I told her not to swing on the gate. “You’ll kill yourself,” that’s what I said. I remember it exactly. But she didn’t listen, because nobody listens to the playground assistant. Don’t get me wrong, they’ll interact with me when they want my services: “Mrs Carpenter, Dean took my Beyblade!” they’ll scream. Fucking make me put down my fag. But, no, when I give advice that could potentially save their lives, they can’t even be arsed to look up at my wise, smoke-cloaked old face. And now Chantelle Thompson’s dead, and that’s that. We can all move on, get a new gate installed, and hold a special assembly that’ll shake the little buggers up for life.
Only we can’t just move on, according to Brenda. Apparently we’ve got some “duty of care” towards Chantelle. Have to go and fetch her back. Madness.
“Take your anorak, Sue,” Brenda said, “it’ll be cold.”
I’m telling you this, I didn’t know you could access the underworld from the school. It’s just not something they told me when I applied for the job. “Nice school, challenging area, good pay” – that’s what they told me. They never once used the words “passage to hell under the large apparatus in the school hall”. But then I guess that might put a lot of people off, mightn’t it? I asked Brenda why, of all places, we had a passage to the underworld under our school.
“Ex-student,” she told me.
“Ex-student? Don’t you tell me God himself walked these sticky corridors, made skid-marks with his trainers on the lino and gobbled at the shit in the school canteen!”
“No,” said Brenda, “it was this Norse demi-goddess, Hel. A right little handful. The gods banished her down there when they couldn’t take any more of her whingeing. She used to swing on the coat pegs as well. Bellingdon’s most famous ex-student.”
“I thought that was that girl with the weird bits who got on Embarrassing Bodies?”
Because if Hel’s really the most famous ex-student, then it takes the fucking liberties that the new ICT suite’s not named after her instead.
I must admit, though, I was a little curious to see what was down there, even if it did mean saving Chantelle – a girl who’d wrap her chicken nuggets in toilet paper, put them in her bag and eat them in the girls’ toilets, just to be subversive. We put our coats on and, since we couldn’t find a lantern, Brenda suggested we wheel the school telly down there for light – stick the Barney the Dinosaur video in. I asked if we had an extension cable big enough, and she said we did.
“Pretty titchy underworld then, innit?” I said.
“It’s just the underworld for Peckham.”
“What? You’re telling me that if you die in Peckham, you stay underneath it forever?”
“Yeah. That’s why they put King’s College in Camberwell – ’cause their underworld’s nicer.”
“So, our ex-pupil isn’t actually the ruler of the underworld, just Peckham’s?”
“I can see why Sheila Cooper got the ICT suite.”
I don’t even know why I’m telling you this. I mean, how long can it take to reach up onto the shelf and get me a packet of fags? I guess everything takes longer here, though, doesn’t it? Oh well, I’ll carry on. You got me going now.
So, there we are, in the school hall, with the telly and the extension cable plugged in. We opened the trap door, and carried the TV down these rickety old wooden stairs that folded out from underneath it. See, the amount we care for these kids! Nearly put my back out. Could have been in a wheelchair for a fucking week.
When we got to the bottom, we saw this enormous great river; but behind it, lit up by Barney’s face, was the whole of Peckham. It was dirtier than it usually is, though. And the streets didn’t look like actual streets. No rubbish was poking out from any of the bins, the curtains were identical, the trees had all their leaves on, and there weren’t any cars. Madness.
Just as I was asking Brenda how the hell we were meant to get across, this boat rides up. She tells me it’s the “grim ferryman”, and that she doesn’t know much more than that. Then he gets closer, and we realise it’s Nigel. I tell you, I’d be grim if I had to scrape puke out of sinks and fetch footballs off roofs for a living. This must be a nice change. And, as he takes us across, it suddenly dawns upon me that pretty much every member of staff has known about this whole underworld thing but me. Because, I guess, I’m not a proper member of staff – I just stand in the freezing cold for an hour and a half every day, giving kids advice on how not to die that they then choose to ignore. I only guard the school gate against fucking paedophiles and murderers.
So, talking of kids, the minute we get to the other side, we see a single swing, next to this estate. Chantelle’s on it, trying to make it swing, but it won’t move. She’s really struggling and, of course, she’s all alone, because most of the other kids were bleeding smart enough not to swing on that gate. And, as we bring the telly closer, we see she looks kind of grim too – massive gash down her face from where the gate’s cold iron claws struck her.
I leave it to Brenda to chat to her about gate safety, as I’m not one to preach. Instead, I slip off to buy a new pack of fags because my old one’s just run out. Everything’s pretty much in the same place as up above, so I come here to Yogi News, where I’m still waiting for my fags.
See that there? That purple glow on the water? That’s them, isn’t it? Leaving me here. Nigel and Brenda never liked me. See? Rewarding job, isn’t it? Playground assistant?