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Rudyard Ruins The Double Date

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With its ageing, imitation Portland stone facade and the truly exuberant amount of fading, faux gold leaf over its plasterwork, Frangipani's had the majestic, if dilapidated air of a regal establishment past its zenith. A cultivated aesthetic that it said to have been maintaining since the day it opened, newly built, some twelve years ago. The inside, being much the same in atmosphere as he outwardly appearance, looked slightly shabby with its inexpertly layered coatings of paint that seemed to emphasize, rather than cover, the extensive fire damage caused by the Funns, the very thing it was applied to mask. Upon entering, one was confronted with the northernmost wall of the restaurant, labelled "Wall of Fame". It sported precisely three pictures. A framed, candid snap of a youngish Mrs Frangipani, posing next to Gina Lollobrigida. An autographed polaroid of Michael Douglas, aboard the Disco Volante, from five years before.

And, last but not least, a modest, six feet tall oil portrait of Eric Chapman. In the full dress of the Royal Hussars. On a rearing, white horse.

Aside from those, on the opposite side of the foyer, there was one more picture. A crumpled clipping from Piffling Matters, stuck to the wall with a hard ball of chewing gum. It had a mugshot quality to it and it depicted the Funns and Georgie, blurry with motion, seemingly in the process of distancing themselves from what looked like the front of Frangipani's, engulfed in flames.

That wall had no writing but was easy enough to see that it was reserved for persona non grata.

Mrs Frangipani greeted our procession in person, as we filed in. Dr Edgware with a courteous nod. Eric with a winsome smile. The Funns with a forbidding, soul-crushing stare that felt disproportionately strict, even knowing their appalling track record. Mrs Frangipani seated the two couples in opposite ends of the building in, what I believed to be, a moderate attempt of employing the "divide and conquer" school of crowd control in her dealings with the Funns.

She chose to attend to the table of Rudyard and Dr Edgware first.

'Bona sera, signori. May I take your orders?'

Dr Edgware looked about himself and, denoting the lack of a carte de jour, he asked.

'Can we have the menu, please?'

'Sure.' Mrs Frangipani nodded and she proceeded to gesture at a blackboard announcing "Soup!' in enthusiastic block capitals over the kitchen door. Dr Edgware sighed and rubbed his face down, allowing all his foreboding feelings to show at once.

'We'll have the soup, thank you.' Rudyard declared, taking control. 'And two lattes. And make it sharp. Pronto.'

The proprietress of Frangipani's didn't have to clip him around the ears - her stare did that for her. Rudyard shrunk in his seat and muttered something that was either "Thank you" or "Sorry." or both.

Mollified, Mrs Frangipani proceeded.

'Do you want antipasti?' She inquired and Dr Edgware made one last attempt to find out whether circumstances rendered the choice completely obsolete.

'What are the options?'

Mrs Frangipani considered this.

'Yes or no.'

'No, thank you.' The doctor sighed.

'Molto bene.'

The thing you need to know about Mrs Frangipani that she wasn't acting terse on account of having to be hospitable to the Funns - she'd always had the general demeanour of an affectionate bully, the kind that genuinely believed that their harassment was "building character".

Something you never would have guessed when you watched her deal with Eric Chapman.

'Eric, caro mio!' She exploded with enthusiasm all over Chapman as she floated over to the undertaker's table like a vast, maternal frigate.

'Mrs Frangipani, always a pleasure.' Eric beamed and, rising from his chair, he offered his right to the proprietress. She clasped the outstretched hand firmly and used it to pull Chapman into an embrace, crushing him against her cushiony bosom.

'What can I get for you' She asked upon finally releasing him, 'and your-'

She looked down at Antigone. Contemplated the matted black hair. The dramatically veiling, floor-length black dress. Her tendency to look covered in cobwebs even at her most spotless.

'Date?' She wagered finally.

'Two of your finest soup, please.' Ordered Chapman, not correcting her. While this seemed to displease Mrs Frangipani, diplomatically enough, she didn't address it in any way, shape or form.

'Right away, darling.' She said instead in her best approximation of Oxford English and she nipped back to the kitchen.

'Terrific woman. Did you know that she-' Commented Eric, turning to Antigone but I struggled to hear the rest as Dr Edgeware tried to strike a conversation at our table - with about as much success as someone lighting a tea candle with a pair of flints.

'So, Rudyard. Running your own funeral parlour, eh? ' Dr Edgware offered as a prompter but my friend simply threw a dirty look at him.

'You know I do.' He accused, a bit more uncertain than he'd intended. Even after eleven years as a quasi-public figure on the council, people tended to forget who he was and what he did. But he thought he'd at least made a lasting impression, if of dubious merit, on Dr Edgware when he contributed to the hospitalization of twenty-five undertakers.

The doctor muttered something that, coincidentally, also sounded a lot like "scalpel".

'Of course.' He explained didactically, with his patience thinning to a fraying thread. 'I was just trying to make small talk. Get to know you a bit better.'

'Well, don't.' Rudyard sniffed, turning his whole body demonstrably away from the physician. Not that there was much to look at. The only people in the dive bar, apart from them, were Bill and Tanya; who seemed to be on either a date or holding a belated wake to Jerry, there was no way of telling.

'Trust me, I won't make that mistake twice.' Dr Edgware eyes rolled back like he was looking for the last remnants of loose sympathy rattling somewhere inside the back of his mind. He called after Mrs Frangipani before she disappeared into the kitchen. 'Waitress, alcohol, please. And lots of it.'

A discomfiting sort of silence descended on the pair of them at that with nothing to keep them occupied but the ambient noise of the greasy spoon. It caused Dr Edgware to sink into his usual lethargy. But the more he studied the elegant slopes and rises of Rudyard's profile, the way he sat like a sulking child - already regretting a tantrum, but unable to redeem himself or ask for absolution - the more his expression seemed to mellow.

'Still,' said Henry toying with his cutlery to spare Rudyard, on the off chance that there was some pity showing in his stare. 'running a family business, and such an ancient and distended one. How do you find it?'

'Pretty easily - it's been on the same premises for five hundred years.'

'I just meant that it sounds like you are under a lot of stress.'

'You would only know.' Rudyard scoffed, staring at his lap. 'You are juggling two businesses, with having two hospitals to man and all that.'

'They are not mine, though. St Pratt's is a community hospital and Chapman's belongs to Eric. I must admit, there is something liberating about the knowledge that when I inevitably drop dead from exhaustion, the NHS will just send some poor, unsuspecting fool to take my place.'

Rudyard suddenly perked up.

'Do you think about death a lot?' He asked, abruptly interested in Henry.

'All the time.' Breathed the doctor with the same emphasis someone stuck in the Gobi desert might describe a Banana Daiquiri.

'I see.' Rudyard drawled, narrowing his eyes. He flashed a smile that looked like he learned it from a poorly received handbook on human interaction. 'But have you ever stopped to consider your funeral?'

I quickly decided that Rudyard talking shop with Dr Edgware would hardly make for an engaging chapter in my memoir and decided to abandon the pair of them in favour of joining Chapman and Antigone.

I found them in animated if a bit one-sided conversation; with Chapman providing a running commentary and Antigone staring wistfully over at the man she'd rather been dating.

'-is the last thing you should do if you find yourself between a dingo and a baby.' Concluded Eric, gesticulating brightly, seeming to have been in a story for quite some time.

'Hm, interesting.' Mumbled Antigone, paying him absolutely no heed, her wayward gaze wandering towards Henry's table intermittently.

'l learned that the hard way.' Eric mused, swivelling the wine in his glass. Their table wasn't only served drinks already; Mrs Frangipani also presented them with a pair of atmospheric candles and a complimentary basket of garlic bread. 'A long time ag-'

'Tell me, Eric.' Antigone interrupted. Her full, heated attention was now on Chapman. 'What made you suddenly want to take me out?'

There was a momentary silence, broken only by a persistently, almost willfully off-key accordion music, playing from invisible speakers. Then.

'I mean...' Eric stared back, uncertain. 'You invited me.'

'Because' continued Antigone, unperturbed. 'before today you only ever showed interest in me professionally. You talked to me exclusively to gain my insight on embalming and the one time you asked me out was to try and lure me to work for you.'

'Well, you are a very talented mortician-'

'So what brought this on?' Antigone gestured at the pair of them.

'Nothing in particular.' Stammered Chapman.

'No changes in your work-life balance? In your future prospects?

'No.'

'In your - marital status?'

'I don't know what you mean.' Eric lied resolutely.

'I see.' Antigone scowled. 'Then I've just got one last question to ask you, Chapman.'

'Shoot.'

'Which one of us is fairing better in the dating department - me or my brother?'

Eric's smile dropped abruptly like something laden with lead. The faint colour to his cheeks deepened - suddenly he wasn't just flush from the wine.

'Oh, God.' He murmured, defeated, as Antigone sneered at him in a whisper.

'That's right, I know about you two and I want you to explain  yourself. No, I demand it.'

For a brief instance, it looked like Chapman might leg it, make a hasty escape through the front door of the restaurant. But instead, he gathered himself and resigned to face the situation. After all, he was a lot of things; a charmer, an entrepreneur. The most popular man miles around. Quite possibly a spy.

But he wasn't one for quitting.

'Look, Antigone.' He sighed, after swallowing so hard that it made my throat ache in sympathy. He reached over the table and draped his hand over where Antigone was holding her dessert fork in a white-knuckled clutch. 'You are a really nice woman-'

That was the wrong move to make it seemed.

'How dare you!' Shrieked Antigone and, jumping to her feet, she sloshed the entirety of her half-finished wine over Chapman's new suite.

Whatever little noise was there in the restaurant it died down at once. Even the accordion music came to halt with uncannily impeccable timing and an audible record scratch.

'Listen here, you loathsome pervert.' Antigone frothed in pure rage, no longer concerned with discretion. She somehow seemed both larger and sharper around the edges, more defined as she continued her tirade, gathering her usually diffused sense of self and unleashing it on Chapman. 'I don't know what kind of life you've lead before you came to Piffling, but I can tell you this much. This is no Topkapi Saraj. And neither I nor my brother is interested in becoming part of your private harem.'

'Alright, Antigone. Settle down.' Suddenly both Rudyard and Dr Edgware were by our table; my friend taking the side of a very irritated Chapman who dabbled uselessly at his ruined suit with a linen napkin. Dr Edgware, meanwhile, was barely refraining from supporting both's Antigone's wavering constitution, as she heaved for breath and her argument. 'Settle down.'

'How can you be so calm, Rudyard' Wailed Antigone, turning on her brother, her outrage hardly tempered by sympathy and concern. 'when the man is openly cheating on you?'

'I-I don't know what you mean-' Rudyard tried in vain to stammer his way out of confessing, but Antigone just squinted at him in a foreboding expression that foretold us just how close she was to the end of her tether.

'The charade' She urged. 'must end. I know that you started seeing Chapman behind our backs.'

Taking an accusatory little pause she dropped her voice an octave in disdain.

'Rudyard, how could you? He's the competition. What about the needs of Funn Funerals?'

'Well, you looked quite happy dating him yourself until five minutes ago.' Mumbled Rudyard defensively.

'Why, you despicable-!' Antigone was at loss for words in her righteous anger, her mouth milling uselessly while her next sentence surfaced with a hint of a delay. 'That was only because you decided to start seeing my boyfriend!'

'Your boyfr-' Passing recognition contorted Rudyard's expression to a frown. 'Wait a minute. Wait a minute, wait a minute. You and Dr Edgware...?'

'If you must know - yes.' Antigone cocked her head proudly and this time Henry did step up and stood by her side.

Now it was Rudyard's turn to make abhorred expressions at his sister.

'Oh, I see. So when you have a sordid little affair that is okay, but when I develop some tender feelings-'

'It's not sordid!' Antigone protested. 'It's mutual, honest affection. It's beautiful. It's profound!"

'I think the good doctor's wife would have a few things to say about that.'

'Wife? What wife?' Spat Antigone.

'That woman named Esther he harbours his cottage - and you know it.'

Rudyard jabbed his finger toward Antigone.

Indeed, the doctor talked often and freely about Esther in any spare moments he had, to anyone willing to listen - though there were a few key details he often omitted to mention.

'Esther is my best friend, not my wife!' Henry sounded almost outraged like the mere idea of such a free spirit as her ever settling for drab monogamy had appalled him fundamentally.

'Oh?' Rudyard just glared at him, dubiously, as the doctor clarified himself further.

'But, perhaps more importantly, she is a blue and gold macaw.'

'Oooh!' Rudyard chuckled with honest delight. He was so surprised, yet so relieved he forgot to be embarrassed about his mistake. 'I see.'

'Anyway, this isn't about us!' Antigone was now, that she sensed an opening, on the offensive once more. 'This is about Chapman leading you on again; the cunning, ruthless, devious, conniving-'

'I can hear you, you know.' Eric chimed in, sounding beyond irked but was robustly ignored by everyone.

'He isn't leading me on, Antigone. He's been disguising his infatuation with me - because I told him to.

'But why?' Antigone finally burst out exasperated. Then her voice quieted to the level of a contemptuous, hurt little stutter. 'I would have liked you to trust me with that information. We're-'

And for some reason, circumventing the obvious choices of "siblings" or "family" or even "twins", Antigone landed on:

'Business partners. I should be your first and foremost confidant.' She suggested, perhaps because while the former options were by circumstance, the latter was by choice; and therefore somehow more meaningful.

And she looked suddenly lonely and little as she toyed with the hem of her sleeves, avoiding Rudyard's gaze.

'And you are.' Rudyard squeezed her shoulder, taking her loyalty in his stride with that flattering sort of confidence he had in the people close to his heart. He clamped his fingers encouragingly around her arms. 'Promise.'

'Except when it comes to matters of the heart?' Antigone seethed.

'Well, Antigone' Rudyard began with an exasperated blow of air. 'I think that you'll find you have very little basis to complain, given how the moment you've begun to suspect that I even remotely liked Chapman you started to meddle-'

'I didn't, I was very accepting!' Antigone denied to which Rudyard responded with the actual blowing of a raspberry.

'Accepting?! The first thing you did was ask him out even though you knew I like him!'

'You did, you know.' Eric chimed in, trying to be supportive.

'I told you that was to make you jealous because you'd decided to date the man I was seeing!'

'Well, how was I supposed to know?' Rudyard threw his hands in the air. 'You weren't exactly taking me into your confidence now, were you?'

'That's because I knew you'd disapprove of us.'

'Disapprove?' Rudyard chuckled in disbelief like the mere idea was well past ridiculous. 'Antigone, I think it's brilliant!'

'You do.' Antigone said flatly. Already she was sensing an undercurrent.

And she wasn't exactly wrong.

'Yes.' Rudyard nodded and actually rubbed his hands in anticipation like some B movie villain. 'Now that you are dating the only physician on the island, he can tip us the wink when someone kicks the bucket; so we can get in there before Chapman and corner the entire funeral market again.'

'Can I just remind you' Eric looked up from attending the sartorial disaster zone his suit now was. 'that I am, in point of fact, dating you?'

'Shut up.' The Funns snapped in unison and Chapman jerked his shoulders upwards.

'Yep. Sure.' He muttered, his sarcasm failing to land any sympathetic ears.

Rudyard, meanwhile, offered his right for Dr Edgware to shake.

'What do you say, Henry?'

Dr Edgware contemplated the outstretched palm with strained, stale suspicion like it was a very persistent fly, too bothersome even to bat away.

'Yes, well, I won't be doing that.'

Rudyard's hand dropped by his side and he gave eyes to the doctor so mean that it could easily have chipped away some of his will to live - had he any left to spare.

'What's the point of you then?' He asked in an acrid voice.

'Rudyard.' Eric chided, gently but with an undeniable undertone of warning and my friend produced an eye-roll of mild penitence.

'Alright, alright. He burst into an exhale almost as if to expel even the memory of such a scheme; his disappointment still evident, even for the naked eye.

And with that, a sense of decompression befell the room, tension escaping, silence rushing in to fill the vacuum.

'That's it?' Antigone asked, blinking a little, then a bit more for good measure in sincere bafflement. 'You just going to give us your blessing like that?'

Rudyard just shrugged with a quiet, natural, self-possed sort of affection.

'I guess I just expected... I don't know. More pushback? Some reticence? Bargaining?' Antigone asked sounding slightly suspicious if not a bit disappointed.

'Well, I guess I do have one condition.' Rudyard added, tapping his chin and Antigone rewarded him with a lopsided smile.

'That's more like it.'

'You can't interfere with me and Chapman.'

Antigone considered this, biting down on her lip, hard. She chanced a glance at Eric, who looked up from tending to his clothes with an expression of trust. She considered this fastidious man, a perfectionist to a fault, as he sat in his dripping wet suit; having endured a disastrous brunch with only the mildest of complaints. That and a chain of covert dates that were, if her own experience was anything to go by, probably thrilling and exhilarating and enchantingly unfamiliar yet still lacking somewhat, with their interrupted kisses and the need to flutter frequently apart.

All of that, simply because Rudyard wanted him to.

And perhaps she thought about businesses too, and funerals and an ongoing fight for the right to remain open.

It seemed like she very much wanted to say something. A lot of somethings for that matter. But as the distressed, elastic silence stretched and sagged, she saw the way Eric's eyes sought out Rudyard, in a query and desperate plea for affirmation. She saw the look her brother gave him in return.

She sucked the air in sharply and burst out, snappish.

'Fine.' And then, just as an excuse to be a bit gruff and disagreeable, she added. 'As long as we acknowledge that I think that dating your chief competitor is an appalling idea.'

Again, I wanted to point out the hypocrisy of such a statement coming from her, but then I had to realise that it had more to do with the inherent Funn need to never surrender without a fight than any actual reluctance.

Besides, Rudyard interrupted me before I could say anything.

'I knew you'd say that.' He taunted darkly and Antigone scowled.

'Oh, you complain now but wait until Georgie hears about this.'

Rudyard responded with a full-body shudder before he waved with a heavy sigh, dispersing the future prospect.

'I'll burn that bridge when I come to it.'

Finally, Antigone glanced over at Henry, herself a reservoir of feist she had no outlet for, nowhere to channel.

'What...now?' She stared up at him, prompting a grin from the physician that seemed almost too wide to fit his features, threatened to undo him around the seams. He reached down, laced their fingers and drawn the prominent knuckles of Antigone's right to his lips.

'Well, now that we are dating openly, I for one would love to take you to the Piffling Royale, to see one of those French features you've told me so much about.' He confessed and tugged her towards the door but Antigone dug in her heels.

'B-but it's Friday.' She writhed in protestation, remembering at once the heated details of her favourite genre. 'Herbert only ever shows French art house on Thursdays.'

'I'm sure he'll be more than willing to move things around a bit. You are one of his most valued costumers after all.'

'I'm practically his only customer.'

'Exactly.' There was an awesome, drunken giddiness to Henry Edgware, almost impossible to reconcile with his familiar, exhausted self, a wolfish, greedy, joy-filled smile playing about his lips. It's radiance made the last of Antigone's misgivings disperse and she nodded.

'Oh, go on then.' and she allowed herself to be escorted away.

Following their exit, life in the restaurant started up again. The low ebb of the conversation between the waiters, who stood supporting the wall, picked up. The muzak, intended to be atmospheric but falling short, had returned and the noise of cutlery meeting dishes filled the air.

'I wish you Funns would just tell me upfront if you really hate my taste in suits so much.' Eric moaned, tossing his useless napkin on the table and downing a fortifying gulp of wine.

'Oh don't make a production of it, Chapman.' Rudyard chided with a bemused, caressing sort of a half-smile as he sunk into the seat his sister had just abandoned.

Across him Eric tensed into a strung bowstring, his eyes blown too wide. He froze with his glass halfway to his lips and lowered his hand in such small increments like he was attempting to hypnotize a skittish woodland creature.

'Rudyard, we are horribly exposed here.' He tried to warn with his mouth barely moving, but it was too late.

Mrs Frangipani had returned with the first batch of soups and marched up to their table, brimming with purpose. To her credit, she noted the change in seating with only the smallest hint of hesitation and proceeded to serve the men soup like a true professional, like presenting broth was an Olympic sport and she wasn't planning on losing the gold by spoiling the landing.

'Boun appetito, signori, enjoy.' She nodded gracefully.

And while Eric just muttered something, too horrorstruck to look anywhere but at his meal Rudyard positively beamed at the proprietress; obviously forgetting about the poor reception of his open smiles.

'Thank you and may we have those lattes, please? We are celebrating.'

Knowing fully well when a patron was bursting to share their news Mrs Frangipani surreptitiously crossed herself and mouthed something that sounded like a short prayer before proceeding to ask.

'Is that so? What's the occasion, Mr Funn?'

'We are on a date.' Rudyard announced, both proud and conspiratorial and-

Well, let's just say that never before, not once in my long and distinguished career as a biographer, did I see someone get such an explosive case of the giggles as Mrs Frangipani did just then. Tears began to stream on her cheeks almost immediately as she doubled over in a violent, jerky convulsion of merriment, slapping her knees and gasping for air. Her seizure of laughter lasted several minutes.

Finally, she composed herself, dabbling the corner of her eyes to spare her mascara.

'Grazie mille, Mr Funn, I needed that.' And shouting well before she was out of earshot, she approached the kitchen. 'Antonio, Antonio you've got to hear what that crazy sod Mr Rudyard said.'

My friend stared after her with a disheartened expression, sucking on his teeth dismally. That is, before a flutter of a touch distracted him as Eric gently pressed his right to Rudyard's, resting his fingers against Rudyard's knuckles almost surreptitiously. He looked up at Rudyard with something like gratitude, something too big for him to contain that seemed to spill from him, escape him and diffuse in the air between them, choking my friend up who could only make a disjointed string of consonant in response. Chapman touched his wrists almost as if he was seeking permission, so taking initiative, Rudyard laced their fingers together.

Right there in the middle of the table.

And this would have been a very neat ending to today's events, and indeed to a rather convoluted chapter of my book. But a few moments later the door of Frangipani's opened once more and who should happen to be walking in but the premier journalist of Piffling - Sid Marlowe himself.

Looking almost modest, in his unusually subtle blood orange shirt with a pattern of magenta flamingos, he made a dash towards the funeral directors' table. Eric tried to pull his hand away in response but Rudyard pinned him to the starched linen tablecloth.

'Hello there, Eric lad.' Sid greeted them, inviting himself to their table byways of dragging an extra chair to it with the biggest racket possible. He clapped Rudyard across the shoulder affectionately before seating himself, winding the smaller man completely. 'Rudyard.'

'Mr Marlowe.' Gnarled my friend, catching his breath. 'What brings you here tonight?'

'Ah, you know how it is. Treating Petunia to a spot of brunch. Stepping out in style, that sort of thing.' Sid made a vague, encompassing gesture. Catching sight of his wristwatch he studied the clock face with a displeased frown. 'Where's the bloody woman anyway? She's half an hour late.'

Seeing how he only stumbled in a few seconds ago the undertakers  merely exchanged some furtive glances and shrugged diplomatically.

'Anyway, how's tricks with you, Rudyard son? Got anything scandalous planned? Any hot gossip?' He kept his voice low, confidential. 'Gotta admit, I'm simply dying for a scoop. Reports on the invention of the sliced bread just don't seem to cut it for my readership anymore - and the missus got used to a certain standard I can only maintain with a steady increase in circulation.'

'Well, Mr Marlowe, I believe you might notice something different about us tonight.'

Rudyard nodded his head, indicating the tableau of himself, sitting hand in hand with his former sworn enemy.

'Rudyard?' Eric squeezed his right, asking for confirmation for one last time. It was one thing, letting the gruff Mrs Frangipani know about their new arrangement. Piffling's foremost investigative journalist was another matter altogether. But my friend just nodded with his usual air of confidence, bordering on arrogance and looked back at Sid expectantly.

Mr Marlowe had already pulled out a little notebook and a weathered pencil from some recess of his flamboyant attire and was tapping his chin with the utmost concentration but no sign of comprehension.

'I know.' He finally blurted, triumphant. 'You are wearing new eyeshadow!'

A sudden unease befell Eric while Rudyard blinked in shock

'I'm not wearing any eyeshadow'

'Ah, so that's it. I knew there was something out of order, I sensed it right away.' He tapped his considerable snout. 'Sharp journalistic instinct, you see.'

'Oh for the love of-' Rudyard rolled his eyes. Pulled himself up, filled his chest, readying for a tirade. 'You better make some notes for your next big expose Mr Marlowe. Because Mr Chapman and I are here on a date.'

'Oh, brilliant.' Enthused Sid, posing his pen to paper in anticipation. 'That will fill up the gossip column alright. So, Eric lad, who's the lucky lady? And you, Mr Funn, who's the poor bird?

'No, Sid, you misunderstand.' Eric intercepted. He drew Rudyard's hand demonstrably closer, clasping it between two palms.' We are here on a date with each other.

'No-no-no, wait a sec –' Sid narrowed his eyes in a curious glare. He was leaning forward, eager pencil hovering over yellow, lined pages. 'you Rudyard Funn, of Funn Funerals, are here on a date with him, Eric Chapman, of Chapman’s? Is that right?'

'Yes, it is!'

'But he is your competition!'

'Yes, I know that.'

'And you bloody hate him!'

'Hate' Rudyard muttered, taking a sudden interest in the tablecloth, the tip of his ears tinged pink. Belying the fact that, as always, his bravado was fuelled not by carefully laid plans, but a moment of unhesitant recklessness. 'is a strong word.'

'Rudyard and I managed to reconcile and put all that animosity behind us. Didn't we, Rudyard?' Chapman rushed in to explain and he was so full of delight, brimming with joy that whatever shyness had overcome Rudyard, he was quick to forget about it.

Sid studied the way they were beaming at each other, unbridled by the presence of such an influential audience as himself. He leaned back on his chair and pushed his fedora - Petunia insisted that he'd started to wear one - back with a huff so he could scratch his head with a frown.

'Blimey.' He muttered and Rudyard fortified himself, bracing for some sort of criticism, for Marlowe to question the soundness of Eric's mind in choosing to date the least popular man on the island when practically the whole village was throwing itself by his feet. But Sid simply smiled and started to take frantic notes. 'Boys, this is terrific. Petunia will be proper chuffed. Can I have an exclusive interview?

Rudyard frowned thoughtfully.

'I don't know. I ought to give Miss Delacroix precedence, I feel.'

'Oh, come on, Rudyard, throw me a bone!' Sid pleaded, pencil pausing. 'I know that I've been rubbing you up the wrong way lately. But we've always had a great work relationship, didn't we?'

'You mean when you used to underreport on my funeral home and overcharge me for adverts?' Scowled Rudyard while Mr Marlowe nodded with fervour.

'Precisely. Besides, Rudyard, you know that you'll need the power of press on your side with this one. I mean, how do you plan to respond to the death threats you are likely to get for snatching up Piffling's most eligible bachelor?' Mr Marlowe reached the end of his pencil out like it was a microphone.

'Umm- ' Rudyard's whole expression pinched upon hearing this prospect, his free hand beginning to trace discomfited little sigils on the linen, almost as if in a futile attempt to ward against such outcomes.

'And you, Eric boy; what would you say to those critics who question your taste in men and suggest that you dump Rudyard Funn for someone a bit more... Oh, how do I put this?' Mr Marlowe scratched his chin, swivelled his eyes around, searching for inspiration among the gilded walls.

Eric narrowed his eyes at the journalist dubiously, his fingers shielding Rudyard's hand in a protective clutch.

'Sid...' He articulated slowly, deliberately, with some degree of warning and pleading that Mr Marlowe dismissed altogether.

'Not Rudyard?'

'No comment.' Eric frowned angrily, though clearly not agitated enough to lash out on Sid who was doing a remarkable job of being both too oblivious and too earnest to be blamed for his indiscretion as he masticated the end of his pen.

'Suit yourselves.' Shrugged Sid amicably enough, accepting defeat with suspicious grace. Only, he proceeded to add. 'But, fair warning, if you let that puppy, cramped in her parents' kitchen, do your PR you are bound to have a stampede by tomorrow."

'That's a risk I'm willing to take.' Sniffed Rudyard, so Sid added:

'I meant the vigilante kind.'

Rudyard and Eric looked at each other in a moment of hesitant, silent communication. Piffling Matters did have the uncanny ability to sway public opinion and ruin reputations beyond any hope of recovery. As Rudyard fully well knew.

'Perhaps we should let him handle this.' Rudyard suggested with some uncertainty while Chapman just shrugged, obviously displeased, but not in a confrontational mood.

'If that's what you want.'

'Alright, Mr Marlowe.' Rudyard nodded towards the journalist. 'Ask away.'

'Cheers, lads. Here, take this wine as a sign of my goodwill and gratitude.'

With that, Sid turned around on his chair, towards the table directly behind him. Bill and Tanya were seated over there, in the middle of a date that was lent certain, unusual energy by the fact that they were gazing into each other's lovely eyes over an impromptu shrine of Jerry the baker, consisting of his framed portrait and a handful of tea candles. Sid plucked the wine pitcher from their table, ignoring their protests and brought it over to where they sat.

'Thank you Sid, but isn't it a bit early for drin-' Eric began with a despondent slant to his mouth but Mr Marlowe had already poured a generous helping to all three of them. Knocking back his own fill he smacked his lips then proceeded with his questions.

'I think that you'll agree that the people of Piffling have a right to know how do you plan to' Here Sid studied his notes for a moment and made some finger quotes as he continued. "reconcile your differences" when Funn Funerals inevitably goes bankrupt?'

If my stomach dropped uncomfortably with a horrific plunge, I can only imagine how Eric and Rudyard must have felt. Chapman did look a great deal more ashened upon hearing this, muttering some blasphemy or other, while Rudyard puffed himself up like a morally outraged porcupine.

'Well, why would it, if you don't mind me asking? We've been giving Chapman a run for his money lately, with conducting such an exquisite memorial service for Grace the owl and whatnot.'

And he sat, almost shimmering with rage like a mirage over hot asphalt.

'Sorry, Rudyard, my mistake.' Sid threw his hands into the air in a contrite gesture, refilled his wineglass and sampling some ruby liquid he turned to Chapman now. 'So then how will you react when Rudyard, of all people, puts you out of business, Eric old stick?'

'We haven't-' Chapman started, addressing the flat of the table, glancing up at Rudyard before peering down again. 'We didn't exactly discuss if-"

A look of honest surprise flickered through Sid's face.

'You hadn't? But if you don't talk business, then what do you talk about?' He flipped through the pages of his notebook, searching for examples but revealing only idle scatches, mildly inappropriate doodles and a shopping list. 'The only thing you've in common is funerals.'

The undertakers erupted in matching outrage and protestation.

'That's not true at all-'

'I resent the implication-'

'So go on then.' Sid urged. 'What sort of thing can you agree on?'

They let a momentary gruff silence, a funny, empty dead air wash over them, a mute instance suspended in tension. Then Chapman began, tentatively.

'Well, Rudyard was most helpful with my work at the council.' He smiled ruefully at the man across him. 'He has about a decade on me in that field when it comes to experience. He knows Piffling like the back of his hand and I love hearing his opinion on all the important issues.'

'You are alone with that.' Murmured Rudyard, trying for disappointment but coming across as chuffed. Well, up until Sid nodded in agreement.

'Here, here.'

But Chapman went on, not looking at anyone in particular, a private little smile playing about his lips, absent-mindedly worrying Rudyard's hands. 'And we have arguments about whether we should go out for a coffee or a walk. And silences that don't really need filling at all. And long and wonderfully pointless conversations about everything and nothing in particular. Rudyard told me all about growing up up on Piffling. He has a long memory, you know.'

His voice trailed off and Mr Marlow slowly halted over his notebook as Eric placed an affectionate flutter of a kiss against Rudyard's wrist, lips tracing the skittish pulse, going more errant under his touch.

Unperturbed by such romancing Sid studied his shorthand, made a displeased frown.

'But you don't talk much about the future, evidently.'

'Mr Marlowe!' Cried Rudyard.

'It's just that this seems like a rather uneasy truce if you don't mind me saying so, boys.'

'We do.' Rudyard responded, waspish, as Sid jabbed his pencil towards them for emphasis.

'I mean this is all nice and well. But it doesn't change the fact that there is only room for one funeral home on this island and sooner or later you'll have to confront that fact.'

'And we will, with time.' Rudyard barked. 'But for now, all you and your readers need to know is that we are doing fine.'

'Sounds nice.' Hummed Sid, if a bit distracted as Petunia chose that moment to walk in, an elaborate blue dress hugging her lavish figure tightly. He tapped his notebook. 'Thanks for the interview, loverboy. And if there's anything I can do for you, give us a whistle.'

With that, he drank up the rest of the wine, then picked up the bread basket and skirted to where Petunia was seated with grace that was almost unexpected from an ungainly figure like him.

'Enjoy yourselves.' Eric called after him weakly, more out of habit than anything.

He left behind a rasping, heavy silence that sat between the undertakers like a third, uninvited diner.

'Well that went as well as can be expected.' Noted Rudyard airily, trying to elevate the mood, but it was no use. The linen-covered table had already transformed into a desolate, icy plateau between them, forcing them apart. And their intertwined hands were suddenly clasping desperately, the only thing anchoring them together as an invisible precipice yawned, inserting itself between them. So Eric and Rudyard sat, hanging for dear life, with their meal cooling, congealing beside them, forgotten.

And I felt that things were going to get a lot worse before they got better... which didn't entirely disquiet me.

After all, this was far from being all over.


If you enjoyed this extract from the fifth instalment of "Memoirs of a Funeral House Mouse - More Mouse, More Funeral" why not purchase it now for only £5.99 plus shipping when you order directly from us online? Piffling Matters' Chief Editor, Sid Marlowe praised this instalment of the family saga, writing "It was sensational. The best book I've ever read. It didn't mess about - straight to the point and big finish. Magic! No idea what it meant, mind you, but that shows you how clever it was. Five stars I'm giving it! Out of five!' and this highly regarded masterpiece can be yours for only £5.99 plus shipping when you order from our website. Visit www.penguinrandommouse.com/Piffling.