Ernest Kirby didn’t die in vain. The soft-spoken 73-year-old, who had painful arthritis and an inoperable tumour somewhere in his bowels, saved 12 others on that bleak night in early December.
He didn’t think twice about it, he acted on instinct. And, had Ernest survived those events, he would have shushed any attempt to hail him as a hero. “I’m no superman,” he would have said. “I was just trying to help.” And then he would have smiled his lopsided smile and added: “I was only doing what anybody else would have done.”
But Ernest didn’t get to say any of those things. He died at 2:38 a.m. on a cold winter’s morning.
Since the death of his wife, Ernest volunteered at Lille County Primary School. It was a humble building on the outskirts of town; two storeys tall with a fenced-off playground. Ernest offered his time and found it enriched his lonely life. The sweet old man was a hit with the children, too — they all loved him for his gentle demeanour and inextinguishable good mood.
On a dark afternoon an hour after the final bell had rung, Ernest was in charge of 11 children — along with Mrs Wondrush. Watery grey light trickled in through the windows. It had snowed for the better part of the day.
Almost all the kids had been collected, but the group in the room still waited for their parents. Steve Marshall phoned to say he had no idea when he’d be there to pick his daughter up — the roads were undrivable due to the snow. Sally said she reckoned that was probably the case for all the parents.
Ernest smiled. “Not to worry, Sally. I’ll wait here with you until they arrive. I’m in no rush.”
“Thanks, Ernest.” She wrapped her arms around herself. “I just wish Dave’d get the damn heating back on.”
“You swore!” cried Lucy.
“You didn’t hear that, okay?” she said with a smile.
Ernest grinned. “I’ll go see what’s taking him so long.”
They tried to make it seem like a game, to not frighten the children. They locked the door and barricaded it with tables and chairs. They took care to not make too much noise. “Okay, gang,” Sally whispered in a shaky voice, “let’s play who can stay the quietest.” She raised her finger to her lips: “Remember, we’ve got to be quiet.”
The 13 of them huddled in the corner of the classroom as the blizzard swirled its chaos outside. The school was deathly silent; they couldn’t hear a sound. The place was quieter than quiet. The snow muffled all noise.
As they hid, the oblivious kids with fingers pressed to mouths (shhh), Ernest replayed the handyman’s last moments over and over. The open cavity of his chest. The snapped bones. The organs that quivered and throbbed as they failed to keep their owner alive. Dave fought through the pain to deliver his final message. He coughed and sprayed blood from his lips. “Don’t let it get the children. Don’t let it feed,” he’d said through gritted teeth. And then he sighed as he let out a long, protracted breath. Dave never took another.
His life ebbed away on the floor.
Ernest’s mind showed him the hole in the basement wall again. The void (what could do that, dear God, what did that) that yawned was blacker than black. Chilly air seeped out. The awful smell of rot and decay permeated the atmosphere.
The sounds from within.
The insectoid scuttles.
Sally shook him awake from an uneasy sleep. “Ernest,” she whispered. It was dark. The children had closed eyes and heavy breaths. He checked the well-worn watch that Marge had bought him, eyes bleary. It was gone half two in the morning. “Has anyone—” he began, but then bright headlights flashed through the window. An engine cut off.
“Let’s go,” he moved his stiff and aching body. “Now.“
They woke the children, fingers to lips. The kids, none the wiser, grinned and nodded. They pulled the tables and chairs away from the door with the utmost care. Then, with a loud click, they turned the lock, pushed open the door and stepped into the inky black corridor. Sally led. Ernest at the rear.
The front door was 50 paces away, if that, and they could see the headlights through the glass and—
He heard it.
A buzzing, clicking noise. Clack-clack. It was in the hallway with them.
It had waited.
Clack-clack. A scuttle in the darkness. Clackety-clack! Another fluttery humming sound. The air escaped his lungs, and he could hear his heartbeat as it thundered in his chest (not now, don’t let me have a heart attack, please God, not now).
It was on the ceiling. Clackety-clack. Up ahead. It crawled towards them. The others didn’t see it, but Ernest did. Clack. It was above them and still, they moved (too loud you’re too loud it’ll hear us). Clack-clack. And then it moved away. Whatever it was, it was past them, down the hallway and—
Tyler coughed. Spittle flew. “Ew! Miss! Tyler coughed on me, he—”
It dropped with a meaty thud to the floor and scuttled towards them, screeching and clicking. My God, it’s fast, Ernest thought, and then he threw himself at it with everything he had.
His joints were popping and he was colliding with it and the thing was screeching and buzzing and it had him and the pain was stabbing and oh, the pain, the pain and somewhere someone was screaming and it was him, he was the one screaming and his chest was exploding but the children (don’t let it get the children don’t let it feed) were safe they were safe and the pain the pain the pain (run run get out run please save the children the children the children)—
3rd December 2019