An International Woman
I don’t remember how to identify an irregular verb or what a false cognate is or why ‘actuellement’ is one but I do remember my French teacher Mrs Craig. Her shiny black high heels and well cut grey wool suits, which she always wore over a white blouse. Her short dark hair, pale skin and big eyes, which saw everything that happened in class, even when she wasn’t looking.
I never could remember whether a particular noun was masculine or feminine, always thinking there must be a secret formula for gender, but I do remember Mrs Craig’s unwritten language of French gestures. All those Gallic shrugs and pouting and kissing and hand-waving and the way she showed me how to tap my nose with my index finger when I managed to use ‘tu’ instead of ‘vous’ correctly or just thought myself clever.
I don’t remember which of ‘etre’, ‘avoir’ or ‘faire’ was ‘to do’, ‘to be’ or ‘to have’ but I do remember the way Mrs Craig gazed dreamily out of the classroom window and over the rugby pitches and rooftops to the distant hills as I struggled with essays entitled ‘Mon Vacances’ or ‘Ma Famille’.
I do remember the neatly folded copy of ‘Le Figaro’ which she got on Thursdays and the little paper bag of ground coffee and the aluminium pot, blackened at the bottom which she kept in her desk drawer. She didn’t like the instant coffee powder in the staff room.
I do remember the heavy earphones we had to wear in the language lab. and the big rolls of magnetic tape and the noise they made when she rewound them before we listened to phrases and conversations I struggled to understand and how it always got very hot in the lab. and Mrs Craig’s face would go redder and redder even after she’d opened her suit jacket and the top two buttons of her blouse. And I remember when the tape recorders broke down, as they often did, and how she would stick out her lower lip and hold her hands up and call out:
‘Bof!’ and we would all follow her back to the cool classroom.
I remember how beautifully she wrote on the blackboard with white chalk, without any scraping or squeaking. A round-hand script of elegant strokes and loops and curves done with her left hand as the index finger of her right hand was missing. There were twenty stories as to how she’d lost it and none of us knew which was true.
And I remember for one week in class she gave us all French names and I was Pierre and she called herself Jacqueline, which was her real name. She’d been Miss Jacqueline David when she'd married a Colonel of the Argyll and Sutherland Highland Regiment somewhere abroad in 1947 and came to Edinburgh as a young woman who never returned to France.
And I remember the school spring trip to London and the enormous queue for the Tutankhamun exhibition at the British Museum and how Mrs Craig disappeared up the entrance steps shouting in French and waving her arms and then came back ten minutes later and whispered to us that we all had to pretend that we were French schoolboys. She led us to front of the queue and we were met by a very charming museum official who spoke to us in French as he guided us around.
And I remember the following year, the year that her husband, who was ten years older, died of a heart attack, and she was going to Jamaica for the Christmas holidays and we’d all seen ‘Live and Let Die’ that autumn and one of my school-friends asked her if she planned to visit James Bond in Jamaica and she replied:
‘Not this year but I did go snorkelling at Goldeneye with him once.’
I could never remember when to use ‘depuis’ and when ‘il y a’ but I do remember the senior school trip to Paris when she taught me to say ‘quatre biere a la pression, s’il vous plait’, and three school-mates and I drank beer from tulip shaped glasses outside a café in Montmartre and she had a glass of red wine and pointed down a side street and told us she’d lived in a top floor apartment there until she was fourteen. And we knew that she was forty-seven then so she must have been in Paris in 1940.
‘That’s when the Nazis arrived’ someone said later.
And I remember the next day after we’d all returned from Versailles and we went to dinner in a proper restaurant on our last night and Mrs Craig didn’t come and the other teachers wouldn’t tell us where she was except that it was personal and on the coach back to Calais the following morning none of us did ask her as she looked so tired and red-eyed.
And I remember my last day at school, when there were no lessons and we said goodbye to all the teachers and played games or watched films in every class, or just chatted together in the common room about our plans for the future. Mrs Craig brought a record player into her classroom and played Bach all day.
‘Wasn’t Bach a German, Mrs Craig?’ I asked her.
‘Yes, he was German,’ she said and after a pause she lifted up her right hand and said. ‘But it wasn’t Germans who cut off my finger.’
I heard on the old boy’s grapevine that she retired in 1988 and moved to France. I wondered if she might be dead by now until last year a familiar slim figure in a grey wool suit suddenly appeared on the television news. She was sitting three rows behind President Hollande, who was giving a speech.
‘That’s my old French teacher, Mrs Craig,’ I shouted to my children, as I pointed to the screen. Apart from grey hair she didn’t look much older than I remembered her. She was holding a sign in her left hand. I recognised the handwriting from the school blackboard.
It read ‘Je suis Charlie’.
My children didn’t believe the woman on television could possibly be almost ninety but I told them about the missing finger on her right hand and how she had been living in Paris when the Nazis arrived and my daughter explained that ‘David’ was usually a Jewish surname and I‘d never realised that and then we all saw that grey haired old woman lift her right hand out of her suit pocket and saw that the index finger was missing. As she swapped the little card from her left to her right hand I shouted out:
‘Bravo Mrs Craig! Vive la France!'
And she tapped her nose and smiled.
her cupidity fires
disarming with valentine words
her tracks are global yet she
fights on national fronts
instantaneous she targets you
lonely on your laptop
and once phony on your date site
across infatuations lair where
no ambassador can save you
from probes of shame stuck neatly in
one day she’ll fly to you
but only to depart—
a laundress of your pocket
a composer for the heart
she’s a Russian bride playing her part.
It was no coincidence that her name meant' warrior'. There was a reason she'd been left an inheritance. All things were written, as was her destiny. It had taken a while to find but now she was on her path, she was following fate. She smiled, letting the early morning sun warm her face, as she pushed her hands down deeper in her pockets. They twitched, her strong piano-playing fingers eager to continue.
But not here.
She was booked on a flight to Thailand in three hours. There was just time to go back to the hotel and pack, take a taxi and leave Pythox. It had been a most satisfying visit.
She'd tracked the man from Athens after hearing about him down the travellers' grapevine. He'd been described in various ways, and none of them good. The allegation of rape was what pushed Andrea into action. Her first murder had been an accident; this one was meticulously planned. She followed him for a week, just to see what he was really like. It turned out he was really, really bad, as the women had said. She nicknamed him Stephen the Evil, whilst watching him stalking his prey on the deck of the ferry. The woman in this case was fine - Andrea had a discreet word with her and when Stephen the Evil returned with drinks, the girl had made harself scarce. Andrea watched him frown in confusion, scratch his balls, shrug and down both drinks. His next attempt was less subtle. A few drinks later, he groped a woman who was alone on deck, taking photos of the sunset. Andrea appeared behind him twisted his arm up and made sure she hurt him. The girl - who was so young she shouldn't have been travelling alone, surely? - scuttled off, thanking Andrea with a red face. Andrea wondered if she'd get away with chucking him off into the Aegean there and then, but decided caution was better.
'Next time, you won't see me coming,' she hissed, and let him go.
He staggered off, rubbing his shoulder.
'Bitch,' he said through gritted teeth. 'Fucking bitch.'
Andrea stood and watched him go. Killing him was going to feel wonderful, she thought.
And so it had. Knives are easy to buy in Greece. Once they got off the ferry in Pythox, she'd disguised herself and shadowed him all the way to his grotty backpacker hostel. She stood behind him whilst he checked in, listened to the reception staff allocating him a room - 'private with big bed' - and shuddered as she imagined why he'd requested that. She left, found a hotel for herself, changed disguise and went out to buy a knife. It wasn't a huge knife, but she knew where to put it and she was confident it'd do the job.
It was done later that night. He'd tried coming on to several women, all who refused him, thank God, or things could have got difficult, and he was getting angry. She thought he was probably the kind of man who'd take what he wanted if he wasn't given in; certainly this is what the stories about him had suggested.
He'd been blind drunk by the time she came onto him, and the rest was easy. A snicker-snack, just like the jabberwocky, and he was done and dusted. There was more blood than she'd expected, which meant he died more quickly than she'd wanted (she didn't get to explain fully why she'd done it, to him) but it taught her a good lesson - throats bleed. A lot. better to go for the chest next time, and give herself chance to say a farewell.
She was slightly tense at the airport, but nobody arrested her. He'd been travelling alone, which meant he might not be found for days, when he washed up somewhere else in Greece.
On the flight she felt more at peace than she had done for months. And she was thankful. She had been beginning to feel a little lost, purposeless and alone. Now she had a mission, she was grateful to the world for giving it to her. Mother Earth was looking after her women and she, Andrea, was going to help.
The first murder had been more like manslaughter. Andrea hadn't meant to kill him. She'd only meant to push him away, as he bit into her neck in over-zealous foreplay, which she knew was going to end badly. She'd only gone with him out of sheer lonliness and as a means of burying her past. If she could be with a man again maybe it meant she'd outrun her demons...? But she hadn't, because the minute he began letting himself go, she froze, frightened and fierce, and pushed him away. The trouble was, they were on a clifftop and he was drunk. He screamed as he fell and the sound made her shiver, with delight.
She waited for a whole week, hiding in her room, going out only for supplies, waited for Turkish police to come banging at her door to arrest her for murder. But there was nothing. He wasn't reported missing on social media or in the newpapers. He wasn't talked about in the local bars (once she ventured out she became an accomplished eavesdropper). She couldn't believe it: she'd got away with it. She left the resort town and headed to Greece, the lightness in her step increasing all the way to the border until she was fleeing freely away.
She knew Mother Earth was protecting her.
Thailand was hot. It was busy. It was full of travellers. She checked herself into a dive on Khaosan Road, and went hunting. She found a gaggle of tie-dyed girls in a bar and got friendly with them by buying them buckets of alcohol. They'd been here for weeks, seduced by cheap prices and cheap clothes. They kept coming back to Khaosan Road and then going away again, to islands, to the north. She asked them if they'd heard of any creeps, because she was doing a story on men who go hunting abraod. She was an undercover journalist, she said.
One girl, Summer, went very quiet whilst the others roared at shared stories and mis-remembered drunken nights of what sounded more like wild orgies than holiday romances. At the end of the night, Andrea offered to walk back with the girl, who said she was going home early, she was tired.
It was easy to get the story out of her.
'It was a bar owner. On Koh Samui,' Summer said. Her eyes filled and for a while she could hardly go on. 'He drugged me - I think. I think he put something in my drink. When I woke up... I was bleeding. There was - stuff - all over my bed. Blood, and, you know...'
Andrea's flesh crawled in remembrance and she gave the girl a hug. 'You poor thing,' she said, and cuddled her until her breath slowed down.
'I've not been able to tell anyone. Me and my friends, we have a reputation. We're known for getting drunk and being wild and I knew nobody would believe me. Sven - the guy - is in with the Thai police. They are so corrupt. They've never believe me. My friends don't know, either. If I told them...'
She stopped talking and Andrea wondered, what? What would they do if you told them? But she thought she knew. She understood; this girl didn't want anyone hurt. If she and her friends took revenge, they'd be the ones who ended up in difficulty. That made it easy. She took the girl back to her room, went back to her own and took out her map and travel book. Tomorrow she'd go to Koh Samui.
Sven took longer to die. And she did it in his room, so he'd be found quicker. She wanted other people to come forward, to know they were safe from him now. She wanted to know she'd helped.
By her second day back in Bangkok, the papers were full of it. SWEDISH BAR OWNER BUTCHERED screamed the English paper. Andrea bought a copy and took it back to her room at the Sheraton, to read over breakfast.
She had to go, and she needed a new plan. What now... She wandered about in cyberspace for a while, clicking on links to different attractions in Asia, then she had an idea. With a few clicks she found herself on a travellers' forum called CreepAlert which was 'a place women could go to report anyone dodgy'. For a second Andrea was annoyed at not having thought it up herself, but as she read on she realised what an amazing discovery she'd made. Here was a fountain of knowledge, a mecca of discovery, a collection of creeps. No more eavesdropping or tracking people herself! Her eyes gleamed as she thought of the possibilities.
She scanned down the lists of threads. One caught her eye:
Creep in Cambodia!
She read the comments and whistled through her teeth. Here was a man who needed sorting. His name was Pierre, and his parents were foreign dignitaries, and he could get away with whatever he wanted. And frequently did. Woman after woman reported being harrassed and sexually threatened by him. There were no rapes reported, but this didn't mean they hadn't happened. Or wouldn't happen in future.
She smiled as she packed her bags. Andrea: London, Paris, Rome, she thought but then realised that was wrong. It should be Andrea: Athens, Bangkok, Phnom Phen.
'To the future,' she whispered, as she tucked her passport into her bag.