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!
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?”
“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.”
“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.