The drone was floating over the school after mid-morning break. By the time that the school had once again settled down to work, everybody was aware of it.
Mr MacDonald, the headmaster, had been immersed in FarmVille – one of his great projects at the moment – but he soon found that his mind was snagged on that single modulating note overhead. It sounded like the engine of a faraway lawnmower – as if an angel had popped out to give the clouds a trim. The head tore himself away from Facebook to the windows of his office, blinking thickly in the sunlight. The cause of the sound was circling slowly over the classrooms like a bird asleep on the wing. It looked as if it was made of shiny cardboard.
The head knew that the drone was a problem, but if he had been asked why, he could have not exactly said. Who should he consult about this nuisance? The caretaker would deny that he was responsible for the airspace over the school.
Uneasily, the head returned to Facebook. Everybody in the school would assume that he was doing something about the drone, and this would suffice for now.
At lunchtime, he did not want to burst into the staffroom with a tirade of questions about the drone. People would make remarks.
He cornered the head of science, Mr Crawley, in the corridor. Crawley was one of those men who make teachers fear that their identities are being erased. He looked very much like he had gone soft from spending too much time around children. He had the kind eyes and silvery hair of a grandmother, and the same plump grandmotherly pear shape. Lately he had acquired a distinct waddle. As always, Crawley smiled blandly at the head – as if they were in some pleasant conspiracy together – but his eyes were today steady with fear.
They gazed at each other aghast for a moment, not needing to say anything, their own fears confirmed in each other’s helplessness. There was a darkened classroom waiting and Crawley bolted both of them inside. He had his own theory about the drone.
The science and design departments had together coordinated a competition called “Meant to Invent.” Several classes were working in teams of four to design and promote a new invention. Most of the inventions were hairclips and cookie cutters. We are not that sort of school, Crawley seemed to smile ruefully, in which the schoolkids dazzle the local newspapers by setting up their own companies.
The thing was this: one of the groups was made up of those boys who come to school in combat jackets and demonstrate an unnerving, unexpected quickness whenever they begin to talk about weapons. Paddy McCormack was one of them, and Fraser Murr another. They were obsessed with BB guns – or whatever they call them, Crawley snapped, irritable at finding himself being able to converse fluently about such nonsense. Every weekend they went down to the woods to conduct a genial warfare against each other, fussing over their military camouflage like ballerinas preening their tutus, and showing off their latest paintball bruises come Monday morning. For an instant, Crawley’s eyes sparkled – in happier times, he would have been amused by his own distaste.
Crawley had been concerned that these boys would invent some sort of weapon and that one of them would end up losing an eye. He and the head of design, Mr Bee, had resolved to steer them gently away from danger. They had been both disappointed and somewhat abashed when the boys had turned out to be very interested in solar power. To his own considerable surprise, Bee found himself recommending Youtube tutorials on how to make solar cells. They were running rings around him, Crawley grieved. Bee no doubt imagined that they were inventing a solar powered kettle for the school librarian.
“So they have launched a flying weapon?” the head heard himself ask. He shuddered at the straightforwardness of the situation. He was a man who favoured delicacy and sophistication in a crisis. A crisis in which everybody stood about helplessly.
“It could be spying on the school. The boys could be watching the footage on a computer somewhere. Even on their phones.”
The head was suddenly poised to snatch hope out of the air, as if it was hurtling past him like a cricket ball. “That almost sounds a good thing doesn’t it? Showing initiative? Helping out with school security?”
Yet their logic was circular. “It could also be some sort of weapon,” Crawley pointed out.
They agreed to continue watching the drone, in the hope that it would eventually divulge some clue as to its purpose.
The head stalked back to his office, throwing open his door to be surprised by the sight of almost all of his staff arranged around his coffee table. It was too late to conceal his dismay. The deputy smiled at Mr Macdonald and directed him to a chair.
“Hello Ron. I’ve called an emergency meeting…”
You would have done, the head thought gloomily. He disliked this deputy, Mr Saunders. He made the head feel as if he was an imposter – as if he should apologise to everybody for not being as authentic as his deputy. A headmaster should be as sunny as a liberal American President – he should look charismatic and distinguished; somebody who is always in the middle of something, with big plans in his head and a thousand details at his fingertips. Saunders looked like this. He looked as if he could broker a historic peace between warring street gangs or launch a flagship recycling initiative. He looked as if he should be making glamorous appearances on Twitter.
“I’ve been discussing it with Crawley!” the head blurted out, a little too quickly. The other teachers smiled at him, surprised.
Saunders almost blinked. “We have voted not to close the school.”
The head peered at him. “Close the school?”
“It would cause too much disruption,” Ms. Babbs declared. “There are exams in five weeks.”
It was the first that the head had heard of any exams. He supposed that they must be talking about the Highers.
“Have you been told about Luke Marsh?” Mrs Clough asked kindly. There was a note of rebuke somewhere in her voice, as if Mr MacDonald was an elderly relative who should be included out of courtesy and the others had been thoughtless.
“A very dangerous sex offender,” Sauders updated him testily. “He returned to Liberton last week under the early release scheme. The police had a good deal of trouble in getting around his online identities.”
The head of music, Mr Meredith, snorted with mirth, like beer fizzing out of a treacherous can. “In other words, he’s launched a paedo drone over our school…” Meredith was a lonely figure within the staffroom: he fancied that he was aloof and Byronic; the rest of the staff suspected that he was some sort of paedophile. Out of some obscure, defensive instinct, he would mention paedophiles at every given opportunity, making nasty remarks about them with a kind of faux irony.
Saunders waited patiently until Meredith’s horrible laughter had subsided. “If we approach the police about this, they will instruct us to close the school. We have decided to avoid such an eventuality.”
Everybody thought how unfortunate it was that Mr MacDonald had not been given a vote but that it would be too much trouble to solicit one now.
Meredith appealed lazily to Mr MacDonald, as if his support would be at least some consolation. “Of course, when the parents learn that we’re exposing their children to paedos, we‘re all in the fucking shit.”
Mr MacDonald wanted to tell his staff about Crawley’s theory, but he could not predict how they would react. Upon departing, the staff left behind two dozen coffee cups for the head to wash up.
Later, he tried to engage the head of design, Mr Bee about the drone, but the results were less than helpful.
“They’re buggers drones. They’ve ruined everything. They should be banned. You can buy the fucking things in Poundland these days. When you saw a UFO in the old days, it was a real UFO. Now people will just say, “Oh it’s only a drone.” The real UFOs can now come and go, and nobody will think any different…”
The head fled. Hundreds of pupils were suddenly teeming out of the classrooms and clattering along down the corridors. The fire alarm was whooping overhead like rejoicing bells. The head ran in one direction, and then another. Finally, he ran straight into Ms Babbs’ arms.
“”The maths block is on fire!” she hissed.
“The maths block!”
The head was instantly paralysed by the implications of this. He shook himself, as if this would make his brain produce a thought.
“None of the children are hurt. It was an empty classroom.”
“We can’t assemble them outside,” the head whispered to himself.
Next the fear had touched her with its finger and she started, wide eyed. “But we have to,” she insisted. “They must be outside.”
It was as if his flesh had fallen off his bones and a naked skeleton was walking out into the playground to address the school. Saunders handed him a loudspeaker.
Beside him, Ms Babbs began to weep quietly.
The drone was now floating directly above them, apparently taking a polite interest.
You glimpsed it daily on BBC News, but you never really thought about it. You saw a chanting mob carrying aloft some blackened remains in a blanket. Presumably there was an unexpected eruption, a bolt of white heat, and then you had been blown to smithereens. Fifty years of life were over before you had time to straighten your tie.
His voice was shaking with fear and within seconds he had transmitted this terror to the entire school. One could sense the hairs on the backs of hundreds of necks standing on end in a great wave. Everybody was fixed rooted to the spot. The voice of common sense – that basic instinct for self-preservation – had lost its tongue. All that they needed was for somebody to toss the word “run!” into their midst, like a grenade, and then they could have all stampeded for their lives.
Yet they continued to act out their idiotic procedure, dividing the school into regiments and counting them like small change. A fire-engine arrived and they rolled out a hose to water the remains of the maths block. Saunders exchanged pleasantries with the fire chief. The head turned his phone on, just in case any of the local newspapers tried to call him, but to his great annoyance none of them did. Three of the pupils reported feeling dizzy and so they were driven off on an entirely ceremonial trip to hospital.
The fire chief announced that the emergency was over. Without apparent panic, everybody trotted back indoors very quickly. The drone was still suspended over the empty playground.
They had to have a second meeting. The staff commiserated with the head of maths, who made a stiff joke about buying his wife a new washing machine with the insurance money. Saunders was subdued this time. The head briefed the staff about the fire chief’s initial assessment of the fire.
“He hasn’t a clue,” the head admitted baldly. “The building burned down so quickly that it’s beyond him.”
Several of the teachers looked as if they were desperate to interject something, but suddenly, and very smoothly, Saunders had assumed control of the meeting. They would have to consult the relevant experts about the cause of the fire. In the meantime they should observe the fire procedures closely, keeping fire exits cleared and making sure that all unattended electrical appliances were unplugged. The head found himself tuning in to the faraway warbling of the drone. A ceiling offers no safety, he thought, any more than ants can take precautions against a descending foot.
Leaving the school that night, the head glanced anxiously up at the drone. It was now circling overhead like a great owl – wan and ghostly. Crawley had sent him an email, pointing out amongst other things that even if the drone was solar powered, it must have its own independent energy supply. If only the damned thing would land somewhere to refuel, then they could attack it.
Driving home, the head luxuriated in a sense of his muscles unbending and of all the troubles of the day bursting from his mind in a great spray, like pigeons abandoning a playing field at the clap of a hand. He wanted to spend a few hours basking in nothingness, picking at a yoghurt and flicking through the TV channels. He hoped that his wife’s day had been uneventful – that it could be summarised in a single droll remark. They would grimace together at the television and bitch about the reality contestants.
When the head glanced in his rear view mirror, he almost overturned his car.
The drone was following him.
It was floating directly behind his number plate. For a moment, the head imagined careering off down the country lanes, trying to lose the device. But he settled back in his seat, resigned to its company.
It rose to assume a position over his house. Hoping that his neighbours would keep their observations to themselves, the head double-bolted his front door and went straight to bed, with scarcely a grunt to his wife.
He dreamt of a gigantic grey tube which slid along the sea floor, with smooth fins and a wild smirking human face which pointed upwards. The head was peeping over at this creature from the deck of a ferry. This world was suddenly shattered by screaming. Erupting from his bed, Mr MacDonald beheld his wife crashing into the room stark naked, her hands tearing at the air. A framed picture of their dog dropped from the wall with a thud.
“Oh Ron…” she wailed.
“What is it?” Mr MacDonald momentarily wanted to pull the covers back over his head and go to sleep forever.
Mrs MacDonald had stepped out of the shower to see a shape at the window. Before she could grab for a towel, a great bulb-like head, studded with whirring cameras, was engrossed in her naked body. Her husband found himself picturing something like the face of an insect, magnified to hideous proportions.
She was railing at him. Why wasn’t he doing something? They had to call the police.
The pupils would be already in uproar at his wife’s flopping tits. The photos would be hopping from phone to phone, as blithely as a grasshopper. They would sprout in hundreds of inboxes. And once the staff had confiscated a stray phone, the photos would explode on to the work email.
The police? He’d phone them from work, he assured her.
“Ron? Aren’t you listening to me? This thing was at our window!”
He was scouring the bedroom distractedly, groping for a tie. He must not go anywhere near the bathroom, but Christ he smelled terrible. Flapping his wife away, he descended and then ducked out into the morning air. The thing was whistling like a kettle overhead; the sunshine had made it perky. If only it would vaporise me, the head wished grimly.
The device kept its distance as he drove to school. It was racing over the treetops, a little mindlessly, like a dreaming kite.
At school, the head parked his car and made a beeline for his office. He tumbled back, as a student emerged from the boys’ toilets, straight into his path.
“Sorry sir?” The head registered a muscular body, patched with damp, alarmingly tall and floppy for a schoolboy. The stubble on his skull was as fine as sand.
There was suddenly a broad smile across Fraser Murr’s face. “Yer look awfy peely wally sir?”
The head darted an absolutely murderous look at the boy and then continued to the safety of his office.
The head’s personal assistant rapped on his door about an hour later, but she received no answer. Mr Crawley had a free period at ten, whereupon he too ventured in search of the head. After knocking on the door twice, he pressed onwards inside. What he saw scared the willies out of him. There seemed to be blood on the floor and lots of broken glass. “Go away!” the head spat, his eyes unblinking.
By the time that the two policemen had arrived, discreetly ushered through the kitchens and a maze of administrative rooms, the head was gone. At some point he had broken cover for his car. I must keep driving, he resolved. That is the only way – I must keep driving. The drone had slipped out of its mysterious orbits to join him, fixing itself to his number plate. The head followed the bypass around the city and then north towards the Highlands, to the coast, to great bays where white foam raced over black rocks which loomed with more grandeur than the façade of the most awful cathedral.
All that the head needed to do was to wrench off his number plate and toss it into the waves. The drone would follow it to the bottom of the sea. But stupidity is the stuff of human tragedy.