Pillars of the Community – back story

Last Wednesday I wrote a piece of flash fiction for Friday Fictioneers that I titled “Pillars of the Community”. People were kind enough to show an interest in what had happened to cause three very respectable women to keep a secret for fifty years, surrounding it with ritual and a dread oath. I promised to publish the back story – and here it is!

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Pillars of the Community – back story

Diane. Abigail. Susan.

They were inseparable.

When Diane was four, she had insisted on going to see Abigail and Susan to show them her Christmas present – on Christmas day – before lunch.

When Susan was five, she had demanded that Diane and Abigail should come on holiday with her family and had thrown multiple tantrums when this didn’t happen.

And Abigail always had to have the same things as Diane; if Diane had a pink hair-slide, then so must Abigail; if Diane read ‘Bunty’ then so must Abigail.

They all joined the Brownies on the same day. They moved up to the guides on the same day. They went to the same school, and when Diane had said “I want to do Ten Tors,” the other two had said “Great!” and “What a good idea!” even though Susan normally shunned strenuous activity, and Abigail was scared to death if she was ever alone outside after dark.

The training was tough. For their first outing on Dartmoor, Mr Johnson took them six miles on a rough track, allowed them thirty minutes to eat lunch and then marched them the six miles back on the same track. “A nice gentle stroll” was his description of the day. Susan slept in the minibus all the way back to school.

“What do you think of Mr Johnson?” Abigail asked Diane the next day.

“He’s okay.” Diane thought for a minute or two. “What did you think of him?”

“I think he’s creepy.” She looked at the ground. “Didn’t you mind when he put his arm around you?”

Diane flushed.

“Not really.” She studied the expression on her friend’s face. “I suppose I was a bit surprised.”

A few weeks later, they were practising packing their kit properly when Diane noticed that Abigail had disappeared – and so had Mr Johnson. A few moments later Abigail was back, scarlet and breathing heavily.

“Are you alright?”

Abigail nodded, but Diane could see the tracks of tears on her face.

“Here, let me help you,” she said.

Abigail sniffled; she never had a handkerchief. Diane passed over her own.

During the lunch-break, Diane said to Abigail, “Do you want to tell us about it?” Abigail’s face puckered, and she shook her head.

“I can’t,” she said.

“One for all, and all for one,” said Susan.

“No, I really can’t.”

“Was it Johnson?”

“He told me not to tell anybody,” wept Abigail.

“Yeah, well we’re your friends. You know you can trust us.”

“He kissed me. I said not to but he did anyway.”

Diane and Susan looked at each other. Susan put an arm round Abigail.

Diane was indignant. “I’ll find him after school and tell him he’s out of order.”

“No! No, please don’t, Di, or he’ll know I’ve told.”

“Somebody ought to say something, Abi, otherwise he’ll think he’s got away with it, and can try again.”

“You said I could trust you…” wailed Abigail.

“Yes, you can, of course you can, pet. Di won’t say anything, will you, Di?”

“Not if Abi doesn’t want it, of course I won’t. But Abi, I really think we should say something.”

Abigail’s tears were slowing. She shook her head.

“I’d much rather not,” she said.

A week or so later, Diane and Susan were waiting at the school gate for Abigail, who was coming from the private study classroom.

Diane glanced at her watch. “Where on earth can she be? She’s usually here before us. Shall we look for her, Sue?”

“We might miss her. She’s probably had to run an errand for the Head Mistress or something.”

Just then, they saw Abigail, trudging, dragging her feet. As she approached, they could see she was ashen.

Susan hugged her and held her close.

“Was it Johnson again?” demanded Diane. “What did he do?”

“I don’t want to say,” muttered Abigail.

Susan looked at Diane, and held her finger to her lips.

“You don’t need to say anything, Abi, dear. We understand. You’re alright now, you’re with us. We’ll take care of you.” She looked at Diane, who was fidgeting in her anxiety to say something. “Shut up, Di! Now is not the time.”

They set off home in silence. When they came to the bridge over the river, they stopped. They often did, for the river was beautiful in all seasons and at all times of the day.

Abigail leant over the parapet. Her feet left the pavement. Diane took hold of her arm.

“Don’t do that,” she said. Abigail sighed and put her feet back on the ground.

“He kissed me again. Then he tried to…to feel me, you know. I pushed his hand away but he’s so strong.” Her face was no longer pallid, but fiery red with shame. “It felt…it felt…” She couldn’t finish.

“What a bastard!”

“Really, Diane! You don’t need to swear!” Susan was indignant.

Diane took hold of Abigail’s shoulders. “Abi. Listen to me. We’ve got to tell someone now. Will you let us all go and talk to the Head Mistress tomorrow morning?”

Abigail pondered for a long moment, then, “Alright,” she said.

Next day it was Diane who took the lead, Diane who made an appointment with the Head Mistress, Diane who cajoled Abigail to speak.

The Head Mistress listened carefully. These were trustworthy girls. She would have believed them about almost anything. Why, she was hoping that Abigail would win a scholarship to Cambridge in a few years time!

And yet, Mr Johnson was a highly respected teacher. There had never been a hint of scandal about him. He was highly qualified and his pupils did well. Surely he would have shown signs of this sort of weakness before?

“Did he leave any marks on you, Abigail?”

“No, Miss Carter.”

“Did he expose himself to you?”

“No, Miss Carter.”

Miss Carter folded her hands on the desk. Any hint of this would end Mr Johnson’s career. There wasn’t enough evidence to report to the police. She couldn’t, she really couldn’t take action. She cleared her throat.

“Now, girls. You’ve come to me and made a most serious accusation against a senior member of my staff. If I believed for one moment that you were motivated by malice, I would punish you all; you would be facing expulsion from the school.”

She paused.

“Diane and Susan, neither of you witnessed any impropriety. Your testimony is that you saw your friend badly upset, and she told you about an assault that she said had been made on her. Abigail. You tell me that you have been assaulted, but there is no physical evidence of an assault having been made. Is that a fair summary of the situation?”

“Yes, Miss Carter,” they mumbled. Even Diane didn’t dare to contradict.

“I believe that all three of you are truthful girls. I can only conclude that you, Abigail, must have misunderstood an ambiguous situation. The matter must stop here. All of you understand, please, that you must say nothing about this outside this office. I will treat any slander against Mr Johnson with great severity.”

She looked at each of them in turn. One by one they dropped their eyes.

“You are dismissed.”

The three girls slunk out. As they walked down the corridor, Diane whispered, “I’m sorry, Abi. You were right. We shouldn’t have said anything.”

In her office, the Head Mistress worried for the entire morning as to what she should do.

Abigail became very quiet. As far as possible she avoided being anywhere near Johnson. She changed her private study group on the pretext that she needed to work in the library to be able to use reference books. Susan and Diane became expert at spotting when something had happened. Without questioning, they just offered support, love and encouragement.

“Are you sure you want to come on the overnight camp, Abigail?” said Susan.

“I can’t do the Ten Tors if I don’t, and then the rest of you in the Patrol would miss the event too.”

“You’re very brave,” said Susan, hugging her tightly.

“We’ll look after you,” said Diane, fiercely. “He’d jolly well better not try anything.”

They camped near the Mires.

“Don’t stray out of your tents tonight! One false step into the Mires, and it’s down you go, never to be seen again!” Johnson laughed ghoulishly and rubbed his hands.

He took Abigail with him to fetch water for the evening meal. When they returned she was shivering.

“Are you alright, Abi?”

“Yes. Just a bit cold.”

The six girls of the Patrol bedded down in two three-person tents. Susan and Diane slept in sleeping bags either side of Abigail, whose head was by the entrance to the tent. She lay there, stiff with fright.

Minutes passed. Diane fell asleep first. Susan turned over several times, but then her breathing became regular. She snored, gently but noticeably. Abigail waited a few minutes longer, and then, as quietly as she could, wriggled out of her sleeping bag. As though hypnotised she undid the tent flaps and walked into the night.

Diane stirred. Something was wrong. Her eyes opened. She felt the chill air of the moor. She saw the open flaps of the tent. Abigail was missing.

“Quick, Sue! Abi’s gone!”

Susan stretched, then sat up abruptly.

“What do you mean, gone?”

Diane pointed to the empty sleeping bag and the open tent. Susan scrambled out of her bag and started scrabbling for her trousers.

“Come on! We haven’t got time for that!”

Diane led the way outside. There was torchlight in Johnson’s tent, and noises. They could hear Abigail, sobbing, protesting.

Diane picked up a heavy stone.

The two girls ran to the tent and tore open the door. Johnson was lying on Abigail, who was struggling, weeping, trying to push him away. Her legs were spread, and Johnson, trousers around ankles, lay between them. He looked up – and Diane hit him with the stone, hard. He slumped.

There was quiet.

There was silence.

“He’s not breathing,” whispered Susan.

“You’ve killed him,” whispered Abigail.

“It’s my fault. I’ll have to take the consequences.” Diane breathed heavily as she thought of the implications. Prison, not university. Disgrace. Shame for her parents.

“One for all, and all for one.” Susan and Abigail spoke simultaneously.

“No. I can’t let you,” began Diane.

“Let’s put the body in the Mires,” said Susan.

They looked at each other.

One for all and all for one.

They hauled the body out of the tent, tidied the interior and tied back the entrance, so it would look as though Johnson had walked out.

“Lucky there’s no blood,” said Susan.

They lifted the body as best they could, and carried it to the edge of the path.

“We’ll swing it like we were giving him the bumps,” declared Susan.

The body splashed into the water about five feet from the path and started to sink immediately. The girls watched. Was the corpse going to disappear entirely? It was submerged to the waist, then to the chest, then to the neck.

And then the eyes flickered open. A look of terror flashed across Johnson’s face, and the girls recoiled. A whispered “Help me” came from his mouth. Susan seized a stone and threw it at the distorted face. There was silence once again, and then bubbles as the head went under.

“Good riddance,” said Susan.

 

 

 

12 thoughts on “Pillars of the Community – back story

  1. ohhh what a horrible story. Child maltreatment is bad enough if children are not taken seriously, if they are about to tell a disaster. Worse, it’s deadly. Had he been dead, it would have been affect. But he still lived and then it was murder. It’s bad when people want revenge. The hatred does not stop. No matter how hard it is, forgiveness is always the only way to end hatred. For your story, that means the three women must take their sin to the grave. However much it connects them, it will weigh on them for a lifetime.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear anie
      Thank you for reading and commenting. In fact a special thank you for the comment for two reasons. The first is that although you thought it was a horrible story, you still took the trouble to comment. The second is that you understood and emphasised in your comment exactly the things that I wanted my readers to feel.
      Yes, it was murder, yes, their guilt will be with them for the rest of their lives (and what virtuous and useful lives they all lived, driven by that guilt).
      You’re right. It is a horrible story. And we hear every day of young people not being taken seriously when they report abuse. Believe me, when these girls were young, in the mid-sixties, things were much worse.
      I can’t help feeling that after death, each of these women will be most wonderfully forgiven for her sin.
      With very best wishes
      Penny

      Liked by 2 people

      • Of course I do not find the story terrible, but what happens in the story. Murder is never justifiable, but it should never be a cause of retaliation and bitterness. It is a great test for all the survivors on the one hand and for the perpetrators on the other.
        What do you mean by “most wonderfully forgiven”?
        I think here you speak from a deep faith that I do not quite share in this way. It is right and normal that this act would accompany her throughout her life. But it is not right in my eyes to live a virtuous life out of repentance and shame in the hope of getting forgiveness after death. I think this virtuous life should be done on a deep conviction that is positive motivated, not negative. I think they should feel the forgiveness they experiences in their lifes and not after death. Certainly, death plays an important role in the eternal cycle, like the birth, but for forgiveness and learning and for an end and a new start you need no death, it just needs trust, understanding and love in THIS life.

        Like

    • Dear anie
      I agree with you wholeheartedly that good actions springing from positive motivations are the ideal. I agree that forgiveness in this world is the ideal. In my mind, these women were church-going Christians, and they probably experienced some sense of forgiveness through that. And a lot of their motivation for doing good would have come from their faith, which is positive, but guilt will always have added extra zeal to do good.
      They have clung to the good throughout their lives. They’ve acknowledged to themselves that they have done great wrong. They still feel unforgiven. My personal belief is that after death God will lift that great burden of guilt from each of them, and say “Put it down. You’ve carried it far enough.” And that will be the most wonderful experience for them, enabling them to be free.
      You know, anie, we all carry burdens like that – not as great, mostly, but often the burden takes us to the limits of our strength. Which is why your words “but for forgiveness and learning and for an end and a new start you need no death, it just needs trust, understanding and love in THIS life,” are absolutely right as an aspiration – but they are so difficult to live by!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Penny Your words touch me a lot because I could actually feel what you mean. It is very difficult to bear guilt and can lead the entire life to despondency. But that’s exactly what I find so sad. A religious man can be comforted with the hereafter. Although I believe that my life on earth will have an impact on what comes after, I do not know what is coming and I find people who claim to know what comes after that is not very wise. They have a faith that confort them. I also believe in something great divine that may someday be a consolation, but to me that divine also includes the gift of life and the wonderful earth on which we are allowed to live and therefore it is important to be happy in this life. It is important that you forgive. The victim must forgive and the sinners have to forgive themselves aswell … only when this is done can a truly thankful and respectful life continue. Without forgiveness, it is a submissive, shameful life that God would never want.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Dear anie
      I agree with a lot of what you say.
      I certainly don’t pretend to know what happens after death. However, I look at the grandeur of the Universe; I look at the way humans are capable of real generous full-hearted love; and I look at the record of the life of Jesus in the bible; and I feel that I am content for the Creator of the universe to decide what, if anything, happens after death. I trust Him to do the right thing.
      That said, we humans can make an awful mess of our lives. We’ve (unintentionally) built it into our civilisation. The crucial scene in the story is where the girls tell the headmistress. She genuinely feels tremendous conflict between believing the girls and trusting her staff member. Social attitudes at the time pushed her strongly in favour of trusting the staff member, so that’s what she did. Had she investigated with an open mind she would possibly have unearthed Johnson’s shameful behaviour – but even before she started the investigation it would have brought her into conflict with school governors, and if evidence hadn’t been found, she could have lost her job. So in a very real sense, society was largely to blame for Johnson’s death.
      BTW it’s lovely to have such a lively discussion provoked by my story. It makes it worth writing!

      Liked by 1 person

      • yes Penny, I think it’s very worth your stories.
        What you have explained to me is understandable and I agree 100%. The key scene was the Headmistress, who did not have a good overview of the situation and was trapped in conventional ways of thinking.
        It is important to always be a freethinker. It is something that is unfortunately very limited by our school system and our education. But it should be taught to all people to look at situations without prejudice. Everything shall fit into a scheme nowadays. How can it be if every human is unique? All categories we are creating are bullshit, because there exist no equals! It’s hard, it’s said a lot, much guessed, much explained … probably the one who could remain a stupid, stubborn child, will see the most clearly …; )…and yes, you are right it is reassuring to see in God someone who creates order in our broken world. And people are able to give real, generous love. But Penny, this love of heart is innate. Where should we go with our brains if love is not there? To give love is innate and the mind grows only gradually. But love stays because it’s a separate cycle of giving and receiving … it has nothing to do with the mind … thank God!…This is waht I believe!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. A very gripping story, I couldn’t even leave it for a moment though I was thirsty.
    I admire the natural flow in story and dialogue.
    How often do these assaulters go Scot free just because they are too strong or too influential!
    I was relieved that they could reach the spot before it was too late. I know I shouldn’t but I felt happy about how Johnson was punished though I know Diane had only intended to stop him.
    I loved your descriptions of the deep friendship between the three girls.
    A very powerful story, Penny and brilliantly told.
    Thanks for writing and sharing their backstory.
    Best wishes,
    Moon

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Moon
      Thank you very much for reading and commenting. I’m glad you found the story so gripping. It’s one that I’ve been thinking about for several months, so it’s been slowly cooking in my imagination and was fairly easy to write. I used Stephen King’s approach of imagining I was excavating a pre-existing story, and I think it probably helped. Of course, this version is a bit rough about the edges and needs careful editing, but I was still pleased with it.
      With very best wishes
      Penny
      PS Did you get my email a few days ago?

      Liked by 1 person

      • It is a pleasure reading your stories, Penny. I don’t understand what rough edges you were talking about since it’s so perfect to me. 🙂But then again…
        Thank you so much for your email , Penny . Sorry, I am so late in replying.
        Best wishes always..,
        Moon

        Liked by 1 person

  3. It is as I suspected- retribution for unpunished abuse. The ’60’s were seen by depraved adults-male perpetrators and their apologists, of both genders, as a time when the young were theirs to ravage. Miss Carter was as guilty as old Johnson, in my book.

    Liked by 1 person

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