It was a relief when our teacher was murdered. It took the other children’s minds off their usual activities, such as bullying me.
Oh, in some ways I can’t blame them. I am American for a start, which was a lot less acceptable in the seventies than it is now. If you’d told that class of little Brits that their children would wear t-shirts that said ‘New York’ or ‘Boston’ then they’d have been furious and disbelieving.
I was also a pudgy little mouse—short and plump with flat colourless hair and a slight overbite. But none of that was really important, of course. The trigger was my name.
In the eighties my two friends (two! I had a spare!) humoured me (hey, check that British spelling! Really useful ‘u’ there) and called me Ginny C, but as an eight-year-old I was at the sort of school where they call you by your full first name, no matter what, and if you transgress then they throw in your surname as well.
“VirGINia CREEper, Pay Attention!” some harpy teacher would snap at me, while I daydreamed of sunshine and decent gum. And everyone would stare at me, hoping for a reaction, and a few would snigger.
Yes, Virginia Creeper is my real name. I presume that it was chosen because my parents are horrible and evil people. I saw nothing to contradict that statement between my birth and their deaths, which occurred in their seventies and my thirties. They left me enough money to pay their death duties and to bury them.
Oh yes—burying. I was talking about Mrs Finch’s murder, wasn’t I? We children didn’t get to see the body, sadly, and we weren’t even allowed to go to the funeral. Back then there was nothing about letting people grieve, especially children. Not that I’d have grieved much. No one had really touched me up to that point.
The first we knew was when school was cancelled for a day—the joy of it! I spent it reading, eating PB and J sandwiches and picturing the word ‘jelly’ kicking the crap out of the word ‘jam’.
The following day we were shown into the big classroom that was usually only for assemblies and gym. Our old one had a policeman outside. Naturally I didn’t dare to speak to him, and I don’t think that anyone else did either—it was a very different time. Gossip, however, flowed like blood around the school: “Mrs Finch was murdered by a demon and her brains are all over the radiators.”
It was two days since I’d been kicked, punched, spat on, had my hair pulled or my lunch stolen, been whacked on the head from above by Sam Marsh standing on a desk like a little swine god, or been told that I was a stupid ugly Yank and that my parents didn’t love me. I don’t know why they bothered saying all those things—they were quite true and I knew them all already anyway.
On the third day Miss Squire showed us into our new classroom, after telling us that the police would be talking to us and that we must be very good and quiet and do as we were told. As opposed to those times when we were allowed to be bad and noisy and not do what we were told. I must have missed those. I would have both liked and feared times like that.
There were two policemen and one policewoman; she was writing everything down. The policeman who did the speaking was the sort of person who thinks that everything they say is important. He didn’t have a uniform and spoke to us as if we were four, not eight, as he told us that a bad man had sent Mrs Finch to heaven.
My eyes were on the policewoman, though. Her hair was the same colour as mine, and she was plump, too, like me. I watched her hand fly across the paper with a shushing sound between each butterfly mark she made—surely not proper words. Into my mind floated the term ‘shorthand’, a mystical skill.
“So if any of you boys or girls can remember anything unusual in school recently, or anything about Mrs Finch, please do tell us. We’ll be calling you in individually—that means each one in turn by yourself—in alphabetical order. Do you all know your alphabet?”
Miss Squire glared at us and there was a dreary chorus of yeses. The man gave a false hearty smile, and we all filed dully out.
Poor man, in retrospect. He had signed up to deal with murderers and rapists, not children. He didn’t know what to do with us.
I already knew that I would get called in early for anything alphabetical, so it was no surprise to be third.