Chapter 1: The Battle Cry of Antigone
In which Antigone gets riled into action
Rudyard Funn runs a funeral home in the village of Piffling Vale. It used to be a quiet place, but with the continued presence of Rudyard’s long-lost daughter, Calliope, the premises ceased to be gloomy and silent and are now filled with fighting, life and laughter instead – much to the chagrin of his sister, the Funeral home’s foremost mortician. Currently, Antigone’s door to the realm of the dead (and her mortuary) is being battered down by the relentless knocking of Rudyard - who has some rather grand plans for the night!
‘AntigoneAntigoneAnTiGoNe…!’ Rudyard was busy blurting out, seemingly in one, continued breath until his exasperated sister finally tore her door open.
‘What?!’ she hissed, peeking owlishly from the complete darkness of her doorstep into the backlit, pale face of her brother. Antigone, as a rule often didn’t need to use her eyes to see him - she knew her brother’s narrow face intimately enough to guess at his expression without having to make it out. It was a familiar yet strange mirror of her own.
Sometimes she wondered whether Rudyard was so successful at getting under her skin by virtue of their similarities or on the account of their differences.
‘You know my best suit? The one that I wore to father’s funeral?’ Rudyard demanded with his characteristic, single-minded urgency and almost mad twinkle to his eyes that usually made an appearance when he had some delusion of grandeur or crazy plot going on.
‘Yes, what about it?’ Antigone sighed, preemptively exasperated about his tiresome brother’s latest scheme. She held onto the feeble hope that he’d just wanted the garment for an upcoming funeral – but did not have too much faith in that particular outcome.
‘Have you seen it?’ Rudyard demanded like she was a bloody cloakroom attendant and not the funeral home’s most talented (if only) mortician.
‘No.’ she answered curtly and attempted to shut the door in Rudyard’s face, but he managed to wedge his cursed Oxfords over the threshold and shattered Antigone’s plans in that regard.
‘Well, I need it!’ Rudyard announced as if Antigone was somehow responsible for keeping track of his sartorial items. ‘Will you help me find it?’
‘Why, are we burying you in it?’ She asked, a familiar, childish spite building in her voice which made Rudyard cry out indignantly and take a stunned step back like he’ didn’t throw much more hurtful phrases around regularly.
‘Of course not!’
‘Then no!’ She announced and took the opportunity to shut herself away.
But she barely had a chance to turn on her heels on the top of the stairs when the knocking started up again.
‘Argh.’ She knew she’d lost the battle as soon as she flung the door open, she could see it written all over her brother’s smug face. But truth to be told, she was just too curious to know what the funeral director was attempting this time. It was best to be aware if… no, when the whole thing came crashing down around Rudyard again. ‘What’s wrong with what you are wearing now?’
‘It’s the pair of trousers that melted in your embalming fluids!’ Rudyard pointed out and admittedly the shorts he was sporting at the moment were somewhat frayed around the edges - but she hadn’t kept up with the latest fashion for the last seventeen years, so she just assumed that her taste, as usual, was a tad outdated.
‘Precisely. And I’ve got to say, you look very fetching with your legs exposed. It makes your handsome kneecaps pop.’ She used her most syrupy voice in an attempt to compliment and consequently distract Rudyard.
But perhaps she laid it on a bit too thick. At least judging by the confused expression Rudyard regarded his pale, stick-like extremities (befitting of a praying mantis) with.
‘It sure does.’ He mumbled in meek assent. ‘I can barely feel them.’
‘See? So just go and hop into your kilt and let me be !’ She wasn’t going to admit it to Rudyard, but late Captain Sodbury’s publishers found some of his yet unprinted manuscripts a little while ago and her preorder of Veronica Knight’s last book, A Lewd Vale was now waiting for her to enjoy in the peaceful respite of her solitary mortuary - if only her sodding brother would grant her that much-desired peace.
‘I can’t. Rudyard announced with that distinct, bull-headed determination that made finding out what Knight’s latest heroine - the sure possessor of an impressive, heaving bosom and immaculate morals - shall do in the isolated township of mostly males an increasingly unlikely prospect.
‘Oh for Heaven’s sake why can’t you?’ She sighed without much conviction to it. It was too late, she was sucked in now and she knew that she’ll have to see this to the end if she wanted her precious solitude back.
‘Calliope used it to make a nest for the bats that live in the archive’s storage cupboard.’ Rudyard at least had it in him to look a bit sheepish as he admitted to this.
‘That child!’ Antigone growled with frustration, not for the first time and as if summoned, Calliope materialised from behind her father.
‘Are you talking about me?’ She chirped with her distinct brand of sharp brightness, prompting her father and aunt to answer in unison.
‘Yes.’ Antigone admitted.
‘No.’ Rudyard lied.
‘What are you arguing about then?’ She demanded and Antigone contemplated how she never would have dreamt of sticking her nose in the adult’s business like that when she was her age.
‘About your father wanting his suit and me wanting my peace back before I reach the end of my tether and go on a murderous spree!’ She decided to grace her with an answer if a bit begrudgingly.
‘Calliope, have you seen my best suit?’ Rudyard whined at his daughter now and Antigone contemplated sneaking away - only she couldn't throw her favourite (if only) niece under the bus like that.
‘Back of the cupboard in the attic.’ Calliope answered with her characteristic, eager beaver surety. Then proceeded to ruin the effect by being disrespectfully, obnoxiously curious again ‘What do you need it for?’
‘I am going out’ Rudyard’s answer was suspiciously apprehensive. Calliope must have felt the same because she continued to press on.
‘With Mr Chapman?’
‘What?!’ Rudyard all but screamed, then scowled and proceeded to whisper the rival funeral director’s name with disgust like he could hear it, somehow, from all the way across the square. ‘Chapman?! No! Can five minutes not pass in this household without someone bringing up that man?’
‘It could if only you stopped talking about him all the time.’ Antigone pointed out, to annoy her brother who threw her a glance sharp enough to be impaled on.
‘If you must know, I am going to the Mayor’s blackjack tournament.’ Rudyard finally admitted, pretending to be magnanimous about it. ‘But you don’t have to concern yourself as you’ll be staying here with your Auntigone’
‘No, she won’t.’ Antigone declared, mostly to disagree with her brother on principle. She had little to no intention of leaving the house with Lewd Vale waiting in the privacy of her mortuary. Besides, babysitting Calliope wasn’t really a chore, anyway. She was ten, self-sufficient and a trained survivalist, could cook better than Rudyard and Georgie combined and didn’t need Antigone’s interference to entertain herself. So she really only said it to be as bothersome to her brother as her brother was to her and fully intended to back out of her commitment to leaving the house well on time.
‘How come?’ Rudyard gaze snapped at her and she could feel her smile widen at the clear expression of annoyance plastered across his face. As always he’d failed the entertain the prospect that his little sister would have anything better to do than sit around, awaiting his commands.
‘Because I am coming with you.’ She threatened and basked in the glory of Rudyard prompt exasperation.
‘Now look here, Antigone. I can’t leave my ten years old unsupervised while I am off to enter the Mayor’s den of iniquity and Georgie’s working at the Mayor’s office later today!’
Across the hall and from the kitchen their assistant (hanging till late as she was more of a permanent fixture than an employee anyway) was busy projecting in eager agreement.
‘I’m great at helping out on poker night!’
‘I thought they were playing blackjack.’ Antigone shouted back.
‘Yeah, well, same difference.’
‘I still don’t see why am I the one supposed to stay at home when I am an equal partner at Funn Funerals and it’s your daughter in question who needs supervision!’ Antigone argued, turning back to Rudyard.
That was the point where Calliope thought it to be appropriate for her to interrupt again.
‘Auntigone, Dad, it’s ok. You can both go and have a playdate with Mayor Desmond.’
Rudyard scoffed at his daughter with fond condescension.
‘Thank you, Calliope, but I can hardly have a minor unattended in a house full of poisonous liquids and highly flammable equipment.’
‘That’s ok, Dad. I won’t be alone. Or here. I’m having a sleepover at Douglas’ tonight, remember?’
Antigone felt the thick mixture of something like a surge of indignancy and protectiveness flare in her. She had a sudden memory of her many attempts at sleepovers, felled repeatedly by the fact that she was severely allergic to their peers and the recurring bullying that followed every such trial. She was suddenly determined to spare her niece the pain
‘No, you’re not.’ She sneered at her, but knowing how little an impact she tended to make, she continued to pester her brother in turn who was far more likely to be wavered by her nagging. ‘Rudyard, how can you allow your infant to stay at complete stranger’s house?’
‘Douglas is not a stranger. And I am not an infant. I am perfectly capable of…’
‘The child is too immature to be exposed to such experiences, Rudyard.’ She declared, talking over Calliope, should she change her father’s mind. ‘I never had a sleepover at the tender age of ten!’
She knew it was the wrong thing to say from the way Rudyard’s eyes glazed over with the sudden reminisce.
‘My God, you are right!’ He whispered with reverent horror before turning to the Funn descendant. ‘Calliope, you are most definitely going.’
‘But Rudyard…!’ Antigone cried, offended but to no avail.
‘Would you rather stay and babysit? Because I can’t see why should I allow you to come with me in the first place!’ Rudyard asked, clearly trying to distract her.
In all fairness, it sort of worked.
‘So I can make sure that you are not gambling away your daughter’s inheritance.’
‘Antigone, not in front of the child!’ Rudyard bellowed in panic and all but plastered his hands over his offspring’s ears. ‘Don’t listen to her, Calliope, she’s losing it from breathing in the fumes of the embalming fluids for too long.’
‘It’s not like you’ve got any other money to bet with.’ She was pretty sure about that - despite all the late success of the business they were still on a strict diet of only the finest root vegetables that the 30p price range had to offer.
‘Aha. And how about his?’
Rudyard, who seemingly anticipated this argument, whipped out a banknote with obvious triumph.
Antigone stared at the unfamiliar colouration of the bill. It’s been a while since she’d seen this much money under their roof.
‘Where did you get that from?’ She asked with a mixture of awe and suspicion.
‘Nana gave it to me for my birthday.’ Rudyard’s voice had a faint note of reflexive taunting, a remnant of their shared childhood.
‘She died fifteen years ago!’
‘And I kept the money for a rainy day.’
Antigone growled, placated by the very likely explanation - only Rudyard could be enough of a skimp for such an act.
‘Some day it is when the Mayor invites you of all people to joins his illegal casino. Anyway, who died and made you his last resort?’
‘Why would you even assume’ He whinged. ‘that he won’t invite me unless someone died? I’ll have you know that Mayor Desmond and I have been mending our professional…’
‘It’s Agatha Doyle.’ Georgie chimed in helpfully. ‘But she ain’t dead, she is just off to the mainland to a confectioner’s conference in France. So now they are one player short.’
‘And I am going to take this opportunity to turn our family’s fortune around.’ Rudyard cackled maniacally.
This finally lured Georgie from the kitchen. She threw her shoulder against the doorframe and watched her boss’ plotting with the scepticism it deserved.
‘Are you sure, Sir? Ten pounds will only get you so far. And I’m not even sure that you know how to play blackjack.’
‘I’m not talking about blackjack, Georgie.’ Rudyard waved as if he really wasn’t doing just that until now. ‘That’s just an excuse. I am going over to the Mayor’s tonight to remind him of the intrinsic values of our village he had lost sight of in his desperate bid to turn us into a town. I shall…’
‘Save your pitch for the Council, would you?’ Antigone interrupted him before he had a chance to warm his vocals for a full-blown tirade. ‘Why don’t you just tell us what Hell is this all about?’
‘I am going to get the Mayor to start funding the upkeep of the burial grounds again.’ Rudyard announced in the most overly-dramatic, conspiratory manner - like he was revealing the Manhattan plan for the women of the Funn Funeral Home.
‘I don’t see how is that going to help to turn our fortune around.’ Georgie scowled. ‘Just because the Piffling cemetery is a bit nicer, people will still bloody well choose Chapman over us. I say we focus on the rebranding, Sir.’
‘It’s because it’s us , Georgie!’
‘Yes, exactly. That’s why we need the rebranding.’ She was syllabising now like Rudyard was an eager but dense pupil of hers - which he was, in a way.
‘No, I mean we are responsible for the upkeep of the burial grounds. Have been for five centuries and for many more generations.’
‘To put it in plain English,’ Antigone added. ‘he is planning on syphoning the village funds into our pockets again.’
‘It’s about more than that!’ Rudyard’s voice was suddenly full of quiet passion they have never heard from him before. It was like watching his reflection in a funhouse mirror - it was still Rudyard but from an alternative realm, where he had heaps of robust confidence and everything under control. ‘The burial grounds are a disgrace. When I went with Calliope the other day to visit Cordelia I was astonished to see how derelict everything looked. It’s a dilapidated mockery of a graveyard, unworthy of the name.’
He looked pleadingly in his sister’s eyes, as Calliope hid her wounded expression in his side.
‘You should see the state of that place, Antigone.’
If she were a bit less wise and a bit more wistful, she could have pretended that the plea was bout the burial grounds as something as they had in common as siblings and shared with no one else. That it was about the games of hide and seek they used to play among the gravestones as their father haggled with the diggers or about the way they used to challenge each other to scale the proud oak trees or to mount the stairs leading down the Sodbury crypt.
But she knew better. She knew that it was really about the girl, a pretty young thing that used to arrive on a creaking bicycle, held together only by rust and the will of the Holy Spirit or some earthen magic, with Rudyard’s freshly tuned mandolin in the back. The girl who had Rudyard rushing downstairs in a breakneck speed only to pause in the privacy of the end of the narrow staircase to smooth his best suit down. The only person, aside from Antigone, who could make Rudyard smile sincerely. The girl who now had the final resting place in the shade of the same oak tree on which Antigone once broke her wrist in a failed attempt to climb it.
And because she knew better and she knew her brother she didn’t say “Oh, Rudyard.” with a sad infliction the way she really wanted to. Instead, she dragged the Antigone who’d swoop to conquer out to the forefront; the version of herself who would pick Rudyard up when he couldn’t carry the burden of being himself alone. The girl who hissed phrases in Latin at Rudyard’s bullies until they ran off, convinced she was possessed; who had grown into a woman who’d make herself hate Chapman on her brother’s behalf even when her heart was breaking under the weight of such a heavy task - until it ceased to be heavy, of course.
‘Crikey, you are right.’ She cried out. ‘What are we still waiting for? Let’s drop your daughter at Duncan’s…’
‘Douglas’.’ Calliope interrupted.
‘...and conquer the depraved lot at that illicit gambling circle.’
Across him, Rudyard was just ruining the impact he made with the conceited Cheshire grin spreading on his face.
‘Antigone.’ He drawled with evident satisfaction. ‘What do I hear? Are you quite sure that we can allow such a timid little creature as my daughter outside in the big, bad world?’
‘Oh don’t get smug with me, Rudyard!’ Antigone dismissed him, too fired up by the disrespect that befell the only Piffling resident that showed her and her insufferable brother a shred of sympathy over the years of their unspoken exile. ‘The child is more capable than the two of us put together and soon will be more useful than Georgie.’
‘Hey!’ Georgie cried.
‘She’ll be fine.’ Antigone concluded, barely holding back on the urge to wipe Rudyard's grin off with a smack across his face.
‘Are you really certain, though?’ He asked, putting on airs. ‘Because, I thought she was just a helpless infant. I thought she was too immature to be exposed to such experiences.’
‘Well, that was then. When I believed that this whole charade was for the sake of you and your wounded pride, a mere attempt of yours to win the council’s respect again. But it’s a completely different case if it’s for the sake of Cordelia! In that case, she will just have to cope.’
‘I said I’ll be fine!’ Calliope spoke again, exasperated.
‘Sure you did, you brave little soldier.’ Antigone said, vaguely, cavalier of her courageous play-acting and she went to grab her coat. It was getting late and she wasn’t going to catch her death on their way to the Mayor’s office in the chilled Piffling night - not as long as Chapman was the only mortician available to embalm her, should she suddenly decease!
Chapter 2: The Luck of the Common Rudyard
In which Rudyard takes a chance
CW for Non-Consensual Kiss On The Cheek
‘Glad you could make it, Rudyard.’ Mayor Desmond Desmond hurried to assure the funeral director even though he didn’t look like he had meant it. He allowed his confused stare to brush across Rudyard, Georgie and Antigone in turn as they hovered, awkward, on his doorstep. He smoothed down his mayoral robes and insignias nervously. ‘Even though I'm not quite sure that Nigel had wanted to extend the invitation to the whole staff team of Funn Funerals.
Rudyard took this as a cue to grab the bull by the horn and pushed past the Mayor, letting himself in before he was turned away. Antigone shuffled after him while Georgie went to her desk to begin preparations for the night ahead.
‘Three for the price of one, your eminence.’ Rudyard cried with forced, anxious cheer. ‘That’s just the kind of service we provide at Funn Funerals. I want to see Chapman compete with that.’
‘You rang, Rudyard?’ A disgustingly amicable voice asked from behind him, making Rudyard jump and cry a shocked and surprisingly high-pitched scream.
‘Chapman.’ He growled as he regained his composure and turned to face his rival. ‘What the devil are you doing here?’
‘Funny story, really. Vivienne is a little under the weather. She asked me to fill in for her.’
‘I fail to see what’s so funny about that.’ Antigone mumbled ominously from the shadow of a coat rack where she assumed her position, only slightly startling Chapman. ‘She might be at home, suffering in agony as we speak.’
‘God, sorry, you are right.’ Chapman blinked, his sense of cheer deflated. ‘I don’t know why I said that.’
Only to prompt Antigone to make a sound very similar to what an ailing seagull might make.
‘I was just joking.’ She admitted and laughed again with her curious mixture of a cackle, a sob and a mildly asthmatic coughing fit.
‘Well, don’t do that again.’ Rudyard commanded her distractedly, craning his neck to catch Mayor Desmond in a moment of solitude to finally speak to him. He wanted to talk about the state of the burial grounds before the tournament began, secretly hoping that he might be able to make a deal without having to break his quid. Unfortunately, Desmond was preoccupied with Sid Marlowe and Petunia Bloom and Georgie chose just that moment to offer them a chance to buy betting chips.
‘I might have a better explanation for Templar’s sudden affliction for you, Eric.’ Georgie said with evident, mean-spirited glee. ‘Did you know that there’s a confectioners’ conference taking place in mainland France?’
Eric’s perpetually happy face instantly fell.
‘My God. You don’t think…’ He began to ponder and Georgie nodded her full head of crazy hair.
‘Follow the sugar, Eric.’ She said almost challengingly, her words finally earning Rudyard’s undivided attention.
‘You definitely should.’ he rushed to say as he traded his banknote for a very meagre looking bundle of chips; it was certainly smaller than Eric’s. ‘Preferably right now!’
He was just about to further encourage Chapman by navigating him through the door when Reverend Weavering, who must have caught some of their conversations, appeared by Eric’s side. He clamped his hands around Chapman’s considerable biceps with a horror-struck expression.
‘He can’t do that.’ The Reverend objected vehemently. ‘We wouldn’t have enough players!’
‘Rudyard might be onto something, Nigel.’ Chapman suggested, furrowing his brows. ‘I really ought to stop Vivienne from relapsing.'
‘I am certain that Lady Templar is fine apart from her mild cold.’ the Reverend insisted with uncharacteristic confidence and with that Eric, ever the optimist, instantly brightened.
‘I’m sure you are right, Nigel.’ He smiled.
Georgie threw a dirty look at him at mouthed “ Sugar, Eric. ” in his direction before hurrying off to sell chips for Sid Marlowe.
‘Very well.’ Mayor Desmond clapped his hands in eager anticipation, smiling at everyone in turn. ‘Are we ready to start?’
‘Actually, your highness…’ Rudyard waved his hand like an overzealous student, but the Mayor promptly ignored him and the small crowd moved as one to assume their places at the blackjack table.
By some cruel law of a vindictive universe, Rudyard ended up sitting right next to Eric Chapman - though he had the good fortune of having Mayor Desmond on his other side. Antigone continued to hover behind his back as she wasn’t offered a chair, simply on account of no one having any to spare. But she didn’t look offended or put out by the fact - she was quite used to standing for hours, bending over bodies in her mortuary.
Georgie stood behind the blackjack table, taking up the role of the dealer (and being good at it, as always). She began to deal cards to all the players, in turn, placing one in front of herself. The tensions were thick enough to cut with a knife - but Eric Chapman seemed to notice none of that edginess.
‘So, Rudyard’ He began loudly, turning slightly towards the man on his right. ‘have you ever played blackjack before?’
‘Place your bets, please.’ Georgie talked over them as Rudyard stared morosely at his four of clubs, placing a single chip begrudgingly on the table.
‘It’s my first time.’ he whispered darkly into the green felt as he contemplated the little, circular bit of plastic, representing one-tenth of his hard-earned birthday money. He refused to be uncomfortable about his inexperience but wasn’t feeling exactly confident either.
‘Oh, I’d be happy to teach you!’
‘I’m sure you wouldn’t want to.’
‘Really, it’s no trouble.’
‘You might prefer to focus on the game instead.’
‘Oh, I am sure I can manage. After all, I won first place at the Final Table of the World Series of Blackjack Tournament in Vegas.’ Eric’s face lit up, drawing a subtle growl from Rudyard. He patted Rudyard’s four than his own king, launching into an explanation. ‘First thing you should know is that cards 2 to 10 count at face value, while face cards count as 10. Now...‘
He continued to blabber on, not noticing how Rudyard leaned back towards Antigone.
‘Quick, I think he’s using some sort of code.’ The elder Funn muttered from the corner of his mouth. ‘Can you decipher it?’
‘He isn’t making any sense. He might be having a stroke.’ Antigone wagered with her usual doom and gloom and Rudyard decided to interrupt his rival.
‘Actually, Chapman, I think I am fine. I mean, how complex can this game be if you were able to learn it too, right?’
Eric looked confused and slightly disappointed for a moment as he stared up at Rudyard but he was as quick to regain his composure as ever.
‘Oh, right. Well, suit yourself.’ He shrugged, smiling again. ‘Anyway, best of lu....”
‘Aaaah!’ Mayor Desmond interrupted making a distressed little noise. ‘Try not to use those words around this table, Eric dear.’
‘What’ Rudyard frowned. ‘you mean “good lu…”.
‘Desi is very superstitious.’ it was the Reverend’s turn to talk over them. ‘He has several different good luck charms, don’t you Desi?’
He squished the Mayor’s cheeks adoringly to which his husband reacted by leaning in for a peck of a kiss.
‘None of them are as lucky as you, my darling.’
Rudyard rolled his eyes discreetly at them - it was high time they went on that honeymoon they kept delaying.
Meanwhile, Georgie started dealing another hand to everyone, beginning with Chapman.
‘An ace and a king?’ He cried with glee. ‘Blimey, that’s a blackjack I believe.’
While everyone ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’ in appreciation Rudyard tried to make desperate eye contact with Georgie, showing her his four and five.
‘How do you want to play this, boss?’ She asked subtly, and while pretty much everyone could hear their conversation and see the way they bent their heads together, they were too busy fawning over Chapman to care.
‘I don’t actually know.’ Rudyard confessed through his gritted teeth. ‘I have no idea what’s happening.’
‘Ok.’ sighed Georgie, resigning to saving the day again. ‘So, you have two options. You might want to surrender…’
‘Then you’d better hit it, boss.’
‘But we only just arrived…’ Rudyard whinged, confused.
‘No, I mean you need more cards to improve your hand!’
‘Ah, you see I was born this way.’
‘Christ, just do as you are told and ask for more cards, Rudyard!’ Antigone burst out and her brother was quick to concede.
Georgie dealt him a ten. He gestured for another one, feeling the crosshair of everyone's stare on him. His next hand was a six of hearts and the crowd exhaled with clean-cut frustration.
‘Oh shame, you are busted now.’ Georgie commented.
‘Sure feels that way.’ Rudyard agreed sadly as he watched her take his chip away.
‘No, she means your hand is out of play.’ Eric helpfully explained, prompting Rudyard to study the knobbly juncture of his joints and long fingers with a lack of surety.
‘Are you certain? It feels pretty normal to me!’
‘Just shut up already, Rudyard.’ Antigone sneered.
‘Sorry, Rudyard, but you ought to have stood down at that ten.’ Mayor Desmond commented without sounding sympathetic at all, squinting at his cards in concentration.
‘Well, you know how is it with the luck of the draw.’ Rudyard sighed, trying to be charitable. ‘Anyway, your lordship, there is this thing I wanted to talk about…’
‘N-n-not now, son.’ Mayor Desmond waved him off, gesturing at Georgie to deal him another card. He gathered a twenty before standing down himself but he couldn’t be persuaded to talk after on account of watching Nigel’s hand intensely - which went on for quite a while as the Reverend was hesitant to settle for any course of action. In the end, Georgie had lost as a dealer and proceeded to reward most players with a chip, except Rudyard.
The game continued in a similar fashion. Mayor Desmond was either too busy playing or smooching the Reverend to lend an ear to Rudyard’s increasingly desperate attempts of initiating a conversation. All the while Rudyard tried to divide his attention and pick up the rules as to not lose out too early on - believing that the Mayor would pay even less heed to his agenda if he wasn’t part of the tournament. He lost five rounds, then won two as he slowly deciphered what was happening, mending somewhat his dented funds. All of that he achieved while his nerves and ears were attacked by the crowing of his sister from behind and the sounds of Mayor Desmond snogging his betrothed right next to him - the former being as pleasant as the scarpe of nails across a blackboard and the latter making a similar sound to someone chewing gum very near his eardrum.
‘Is this strictly necessary?’ He muttered to himself after particularly wet combat of the battle of the lips that was unfolding by his side. He thought he was being understated, but he managed to catch Eric’s attention - and Chapman wasn’t used to being subtle about anything, ever.
‘I believe kissing his companion must be part of Desmond’s more superstitious strategies.’ He said loudly, for the whole of the table to hear. ‘It’s supposed to bring good luck.’
‘I mean it’s all very pagan, these charms of rabbit foot and the traditions of lucky garments.’ Reverend Wavering blushed but looked pretty pleased with himself all the same. ‘But then, who can say that there isn’t something to them, am I right?’
‘Well, looking at you two, all I can think is there might be a grain of truth in the myth about being lucky at cards and love.’ Eric sighed, if a bit wistfully, like he was out there all day, wasting away in his hopeless yearning for romance.
It was a calculated thing, of course, or so did Rudyard believe and the only thing that truly worked like a charm over the whole table. Desmond and Nigel proceeded to stare at each other with even more frenzied passion, while Petunia’s eyes instantly glazed over with sympathetic longing and he could have sworn that even Sid Marlowe blushed a bit where he sat almost at a right angle to them. Not to mention the chocked little sound Antigone made in the background, quick to mutter something like “shut up” in tow.
‘It looks like you too could do with that extra dose of luck, blossom.’ Petunia commented, indicating mainly Eric's cards and perhaps something more, judging by her lewd infliction.
It was Chapman’s turn to decide whether he wanted to hit again or stand. Winning or going bust was hinging on his choice.
‘I think you are right, Petunia.’ Eric sighed again, frowning. ‘I’ve got quite a dilemma here.’
Petunia was quick to make the noble sacrifice of jumping up from her chair and providing the much needed Frenching. But she was stopped in her ministrations by Desmond Desmond.
‘Sit down, for Heaven’s sake. It’s bad luck to leave the table.’
‘But Chapman should have all the extra fortune he can get.’ Gestured the disappointed florist.
‘And you might just jinx him with your excited wriggling. Sit, woman.’ Scolded the Reverend and Petunia obeyed petulantly like a child who was denied dessert.
‘Oh no, we can’t abide by that.’ Chided Eric playfully, beaming at the others at the table before turning to Rudyard, sitting right next to him. ‘Sorry, allow me.’
And to Rudyard’s dismayed terror he started to lean over - and he watched, frozen to the spot like someone witnessing a car crash, what he believed to be Chapman’s attempt to kiss his lips. His life flashed in front of his eyes, from his tender, unhappy childhood all the way to his miserable maturity until the present caught up with him again, only to confront him with the sight of Chapman slightly changing his trajectory to place an almost shy peck on his cheek.
With that, his rival funeral director directed his attention back to the felt table, oblivious to Rudyard’s distress and intended Georgie to give him another card.
‘Hit me, Georgie.’ He urged Rudyard’s assistant.
‘Happily.’ Georgie growled, frowning at him, delivering a considerable right hook into Chapman’s shoulder. Eric tried to repress a pained cry.
‘No, I mean with a card.’
‘Sorry, Eric .’ Georgie hissed as Chapman cradled his numb upper arm.
‘Easy mistake to make.’
Having no other choice, young Miss Crusoe eventually conceded, laying another hand in front of Chapman and...
‘I can’t believe it!’ he called out happily, adding up the value of his cards. ‘Another blackjack.’
But the other players failed to call out in congratulation like before, forcing Rudyard to risk a glance at them. They looked at him a lot like they used to on the days when he would visit Cordelia in her workshop - pointing out how he seemed to be smiling more on those occasions. Urging him to stop.
And the sudden thought of Cordelia prompted him to kick the chair out from under himself and bellow at the small gathering in his most thunderous voice.
‘You should all be ashamed of yourself.’
Chapter 3: The Pains and Longings of Eric Chapman
In which Eric is smitten
‘Sit down, son.’ Mayor Desmond pleaded, probably trying to preserve whatever luck they still had.
‘No, you sit down!’ Rudyard commanded crankily, even though he was the only person standing. Usually, he looked almost fragile to Chapman. He always thought that part of the reason why he hadn’t had it in him to drive Rudyard’s business to the ground was that his likeness to a Dickensian orphan always got the better of his protective side. Today, however, he was towering over the village people, head held high with righteous fury.
‘I can’t believe you lot! You are all so busy playing your little games and… and, and fraternizing and just generally enjoying yourself’ Rudyard pointed an accusatory finger at Eric. ‘that you don’t even notice how Piffling is falling into ruins around you!’
‘Falling into ruins?’ Mayor Desmond laughed, incredulous. ‘I would argue that we are thriving, Rudyard. We’ve never been closer to becoming a town.’
‘Well I’m not sure that’s such a good idea’ sneered Rudyard bitterly. ‘when we can barely handle being a village.’
Chapman was fairly certain that on any other day the offended gasp that spread around the table would have undermined Rudyard’s confidence. But not tonight. Because the man who was standing in front of them wasn’t the old Rudyard, but someone far more self-assured who looked hauntingly like him.
‘Now, now, Rudyard…’ Regardless, Eric found himself trying to stand, his voice placating like he was about to hone his lion taming skills on Rudyard before the older Funn caused some irreparable damage to his own ailing reputation. But Rudyard was not having any of it.
‘Our priorities are in a disarray. I mean, all you can talk about for the last fortnight was building some kind of bloody boathouse on Lake Chapman, when our burial grounds…’
‘Yes and that will finally put us on the map. We are developing Lake Chapman into a real tourist destination.’ Mayor Desmond argued back, causing Rudyard to scoff indignantly.
‘Listen to yourself! Attracting tourist is the only thing you care for. But I resent the idea of people flocking here to witness our shame!’
Rudyard’s voice carried with pride, even as Antigone to repeat his name warningly - sending a strange, but pleasant tingle down the length of Chapman’s spine.
Rudyard burning for a cause, it was all a bit...
‘What are you talking about?’ the Mayor blinked at the funeral director in the meantime, confused, like something that escaped the Owl Sanctuary.
‘You would know if you’d let me speak in any of the past seventeen council meetings!’ Rudyard accused and sadly, he wasn’t exaggerating. Tired of listening to him talking animatedly about his findings in the Archives, but hating the conflict, Mayor Desmond simply rescheduled Rudyard’s hearings towards the end of the meetings and made it as if they’ve run out of time before he had a chance to talk. It was all happening much to the dismay of Eric (who found that the enthused Rudyard was quite an adorable sight with his pink cheeks aflame and his eyes twinkling excitedly) but there was very little he could do about it. Mayor Desmond could be almost as bull-headed as a certain funeral director on some matters. ‘I’m talking about our duty of properly funding the upkeep of the burial grounds instead of splashing out on these lavish, but pointless extravagances.’
‘Thank you for your concern, but the burial grounds are just fine, Rudyard.’ The Mayor shot back, riled up and commanding, before turning to his husband. ‘Aren’t they, Nigel?’
The Reverend, at least, had it in him to looked a bit ashamed.
‘Actually, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that Desi... ‘
‘It’s just that you are usually kept very busy.’ He hurried to add guiltily. ‘But the thing is that they do look rather shabby at the moment.’
‘Thank you, Reverend.’ Rudyard nodded magnanimously.
‘Well, we better find out who is responsible for the maintenance of our cemetery then!’
His eyes started to wander naturally towards Chapman before Rudyard directed his attention back on himself.
‘I am, your lordship.’
‘There you have it!’ Desmond shouted in triumph, jabbing a meaty finger towards Rudyard. ‘You come here and try and blame us for failing your duties yet again. Perhaps we should give the job to Eric, after all.’
‘I am afraid’ Chapman hurried to insert as Rudyard shot a penetrating, dirty look at him. ‘that I am far too busy with my booming business…’
‘Show-off.’ Muttered Georgie.
‘...and my duties on the council. Also, I wouldn't want to step on Rudyard’s toes…’
‘That would be a first.’ Antigone mumbled.
‘...as I am certain that there is a perfectly logical explanation to why he might be struggling to rise to the challenge.’
‘You mean other than him being Rudyard Funn?’ Sid Marlow chuckled scathingly and Eric felt his fingers curl into fists with the sudden swelling of anger in him. But Rudyard simply ignored the comment and pressed on, levelling his gaze on Mayor Desmond.
‘I couldn’t meet my duties because there’s virtually no funding available for me to tackle these matters.’
‘Sure there is.’ Mayor Desmond looked around at the other council members, seeking help. Following his gaze, Eric spotted Sid Marlowe, scribbling furiously in an open notebook. There was a good chance that the reporter just got bored and was now doodling to pass time - but if any of this was to reach public ear… ‘There must be, there always used to be.’
‘There wasn’t, not ever. When I was on the Piffling Council I used to redirect the budget that was dedicated to the events' funding because every motion I put forward on spending on the infrastructure was voted down. But I don’t have that kind of influence any more.’
Stepping out from behind the blackjack table, Rudyard stood in front of the small congregation of the most influential people of Piffling Vale (and Petunia), striking a strangely commanding presence.
‘And every week as I take my daughter to see her mother’s crumbling grave I am confronted with the question whether I want to raise her in a village that doesn’t care for its inhabitants.’
‘But of course we do.’ Mayor Desmond pleaded, sounding suddenly desperate and Eric felt as if the bottom of his stomach dropped out. As it tended to, whenever Rudyard mentioned, with raw, palpable grief, the late Cordelia Roach.
‘I believe I speak both as a Piffling parent as well as an advocate of those of our village who can no longer talk for themselves when I say that I am not so sure about that anymore.’
A deathly silence befell the room. The idea of Rudyard Funn (a true Piffling institution, if a bit of an infamous one) leaving the village was impactful. The only noise that broke the solace of the situation was the excitable applause Antigone erupted in and Georgie’s slow, proud clap.
‘Bravo, Rudyard.’ Antigone gushed with appreciation she usually only reserved for truly appalling pieces of French cinema.
‘Yeah, well done Sir!’ Georgie added with a hoot as if she was cheering on the Piffling soccer team.
Rudyard nodded with dignified assent before looking each person by the table in the eye and turning on his heels.
‘Georgie, Antigone, let’s go!’
‘I am not due to clock out from the Mayor for another two hours.’ Georgie inserted.
‘Antigone, let’s go.’ Rudyard amended without missing a beat and the Funns marched out without goodbyes or looking back.
In their absence, everyone started to talk at once, except for Eric, who kept his eyes trained on the door where Rudyard exited but a moment ago. Nigel and Desmond were still busy talking between themselves as Sid Marlowe approached Eric with Petunia on his arm.
‘I say that Funn bloke made quite a spectacle of himself.’ Marlowe chuckled and suddenly Chapman was certain that he was going to say something untoward to him if he didn’t get a chance to leave. Almost as certain as he was desperate to talk to Rudyard.
‘Yes,’ he muttered distractedly as he ambled around the editor of Piffling’s only periodical. He could feel Georgie’s gaze in his back as he made a beeline for the door himself. ‘please excuse me.’
He exploded through the door just on time to catch the twins.
Chapter 4: Georgina Remains to See
In which Georgina doesn't fail to notice
There was no way in hell that the game was going to resume any time soon, so this was a great chance for Georgie to rush after Eric - and break his stupidly perfect, muscly legs, clad in expensive trousers, if he tried to insult her boss.
She caught up with the trio just as Eric called out.
Looking up, the older Funn cleary registered both of their presence.
‘Boss?’ Georgie allowed her voice lilt under the weight of all the threat she could cram in the short, single word but Rudyard simply made an abortive gesture.
‘Let the man speak, Georgie.’
‘I simply wanted to apologise.’ Eric sounded strangely out of breath. ‘I didn’t know that this is how you’ve felt. I didn’t understand.’
‘No,’ Rudyard said slowly, quietly. ‘I don’t expect you could.’
And while a bit of gloating wasn’t alien to her employer, Georgie knew him well enough that she could tell that he wasn’t trying to rub in how, for once, he managed to beat Chapman to something that his rival so nakedly wanted - founding a family. No, Rudyard was simply too tired and too oblivious to register how Chapman stiffened like he was slapped across the cheek.
‘I had no idea that burial grounds were in such a terrible state.’
‘Of course not.’ Despite its apparent calmness, there were tides of bitterness under the surface of Rudyard’s level voice. ‘And why would you? All you ever wanted was to have a bit of fun. That’s all that everybody ever wants around here, while I am left to play the bad guy over and over again. Just like back in the days when I used to be on the council - they always wanted to throw lavish parties leaving me to bang on about budgeting. They even put me in charge of the local events to pressure me into conceding. Well, jokes on them. It just made me more determined to prop up our crumbling infrastructure.’
‘I didn’t know that this was the case!’
‘No, how would you? You are not from around here, after all.’
Eric seemed to shrink in his fancy leather shoes a little bit again and once more, Rudyard wasn’t even trying for the kind of sick burn he just delivered. It was so strange to see the two of them like this - Georgie felt like when she watched Freaky Friday with her Nana. The two-man seemed to have totally swapped roles - Chapman was acting all humble, while Rudyard was behaving super graceful and dignified.
It was a bit nice - but a bit too weird too.
‘But you simply must prioritise when the total income of your local authority comes down to the generous donation of a fiver.’ Rudyard chuckled without mirth and Georgie saw Eric’s hand spasm, like he wanted to reach out, which prompted her to step closer in.
‘Rudyard…’ Eric said, not unkindly, and somehow that made her want to hurt Chapman even more. But the Funn twin wasn’t paying attention.
‘You know, when they allowed me to spend more on the maintenance of the graveyard, I thought they’ve begun to see the err of their ways. And while I knew that my agenda will never exactly make me popular, I thought they might have begun to accept me too. Sure, they were always going to regard me as a stick in the mud - but you can hardly expect a sombre funeral director to be fun.’
For the first time, Rudyard met Eric’s eyes and flashed a wonky smile at him.
‘Or so we thought until you showed up.’
‘I feel terrible, Rudyard.’ Eric said earnestly and it was hard to tell if he was talking about tonight or all those other times he undermined Rudyard before. Perhaps it was a bit of both. ‘Desmond and I simply got a bit carried away. That research from the late Professor Carbuncle you’ve dug up in the archives? It suggested that Lake Chapman might have a very rich ecosys…’
To Georgie’s relief, Rudyard finally lashed out at that in his good, old-fashioned Funn way.
‘Don’t try to blame this on me!’
‘I’m not!’ Eric fought back with reassuring familiarity. ‘All I am saying is that based on your findings we thought that it’s time we developed the Lake into the bustling hive of tourist activity it deserves to be.
‘Ooh, yes, I see.’ Rudyard finally switched his gears up to a typical, full-blown, sarcastic Rudyard tantrum and Georgie almost cried out with the relief of having her old boss back. Sometimes she still struggled to consolidate her idea of Rudyard with the new persona he was trying to cultivate - even as she actively helped his rebranding. ‘I am sure that the lack of visitors in Piffling has nothing to do with our main roads being more potholes than tarmac and everything to do with the lack of attractions around here. I mean it’s not like we don’t already have a cafe, a waterslide, a bouncy castle, an Owl Sanctuary and a Ferris wheel. No, what we need is another asinine tourist trap!’
‘Jesus, Rudyard, point taken!’ Chapman threw his hands up in defeat and Georgie could tell he too was smiling, despite facing his back. She could hear it on his voice. ‘You are right. And to show you how much I agree with you, I want to donate the funds that we raised for the boathouse to the upkeep of the burial grounds.’
‘I don’t need your alimony, Chapman.’ Rudyard spat reflexively, making Antigone flinch by his side and Eric sigh with exasperation. Georgie could understand. This was precisely the opportunity Rudyard wanted and he was ready to turn it down on account of it coming from Chapman.
‘It’s not charity, Rudyard. Believe it or not, I also care about our community.’
‘Sure you do.’ Rudyard mumbled, causing Chapman to actually pinch the bridge of his nose with barely capped irritation.
‘It’s also in the best interest of my business.’ Chapman syllabised. ‘Even I can’t put the fun in funerals if our graveyard looks more like a scrapyard.’
Rudyard finally nodded in agreement - he could subscribe to the idea if this was Chapman’s logic.
Only Antigone looked worried by now.
‘I’m not sure that Mayor Desmond will allow any of that.’ She admitted gloomily. ‘He’s really bent on building that boathouse.’
‘I know what you mean. But I have just the idea as to how to convince him.’ Eric said, voice all chipper again and Georgie, for once, welcomed his enthused attempt to play the hero. ‘I’ll go and talk to him right now!’
‘Chapman.’ Rudyard said in a small voice, making him halt.
And the air, once again, filled with the strange charge between the two men that Georgie could very clearly feel, but struggled to explain away. It wasn’t rooted in their rivalry - it was something far more tentative and fragile.
She almost thought that they were beginning to sympathize with each other - if that wouldn’t have been the most ludicrous of ideas.
‘Yes, Rudyard?’ Eric asked gently.
‘Did the Mayor actually read my findings from the archives?’
‘Well, he is usually kept very busy…’
‘And doesn’t always read everything he is given, yes, yes.’ Rudyard sighed, visibly deflating.
‘But I did.’ Eric rushed to say, gripping the door frame as he looked back, clearly torn between wanting to instantly start developing his new scheme and seemingly needing to comfort Rudyard. ‘Every single one of them. I’ve got to admit, you are quite a brilliant archivist, Rudyard.’
And there it was again, like the faint taste of ozone, barely there yet distinct; a strange presence reared its head up between the rival funeral directors. Georgie noticed that those lingering glances they were exchanging now were becoming a more frequent occurrence in the past months, remembered the way Eric leaned in to plant a kiss on Rudyard’s cheek and she didn’t like any of it, not one bit.
‘Come on, pretty boy.’ She growled, shoving her hands into Eric’s back. ‘You’ve got to talk to the Mayor, remember?’
And she squeezed Eric over the threshold and shut the door rudely in her bosses’ face.
Inside the village eminence were still in disarray like a disturbed chicken coop. Sid Marlowe must have realised that he had quite a scoop delivered to him on a silver tray and was pressing the Mayor for comment and for the definition of the word ‘periodical’ simultaneously. Reverend Weavering was fending him off presently, so Mayor Desmond took the opportunity to run up to Chapman, worrying his hands.
‘Oh, Eric, whatever are we going to do?’
‘We are going to do the right thing, of course, Desmond. We will redirect the money for the upkeep of the burial grounds.’
‘Ooh.’ Mayor Desmond’s face fell as he began to fiddle with his insignia as a sure sign of planning to argue and acting petulant. ‘But I do so wanted to have the boathouse built.’
‘And it still will get built.’ Eric clapped his back. ‘We raised the funds once, we can raise them again.’
‘Throwing another charity gala so soon might make us look a bit greedy, Eric.’ Desmond frowned, but Eric snaked a hand around his shoulder and made a sweeping gesture as if painting an invisible picture with one efficient motion.
‘I have a much better idea. We are going to organise the First Piffling Bakesale this time.’
‘We?’ Desmond whined, eyeing his furious husband where he was locked in a dispute with Sid Marlowe. ‘It’s just that I am a very busy man…’
‘Oh, well.’ Eric looked a bit surprised, caught off guard, glance roaming the room for an idea as to who to rope in on the duty of organising yet another fundraiser.
He wasn’t quick enough. Desmond lit up with glee, nudging his side.
‘Oh, I know! Why don’t you get that Funt fellow to do it with you? He sure likes to poke his nose in village business, I am certain he’ll be delighted to be offered the honours.’
Georgie watched as a range of emotions crossed Chapman’s face - there was an equal measure of trepidation and calculation, only to finally settle on something disgustingly hopeful.
‘Remarkable idea. I’ll talk to him first thing tomorrow.’
‘Excellent, dear boy.’ Desmond exclaimed and hurried off to relay the news to Sid Marlowe.
Eric, meanwhile, just stood there, eyes glazed over with a dreamy expression. Then he shook his stupor and looked about himself. He at least had the decency to blush when he caught Georgie staring.
And if Georgie Crusoe had some sinking suspicion about the man, she wasn’t going to tell Rudyard about it.