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Rudyard Ruins The Double Date

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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.

'Nah.'

'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.

'Hey!'

'B-b-but-'

'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-'

'Obsessing?!'

'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:

'Raunchy.'

'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.

'No.'

'But.'

'No.'

'Please-'

'No.'

'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.

'He's here.'

'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. 

Chapter Text

Reaching the latticework sliding door of Chapman's, Antigone threw it open and exploded in the foyer with all the passion of a tempest in full spate.

'Oh, hello there.' Eric looked up from where he was frowning at some paperwork with an animated smile as he if he was one of those wind-up Sunshine Man action figures himself - complete with a grappling hook. Spotting the island's foremost mortician, some degree of expectant suspicion entered his gaze, but his perfectly friendly smile never wavered. 'Antigone, what a surprise. What can I do you for?'

Antigone paused. She smoothed down her bird's nest hairstyle and tugged on her dark dress. She pulled herself to her full height and slinked across the front room, feigning hip movements that would have put any half-decent pendulum to shame. She jumped on top of the counter with the elegance of a decaying sloth, in a feat that explained why Mr Askey had to turn her ceaseless applications to gym club repeatedly down. Once seated, she unfurled her body that was keen to make up in length what it had lacked in curvature and she shook her matted hair out as much as possible right under the nose of a very confused Chapman, who'd backed away, far as the narrow space of the reception desk would allow.

'Hello, Chapman.' Antigone purred, then giggled her patented "spontaneous" laugh. 'How are you, Chapman?'

'I-I'm grand, thank you' Eric stuttered in wide-eyed shock. 'But you don't look too good yourself. Your whole body seems to be spasming.'

Then he proceeded to raise his voice like he was dealing with a client a little a hard of hearing.

'Can you be having a seizure? Is that likely?"

'Ah, why wouldn't that be... sexy?' Crooned Antigone, batting her lashes in a manner that she thought attractive but seemed to only disconcert Chapman more. He looked relieved when we all filed in his funeral home, particularly when he'd spotted Dr Edgware.

'Thank God you are here, Henry. I think Antigone might be having a fit!'

'There's nothing in her medical history that would be indicative of the correctness of your slapdash diagnosis-' Dr Edgware told Eric who looked a great deal more relaxed hearing this

'Wonderful.'

'As she doesn't have one.' Henry completed his train of thoughts, making Chapman deflate once more.

'Ah.'

'Is there anything about epilepsy in her employee health profile?' Dr Edgware inquired from Rudyard with an unnerving equanimity that was bordering on homicidal.

'I wouldn't know. Never read it.' Admitted Rudyard. 'Too long. And boring.

'And Rudyard usually loves long and boring accounts of history.' Intercepted Georgie. 'Hence the archivist gig. So you can probably imagine.'

And she made a hand gesture, representative of the size of Antigone's hefty medical files.

'Fascinating.' Muttered the doctor with strange appreciation and he turned to the mortician in question. 'Can you lift your left arm above your head, Miss Funn?'

'Like this?' Antigone was so distracted, trying to pucker her lips into a seductive pout, that she lost her balance once she eased her death grip on the counter and she toppled, head first, to the ground.

'So' Sighed Dr Edgware with the resigned patience of a localized Sisyphus. 'if she was fine until now, she is well no longer as she just suffered acute cranial trauma.'

'But... in a sexy way?' Antigone muttered blearily into the oak wood floor where she lay on it sprawled.

'Dear God.' Sputtered Rudyard darkly before he bent to peel up her sister like she was a limited edition, holographic STIF'D sticker. Conjuring up his friendliest yet endlessly patronizing tone, he'd patted her arm as she staggered to her feet. 'Now come along you. Let's get you back across that square for a pretend cup of tea.'

He turned to Dr Edgware to excuse himself.

'Thank you, doctor, but I'm sure that it's nothing a cuppa can't cure.' And, back to Antigone, he said. 'Just the way you like it. Nice, hot and entirely hallucinatory.'

But before Rudyard could herd her back to Funn Funerals, Antigone tore herself out of her brother's clutches - the violent motion propelling her away from Rudyard and straight into an open coffin on display. She tipped backwards, into the cavernous belly of the casket and she splayed out on the goose-feather lining. The disturbed lid closed on her in the most foreboding manner. In the uncomfortable silence that descended on us we heard her rattle in there, as well as Eric mumble the words "perplexing woman' before she pushed the top of the coffin open again, victoriously, clambering out like a triumphant undead bride.

'You are not the boss of me, Rudyard.' She declared as she joined the land of the living once more. 'If you can prowl around, going on dates with all sorts of men like some sort of concubine then I am well within my right to put myself out there, be open, be brave - and hitch a date with the best man a mile around. It's the least I deserve.'

Rudyard narrowed his eyes.

'You can't mean' he sheeted, pronouncing the infamous name like a curse. 'Chapman?!'

'Yes I do, Rudyard. I shall nab Eric Chapman if I damn well please - even if that means getting in bed with the opposition.' Antigone whipped her head around, glowering at Eric. 'What do you say, Chapman? After all, you are the one who always goes on and on about discussing the business over a grab.'

'You'll give away our company secrets?' Wailed Rudyard in panic but Antigone merely rolled her eyes.

'Oh, please. The only mystery about Funn Funerals is how is it still standing after all of what we've been through.' Impatiently, she called over to Chapman. 'So, are we doing this or what?'

Eric laughed a little, forced laugh as he grew an almost painful shade of beetroot.

'Please, Antigone. Let's hold our horses here. It's not that I am not flattered but-' Suddenly, his voice trailed off as his eyes grew wide. 'Wait, what was that? What did you say?'

'Oh, get a hold of yourself.' Antigone sighed. 'It's a simple invitation to a drink. Hardly something scandalous. It's not like I suggested a nooky on a golf course!'

'No, about Rudyard dating all sorts of men. What men are we talking about?'

Dr Edgware raised his hand silently and with polite exasperation.

'That would be me.' He admitted with about as much enthusiasm as if he'd just confessed to being next in line for the gallows.

'Rudyard.' Eric's smile was frozen stiff on his features. Looking less like an expression of sincere joy and more like something that smears on your windshield as you speed down the Piffling High Street. 'You are going out with the good doctor? How delightful.'

'Let's not pull on this particular thread, Chapman.' Begged Rudyard, massaging his temples, displaying all the physical symptoms of nursing a headache of biblical proportions.

'In fact' added Dr Edgware consulting his watch. 'we are meant to be at Frangipani's in... ten minutes ago. Rudyard, we'd better get a shift on if we don't want them to give our table away.'

'You booked us a table at Mrs Frangipani's?' Rudyard scowled. 'I am banned from there!'

'I am aware.' Syllabised Henry. 'I may have been roped into becoming the only medical personnel on an island of a thousand or so souls and two hospitals but I am not a complete idiot. Mrs Frangipani said that she'll make an exception for my sake; because I've been treating her verrucas most diligently for years.'

Rudyard swivelled his eyes around in a mild sort of panic, kind of like he was tracing escape routes. Finally, he'd let his hands drop from his face where it was still circling sore spots and he muttered with an extremely rare, practically contrite expression to his countenance:

'Now look here, Henry-'

'Tell you what, Antigone.' Chapman blurted suddenly, his voice carrying uncomfortably loud over the soft lounge music of his funeral home. 'What would you say to a cup of coffee?'

'Caffeine makes my hair turn green.' Recited Antigone as if it was an involuntary tick of hers. Then she added with some thought. 'But I'll have some hot water if you are making anyway.'

'Yes, more specifically, would you like to have some with me? Over at the Sharp Drop? We could get to know each other a bit better. You could tell me about your many, many allergies. Away from all the dead bodies and that.'

'Why not?' Conceded Antigone magnanimously, like she wasn't the one who suggested a date in the first place.

'Super, couldn't be happier, super.' Sputtered Chapman rapidly, clamouring out from behind his desk. 'Let me just lock up quickly.'

'Noooo!' Georgie emitted a low moan and turned to her boss with a deathly serious scowl. 'Antigone you can't.'

'You can't tell me what to do.' Snarled the mortician, agitated in much the same way a large bat confronted with a broom would be.

'No, I mean you literally can't do it.' The dogsbody elaborated. 'The Sharp Drop, it closed down.'

'What? Why?'

'Agatha at the sweet shop said something about the new owner, Enrica Marietta, committing identity theft.' Georgie shrugged.

'Identity theft my left foot.' Muttered Rudyard a little to the side. 'No matter how many aliases, it's always the same Harriet Marriot underneath. She's been doing it for years, reopening the Cliffside under "new management" - as a traditional Japanese tea house, or an authentic American diner or an-"

'Bottom line is' Eric talked over him. 'that the Sharp Drop is not an option. And with you being forbidden to cross the threshold of the Yacht Club ever again the only place left for us is-'

'Chapman's?' Wagered Antigone, making Eric blink in shock.

'I-I'd rather not.' He stuttered. 'I mean, it would feel like I was still at work, you see.'

Such was Eric's explanation, but deep down I suspected that there was more to his reticence than his complaint revealed. After all, Rudyard and he had used the Chapman's fifth-floor cafe and wine bar as the venue of their covert meetings multiple times; hiding in plain sight among patrons who were far too busy with their own secret projects (usually some kind of book) to care. Most people hadn't wasted a second glance at them, as they sat for hours on end over lattes; they probably mistook their affectionate bickering for animosity and the clientele of Chapman's was yet to notice the way they kept holding hands under the table. I thought it was quite sentimental, almost sweet of him, trying to preserve the sanctity of the scenic location of their secret soirees - even if he did it while asking someone else out!

'Well, what do you suggest, then?' Exploded Antigone and Eric trailed a discreet glance over at Rudyard and Dr Edgware.

'Frangipani's is our only remaining choice. Unless you are happy to settle for McPiffling's, that is.'

'I'd rather dine on carburettor damper oil then carve my own tongue out.' Antigone sniffed coolly.

'I think she means that Frangipani's will do.' Georgie translated. She then continued with a mirthless smile. 'Except for the fact that she's also banned from there.'

She shook her head with mock bereavement.

'Sorry to rain on your parade, Chapman.'

'No, you're not.' Eric stated with a clipped tone.

'Hah.' Georgie laughed a cantankerous chuckle in response. 'You're right, I'm not.'

'Anyway, that's no trouble. Mrs Frangipani owes me a favour from when I helped her once a-' Chapman interrupted himself by staring off to the middle distance in deep reminiscence. 'long time ago.'

'Jesus God.' Georgie moaned while the rest of the small congregation rolled their eyes in agreement.

'I'm sure she'll make an exception for me.' Eric announced merrily as he came to, offering his arm to Antigone. 'Shall we?'

But Georgie clasped a vice-like grip around the collar of his shirt, even though Chapman was good two feet taller than her. She contemplated Eric with the same kind of distaste she might have given to something stuck to the bottom of her shoe; regarding him as an obvious inconvenience but with a degree of acceptance, knowing that he was, ultimately, part of the rich tapestry of life.

'Hold it right there, Casanova.' She grumbled, not without a tiny undertone of sympathy. "The ground rules are as it follows; you bring her back by nine and if you cause her the slightest bit of grief then I'll beat the living jam out of you. Got it?'

'Hah, a spot of the old shovel talk. How sweet.' Eric commented as he extricated himself with painstaking care. His suit was a new acquisition, after all, and he had the growing impression that Funn Funerals was out there trying to destroy every single one of his attires. 'Are you about to give the same speech to Dr Edgware?'

But Georgie simply narrowed her eyes at him.

'You know, I don't think I will.'

'Astounding.' Huffed Eric with his smile wilting, while Antigone snapped in a fit of distemper.

'Enough prattling on, let's go.'

'Wait a moment, Eric.' It was Dr Edgware interrupting this time. 'I can't let my newest and most intriguing patient go uninspected. After all, she might well be suffering a stroke. At this rate, she may well die.'

'I think you'll find, doctor, that in many ways I'm already dead.' Antigone sighed with morbid appreciation, prompting a displeased scowl from the physician.

'I don't doubt the validity of that claim, Miss Funn. But let us not be in a haste to make it quite such a literal actuality. Is there anywhere more private I could use for an impromptu examination, Eric?'

'There's the Calm Room to the left.' Gestured Chapman. 'Just make sure you don't touch the light switch. The walls change colour. They gave me a seizure first time round. I slowed them right down since, but you can never be too careful.'

With that doctor and patient made their exit, leaving the remainder of Funn Funerals and Chapman stewing in discomfort. That is until a small alarm on Georgie's phone went off.

'Aand, I got to go to the Mayor's office now. I'm back with you tomorrow. And Rudyard?' 

Her commanding glare would have straightened a Gordian knot into quivering obedience.

'Don't you dare bail on Dr Edgware now!'

'Look, Georgie, I'm just not entirely sure you've thought this trough!' Pleaded Rudyard to which Georgie responded with a placating hand gesture.

'Listen, sir. All I'm asking is that you give it a bash. You've got nothing to lose. You'll never have to see him again if it goes wrong. And if it goes right...'

Georgie allowed the lewd cadence of her voice to carry all of her meaning, scaffolding that implication with a suggestive eyebrow wriggle. It made Rudyard reward her with a glare he'd intended to be a look of utter devastation, but to the casual observer, he simply appeared constipated.

'Yes, alright.' He muttered with an air of exasperated deference, clearly worried that if he didn't concede Georgie will just continue making immodest facial gestures at him.

'That's the spirit, sir.' Georgie chirped and made her way to the door with a new and self-satisfied bounce to her steps. Hovering on the threshold, she sent an encouraging wink in her boss' way. 'Go get him, tiger.'

Whatever scratching remark Rudyard was planning to make, it got ensconced under a sudden and completely involuntary onslaught of affection. As far as burdens go, there were heavier crosses to bear than an ensemble of brilliant but domineering women.

'See you later.' He said mildly, as he expelled every last shred of frustration he'd felt towards his assistant with a fond huff while she nipped through the sliding door. The reverb of her footsteps barely died down when we heard Eric snap.

'A word, Rudyard.'

'Time to face the music, Madeline.' Rudyard grimaced at me, whispering, as he clawed me from his jacket pocket, perching me atop a polished display coffin of staggering modernity that somehow still exuded a derelict air about it - like most things designed with death in mind do.

Then he turned to look at Chapman, the reigns of his composure held tightly once more.

'You know,' he began with a defiant little sniff 'you are looking at me as if this is somehow my fault.'

Eric crossed the foyer, his tumultuous feelings reflected on the mutable weather front of his features. Planting himself in front of Rudyard he slid two pleading hands along his upper arm and squeezed his shoulders gently. There was a query to that touch, a seeking of evidence of the solidity of the man in front of him. A subtle worry that Rudyard will sublimate from between his clutches, as his fingers fumbled blindly, searching for tangible proof that the undertaker in front of him wasn't merely a trick of smoke and mirrors after all.

'I'm just wondering what were you thinking. Agreeing to have that dinner. Seeing strange men. Going on dates.'

Rudyard stared at the ground, appearing so consumed by the sight of the toes of his own shoes like a minor scientific breakthrough was taking place on them.

'Dr Edgware lived here his entire life.' He argued faintly. 'He's hardly a stranger.'

'It's not the point!' Eric exclaimed right away, then mouthed it again in a minute echo of disbelief. 'It's not the point.'

'Look, I'm sorry, alright?' Grouched Rudyard and while his apology, much like himself, was despondent, small and a tad underdeveloped, it was full of palpable misery and sincerity. He leaned minutely into Eric's touch, looking suddenly pulled thin between the other man's palms. Bird boned. Hollow in places he shouldn't be.

He'd finally raised his gaze to meet Chapman's giving him an imploring look, tension seeping into his jaw from where he was worrying his bottom lip. He wouldn't allow his fingers to entwine themselves in the material of Chapman's lapels, at least not until Eric pulled him against the warm cavern of his chest. Enclosed in the protective eddy of those arms he could feel the laborious heave of Chapman's throat as he swallowed around his quiet statement.

'Listen, I get it. If you have second thoughts about us, that is.'

Rudyard peeled himself away with some effort, enough to give a mortifying side-eye to Eric.

'Don't be daft.' He demanded and while he didn't sound kind or particularly repentant, the unwavering timbre of his voice was enough to tease a smitten look from Chapman. Burrowing back into his fortifying embrace, Rudyard finally gathered enough courage to offer an explanation.

'They were onto me.'

'Onto you?'

'Georgie and Antigone. Noticed that I've developed some... intensely conflicted feelings towards you, Chapman.' He muttered, still pretty much in the habit of talking about his love for Eric like it was an unsavoury infection, too embarrassing to be mentionable in public. Apart from rare moments of affection that were, admittedly, increasing in frequency.

Rudyard made a complicated hand gesture of dissent which was a feat given how he'd refused to let go of Chapman.

'I mean, what was I supposed to do?'

To which Eric simply suggested.

'You could have told them the truth!'

'Now look, you weren't there!' Rudyard exclaimed and what he'd meant to be a forbidding statement of finality came out sounding like a mournful wail. 'They haven't even grasped half of it and they were already bent on keeping us apart.'

'Grasped half of what?' Eric spiked his brows, asking through a mouthful of a smug smile, signalling a growing sense of victory.

To which Rudyard responded with a petulant display of both affection and murderous intent.

'The extent of my infatuation with you.' He admitted with an almost animalistic growl in the least romantic form a romantic confession can take. 'Satisfied?'

'Hugely.' Eric beamed and bent to retrieve Rudyard's bottom lip from between his incisors, replacing the seal of the blunt, uneven teeth with a nip of his own. But despite the playful nature of his kiss, his fingers convulsed around Rudyard, like he'd just got him back after a truly unacceptable expanse of an absence - though it's been less than twelve hours since they'd last seen each other.

But Eric was quick to pull back, ending the developing snog abruptly as he'd started it.

'Hence the date with Dr Edgware?' He muttered as the meaning of Rudyard's words began to sink in and he could feel as well as hear the other man's ascent as Rudyard nodded his head against him.

'Georgie's idea of a distraction.'

Eric twisted himself so he could look down at Rudyard, quizzical. He fought to keep the displeasure off his voice and failed in the most spectacular fashion as he proceeded to ask.

'Just to be clear, were you intending to confess to Georgie before or after you've tied the knot with Dr Edgware in subterfuge?'

It was Rudyard's turn to swell with poorly justified mirth and pride.

'Jealous, Chapman?' He inquired in a delighted voice

'In your dreams, Rudyard.' Chapman's stern cadence left no doubt about whether he was willing to change the subject for the sake of a spot amusing rowing.

Sighing with affection he'd no longer bothered to conceal, Rudyard offered up a plan of sorts.

'Look, all we have to do is stick to our guns for a little longer. It would give time for both Georgie and Antigone to thaw to the idea that I could like Eric Chapman of all people.' He proceeded to pronounce 'Chapman' in that unique way of his like it was both a devastating slander and an accusation. Admittedly, this could have been a touch offensive if it wasn't for the fact that while most people didn't bother, trying to separate the man from the myth, Rudyard regarded Eric Chapman and his increasingly convoluted conglomerate as mutually exclusive entities. While, for most, Chapman and the brand he'd come to represent were an inseverable whole, it made perfect sense for Rudyard to be enamoured with one and still be wary of the other. Presently, he peered up to the former with a thoughtful sort of scowl.

'A process that could be helped a great deal by you not dating my sister, I must say.'

Above him, Eric paled visibly, in an obvious showcase of being unaccustomed to having consequences to his actions.

'Oh, God.' He muttered with a pained grimace while Rudyard hung his head with mock disappointment and a mischievous grin.

'What were you even thinking?'

'Stop it, Rudyard, this is no time to gloat!' Eric said with warning but Rudyard, naturally, didn't look the least bit cowed as he protested.

'This is the perfect time!'

'I had to keep up appearances, didn't I? Which wouldn't have been necessary if you haven't decided to go out with Dr Edgware-' Eric accused.

'Well, if you weren't so darn popular-' Rudyard butted in, retorting, and Eric gave him a glare. One that was utterly lost on him, of course.

So instead he bumped their noses together in a frustrated nuzzle of capitulation.

'Oh, what's the use?' And then, smiling feebly, he asked with a fine a lattice of nervousness lacing his voice, almost undetectable. 'Are you sure I can’t persuade you not to go through with this?'

'I’d accept a substantial bribe but otherwise no.' Rudyard japed weekly to hide his growing sense of despondency. With an apologetic nuzzle of his nose, he pleaded. 'Come on, Chapman. It's just one dinner. And then everything will be like just before.'

'The things I do.' Eric conceded with an agonised growl, earning himself a tender flutter of a kiss on his cheeks.

'I'll be in and out and home again before anyone complains about me. No-fuss.' Rudyard nodded earnestly and the promise pulled a dejected half-smile across Chapman's features, sitting all askew.

'Speed and efficiency?' He muttered hopefully.

'Quite correct.'

'And you'll hold hard against the advances of a tall, handsome doctor?' Eric added, aiming for levity but with an undeniable edge of agitation.

'He's not that tall.' Rudyard argued, tongue in cheek, studiously avoiding an outright affirmation.

'Rudyard.' Eric growled sternly.

'Or that handsome.'

'Rudyard.' This time around the word tumbled from Eric's lips sort of involuntarily, painted pathetic with a faint shade of panic. He threaded his hands behind Rudyard, fisting his jacket, trying to pull him, impossibly, closer.

'I think you'll find, Chapman' Rudyard grinned, finally relenting 'that Dr Edgware has a major handicap when compared to you.'

'Hm?' Eric hummed, interest piqued.

'He isn't Eric Chapman and he'll never be Eric Chapman.' Rudyard admitted with quiet solemnity like he was stating an abject truth. The sky was blue. The Sun rose east. Piffling was Earth's horniest nation. And he loved Eric Chapman with a heartrending, unerring abandon.

And suddenly all the tension to Chapman's posture was washed away as he looked down at Rudyard with an unabashed expression of naked adoration.

'That was really sweet, Rudyard.' He whispered.

Words that cajoled a wide-eyed look of existential horror from Rudyard who'd have still prefered to be caught dead rather than outright sentimental and looked presently as if he was about to break out in hives.

'I simply meant to say that your ideals and mine might be more... aligned.' He tried in vain to backpedal as he resented even the implication of being suspected of simpering admiration; a gesture Chapman chose to soundly ignore when he pulled Rudyard into a passionate kiss.

And that was the moment when yours truly decided to abandon the undertakers to their lovey-dovey business. Mostly because even despite penning four Sunday Times bestsellers revolving around airing his dirty laundry (All available as audiobooks read by Belinda Lang!), I still liked to give Rudyard some privacy in the more tender moments.

And partly because the saccharin scene threatened to devastate my already precarious metabolism.

I decided, instead, to find out whether the good doctor gave Antigone a clean bill of health. I joined our foremost - if only - mortician in the Calm Room of Chapman's where she was pacing between the paper sliding doors like something bearly domesticated, like a skittish wild horse or Marlene's lion tamer, her agitated demeanour in stark contrast with the purpose of the room. With each turn she muttered phrases like "This is wretched." and uttered broken half-sentences such as "Rudyard", "Chapman" "losers" and on one occasion, worryingly enough, I heard her mention something about a scalpel. She did some twenty lengths around the room by the time Dr Edgware returned, clutching something looking suspiciously like frozen peas.

'Five state of the art storeys, a basement and a sub-basement with a hundred and forty-seven individual first - aid boxes and not a single cold compress anywhere. I'm afraid we'll have to make do with this.'

He proceeded to gently cradle the back of Antigone's head and pressed the icy produce to the purpling swelling on the mortician's temple.

'Hardly the peak of medicinal technology. Still, it's a nicer brand than the one we use at St Pratt's.' His inquisitive, dark eyes studied Antigone who seemed to lean ever so slightly into his confident, perfunctory touch. 'Do you feel fit enough to answer a set of questions, designed for the preliminary examination of whether you have traumatic brain injury?'

'Y-yes.' Stuttered Antigone, a bit taken aback by the gravity of his words.

'Can you tell me your name?'

'Antigone Funn.'

'Do you know today's date?'

'The tenth of February.'

'Who is the incumbent Mayor of Piffling?'

'Is it' Antigone hesitated, though not because she was unsure of the answer; but because she expected the question to be a trick one or even a leg-pull. 'the Mayor?'

'Excellent.' Nodded the doctor. Releasing Antigone, his hands dropped placidly to his side, numbing fingers still curled around the thawing peas. 'Just one last question.'

And she gave Antigone a hard, searching glare.

'What, in the name of sanity, are you doing dating Eric Chapman?!'

Antigone's hands fluttered up in a gesture of annoyed vexation like a pair of startled birds.

'I was trying to call Rudyard's bluff, make him jealous, goad him into dumping you. I mean, who does he think he is, dating the best man around?'

'You mean after Eric Chapman.' Dr Edgware narrowed his sunken, shadowy eyes at her.

'Oh, come off it.' Antigone swatted Dr Edgware's arm in a light, ineffectual manner. 'I just said that to annoy Rudyard. That little blond squirt can't hold a candle to you and you know it.'

Something quite unexpected had happened at that. A grin appeared on the doctor's careworn face, making him seem a good deal younger, almost debonair. And if that wasn't enough, he suddenly leaned down, releasing the peas in favour of cupping Antigone's chin and placed a soft feather of a kiss against her jawline, making the mortician's translucent complexion heat.

'I just like to hear you say it.' He admitted against her soft, pale stretch of skin.

The speed of my pencil could bearly keep up with my racing thoughts. I had trouble consolidating what I had just seen.

'Besides, Henry, you've no reason to be offended.' Antigone continued her tirade, pushing the doctor away a little but giving him a wishful, withering look even as she did so, appearing to mourn the loss of his gentle touch. 'I needn't have said anything like that if you haven't decided to give dating my sodding brother a bash.'

But, unphased by the mortician's furious expression, Dr Edgware shoulders jerked and snagged sharply into an impertinent shrug.

'I had little say in the matter. I don't know if you've noticed, but your assistant is great at accomplishing what she sets out to do.'

'Still, Henry.' Antigone whined. 'Couldn't you have done something?'

'Not without telling her that I am seeing you, I couldn't.' The physician shook his head. 'Something you've explicitly forbade me to do.'

My lovingly crafted, tiny pencil snapped in two as I leaned on it with too much force in surprise. Apparently, Antigone went ahead and started to discreetly go out with Dr Edgware right under our noses!

'You could have told her that you are too busy to date.' Muttered Antigone, her every muscle tensing into a contorted, argumentative posture, bracing for a battle she'd already lost well before it started.

'Believe you me, I tried.' Dr Edgware sounded his familiar, fatigued self as he said that, almost as if the mere recollection of the conversation was draining him of the will to live. 'But, as it turns out, Georgie is also great at clearing my schedule. Something we could take advantage of if only we confided in her.'

'Impossible.' Hissed Antigone, with a wounded air, like the mere concept had slashed her. 'She's too loyal to my brother.'

'Which is a problem because...?'

'Well, because she'd tell Rudyard right away and then where would we be?' Antigone cried, wringing her hands.

'Out there at Frangipani's, having dinner together like we are meant to, instead of me taking out your brother and you romancing his rival.'

'Henry, you can't be serious.'

'Antigone. A common cold isn't serious. Stomach flu isn't serious. Even the early stage of gangrene isn't that serious.' Dr Edgware explained, weighing each word with careful consideration. 'I, on the other hand, am resolved to come clean to your brother as soon the opportunity presents itself.'

'You can't.' Antigone exclaimed, her expression an unholy amalgamation of outrage and horror. 'He'll be up in arms, doing everything in his power to separate us.'

'Even Rudyard wouldn't be such a complete prat.' a single, incredulous eyebrow migrated upwards on Dr Edgware's complexion.

'Oh, don't underestimate him. When he learns that I am no longer alone and unloved he'll be out for blood, as keen to sabotage us as anything.'

'Is this about some nonsensical notion of his, something to do with staunch adherence to tradition? Wanting us to not see one another outside wedlock?' Dr Edgware inquired, suddenly full of poorly suppressed anger.

'No!' Cried out Antigone, looking profoundly outraged. Sure she thought Rudyard was a menace. The worst things, in her estimate, that happened to Piffling since the draught of 1405. But even Rudyard wouldn't sink as low as that. 'It's because he can't stand me having something that he hasn't.'

'Ah, but that's fortunately no longer the case.' Contemplated Dr Edgware with a minute, relieved, sluggish blink. 'Not now, not with Chapman courting him, surely.'

Antigone snapped her head up so violently she looked in danger of dislocating a vertebrate. There was a momentary lull, a silence of one, two, three heartbeats, then-

'He's what?' She barked, dubious, demanding as the words had sunk in.

'Oh, you haven't heard? Word is, he'd been him gallanting your brother for quite some time.'

'Oh, God.' Antigone uttered dull-eyed, transfixed, the blasphemy falling fro her lips limply like an anvil. 'N-no this has to be untrue, the kind of fringe lunacy only the Piffling rumour mill could produce-'

'I'd dismiss it myself if I hadn't witnessed it with my own eyes, last week when I was summoned to Chapman's cafe to resuscitate Mr Windsor. He developed a sudden, debilitating allergy to redbush tea.' Henry explained, his voice so wary like conjuring the memory had meant the same amount of strain as the actual act. 'We made quite a spectacle, as you might imagine. But I doubt they'd even noticed I was there, your brother and Chapman, they were so lost in each other.'

Antigone processed this while pailing into an even more prominent shade of plaster, her delicate webbing of purple veins protruding further.

'Why me?' She bemoaned, her dark eyes opening wide, sparkles of a half-wild expression in them. 'Is it something I've done? Or am I being punished for merely having existed?'

'This could be good.' Dr Edgware tried to placate her, rubbing soothing circles on her back. 'For both your brother and us. Someone with Rudyard's reputation finding a partner certainly strikes me as a happy thing. You know those, happy things? We've talked about them.'

He said it as if the concept of happiness was synonymous with, say,  Australian fauna; as if he knew, objectively, that it existed, even though he'd never really encountered it.  And that he'd need a handbook to identify it upon sighting.

But Antigone just shook her head violently.

'No, it isn't and it won't be when Rudyard realises Chapman is just stringing him along.'

'Do you really believe that?' Dr Edgeware had asked, his eyes narrowed. His mild concern was a muted echo of Antigone's flailing panic.

'Why else would he agree to date me if he's so truly enamoured with my brother?' Antigone proceeded to worry anything within reach in an anxious flurry; her sleeves. Dr Edgware's sleeves. A strand of her hair. Her own hands. In fact, she was kneading on the latter with such bone-crushing enthusiasm that Henry decided to envelop her wrists in his.

'Can't blame him for being unable to resist your beauty, par with that of Helen of Troy - a "face that could launch a thousand ships". he commented and he lifted Antigone's hands to his lips and placed reverent kisses against her calloused palm.

I rolled my eyes so hard at that I thought I might strain something. If the fact that I failed to observe that Antigone had developed a love life (something that I would definitely have noticed at the spritely age of three) wasn't a dead giveaway on its own, my lowering tolerance of amorous couples would have been a sure sign of me getting on a bit. I'll soon have to move in with Miss Scruple at this rate, I mused regretfully. At least she was bound to be interesting, worthy of a memoir of her own, with what her proclivity to sprouting discourse and her penchant for espionage.

Still, the new book could hardly boast a title as catchy as my Memoirs of a Funeral House Mouse series (available as an attractive box set for the low, low price of £39.99).

While I contemplated the future of my most successful series to date - by default - Antigone's breath hitched and shuddered under the amorous onslaught but she composed herself with an almost superhuman effort.

'Focus, Henry.' She lifted her partner's head with a gentle touch to his chin. 'We must thwart whatever Chapman's planning.'

'Thwart it?' Henry repeated the dramatic phrasing in a little, adoring reverb.

'Thwart it. Entirely thwart it.' Antigone affirmed with an overdramatic sigh. 'Because contrary to popular belief, I don't hate my brother. I want what is best for him. I'd much prefer him reasonably happy. Irrespective of whether his bad mood will shroud the entirety of Funn Funerals or whether he just mourns in quiet solitude, licking the wounds of his rejected heart alone.'

And Antigone made an expression at that, indicative of how her own heart lurched in sympathy with her brother's.

Dr Edgware brushed her hair out of her face, tracing the outlines of her sharp, dramatic features, studying her sincere bereavement.

'I know that you care deeply for him.' He nodded. 'So what do you propose we do?'

'I'd better go on that date with Chapman after all, find out what his intentions are towards my brother.' Antigone mumbled vengefully.

'Do what you must.' Henry agreed. 'I trust your instinct.'

'You do?' The mortician looked up with a sharp surprise. She was far more used to all her ideas being greeted with suspicion and her opinion contested at every turn and seemed a bit at loss as to how to cope with her boyfriend's abundant support. 'I mean, of course, you do. And so you should.'

Still petting her hair and her temple, Dr Edgware smiled down at Antigone.

'And Henry?'

'Yes?'

'Wish me luck.'

Now, in my limited experience the phrase "wish me luck" did not translate automatically to "nab me in the zen atmosphere of Chapman's Calm Room" but Dr Edgware clearly worked from a different reference library to mine. I was just about to up and leave them when they finally parted lips.

'We have to get back.' Panted Antigone against Henry. 'They'll be wondering where we are. Rudyard. Eric Chapman.'

'Let them wonder.' Dr Edgware said, diving in for another kiss and Antigone pushed him away, chiding in a giddy sort of mock outrage.

'Henry.'

So they made their way back to the foyer, with some difficulty, interrupting themselves with more smooching en route. By the time they returned, Rudyard and Chapman were standing at a respectful distance from each other. Only I could spot the tell-tale signs of some serious snogging having taken place in our absence; the tussled state of Chapman's otherwise artfully arranged hair. The blush still running high on Rudyard's cheeks.

I groaned. I could practically feel the sweetness of it all giving me cavities. 

I scuttled the length of the foyer and rejoined Rudyard, who called out to his sister just as he bent to retrieve me.

'So, what's the verdict, Antigone?' He asked with surprisingly even, unwavering hostility. 'Are you about to expire on me?'

'I'll live, you'll be sorry to hear.' Antigone cocked her head.

'Pity.' Her brother squinted; a response she refused to dignify with an answer. Apart from sticking her tongue out at Rudyard.

'Can we go?' Dr Edgware interrupted them and he and Rudyard exited together.

'Antigone.' Eric offered his elbow and they lumbered awkwardly after the other two.

And thus, the most uncomfortable walk of our lives had begun. Our despondent little group must have looked from the outside like an unfortunate cross between a funerary procession and a wedding march as we approached the only Piffling speakeasy apart from Chapman's and the Yacht Club - an Italian bistro run by the widowed Mrs Frangipani.

Chapter Text

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.