Someone must have gone past earlier that morning with a couple dozen incontinent dogs, big ones too by the looks of it.
Mike ran a hand through his thinning hair, loosened his tie a little. It was 0804. He needed to get this mess sorted before the kids started to arrive or the school would quickly become spoiled with dog muck tramped here and there, and he wasn’t going to let that happen.
Not on his watch.
He didn’t have keys to the caretaker’s cupboard so he took a bin liner from a nearby classroom, turned the bag inside out and tried to scoop up the more solid parts of the mess without losing balance, without getting his shoes dirty, without breathing in the putrid air. Maybe it was faeces, maybe vomit. The terrible image came to mind of dogs being squeezed so they expelled from both ends until they were wrung dry and had nothing left. A thin skin of black plastic was all Mike was using to protect his hands.
He looked up, hoping for a sudden, violent rain shower but there wasn’t a single cloud in the sky. His watch read 0811.
Think, think, think.
What would the caretaker do? What would the headmistress do?
He threw the dirtied bag into the bins behind the kitchens then decided to check over the perimeter of the school grounds. This was diligence, not cowardice, he told himself. The air out there must have been fresh, but the stink was stubborn in his nostrils.
When he was three-quarters of the way round the playing fields he found the thing. The dead thing.
Or at least, he hoped it was dead – it was completely still, and twisted into a unnatural position. For a moment Mike thought he could detect a heartbeat – then he realised it was his own. Clearly he couldn’t leave the dead thing where it was, to be discovered by inquisitive children. Not on his watch.
Mike jogged back to the school to retrieve another bin liner, then returned to the dead thing to pick it up. Tried not to think about the fact that it still felt warm. Had a brief, sick thought that he could keep it and give it to the cooks. Glanced at his wrist to check the time.
What? No. How could that be?
He could not have said whether his blood ran boiling hot or freezing cold. He took off his watch and shook it, for all the good that would do. Tried to tot up all the time he had spent cleaning up. Tried to mentally claw the minutes back, but he had no idea how long any of it would have taken. Some seconds took hours, some hours passed like seconds.
Think, think, think.
Aware that it would take time to find out the time, and time being in short supply, Mike nevertheless ran back into the school. In every classroom there was a clock, all set so as to be in sync with one another.
Each was stopped, stuck. As if in a rut.
He ran outside, past the pool of dog muck, out into the road. No sign of another human being.
Mike cursed watches and clocks and time itself. He cursed dogs and dog walkers. He cursed the school, cursed the playing fields and the children. Cursed the dead thing. Cursed the weather. Cursed the day.
Cursed too much.
He cursed chance, wondering whether it really was just that. Cursed coincidence, cursed the fact that the headmistress was still AWOL, cursed the freak accident that had lead to the caretaker falling through a window and ending up in hospital.
And now this.