A shaft of sunlight fell across the worn herringbone floor, drawing his gaze upwards to the flawless blue sky beyond the row of windows, twelve feet above. It was a perfect summer’s day. The kind of day on which, many years ago, he might have taken the dog and run through the fields into the woods, climbed each of his favourite trees, and returned filthy and exhausted in time for tea. No thoughts of responsibility or duty. An unfettered spirit, in touch with himself and every other living thing. No clues to the future, to what he would, or would not, become.
He glanced left and right. They were watching him, expecting him to crumble, waiting for him to make a mistake. He daren’t look behind to see how many more there were, mute and expressionless. A shudder ran through him.
His mouth was dry but he knew a drink was out of the question. Later they’d smile apologetically, as though it were not their fault. As though it were inevitable; everything he’d done so far, leading to this.
He swallowed, licked his lips. Would he crack? Would he tell them what they wanted to know?
All the training, all the years of preparation, seemed worthless. He felt abandoned and defenceless in the face of what lay ahead and he clenched his teeth to prevent the last of his courage escaping.
He thought about his family. He was going to disappoint them, betray their trust. He regretted all the time wasted on things he couldn’t even recall. If he concentrated, if he could turn back time for a week, a month, a year, he could do it differently. Do it right. Tears pricked his eyes and he screwed them tightly shut, wishing it was a dream and he’d wake up, safe in his own bed, a carefree day stretching out before him.
How much longer? The waiting was torture in itself, calculated to undermine his confidence and shake the foundations of his knowledge. Sweat trickled down between his shoulder blades, prompting an involuntary twitch, and tension stretched his nerves until he expected an elastic snap as they gave way. It would come as a relief. Anything was better than this.
He studied the backs of his hands and inhaled deeply, forcing his shoulders down. He didn’t want them to see he was already losing the battle. Flexing his fingers, he clasped his hands together, holding them between his knees in an effort to stop the trembling. He was as ready as he’d ever be.
The door behind him swished open and clicked shut. Precise footsteps clipped a path towards him, their echo mocking his weakness. He bowed his head and held his breath as they passed within inches before stopping. This was it. His vision blurred and panic clawed his guts.
A shrilling bell pierced the silence, followed by a brief, collective sigh.
‘You may begin.’
He turned over his paper, picked up his pen and began to write.