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The Case of the missing coins

Kate and Julia wondered if a school reunion might finally solve the decades-old mystery…

I can’t believe Miss Potter is retiring! We were her very first class after she left college. It makes me feel so old.”

Julia bit into her first mince-pie of the season. Kate, spooning coffee into two mugs, smiled. “I was chatting to her after church the other day. She said she knew it was time to go when she recognised one of the grandmothers in the playground as an ex-pupil.” They sat quietly for a minute, thinking.

A bit too quietly, Kate thought. She feared Julia was about to have one of her bright ideas. “We should have a get-together for her. Let’s contact as many people from our class as we can.” Julia pulled a notebook and pen from her handbag to make a list of names.

Kate groaned inwardly. “Come on, give me some names,” Julia said. “Cameron Cooper.” As soon as the name left Kate’s mouth she regretted saying it. Cameron was the last person she wanted to see again.

“How was it, love? Any better?” Eva Potter toyed with the idea of telling her mother the truth. She rejected it. “Not too bad,” she called as she hung up her coat and trudged upstairs to collapse on to her bed.

She just needed to rest for 20 minutes. “I thought it was best to let you sleep,” her mother said when Eva stumbled downstairs four hours later. She felt close to tears. “But I still have to plan my lessons for tomorrow. “And I need to cast the nativity play and cut out stocking shapes for the children to write letters to Santa . . .”

Her voice trailed off in a pitiful whimper. College hadn’t prepared her for this. She sank on to the sofa and put her head in her hands. Her mother sat beside her and put a comforting arm around her shoulders. “The first year is always the hardest. It will get easier, you’ll see.” Eva’s mother was a retired teacher, so she knew what she was talking about, but Eva wasn’t convinced. She suspected that she wouldn’t make it beyond the first year.

“I managed to find quite a few people on Facebook. They’re all interested in coming. Do you remember Jamie Donovan?” Kate did her best to appear interested. “Tall lad with freckles, obsessed with Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles?” she guessed. Julia shook her head. “You’re thinking of Jason Rimmer. Jamie was the one who pretended he could do the Rubik’s Cube. Then we found out he was swapping the stickers around.

“Anyway, he’s the landlord of the Three Kings now. He says we can use the function room.” Kate was struggling to work up much enthusiasm. Julia was in her element. “This week I’m going to concentrate on finding Cameron Cooper. He’s proving very elusive.” “Don’t look too hard,” Kate muttered, too quietly for Julia to hear.

“Cameron Cooper, put those scissors down right now!” Eva darted across the room at speed, but was too late to avert a calamity. Kate Ferguson, the quietest, most wellbehaved child in the class, burst into tears. The children had been making paper snowflakes. Now, amongst all the tiny bits of white paper, a sizeable chunk of Kate’s fringe lay on the table. “It wasn’t me,” Cameron protested, although Eva had witnessed the crime, committed with her own sharp teacher’s scissors, as Kate bent over her work. Cameron’s classmates were in no mood to defend him.

“It was, miss. We see’d him do it,” they chorused. “Saw him,” Eva corrected, thinking as she did so that if she couldn’t get the children to behave, at least she could teach them correct grammar. “We’ve had a complaint from a parent.” The head teacher, Mrs Kipling, strode into Eva’s classroom as she was clearing up at the end of the day. Eva was already reeling from her conversation with Mrs Ferguson, who was less than impressed with her daughter’s butchered fringe.

As Eva began to explain Mrs Kipling held up a hand to silence her. “As you know, Mr Cooper is our Chair of Governors, and very well respected in our school community. “He is concerned that Cameron is being picked on, and unfairly blamed for things he hasn’t done.” Eva was speechless. “Innocent until proven guilty, Miss Potter. It may be advisable, in future, to give Cameron the benefit of the doubt.” Mrs Kipling swivelled on her heels and left without waiting for a response.

The Case of the missing coins

Illustration by Gerard Fay

“Do you remember the time Cameron chopped a bit out of your fringe with Miss Potter’s scissors?” Julia chuckled. Kate failed to see the funny side. “Remember it? I’m still traumatised by it. Mum went mad and said Miss Potter should pay for the hairdresser to put it right. “She reckoned it was her fault for leaving her scissors lying around. “I was so embarrassed. You haven’t found Cameron, have you?”

“No. Nobody I’ve spoken to has kept in touch with him, and he doesn’t seem to be on social media. “He wasn’t exactly popular in class, was he?” Kate breathed a sigh of relief. Hopefully Cameron had begun a new life on some remote faraway island with no internet connection, safe from Julia’s investigations.

“We were disappointed that you cast Stuart as the donkey. He goes to acting classes. “His teacher says he shows a lot of promise. We were hoping for a speaking part at least.” “Gemma’s very shy. She’s been crying all night. She doesn’t want to be Mary. Can she be a sheep?” “There’s no way I can run up a king’s cloak, not with my busy schedule. “Can’t you make the costumes yourself? It’s not as though you do much teaching at this time of year, is it?” Eva longed to put her hands over her ears and scream. Nobody, it seemed, was happy.

She thought back to her own infant school days and calm, unflappable teachers who had made everything run like clockwork. She was nothing like them, ending every day a frazzled, exhausted wreck. “You need to be firm with the parents, otherwise they won’t respect you, and the children will pick up on that.” Eva longed to ask Mrs Kipling if this advice applied to Cameron Cooper’s father, but she didn’t dare. She was already in the head teacher’s bad books after a lesson observation that had descended into chaos when Cameron had knocked a pot of paint over Mrs Kipling, ruining her suit and blouse, and forcing her to spend the rest of the day wearing the caretaker’s overall. Cameron had claimed it was an accident and Eva had, as instructed, given him the benefit of the doubt.

“I’ve chosen the wrong career. I’d be happier as a tax inspector or a traffic warden, and probably more popular.” Eva’s mother laughed. “Stick it out until the end of the year, then see how you feel,” she said soothingly.

But the end of the school year seemed, to Eva, a lifetime away. “Guess who I was talking to last night?” Julia’s phone calls were a daily event. “Not Cameron?” Kate said, her heart pounding. “No. He seems to have vanished off the face of the earth. “Ian Shaw got in touch. He’s a policeman now. He reminded me of something I’d forgotten. “Do you remember when someone stole the chocolate coins that one of the kings was supposed to give to baby Jesus in the nativity? “Well, I say ‘someone’.

Everyone knew it was Cameron. “He got away with murder, because of who his dad was.” Kate was silent for a while. “It was never actually proven, though, was it?” she said eventually.

Tears rolled down Ian’s little face, but Eva was in no mood for his protestation of innocence. “Ian, you have chocolate all round your mouth and a gold wrapper in your hand. What do you expect me to think?” This, Eva thought, could well be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Thankfully, there was no actual camel in the play. It would no doubt have caused even more trouble. “But it was only one coin, miss, honest. I found it on the floor in the cloakroom. It was under Cameron’s peg. I bet it was him.” All eyes swivelled to Cameron Cooper, who tore himself away from rounding up a group of half-dressed angels with his shepherd’s crook to look outraged. But there was no time to play Miss Marple. Eva clapped her hands. “Children, someone here knows what happened to those coins.

“Now, I hope that person will come and talk to me quietly later, but we have a play to perform in less than ten minutes. “Angels, put on your halos; kings, straighten your crowns. “Andrew, you’ll have to give baby Jesus this biscuit tin instead of the coins. “Everybody make a quiet line at the door, please.” To Eva’s amazement, the children silently did exactly as they were asked. For the first time ever, she realised, she sounded like a proper teacher.

There was, it seemed, no end to Julia’s bright ideas. “Wouldn’t it be lovely if we decorated the function room with loads of paper snowflakes? Miss Potter would love it.” If she was Miss Potter, Kate thought, she would never want to see another paper snowflake nor, for that matter, an ex-pupil, as long as she lived.

But she had gone along with it, and they had spent a companionable evening snipping. This time she had kept her hair well out of the way. Now, she had to admit that the room did look nice. Julia’s idea for the food had been a good one, too. There was a small box for everyone, filled with the kind of food that would have been eaten at an infant Christmas party: a sandwich, a sausage roll, a packet of crisps, a tiny cake, a jelly in an individual pot and, the star of the show, a chocolate coin wrapped in gold foil. Kate shuddered. She was dreading the evening ahead.

“Well done. That was excellent. The parents were thrilled. “I must admit I’ve been a bit concerned about your ability to control the class, but you seem to have proved me wrong.” Mrs Kipling sounded even more surprised than Eva felt.

The play could not have gone better. Everyone had remembered their lines, and there had been no wardrobe malfunctions apart from Andrew’s crown slipping over his eyes and causing him to go astray on his way to the manger. Gemma, as Mary, had overcome her shyness and given a wonderful performance. No fights had broken out and nobody had cried or been sick. Many parents had wept tears of joy, and a few had even thanked her. And now she had been praised by Mrs Kipling. Things were looking up. Eva left school buzzing with excitement. Perhaps she was good at this teaching lark after all. On the way home she stopped off to buy cream cakes for herself and her parents to enjoy after tea.

She felt like celebrating. “Are you a teacher?” the cashier asked. Eva smiled. She must have begun to exude an obvious air of authority. She admitted that she was. “I thought so. Do you know you’ve glitter in your hair?” the cashier asked.

Detective Inspector Ian Shaw was the first to arrive. He wasted no time in coming to the point. “Is Cameron Cooper coming? I’m hoping to put my skills to good use and get a confession about those chocolate coins.” His face fell when Julia told him she had been unable to trace Cameron. He sighed theatrically.

“Oh, well, never mind. The Virgin Mary will be along in a minute. She’s just parking the car.” He laughed at Kate’s puzzled expression. “Didn’t Julia tell you? I’ve been married to Gemma for over twenty years. “She’s a barrister now. She thought she might be able to get Cameron off with a light sentence if I got him to own up.”

The last day of term was a non-uniform day, and the children were allowed to bring in a toy from home. Eva felt a wave of affection for her class, who looked so much younger in their own clothes, cuddling Cabbage Patch dolls and playing with action figures. She blew her nose. Like most of the children she had a streaming cold. Having fought off germs all term, her immune system had surrendered. But there were Christmas songs blaring from the cassette player, and she couldn’t help but feel cheerful.

“Open my present next, miss,” Julia Hughes said. Eva smiled, unwrapping yet another “World’s Best Teacher” mug. “I bought it with my own money,” Julia said proudly. Eva promised to treasure it for ever. She loved all her presents. There were many worse ways, she thought, to earn a living. “Come and play Hungry Hungry Hippos with us, miss!” Ian called. With a smile, she went over to join him at the table.

It was turning out to be a lovely evening. Julia had insisted on them playing Pass The Parcel, and was trying to whip up enthusiasm for Musical Chairs. Most people, though, just wanted to chat. “It’s a shame Cameron’s not here. I’d love to know what he’s up to these days,” Ian said.

Eva Potter smiled. “Oh, Cameron will be along later. We’ve kept in touch over the years, and he was delighted when I mentioned this to him. “He has another event to attend first, but he really wanted to come.”

In the future, Eva would be able to pinpoint the exact moment she knew she would stay in teaching. Having wished the children a merry Christmas and waved them off, she was putting away the class Christmas tree and taking down decorations, ensuring the room would be ready for a fresh start in January.

Humming along to “Jingle Bells”, she didn’t hear the footsteps of someone coming in. “I made you this, miss.” She jumped and turned to see Cameron Cooper offering her an upturned jam jar. “It’s a snow globe. I didn’t want the others to see. They’d only laugh.”

On closer inspection the jam jar was indeed a sort of snow globe, filled with water and glitter. “Thank you, Cameron. This will have pride of place on my window-sill at home,” Eva said. Cameron blushed and looked down at his feet. “You’re my best teacher ever, miss,” he mumbled. “Oh, I bet you say that to all your teachers,” she said.

The little boy shook his head vigorously. “You never blamed me for the coins going missing, even though everyone thought I did it. “I know I do bad things sometimes, but I never did that. “I’ll try to be gooder next year.” And with that, before Eva had time to comment on his dodgy grammar, he scurried away, leaving her with tears in her eyes.


She put the snow globe in the box with her other gifts. As she did so she noticed something had been added to the pile. It was an opened bag of chocolate coins. Taped to it was a note. Sorry, miss. It was certainly a day for surprises. She recognised the handwriting, and it wasn’t Cameron’s.

Ian Shaw brushed pastry from his jumper. He was on his third sausage roll. “To be honest, I’m amazed we didn’t put you off teaching for life, with all the antics we got up to. “Apart from Kate here, obviously. She was always as good as gold.” Eva laughed.

“Well, it was a baptism of fire, but I grew to be very fond of you all, despite all the mischief.” “Most of it caused by me, unfortunately,” the Reverend Cameron Sherwood interjected. He’d taken his stepfather’s name when his mother remarried, and thus eluded Julia. He had arrived a few minutes ago, fresh from a carol service, in the middle of a game of Pin The Tail On The Donkey.

“Oh, you weren’t that bad,” Ian said, seemingly feeling charitable all of a sudden. Then he leaned across the table. “Just one thing, though. Did you or did you not, on or around the eighteenth of December 1983, steal a bag of chocolate coins from Miss Eva Potter?”

The room erupted with laughter, Cameron’s being the loudest of all. When it finally died down Kate got nervously to her feet. It was, she thought, now or never. “In my defence, it was probably the only bad thing I ever did at school. “It’s preyed on my conscience ever since. All these years I’ve let you think it was Cameron but it’s time to come clean. “I’m really sorry everyone, and especially you, Cameron. It was me. I’m the coin thief.”

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