Leeds Grammar School, where I spent ten eventful years, has been the source of many stories before and since my departure. They are mainly set in and around St Oswald's Grammar School for Boys, a fictional place, which has gradually become less and less so in my mind. This is one of them. There may be more.
THE LAST STORY IN THE WORLD WAS WRITTEN BETWEEN seven-fifty-five and eight-thirty on Friday, 1 December 2002. Most of it over breakfast, at a guess, but in the last two paragraphs the handwriting betrayed a telltale shakiness, an unseemly lack of attention to capital letters and full stops, which suggested the school bus. It came nineteenth on a pile of twenty-two, which meant that it was almost five o'clock before Mr Fisher got round to marking it at all.
Mr Fisher lived alone in a small terraced house in the centre of town. He did not own a car, and therefore preferred to do as much as he could of his weekend marking in the form-room after school. Even so, there were usually two or three stacks of books and papers to take home on the bus. Mr Fisher had used the same old leather briefcase for over forty years, and it was still good, though battered and stretched at the seams from the weight of ten thousand - a hundred thousand - English essays, but today he had found a hole in one corner, through which pens, rulers and other small sly objects might finger their way and be lost. Outside it was already dark, and a thin, wet, unromantic snow was beginning to fall; but it was to save his briefcase any further abuse - at least, until that hole could be mended - that Mr Fisher decided to stay a littl e longer, make himself a last cup of tea, and finish his marking.
It had been a disappointing term at St Oswald's. For most of the boys in 3F, creative writing was on a par with country dancing and food technology on the cosmic scale of things. And now, with Christmas around the corner and exams looming large, creativity in general was at its lowest ebb. Oh, he'd tried to engage their interest. But books just didn't seem to kindle the same enthusiasm as they had in the old days. Mr Fisher remembered a time - surely not so long ago - when books were golden, when imaginations soared, when the world was filled with stories which ran like gazelles and pounced like tigers and exploded like rockets, illuminating minds and hearts. He had seen it happen; had seen whole classes swept away in the fever. In those days, there were heroes; there were dragons and dinosaurs, there were space adventurers and soldiers of fortune and giant apes. In those days, thought Mr Fisher, we dreamed in colour, though films were in black and white, good always triumphed in the end, and only Americans spoke American.
Now everything was in black and white, and though Mr Fisher continued to teach with as much devotion to duty as he had forty years before, he was secretly aware that his voice had begun to lack conviction. To these boys, these sullen boys with their gelled hair and perfect teeth, everything was boring. Shakespeare was boring. Dickens was boring. There didn't seem to be a single story left in the world that they hadn't heard before. And over the years, though he had tried to stop it, a terrible lassitude had crept over Mr Fisher, who had once dreamed so fiercely of writing stories of his own; a terrible conviction. They had come to the end of the seam, he understood. There were no more stories to be written. The magic had run out.
This was an uncharacteristically gloomy train of thought. Mr Fisher pushed it away and looked in his briefcase for a consolatory chocolate biscuit. Not all his boys lacked imagination. Alistair Tibbet, for instance; even though he had obviously done part of his homework on the bus. An amiable boy, this Tibbet, all the more pleasing for his air of indefinable grubbiness, his sense of always being partly elsewhere. Not a brilliant scholar, by any means: but there was a spark in him which deserved attention.
Mr Fisher took a deep breath and looked down at Tibbet's exercise book, trying not to think of the snow outside and the five o'clock bus he was now almost certain to miss. Four books to go, he told himself, and then home: dinner; bed; the comforting small routine of a winter weekend. And so it was that Mr Fisher took a last drink of his cold tea and began to read the last story in the world.
It took him a few minutes to realize that it was the Last Story. But gradually, sitting there in the warm classroom with the smell of chalk and floor polish in his nostrils, Mr Fisher began to experience a very strange sensation. It began as a tightening in his diaphragm, as if a long-unused muscle had been brought into action. His breathing quickened, stopped, quickened again. He began to sweat. And when he reached the end of the story, Mr Fisher put down his red pen and went back to the beginning, re-reading every word very slowly and with meticulous care.
This must be what a prospector feels when, discouraged and bankrupt and ready to go home, he takes off his boot and shakes out a nugget the size of his fist. He read it again, critically this time, marking off the paragraphs with notes in red. A hope, which at first Mr Fisher had hardly dared to formulate, swelled in him and grew strong. He found himself beginning to smile.
If anyone had asked him then what Tibbet's story was about, Mr Fisher might have been hard put to reply. There were themes he recognized, elements of plot which were vaguely familiar: an adventure, a quest, a child, a man. But to explain Tibbet's story in these terms was as meaningless as trying to describe a loved one's face in terms of nose, eyes, mouth. This was something new. Something entirely original. In forty years of teaching English, Mr Fisher had come to believe that nothing was new in literature. The same plots are repeated time and time again: the tragic lovers; the quest; the trickster; the revenge; the saviour; the coming-of-age; the struggle between good and evil. Most of these were well-used before Shakespeare got hold of them; even the Bible contained little that was significantly new. A change of costume here, of locat ion there: stories do not die, but are simply reincarnated every generation or so into a different time and idiom. It was this belief which had finally put an end to Mr Fisher's own ambitions, years ago; the angry certainty that whatever he wrote would only ever be, at best, a pale reflection, of something else.
But here was his theory disproved. Tibbet's story stood alone. A completely original idea - perhaps the first in a hundred years - the Holy Grail of literature, the last story in the world.
It occurred then to Mr Fisher how many people might have an interest in such a story. Hollywood, for instance - always at a loss for new material, now reduced to pecking out fragments of plot from graphic novels and computer games. Book publishers; newspapers; magazines. A new idea could start a dynasty, generations of related stories. Whoever copyrighted such an idea could make a man more than famous, more than wealthy. It could make him immortal.
Once more, Mr Fisher considered Alistair Tibbet. An amiable boy, without apparent genius. Hair slightly too long, shirt untucked, a habitual latecomer to class. No stylist, certainly - his spelling was atrocious - and certainly in no position to make his case to the media. Such a waste. Tibbet was hardly likely to appreciate the magnitude of this discovery; indeed, his handwriting alone showed that his mind had been elsewhere from the start. It seemed clear to Mr Fisher that Tibbet's role in all this was a secondary one - that of an idiot-savant, if you like, who may accidentally discover a mathematical principle, but has no ability to explain its workings. No, all of this was wasted on Tibbet. Besides, who was the boy's teacher? Who had taught him everything he knew? Forty years' hard work had to count for something: and in the shape of this boy, it had finally come to fruition.
In all his years of teaching, Mr Fisher had never quite forgotten his earliest ambitions. Through the years he had come to think - wrongly, as it happened - that he simply didn't have the talent or the inspiration to write. Now he realized that only fear and uncertainty had kept him back. At last he knew what he wanted to say: how to make his mark upon the world. He began to see how the story could be presented, envisaged a treatment of about three hundred pages in novel form. And the treatment was the important part; without it, no story however inspired, could be anything more than wishful thinking. After all, Shakespeare took inspiration from Boccaccio. Mr Fisher speculated that he could have a rough synopsis by Sunday, send copies off in Monday's post. Of course he would have to take precautions: a statement deposited in his bank would ensure that his copyright remained intact. Publishing was full of unscrupulous people - the film industry doubly so. With luck, the offers might start coming in by Christmas.
And Tibbet? In his excitement, Mr Fisher had almost forgotten the boy. Surely he owed him something? Obviously an acknowledgement was out of the question. In today's litigious society, that would simply be asking for trouble. Mr Fisher thought hard for a moment. Then he picked up his red pen and wrote carefully at the bottom of the essay: Good content - more care needed with presentation. B+. It was more than fair, thought Mr Fisher; the class average rarely went higher than a C.
It was five-twenty-five. In the corridor, Mr Fisher could hear the cleaners packing up their buckets and mops. His next bus home left at five-thirty: if he was quick, he could still catch it. Leaving the pile of third-form exercise books on the corner of the desk - except for Tibbet's, which he slipped into his briefcase next to the biscuits - he rinsed his mug in the sink, locked his desk drawer and put on his overcoat.
Outside it was still snowing. Flakes tumbled chaotically from a sky like white noise. Mr Fisher trudged towards the bus stop, briefcase in hand. It was very cold. He realized that in his haste he had left his scarf and gloves in the desk drawer; but it was almost half past now, and he decided against going back to fetch them. He did not want to miss his bus.
There were few cars on the road, and a grey slush had begun to eat up the verge. The bus was late. Mr Fisher waited in the vandalized bus shelter, blowing into his hands and thinking about his story. His heart was beating alarmingly fast, but he felt a peculiar energy. He might almost have been thirteen again, with ink on his fingers and that metallic taste of youth in his mouth, and the certainty that one day he would be great, that one day he too would be a hero...
The lights went out in the school buildings, one by one. It was five-fifty, and there was still no sign of the bus. Mr Fisher decided to walk home. It was only a couple of miles into town, after all, and it would give him more time to think about his story.
It would be a great mistake, he told himself, to jump at the first offer. Better to sit tight for a couple of months and let the publishers bid against one another. Fortunately, he already had some knowledge of the industry. His experience would serve him well.
Mr Fisher walked quickly down the road, smiling to himself, lost in a warm haze of fantasy. After a while he began to feel hungry; remembering the biscuits in his briefcase, he stopped to take one.
The biscuits were not there. Mr Fisher frowned. Had he left them in his desk drawer? But no: he remembered taking a biscuit and replacing the packet. He looked again, moving closer to a street lamp to get a better view. The biscuits were nowhere to be found, and now, in the orange light, he could see why. The hole in the corner of his briefcase had zipped open all along the seam, and in his excitement over the story he had failed to notice. Mr Fisher was annoyed. He hated losing things. In fact, such was his annoyance that it was several seconds before he even thought to check whether Tibbet's exercise book was still there.
It was not. Mr Fisher felt a sudden sharp sweat sting his eyes. The book! He checked again, running his shaking hands along the torn stitching. Here were his hard-backed form register and his plastic file: both too bulky to escape. Here, too, was his pencil box. But the story, the Last Story, was gone. Mr Fisher felt a jolt of panic.
He must have dropped it somewhere along the road. But where? He was over a mile from the school now; it could be anywhere along that stretch. Still, it could not be helped; he would have to retrace his footsteps until he found it.
Breathing hard, he began the walk back. But his progress was slow: the wind was in his face, stealing his breath, and the snow was like chips of stone. Worse still, he found that the story itself was no longer entirely clear in his mind; that although he could recall certain elements - a quest, a man, a boy - it was Tibbet's misspellings he remembered most, and the fact that the boy had done his homework on the bus.
The verge was entirely white now, and the dark shape of the school was just visible behind the turmoil of the snow. Mr Fisher followed his own footsteps until they filled in again, but found nothing. There was nothing at the bus shelter. Mr Fisher even walked back up the drive towards the school gate, but there was no sign of the lost schoolbook.
When the police eventually found him at eight o'clock that evening, he was digging with his bare hands in the snowdrift which lined the verge, wild-eyed, raw-faced, mumbling feverishly to himself. It was lucky they found him when they did, Sergeant Merle reported to his duty officer; the poor old sod was nearly gone. Took him straight to Casualty. Turned out he was looking for some kid's homework he'd dropped on the way. Talk about devotion to duty. You ask me, these teachers aren't paid half enough. Still, you got to hand it to the old fella, he was digging like the clappers. You'd have thought there was gold under there.
Jigs & Reels
London, Doubleday, 2004