Chronicles of Halden, I
- Auksford -
Chapter 1: Alarms
Copyright Robin Gordon, 2004
Canon Tollgate's face assumed an aspect of severe portentiousness compounded with deep satisfaction, and his companion realised that the Rector was about to make a Profound Statement.
"Life," said Canon Tollgate, "is like a well. While it is fed by a spring of living water it remains sweet, and streams of living water flow from it. But if the spring no longer flows, the water in the well becomes stagnant, and eventually the well dries up and dies. This is the arid death of the spirit cut off from God."
He paused as if to survey his handiwork, then turned to his curate, not so much for approval as for confirmation of his satisfaction. "Don't you agree, my dear Mouse," he said. "Stagnation and then aridity."
"Yes," replied Mouse. Then, feeling that more was expected of him, he added, "But perhaps the stagnation is worse than the dried up state. Mosquitoes breed in stagnant water you know ... and germs ... and ..."
He stopped. A frown had overshadowed Canon Tollgate's worthy face. Was he offended? Mouse was silent, but after a moment or two the Rector's face began to alter.
"Mosquitoes?" he murmured gravely, then, with increasing relish, "Stagnation! Disease! Infection!" Finally, with an expression of sepulchral beatitude, he intoned, "Putrefaction!"
He quickened his pace towards the Rectory, giving Mouse to understand as they went, that he had been privileged to witness the conception of a new sermon - a sermon which the Canon would preach to an astounded congregation that very Sunday.
"Mrs Miller? This is Miss Hardacre speaking. I am Senior Mistress at Halden Co-educational Comprehensive School."
"Yes? Has something happened?"
"Mrs Miller, I think it would be best if you were to come round to the school at once. Come to the main entrance of the former boys' grammar school in Victoria Road."
"Amanda! Is she all right?"
"Fortunately no physical harm has come to your daughter."
"Please do not worry Mrs Miller. Let me assure you that Amanda is unharmed. I was in time to prevent the worst."
"But something has happened. Tell me!"
"I do not think I should discuss it over the phone ..." This was one of the few occasions on which Miss Hardacre's tone suggested she might be persuaded to change her mind.
"Please! You must tell me! What's happened to Amanda?"
"Do not distress yourself, Mrs Miller. As I have told you, Amanda is unharmed."
"Mrs Miller, what I have to tell you is not pleasant, and must not be allowed to go any further at present. Your daughter has suffered a sexual assault at the hands of two boys of this school. I am extremely sorry that such a thing should have happened."
Miss Hardacre's tone conveyed less sorrow than a steely determination to avenge the outrage. Perhaps this hardness was in itself a help to the anxious mother. Miss Hardacre heard that she was on her way then turned to the frightened girl beside her.
"Don't be afraid," she said. "Your Mummy will soon be here. No-one will hurt you now."
The little girl remained silent.
"I'd like you to tell me exactly what happened, said Miss Hardacre sympathetically. "I know you don't want to think about what those wicked boys did, but they won't harm you ever again. You must be brave and face up to the unpleasantness so that we can make sure they never able to attack any girls again"
"Collerford and Slattery. Can I help you? ... No, I'm afraid I can't let you speak to anyone on the shop floor ... Because this is the Office Block ... No, I can't connect you to Finishing ... Yes I know it's important, it always is, but I can't put calls through to anyone but office staff ... Well I'm very sorry but ... What? ... Oh! ... Oh, I am sorry. Look, I'll get on to Mr Brooks and see if he can help. Will you hold on, please?"
"Mr Brooks please, Doreen."
"Who's calling, please?"
"It's me - Jean."
"Yes I know, but who wants Mr Brooks?"
"I didn't get her name. She wants to speak to one of the men in Finishing. Their little girl's been raped."
"Yes. Only a school-kid too. About twelve, I think the mother said."
"That's terrible! Have they got him? The one that ..."
"I don't know, but look, she's waiting."
"OK, I'll tell Mr Brooks."
The message was relayed to Mr Brooks, who immediately made himself available. He ascertained the identity of the caller, her husband's name and department, sent someone to find him, and asked for details of the attack. Jean and Doreen, listening in at their switchboards heard that the Millers' twelve-year-old daughter, Amanda, had been attacked and raped by two boys from the same school. She was in great distress and Mrs Miller was on the point of leaving for the school. She wanted her husband to come as quickly as he could.
By the time Mr Miller arrived in the personnel office Mrs Miller had hung up and was on her way and Mr Brooks had ordered a car to be outside the administration block to pick him up. Mr Brooks, who did not believe in unnecessary beating about the bush, had made up his mind to tell him quickly.
"You're wanted at your daughter's school," he said. "She's not hurt, but I'm afraid she's had an unpleasant experience."
"Two boys ... you know ... attempted ... um ..."
"Well, rape, you know ..."
"**@**!!! I'll kill them!! Have they caught them?"
"Yes, I think so."
"Right! I'll slaughter the bastards!"
"There's a car waiting outside to take you round."
"Have you heard what happened to Jessie Miller's little girls?"
The women in the shop had not heard, so Mrs McGhee told them. "It was dreadful," she said. "She was set on by two big lads and raped."
"What a shame!"
"Such a nice little girl, too."
"You couldn't want a nicer little girl," said Mrs McGhee. "Such a quiet little thing, too."
"Two of them, you said?"
"Two!" said Mrs McGhee firmly. "I think it was two, but it might have been more. They've caught two of them anyway."
"The poor little mite must have been terrified ..."
"A gang of big lads, like that ..."
"The school rang up to send for Jessie. They said the poor little mite was scared out of her wits," said Mrs McGhee.
"Poor little soul!"
"I know what I'd like to do to them, those boys!" said Mrs Ainsley fiercely, though she had at that moment no very clear idea in her head, just a dark and terrible desire for vengeance.
"They ought to be flogged!"
"They ought to be put away!"
"Castrated!" said Mrs Johnson. "It's the only way."
"It is! The only way!"
"I blame the teachers," said the woman with the big nose, prodding a cabbage.
"They've no control, no control at all."
"Sitting in their staff room drinking coffee all day. It's no wonder things like this happen. And a pound of tomatoes, please, Mrs Palmer."
"It's a wonder it hasn't happened before now," said the woman in green.
"Oh, I dare say it has," replied the woman with the big nose, "only they've hushed it up before. I mean, it stands to reason, doesn't it."
"I've heard things about that school," the woman in green said darkly.
"I think I will have this cabbage after all," the woman with the big nose told Mrs Palmer. "What sort of things?"
"All sorts of things. Bad behaviour, bullying ... you know."
"Yes," said Mrs Palmer, "once a school starts going downhill anything's likely to happen. I've had to stop putting fruit on display outside the shop, you know."
"I blame the teachers," said the woman with the big nose."
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