Dorothy Martin wanted to have a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for her husband, Alan and some of her friends – a real taste of home. Then came the call from the school, asking Dorothy to fill in because teacher Amanda Doyle hadn’t shown up. Three days later, on Thanksgiving, the second call came: John Doyle had been murdered and Amanda was the suspect. Would Dorothy mind caring for their daughter Miriam for the day? Dorothy had already sensed that something was not right in the Doyle household: John was clearly emotionally abusive, and the church they belonged to held some very strange ideas about sin and punishment. Now Amanda and Miriam need her to prove Amanda’s innocence, and Dorothy unravels a nasty knot of family secrets.
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Sins Out of School
A Dorothy Martin Mystery
By Jeanne M. Dams
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2003 Jeanne M. Dams
All rights reserved.
Now, let's see." I sat at the kitchen table with my shopping list in front of me, talking half to myself, half to my husband, who was finishing his second cup of coffee. "I've ordered the turkey, but I'll have to pick it up at the last minute. It's too big to fit in the fridge. Thank goodness the care package came from Hillsburg last week. I don't know where I would have found the fresh cranberries, or the cans of fried onions. So. Celery, yams, green beans, pumpkin ... and I'd better get some more onions for the stuffing ..."
The phone rang. Alan put down his coffee cup and reached for it. "Alan Nesbitt here."
I continued thinking out loud. "Oh, and little boiling onions to cream ..."
Alan handed the phone across the table. "Sorry, love, but it sounds urgent."
I made a face and put down my pen. "Yes?" I said curtly into the receiver.
"Dorothy, thank God you're there! Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," I said. What else would I be, for heaven's sake? "Who's speaking, please?"
"Oh, sorry, sorry! It's Catherine, Catherine Woodley, and I'm in a bit of a stew. Are you sure you're feeling well?"
"Catherine, what is the matter? Of course I'm well."
"There's no 'of course' about it, my dear. Half the town is down with the flu, and that's why I rang. One of my teachers simply failed to turn up this morning, and I've gone through the entire list of supply teachers. Do you suppose you could possibly fill in for an hour or two while I try to find someone?"
"What, now? My dear woman, it's three days before Thanksgiving!"
"Thanksgiving?" There was a silence at the other end of the phone for a moment before Catherine said doubtfully, "Oh, yes, the American holiday."
"Yes, indeed, and I'm having ten people for dinner, and I'm up to my ears in grocery shopping and cleaning and —"
"Dorothy, I'm up to my ears in nine-year-olds! I'm desperate, truly, or I wouldn't have bothered you. It's not even legal for you to teach, you're not officially qualified, but we can pretend you're an aide, and I don't know what else to do!"
She ended on something very close to a wail. I rolled my eyes at Alan and sighed. "Very well. I have slacks on, though. Don't your teachers usually wear skirts?"
"At this moment I'd welcome you in a bathrobe. Yes, Jeremy, just a moment — oh, well, then — look, Dorothy, I must go. Ten minutes?"
"Twenty," I said into nothingness. She had hung up.
"Catherine Woodley," I said to my husband. "There's a crisis at St. Stephen's. She wants me to fill in for an hour or two."
"I gathered you had once again been roped into something. What about the supply teachers?"
"The flu epidemic's used them all up. Look, could you drive me over? I don't think it's at all easy to find a place to park there."
It's never easy to find a place to park anywhere in Sherebury. A beautiful little town, called a city only by virtue of its cathedral, Sherebury was laid out in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and somehow the town planners (if there were any) failed to take the automobile into consideration. World War II bombs created instant parking lots in many English cities and towns, but Sherebury was largely spared, so parking is always an adventure. Usually I walk or take one of the efficient little minibuses, but this was an emergency. I made a quick trip to the bathroom, not sure when I'd get another chance, and put on the first hat that fell to hand as Alan got the car out of our diminutive garage.
I'd known Catherine Woodley for three years or so. She was head teacher at St. Stephen's, the local primary school, and we'd met at a cocktail party. When I was introduced as an American and a retired teacher, our common interests had led us into conversation. I'd learned a lot about the English educational system, though I'd gone home somewhat more confused than before.
I had, since, figured out a few things. One was that the system had been undergoing constant change for the past generation or so, and expatriate Americans weren't the only ones who were confused. Simply put, however, it seemed that there were essentially two strata of English schools. Wealthy and/or influential parents sent their children to prep schools and then to "public schools," in their sense of the term. We would think of them as private schools. They were usually boarding schools and were often, though nowadays not always, segregated by sex. The rest of the school-age population went to state-run schools, which were inexpensive, though not entirely free. They might or might not also be affiliated with a church (depending on the history of their development). These most closely resembled public schools in our use of the term, although even in schools with no church affiliation the students were required to participate in a "Collective Act of Worship" every day. As an American, accustomed to rigid separation of church and state, I found this startling.
There was also a handful of entirely private schools run by "nonconformist" (neither Church of England nor Roman Catholic) religious groups. These had no state support and were patronized almost entirely by members of the churches in question. Even these small schools, though, however nonconformist in any sense, were required to conform to the standards of the national curriculum.
I had never actually been inside St. Stephen's. I knew it was, despite its name, not associated anymore with any church. I had only the vaguest idea of what Catherine's job actually was, though I knew that "head teacher" was more or less equivalent to our "principal."
I was about to learn a great deal more about the system and how it worked. Or didn't.
I had no time at first to talk to Catherine, whose tiny office when I walked in was a scene of chaos just barely under control. The phone was ringing, two children stood in front of the desk looking scared, and a woman waited impatiently in one corner while a man stood arguing with Catherine.
She detached herself, greeted me with a harried smile, and said, "My dear, you are a lifesaver. I'll come along in a bit and see how you're getting on, but just now — well, you can see, can't you? Ravati," she said, snaring a little passing girl, "can you show Mrs. Martin to Mrs. Doyle's room, please? And take her coat and hat and hang them up? Thank you, dear." She had turned to deal with the next crisis before I had time to decide whether the thanks were directed to me or the child.
Ravati escorted me to the classroom, flashed a shy, bright smile, and disappeared around a corner, leaving me to my fate.
The room was about half the size of my last classroom in America. True, there were fewer children, only about twenty, but the room was still crowded. There were no desks, only a few scarred worktables and chairs scattered about. The dim light fixtures suspended from the ceiling did little to disperse the gloom of a late-November day, and the skimpy windows didn't help, either. There was only one small chalkboard, chipped at the corners, and no bulletin boards at all. Children's work was taped to the walls. A bookcase built of bricks and planks held a collection of well-worn books and one world globe.
At my entrance the children, who had been behaving about as one would expect with no teacher present, became quiet and sat down on the floor. They left little space, but I took a deep breath and threaded between them to the front of the room.
"Good morning." There were a few giggles at my accent, but the response of "Good morning" was polite enough.
"My name is Mrs. Martin, and I am, as you can tell, American. Mrs. Doyle is ill today, and since there are no proper teachers to take her place, you'll have to make do with me. I'm a retired teacher, though, so we should get along all right." More discreet giggles, which I ignored. "Now, who can tell me what you do first thing in the morning?"
A sea of hands. I pointed to a little blond boy in front. "Please, miss, Mrs. Doyle calls the roll."
"Good. What's your name?"
"Peter 'Arris, miss."
"Fine, Peter, come up here and see if you can find Mrs. Doyle's list of pupils." I didn't know if it was called a class roster or a roll book or what, and I had no intention of calling down further amusement by my ignorance. "And while he's doing that, will you" — I pointed to a girl who looked reasonably bright and responsible — "find some paper and pencils — or markers would be better if you have them — for everyone to make a tag with your first name on it. That will make things much easier for me. Print, please, and nice big letters so I can read them."
The classroom might be small and shabby and the supplies pitiful, but children everywhere are much the same. Though it had been a number of years since I'd taught, we settled easily into a routine. The small class made it quite pleasant, actually. Fourth-graders — "nines," they called them here, since most of them were nine years old — have always been my favorites. They're old enough to be really interesting people, with individuality and creativity, and young enough not to be smart alecks yet — well, most of them. There's at least one in every class, and you can spot them at a glance, but the two I was saddled with today were, fortunately, still bemused by my foreign accent and manner and gave me little trouble.
The first subject on the agenda was arithmetic ("maths"). Well, that was no problem. We struggled with long division, which they were just beginning, and I flattered myself that I taught them a trick or two. Geography, after that, was interesting. The children were, of course, far more familiar with the map of England than I was, but I had often visited Salisbury and its famous Plain, and most of them had not. We enjoyed swapping information.
The next item, however, was history. They were studying the Napoleonic wars and there I met, so to speak, my Waterloo. I know virtually nothing about Napoleon except that he crowned himself emperor, and I know that only on the basis of a painting in the Louvre, which may be inaccurate.
My teaching methods have always involved acknowledging my shortcomings and playing to my strengths. "Right," I said when Terence had told me where they were in history. "I'm afraid I'm a little fuzzy on the details of some of those battles, so suppose I teach you some American history? There's a very important American holiday coming up soon, and I'll bet none of you knows anything about it."
They relaxed. A lesson about something one doesn't have to know is always more fun. So I told them about the Pilgrims and the Puritans and the Indians. "Indians?" queried Chakra, a puzzled frown on his face.
"Sorry, Native Americans. Red Indians, I think they're sometimes called in England, to distinguish them from real Indians like your people, Chakra. You remember, Columbus thought he'd sailed to India, so he called the people he found Indians, even though they weren't at all. They were very helpful to the first English settlers, though."
And we went on to turkey ("No, I don't think they come from Turkey. I don't know why they're called that") and corn ("You call it maize, or sweet corn") and lima beans and squash, and the first feast of thanksgiving for the harvest, meager though it had been.
"There, now," I said when we had finished. It was nearing lunchtime, and no one had shown up to relieve me. "You know something the other kids don't. You can tell them all about it at lunch."
"Please, miss?" Fiona, she of the bright red braids and freckles, one of the potential troublemakers. "Why isn't Mrs. Doyle here? She wasn't ill yesterday."
"I don't know, dear. Mrs. Woodley didn't tell me."
"Will she be back tomorrow?"
"I expect. Oops, there's the bell." I didn't have to ask the procedure for getting them to the lunchroom. They lined up without being told and filed out in an orderly fashion. I heaved a huge sigh of relief and joined the teacher from the next room. "Are we supposed to eat with the children?"
"No, thank God," she said crisply. "The lunch ladies look after them. Come with me to the staff room and I'll show you the drill."
The staff room was as shabby as the rest of the school, but it was large and clean. Most of the teachers had brought sandwiches. I saw why after one look at my school meal, brought to me by a "lunch lady." Consisting of a large piece of breaded mystery meat, SpaghettiOs, Tater Tots, and for dessert a thick, pallid slab of something baked, the meal could most charitably be described as edible. Maybe.
I was both starved and exhausted. I ate what was put before me. When I had absorbed a week's ration of fat and carbohydrates, I gratefully accepted a cup of coffee in someone's mug and looked around for Catherine.
She was chatting with the teachers at the other table, but she met my eye and came to sit in the vacant chair next to me. "I thought you looked as though you should have your meal first. How was the lunch?"
"Awful, but sustaining, I suppose."
"We do try to make the food more or less decent, you know, but with the budget we're given —"
I waved it aside. "It doesn't matter. I ate it, and I do feel a little better. I can't believe how tired I am after only a morning. And my voice is giving out. I'm out of condition."
Catherine sighed. "Oh, dear. I really hate to tell you, then, but I'm afraid I haven't been able to find anyone at all to take your place this afternoon. I'd step in myself, but I've a meeting with the national curriculum people. Can you stick it out, do you think?"
I sighed myself. "I'll have to, I guess. Actually it's not too bad. The kids are sweet. Well behaved, responsive. Mrs. Doyle must be a good teacher."
"She is," said Catherine, chiming in with the woman across from me, the one who had shown me to the staff room. Catherine smiled. "Dorothy, I must go and deal with an irate parent, but let me introduce Ruth Beecham, who teaches the other class of nines. Dorothy Martin, Ruth."
Catherine hurried from the room; I exchanged nods with Ruth Beecham, who was an attractive brunette with an intense, mobile face. "More coffee?" she asked.
"When do we have to go back to the salt mines?"
She grinned. "Fifteen minutes or so."
"Then I won't, thanks. I wouldn't have time to drink it and go to the bathroom, which I would certainly need to do with that much coffee in me."
"You can leave your little monsters for that long, you know. You're right, they're a well-behaved lot."
"You can tell a lot about a teacher, I always think, by the way her students behave with a substitute. From the way these kids act, I wouldn't have guessed Mrs. Doyle would be the sort to go AWOL."
"She's not!" Mrs. Beecham banged her mug on the table so hard coffee slopped out. "I'm worried sick about her!"CHAPTER 2
The room got quiet for a moment, and Mrs. Beecham's face turned red. "Sorry," she said, mopping at the spilled coffee. "I didn't mean to make a scene, but honestly, I don't think anyone's taking this thing seriously enough."
"Mrs. Doyle's unexplained absence, you mean? Catherine sounded quite annoyed about it when she called me this morning."
"That's it, you see. Annoyed, not worried. Oh, I do see her point. One can't have one's staff vanishing, and Catherine's first priority has to be the school and the children. But she seems to think Amanda — Mrs. Doyle — has simply done a bunk, and she wouldn't do that!"
"To a fault. She's taught here for five years, and the only time she's ever not turned up was when she had appendicitis. And then she rang up Catherine at home the night before to say she wasn't feeling well and might not be in for a few days. She reminded Catherine that the next day would be the children's turn for the library and computer studies, and never once mentioned the fact that she was in hospital awaiting an emergency appendectomy! So you see ... "
"Yes, I do see," I said slowly. "I suppose Catherine called her when she didn't show up today?"
"No answer. That was when I called the bank where her husband works. They said he'd taken a holiday."
"Oh, well. They've probably gone someplace together —"
"If you knew him, you wouldn't say that." Her voice was neutral, but her face was not designed to conceal her feelings.
"You don't like him."
Excerpted from Sins Out of School by Jeanne M. Dams. Copyright © 2003 Jeanne M. Dams. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Another wonderful story! The emotions expressed by Ms. Martin are so relatable that I get pulled into the story page after page!
Expatriate American Dorothy Martin is approaching seventy but she acts like a woman at least two decades younger. She lives in the quaint little town of Sherebury with her husband, retired chief constable Alan Nesbitt. The couple prepares to host a Thanksgiving dinner for their friends. Three days before the big event she is asked to do a friend a favor by substituting at St. Stephen¿s school. She reluctantly agrees and finds out that this is the first time the regular teacher Amanda Doyle took leave without calling. The day of the Thanksgiving dinner, Dorothy is asked to baby-sit Amanda¿s nine year old child because the teacher is in police custody as a suspect in the murder of her husband who was found dead in their flat with a knife in his back. Dorothy doesn¿t believe for one moment that Amanda or Miriam could have killed John because they were so frightened and browbeat by the abusive man. She starts snooping again and finds other notable suspects and inadvertently puts Alan and her in danger from a killer who wants to see certain secrets stay buried. Jean M Dams writes a lively, exciting and ample mystery staring a heroine that is impossible not to like. She sticks her nose into places where it doesn¿t belong especially when people tell her to mind her own business. She remains steadfast seeking out the truth even if she is given the cold shoulder for asking impertinent questions. SINS OUT OF SCHOOL is an excellent mystery that deals with the issue of verbal abuse on a family. Harriet Klausner