A cursed school. That's all. (c.3300 words)
“Luck” is just a word. It’s used to explain sequences of events, good or bad, in relation to other events, all of which happen by chance and that we can’t otherwise explain, and we don’t want to give credence to supernatural forces. But, despite the lack of scientific rationale, who of us doesn’t believe at least a little in the concept of “luck”?
I do. And that’s because my old primary school was cursed with a run of bad luck that seemed to go beyond mere “chance”.
To start with, Finniss Primary School is really just another school in the central north-east suburbs of Adelaide, built to cater to an increasing population of the time. It opened at the start of 1968, and for its first ten years it was just another innocuous government school. I started there in 1976, a fresh-faced five year old, so the tenth year celebration is just a vague memory to me. But I do remember what happened on the oval afterwards, and so I remember what seemed to start the bad luck.
See, for the school’s tenth birthday it was decided to bury a time capsule in a ceremony attended by the premier of South Australia, Don Dunstan. Each class did something to be put into it; I think my class put together a collage of our photos and we wrote what we wanted to be when we grew up. Or something like that. The capsule itself was an old army foot-locker, donated by one of the fathers – a veteran of the Vietnam War, my father said – and Dunstan pulled the lever to tip the cement over it at the bottom of, according to our principal, an eight foot hole. The whole area was then fenced off while it dried and we returned to class, Dunstan got a grand tour and that was that.
It was then end of that school day that the trouble started.
The hole was beside the main building, maybe three metres away from a blank, two-storey high brick wall, right at the edge of the oval, and the initial pouring of cement had filled barely a third of it. Its position shielded it from prying eyes so when the school bell rang all the kids ran to peer through the fence at a blank slab of concrete; it was something different and curiosity is the driving force of most children. The screaming started before I got there.
By the time I joined the growing throng, a few teachers and a number of parents were vainly trying to push us all away. But I was a little year three kid and managed to worm through. That was how I saw her.
I didn’t know her even by sight. I later found out she was a grade seven student named Chantelle Trimboli. She was resting against the side of the hole, up to her waist in the cement, concrete matted through her hair and over her body and clothes. The surface of the grey material looked a complete mess; she had clearly fallen into it.
I watched them pulled her out; it had not finished hardening, but it clearly took a lot of effort to get her free, and the hole left behind by her lower body slowly filled in like porridge in a bowl. A teacher scooped out her mouth, a huge hunk of wet concrete emerging on her fingers, and Chantelle coughed. She opened her eyes half-way and said simply, “Amy pushed me in.”
I heard her. I didn’t know her and I wanted to cry.
Those ended up being her last words. She died in hospital that very night, due to blockages in her lungs and stomach, according to my dad. Much later on, dad told me she must have been under the cement for a little while as she’d breathed some of it in. I don’t know what the police did, but by week’s end the whole time capsule hole had been filled in and nothing more was said about it at school. Our celebration had become something to be shunned; all of us understood and totally agreed.
As for Amy… well, that was Amy Buchanan, Chantelle’s best friend since their first day of school. No-one saw her again after that day. A bus driver claimed that a girl fitting her description went into town, but he also said her blonde hair was much shorter than the photos and description had indicated. They searched for her, as far as I’m aware, for years, but everyone knew she’d run away after causing the death of her closest friend. Pleas from her family and Chantelle’s mum on television went unanswered, and this only served to paint her in a worse light. Unfortunately, there was very little sympathy for the poor girl.
I was in the same class as Amy’s youngest sister, and the family left the school before the end of the year. No-one talked about what had happened; even the time capsule was consigned to the back-burners of everyone’s mind. It garnered a one-line mention in the big end of year newsletter we received at the start of December. A line was then drawn under 1978 and we all started again.
To us kids, though, in quiet corners, it quickly became a part of the new mythology of the school and at the start of 1979, when my sister Georgina started at the school, the older kids were already hinting to the newbies like her that Chantelle was murdered by Amy, but she couldn’t hide the body properly, which was why she had been found, and also that Amy had got away and could kill again. School-kids can be real jerks sometimes. Georgina asked me about it and I corrected a few things, dad a few more, and our brother Graham – between us in age – asked a ton more questions. But already it was like hearing dad tell us one of the ancient Greek myths he loved so much; it was already just a story that had no relevance to us.
So, 1979 went along until it was almost Easter, and then came the crash. The old woman whose car ploughed through the fence one lunch time said she must have hit the accelerator pedal instead of the brake by accident, but that was hardly any consolation for the families of the eight kids who were injured, one quite seriously. And it especially wasn’t worth anything for Scott’s family. He was my friend and I didn’t get to say goodbye. He was the first one struck; Scotty died instantly, so they said, as if that made it any better.
It certainly made the rest of the year more sombre and it seemed to drag even more than usual, and the Christmas summer holidays were relished more than ever before. 1980 came and, again, it was like the previous year had just been a bad dream. We settled into school quite easily; children really are surprisingly resilient creatures. The week before school went back for the second term, though, that veneer of normality was shattered. Mrs Corcoran, one of the year seven teachers, had gone in on the Thursday to prepare her class. No-one else was there; it was assumed she merely slipped at the top of the stairs. Her blood trail indicated she fell all the way down. She was found at the bottom, unconscious, on Friday. Her husband had been away on a business trip, apparently, so he didn’t even raise the alarm. It was just an accident, just one of those things. Mrs Corcoran never did walk again; I don’t know if she ever taught again, but she was still not back at the end of the year.
The sick joke of what calamity would befall Finniss Primary School next was already there in 1981. It stopped being a joke when a huge portion of the back wall of the lunch shed collapsed one lunch time. I was there, helping pull bricks off, straight away. I found Lizzy Jackson, Karen Warne and – thankfully! – my sister, pulling all of them free of fallen masonry. But the fourth member of their friendship group, Geraldine, was not so lucky. Two dead, nine injured and the whole school was in shock. Again. How much more of this could we as a community take?
My last year of primary education was 1982; we grade seven students of that year took our ‘senior’ role very seriously. It was like we were subconsciously trying to court good fortune. And we made it through most of the year. Most of the year. The school choir were to go to the Festival Theatre in November to perform in the big state “schools’ spectacular”. They did some fundraising to hire a bus so they could all travel together as a single unit. The bus pulled out of the school car-park right into the path of a truck. The driver and a number of students were seriously injured; Ms Nguyen, the music teacher, was giving an inspirational speech at the time and she was hurled through the front window. She lingered in hospital for two weeks before succumbing to her injuries.
I left the school the next year and was so glad to be out of there. My brother was in grade seven, my sister in year five; Graham’s year level contemporaries were the only ones left who’d had a year without a terrible incident occurring at school. And yet they continued relentlessly. 1983’s involved a teacher who was beaten into unconsciousness by the father of a boy who’d been suspended. Neither of my siblings knew the child in question, but with a father like that, was it any wonder his behaviour had degenerated to a point of being ‘worthy’ of suspension?
The next year, 1984, started and within a fortnight Georgina told us what the stories at school were now relating – the school was allegedly haunted by the ghost of Chantelle. She’d lost her surname over the intervening years, and now she was a vengeful spirit, the sort of legend that was told solely to give little kids nightmares, and was also probably half-believed by the rest of the students and even the staff. It was worsened when an excited brand new reception student decided to go to school very early one morning in the winter and apparently snuck out of home while it was still dark. His body was found curled up outside the front doors of the school by the deputy principal. Exposure was given as the cause of death.
I don’t want to continue the litany of misfortune in minute detail, but every year, without fail, another incident occurred which at least got a mention in the state’s newspapers or on TV. More than one news story did actually indicate that the school seemed unlucky (“cursed”, I believe was the term used at least once) but the ghost story did not make an appearance, at least to my knowledge. That was clearly an internal, private myth.
Fast forward a few years. In 1995, my sister was at university. I’d completed my masters in psychology in 1994 and she was on her way to following me; our brother was already a plumber, doing well for himself, and not caring that he hadn’t gone on to tertiary education. So, Georgina decided to do one of her sociological surveys on Finniss Primary School and its attitudes. I don’t know how it all happened, but somehow, she organised something to do with the supernatural as part of her study. It was a session with a Ouija board and a few of her friends from Finniss in that school’s hall, a construct built beside the blank wall of the original building in 1990, 1991. They picked a time around a month after a young girl had fallen from an innocuous piece of playground equipment, suffering a serious head injury.
The way Georgina told it, asking for Chantelle got no response, but asking if anyone at all was there did bring an apparent reaction: The whole table shook. Two of her friends screamed and broke the bond, and so it was all over. Georgina eventually put it down to some sort of psychosomatic subconscious effect due to them ‘wanting’ to find a ghost or entity, and she wrote a great paper on people’s susceptibility to the concept of supernatural beliefs of a non-standard religion.
However, two days after the Ouija session, a fight between two gangs from the local high school on the oval while classes were in occurred. Police were called, the clash grew more violent and, when it was all over, thirty-one teenagers had been taken into custody, more than a dozen were injured and one was left dead in the centre of the oval, just lying there, as shown on two of the television news programmes that night.
The Finniss Primary School curse had struck again, but for the second time in a year; Georgina’s guilt at having potentially been a cause of it led to a lot of discussions between us and was only completely assuaged by writing her paper, realising it was in fact just a coincidence and understanding that she’d fallen prey to her own preconceived ideas of a supernatural cause. I supported her in those scientific explanations; I didn’t share them. Two nasty incidents in one year – I honestly do think she annoyed something.
And so it still went on. Each and every year an unpleasant – or, more often than not, terrible – incident took place and it would be, for want of a better term, ignored. Not completely ignored, but everyone acted as though each occurrence was isolated. After more than twenty years, it seemed it was not that hard to do.
At least, that was the way it was until last year. Nothing happened. 2017 was a relief to everyone who’d actually been following the hidden story. Chantelle must finally have had her fill, we all decided.
January twenty-third, end of the school holidays, start of 2018, was actually the fiftieth anniversary of the school’s official opening. That was a Tuesday, and in that newer, added-on hall a party was organised, a real community event before the school had its own celebrations throughout the year with the students involved.
The community event never happened.
Georgina and I were at school helping with the preparations in the afternoon, readying food in the canteen with five other volunteers. It was a jovial atmosphere; we had dared to relax after an incident-free 2017. And that was where we were when he heard and felt the blast. It shook the entire school, with things falling off shelves and benches to the floor around us. We ran outside instantly and immediately a few of us swore.
The hall was already in flames. Later, it was discovered that a gas main had exploded, but at that moment it was simply a complete conflagration and that was all that mattered. A quick gathering showed us that Mrs Cummins, the school’s principal, was missing. We all feared the worst; thankfully, she drove into the car-park from a quick trip to the local shops only a few minutes later. The fire fighters were there rapidly and they prevented the flames spreading to the rest of the school, but it still took most of the day for them to extinguish the burning structure. By the next evening it was all over, leaving that blank wall – albeit scorched – looking almost like it had when I had been a student there.
I walked with Mrs Cummins through the remains a few weeks later. The charred destruction had been taken away, leaving a slab of concrete and a few metal uprights protruding like grotesque stalagmites, with a few pieces of wall somehow still standing. Despite the loss of the building, Finniss Primary School was going to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, no matter what.
“We need something special to really pull the school community together,” she said as we walked across the hard surface, the lines of the basketball court still vaguely visible.
“It’s been a weird community for years,” I muttered. “It has always come together because there hasn’t been anyone else to turn to.”
“So, when exactly were you a student here?” she asked suddenly.
“1976 to 1982,” I sighed. “It was a long time ago now.”
“Do you mind if I… Can I… Can I ask you a question?” She was clearly uncomfortable.
“I found a book of newspaper clippings when I took over the job here. It dates back to 1978. This school has seen a lot…” She was struggling. “What was it like when you were here?” she finally managed.
I wanted to smile but couldn’t. “On edge, just waiting for the next mini-disaster to strike,” I replied without really thinking about what I was saying.
“And what do you know about Cheryl Trimboli?”
“Chantelle,” I corrected absently. “She died at the school. In fact, it was right about… right about…” My voice faded and I smiled as I looked down at my feet. “I think I know what can bring the school back together,” I blurted out.
“What?” She looked very grateful already.
“Let’s open a time capsule from forty years ago,” I grinned. Her smile was answer enough.
I agreed to organise its recovery. The idea was that we should pull it out of the ground first and then have its grand opening in front of the whole school. We were reasonably sure even children would be bored by the chipping away of hunks of concrete, so that job was set for a Saturday instead.
My brother Graham got hold of a jack-hammer from work and, with Georgina and Mrs Cummins there as well as a few representatives of the school community and even a couple of students, we spent a few noisy hours clearing away a hole in the floor slab until we hit the soil beneath. The foundations were deep, made with pylons of reinforced concrete that plunged down into the earth. I was worried that we were looking for may have been disturbed, but in the end my forty year old memory held true and there was still dirt between the hall’s floor and the concrete plug we were looking for.
“That’s it,” I whispered, almost in awe.
Shovels continued to work and we uncovered the site of Chantelle’s demise. It was hard, slow work, made the worse by the whole thought of just what had happened here so long ago.
It was me who stopped.
“What’s wrong?” Graham asked, grinning mischievously. “Tired?”
“Look at the concrete,” I responded with a groan.
Everyone did. A depression had collapsed, filled in by the earth above.
“Did the time capsule break or something?” Georgina asked.
“It was a metal foot-locker,” I mumbled, “and they covered it in plastic bags to stop rusting being too bad, so I doubt it. Unless this was damaged when they built the hall.” I handed the shovel to my sister and crouched down to clear the soil away by hand. The concrete had cracked and fallen in, as if there had been an air bubble or something inside, and the chunks of the plug were easy enough to clear as well.
I almost jumped out of the hole. Everything stopped. Graham stumbled away from me. Some-one gasped loudly; some-one else swore under their breath. One of the students turned and ran.
The skull stared up at us, the jaw held in place by a lump of grey stone that ran backwards and down the front of the neck bones.
It hadn’t been Chantelle for all these years, getting revenge against the school.
Poor, forgotten, denigrated Amy…