Second by Second, We Get Closer

Ian Sherred

In autumn, the black cars emerge. Dark and shining as newly hatched beetles, they glide through the pine forest roads into the mountains. They carry with them the rumour of dissolute summers in distant seaside resorts. Now they answer a call that seems older than time itself - a new term begins!

High on its crag beyond the tree line, the Academy seems to have grown from the rock itself. The black cars thread the ribbon thin roads to the Academy's gates, and pull up on the cold pink gravel before them. Chauffeurs hurry to assist their charges, decorous young ladies representing all the teenage years, all the daughters of glacially beautiful mothers and rich remote fathers. Some shiver in the sudden chill of the mountain air. Some eye their chauffeurs knowingly, and shiver for different reasons.

Already the girls are flowing through the gates, where prefects and tutors are conducting them to their quarters. The Academy absorbs them all like a sponge, in near silence. Yet the silence is alive with excitement and fear and anticipation. A new term! Friends and enemies to make and meet again, work to be done, and above all, the possibility that it will fall to this generation, in this term, to complete the greatest work of them all.

Nobody feels this more acutely than the headmaster. He stands at the squint of his study, peering down as unobserved as watching death upon the pupils, as they file through the Great Hall. He turns to face the portrait of the Founder. Age has turned it the colour of oxtail soup, but the Founder's devilishly handsome face can still be seen. The headmaster performs a small salute.

"Second by Second, We Get Closer" he whispers.

The Academy's motto. Visitors - and the Academy does receive visitors, once in a while - occasionally ask about it. A memento mori? they inquire. The headmaster smiles helpfully, just as headmasters before him have smiled helpfully at the same question. Like so much of our quaint Academy lore, he will say, its origins are rather uncertain. Tell me, have you seen the gargoyles on the western turret?

Visitors - and the Academy does receive visitors, once in a while - are occasionally a nuisance. They have to be faced, though. The Academy exists in the real world. There are government inspectors and suchlike to deal with. Occasionally, a visitor will be curious. Curiosity can be deflected, or controlled. If it can't, the visitor may find their career taking an unexpectedly backward path. These things happen. For the especially curious, there are certain other procedures.

A visitor now would see the dormitories and the refectory fill up and empty according to a well planned timetable. The first day of a new term is inevitably a period of settling in, of getting acquainted, of preparation. Later, the headmaster will deliver a speech on the necessity of holding oneself in a state of preparation. The girls of the Academy know all about preparation, they are born to it, they ingest it with their mother's milk, as it were. Mother's Milk, coincidentally, is the name of a special liqueur that is served to the girls after the headmaster's speech, its origins lying in the dark depths of Academy tradition.

The Founder is often considered both Father and Mother.

There are very few lessons today, then. Tomorrow, the educational task begins in earnest. A visitor tomorrow will see the girls file into their classrooms, to receive excellent instruction in French literature and mathematics, history and Latin, Sanskrit and chemistry, metallurgy and political science. If the weather is fine, there may be lacrosse in the courtyard.

The visitor, perhaps a well-intentioned note-taker from the Education ministry, may see the end of a line of girls disappearing into a classroom. And yet, as he approaches, he is struck by the silence from the other side of the door. He may even remark upon this to his escort (all visitors are carefully escorted). Our students are very attentive, the escort replies. Yet there is no sound at all, no coughs, no scraping chairs, no thin, murmuring drone of a lecture. The visitor tries to open the door, yet the escort contrives to stand in his way. We mustn't disturb the students, says the escort. The visitor becomes agitated, and invokes his powers as a man from the ministry. The escort continues to smile blandly. With a surprisingly agile manoeuvre, the visitor slips past his escort, and throws open the door. He sees - an empty classroom.

This may happen tomorrow. If it does, there are procedures in place for dealing with the well-intentioned note-taker from the Education Ministry. It's happened before. In fact, those girls who enter that particular classroom may see evidence of this as they start their lesson.

In they come, in orderly fashion, and stand by their desks. The master is waiting for them, by a door that is kept scrupulously locked out of lesson time. The master produces a key and unlocks the door, and silently the girls pass through. The master locks the door behind them. They are now on a landing, at the head of a wide flight of stairs. The master flicks a switch - these days, the stairs are electrically lit, but in days gone by the girls would have had to rely on candles as they descended. These lent a rather ghostly air to the bones nailed to the wall. Under electric light, this proof of the Academy's procedures for dealing with persistent visitors looks merely decorative.

Down they go, until at last they arrive at the cage. Here they pause, while the master delegates two of the girls to hand out the tools. When all are suitably equipped, they enter the cage. The master flicks another switch, and the cage descends. Rattling, rattling, into the depths of the mountain.

At the first level, they disembark, and wait for the next cage. It arrives with the girls from the previous lesson. The classes swap cages in virtual silence, although there may be the odd whisper or giggle, echoing in the cavern. The previous class ascend, to shower and rest before an afternoon of double algebra. The new girls continue their journey ever downward, down to the cold and dark that the new electric lights do so little to dispel.

At last, they arrive at the lower level, and the lesson can properly begin. The master blows his whistle, and the girls begin to swing their picks and scrape their shovels, filling the carts with the guts of the mountain.

This may happen tomorrow. It may fall to this generation, in this term, to complete the greatest work of them all. One of the girls, hacking away with the pick, may suddenly feel a void behind the rock face. It will fall silent. An autumnal chill will race around the world. But the girls and masters of the Academy hold themselves prepared.

"Continue" the master will say, tersely. And the girls will attack the rocks with renewed fervour, pulling them aside with their bare hands, until their nails are broken and their fingers are bruised and crushed and bloody, and the air of the pit is filled with dust. Choking and breathless, they will fall back. As the dust settles, they will see at last the devilishly handsome face of the Founder.

Free after centuries of imprisonment, awake after interminable dreamless sleep, his time has come.

This may happen tomorrow.

Second by Second, We Get Closer.

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