It was an ordinary enough morning in Funn Funerals. I rose early and scuttled the length of the skirting board in search of some breakfast. I greeted Antigone absent-mindedly where she waited, her knife and butter at the ready, for her toast to pop. I helped myself to a blob of jam and joined Rudyard in the foyer. He stood with his eyes glued to the ancient rotary phone, creating the impression that he'd been there for the longest of time. Perhaps forever. He muttered a bleary "Good morning, Madeleine." at me when he spotted me, then returned his attention to his desk.
At precisely nine o'clock the phone came to life with an infernal racket. Rudyard jumped to pick it up, barking down the receiver.
'Now look here-'
I couldn't make out the reply, just the tinny noise of someone shouting down the line. Rudyard's face twisted itself into a disingenuous smile, wide enough to be audible to the caller.
'Good morning, Mr Steeple I knew you'd reach out.' Then he repeated what was asked of him, as a way of stalling. 'What is this talk of us losing your aunt? I can assure you, Mr Steeple, it's all just a big misunderstanding.'
There was a moment's pause as the agitated relative blurted something down the line.
'No, we don't have her, per se.' Rudyard admitted then hurried to amend when the shouting on the other end flared up again. 'But we didn't lose her.'
He peppered in with a condescending imitation of a laugh.
'You could just say that we simply temporarily misplaced her.'
More crackling and shrieking emerged from the receiver and Rudyard was forced to hold it away from his face. I caught the tail end of some insults that made my ears burn.
'The difference?' Rudyard moved closer to the phone again, with caution, like he was handling a live bomb, expecting more expletives. He frowned with waning patience but, feeling generous, tried for amicability, rather than hostility. 'Why I wouldn't want to insult your intellect by starting to explain something so obviou-'
He was interrupted once more. He echoed back at the speaker, genuinely confused.
'Insult away? Well, you see, fundamentally-'
Just then, the door of Funn Funerals flung open with such ferocity that it rebounded on the wall and hit the silver bell above the frame a second time, teasing an indignant sound from the offended chime.
"Stop right there!" Shouted Georgie upon entering, batting the door away as it tried to close on her again.
'I'm afraid I'll have to call you back Mr Steeple.' Rudyard announced, moving the speaker away from himself, shouting as if he spoke to Mr Steeple from a distance. 'I can't hear you properly, the line's breaking up. I am just entering a tunnel. But you can leave a message after the-'
And with that, he whacked the receiver back to its place with a pleased nod, announcing.
'That should fox him.'
I couldn't agree more - given how Mr Steeple had phoned our landline. But, already distracted, my friend turned to his assistant with hope in his voice and his eyes.
'Georgie please say that you've got the body of Mrs Pulley.
'No, I don't.' Georgie scowled. 'Why, where is it?"
'I wouldn't be asking you if I'd know, now would I?!' Rudyard cried a wail of anger and desperation.
'Ah, hello Georgie.' Antigone greeted their assistant as she joined them in the foyer and took her usual place by the foot of the counter, carefully balancing her teetering tower of toast.
'Anyway, that's not important.' Georgie waved, to which Rudyard muttered darkly.
'The nephew of the deceased would beg to differ.'
'The reason why I'm here today is-'
'Because this is your place of employ?' Suggested my friend, irked, trying to remind her.
Georgie paused gamely to consider this, then concluded.
'Oh for the love of-'
'It's because I am staging an intervention.'
'About time.' Rudyard heaved a relieved sigh, turning swiftly on his heels, starting at his sister. 'Antigone, I held my tongue until now, but this habit of yours of spending every minute of the day in the mortuary is seriously disturbing and-'
But Antigone was quick to cut in, stifling the tirade.
'I go to the cinema every Thursday and you know it!'
As confused on the umpteenth occasion as he was at the first time his sister had told him this, Rudyard was narrowing his eyes.
'No, you don't. Since when?'
But before this could develop into a full-blown brawl, Georgie interrupted.
'This is about you sir, actually.'
'Me?' Harrumphed Rudyard, pointing at himself in a gesture of indignant disbelief.
'Oh, cut it out, Rudyard.' An exasperated huff emerged from where Antigone was breakfasting resolutely. 'We both know that you have a flaming crush on Eric Chapman, so there's no use denying it.'
Rudyard made a sound somewhere between a splutter of disgust and disbelief, gaping in the incredulous manner of something better suited to breathing underwater.
'How dare you!' He croaked with some difficulty, his voice momentarily level but carrying a great deal of threat, like a dormant volcano. 'You've no evidence-'
'You mean, apart from all the time you spend staring at Chapman's?'
'It's called plotting!' Rudyard's indignant protest rose readily. 'Fermenting.'
'Not when you keep sighing like a heroine of Antigone's raunchy books it's not.' Georgie shook her head while the mortician snapped in the background.
'Admit it, Rudyard. When was the last time you can remember getting through an hour without mentioning Eric Chapman?'
Antigone stared in front of herself, masticating deep in contemplation.
'It's understandable, really. After all, Chapman seems to have a profound effect on the feeble-minded.'
This was no small display of hypocrisy from the woman who spent months spinning deeply disturbing, darkly romantic daydreams about herself and Chapman - but I couldn't call her out on it as Rudyard's exclaim interrupted me.
'This is ridiculous!' He snarled, but no one was paying much heed to his outrage.
'Listen, sir, we get it.' Georgie breathed mournfully. 'Business had slowed to a crawl-'
'It's just a fallow period!'
'And with little else to do apart from obsessing over Chapman-'
'It was always pretty much going to end with your feelings of hatred turning into something more-'
She made a gesture of fumbling for words and Antigone eagerly substituted:
'Romantic? Exquisite? Nuanced yet sensual?'
But, ignoring her suggestions, Georgie finally settled on:
'This' shuddered Rudyard. 'must be what death feels like.'
'It explains why you've been unable to sabotage any of Chapman's business ventures, really.' Added Antigone thoughtfully. 'You never really wanted to wreck or destroy him.'
'All you've ever wanted was to gaze into his lovely eyes.' Georgie nodded in confirmation.
'Look, stop it you two!' Rudyard stomped his feet like a frustrated child, a blush of exasperated anger tainting his cheeks. 'You can't be silly in a funeral parlour. This is a business!'
There was a momentary pause where the women waited for some form of continuation to forthcome.
'Yes. And?' Shrugged Georgie when nothing of a sort had happened.
'I was hoping that the phrase would fill you with guilt.' Admitted Rudyard with defeat imprinted on his expression.
'That didn't seem to have worked out for you.' Antigone smiled into a bite of her toast.
'Lucky for you, sir, I'm great at helping people get over crushes.' Stepping up to Rudyard, Georgie gave a fortifying squeeze to his shoulder. 'There's but one solution, really.'
'Surely, you don't mean-' Rudyard began, hesitant.
'Yes.' Georgie nodded with conviction before he'd finished.
'Flat out murder?' Whispered Rudyard.
'Not yet.' Georgie responded cooley and without missing a beat. 'No. What you need sir is a distraction.'
Rudyard considered this.
'Do carry on.' He'd finally conceded and based on his sly cadence he was probably hoping that Georgie will suggest a "Triple S" package at the Paradise Hotel or something to that effect.
'There's always the actual running of the business.' Quipped Antigone, voice thick with sarcasm. 'Have you ever considered getting us some clients, for instance?'
Ignoring her, however, Georgie announced dramatically.
'Rudyard, you need a date.'
'A date?' Echoed Rudyard, dumbfounded.
'Who on Earth would be daft enough to date my useless brother?' Demanded Antigone and Georgie's expression creased into an accordion-fold smile.
'Only the second most eligible bachelor on the island.' She boasted. 'Dr Edgware.'
Anyone, but Georgie Crusoe would have interpreted the ensuing cold, despondent silence as a discouraging sign. Finally, after what had felt like an eternity, Antigone spoke.
'Please tell me you're joking.' She muttered, blanching, her voice flat.
'You'd know if I were joking. Cos it'd be funny and you'd be laughing.' Sniffed Georgie.
'B-but, surely there are plenty of other single men on Piffling. Some of quite desperate too. Desperate enough to go out with Rudyard at least!' Antigone pleaded, her agitation rising, as she jumped to her feet, propelled by her utter outrage.
'Antigone, you are very insulting, you know that?' Rudyard tried to interrupt. He was, in turn, promptly and resoundingly ignored.
'W-what about Fireside Phil?' His sister cried out, wringing her hands. 'I hear he's single too!'
'Antigone. Your brother dating a raging arsonist is a receipt for disaster and we both know it.'
'No, you are absolutely right.' Antigone had to admit. 'But still. Of all the people on this sodding island, did it have to be Dr Edgware?'
'It just makes sense, when you think about it. Georgie attempted to explain, but Antigone shook her head with vigorous denial.
'Not when you think about it, no.'
'After all, they are both single, both dark and brooding-'
'No, Dr Edgware is dark and brooding.' Antigone protested, then, her eyes clouding, added. 'And elegant and mysterious and shockingly good looking but in an understated way with his dark hair, dark eyes, dark, languid demeanour and dark-dark-dark...'
Antigone had come to a spluttering halt, after having spoken with increasing speed and in slightly breathless manner, her chest heaving as if moved by the wild, erratic palpitations of her heart.
'Are you alright?' Her assistant asked as she proceeded to fan herself.
'Yes, no, shut up, I need to sit down.' She announced, all but collapsing. Gathering herself once on the floor, she concluded. 'Meanwhile, Rudyard is the human embodiment of a fire in a wheely bin. No offence, Rudyard.'
'Much taken.' Muttered my friend.
'Look,' Georgie sighed. 'all I'm saying is that they'd both feel much happier if the better half of Piffling was in urgent need of a funeral. So they've at least one thing in common.'
She peered up at Rudyard, who'd been excluded from this discussion so far, despite being the subject of it.
'So. What do you say, Sir?'
Rudyard's gaze ricocheted between his sister and his assistant. He took a deep breath as if in contemplation. Then he'd announced, categorically and without hesitation.
'But why not?' Georgie threw her hand in the air, irritation written all over her.
'Because, Georgina, you'll find that between my job as the village's newly appointed archivist and my work at running Funn Funerals I hardly have time to spare for such asinine social niceties as dating.' Thundered Rudyard, pride lending an unusual grace to his poise.
In a fit of theatrics, he made his way to the middle of the foyer, facing his crew, bracing his fists on hips.
'And besides which,' He continued. ' I have always found Dr Edgware the most tedious, needlessly sombre-'
He heard the silver bell above the door go at the same time as Georgie said.
'Perfectly pleasant, if not admirable presence.' Rudyard said, navigating swiftly the conversational hairpin bend, turning to greet the physician. 'Good morning, Dr Edgware, what brings you here this fine dawn?'
Dr Edgware narrowed his eyes at him with a blend of suspicion and trepidation. He slightly overdressed for the occasion; his suit would have put him better at ease at the yet-to-be-built Piffling Opera House. He was clutching a large bouquet and had the overall air of someone showing for a funeral. So he didn't look out of place altogether.
'Mr Funn.' He said with his usual, eloquent enunciation, the one that made him sound as if he was sentencing you to death even as he declared you free of all maladies. 'I was lead to believe that you and I are supposed to go on what kids these days call a "date".
'Ah, yes.' Rudyard nodded, grinding his teeth down into a forced smile. 'And you came to tell me that you are too busy for such gimmicks given how you are the only doctor on the island? Oh, what a pity, what a shame!'
'Actually, I've no appointments for a whole day. As you might imagine, I am beside myself with joy. Positively ecstatic.'
He said this with a completely emotionless, flat tone - but when you are as exhausted as Dr Edgeware, raising your voice in elation can prove to be beyond your capabilities. Chancing a smile would have burned far more calories than his perpetual frown - something he could I'll afford given how he'd been sustaining on some muesli in his top pocket for weeks.
'Actually-' Rudyard began, but Henry Edgware interrupted, sounding each word as if he exhumed them from a freshly dug grave.
'I hope you are not going to tell me that coming here was a waste of my precious time, Rudyard.'
'Mr Funn.' The undertaker suggested, trying to reel in the informality.
'Rudyard.' Dr Edgware repeated, unflinching.
My friend gulped in a very visible sort of way, his Adam's apple bobbing as he started to say.
'Look, doctor, I hate to break it to you, but-'
But before he'd had a chance to finish, his sister shot to her feet and shouted.
'That's it.' Before making a beeline for the front door.
'What's wrong, Antigone?' Georgie called after her, confused, just as she tore the front door open.
'I'll tell you what.' She turned on her heels, sheeting, looking like a strangely dark, obscure creature of fury with her eyes flashing and her cheeks running feverishly red hot. 'This had become an island of libertines and I am not going to abide silently as my own brother subscribes to this licentious nonsense.'
It looked as if she was about to leave at that, but she halted, hesitant, and amended.
'At least not without subscribing myself.'
And with that, she was gone.
'Is your sister quite alright?' Inquired Dr Edgware in a measured tone.
He handed the bouquet to Rudyard, who popped it into a handy vase he stole from Chapman. The flowers in the corsage looked degrees more invigorated for it like the doctor was exuding an aura of enervitude that had the power of sucking the lifeblood out of anything in his immediate proximity.
'How should I know?' Rudyard asked with a defiant air about him.
'Well, one would assume that you have a fairly sharp understanding of her personality and disposition. Given how you'd known her all your life.' Explained Dr Edgware.
'She was scowling, wasn't she?' Rudyard waved his arms defensively. 'And she's always scowling, so this is perfectly normal behaviour for her. Probably.'
'Rudyard we'd better go after her.' Georgie declared. 'Before she does herself a mischief.'
'Oh... give it another few minutes.' Growled Rudyard before he caught the expression of his assistant. He then conceded, instantly, rolling his eyes. 'Yes, alright, you win Georgie, let's go.'
So we meandered across the square in tow of the determined mortician who tore through the cobbled street like a jet-propelled pipe cleaner.