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Authors: Lis Howell

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BOOK: Death of a Teacher
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‘Well, it will be nice for Molly to stay over with you,’ Suzy said neutrally, thinking about how she could make a rebellious Molly look presentable for her father.

‘Yes. I’ll pop over in two weeks’ time and pick her up. It’s a pity Jake will be playing in his band, but it will give us the chance for quality time with Molly. I’m afraid I’ll have to bring her back before the May Bank Holiday. We’ve got a prior engagement.’

‘That’s OK.’ Suzy had learned that her husband’s
noblesse oblige
rarely stretched to having the kids on a public holiday. And who was this ‘we’? Nigel must have a new girlfriend.

Nigel was still droning on, but one phrase cut through the platitudes. ‘My solicitor says …’

It took Suzy a moment to catch up. ‘What?’

‘It’s not as if we have any real issues to discuss, is it?’ Nigel said. ‘As regards divorce, I mean?’

‘No. That’s right.’ Suzy sat down heavily on one of the kitchen chairs. ‘Of course. If that’s what you want.’

When he rang off she poured herself a large glass of red wine. A divorce at last. She felt ninety per cent relief, but there was a sense of sadness too. She and Nigel had met at university and she had thought they would be partners for life. She had found herself thinking about her undergraduate days more 
and more in recent weeks. It was odd, the way she and Nigel had clung to each other, scared eighteen-year-olds thrown together away from home. But she had made some good friends – Rachel Cohen, Paul Watson, Nigel Spencer of course, Sandra and Rosemary whom she’d met in the third year. She was still in touch with Rachel but she’d lost touch with Sandra and Rosemary. Perhaps it was because Jake was going into his final year at school in September that she had been thinking of her past so much recently. After wanting it for so long, Suzy felt suddenly shaky at the idea of divorce. Jake got on well with Robert, and Robert was great with both the kids – but he wasn’t their real dad. How would the kids feel about the final split? How did she feel herself, now it was happening?

In a minute, she would go and tell Robert the good news. It
was
good news, wasn’t it? Then the phone rang again. It was Judith Dixon.

‘Mrs Spencer? Could Becky come and stay with you again this weekend? We’ve got such a lot of bother over here with folk coming to rubberneck at St Trallen’s since the accident. Phil could bring Becky over.’

‘Of course,’ Suzy said. At this rate Becky Dixon’s visits would become a weekend fixture. But it was no bad thing. Suzy would have welcomed Becky eight days a week in order to ensure that Molly had a friend.

So the news on the divorce would have to wait. Suzy put it to the back of her mind while she set about sorting out evening meals, bedding, and their extended family night in.

 

Friday night at Callie McFadden’s was also a family night in. She lived in a council house on the Pelliter Valley Estate. Her eldest son was lying on the tatty sofa, with his feet in huge trainers lolling over the end. He wore his baseball cap back to front in all weathers, indoors and out, and he was never without a can of drink. He was on his fifth or sixth, after coming home from his job on a building site in Norbridge. To celebrate the fact that he probably wouldn’t be working much longer in the current economic slowdown, he’d decided to get pissed at home. He’d go out later to hang about with his mates on Pelliter High Street, but for now he was watching telly and waiting for his mam to serve his tea.

Callie was in the kitchen talking to her daughter, a heavy girl with a
pregnant
stomach bulging out of her sweat pants.

‘You shouldn’t be drinking that stuff now you’re expecting.’

‘Ooo says?’

‘Everyone says. And I suppose you’re going to hang about till I feed you?’

The girl shrugged and plonked herself and her can down at the kitchen table. ‘This stuff’s crap. Got any wine?’

Callie ignored her. She liked having her family all around her and she 
needed to know what they were all doing. She was making a real dinner – pasta with mince and instant sauce. She knew that once they’d eaten it, they would be off to the various Pelliter outlets for their doses of fatty kebab or deep fried faggots. But this was still their Friday night gathering. She put her cigarette into the ashtray and went to the door between the kitchen and the living-room.

‘You, get your boots off that sofa now! Yes, I mean now. And put that can in the bin or back in the fridge if you haven’t drunk it all.’ Her son lurched upright and staggered towards the kitchen.

Good, Callie thought with satisfaction. They all needed a boot up the bum. Except her youngest, Jonty. He had come along when Callie thought she was past it, and she had saved the best till last. He was the cleverest of her kids and her pet. Jonty would go far. He had his mum’s forcefulness. And forceful she certainly was! Callie thought with satisfaction that it was her drive and Liz Rudder’s experience which were keeping things going at St Mungo’s, where soppy Ray Findley had his eye off the ball just because his wife was cracking up. That afternoon, for example, Callie had been irritated to find that a schoolroom was in use without her say-so.

‘What’s going on here? Have you got permission to do that?’

A harassed mother injecting a diabetic child in Year Four jumped back. ‘Mr Findley said we could use this room.’

‘I don’t think so.’ Everyone knew that Callie was in charge of room
organization
, and no one had told her about this. Kids with health problems like that should be in special schools. Callie had stared down the mother who looked as if she was about to cry. Stupid cow.

But when Callie turned to leave she saw Becky Dixon staring at her, with that funny look of hers. The child should have been off the premises by now, but Miss MacDonald let the kids hang about till all hours on their so-called ‘art work’. Becky Dixon looked questioningly at Callie and then turned away, showing no fear. Becky gave Callie the creeps. She gave lots of people the creeps. Jonty had hated Becky Dixon ever since Miss MacDonald had put her in charge of the classroom printer instead of him.

Thinking about Becky’s little white face made Callie shudder, so now she jabbed her grown-up daughter between the shoulder blades.

‘Hey, take this garlic bread.’

Then Jonty came sidling around the door. ‘Mam?’ he asked in a wheedling voice.

‘What is it, lad?’

‘Can we do the ouija board after tea?’

Callie smiled. The ouija board! That was always good fun.

‘Good idea, son.’ And Callie laughed out loud, assured of some sport.

But some of them said, He casteth out devils through Beelzebub, the chief of the devils

Luke 11:15. Folio 166r.
Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

A
n hour later, Callie McFadden turned the lights out in the cluttered living room, except for a reddish lamp in the corner. She’d given the usual lecture on how the ouija board was just a bit of fun and not really messages from the spirits of the dead, and how they shouldn’t take it too seriously – all delivered in a very serious voice.

‘Have any of them been murdered?’ Jonty asked. ‘Or tortured?’

Callie’s daughter popped her headphones from out of her ears and rolled them up into her pocket.

‘Loada rubbish,’ she said. But she stayed by the board.

Callie had made the board herself years ago. It was a big cardboard square covered with shiny cellophane, and she had made the letters of the alphabet on twenty-six separate cards which she laid down around the square. In the middle was an upturned drinking glass.

‘We’ve all got to be quiet now, and sit with just our fingertips touching and our eyes closed.’

After the noise which incessantly filled the house, the sudden silence was dramatic. ‘Now,’ said Callie, making her voice as deep and sonorous as she could. ‘Don’t open your eyes but, at a count of three, put your forefinger lightly – I mean lightly – on the glass. One, two …
Three
.’

Jonty stuck his hand out, fingers hovering. Callie guided it into place over the tumbler. She had put the glass in the freezer earlier. The atmosphere was working.

‘Now
without moving a muscle
, open your eyes and look at nothing but the board.’

Two pairs of eyes snapped open.

‘Are you there?’ droned Callie. ‘Is anyone there? Send us a sign.’

It was important that nothing happened at once in order to let the tension build, but Callie could usually bank on something – a curtain fluttering or a car horn. If not, she would nudge the coffee table herself. A dog barked. 

‘Spirit, are you there?’ Callie asked. She had to press quite hard for the message to read ‘G.E.T …

‘Get!’ shouted Jonty.

‘B.’

‘E.’

The glass really seemed to struggle under their fingers, and then suddenly hurtled itself around the letters to make ‘CKY.’

‘Get Becky!’ whooped Jonty, delighted. That will cheer him up, thought Callie. ‘Maybe you should take the board’s advice, son,’ she said. She took another gulp of lager. No harm in building the boy up a bit. Everyone said boys were doing worse at school than girls these days. No wonder, if silly teachers like Alison MacDonald favoured creepy sexless creatures like Becky Dixon. Her Jonty wasn’t going to suffer ’cos some teacher made a pet out of a druggie’s daughter. Jonty was a real lad, and she’d see to it he lacked no confidence at all.

She was about to take her hand away from the board, when Jonty said, ‘Worrabout you, Mam?’

This was a surprise. Callie never organized messages for herself. ‘Oh, go on then….’

‘I’ll ask this time,’ said Jonty. ‘Spirit, is there a message for me mam?’

The glass seemed to jump under their hands. The letters came so quickly that Callie couldn’t follow. Jonty said, ‘It spells something, Mam. It spells DONT RUST.’

‘What?’ Callie snapped. ‘Don’t rust?’

‘Don’t trust,’ said Jonty. ‘Gerrit? But don’t trust ’oo?

The glass spun away. Jonty shrieked each letter out. ‘B.R.E.N.D.A.’

‘I don’t know no Brendas.’ Jonty was already bored and looking at his Xbox.

But I do, thought Callie. Though it was all just bloody rubbish and she should know!

 

Miss Hodgson knew the children called her ‘pasty podgy’ but her vanity wasn’t her looks. It was her personal cleanliness. By Friday afternoon she was itching to get away from the creeping sticky grime of school. For Brenda, Friday was the second best evening of the week. Wednesday was best, but that was top secret of course. Brenda loved secrets. She had nurtured them all her life.

She had parked her little car and walked from the lock-up garage at the end of the road to the small terraced house that she had inherited from her grandmother. It was a pleasant evening, if cloudy, but the sky was clearing and there was a pinkish glow over to the west. In the past she had usually visited 
the Rudders for Saturday supper. But since John’s stroke, that had slowly changed. Liz didn’t seem to want to know any more. Of course, Brenda told herself, her friend was under awful pressure.

Still, Brenda enjoyed her new mateyness with Callie and Faye. What a surprising and interesting friendship! Brenda loved it when Callie said confidingly, ‘Don’t tell anyone, but …’ Or when Faye said, ‘Of course no one else knows …’ It was so satisfying to be in the know!

The only other feature of Brenda’s weekend was the regular Sunday lunch with her brother, Peter.

She hung up her jacket, scrubbed her hands and face with an antibacterial lotion in the tiny downstairs cloakroom, and checked phone messages. There was one routine call from her brother about a pudding he fancied. And there was another message which made Brenda dizzy with excitement. She should ring back. But she didn’t redial straight away. She wanted to savour the
anticipation
.

She went upstairs and changed into her tracksuit trousers and a T-shirt. It was warm in the bedroom, and a trapped fly, precocious for late April, buzzed against the window pane. Brenda swatted it with the
Pelliter Tribune
and put the little black body down the toilet, flushing with bleach. Then she went downstairs, through the hall to the cramped but shining kitchen at the back of the house and opened the door. Standing outside surveying the concreted yard, she could hear children shouting in the field behind the house, where the soggy marshes of the River Pell were a dump for the people of the Pelliter Valley estate, where her new friend Callie McFadden lived.

Brenda went back indoors into the spotless kitchen and took the bottle of gin out of the shiny clean unit under the sink, pouring a large measure into a glass which had been washed, polished and set ready on the counter the night before. Then she added a small measure of tonic, and some sliced lemon which was waiting in a bowl in the sparkling clean fridge. The clink of the ice cubes from the neat and sorted freezer was the trigger sound and made her tummy rumble. She lifted the drink to her lips. Delicious. There was something pure about gin and tonic. It went down without touching the sides. She mixed herself another, careful to put the bottle away after wiping the top for drips.

She took her drink into the sitting-room behind the kitchen, sat on the sofa, and leafed through the
Pelliter Tribune
, the free local paper which had been delivered the night before. There was a big front-page story about the body found at Dixons’ chapel the previous Friday. The man was still
unidentified.
The police were trying their best to jog local memories. Someone must have seen something. Once again, she read the quote which had caught her eye yesterday, and caused her to leave that all-important message. Her breath came faster and her heart palpitated. 


We have searched through the man’s clothing and belongings. He had a paper with a sort of diagram on it slipped into an inside pocket. His fingers had some darkish marks. His jacket pocket was ripped and in the lining we discovered a Canadian dollar coin. There was nothing else
.’

Brenda picked up the phone and speed-dialled her brother. His answering machine said importantly: ‘Father Peter Hodgson is not available. Please leave a message after the tone.’ It sounded a little like Gregorian chant.

‘It’s Brenda,’ she breathed. ‘I need to speak to you.’

Then she replayed the other message, the one she had been savouring, before dialling back with clumsy fingers. She was still unfamiliar with the mobile phone number. As she waited to be connected, she found she was breathless with nervous excitement. Goodness me! To have one big secret was exciting, and to have two was a little overwhelming. And now, it seemed, she had three!

 

Alison MacDonald drove into the school car-park the following day, Saturday. This part of Pelliter was quiet on a weekend morning. But Suzy Spencer’s car was already parked outside, and Alison saw Molly and Becky in the back, collecting bags and belongings.

‘Hi!’ she called as Suzy emerged. ‘Eleven o’clock. You’re right on time.’

‘How’s the mural going?’ Suzy asked.

‘It’s going well, isn’t it, Molly?’ Alison MacDonald looked down at her pupil and realized with a shock that Molly seemed to have grown again overnight. Becky was much smaller, the top of her dark curls coming up to the lank brown locks on Molly’s shoulder. Molly was wearing a school blazer which was two sizes too small and a vermilion silk scarf over harem pants.

‘It’s OK,’ said Molly carefully. She’d learnt to curb her enthusiasm. Year Six at St Mungo’s thrived on knocking anything which didn’t involve sport, modelling or pop music.

‘It’s great, Molly,’ said Becky. Her voice was unusually deep for such a small body. She had a thin, pixie-like face and huge eyes. She wore an outsize
navy-blue
pea jacket. If anything, Becky was getting thinner and slighter while Molly grew bigger and more shapeless.

Alison felt a frisson when she looked at the mural, which was tacked along the back of the classroom wall. She’d asked Molly to choose the theme. It was already looking like a medieval fantasy and the detail really impressed her. Molly had outlined a winding road leading to the top of a low hill with a squat building which she hadn’t yet completed. There was the beginning of a parade which would eventually show men-at-arms,
peasants
with livestock and goods, jugglers and tumblers, noblemen on 
horseback and ladies in pale fluted hats with gauze veils. The path
broadened
out at the bottom of the huge sheet of paper, and the plan was to extend it on to the stage, where the performing artists of Year Six would pout and mince their way through a series of X-Factor-type turns. The only constraint would be that the costumes had to echo the theme of the Middle Ages – but it was hardly a problem, Alison thought, given the pre-
occupation
with princesses, body building, sports heroes, bullying and hierarchy which obsessed the kids in St Mungo’s top class. Twenty-first or twelfth century, what was new?

‘It’s lovely, Molly. And Becky.’ Suzy Spencer was behind them, taking her camcorder out of its case. ‘Let’s get some footage of you working on it.’

Suzy studied the viewfinder, but Alison caught a movement in the
playground
. Perhaps other kids were coming. She’d mentioned to the class that Mrs Spencer would be videoing the mural work today. She’d hoped a few of the others might offer to help on Saturday morning, but there had been an orchestrated lack of interest.

‘I’m not doin’ it. I think it’s feckin’ stupid,’ Jonty McFadden had mumbled at the back of the classroom. Two or three of his mates had sniggered. Alison had come to terms with the fact that getting group-wide participation was going to take time.

But at least Mrs Spencer was here with the two girls, and once word got around that the filming was really happening, more children might turn up. Molly was already drawing at the bottom of the picture. Obeying her
instructions
, Becky was standing up working at the top. She concentrated, tongue gripped between her teeth. Alison found it slightly mesmerizing to watch her, so that when the crash came she sensed it, rather than saw it.

‘Watch out!’ she screamed.

There was the sound of feet pounding in the playground and the light changed as the window shattered into opaque shards. Alison leapt back
involuntarily
as the splinters cascaded through the classroom. Suzy grabbed the camcorder and tripod just before it lurched. Molly had fallen to the floor and was screaming.

Alison ran to the smashed window, hearing the crunching underfoot. A group of kids were running away from the school. But one boy turned round, and she saw him in the instant before he turned away again, and ran, arms and legs wheeling, to the gate.

‘Jonty McFadden!’ she shouted. ‘Jonty McFadden! I saw you.’

Then she turned back. Suzy was hugging Molly. Becky had been in the direct line of fire. She could have been seriously hurt. But she was still drawing, face white and eyes shining.

‘Did you see what they threw?’ Suzy asked. 

‘I think it was a hammer; it slid over by the desk. Don’t walk through the glass. If it had hit us we could have been injured. Let’s get out of here. Stop working, Becky. I’ll phone the police and Mr Findley.’

Molly was shaking. ‘We’ll still do this, won’t we? It won’t stop us, will it?’

‘Not likely.’ It was the first thing Becky Dixon had said since the breakage, in her strange deep adult voice.

‘No. It won’t stop us. It’s just stupid vandalism.’ Alison held the door open. ‘We’ll get this lot cleared up and we’ll carry on in the staff room.’

 

In Norbridge police station, PCSO Ro Watson was called over to Constable Jed Jackson’s desk. They were to go out to an incident. Saturday morning shifts were usually quiet but there had been trouble at St Mungo’s School in Pelliter. A teacher had called to report a window being smashed by a gang of kids. It could have been serious, but no one was hurt, luckily. It was a matter for the community team.

Ro got into the passenger seat next to Jed and fastened her seatbelt. Jed had stopped her in the corridor only that morning. He had told her about being asked to give a quote to the
Pelliter Tribune
about the mystery of the dead man at the chapel and what had been in his pockets.

‘Nothing,’ Jed had said. ‘That’s what was so weird. A Canadian coin and a funny diagram on really thin paper. And we haven’t told the Press but he had dark stains on his fingers. Like nicotine only blackish. That was all.’

‘So was he robbed?’

Jed had shrugged. ‘Who knows?’ He put his foot on the accelerator and the car shot forward. Despite their new camaraderie Ro didn’t want to push. There was something reserved about Jed nevertheless. He was certainly charming and self-assured, being the graduate on the team, but occasionally she had noticed a hardness in his features, and she had overheard some of his more draconian views on drugs and drunkenness.

BOOK: Death of a Teacher
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