The bell on the grocer’s shop door tinkled. Mr Oxenham turned to his customers with a smile. ‘Good morning Mrs Miller. Hello Emily.’
‘Good morning, Mr. Oxenham,’ Mrs Miller replied. ‘Say hello to Mr Oxenham, Emily.’
Emily was six, a pretty little girl with soft brown hair. She looked at her feet. ‘Hello Mr Oxenham.’ She quickly lifted her eyes to meet his, then resumed her foot watching.
‘Speak up dear. Mr Oxenham can’t hear when you speak so softly.’
‘That’s alright Mrs Miller.’ Harry reached into the jar of jellybeans, selected three brightly coloured ones and placed them on the counter.
‘Where are your manners Emily? Say thank you,’ her mother prompted.
‘Thank you Mr Oxenham,’ Emily said with a slightly louder voice as she took the sweets.
‘I don’t know what comes over her sometimes. She’s perfectly well-mannered at home,’ her mother said. ‘Take her out and she turns into a mouse.’
Harry ran his eyes down the pencilled list he was given. Taking some brown paper bags from under the counter, he lifted down the tin of tea and the bag of sugar and scooped the tea and sugar into the bags, carefully weighing each one.
Mrs Miller paid for her goods, placed the bags in her basket and said goodbye. Emily smiled shyly at him. ‘Goodbye Mr. Oxenham.’
The next time Mrs Miller and Emily came to the shop, Harry could see something had changed about Emily. ‘I don’t know what’s come over the girl,’ Mrs Miller said. ‘She’s hardly eating; comes into my bed at night because she’s frightened; starts crying for no reason and doesn’t want to go to school.’
Harry said gently, ‘What’s happened Emily? Is someone hurting you?’
Emily buried her face in her mother’s skirt. Harry’s wife came through to the shop from their attached home. ‘I thought I heard your voice Margaret. How’ve you been?’ While they chatted, Harry spoke quietly with Emily.
‘Emily,’ he said gently, ‘if someone is hurting you, you must tell us so we can stop them.’
‘But you’re not allowed to tell on a teacher,’ she said sadly, looking at her feet.
‘You can if he’s being bad Emily. What’s the name of the teacher?’
Emily’s eyes brimmed with tears. Harry said, ‘It’s okay Emily. Maybe I can help you.’
‘It’s Mr Wilson,’ she whispered. ‘He said I was naughty and had to stay after school to learn to speak louder. He said I had to sit on his knee so he could hear me. Then he started playing with my skirt, lifting it up and down. He was laughing, and I was scared.’ A large teardrop plopped from Emily’s eye and she wiped it away. ‘Mrs Abbot came walking down the corridor. Mr Wilson pushed me off his knee and said, “Go home and stop being naughty.” I hurt my bottom when I fell on the floor.’
She was crying now and Harry gave her his handkerchief. ‘I wasn’t being naughty Mr Oxenham.’
‘It’s alright Emily. I’ll take care of it for you.’
Harry rarely went to the pub, but he thought he’d have a pint today. He’d seen Ern Wilson there a couple of times. Ern had transferred from some big private school near the city midyear. He was sitting at the bar alone, so Harry sat next to him.
‘A pint please,’ he said to the barman. ‘Hello Ern. Haven’t seen you for a while. How’ve you been?’ Harry picked up some useful information from their chat.
Harry and Betty always had tea at six o’clock to listen to the news. He locked the shop doors at five o’clock every day, counted the money in the till and got it ready for Betty to bank in the morning.
The following night, he rushed through his work and didn’t change his shirt. ‘I’ve got a couple of deliveries out of town,’ he said.
‘But dinner’ll be ready soon,’ Betty argued.
‘I won’t be long love,’ he called over his shoulder as he left. Harry placed a bag of things in the back of the truck and drove quietly through town, turning off at the ‘Shell Beach’ sign. He saw Ern’s push-bike leaning on the fence and parked the truck under some trees a short distance away.
He took a closed screw-top jar from the bag in the truck and walked back to Ern’s bike, where he removed his shoes and socks. Leaving them by the bike, he stepped onto the sand. Ern was standing at the water’s edge with his back to him, and was startled by Harry’s voice.
‘Hi Ern. I’ve brought something for you to look at.’ Harry casually approached, holding the jar. Taking the lid off, he removed a piece of coloured cloth. Putting the jar down, he held the cloth out to Ern. As he leaned forward, Harry grabbed the back of Ern’s head and shoved the chloroformed cloth over his nose and mouth. Ern struggled a bit, but Harry wouldn’t let go.
Ern sagged to the sand unconscious. Harry took off his own trousers, grasped Ern’s wrists and dragged him face-down into the water, waiting for a few minutes to be sure the job was done. Letting go of the body, he picked up the jar, and threw it and the cloth as far as he could into the ocean. Tonight’s high tide would wash away any evidence on the beach.
Drying himself on Ern’s towel, he picked up his belongings and walked back to his truck where he brushed the sand off his feet. Shaking his clothes, he put them on and climbed into the truck. He headed quietly back to the little town.
‘Everything alright?’ Betty asked.
‘Yes, everything’s fine love.’
The next morning, the town was buzzing. It seems the new schoolteacher had drowned while swimming the previous night.
When Emily next came to the shop, she looked happy again.
‘Everything alright Emily?’ Harry asked.
‘Yes, thank you Mr Oxenham,’ she replied quietly, glancing at the jellybean jar.