We sit cross-legged on the polished parquet floor, the teachers on red plastic chairs at the ends of our rows. We chat quietly to our neighbours while we wait for the headmaster. The new girl, Betsy Malone, sits at the end of her row next to Mrs Jennings. Betsy’s shoes are blue with buckles instead of black and she doesn’t have the right colour cardigan. She says her old school didn’t have uniforms. We’ve never heard of a school like that.
There is a hush as Mr McCracken enters the room.
‘Good morning everybody,’ he says. We sing-song back, ‘Good morning Mr McCracken.’ He opens his book at the place marked with a yellow sticky note, clears his throat and begins reading about the life of Helen Keller. We close our eyes and pretend to be blind, imagining what it would be like if the world was always this dark.
When it is time for the first hymn we stand and shuffle our pages. We sing along enthusiastically while Mrs Henderson bashes out the piano accompaniment. Betsy Malone doesn’t know the words. We see her mouthing them, pretending to sing. We sit down to hear Mr McCracken read out the notices. We stare at the backs of the children in front, at the weave of their sweaters, at the fine hairs on the backs of their necks. We don’t stare at Betsy Malone and her incorrect cardigan. We pick at scabs on our knees, waiting for it all to be over.
Mr McCracken says, ‘Let us pray.’ We bow our heads and clasp our hands, mutter the words of the Lord’s Prayer. We look around the room through semi-closed lids. Betsy Malone sits up straight, eyes wide open, hands placed on her knees just above her white knee socks. Betsy does not say the Lord’s Prayer. She looks like she is day-dreaming she is somewhere else. We nudge our neighbours, gesture at Betsy with tilts of our heads. How does she get away with it? We look at Mrs Jennings, but her eyes are closed. We ask forgiveness for our trespasses, say ‘Amen.’
At playtime we surround Betsy. She says she doesn’t have to pray because she doesn’t believe in God. We gasp at her brazenness, run off to talk about her in corners of the playground. We laugh at her blue shoes and her curly hair. Someone says she looks like a clown, a clown wearing a wig. We all laugh and skip, play games that don’t include Betsy.
The following Monday Betsy is not in school. She doesn’t turn up on Tuesday either. On Wednesday Mr McCracken reads out the notices then says we have some important visitors and must listen very carefully. A policeman and policewoman step onto the stage and take off their hats. They talk about Betsy, how she has gone missing, how she disappeared at the weekend after going out to play. Her parents are very worried.
‘Did anyone see Betsy at the weekend?’ they ask.
‘Did Betsy say anything about running away?’
The room is silent. Cheryl Martin puts up her hand and asks to go to the bathroom. David Drinkwater lets out a loud fart. Nobody laughs.
The policeman asks us to think carefully about anything that might be important, any piece of information that might help them find Betsy, no matter how small. If we think of anything we should talk to our parents or teachers. None of us will be in any trouble.
A few weeks later we hear that Betsy has been found dead in Cathole Woods. The police come back to talk about ‘Stranger Danger’. They give out stickers, and pencils with the police emblem on them. We stick the stickers onto our cardigans. Mr McCracken says we can speak to the school nurse if anything is upsetting us.
We stand for the hymn, shuffle our pages. Pencils tinkle to the floor. Mrs Henderson plays the piano accompaniment and we sing about bright and beautiful things. When Mr McCracken says, ‘Let us pray,’ we clasp our hands together and screw our eyes tight shut. Mr McCracken says a prayer for Betsy and her family, then we all say the Lord’s Prayer, ask for forgiveness for our trespasses. We think about Betsy, how she was probably trespassing in those woods, how she should have said her prayers like the rest of us.
Biography: Rebecca Field lives and writes in Derbyshire, UK. She has work in several print anthologies and has also been published online by Reflex Press, The Daily Drunk, The Phare, Ghost Parachute, Fictive Dream and Ellipsis Zine among others. Tweets at @RebeccaFwrites.