A retired schoolteacher is beset by vandals and it’s up to Constable O’Connor to find out why.
This wasn’t the sort of call out I would have expected when I was first posted here. This is one of those quiet middle-class suburbs still pretty much occupied by the people who bought their houses in the fifties and sixties — elderly widows and retired public servants — the classic self-funded retirees whose main interest in life is the internal politics of the local bowls club. The streets are narrow and lined with grass verges and plane trees. Most of the homes are brick, set back on large blocks behind well-tended gardens, though you will find an occasional row of terrace houses.
It wasn’t the posting I would’ve picked for myself, but I can imagine what the powers-that-be were thinking when they looked at my file. As a mid-life career-change recruit I’m a rare animal — a female, middle-aged junior constable. They wouldn’t have known what else to do with me. They probably thought I’d have a lot in common with the people here, and that I’d be out of the firing line, safely out of the way of anything exciting where my age and gender might be a liability. Well, one thing you have learnt at my age is patience. I figure that if I do my bit and bide my time I’ll eventually be sent somewhere where I might actually do some good.
In the meantime, I’m usually the one that gets the guernsey when the complainants are little old ladies, though I’d dare anyone to call Miss Anderson a little old lady.
This was the fifth time I’d gone to her house on the long narrow street that ran behind the primary school. At five in the afternoon the playground was deserted except for a few staff cars. I’d seen some sights at Miss Anderson’s before, but that day was the worst so far. The front of her usually immaculate terrace house was a total mess. All the flowering bushes had been stripped, ripped up, and their leaves and flowers scattered all over the lawn. The lawn itself had been dug up in great patches. And on the wall, painted in red letters at least three feet high, was the word: BITCH.
I turned off the ignition and took a deep breath. This was not going to be fun.
Miss Anderson answered the door and looked down her nose at me, making me feel like a schoolgirl on detention. Tall, broad-shouldered and intimidating, she was not what I’d expected to see when I was first sent out to interview an eighty-year-old retired schoolteacher and devoted lollypop lady.
‘Well, it’s about time you got here, Constable O’Connor. I called you over an hour ago.’
I felt like telling her that the police were not her grade two class. Instead I tried to remember that she was a victim of crime and smiled reassuringly, as I’d been trained. ‘I came as soon as I could, Miss Anderson. I’m sure you can understand that we have quite a few calls on our resources at any one time.’
Miss Anderson glowered at me, then sniffed. ‘Well, I guess it makes little difference. They were well and truly gone by the time I got home. You’ve seen what they’ve done this time, I presume.’
‘It’s quite a mess. I can talk to the Council and make sure they have someone here to clean it up first thing in the morning.’
‘I’m quite capable of cleaning it up myself, Constable O’Connor,’ the old woman snapped. ‘I’m not in my dotage yet. You’ll be coming in to get the details, then.’
Miss Anderson turned, expecting me to follow her into her sitting-room where afternoon tea was already laid out. I accepted a cup of the well-brewed tea, but could only manage one sip for politeness’ sake. My nervous stomach turned over from the mere smell of it. Here was I, the mother of grown-up children, yet, in Miss Anderson’s parlour, I felt like a helpless child myself. I was old enough to remember teachers like her, old biddies who would slap you across the legs with a ruler if you didn’t know your times tables, who hated children and seemed hell bent on thrashing the childhood out of them.
Miss Anderson put on her reading glasses and picked up a notebook.
‘I’ve kept count of the number of times I’ve had to call you,’ she announced, ‘even if you haven’t.’
I opened my mouth to make some reply but thought better of it. Nothing I could say would stop her. I sat quietly and let her talk.
Settling her glasses on her nose, she read from her notebook. ‘On the sixteenth of February my letterbox was stolen. On the fifteenth of March my rhododendron bushes were cut down. On the twenty-eighth of March a brick was thrown through my front window. On the twentieth of April they managed to pull up all the pickets in my front fence and start a bonfire. Now, today, the fifteenth of May, they’ve totally destroyed my front garden and written a very unpleasant word on my wall.’
Miss Anderson took off her glasses and glared at me. ‘What do you intend to do about this, Constable O’Connor? How much longer do I have to put up with this behaviour?’
I’d been through this with her several times. ‘We’ve done everything we can, Miss Anderson, but until we get some hard evidence there’s nothing more we can do.’
‘Evidence, Constable O’Connor? I’m sure if you bothered to make more of an effort you could find plenty of forensic evidence. Fingerprints, DNA and the like.’
Everyone’s an expert these days. CSI has a lot to answer for. ‘It’s not quite as easy as they make it seem on television, Miss Anderson. Our forensic team have done their best, but you can’t get fingerprints off plant stalks.’
‘Constable O’Connor, I demand a thorough investigation. If this goes on I’ll approach the ombudsman.’
Oh, please do, I thought. He’ll take you off our hands. ‘We have made a thorough investigation, but with little in the way of forensics and no witnesses, there’s nowhere to go.’
‘Have you interviewed the neighbours? Surely they saw something.’
‘I will be doing a door-to-door, of course, Miss Anderson. But I did one after the last incident. No one saw anything then.’ And I very much doubted whether anyone ‘saw’ anything this time, either.
Miss Anderson sniffed in disgust. ‘Well, I’m not entirely surprised. A thoroughly useless lot every last one of them. Not one of them has lifted a finger to help me. In fact, I wouldn’t put it past any of them to have been cheering them on, if they’re not behind it themselves.’
She was right in thinking that her neighbours had no sympathy for her, but they had good reason. There wasn’t one of them that Miss Anderson hadn’t antagonised. All of them had a complaint against her of one kind or another. They’d told me about her calling the police in if she could hear anyone’s music after ten o’clock, passing judgement on the way the local girls dressed and the number of boyfriends they had, spying on the neighbours and remarking on their comings and goings. But worst of all, they told me, was her attitude towards the local children. She would tell them off for the least thing and send them home in tears, or leave them too scared to play in the street.
‘Anyway,’ Miss Anderson resumed, ‘I’m still convinced it’s the schoolchildren from across the road.’
My heart sank. How many times had we been through this before? I clasped my hands together tightly, hoping the pain would help me control my temper.
‘It stands to reason,’ she continued. ‘These incidents only started after the school year began and they all occur at the same time — in the afternoons while I’m on school-crossing duty, when they’re all on their way home from school. It has always been the best time for them to make mischief. And these days, with all their mothers out at work, there’s even less to stop them.’ With this last remark she gave me a disapproving look. I had once been fool enough to confess that I had gone back to work when my children went to school.
‘Though the schools are just as much to blame. Teachers these days are next to useless. They don’t make any effort to discipline those children. I would never have let my pupils get away with some of the behaviour I’ve seen. Many’s the time I’ve had to go over there and report an incident, and they look at me as though I were the culprit. The cheek!’
‘Miss Anderson, we don’t have any proof…’ I attempted to protest.
‘Proof? What more proof do you need? I’ve had forty-four years of proof of what these little terrors are capable of. I’ve taught hundreds of children and every last one of them has the devil in him. At least in my day we beat the devil out of them. They might not have liked it then, but they would have thanked me later.’
She took a breath and turned her full glare on me. ‘Have you even bothered to question the staff there?’
I clasped my hands more tightly. ‘Of course I’ve spoken to them, Miss Anderson. They assure me it can’t be any of their pupils. They have a teacher on duty at the back gate every afternoon. They make sure none of the children hang around in the street.’ In fact, they’d told me that the children went right round the block so as not to go past her place on their way home from school. Her school-crossing station had been transferred to the next suburb at the school’s request.
Miss Anderson sniffed. ‘Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? They must come back after the teacher leaves. I should have another talk with them if I were you, Constable O’Connor, and I wouldn’t let them fob me off again. The principal’s car was still there when I let you in. I’m sure you could catch her if you go straight over there.’
Under Miss Anderson’s stern gaze I crossed the road to the school and entered the old brick building through its heavy wooden doors.
The principal was still at her desk in her office. She looked up and frowned at the sight of my uniform, then stood up to greet me. She didn’t look like any school principal I could remember. A tall slender woman with startling blue eyes, she wore a long flowing dress and her prematurely pure white hair fell to her waist. ‘Can I help you, Officer?’
‘Constable O’Connor. I think I spoke to your deputy last time I was here… about Miss Anderson.’
Her smile was almost conspiratorial. ‘Ah, Miss Anderson. Please sit down. I take it she’s had more trouble that she blames on our students.’
‘I’m afraid so.’
‘And what do you think?’
‘It could be anyone really, given her… attitude.’
The principal studied me closely for a moment. ‘Yes, she seems to stir up angry… vibes… wherever she goes.’ She shook her head. ‘You know, I came up against her only a couple of days after I started here this year. The very first day of school, she came in here ranting and raving, dragging a poor little boy by the arm. I thought she was going to dislocate his shoulder.’
‘What had he done?’
‘Picked a couple of flowers from her garden to give to a little girl who was crying.’ Her blue eyes became cold and distant. ‘I was so angry. She had no right to treat a child like that.’ She turned back to me and her eyes now had gone an icy grey. I could almost feel the anger emanating from her. ‘She was a teacher. Can you imagine how many children she’s traumatised over the years? Can you imagine how many damaged spirits are out there…?’
She stopped suddenly and breathed deeply. ‘Please forgive me, but I’m afraid I can’t help you. My duty is to the children. I have to do everything within my power to protect them.’
She had no need to apologise.
Miss Anderson was waiting for me at the car. ‘Well?’
I was on the verge of saying something, but I didn’t want to stir up even more bad blood. ‘The principal couldn’t help me. There’s nothing more I can do.’
She drew herself up to her full height. ‘Right, then. If you refuse to do anything about this, I’ll have to take care of it myself.’
‘What do you mean by that, Miss Anderson?’
‘Never you mind, but next time I call you, make sure you get here right away.’
‘I’d advise you not to take the law into your own hands, Miss Anderson,’ I began, but she had marched into the house and slammed the door behind her.
A few days later, I was called out to Miss Anderson’s again. This time several wheelie bins had been emptied onto the lawn and the graffiti was much more offensive. Miss Anderson was waiting for me at the front door in her white uniform, lollypop in hand, her face red with excitement. She called out to me as soon as I opened the car door.
‘There you are, Constable O’Connor. I’ve been doing your job for you. I have them here under house arrest. You’ll be needing back-up. And you’d better call for a paddy-wagon.’
‘What have you done?’ I asked as I joined her on the porch.
‘I’ve caught them, of course. There isn’t a child alive who could get the better of me,’ she continued triumphantly. ‘I had someone take my place at the school-crossing but every day I got dressed up and left the house as large as life, then I doubled back and let myself in from the lane. I’ve been watching for them and today I got them. Little troublemakers every last one of them. I’ve always told them they’d come to a bad end.’
‘Do you know the children, Miss Anderson?’
‘Well, of course I do. I’ve taught them all over the years.’
I was totally confused. Miss Anderson had retired from teaching a good twenty years ago. ‘These are children we’re talking about here?’
‘Of course, isn’t that what I’ve been telling you all along? Come along, before they get up to more mischief. I’ve got them all together in the sitting-room. They make quite a crowd in there. I hope you’ve brought enough handcuffs with you.’
She led me in and opened door to the sitting-room. ‘Here’s Constable O’Connor, children, come to take you away for a very long stretch indeed.’
‘But, Miss Anderson…’
She stepped into the room, finger wagging in the air. ‘Don’t take that insolent tone with me young man. I’ve always told you you’d end up in jail, and I was right, wasn’t I?’
‘Are you sure, Miss Anderson?’
‘Of course I’m sure. I can always tell. I knew these children were trouble from the moment I first set eyes on them. This one’s little Joanna Hicks. A right little madam that one is. I’ve had to hit her across the legs a good few times for giving cheek. I caught young Sam Costa over there lighting a fire. I bet his backside’s still sore. I washed Mary Bates’ mouth out with soap for swearing. She hasn’t said a word in my hearing since. And this one here, Yannis what’s-his-name, I made him wear a ribbon in his hair for a week for chasing the girls. Take them away, Constable O’Connor. They’re all yours and good riddance.’
I looked at Miss Anderson, holding the door to the sitting-room open, beckoning me in, a triumphant smile on her face. I looked at the room behind her and back at her exultant face. I didn’t know what to say. The sitting-room was empty.
© Pauline Montagna 2013
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