It was definitely him. That face, with those blue eyes on the verge of rage and the fire on his crown, though that was now cropped into a bristly regulation haircut. But there was no mistaking the man who stood before him now, and as Ralph held his hand for the other man to shake, he wondered whether the latest candidate in his office had recognised him.
“Mr Merridew, please take a seat.” Their handshake was firm and business-like, and Ralph gestured for him to sit down.
“Call me Jack.”
His guest was tall, broad shouldered and slender hipped with a smirk on his face. His once crumpled up childhood features had developed into a serious adult face, like a discarded note covered with freckles instead of words, twisted like a shell. As Jack sat down, Ralph felt his vision start to waver, as it usually did before he got a migraine. He took two glasses from the cabinet next to the window and poured a glass each from the carafe on the desk for himself and Jack.
“So Mr Merridew, I must say I haven’t really had much time to read through all of the resumes we’ve received for this vacancy, and I only briefly scanned yours so I’m afraid you’ll have to fill me in on the missing details.” It was better for him to assume that Jack didn’t recognise him, otherwise who knows what old feelings might arise? Ralph wondered if Jack remembered things the way he did, if he remembered anything at all. Had he too woken up countless nights in a sweat after dreams of the island?
“Please, call me Jack, I must insist. Well, I suppose I should start at the beginning. I’m a military man, leader of the 4th Cavalry Division. Fought at the Somme, specialised in close-combat and conducted the armed forces choir back on home turf.” A devil in the choirstalls, still after all these years. “Honourably discharged last year for rehabilitation,” he pointed to his knee, “shrapnel lodged in the bone, three operations to sort it out but it’s done, old boy. I’ve served twenty years and I’ll miss the military life, but I’m ready to start something new.”
Ralph shuffled the papers on his desk and took a sip of his water. “Sounds like you’ve had an exciting start in life, Jack. I wonder, what has attracted you to becoming a headmaster? It seems like something of a departure from your army career, if you don’t mind me saying.” Jack’s mouth started to move in response but Ralph’s mind was elsewhere, making connections between Jack’s adult life and his behaviour on the island. That he would end up in an army role, requiring discipline and taking orders and eventually earning (not just taking or assuming) a position of authority; that his occupation would see him building a working relationship with animals in the cavalry; that he would embark on a career fighting on behalf of others rather than thinking of himself - clearly Jack had been affected by their shared trauma, but Ralph was interested in their interpretation of events and how they might differ. When else would he get the chance to speak to a fellow survivor? Who else could possibly know what he had gone through?
The slash cord window rattled as it began to rain outside, and Jack cleared his throat. Ralph realised that he had stopped talking a good twenty seconds ago, and was staring at Ralph’s face with what at first seemed to be a glimmer of recognition but was actually just confusion at his host’s silence.
“Sorry Jack, I was just… I was just thinking about how your, uh, your military experience might… well I was weighing up the pros and cons.”
Jack shifted in his chair. “At the risk of sounding rude, I can’t see how there could be any cons.” Ralph expected him to complete his argument, but Jack just stopped there.
“Yes, well, alright, why don’t we talk a little bit about what the role entails, hmm?” Ralph cleared his throat and leafed through his papers, although this was actually to give himself time to think about how to phrase his questions without giving himself away. “I pride myself on providing a well-balanced experience for the children of Golding’s Academy, Mr Merridew. We value teamwork, discipline, and goodwill as strong foundations for adulthood. Tell me, what are your priorities regarding the welfare of these children?” His heart was thumping in his chest; Ralph wondered if Jack had caught on, in the nervous way that the guilty create scenarios in which they are caught out and then end up bringing those situations about. But I have nothing to be guilty about, Ralph thought. It’s been over twenty years, I’ve tried my hardest to dedicate my life to protecting children like you. You’ve got to let me go.
That ain’t the point, and you know it.
Now isn’t a good time, we’ve got him where we want him. We could get him to admit something, we could -
Oh what are you going to do? Fight him? Knock his block off? He’ll always beat you, Ralph, because you’re the one who sticks to the rules - you’re the one who thinks everything’ll work out if we stay in our little boxes. Well, we all end up in boxes, Ralph.
Please, Piggy, I just need a few minutes with him. Alone. I can’t carry you with me all the time, not anymore.
“Is everything alright?” Jack was leaning forward in his chair now, with a look of genuine concern that caught Ralph off guard.
“Yes I’m fine, sorry, I just feel a migraine coming on.” Piggy slumped down, crossed his hands haughtily across his chest and sat pouting cross-legged on the floor. The most petulant child that Ralph had encountered, and yet he had no way to appease him.
“Here, have some more water, I find that usually helps.” Jack reached for the carafe and topped up Ralph’s glass. Funny, Ralph thought, he just assumed it was okay for him to pour out another glass for me. It then struck Ralph that in the time they had been together in that office, Jack hadn’t bothered to find out his name. He frowned at this thought but it served only to intensify his headache, and now Piggy was making a clicking noise with his tongue which distracted him.
“Thank you.” Ralph finished half of his glass of water, and rubbed his temple. “Where were we?”
“You were asking me about my priorities, what I’d do for the children.” Jack focussed his attention on his tie, smoothing it down against his chest. “I am a strong believer in discipline and teamwork, much like yourself. What a child learns in his early years can shape their future, and I advocate a programme of academics and practical skills alongside a routine of vigorous, regular exercise. I…” he paused, as if struggling to hear his own thoughts, then continued, “I think physical fitness is the key to a happy childhood, and a successful adult life. It’s how I survived.”
“Yes, I can see how a soldier like yourself would hold such beliefs.”
“Right, yes, that’s what I meant.” The broad-shouldered man looked uncomfortable, and scratched behind his ear. “I just think that children need as much guidance as possible.”
Oh he would say that, wouldn’t he? I bet he’d push ‘em all around, he’d be a big old bully like he always was! Piggy had scrambled to his feet and pounded his fists against his thighs as he spoke. Ralph closed his eyes and for a moment he was back on the island, standing on the beach looking out across the sea. No other children around, just him and warm sand. He could almost feel the sea breeze ruffling his hair, and the cool, smooth sensation of the conch in his hand, then came the sound of a small crack, like the lens in a pair of spectacles. He opened his eyes and looked down at his hands, seeing only the glass of water which he finished in one gulp.
“They do need guidance, don’t they?” Ralph whispered.
Tell him you recognise him. Tell him we know who is and we’re going to tell an adult.
“We ARE the adults!” he roared, standing up. Jack remained in his chair, and watched as the tall, blonde man standing opposite him tried to compose himself. “I’m sorry, Mr Merridew. I just mean that we are the adults, we are the ones who need to make sure these children know right from wrong; it’s our responsibility to ensure they grow up into responsible adults by making sure they are responsible in their youth.”
“Certainly, I agree.” Jack started, “I plan to - ”
“Because without any sense of responsibility, there’d be utter chaos, wouldn’t there, Jack? People would go around with no regard for the welfare of others, no voice of reason in their head telling when to stop… we’d be savages, wouldn’t we?” We’d be painting our faces “We’d be painting our faces…” and slitting’ throats as we pleased “…and slitting throats as we pleased!” We’d be the beast, Ralph. “We’d be the beast, Jack.”
Ralph stood behind his desk, breathing deeply. The window rattled behind him as the wind picked up and the rain hammered down, and for a few moments this was the only sound in the room. That, and Piggy’s asthmatic breathing, but Ralph had learned to block that out years ago. Jack remained in his chair still, fixing his cufflinks over his sleeves, then began to speak without looking up.
“Tell me, Ralph,” he said gently, “does this mean you see him too?”