BOOK EXCERPT for Jazzy Book Reviews

Excerpt from psychological thriller The Penance List by S C Cunningham for Jazzy Book Reviews

The moment seven year old David changes from sweet choirboy to psycho killer. Love the boy, but fear the man he becomes.


Heddington Hall School, Berkshire

His beauty was a curse. Even though he knew it was coming, his throat retched every time he heard his name summoned in assembly.

“And lastly, would David Howard report to the Headmaster’s study, directly after choir practice!” bellowed the Assistant Head to the army of three hundred bored, shuffling schoolboys that stood before him.

He stood on an old wooden pulpit at the side of the stage. The heat of the morning sun poured in through the vast windows, mixing musty smells of stale milk, wood polish, and body odour. Ghostlike particles of dust caught in the sunlight and percolated around his hunched shoulders, captivating the attention of the younger boys in the front row. He mumbled through the Morning Prayer and attempted to lead the choir in the final hymn, ‘The Lord’s my shepherd’, as usual, he was painfully out of tune.

Thankfully, the morning bell rang announcing the start of class. He dismissed the assembly hall. Two sixth formers heaved open the large wooden exit doors and the boys obediently marched out row by row, relieved that the tedious standing in silence was over. Noisy chatter filled the room.

As the teachers began to leave the stage, the Headmaster remained seated, his beady eyes followed David’s small frame. A satisfied grin pulled across his face as he contemplated the afternoon’s pleasure. He particularly enjoyed the boy in his choirboy robes.

David prayed each morning that the Head would tire of him, move on to someone else. That he would become a normal, innocent, carefree boy again. He spent hours in the school chapel tirelessly chanting the holy rosary, kneading the worn string of beads in his small hands. He didn’t understand the meaning of the words he was saying, but knew that they were important, what God wanted to hear, so he prayed and prayed over and over, begging for help.

He was a good boy; he didn’t steal, swear, lie or hurt anyone. He cleared his plate at mealtimes and completed his homework. He regularly attended early morning mass, sung his heart out in the choir, and lit countless candles asking for help, but to no avail. He began to doubt there being a God. If there was one, he’d been abandoned. Why? He obeyed all the rules, kept quiet, seen and not heard. Why was he not good enough to be loved by God? Surely God loved everyone?

The Head summoned him regularly for ‘private acts’, he frightened him into submission by telling him that he had the Devil in him, that he was a lost soul going to hell. The Head would graciously save him by exorcising the Devil and preparing his path for heaven. The exorcism occurred when they met in the Headmaster’s study, it was their ‘private act’. Their meetings were to be kept a secret; if anyone were to find out he would suffer the wrath of the Archangel. He would be tied to a wooden cross, slashed with a thousand knives to within an inch of his life and left to burn in the cauldron of hell. David often wondered in whose hands was the worse fate… the Archangel or the Headmaster.

He had thought about going to confession, telling Father Michael, the school priest, but the fear of the Archangel got the better of him. Even if he did find the courage to tell, he doubted the priest would help; he and the Head were best friends; they always sat together in the dining room at meal times, laughing and joking. He had a suspicion that Father Michael knew of the ‘private acts’. He was alone, frightened, dirty and ashamed.

As they marched out of the hall, a few of the elder boys glanced back at him. He lowered his head, he was sure they knew of his shame, of why he got extra attention from the Headmaster. He wanted to scream out that it wasn’t his fault, that he hated it, that it hurt when the Head tore into him, that he would do anything to make it stop. Did they know because the same had happened to them when they were small? Surely someone would speak up? Was everyone frightened of this man? Why did he have so much power?

And why had he been chosen? He’d been told that he had a cherubim face, whatever that meant. Should he put a blade to it, cut it up? Should he cut his body, his willy? Would that stop the Head calling him ‘his special boy’?

His shame kept his head low, unable to look students and teachers in the face. He’d learned to dress and undress alone, cried off from swimming and Physical Education classes, any activity that exposed his bruised, beaten, vile, ugly body to their pitying eyes.

He concentrated on surviving from one day to the next. Blocking out the pain. He’d changed from an innocent, cheerful, loving little boy into a lonely, degraded, dirty being that was going to hell.

His sister was a bitch, his father distant, the only person who truly loved him was his beautiful mother; he feared that if she ever found out what he was allowing to happen, that he would lose her also. He tried to keep up an academy award performance in his letters home. Inventing news of winning sports cups, gold stars, prefect badges, that he was a popular and studious pupil, but recently he didn’t have the stomach for writing.

He was as much to blame for keeping the guilty secret. The shame of people knowing was as bad as the act itself. He began to form a scarab shell, keeping up the pretence, hardening his emotions.

During the assembly’s closing hymn, he came to a decision, one that would change his life. He scoffed as he sang the empty words ‘The Lord’s my shepherd’... oh no he isn’t, he’s got the sack, the Devil is replacing him; things are gonna get better.

He dipped his hand inside his collar and pulled out the silver cross and chain that hung around his neck. Tearing the cross from the chain he threw it to the ground. Stamping his small foot on top of it, he venomously ground it into the floor, marking the wood.

With renewed strength, he stood tall and puffed out his small chest. Chanting his new plan under his breath, he marched out of the great hall, staring straight ahead, ignoring the serpent eyes that bore into him from the stage. The Devil would help him now, he would be loved, he was no longer afraid. He pushed through the heavy oak doors, defiant, caring less for the cusses from fellow pupils as he knocked them out of his path.


Purchase The Penance List HERE