Chapter 1 Chapter 1
Casper crouched inside the lost and found basket in the corridor outside his classroom. The school timetable stated, very firmly, that he should be in Mr. Barge’s geography lesson, but his own timetable, which was at this second folded neatly into his palm, stated that he should be exactly where he was—surrounded by dirty blazers and smelly sports uniforms.
Casper shifted his weight. Thirty minutes was a long time to be wedged inside a wicker basket, but it had become an important part of his Thursday afternoons. Because only by telling Mr. Barge that he had a piano lesson or a dentist appointment or an errand to run for the headmaster, and hiding in the lost and found instead, could Casper overhear the lesson and the homework instructions (thereby not falling behind in his studies or causing Mr. Barge to question his absences) while avoiding crossing paths with Candida and Leopold.
By and large, Little Wallops Boarding School was a friendly place—and with its wood-paneled dining room, enormous fireplaces, and stone gargoyles it was rather beautiful, too—but in every school there are rotten eggs, the sort of children who write complaint letters to Father Christmas and ask their parents for a pocket-money raise. Candida and Leopold were two such children, and while Casper had previously managed to avoid both of them because they were in different classes, this term Candida and Leopold’s geography teacher had been out sick, so Casper’s personal timetable had needed some considerable adjustments.
Casper risked a peep over the top of the basket. Mr. Barge always left his classroom door open (apparently it made hurling pupils out of lessons far more straightforward), and though from where he crouched Casper couldn’t see Candida or Leopold, or any of his classmates for that matter, he had a clear view of his teacher, who was, at this moment, flinging exercise books toward his pupils.
“Down the center, Ben—quick, catch! On the wing, Ruby—look sharp!”
Mr. Barge, a middle-aged man the size and shape of a drawbridge, doubled up as a geography teacher and a rugby coach, and he often got the two confused.
Another exercise book shot, like a rugby ball, across the room, and Mr. Barge’s voice boomed through the door and out into the corridor.
“Coming through, Oliver! You’ll have to jump for this one!”
A short, sharp thump followed. Casper winced. He guessed Oliver had tried to jump for his book—and missed.
Mr. Barge performed several lunges, which made his suit squeak at the seams, then he threw his class a toothy grin. “Hustle in, Year Six. Hustle in.”
There were a few nervous scrapes as the pupils pulled their chairs closer.
“We’ve all seen the newspaper headlines these past few weeks: What the nation thought was a one-off hurricane in England at the beginning of March has now escalated into a worldwide weather crisis. The hurricanes across Europe are becoming more frequent—the United Kingdom has been ravaged by gale-force winds four times in the last week alone—and”—he paused—“more deadly.”
Casper shivered. He’d seen the news that morning. The hurricane on Monday had been confirmed as the worst yet. Thousands of people had lost their homes where it struck in London and hundreds of casualties had been reported. And all that had happened despite the warning sirens recently wired up inside buildings across the country—because the hurricanes came fast, faster often than the time it took the weather service to trigger the sirens when the winds looked like they were picking up.
The hurricanes had been coming every few days for the last month, and they had flattened Little Wallops’ cricket pavilion, ripped slates off the school roof, shattered windows, and left several high schoolers with broken limbs when the door to the sports hall had been wrenched off its hinges and launched across the gym. Corridors were lined with buckets catching leaks, and windows had been barred with planks of wood. But Little Wallops was still standing—just—and so far, there had been no fatalities. Everyone knew that could change, though; they were living each day on a knife-edge. An underground bunker was being dug to provide more shelter, but that would take time and even when it was ready, would the sirens give everyone enough warning to reach it?
“And that’s not to mention what’s happening further afield,” Mr. Barge went on. “Multiple tornados are rampaging across America, whirlwinds are tearing up Africa, and typhoons are smashing through Asia and Australia. Meteorologists agree that climate change could be a key factor behind the recent weather disruption—we know global warming has hit critical levels in the past year—but that still wouldn’t explain the haphazard pattern of these storms. Hurricanes normally come in from the oceans and hit coastal regions, but these ones are striking up left, right, and center, defying any recognizable weather behavior, which is why it’s so hard to predict their nature. But our meteorologists are determined to get to the bottom of it all. And, as geographers, I feel that we should do the same, particularly since the school holidays this Easter have been postponed due to continued road and rail closures and we’ll all be staying here until the lockdown is over and it’s safe enough for your parents to collect you.”
Casper could hear a few of the pupils nearest the door sniffing back tears. They knew that leaving Little Wallops before the all clear for resumed travel would be foolish, and that arguing with a man the size and shape of a drawbridge would be pointless, but that didn’t stop them from missing their families. Casper felt suddenly relieved that he and his parents had been offered free accommodation in the school, as well as a scholarship place for Casper, because his parents both taught at Little Wallops—at least it meant they were all together now.
Mr. Barge pretended not to notice all the sniffing; he found crying children deeply unsettling. “Your extra homework task is to pick one of the disasters reported this week and produce a case file on it. Think what, where, when, who and—the biggest question—why? Climate change will come into it, of course, but are there other reasons for the strange behavior of these storms?” Mr. Barge rolled up his sleeves. “I’ll expect your reports on Monday, and I want you to tackle this homework in the same way the mighty Shane Hogarth of the Wallop Wanderers tackled six of his opponents at once in the Rugby Sevens Finals last year.” He paused. “Really look your homework in the eye and give it what for.”
There was a confused sort of silence.
Casper craned his neck a little farther out of the basket and saw his classmate Sophie raise a timid hand. Sophie was the closest thing Casper had to a friend—they sat together at lunch and sometimes paired up for science projects—but Casper made sure conversations focused strictly on schoolwork. Because friendships, and all the complicated emotions and unpredictable feelings that came with them, had proved to be nothing other than disastrous for Casper in the past.
When he first started at Little Wallops, back in Year One, he had tried to make friends, but even then Candida and Leopold had singled him out as being different. They had teased and taunted Casper and every time he had tried to make a friend they’d somehow ruined things—until, finally, Casper decided that he’d had enough. Making friends was painful and messy and frightening, and despite his parents’ best efforts to encourage him to try again, Casper decided it was just not worth the trouble. Life was a good deal simpler, and safer, without the trauma of tackling friendships. And so, little by little, Casper’s world had shrunk until the very idea of taking risks, trying new things or even momentarily veering off timetable made him feel quite queasy.
Casper watched now as Sophie plucked up courage to ask her question. “S-sir, I’m holding a cake sale in the gym on Sunday to raise money for those who have lost their homes because of the hurricanes and I still have to make a few more flyers. Please can I have an extension on the homework?”
Mr. Barge flexed his biceps. ‘Did the mighty Shane Hogarth ask for an extension when the Roaring Rovers were closing in at halftime?’
Sophie frowned. “Um, probably not, sir?”
“Then you have my answer.” At that, Mr. Barge muttered something about a class scrum to finish the day off, but thankfully for his pupils, the bell rang instead. Casper’s heart quickened. He had a matter of seconds to scramble out of the lost and found basket, blend into the stream of pupils pouring out of their classrooms and rushing along the corridor, then leg it across the library to the door that led up to the turret he and his parents lived in.
A tide of children advanced toward him and, clutching his timetable to his chest, Casper clambered out of the basket and joined the throng. He was small for his age, and slight, which helped with ducking, weaving, and scuttling by unnoticed. Down the corridor he sped, beneath the newly fitted sirens and past the buckets catching leaks—then, when everyone else peeled off toward their after-school clubs, Casper turned into the library.
If he had been a different sort of child, he might have paused to dilly-dally between the shelves and leaf through the books, but Casper wasn’t one for detours. Especially when the librarian, Mrs. Whereabouts, was taking a coffee break in the staffroom, which meant there wouldn’t be adult supervision in the library should Candida and Leopold appear. Casper nipped between the first few bookshelves, sidestepping the fallen plasterwork from a recent storm, then burst out into the aisle that ran the length of the library.
After a few strides he noticed the smell: the unmistakable tang of hairspray. Casper’s chest thumped. Candida Cashmere-Jumps was in the library. There was a piggish snort from somewhere nearby and Casper’s toes curled inside his shoes. Leopold Splattercash was in here too.
But that’s impossible, Casper thought. I followed my timetable exactly; Candida and Leopold couldn’t possibly have made it to the library before me—I left the lost and found basket the moment the bell rang! He gulped. Unless they skived Mr. Barge’s geography lesson too and got a head start on me.…
Casper flung himself into a run, but as he did so, a girl and a boy slid out from a bookcase several meters in front.
Casper stopped in his tracks.
Candida was tall, thin, and terribly vain. She only ever smiled when looking at herself in the mirror and she only ever laughed when other people cried. Leopold, on the other hand, was small, round, and terribly stupid. If asked to recite the two times table, he broke out in a light sweat, and he still couldn’t spell his own name. He and Candida had one thing in common though: money.
Candida’s father had set up a luxury cashmere clothing range that was sold in every department store in the world, while Leopold’s ancestors had done something very suspicious and very profitable with an ostrich egg and a diamond in the eighteenth century. But when money is the glue that holds a friendship together, the results are often deeply unpleasant.
Candida twisted her long blond hair around her finger. “You weren’t the only one skiving geography, Casper.”
“Yeah.” Leopold sniggered, before stating something that was now blindingly obvious: “We skived too.”
Casper eyed the oak door leading up to his flat at the far end of the library. If he made a dash for it now, he might just make it. But Candida had other ideas.
“Going somewhere?” she sneered, and then she closed five perfectly manicured nails around Casper’s arm. “Because I was so looking forward to spending time with you this weekend now the holidays have been delayed.”
“H-home,” Casper stammered. “Just home.”
Candida frowned. “But that turret’s not really home now, is it, Casper?”
Leopold smirked and his double chin spread out like a greasy balloon.
“You don’t belong here,” Candida spat, plucking at Casper’s secondhand blazer, then turning her lip up at his charity-shop rucksack. “The pupils at Little Wallops are from well-connected families. We’re refined. Special. Rich.” She paused, and her next sentence dripped out like oil. “We have class.”
“Yeah. Class.” Leopold only knew about forty-five words, so more often than not he just repeated Candida’s.
Casper thought of his mother, adopted into an English family from a Tanzanian orphanage, and his father, brought up on one of the roughest council estates in London. Together they had made their way in the world. Ariella was a PE teacher at Little Wallops and she also ran lunchtime yoga clubs (frequently attended by pupils who had geography with Mr. Barge) and Ernie taught design and technology (he could carve stools, build tables, make lamps, and fix almost anything that came his way).
But none of that mattered to Candida and Leopold. For them, growing up on an estate didn’t mean high-rise flats and graffiti walls; it meant peacocks, walled gardens, and butlers called Cuthbert. And though Casper rarely yearned for friends, in situations like this he did. Badly. Because there was a tiny and very private corner of Casper’s heart that was bruised and lonely.
“Trouble is, Casper, you don’t fit in here. You’re not the right color or class.”
Casper felt his muscles stiffen at the unfairness of it all, but as Candida tightened her grip on his arm, he knew he didn’t have the guts to stand up to her. Candida and Leopold were unpleasant to most people in Little Wallops, because nasty people just can’t help themselves, but they were particularly dreadful to Casper because everything about him was different from them—and they didn’t like it one bit. Candida narrowed her eyes at Casper’s tight black curls and dark skin. “What do we do with misfits, Leopold?”
Leopold looked blank. It was the end of the day and he was running dangerously low on words. “Trash,” he said after a while.
Casper glanced at the trash can in the corner of the room. It would hurt being dunked headfirst into it, but perhaps it wouldn’t be as bad as when Leopold had sat on him during break, causing Casper to lose the feeling in his legs for a week, or the time Candida had burned his English homework and Casper had been put in detention on his birthday for failing to hand it in. But today, fate was on his side.
“Candida and Leopold!” came an old woman’s voice from the doorway.
Casper looked up to see Mrs. Whereabouts walking into the room. She was a strange-looking librarian—she had spiky gray hair, a nose ring, and she always wore a turtleneck, even in the height of summer—but stranger than all of that was her accent. It was impossible to place it, and when anyone asked Mrs. Whereabouts where she was from, she simply waved her hand and said: “Here and there.” But Casper had noticed that she often turned up at just the right time, and now was no exception.
“I hear from Mr. Barge that neither of you attended his lesson this afternoon,” she said as she drew close to the group.
Candida dropped Casper’s arm, then slowly, disdainfully, she turned to face Mrs. Whereabouts. The librarian didn’t seem to belong to an obvious class, so to be safe Candida treated her the same way she treated most of her teachers—with a casual indifference—but she was careful not to overstep the mark because more time in detention meant there was less time to be horrid to other people.
“I was seeing the nurse.” Candida gave a half-hearted cough, and Mrs. Whereabouts raised a silver eyebrow.
“Casper, I hear, was in a piano lesson,” Mrs. Whereabouts continued, and Casper winced at the lie he had fed Mr. Barge. “But you, Leopold?”
Leopold picked up a book from the shelf next to him. “I was”—he paused—“reading.”
Mrs. Whereabouts blinked. “Oh, really? About what?”
Leopold looked at the thesaurus he was holding and made a wild guess. “Theesysauruses. They’re a type of dinosaur.”
Candida rolled her eyes, then Mrs. Whereabouts lifted the book from Leopold’s hands and, very calmly, delivered a detention. “Please report to the headmaster’s office immediately. Tell him that you have no idea what a thesaurus is but you would very much like to copy out every single word inside one.”
Then Leopold did what he always did when words finally failed him: He reached into his pocket. “Couldn’t we just settle this with a nice crisp fiver?”
Mrs. Whereabouts was about to reply when there was a bellow from the doorway.
“DID THE MIGHTY SHANE HOGARTH THROW MONEY AT THE ROARING ROVERS WHEN HE WANTED TO SCORE A TRY?” Mr. Barge exploded as he marched toward Leopold.
Casper still hadn’t a clue who the mighty Shane Hogarth was (no matter how many times Mr. Barge mentioned him), but right now he loved him. Because suddenly, unexpectedly, there was a chance to run. And run Casper did. He tore down the length of the library—unaware that Candida was watching him like a hawk—and flung open the turret door. Then he closed it firmly behind him and for a moment or two he just stood there, panting into the quiet. With a sigh of relief, he climbed the cold stone steps to his flat.
The turret Casper’s family lived in only had four rooms: a sitting room—with a sagging sofa, a threadbare rug, a broken grandfather clock his dad had promised the headmaster he’d fix, and a television that was far too old and small to be considered cool—a poky kitchen and two tiny bedrooms. There was another turret next door, which belonged to Mrs. Whereabouts and her cat, but Casper had only been over there once to borrow milk when they first moved in.
Casper placed his school bag neatly by the door before taking off his shoes and tucking them, at right angles, beneath the sofa. Then he pressed LISTEN on the answer machine. It was a message from his mum saying that she had forgotten her handbag in the village shop—again—but he mustn’t worry because she would be home in half an hour. Casper looked out of the window and bit his lip. It was a drizzly afternoon, and the leaves on the trees left upright after the storms were still, but Casper knew that the sirens could sound unexpectedly on windless afternoons because, many miles away, the weather service had picked up the stirrings of yet another storm.
After the first hurricane hit the country at the beginning of the month, the headmaster had done a headcount in the hall and when he had confirmed that everyone was safe, a ripple of excitement had spread through the school. Pupils had whispered about lessons being canceled and term ending three weeks early while the groundsmen rebuilt the stonework and cleared away the fallen trees. But then the hurricanes had kept coming, roads had closed, train lines had been ripped apart, and the reports of fatalities had started. That was when the headmaster had told every year group that they must remain on school grounds at all times for their own safety. Teachers were allowed to leave if they wished, and it was possible to get to the local village, if you were prepared to clamber over toppled trees and edge past ruined buildings, but otherwise everyone was stuck where they were for the foreseeable future while the weather continued to behave in such an unpredictable manner.
Casper hated that his parents often volunteered to go to the village to stock up on what few supplies had made their way to the shop. What if there was another hurricane when his mum was walking home today? Casper tried not to think about it and instead consulted his timetable, then his watch. His dad was late back too. He had probably lost the keys to lock up his design and technology workshop—again—or was helping the groundsmen dig the underground bunker.
Casper decided he would allow himself a glass of juice to steady his nerves before embarking on a new to-do list—an activity that provided him with a satisfying sense of calm and control. But as he was crossing the sitting room, he heard the unmistakable creak of an old door opening. Casper tensed. His mum wasn’t due back for another half hour, it couldn’t be his dad—he always whistled his way up the stairs—and it was hardly likely to be another teacher because they knocked before coming up. But this person had entered quietly, sneakily, as if they didn’t want anyone else to know they were there.
For the first time in the six years he had been living at Little Wallops Boarding School, somebody had followed him into the turret.