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Miss Potter
by Harry Downey




Nobody knew her first name. The postman remembered seeing the initial E on a letter once, but that was the nearest anyone locally came to knowing it. No doubt down at the Town Hall or in a government office somewhere they had more personal details, but to anyone round here she was Miss Potter. Only Mr Dromgoole at No 17 might have been living in the street before her, but asking old Joe anything these days was a waste of time.


As Miss Potter chose to keep herself to herself, what anyone knew of her was guesswork and speculation. She spoke to her neighbours so seldom that attempts to recognise her accent and origins prompted varying opinions: variously placing her as a native of Northern Ireland, Cornwall, Newcastle and ‘from the Dark Side’.  Estimates of her age varied from ‘70’ish’ to a cruel ‘about 120.’ What everyone did know was that Miss Potter was tall, apparently in good order for her age − apart from a walking stick she always carried, though she showed no signs of any problems getting about, and was always neat and tidy.


One thing everyone agreed on about Miss Potter: They didn’t like her and tried to avoid her. The neighbourhood children and dogs had learned to scuttle past her front door on the opposite side of the street – the kids because she always shouted at them no matter how quiet and well-behaved they were – and the dogs because she always seemed to have a bucket of cold water ready to throw over them. Curiously, the sighting of a cat in the area was rare. The exception was Miss Potter’s black tom.  


You must have seen illustrations of Queen Elizabeth 1 with her chalky white face and gingery hair, well Miss Potter was like that. And if she ever had any teeth – well, she hadn’t now. She may have had a set of dentures somewhere; but if she had she never wore them. No wonder children ran away from her. That gaping mouth was enough to frighten a grown man, not just children. Some of the tiny ones believed she was a witch – and her black cat was the confirmation of it.


One theory was that she was German. That came about from the fact the Miss P did not believe in queuing, and several of the people in the street had seen this very un-English trait on holidays abroad and attributed it to a specific national culture. Everyone else queued − for the buses, or in local shops − but she didn’t. Like in the local post office on Thursdays. Miss Potter felt that head of the queue was hers by right. No-one liked it, but they came to accept it.



a line, (a short blue one)


Even for Pension Day, the George Street post office was busier than usual. With room for only half a dozen or so customers inside, there was an overflow on to the pavement. Normally Miss Potter arrived about ten past the hour and, ignoring the complaining voices, squeezed in to be served at the single hatch in the glass window. This time she didn’t get that far. She had managed to push her way through the door and into the queue, when, in front of her, some sort of melee started with lots of angry shouting. A man was barging through the turmoil swinging a large black holdall. An older man was trying to stop him but in the scrum couldn’t reach him. Miss Potter was pushing to get to the counter, the young man pushing the other way and Miss Potter and her walking stick won. Taking his pushing as an attack on her personally, she hit him with her stick, then lowered her aim and tripped him up. As he fell his bag burst open and what looked like bundles of banknotes fell out. His head banged on the stone step and he stayed prone in a daze.


Inevitably someone had a mobile phone and took a picture of the victorious Miss Potter with her stick raised standing over her vanquished foe. The woman who took the picture then decided − as any good citizen should − to call the police.


Money changed hands and the photo was in some of the national papers the next day. Even after being improved by the papers’ technicians, it was still dark and blurred. Not so the picture in the Daily Mirror a few days later. The paper had sent a reporter along to interview Miss Potter and had made a half-page piece out of her visit. You couldn’t miss the headline.




Apparently that particular Pension Day had been Miss Eliza Potter’s birthday. She had been born on February 29th, and as a Leap Year baby she had a true birthday every four years. And this one was her 21st. The article went on to talk about probabilities and famous people who had the same birthday – all fairly routine celebrity-based stuff. But what created most interest in and around Crawston was the photograph. There was Miss Potter in a head and shoulders only picture, smiling and showing a perfect set of false teeth.


This sight – unique in the real meaning of that often wrongly used word – hid a secret that only Miss P herself knew about. After the failed robbery a count showed that a bundle of £10 notes had gone missing, and quite fortuitously had found its way into her open shopping basket.


Folks round there now knew two things they hadn’t known before – Miss Potter’s age and her first name. What they didn’t know was the reason for the big smile on her face in the photograph. And they never would. The cat knew – but the cat spoke only to Miss P.




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