found my little sweatshop at last," he said, entering the room.

"I guess now I know what's been straining the school's internet connection," I sighed. "I take it you've been upstairs plugging the cable back in."

"But of course."

"I also presume you realise you're not going to get away with running a gold farming operation down here any longer."

Mr McIntyre chuckled theatrically. "Don't be so foolish - this scheme helps keep the school solvent and us all in employment. Diversification! That's the watch word in these troubled times. And what resources do we have? Copious computer equipment bought by the PTA that we don't really have a use for and a whole load of teenage boys. Putting them together is a simple act of fiscal common sense."

"Are you saying the headmaster knows about this already?"

Mr McIntyre squirmed a little and lowered his voice. "He knows there's money being made but I told him I hooked up generators to the boiler and we're selling the electricity to the National Grid."

"You convinced him you're making a profit from heating the building?"

"It seemed easier than explaining about creating pretend gold to sell for hard currency."

I considered this. "You're maybe right... But you can't keep using the pupils as slave labour and claim it's work experience! It's not... I... Er..."

Mr McIntyre pressed a key on the laptop on his desk and the overhead projector started showing a live feed from the security camera in a maths classroom. Several members of the computer club were busily upgrading Windows on a clutch of PCs there.

"Drat," I muttered. "I was hoping they'd have finished there by now and moved on to the chemistry labs... Er... What was I talking about?"

"You were saying something about not exploiting the pupils."

"Oh, yeah..." I couldn't help feeling I'd not so much lost the moral high ground as fallen off it. I started to show myself out. "Never mind. I'll go read a book on networking and figure out how to stop the system from going down all the time, shall I?"

Mr McIntyre nodded. "That would be most appreciated."

"And how about a light bulb for this corridor?" I added, peering into the gloom once more.

"The darkness helps keep prying eyes away and illumination is unnecessary - there is never anything here." He went into the tunnel and felt his way forward with his arms stretched out to either side. He was quickly lost from sight. "It's perfectly possible to navigate one's way without... Argh!" There was a crash and a thud.

I flipped out my torch and shined it in his direction. He was sprawled over a lawnmower that hadn't been there earlier.

Mr McIntyre picked himself up and brushed himself down. He was unhurt. "What is it with this school and wandering gardening equipment?" he grumbled and then strode off again.

Ned and I looked at each other.

"Can't wait for the holidays," said Ned.

"Tell me about it," I agreed and we followed the teacher back to fresh air and daylight.

The spider winked as we passed...

Yours in a woman's world,

Ed.

2 comments:

Swiggy said...

You're braver than I am, I could never even contemplate going down there - let alone stay down there after seeing the spider the first time. You are my hero!

DadsDinner said...

My family are so aware that I have a phobia of spiders, they start pointing and shrieking the moment they see one within ten feet of me.

Unsurprisingly, this makes me jump out of my skin.

They leap around, I leap around, they leap around some more and then they're so freaked out by all the screaming that they have to go and lie down. I'm the one left to catch the creature in a cup and fling it out the window...