A Text for Comprehension

One of my friends has been given a class of students who have refused for the past year to do any work. They claim that Shakespeare is “crap,” and that every other writer they have been exposed to is “gay.” Several of his colleagues had given up on them, and their projected marks are dire. So I put this together as a comprehension text. I am pleased to report that it kept them productive for the whole lesson. Their homework is to have a go at writing a second chapter. They will be marked down only for errors of spelling, punctuation, grammar and general construction. For example, they have been advised not to kill Sadiq in chapter two.

You have one hour to complete this paper. The text is chapter one of a thriller. Read it carefully. Then answer all of the questions. Unless instructed otherwise, use your own words. You are advised to spend the first fifteen minutes carefully reading the text. The whole paper is worth 45 marks. You should fit the length of your answers to the number of marks offered in each question.


I remembered there was a chair behind me. I sat down. Cupping my hands to hide its glow, I lit a cigarette.

“Fucking burglar!” I took a long drag and breathed out. “Fucking piece of shit!”

I kicked at the dim shadow that lay half on the rug, half on polished boards. The body moved a few inches, exposing a sliver of light from the torch that was still clamped to the dead forehead. I reached forward to switch it off.

Fourteen he’d been? Fifteen? I’d only seen him from behind. Hard to say his age. He was small – that I could say. Taking him from behind, I’d been aware of a thin and very smooth throat. Both hands deep in one of the desk drawers, his neck had snapped in half a second. Now, he lay within kicking distance, his body giving out dead man’s farts and the usual smell of cheap weed.

I sat back. Another long drag. A stream of invisible smoke. It was obvious how he’d got in. I’d looked about the house just after dark. The doors and most of the windows had good locks. The weak point was a small sash window in the utility room that led from the kitchen. No lock on that. I’d pulled the blind down and given it no further thought.

Why bother thinking about it? Too small for a grown man to get through. Just bad luck if, on this of all nights, the house had been got at by some random trash off the streets.

Bad luck for him, of course. Should have stuck to selling his arse for a bag of chips. That, or nicking car stereos. Another body in the house made bugger all difference to the job I’d been paid to do.

I looked at my watch. 1:32am. Not much longer. Sadiq had agreed a 1:45 meeting. He’d be on time. He’d be on time to the second. Unlike the others in his group I’d picked off, he was almost English in the care he took for timings. Unlike the others in his group, that so far had kept him alive. I smiled and went back to my cigarette. Sadiq would be on time. This time, it would be his undoing.

Oh shit!

It was only a faint scraping sound from beyond the kitchen. Ten minutes earlier, I’d have gone through the motions of thinking it was a cat, or a moth fluttering against the blind. I’d still have been reaching inside my jacket – still careful not to make any noise. But it wasn’t ten minutes earlier. I looked again at my watch. Sadiq might already be across the road, checking his own jacket. But he’d be on time. Until then….

Cigarette between my lips, I got up quietly. I stepped over the body, circling the desk on my way to the fireplace. If I couldn’t see it in the dark, I knew what was there, and what I’d do with it. There’d be more bad luck in this house before morning. I’d be the one dealing it.


“Where’s yer gone, Denzil?” It was an urgent, boyish whisper. “What’s keeping yer?”

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More scraping of shoulders against its frame, and he was half-through the window. As ever, he was just a blur of dark against dark. But I could imagine him, hanging there like a carrier bag stuck on a rose bush – legs tipping slowly up, arms reaching down to the floor.

He landed with a clatter. For a moment, I thought he’d saved me the trouble I’d set myself. But it was only a moment.

“C’mon, Trev – I telled yer we wus going in t’gevver.”

Another voice, this one outside: “I don’t like it.” It rose to a quiet but despairing wail. “I’m scared.”

Six foot from where I stood, the reply was a snivelled giggle. “Piece of piss, fuck you! Get in here now – else yer gay!” More giggling. A burp. An overpowering smell of beer and cannabis.

A lighter scrabbling on the ledge. Before Trevor could get his own shoulders through the narrow gap, I’d dealt with his friend. The poker I’d carried with me from the study was eighteen inches of heavy iron. One hard jab, and it was smashed through one temple and out the other. Before I let go, my hand brushed against sweaty curls. I paid no attention to the death spasms. Instead, I waited for Young Trevor to get his head past the blind.

Killing’s my job. If I wrote down the names – real or probable – of everyone I’ve killed, it would look like the guest-list of a fancy wedding. Presidents, ministers, generals, big businessmen, their guards and assorted flunkies – oh, and don’t forget the scum they tell us they’re here to save us from, but are just as much their flunkies as any waiter in a restaurant. I don’t have many rules. You could call me an equal opportunities killer.

But, unless it means actual inconvenience, I don’t like killing children. Trevor’s friends were only arguably children. Besides, leaving them alive would have been inconvenient. From his voice, and from the light noise he made getting through the window, Trevor qualified as one of my less-killables.

Besides, you don’t stick to a good plan, when something much better is about to drop into your arms.

I grabbed the boy by his collar, and pulled him into the house. I let him fall to the floor. Before he could move or make any noise, I kicked him hard in the stomach, and took him again by the collar. I moved my left hand over his mouth, and dragged him across the floor. In the kitchen, I kicked the fridge open. After so long in darkness, its light bordered on dazzling. It reached with a dim glow into the utility room. Back in there, I made the boy look at his dead friend. No more twitching. Now, the body arched upwards on the floor. Two glassy eyes stared at the ceiling. Where the poker had come out the other side, there was a little ooze of blood onto the white ceramic tiles.

I let the boy see my gun. I rammed its barrel under his chin. “One sound, you little bastard, and it’s you next.

Do you understand?

I’d guessed right he knew nothing about guns. From that angle, and with that calibre, a pull on the trigger would have taken my head off as well. With a shitty fart, he went limp. I stepped away and watched him curl into a ball of whimpering, uncomprehending terror. I leaned against a wall, and waited for him to come back to some kind of sense. I’d say he was twelve. You can’t always say with council estate vermin. But look below the thuggish haircut, and you could see the freckles of someone who, in earlier generations, would have been a schoolboy.

“Now you listen, my lad.” I dropped the snarl, and was trying for a Jolly Uncle effect. “I’ve got a little job for you. Just you do it exactly as I say, and I’ll let you run off into the street, and you’ll never see me again. Try double-crossing me, and….”

A dozen yards behind me, there was a rattle on the front door.

I looked at my watch. I smiled. Sadiq was on time.

I bent over the boy and pulled him to his feet.

“I don’t have time for an answer,” I whispered. “Listen carefully. You’ll repeat what I tell you word for word.”

Turn over for the questions

  1. What is the name of the first person killed by the narrator? (1 mark)
  2. What was he doing in the house? (1 mark)
  3. Why do you think the narrator killed him? (2 marks)
  4. Explain the meaning of these words and phrases as they are used in the text:
  5. “some random trash off the streets” (line 29) (2 marks)
  6. “gay” (line 80) (1 mark)
  7. “undoing” (line 42) (1 mark)
  8. “flunkies) (line 94) (1 mark)
  9. “Jolly Uncle effect” (line 136) (2 marks)
  10. There is a simile in the text (lines 67-8) Identify this, and explain what purpose it serves. (3 marks)
  11. “Oh shit!” (line 44) Why are these words italicised and on their own line? What effect is the writer trying to achieve? (3 marks)
  12. “C’mon, Trev – I telled yer we wus going in t’gevver.” (line 74) Rewrite this sentence in Standard English. (3 marks)
  13. Why do you think there were two other burglars, and why they were now coming into the house? (4 marks)
  14. The house is not closely-described in the text. But using the clues available, say what kind of house you think it is. (5 marks)
  15. Who do you think is Sadiq? Be inventive. (6 marks)
  16. What kind of man do you think the narrator is? Why do you think he is in the house? Use all the clues given in the text. Refer where appropriate to line numbers. (10 marks)

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