You see the light fitting is filled with wasps the moment you manage to lever apart the two hemispheres of the cover, but by then you are already falling. The ridge separating the two halves of the plastic casing had been caked in an adhesive strip of grime, and after removing the screws, you jabbed the tip of your screwdriver into this filth and began to prise. You had decided against fetching your stepladder from the store cupboard and had been, until recently, balanced on a child-sized chair you had dragged from the new English teacher’s classroom. One glimpse of the wasps was enough to spill you to the ground. The freed part of the light fitting clattered near you, then bounced away along the corridor. For a moment you lay still, your cheek pressed against the cool of the freshly-polished floor. Your nostrils stinging with the citrusy chemicals that coat the tiles.
Before long, you feel able to pull yourself into a sitting position. The fall was pitiful, really. Fortunately, none of the kids are still around or one of them would have captured it on their camera phone and uploaded it. The entire school would have been sniggering behind their hands for the rest of the year. You clench and unclench your fists, shake them a little to get the blood flowing, before scrambling to your feet and heading along the corridor to retrieve the light fitting.
You approach carefully. The casing has landed the right way up and, although it has shed some of its nightmare cargo as it skidded along the corridor, it is still stuffed with wasps. There are hundreds of tiny corpses in repulsive huddles crammed inside. Twisted commas of hate, their legs curled inwards and their stingers jabbing impotently in all directions. You nudge the fixture with the toe of your boot, satisfying yourself that there are no survivors, and then lean in for a closer look. A mass grave. You poke at the mounds of huddled hunchbacked insects with the tip of your screwdriver. Their abdomens are browned as if scorched. Wings shrivelled and misshapen. You wonder what impelled them to gather inside this plastic coffin if the heat of the bulb was enough to harm them. There are none of the tell-tale signs of nest-building, instead, they seem to have simply clustered inside and waited for death. Deciding to forget the whole thing, you fetch a dustpan and brush.
After sweeping the wasps into a black sack, you replace the bulb and then the casing. It is when you are returning the chair that you notice a single scorched wasp, curled like an arched eyebrow, lying just inside the classroom door. The door was closed when you were changing the bulb and this stray cannot have fallen from the light fitting. Could be there’s a dead nest secreted somewhere. Most likely, it’ll be up inside the ceiling tiles. You’ve dealt with nests before. In the summer, they could be a real problem, but this late in the year, only the new Queen would remain, hibernating inside a ball of pulp and spit. The old Queen, the drones, the workers, all long dead. The entirety of their short, angry lives, spent building a now dormant hive that would be abandoned the moment the new Queen emerged in the spring. No need to go hunting for the nest, it would be dust before long, but you can’t leave the remains of any leftover wasps just lying around. You are sure that their sacs pulse with venom long after death, and you can’t risk a child getting stung. These days, they all seem to harbour allergies.
You pinch the singed wingtip of the wasp between your fingertips and carry it to the bin at the front of the classroom. You have no idea why this one would also be scorched, as it was not crammed inside the light with the rest of them. Dropping the body into the bin, you see that the bottom is already carpeted with a thin layer of wasps. You lift the bin for a closer look and they rustle like paper. Each of the corpses is slightly charred.
Scanning the classroom, you see that the teacher’s desk is littered with yet more wasps. They are scattered across the surface like misplaced apostrophes. The bodies are discoloured, as if lightly toasted. The warped tips of melted wings poke from the gaps between the desk drawers and when you drag the top drawer open, wasps cascade over the lip and flow onto the floor in their thousands. You recoil, knocking the remote control for the interactive whiteboard over the edge of the desk. When you bend to retrieve it, you see that the battery compartment cover has come loose. Four wasps are packed inside. Their antenna withered. Their legs crisped.
You want no further part of this and head for the door, your skin itching with the false memory of a thousand bristly legs brushing against you. There is a divot in the wall, dug by the door handle. A succession of lumpen Year 9s have thrown open the door in their haste to escape the prison of English lessons. The loose plaster inside this dent is matted with twisted insect legs as if the very walls are constructed from wasps. A solitary insect falls from the keyhole and is washed up against the skirting board by the rush of air as you pull open the door.
In another version, you change the bulb without incident.
Another time still, you are outside the classroom, looking in. The glass panel in the door is smeared with handprints, but you can see the English teacher, Mr Shields, camped behind his desk, tapping at his laptop keyboard. It is lunchtime or after school, it doesn’t matter which. A solitary child sits in the middle of the second row of desks. He is staring in the direction of the clock above the whiteboard as its hands creep towards the end of detention. You rap your knuckles on the glass and Shields looks up, his face stained blue from the light of his laptop screen. He crosses the room and with some difficulty, pulls the door three-quarters of the way open and gestures for you to enter.
Are they yours? The wasps? you say. You squeeze through the gap and kick a path through the thick pile of insects that block the door. Following Shields, you ignore the crunch of abdomens beneath your feet. The soles of your boots are coated in mucous and blood and venom.
Shields offers you the vacant seat next to the vacant student. You are telling yourself that you would not react like this. That you would never take the offered seat, but you would. Everybody always does.
When you draw back the chair, a thousand wasps pour onto the floor. They merge with the dense, insect carpet. The student next to you is buried up to the calves but his expression does not change. You ask what is wrong with the boy.
By way of an answer, Shields reaches across the desk and takes the child’s hand. The boy gives no sign that he notices as Shields grips his index finger and snaps. The finger comes away easily. There is no blood. No jagged bone. He holds it up for you. You refuse the offered digit, and Shields tuts and turns the severed finger around so that you can see it is hollow. and as fragile as porcelain.
What is he?
Shields tips the finger and a dark powder, like iron filings, flows onto the desk. He traces his own finger idly through the dust, drawing patterns. He still holds the boy’s finger in his other hand and he gives it a couple of sharp shakes. A lone wasp tumbles out onto the desk. The hairs on its thorax are clogged with the dark powder. Barely alive, it crawls in a lazy circle, once, twice, before falling still. Its skin crisps. There is the faintest hint of burning hair.
Enough. You shove your chair back. Your intention is to head for the door, but the chair’s momentum is cushioned by the drift of wasps that have washed up behind you. You manage only to stumble to your feet, scraping your thighs on the underside of the desk. Your shoulders sag. The prospect of wading through the knee-deep lake of wasps is too much and you sink back into the chair. You are hollow. A string-cut puppet. You will rest your head, here on the desk, just for a few minutes. You are dimly aware of the bodies of the wasps that burst under you. Of the stingers that warp as they press against the skin of your cheek. Your arm is stretched out before you on the desk. It is too close to your face for your eyes to focus properly and your skin is a vague pale smear. Your forearm seems to taper to a thin point before it contracts and expands, then flows towards you like liquid. You can feel them in there. The wasps. They are packed too tightly to writhe, but they quiver and hum and soon they will burn out.
In another version, the classroom is already empty before you arrive.
Another time, there is no classroom at all. Only wasps.
SIMEON RALPH is a writer, lecturer and musician with the noise-rock
band Fashoda Crisis. Currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing
at MMU his work has recently appeared in Bull & Cross, The Ekphrastic
Review and Riggwelter Press. Originally from Essex, he now lives in