Mr Shelley got to his feet to greet the next couple of parents who were slowly shuffling toward his table.
“Good evening.” He flashed his teeth in a professional welcome. “And who do you belong to?”
The woman, in a white dress that was more like a shroud, tottering on ungainly platform soles, opened her eyes wide and pierced the teacher with a stare. Her face was pale and gaunt and her hair added two feet to her already considerable height; a black cloud over her head, shot through with a streak of white at each temple, like bolts of lightning.
“Victor,” she intoned. She blinked, slowly, releasing the teacher from her gaze.
“Ah, yes, of course.” Mr Shelley gestured to some chairs before taking his own seat. “Please.”
Victor’s mother’s eyes rolled to the chairs and then rolled back again.
“We prefer to stand.”
“Suit yourselves.” Mr Shelley felt obliged to stand up again. “Well, as you probably know, I have Victor for Science. He’s a remarkable boy. So inquisitive! So intuitive! You must be made up.”
Victor’s father’s heavy eyebrows dropped into a frown. A low groan emitted from somewhere deep within him.
“Made up?” Victor’s mother repeated. “You mean to insult us?”
“What? No! What I mean is, you must be tickled pink – er…” he took in the general pallor of the mother and the disturbing greyness of the father’s complexion. He reconsidered. “You must be over the moon.”
“The moon?” the mother pointed at the ceiling. “It is the wrong time of the month to concern ourselves with that.”
She made a sound that could have been a chuckle, or could just have easily have been the lid of a coffin creaking open.
Mr Shelley laughed uneasily. “You must be delighted with Victor’s progress. His test results are off the charts. I’d say this year’s Science prize is in the bag. The Nobel Prize too, the way he’s going.”
Victor’s father let out a rumble that could just as well have been a bowling ball falling down a staircase. Victor’s mother patted his arm.
“Hush, darling,” she purred. “I am sure the nice teacher is doing his best.”
Victor’s father’s broad, square shoulders rose and fell in a shrug, like a pair of tombstones disturbed by an earth tremor.
“If that is all?” Victor’s mother widened her eyes again and held out a pale hand. Mr Shelley took it and it felt like a frozen fish. Victor’s father slowly extended his hand. Mr Shelley took it and shook it. It came loose from the cuff of the large man’s boxy jacket, making a disconcerting popping noise.
“Oh, my God,” Mr Shelley was aghast. “I had no idea – you had a – your prosthetic hand – I – I’m sorry.”
Victor’s mother snatched the appendage from the mortified teacher’s grasp and secured it in her husband’s pocket. Her eyebrows arched imperiously. “There is nothing fake about my husband,” she declared. “Come, darling; perhaps the needlework teacher will prove more helpful.”
She guided her husband by his tree trunk of an arm and they shuffled away across the hall – but not before she had given the Science teacher a final withering glare.
Mr Shelley lowered himself onto his chair.
“Drink after?” the voice of his colleague from Geography, Mr Stoker, roused him from his stupor.
“Who was that pair of horrors?” Stoker nodded at the empty chairs. “Did they think it was the Halloween disco?”
“What? Oh. Victor’s parents. Bit odd but, well…”
“I don’t think so, mate,” Stoker shook his head.
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t you know? Happened before you started here, I suppose. Your star pupil’s folks died last year. Some horrible accident.”
“And that’s not the worst of it. Day after their funeral, their graves were robbed. Both bodies nicked! Never seen again! What a world, eh? There’s some right sickos around, I’m telling you.”
Mr Stoker wandered away, muttering to himself.
Mr Shelley felt sick. He resolved to speak to his Head of Department first thing in the morning. See if he could get Victor transferred to another class.