Good morning, Pam,
I hope you’ve had a good weekend.
I’ve had several communications from parents concerned that their children’s lunchboxes have been interfered with. They state that you are already aware of this issue, but have failed to address it.
Please can we meet as soon as possible to discuss this matter.
Reverend Peter Day
Chair of Governors, Great Hallingbury Junior School
Pam Weston pushed back the chair from her desk and sighed wearily. This was a good start to her working week. She started every school day at 8.00 am in her office checking her emails, ready to be out at the school gate by 8.45, in all weathers, to greet her pupils as they arrived. She was aware that the Reverend disliked her. He had been Chair of the school’s board of governors for the past thirty years, and was the local Methodist minister. He was one of the selection committee at her interview seventeen months ago, and she knew that he had opposed her appointment. She was told that his objections related to her ‘dubious morals’. He felt that someone living together, unmarried, with her partner was not a fit person to lead Great Hallingbury School. She suspected that the small butterfly tattoo on the inside of her wrist, and wearing an ankle bracelet to the interview had not helped her case. Since taking up her post, she felt that every opportunity was taken to criticise her leadership. She had hoped that she would have the backing of a supportive governing body, but the opposite seemed true.
She had first become aware of the lunchbox issue three weeks ago at her team’s monthly meeting. Her thirty plus teaching personnel had gathered in their staff room, seated in low armchairs around a coffee table, filled with empty mugs, the wrappers of half-eaten packs of biscuits and the crumbling remnants of various cakes. They were a motley crew of teachers and teaching assistants, predominately young women, but including two men: Mr Hayes, a short middle-aged, Welshman, dressed in shorts, trainers and sporting a whistle around his neck, and Matthew Bishop, tall, thin, earnest and newly qualified, Agnes Clitheroe who had a wealth of experience, but was nearing retirement and Ms Forbes-Brown a thin, nervous woman probably around the same age as Pam, mid-forties, who possessed great musical and creative talents, but whose anxious disposition made one wonder how she ever survived in the classroom. The meeting was coming to a close. They had collectively discussed the approaching Ofsted inspection, changes to the curriculum, and the organisation of sports day. Now, under ‘any other business’, Miriam Smith said.
‘I think we should discuss the Phantom Sandwich Eater; he seems to be getting more active.’ Miriam was a petite woman in her early thirties. She was always immaculately turned out and her slim, prettiness made Pam feel like a carthorse in comparison. She was popular with her pupils and their parents, although appeared to be a bit of an outsider amongst the staff.
‘Phantom Sandwich Eater?’ Queried Pam
‘Yes, we think he first struck in my class, although there may have been previous unreported incidences.’
‘Do tell.’ This was said by Pam with a quizzical smile on her face.
‘Maisie Caine came to me one lunchtime saying that a bite had been taken out of her sandwich. I didn’t take too much notice, dried her tears, and told her to eat the rest of her lunch.’ Agnes took up the story ‘Since then he has been getting bolder. He’s started to leave notes, like ‘the Phantom Sandwich Eater strikes again’ and ‘tell Mum, I like mustard pickle with ham.’
‘In my class, he ate the whole of Joshua’s penguin biscuit, left the empty wrapper in the box and a note saying ‘Yum’ added Matthew Bishop. There were barely suppressed snitters of laughter from around the room.
‘How long has this been going on for?’ asked Pam
‘The bite was taken from Maisie Caine’s sandwich just after we came back from half term.’
‘And does it happen every day, or how often?’
‘Well, at first it was only occasional, just now and then, but it appears to be happening more regularly. Of course, now we’re aware of it, so we may be noticing it more.’ Answered Miriam.
‘Ok. I’ll address it in assembly.’ The staff nodded and with that the meeting dispersed.
The next morning, Pam watched from her seat on the school stage, as her pupils filed in and sat down on the small seats on the floor below her. The murmur of their quieted voices was drowned out by the sound of Becky Hill and David Guetta’s Remember. Playing popular music as the children entered assembly and during lunchtimes had been the suggestion of the school council. The Reverend Day had been vehemently opposed to the idea stating the ‘the school’s assembly was a time for religious reflection’. This had resulted in Pam having to carefully vet any music before it was played. The last thing she needed was complaints about the language or content of the songs. Otherwise, the scene was familiar, the scent of plimsols and school dinner cabbage accosting her nose, and the climbing frames and ropes set against the hall’s walls had changed little since she was a child. The teachers sat around the perimeter of the hall on larger chairs. Once everyone was in and settled. Pam stood.
‘Good morning, everybody.’
‘Good morning, Mrs Weston.’ The sing-song reply came dutifully back.
‘Today, Mrs Clitheroe’s class will be leading assembly.’ Agnes ushered her class of thirty 8- year- olds to the front of the hall where they sang a hearty rendition of ‘Being a friend.’ Then a diminutive boy stood and gave a reading about the value of friendship. It was rather rushed and Pam suspected that he needed the toilet as his hand sometimes strayed to his groin area. A pretty girl with an enormous bow in her lustrous dark hair took his place, and confidently told the school to close their eyes and pray. From her heightened position Pam clearly saw Teddy from Mr Bishop’s class ping the child in front’s ear from behind. The unfortunate victim jumped, then turned and swiped at Teddy. Both boys then became aware that she was watching them, glaring ominously down from the stage. They immediately closed their eyes, dropped their heads and clasped their hands as if in devout prayer. Pam made a mental note to mention to Matthew that it is always a good idea to seat potential trouble makers close to you. She wondered about the wisdom of assigning a class of year 6s to a newly qualified teacher. She reflected that a class of younger, more compliant children may have been a better choice.
After the prayer, she took over leading the children in singing ‘All things Bright and Beautiful’ and finally saying ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ together. There then followed congratulations to a young pupil who had been selected to run for the County, before she moved to the front of the stage and swept the hall with her most serious look.
‘Before you go, I want to remind you all of something extremely important. Your lunch boxes are your personal possession. No-one else is to touch them or their contents. Do you all understand this?’ There was a unified nod. She had consciously not mentioned the Phantom Sandwich Eater or eating other people’s food, in case she sparked a spate of copycat behaviours. ‘If I hear of anyone disobeying this, they will be in serious trouble. Does anyone have any questions?’
A Year 3 child put up her hand.
‘If Amelia wants to share my crisps is that all right?’
‘Yes, as long as it’s with your permission.’ A thought suddenly occurred to Pam, and she added. ‘If anyone is hungry, there is no need to be. Just make sure that you tell a teacher or someone.’ She was aware that she might be leaving her staff open to multiple children saying that their tummies were empty, but she needed to be sure that these food thefts were not a hungry child’s act of desperation. She doubted it, given the humorous tone of the notes, but you never knew with children.
The Phantom Sandwich Eater continued to strike. One day, it would be a whole packet of Hula Hoops with a note saying ‘I like crisps better.’, the next a single bite from a Marmite sandwich with ‘Yuk’ simply scrawled a piece of paper, another day a large slice of homemade banana loaf was consumed and the note said simply ‘Thank you. The Phantom Sandwich Eater.’ Rumours were rife amongst the children. Their chief suspect was the ‘black hand’ who crawled out of the school toilets. How this imaginary figure devoured anything when it consisted only of a hand no-one explained. Pam wrote to the parents.
Dear Parent or Carer,
I am writing to inform you of some occurrences within the school’s premises. Several pupils have had edible items removed from their lunchboxes. Steps are being taken to apprehend the culprit, and I would urge you to pass any information you may have relating to this matter on to a member of staff. Please rest assured that we are treating this issue with the utmost seriousness. If your child is one of the pupils who has been affected, please accept my sincere apologies for any distress caused. I will keep you informed when we have any further information.
Thank you for your understanding and patience.
Mrs M Weston. BA (Hons) Primary Education Studies.
Headteacher, Great Hallingbury Junior School.
She called an emergency meeting one lunchtime, and without preamble asked if there had been any more Phantom Sandwich Eater incidents. There had, every day he had at least tasted a child’s sandwich. ‘We need to get pro-active and try to catch the culprit. Is there any pattern to when he strikes?’
‘It must always be before lunch, because it’s always then that the children notice that he’s been in their lunchboxes.’ Miriam Smith informed the meeting.
‘That makes sense, nobody would want the soggy leftovers that remain in the lunchboxes in the afternoon. But how is he taking the food without being seen? The classrooms aren’t often empty, even at break times there are people around, children who can’t go out into the playground, or reading volunteers sitting with pupils, all sorts of folk hanging around’
‘Must be opportunist.’ This came from Matthew Bishop.
‘I agree, I think we should have someone patrolling the classrooms, walking around so that at assembly, break and PE the classrooms are watched, reduce his opportunities. Can you organise a rota for me please Matthew?’ He nodded and Ms Weston continued. ‘Do we have any of the Phantom’s notes?’ The staff all shook their heads, they had been throwing them away. ‘In future, please keep them and bring them to me. The writing or paper used may give us some clue to his identity.’ The staff nodded. ‘Has anyone noticed any possible pattern to the thefts?’
‘He only ever takes junk, crisps, sweets, white bread, never anything healthy like fruit.’ Said Agnes Clitheroe.
‘Hmmm, not much to go on, could be ninety-nine percent of our pupils. Please remain vigilant everybody, and let me know if you have any ideas, which may help us to catch the culprit.’
The Phantom continued to strike. If anything, he became more daring. In one child’s lunchbox whose parent had provided hummus, wholemeal breadsticks and fruit he left a note saying. ‘Nothing I like here.’ And in another child’s box, he ate a snack pack of jaffa cakes, left the empty packaging and a note saying simply ‘More please.’ The next development came when an angry mother made an after-school appointment to see Mrs Weston. She belonged to a group of parents who the staff irreverently called ‘The Fusspots.’ These were parents who needed to speak to the teachers about every little thing. It could be when they thought their child’s reading book was too hard, or the opposite not hard enough, or perhaps little Suzy had a headache, or Benny kept hitting Tommy, or their Sammy said that they teacher had told them off and made them cry. Whereas most parents only needed to speak to their child’s teacher once or twice per term, these particular parents hung around the classroom door most mornings or afternoons for ‘a word’. Mrs Weston knew Mrs Johnson well. She was an older mother, who styled herself as an ‘earth mother’ taking the environment, recycling, home baking and local politics seriously. She entered the head’s office with a baby on her hip and a flurry of indignation.
‘My Oliver had a bite taken out of his sandwich.’
‘I know. I can only apologise.’
It’s not good enough. Who knows what germs this person might have.’
‘You’re right, it is horrible. Did you receive my letter?’
‘Yes, but what are you doing about it?’
‘We’re taking steps to catch the culprit.’
‘This sort of thing doesn’t happen in other schools. I’ve got a good mind to move Oliver to St Catherine’s.’
‘We’d be sorry to lose Oliver, but you have to do what you feel is best for your son.’
‘Right, well, I may just do that.’ And with that she left closing the office door firmly behind her, no doubt to indignantly relay the conversation to her cronies.
Next, Ms Weston received a telephone call from a reporter from the local newspaper.
‘Mrs Weston, Greg James from The Great Hallingbury Times.’
‘Good afternoon, Greg. How may I help you?’
‘We’ve received information about a ghost roaming around your school eating things. Would you care to comment?’
‘No thank you.’
The next Thursday, a picture of the school appeared on page five of the newspaper with the headline. ‘Hungry Spirit raids lunchboxes.’ It was a brief piece, only a couple of paragraphs long, outlining how ‘food was being taken from lunchboxes, leaving children hungry.’ And that staff and pupils believed that the culprit was the ghost of a caretaker who had died seven years earlier. Pam read the article, folded the paper and threw it disgustedly in her wastebin with the thought that it must be a light news week.
It was Sports Day, the children, staff and parents were out on the field. It was a beautiful summer’s day, and no-one could have wished for better weather for this important date in the school year. Pam could hear the children’s cheers as they spurred their teammates on, the shrill sound of the whistle as races were started and Mr Hayes’ voice echoing across the field as he made announcements on the tannoy. They were only part way through the programme of events when Pam realised that her ankle bracelet was missing. She last remembered feeling it when she has stood talking to Ms Forbes-Brown in her classroom. Knowing that it was a long shot, she decided to try to retrace her steps to see if she could find it. She unobtrusively slipped away, making her way from the field, across the playground and into the school via the outside door of the Year 6 classrooms. The empty school was eerily quiet without the noisy chatter of the children. Pam silently passed through one area, keeping her gaze on the floor, searching for her lost jewellery when she heard a rustle coming from Miriam Smith’s space. Telling herself that it was probably the breeze blowing in through the open windows, rustling papers, she looked in. There sitting on the floor by the children’s stack of drawers was Ms Smith. Beside her was an open lunch box, and in her hand was a half-eaten cupcake.
‘You!’ Miriam startled looked up, tell-tale crumbs around her face. ‘For God’s sake why?’
‘It started as an accident. I’d been on the five two diet for weeks. You know where you eat five hundred calories or less for five days of the week, and for the remaining two days you eat normally. Week days are my starving days.’ At this point, tears began to stream down the teacher’s face, as if the seriousness of what she had been doing was beginning to dawn on her. She continued, ‘I went to put a reading book in one of the children’s drawers, and the most delicious smell hit me. Maisie’s lunchbox had fallen open, and without realising what I was doing, I took a bite out of her sandwich.’ By this time, she was openly sobbing. Incredulous Pam asked ‘But why did you keep doing it?’
‘At first, I was frightened that Maisie would tell her Mum, and it would be traced back to me, so I took a few bites of food from other classes, to throw people off the scent. And then it got to be a bit of a compulsion. It seemed like I could only go a day or two without doing it again. For so many years I’ve only eaten healthy things, and then all of a sudden, I was eating white bread, crisps, biscuits, cake you name it. It was heaven, and I couldn’t stop!’ Pam thought for a few seconds before saying. ‘Right, I want you to go straight home and stay there until I contact you.’
‘Will I get the sack?’
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I loved this story!! I was totally hooked, and I loved the ending! It really made me giggle. Thank you for sharing! :-)
Thank you Beth for your kind comment. I've never had so many positive comments before. It seems that the Phantom Sandwich Eater has really resonated with people. Thanks again.
Delicious story. I enjoyed every morsel of it. I had made up my own ending so was surprised when it turned out to be a teacher.
Thank you Marilyn for your kind comments. I like to put an unexpected twist into my stories.
Sharon, This story made me giggle and chuckle all the way through! I have to admit, when I first read the headline, I thought you were going to write "Hangry Ghost"! Did you consider this? The descriptions were so spot on perfect! I could smell the school and see the school. The ONLY suggestion I have is that the ending seemed rushed. The last two paragraphs left me wanting more...I'm wondering if it was a word count hindrance? This is such a great story! I love school stories! :) -A
Thank you again Amy for your kind comment. In truth, no the ending wasn't rushed due to the word count, just I didn't want to go into what happened to the teacher next. The Phantom Sandwich Eater idea came from a prank that we played when I was at school, when we actually took a bite from a boy's sandwich!
Oh my goodness! You didn't take a bite, for real? Oh my! That is so wickedly delicious! I think that would be an excellent April Fool's joke to play! Perhaps we could blame it on the class pet...:) -A