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The Piffling Vale Persons Gallery

Chapter Text

For hundreds of years, since the arrival of the first miserable settlers (all fugitives from the law, naturally), Piffling Vale has been a village : small, quaint, and offering just enough amenities for a comfortable life to dwindle by. There’s one fishing hut, one marketplace, one cinema, one grocer with one type of macaroni for sale, and one sweetshop all with reasonable prices and no competition. Nowhere on the island are the two unrelated families with the same surname, and so it has become a well established fact that Piffling Vale is a vast collection of perfectly unique people doing perfectly unique things, until the day the village’s one and only hospital welcomes into the world the villages very first pair of identical twins, screaming their heads off in tune on a bright summer day in 1962.

“What does this have to do with anything?” you may ask, dear reader. Well, the firstborn, Thomas after his paternal grandfather, became a lawyer and moved away to the mainland, where he runs a wildly successful business to this day. The other, Desmond after his maternal grandfather, became none other than Piffling Vale’s beloved, formerly right honourable Mayor Desmond Desmond.

 


 

“Marjorie,” Mayor Desmond Desmond calls with the same excitable air of something truly monumental having happened as he does every morning coming into the office, “Oh, you won’t believe what a most marvellous idea I’ve come up with!”

“Sir?”

“You know, I was just talking to Nigel about personal growth and then - silly me never having thought of it before - I said to myself, ‘Desmond, doesn’t your character reside in the character of the village?’ and fancied that it did indeed. So I thought to myself, I did, what if the village were to grow?”

“Grow, sir?”

“Yes, grow. Then it would become… a town,” he exclaims. “Isn’t that exciting?”

Eyeing him strangely, she says, “Very exciting indeed, sir, but what’s wrong with a village?”

“Oh no, there’s nothing wrong with it. I don’t want anyone to think that. It would simply be far more interesting to be the mayor of a town . A bigger, better, and improved place. Come to think of it… I wonder what the difference between a town and a village is. Can you find that out for me, Marjorie?”

“Would you like me to do that before or after I report back to you on all the existing varieties of Brie cheese?” she asks, raising an eyebrow, unimpressed.

“Oh, after please. I’ll be having cheese for tea and I really must know what kind it is.”

“Of course, sir. Shall we be doing any work that goes toward running the village in its current state today then, or?”

Mayor Desmond Desmond chuckles at that. “We always work for the benefit of the town, Marjorie. I know your days are long, but such is public service. Now, I wonder if there are any of those cookie crumbles left in my office,” he says and makes for the door.

“Um, sir, one last thing,” Marjorie says and he mutters a hurried ‘yes yes’ at her, “Doctor Edgware called about your sister. She is still ill in hospital and doesn’t seem to be improving.”

“It serves her right for being so horrible to me all those years.”

“I think she might actually be dying.”

“Oh,” the mayor says, “Perhaps I ought to go visit her.” Then, turning to her, he asks, “Will you be alright on your own for the morning?”

“Yes, sir,” Marjorie says, “I’m here by myself half the workday most days anyway.”

“Good, good. I’ll be off for today then.”

 


 

The hospital, more like a GP clinic with a stay-in ward and one operation room to add to the long line of singles on the island, is only a fifteen minute walk from the mayor’s office, as is everything else substantial on the island. At the moment, they have a total of three patients on the ward - Sam Holly, lying miserably in bed with three irritating casts after a particularly unfortunate fall from a ladder while hanging up banners along the main lane of the village; Mr Kraus, who’s been chronically ill with one thing or another since the late eighties; and lastly Ms Lena Desmond, wilting away with stage four thyroid cancer.

The half pained expression on her face turns bitter the instant she lays eyes upon her youngest brother, the jagged edges of her cheekbones protruding from her melting face. “Desmond,” she says, “I wasn’t expecting you.”

“Didn’t the doctor tell you, I was coming to visit?”

“I did,” Dr Edgware chimes in from the foot of another bed.

“He told me my brother was here to see me.” Lena offers him a tight smile. “I thought he meant Thomas.”

“Well, that’s just silly. He doesn’t even live here,” Desmond tells her.

“And yet he was the one to come down and visit me when I was in chemo the first time, and the second, and the third.”

“I was very busy,” Desmond says, “You know, I’m the mayor. I have many important things to do.”

“I don’t doubt that. Surely Piffling Vale, what with being a tiny village, keeps a man busy enough to be able to spare a single hour in six months to visit his ill sister.”

Desmond doesn’t quite know what to say as he stands there with flaming cheeks. It reminds him of the many times when they were kids and she’d humiliate him for one thing or another in front of his and Thomas’ friends, until, of course, they weren’t his friends anymore. He startles at the sound of Dr Edgware pulling the curtain shut around Lena’s bed. As though they aren’t practically made of paper, like they give any sort of privacy. Their walls at home used to be like this too, every snide comment bleeding through them to be intentionally overheard.

“Lena,” he says, because sometimes pleading was enough with her.

“You were always so slow, Des.”

“But I did always catch up too.”

“So it seem. You’ve caught me on my deathbed. Do you feel good about yourself now?”

He hesitates, because Lena’s questions aren’t always questions, not in the way his are. She stares at him for a long while before she says: “You were supposed to be identical, but you’re not even half of him.”

“I run the whole village. I’m a mayor.” What he wants to ask, but doesn’t, is: “Why isn’t that enough?”

“Meanwhile, Thomas is in London working for more clients than you have people living here. Face it, your little village is nothing compared to that.”

“That’s not true,” Desmond says and his voice wavers like it used to back when they were children and she’d tell him outrageous lies about the magpies laughing at him outside the kitchen window. He puts on his hat again and prepares to leave without a goodbye, saying only, “And we’re well on our way to becoming a town, you know.”

 


 

 

As it turns out - and this Desmond Desmond discovers in increments over years - between him and his twin brother, older by three minutes and forty seconds of panic on his mother’s part, he is the only twin. Him and Thomas are both extraordinary on opposite ends of the scale and Desmond sometimes feels his mother looking strangely upon him. He is teased, for a year or so, for the fact that he is not only a copy of Thomas, but that even his name is a copy and paste affair. After that come the glasses and some boy whose features Desmond can’t quite shake shoves his face into the ground with a boot wedged between his shoulder blades. And Desmond is so painfully aware of Thomas not suffering in the same way, but sat two metres away eating both their lunches as his world goes fuzzy in the same degree his glasses are askew.

He accepts it as a fact that two things, no matter how much they ought to be the same, can’t ever maintain an equal value. Thomas gets a two-hundred and fifty second head start and Desmond spends a lifetime limping behind.

This is what he reminds himself of when Rudyard Funn comes storming through his door one day, complaining about a second funeral home right across his street, though that isn’t what triggers the memory. He’s rather hoping to generate more business, a little bit of competition, since that is what towns do. No, what gets him is the mention of a second mayor.

“Two mayors?” he asks miserably from under his desk.

Doubling up on shops had seemed like a harmless option so far, but evidently it has lead him right to his doom, because if there would be two mayors, one would inevitably have to be better than the other, and he has a track record of being worse . And if there are two funeral homes with a limited amount of corpses, then one must prosper and the other must perish.

There is no space for two carbon copies of anything in Piffling Vale, him and his brother have proven as much. Mayor Desmond Desmond tells Eric Chapman so as well, signed papers with a smiley face in the O of his name or no.

Only, apparently two hospitals is a great idea according to Chapman, and so he mutters, “C-can I ask a question?”

Eric Chapman, funeral director number two, says: “Go for it.”

“If we had two funeral homes, would we need two mayors as well?”

And Chapman, with the greatest conviction, says, “No. That’s ridiculous.”

“Ooh, excellent,” Mayor Desmond Desmond says, considering that perhaps the business of turning his village into a town isn’t a pointless pursuit after all. They’ll have two things of each, equal to one another and only one of him to oversee it all. As mayor, he can do that. “In that case,” he says, “I hereby pronounce this funeral home open.”

And so it came to be that two very strange events took place in Piffling Vale the very same week. Firstly, the town received a second funeral home, authorised by the second born of the villages first twins, and, secondly, a cat birthed two identical kittens, memorialised with a grainy black and white photograph in that week’s edition of Piffling Matters.

Chapter Text

The Chief Inspector’s office is state of the art- walls of glass offering panoramic views of London, the computer brand new and the entire room seemingly constructed in nothing but shades of white and chrome. Even the calendar hanging on the wall is spotless and crisp, proudly displaying the date: 5th of April 2001. Agatha, sitting across from the man whose name is on the door, separated from him by half a meter of white plastic masquerading as a desk, hates it. It’s obsessively clean. Artificial. Sterile. Removed from reality. She sips badly made tea and leans back in her chair, already knowing what she’s been called in for and what her answer will be. She expects the Chief Inspector knows the same.

“Agatha… I know we’ve had this conversation before, many times-“

“Seven times, to be precise.”

The Chief Inspector pauses, looking irritated at the interruption, and then carries on regardless.

“Despite having had it, as you said, seven times before, I still think we need to discuss it again.”

Agatha sighs. “Let me stop you there- I’m not retiring. I don't care what you offer me; no amount of money will do the trick. This job is my life.”

“It may well be your life, but you’re 55! In five years you’ll have to retire regardless; why not just do it now?”

“Craig, you know full well I’d have nothing else. I’ve done this job since I was 18 years old. What would I do instead?” The Chief Inspector- Craig- has no real answer for that, and both he and Agatha know it. She takes another sip of her tea and half shudders- far too weak. “Why aren’t you giving me any cases, hm? Shall we discuss that too?”

“Agatha, you have to understand that not all of these cases are suitable for a woman of your age-“

“Oh, so you’re worried I’m going to have a heart attack the next time I see a dead body, is that it? You think I’m too sensitive?”

“Of course not! We have only the highest respect for you. You’ve done the job remarkably well for a remarkable number of years. But there are newer recruits who are more suitable for the job than you are now! That’s just how it works!”

“And yet, I am unmoved. Lovely speaking with you, Chief Inspector, but I think I’ll be leaving now.” She sets what remains of her terrible tea down on a coaster, and stands up, beginning to walk away.

“Agatha, wait! I’m… I’m prepared to offer you a deal.”

Agatha raises an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“There’s… a case. Something’s come up, and we need someone to go undercover. I will give you this case, but you have to promise that after it ends, you’ll think seriously about retiring.” Halfway to the door, she pauses and looks back. A case is all she’s wanted for the past couple of weeks- since everyone was refusing to give her one, she’d had to consult on other people’s, which had just been unbearable.

She turns, and faces Craig fully. He looks annoyingly hopeful. “Tell me more about this case.”

He grins. “You’ll like it- no murder, but it’s unusual. We’ve received a tip off about drugs being sold from a sweet shop in central London. Apparently the bastards are filling Sherbet Dip packets with cocaine and selling it off. We need someone to pose as the new owner, whist the current one is on holiday, so that we can see if it’s true and then get them if is. We thought you’d be perfect for it.”

For a moment, she just stares at Craig, considering. “And my other options are?”

He sighs. “You can continue on as you are now, if you’d like, but cases will be few and far between.”

“Is that blackmail?”

“No, it’s just the truth. I really do think you should consider it, Agatha. You’re an exceptional detective. But are you really happy with that being the only important thing in your life?”

For a few moments, Agatha is almost completely still. And then all at once in flurry of movement she crosses the room, sits back down and downs the remaining tea with the air of someone drinking a particularly unpleasant shot of alcohol. She sets the mug back down decisively, and then looks the Chief Inspector in the eye. “Fine. I’ll do it. Where’s this sweet shop?”

 


 

A week later, and Agatha can see for herself where it is. She arrives in the late afternoon, when it’s just beginning to become cooler, and is pleasantly surprised. The sweet shop turns out to be a tiny, yet well stocked and charmingly old fashioned affair, squeezed between a bohemian clothing boutique and a tea shop selling more variations of tea than Agatha’s ever heard of, and topped with a small flat for the owner to live in. It’s in one of the nicer areas of London, not pretentious and over the top enough to be classified as fashionable, and not tacky enough to qualify as a tourist trap- near the Thames, slightly vintage, where families walk hand in hand. It seems an incredibly unlikely place for a drug dealing operation to be taking place, but then, doesn’t everywhere, at first?

Agatha unlocks the door and enters, surprised to hear a genuine bell ring as she does so. She’d thought no one would bother with that sort of thing anymore, that it would all be digital; evidently she was wrong. Setting down her bag, she spies a piece of paper on the counter and quickly picks it up: a list of written instructions penned by the previous owner, all about how to run the shop. Having been fully briefed beforehand, these are quite useless to her, however, she appreciates the gesture.

The interior of the shop, now that she can get at proper look at it, is as charming as the exterior- traditional, with gigantic shelves lining the walls and housing row upon row of gleaming glass jars full of every type of sweet imaginable. It’s also bright and airy, both the floor and counter made of warm, honey-coloured wood and the furniture upholstered in a soft dove grey fabric. The overall effect is incredibly pleasant, but Agatha scarcely allows herself even a few minutes to enjoy it, as she is out the door again almost immediately, on her way to meet the person who tipped them off about this whole thing- a Mr David R Surron.

His house is only down the road, and, Agatha thinks, surprisingly large for someone who supposedly lives alone. She climbs the three steps and knocks three times- short, sharp knocks- on the powder blue front door. Within only a few minutes, the door flies open, revealing a thin, balding, nervous looking man in- at Agatha’s estimate- his mid forties, trembling slightly.

“Mr Surron?” She asks, relived when his face lights up with relief.

“That’s me! Erm.. what’s this about?”

“My name is Detective Doyle, Mr Surron. I’m here about what you told the police- your suspicions about drug dealing taking place at the sweet shop further along the road?”

“Ah! Yes, of course. Come inside, come inside…would you like some tea? Coffee?

“Tea would be lovely. Quite strong, please.”

She follows Mr Surron down a mildly cluttered hallway and into a large living room with confusingly mismatched sofas. There are two- one quite small and plain, the other large and rather horribly patterned: a patchwork of randomly selected fabrics and clashing colours, adorned with piles of tiny, decorative cushions. Despite its ugliness, Agatha moves to sit on that one, and nearly leaps out of her skin when Mr Surron begins shrieking at her.

“You can’t sit there!” He yells, looking as though it is a matter of life and death.

Agatha jumps up hurriedly, heart thumping. “I’m so sorry,” she says rapidly.

For a few moments, Mr Surron simply breathes slowly, his eyes jammed shut. Once he speaks again, his voice is calm and controlled. “It’s not your fault. I simply have some… issues surrounding that sofa. My housemate bought it. We’re selling it soon.”

Agatha moves tentatively to the other side of the room. “…Can I sit on this one?” She gestures towards the other, plainer sofa.

“Oh yes, of course. And I’ll just go and get you that tea.” Mr Surron scampers out of the room, leaving Agatha alone.

She takes the opportunity to study her surroundings- the decor of a person’s house can tell you so much about their personality, she’s found. The first thing she notices is that there is next to no colour, the walls painted in creamy neutrals, the furniture- aside from the patchwork sofa- all in varying shades of brown. The only decoration hanging in the room is a rather watery, monochromatic painting of what Agatha assumes is meant to be a forest. The odd thing is, amid the sea of dull blandness, she can see attempts to force in some colour. A vase of fake flowers in a vivid crimson rests on the fireplace. A bright yellow throw is neatly draped over one of the plain sofa’s arms. Not to mention, of course, the almost shockingly bright patchwork sofa. It’s bizarre.

Before she can put more thought into it, Mr Surron returns, clutching two mugs. He sets them down on a coffee table in front of the plain sofa, sends one last withering look towards the patchwork, and sits down. “So, you wanted to ask me some questions?”

Agatha takes a quick sip of her tea, and is grateful to find it passable, if not actually good. “Yes. Two weeks ago you came into the police station and reported drugs being bought and sold from the sweet shop on this road. Do you have any evidence? Can you go into more detail?”

“Well, at first I thought it was just a weird thing. Everyone has a guilty pleasure, and all that. But it was just that once every week, on Friday mornings, I’d see a parcel of Sherbet Dips being brought into the sweet shop. And then just before closing time on Friday evening, a man- the same man, every time- would come in and buy the whole parcel.”

Agatha’s already writing the whole thing down in her notebook. “You said this man picks up the same parcel once every week? How long has this been going on for?”

“Ooh, around… five months now? Anyway, I thought it was really weird, so I went in there myself the other week to see if they’d let me buy the parcel. And they wouldn’t. ‘Reserved for another customer’ they said it was. So I concluded it had to be drugs.” He looked oddly proud of himself.

“… Mr Surron?”

“Yes?”

“Did you ever consider that, instead of it being drugs, this man could just be ordering Sherbet Dip online and then collecting it in store? There’s no law against liking Sherbet Dip, you know.”

He waves the remark away. “Yeah, but there’s been a lot of problems with drugs around here recently, hasn't there? Only last month a boy two streets away died from cocaine overdose; it was on the news! And I know he didn’t order it online.”

“And how do you know that?”

“Well, we don’t have an internet connection here.” Almost the very moment after he’s said it, Mr Surron’s hands fly to cover his mouth. He looks shocked.

“Mr Surron. Please tell me this man isn't you?”

“No! No of course not!” He sighs. “The man’s… my housemate.”

“I see. And you didn’t think that was relevant information the police might need to know about?”

“…no?”

Agatha resists the urge to bury her head in her hands. “Right. Okay. So- the man’s your housemate. Presumably he brings the Sherbet Dip packages back here?”

“No, you see, that’s the thing- I see him get them every week but I don't know where he takes them.”

“Okay, then, do you have any way of contacting him? Where is he currently?”

“Currently? On a business trip. Been gone for about a week so far. He didn’t leave me any way to contact him… I’m not even really sure where he’s gone.”

“And when’s he coming back?”

“A few days time. Thursday evening, I think.”

Agatha thinks for a moment. Something about this just doesn’t add up, and the odd decor is still bothering her.

“Mr Surron, all of the brightly coloured things in here- the sofa, the throw, the bunch of flowers- were they bought by your housemate or yourself?”

He frowns. “My housemate. I didn’t want him to buy them- I think they look hideous- but he insisted. I was going to sell them all whilst he was away but then I realised he’s coming back, so he’d notice.”

And then, suddenly, it all clicks into place. Mr Surron seems to despise colour- maybe some form of OCD?- and his housemate loves it. He was going to sell all of the furniture and accessories his housemate bought for the house whilst the housemate was on a business trip, regardless of his housemate’s wishes, and the only thing that stopped him was the fact that his housemate was coming back. He seems incredibly nervous- he hasn’t stopped trembling the entire time- indicating that confrontation is likely not one of his strong points, which itself indicates he can’t just ask his housemate to leave, no matter how much he may want to. However, if the housemate was to leave of his own accord- if he, say, was imprisoned, or found a new place to live- Mr Surron would be free to sell as much furniture as he likes. Add to that local problems with drugs, particularly cocaine, a nearby sweet shop, and his housemate’s love for a type of confectionary involving white powder…

Agatha fixes Mr Surron with a steely glare. “Mr Surron, I want you to answer me honestly. Do you really suspect your housemate of buying and possibly selling drugs?”

“Of course! That’s why I called you here!”

“I don’t think you do. I think you just wanted a way to get rid of your housemate so you could sell all the furniture he bought. I think you made up a bizarre story about his Sherbet Dips actually being cocaine, planning to have him investigated and sent to prison.”

“No- no!”

“Unfortunately, without any proof other than your word I have nothing to investigate. Thank you for the tea.”

“No, please wait! I’m really not making it up! Look- you’re stationed at the sweet shop, right?”

“I am, but I don’t see what difference-”

“Stay there till he comes back. The package will be dropped off on Friday morning, and then Friday evening he’ll come and collect it. Then you can check the package yourself, and see that I’m right!”

As much as Agatha hates to admit it… that would be the most logical thing to do. She doesn’t believe for a moment there’s any truth to Surron’s allegations, but she’d be a truly terrible detective if she didn’t pursue every avenue.

“…Alright, but I have to warn you, I don’t like people who waste police time.”

And with that, she leaves.

 


 

Arriving back at the sweet shop, Agatha takes her bag upstairs, both to unpack and to take a look at the small flat which will be her home for the next few days. She’s surprised to find it’s actually nice- a small living room with a red leather sofa, a thick cream rug and a large window overlooking the street outside; a bathroom with both a bath and shower painted in blues and turquoises; a comfortably sized kitchen stocked, to her delight, with an abundance of ready meals; and a bedroom in shades of cream, light gold and lavender, with a comfy looking double bed, a wardrobe, and a desk. Pulling her laptop from her bag, she sets it on the desk and unlocks it, opening her email account to send a message to the chief inspector.

‘Chief Inspector,’ she types,

‘I have arrived at the sweet shop and spoken to the contact who first reported the possible drug dealing. Whilst I have doubts about the legitimacy of his allegations, I plan to stay here for several days to make absolutely certain they are false. I will send you word of any developments as soon as they happen.

Yours,
Detective Agatha Doyle’

After sending the message, she goes, first to unpack her clothing and put it into the wardrobe, and then to make herself a cup of tea.

 


 

 

The next morning brings a particularly beautiful sunrise, washes of dusky pink, golden orange and lemon yellow filling the sky. Agatha watches it from the sofa in the living room, having woken up as early as humanly possible (since that is apparently what is required of sweet shop owners).

She makes her way downstairs an hour before the opening time of 11am, rather at a loss for what to do. The shop is incredibly well organised already, so she spends the hour familiarising herself with both the back room and the till. She notes, with interest, that sweets are stored in packages of the type described by Mr Surron in the back room, but that none of them are for sale. Another thing she spots is a computer containing a schedule that shows when all the deliveries are for the next month. When she checks, there is indeed one scheduled for the Friday at the end of this week, but what it is a delivery of is not specified. Damn.

Agatha looks down at her watch, and is startled to find it’s five past eleven. After emerging from the back room, she is even more startled to find that there is a customer already waiting: a very young girl- probably aged around five or six, Agatha estimates- dressed in school uniform with her hair in adorably fluffy bunches has her face pressed to the glass of the front window. Agatha hurries to unlock the door and to change the sign in the window from ‘Closed’ to ‘Open’. As soon as she does so, the girl positively beams and rushes in. An old woman (well, older than herself), whom Agatha assumes is her grandmother, walks in behind her.

“Hello!” The girl practically yells. “I’d like a bag of fudge please!”

“Of course.” Agatha turns, quickly spies the jar of fudge cubes- third shelf up, fifth jar- and pulls it down, having no desire to disappoint a child. As she does so, the girl speaks again.

“You’re not the lady who’s normally here.” Evidently, this is a bad thing- the girl’s face is scrunched up in distaste.

“You’re right, I’m not. That lady’s gone on holiday; I’m just filling in.”

The girl considers this for a moment. “What do you normally do for a job then?”

Agatha scoops up a reasonable amount of fudge cubes and places them in a bag. “I work for the police. I’m a detective.”

At Agatha’s words, the girl’s eyes grow unexpectedly wide. “Really?! That is so cool! Will you tell me about it? My name’s Ad- Adel…”

“Adeline.” The presumed grandmother fills in helpfully.

“Yes, that, thank you Granny!” Ah, so she was right about the woman being the girl’s grandmother. “Most people call me Addy though. Will you tell me police stories? I come here every Monday, like today, and every Friday too!”

By now, Agatha has finished weighing up the bonbons and places the bag on the counter. “That’ll be £4.15 please.” Granny approaches the counter, and pulls out a five pound note, handing it to Agatha, who smiles gratefully in return. “Thank you. And, Addy- I might be able to tell you police stories, as long as it’s okay with your grandmother.”

Almost immediately, Addy has turned and is begging her Granny to be allowed to hear the police stories. Granny smiles fondly down at her. “You can absolutely hear the stories, Addy, but unfortunately not right now.” At Addy’s (very loud) protests, she grimaces. “I’m sorry dear, but you’ll be late for school.”

Addy pouts moodily, but agrees. “Fine. But can I come back on Friday and hear the stories? Please?!”

“Yes, yes you can. But we really do have to go now; say goodbye to the nice lady.”

Instantly placated, Addy beams up at Agatha. “Bye bye! See you on Friday! And thank you for the sweets.”

Agatha smiles back down at her. “You’re welcome. I look forward to seeing you again. Goodbye.”

As Addy skips out of the shop clutching her sweets, with her Granny quickly following behind, Agatha is left mildly stunned, yet strangely happy.

 


 

 

At 12:30, after nine rather uneventful sales, a worried-looking middle aged woman comes in and rushes to the counter.

“Hello.” she begins. “I need your help.”

“Of course, what do you need me to do?”

The woman sighs. “Well- this is going to sound really strange, I’ll just warn you in advance… I’m about 99% sure my nineteen year old son’s gay. I wanted to let him know that’s fine with me, but I couldn’t think of a way to bring it up. So then I thought, I know what I should do, I should get him some rainbow coloured sweets or something to give him a hint. So that’s what I want to do.” She pauses. “…can you do that?”

Agatha blinks. “…I can try!”

Half an hour later, Agatha has fished out a patterned glass jar from the depths of the back room, assembled within it a rainbow out of fruit flavoured boiled sweets, and is, as a finishing touch, tying a rainbow striped ribbon around the middle. The mother- Theresa, she has found out- is overjoyed, as well as incredibly grateful-looking.

“Thank you so much for this! It’s even better than I’d hoped!”

Agatha smiles warmly. “It was my pleasure.” she says, and means it.

 


 

 

During lunch, there is a surprising increase in customers, followed by a slight lull. It is during this brief window of relative quiet that Nathaniel Greeners enters the shop. He is a very shy man in his mid thirties, and is, he says, visiting the shop in order to buy some sweets for his wife.

“It’s our first wedding anniversary.” he says, a likely deliberately repressed glimmer of pride present in his voice.

Agatha looks up from placing the bag of Rhubarb and Custard sweets on the scales. “Oh, congratulations! That’s truly lovely.”

He smiles more broadly, meeting Agatha’s eyes for the first time. “Thanks. It’s been a pretty lovely year, actually.” He pauses, to both take the bag of sweets and to pay. “Are you married?” he enquires politely.

Agatha frowns, glancing down at the counter for a brief few seconds. “No, I’m not.”

“Oh. Any particular reason why or…?”

At his words, for just a few moments, Agatha looks deeply sad. Almost as soon as it has come however, it vanishes, and she looks exactly the same as before. “Hmm… no real time, I suppose. I normally work for the police force, you see, and that job certainly keeps you busy, let me tell you.”

“I can imagine. Does it ever get depressing?”

“Does what ever get depressing?”

“Police work. Seeing bad things happen to people all the time, murder and such. And never really being able to talk to people properly.”

Agatha pauses. “…Mostly, I love it. But sometimes… sometimes…” She smiles apologetically, and sadly. Luckily, Mr Greener still seems to understand, smiling sadly in return.

 


 

 

The vast majority of the afternoon’s customers are relatively normal, and it is nearly closing time when the last two unusual customers enter the shop. They are two teenage girls, one short with long auburn hair and the other tall with riots of dark curls and freckles. They come into the shop laughing, and never really stop until they leave.

“Hello!” Short Auburn says brightly. “We’d like to do a sort of pick n’ mix thing, if that’s okay?”

Agatha considers. It’s not actually an option offered at the shop, but… “Certainly!” What harm can it do?

Short Auburn grins. “Yay! We’re also going to choose each other’s sweets.”

“It’s a thing we do.” Tall Freckles elaborates, placing much emphasis on the word ‘thing’. “We go to places and choose food for each other.”

“It’s really fun! And it means we both get to try new things all the time.”

Agatha has to admit there is some logic to that. “That does sound a lot of fun! So, will you be choosing just one variety of sweet each, or…?”

Half an hour later, and Short Auburn has chosen for her friend a bag of marshmallows, Smarties, Polos and Chocolate Orange. Tall Freckles, on the other hand, has gone for Skittles, Rolos, gummy worms and mint imperials. Enjoying this concept, Agatha makes sure neither of the girls knows what’s in store for them until they receive their bags and open them at the exact same time (two minutes before closing time). The girl’s reactions are priceless and for the first time all day- and, if she’s honest, for a while- Agatha laughs.

She sees them out of the shop and watches them amble away along the street. It’s early evening, not quite yet dark, and so once she’s seen them go she locks up the shop, changes the sign to closed and trudges upstairs.

Collapsing on the red sofa, she is exhausted, both physically and mentally. She reflects that chasing after a suspect or being in high speed pursuit has never been nearly as tiring as this- though that’s mostly due, she realises, to the adrenaline she gets in those situations, and that she hasn't had any of today.

She has enjoyed herself though. Seeing people other than criminals or victims is not something she’s ever had much cause to do, and it’s been illuminating, and yet left her rather melancholy. All their smiles, all their laughter… all her glares and all her harsh words. A sharp contrast, and a painful one.

She’s too tired to be thinking like this- she’s always been prone to cynicism when tired, and it’s a slippery slope, she’s found. Getting up, she goes to find herself something to eat and drink. Only an hour later, Agatha is asleep.

 


 

 

The remaining three days until Friday pass in a similar fashion. Each one is long and busy, filled with more average customers and garnished with unusual ones.

Early on Tuesday morning, Agatha meets a man looking to propose with sweets, and helps him to create a beautiful display spelling out the words “Will you marry me?” in Rosy Apples. Later on, in the afternoon, a school trip to London fills her shop with 11-year-olds, all clamouring for bags of different sweets. It takes almost a full hour to sort them all out, during which the two teachers with them silently communicate their thanks for enabling them to have a short rest. Startled, she mouths back ‘you’re welcome’, and hands a particularly short schoolgirl with acres of black hair a bag of sherbet lemons.

On Wednesday, a young lad comes in looking to stock up on sweets for Halloween. By mutual, unspoken agreement, neither of them bring up the fact it’s only April, and he leaves with a truly ginormous bag of assorted lollipops. A worried Dad enters around lunchtime, having no idea what kind of sweets his daughter likes. Agatha suggests he phones and asks her, and ten minutes later he leaves, looking immensely relived, with a bag of strawberry bonbons.

She helps no less than three engaged couples choose wedding favours, and sells an entire jar of jelly beans to one single 20-year-old, all on Thursday. It’s not easy work, and interacting with people who aren't breaking the law has never been her strong point, but Agatha finds herself genuinely enjoying it. After closing time on Thursday, she realises- in the middle of her ready meal Spaghetti Bolognese- that she should really formulate a plan as to what to do when the package and the man both arrive the next day. Just looking at the package when it arrives would be pointless - she has no drug testing equipment with her, which, now she thinks about it, is really rather ridiculous… and then before she can think too hard about it, she has fallen asleep.

 


 

 

Friday morning dawns bright and crisp, and Agatha is ready and downstairs an hour before the post arrives. Sure enough, at 10:30 a postman arrives, bringing with him a large cardboard package of what is, allegedly, Sherbet Dip. She thanks him, signs for the package and then, closing the door behind her, sets it on the counter and eyes it dubiously. It doesn’t look overly suspicious- in fact, it looks mostly authentic, stickers of accurate logos stuck on the side and, as far as she’s aware, the correct address listed as the sender. It could be an incredibly well done fake, but she doubts it. Still, she places it carefully in the back room, and tries to keep an eye on it as the day progresses.

Once the shop opens at 11am, it soon establishes itself as the busiest day Agatha’s had yet. Around 12, the full cast of a musical performing in the West End arrives, all in full costume. They sing, belting dramatically, and then revert back to normal speech in a flash, and Agatha supplies them with almost a full jar of lemon and honey sweets. In the afternoon, a young couple- wife and wife- come in, looking for a particular variant of liquorice that Agatha doesn’t have in store and also isn't entirely sure exists. Still, they manage to have some nice conversation- the girls recommend a few restaurants in the area, and Agatha doesn’t have the heart to tell them that after tomorrow, she’ll be gone.

At 3:30pm, by which time Agatha has begun to look suspiciously at every man who enters her shop, Addy arrives. It pains Agatha to say it, but she’d completely forgotten that Addy was coming back. Still, she doesn’t let it show on her face, and smiles. “Hello, Addy!”

The little girl looks thrilled. “You remembered my name! Granny, Granny, she remembered my name! Did you hear?!”

“I did,” her Grandmother replies, smiling. “Wasn’t that lovely of her?”

“It was!” Without warning, Addy climbs up onto the counter. “Will you tell me the police stories now?”

Agatha tries quickly to think of stories that are suitable for a child of Addy’s age- she can’t exactly start telling her about decapitations and stabbings and that one memorable cannibalism incident. She finally settles on a relative harmless high speed pursuit related tale, involving the suspect crashing into a tree, and it just about to tell it when-

The doorbell rings innocently, and in steps a man Agatha instantly knows is the one she’s looking for. He’s dressed in jeans and an inconspicuous black hoodie, but the lurid, almost fluorescent Hawaiian shirt underneath tells Agatha everything she needs to know.

“Hi,” he says confidently, “I’m here to collect my package. 30 packs of Sherbet Dip?” She doesn’t detect any dishonesty, and he looks friendly enough.

“Ah yes, of course. It’s in the back.” She turns to Addy, whose eyes are wide with confusion. “One moment dear, I’ll be right back.”

She disappears into the back room, and returns only a moment later with the package. “Here it is sir! Now all I have to do is a quick inspection; make sure everything’s in order, that sort of thing.”

She suddenly sees panic flash in his eyes. “Wait, what? I never had do that with the last owner.”

“New owner, new policy.” She picks up a pair of scissors from a shelf behind the counter. “Now, if you’ll just let me-”

“No! You can’t open my private mail! I know my rights!” In a sudden fit of desperation, the man grabs the package and begins running towards the entrance. In a flash, Agatha has pulled her handcuffs out- she never goes anywhere without them- and vaulted over the counter, already in pursuit… as is Addy. Agatha gapes in horror.

“Addy, no!” She yells, and then watches as this tiny child grabs the man’s trouser leg, pulls, and cause him to come crashing down. Almost as soon as he hits the floor, Agatha has him in handcuffs, and is congratulating Addy.

“That was remarkable! Truly remarkable!”

Out of breath, Addy offers a thumbs up and a grin.

“You know,” Agatha continues, “Whilst I am not suggesting chasing after a possibly dangerous man was a good idea, that was incredibly quick thinking. With a brain like that, young lady, I think you’ll go far.”

Addy has now regained the ability to speak, and almost yells: “Really?!”

“Absolutely. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to phone the police.” She goes to walk upstairs to the flat, pausing only to pull down the jar of fudge cubes- third shelf up, fifth jar- and present it to Addy with a smile.

In a few hours, the man is in custody, and the next morning, he’s been charged. It’s only when she hears that he confessed to drug possession and dealing, and that she’s no longer needed at the sweet shop, that she realises it’s all over. Strange how a relatively short experience can somehow impact a person’s life forever.

A week later, she has fully retired, and two weeks later, she’s sitting alone in her house, and she sees it. It’s an advert in a newspaper: someone’s selling a shop on a tiny island in the channel. Just before she goes to bed, she circles the advert, and that night vague thoughts of glass jars and customer’s laughter fills her dreams.

 


 

 

Fifteen years later, a girl comes into Agatha’s shop on Piffling Vale. She’s far taller, far older, and her hair far less fluffy, but it’s unmistakably Addy. She’s now a detective herself, holidaying in Piffling, and she’s so happy to see Agatha she immediately envelopes her in a hug.

Many things change, some things stay the same. Agatha now asks for police stories; Addy still buys fudge.

Chapter Text

What most people people don’t know, is that I am not a regular mouse from the undergrowth, but that my family immigrated to Piffling Vale in the luggage of one Arthur Crusoe in 1964. It was, as many rodent migrations were at the time, an involuntary move, for we had been proud circus mice of the ‘ Mirage’ for nearly an entire century. Much like Arthur, we were only visitors on Piffling; he came to hang up posters for the circus and the mice followed the collection of seeds in the bottom of his backpack.

In the long run, both ended up accidentally staying - Arthur for a woman who’d laughed at him when he stapled his own finger in the marketplace and us mice for the sake of the vast island woodlands with few predators. While we were generally happy in our home on Piffling, it is nigh impossible to breed the attraction of the circus’ dazzle out of one’s blood, and so it came about that Arthur Crusoe returned to work at the Mirage every summer, and the sons and daughters of the mice who had once been part of the circus snuck in through his luggage as stowaways to see the place they had only ever heard stories of. Some came back in autumn with Arthur and others remained behind, becoming one of the many circus rodents of the Mirage.

Among those, although not one of us mice, was Sigmund Crusoe, the family pet squirrel and honorary member of the circus, who now becomes part of this story through his own. Circus tradition has passed through generations of mice, but little of it has been recorded. Fortunately some diary collections remain well preserved, such as the summer circus journals of Sigmund. This particular chapter of The Piffling Vale Persons Gallery is a collection of his entries from the summer of 2005, assorted by myself. Sigmund Crusoe (1996-2009) is also the author of two poem collections  “Candy Apple Ravings” and “ Loxodonta : A Circus Portrait”.

 


 

July 25th, Monday

Piffling Harbour - The start of my fifth summer at the circus! We’ve left again, Arthur and I, as soon as the school holidays started and he could get away from work. Neither of us are going to miss the biology classroom, though I know he rather looks forward to meeting the new students in September to impress them with stories of the Mirage ’s prized rhinoceros. He’s a bit of a show off that way, not that I mind. It means the kids bring in more nuts for me, the real life circus squirrel, who performs the occasional trick if they’re real nice. Silly how easily impressed they are, since I don’t get to perform at the actual circus. I don’t think I would want to either, though. The horses seem rather high strung in season from their nightly performances.

Perhaps things will be easier this year. We’ve recruited an extra pair of hands from Piffling, although I’m not certain the girl won’t be trouble. Arthur’s granddaughter - Georgina, Georgie she calls herself - is a bit on the small side, but I’ll grant her the benefit of the doubt. She’s twelve now, the same age her brother was when he came on, and compared to him she’s in good shape. Hopefully she’ll outlast Billy’s three week stay, if only for Arthur’s sake. I know he doesn’t want to admit it, but he is getting older and tossing around bales of hay doesn’t come as easy to him as it used to.

Here comes the ferry. We’re mainlanders for the next six weeks.

 


 

July 26th, Tuesday

En route to Exeter - The summer caravans joined the main fleet today. We travelled from Plymouth to Exeter, where the circus is setting up for performances from tomorrow on till Sunday afternoon. This afternoon Arthur and I went to reintroduce ourselves to the animals and show Georgie around the ropes. She stepped into a patch of soiled hay right off the bat,  though she didn’t seem fazed in the slightest. Victor, our dear dompteur, on the other hand, was about to have a fit seeing her trek a stinking boot through the tent. Same old hot head, mind you. Georgie took it rather well. I’ve certainly cowered from him before.

Thanks to that we Crusoes ended up shoveling the worst shite. Georgie got a pair of gigantic men’s overalls that she had to roll up at the legs half a dozen times before she got them off the ground, but the pockets are quite roomy compared to Arthur’s. He told me to stick with his granddaughter. Not exactly my idea of a good time, but Arthur’s been growing a bit of a beer belly lately and there are worse things than nibbling on the discarded snacks of some previous workman.

Me and Georgie did the wheelbarrow run all afternoon. I half expected her to collapse after the fortieth lap; lesser men certainly have. In some way, what we did was worse. She hit a hit a rock and tipped the whole lot of horse dung on the ground. Almost tripped right into it too. Then she started laughing.

“Well, Siggs, looks like we’ve got ourselves into a bit of a shit situation,” she said and hauled herself to her feet again. “What ever will we do now?”

The answer turned out to be putting on a pair of gloves and getting filthy. She’s got spunk, I’ll give her that, though I rather wish our caravan didn’t have to smell so rancid.

 


 

July 31st, Sunday

Exeter - Christ, we’ve gotten in with the appassionata folk. I took Georgie to see tonight’s show from under the bleachers on my own because Arthur got tied up getting the animals lined up for their acts. We got a bag of honey nuts to go, found a kid with their feet drawn up on their seat to sit under, and waited for the lights to dim. Not even halfway through the opening, Wilfred appeared out of the shadows with a box of popcorn, frightening me half to death. I’m ashamed to say I let out a rather undignified squeal, but Georgie was quick to avenge me. She kicked him with a sort of lightning bolt reflex and Wilfred ended up stumbling to the damp ground groaning in pain.

“Gosh, are you alright?” she asked in a whisper, not that he deserved it in my opinion.

Wilfred nodded and took a few deep breaths. “I just had a bruise right there,” he said. I wasn’t sure it wasn’t all humbug, but Georgie apologised to him nonetheless. “I sort of deserved that,” Wilfred said, “I shouldn’t have crept up on you like that. It’s just that there aren’t normally people ‘round the back. You’re that new girl, aren’t you?”

“Yeah. What’s it to you?”

He collected what remained of his popcorn and shrugged. “Nothing much. I’m Wilfred Hastings, by the way. My family performs with the horses.” He held out a muddied hand. Georgie took it warily.

“Georgie Crusoe.”

Sensing she wasn’t open to conversation, he simply nodded and went quiet, eating away at the remainder of his popcorn. Out in the ring the director gave way to the acrobats and I watched Georgie watch them with wonder, feeling a certain satisfaction myself. The circus is impressive in the way it plays with light and shadow in the tent, bright beams cutting over the sequined, swinging forms of streamlined bodies. I’ve often dreamed of running along the tightrope myself. The longing for it - the longing of belonging to the elite of the performers - surfaced again as Rose arched through a walkthrough on the tightrope.

“I never learned to do that on the rope you know,” Wilfred said suddenly and Georgie looked at him.

“What, you know acrobatics as well?”

He nodded. “I’ve grown up in the circus. So has Rose, the one up there, in a way. She taught me some acrobatics, but the rope’s never come natural to me. I need the breadth of a horse’s back.”

Georgie considered him for a while before she said: “We don’t really have horses ‘round where I live. Or gymnasts.”

“What sort of place is that supposed to be?”

“A small island. We’ve got fishing boats and scouts, badminton when it isn’t windy. It’s always windy; comes with with being an island and all.”

“You must be terribly bored.”

Georgie shrugged. “I don’t particularly mind one way or the other.”

“Surely you want to do more. I mean, what do you want to grow up to be?”

She thought it over and answered: “A carpenter.”

“Those are always needed at the circus.”

“I’m not sure I like it here,” she said, a bit defiant. I would’ve taken it personally, if it weren’t an insult to Wilfred first and foremost. He, though, didn’t seem to be offended.

Instead he smiled quite queerly and said, “That’s only because you haven’t met the horses yet. I’ll show you around the stables when we set up camp in Bournemouth.”

The offer didn’t exactly warrant bargaining. Georgie didn’t seem opposed to it either. It’s settled then. I’ll have to go too, of course. She’s my charge and Arthur is counting on me to keep her safe.

 


 

August 3rd, Wednesday

Bournemouth - I continue to be of the opinion that rodents and stables are not a good combination, but I went for Georgie’s sake anyway. It took all day to get the circus settled and I hoped in the hassle of it the horses would have been forgotten, but, when we went down to the communal tent for dinner, Rose lured us to the acrobats’ table wanting to meet Georgie, which is where Wilfred found us half an hour later. Her brother was never sociable like this and I’m starting to wonder if that wasn’t for the better. The circus has a hierarchy and I’m not sure we’re meant to go breaking through the glass ceiling like this. Clearly Wilfred had none of the same qualms.

His family usually ate dinner in their caravan away from the rest of us and I could still see his sister at the table from the window as we snuck out to the horses. Wilfred switched the lights on, flickering neon that made the horses neigh nervously as they turned to see who was approaching. I cowered deep into Georgie’s overall pocket, following Wilfred as he talked to one of them.

“This is Magnolia,” he said, stroking the horse’s muzzle, “I ride her.”

Magnolia was one of the speckled horses of the Hastings siblings, a full white one ridden ridden by Mrs Hastings and a black one by Mr Hastings. In the box next to Magnolia, Ranchero gave us a curious sideways glance. The whole affair was all a bad idea in my opinion. Georgie stepped closer anyway.

“Can I touch her?”

“Of course. I’ll see if I can find some treats around.”

Wilfred turned his back to us, rummaging about in the barrels lying around. Georgie reached out a hesitant hand and held it out to the horse. Magnolia sniffed at the hand outstretched hand, her breathing sounding in hushed little puffs. When she made no move to come closer or back away, Georgie placed her palm where Wilfred’s had been.

“She’s not going to bite you,” Wilfred said. I flinched; Georgie glared at him.

He returned with an apple and a pocket knife, slicing the fruit into quarters. Wilfred held one out to his horse as he said to Georgie, “Just hold your palm flat like this. It’ll tickle a little.” Personally I was convinced she’d lose her hand.

Wilfred handed her a piece of the apple and Georgie laid her hand out for the horse. I held my breath. Magnolia ate away at the apple, smacking her lips.

“You did great,” Wilfred said as soon as Georgie retracted her hand.

“Really?”

“You’ve still got your hand and Magnolia’s quite enchanted. I’d say you’re great with horses.” He ate half of the remaining apple and offered the other half to Georgie as Magnolia looked on longingly.

Georgie shrugged. “If you say so.” I really don’t know what to make of this.

 


 

August 5th, Saturday

Bornemouth - There is simply something enticing about the circus, no matter how often you’ve seen it in motion. Arthur took us to tonight’s showing right at the edge of the ring next to the performers’ entrance. It wasn’t the best viewpoint for the actual show, the seats only meant for staff and performers snagging the odd evenings here and there as we did tonight. Saturdays in the big tent are for the horses and the dompteur, the acrobats in two sets. Rose was on the ropes tonight, whirling in bright red, right in front of us, a background character to the audience by the mouth of the tent and a star to me.

She grinned down at the audience, all deliberately wide eyes and dark lips, a red rose held delicately in one hand. Georgie and I had stripped them of their thorns earlier. Now Rose spun down from the ceiling nearly to the ground, stretching out into a pose to hand the flower into the audience. She tossed it and Georgie caught it. Admittedly I was caught up in Rose for as long as she was there, before her attention wavered and redirected itself to a susceptible stranger in the more distant audience above the beams of light lighting her up. When I turned to Georgie, I realised she’d met the charm of Mirage , her face soft with an awestruck frown. She fiddled absently with the rose as she watched the show and the scent wafted all around me.

The big cats came next: fluid in their own right, a tamed wilderness out on display. I can’t say I’m not still afraid to watch them. It’s only healthy. I suppose it was that same thing that ultimately unnerved me about the horses. They aren’t long domesticated farm breeds, but horses of beauty and show normally only admired from afar in distant countries. The Hastings’ are the same, wild with the circus, three generations into life on the road. Wilfred and his sister - the youngest performers of Mirage - competed with their parents for the spot of most enigmatic duo and I dare say they won, recklessly balancing on the broad backs of their horses with their agile children’s bodies. The siblings took a deep bow hand in hand at the end of their act, still on their horses, and the crowd went wild.

Georgie clapped with the same fervour as everyone else, but didn’t rise to her feet even as the people started to diffuse out of the newly lit tent exits. I was secretly grateful she is one of those patient people that stays to finish their snacks. Watching the energy drain from a circus tent is my favourite part of the night, something only those that live in the midst of it really get to feel. Sometimes I wish I could stay here forever and not have the novelty or the heat of summer fade.

 


 

August 7th, Monday

En route to Southampton - Life on the road as usual. Mirage lives its cyclical life, the ding of people flooding the paths between wagons and tents died down last night, barely upright by now. Arthur is on poster duty this week, so we drove ahead: me dozing in the sunshine on the dashboard, Georgie with her feet propped up beside me, and Arthur fiddling with the car radio. Back in Bournemouth the canvases are coming down, all the paraphernalia packed up for its Tuesday move. They will box up the animals in the morning and arrive as a company, unroll and rebuild for all of Wednesday.

We arrived at noon today and got to work plastering adverts on notice boards and lampposts, cafes, bus stops. It rained through most of it and the moisture seeped right through the fabric of Georgie’s overalls. She complained about her feet being cold and damp halfway through, so we all went for tea to warm up.

 


 

August 8th, Tuesday

Southampton - Dear lord, this summer is taking on strange forms. We spent the night in the back of the car with the seats down huddled into two sleeping bags, me curled up in the hood beside Arthur’s pillow. We had a rude awakening to Georgie’s flip phone going off just after dawn with a slew of text messages from her mother. Arthur had coffee and crisps for breakfast on the dashboard while Georgie consumed the sandwich from their combined meal deal and fed me a handful of peanuts she nicked from the circus yesterday morning. Quite a peaceful morning, really.

We spent the rest of it drawing chalk outlines in the sports field the circus was due to inhabit that afternoon. Between the three of us it was an easy job; I ran with the measuring tape, Arthur holding on to the other end, and Georgie drew the lines. “Doing great,” Arthur told us halfway through and suggested a break. I think the age is wearing on him. We didn’t used to sit idle a few years ago. In that respect Georgie’s help is a blessing.

The Mirage started materialising shortly after noon and we had to play traffic police for most of the lineup. I was looking forward to a well deserved lunch when Rose appeared out of the acrobats’ caravan, shouting, “Georgie, wasn’t it?” our (or perhaps rather Georgie’s) way.

“Yeah, that’s me.”

“We didn’t get a chance to chat properly last week. Wilfred stole you away so quickly!” She smiled her performers smile, the one that was utterly charming in the ring, but mildly unnerving in broad daylight between two trailers. It seemed surreal to have her standing right there with the seventeen-year-old beauty talking to us in mud stained overalls. “I knew your brother a few years ago. We sort of arrived at the same time, but he didn’t adapt to the circus, though you don’t seem to have that problem.”

Georgie shrugged. “It ain’t too bad. The food’s alright and I quite like the animals.”

“Oh, I’m pleased to hear that. Won’t you come sit with me and the other acrobats at dinner tonight? It is so rare to have guests at Mirage .”

I didn’t expect Georgie to agree, but then there are many things I’ve not expected her to do and she insists on delivering regardless. I’ve seen more of the circus in these past two weeks with her than I have in the previous four years, which was a rather shocking realisation to have. Leaving for dinner now, hopefully all works out.

 


 

August 10th, Thursday

Southampton - “So, you’re getting along with Rose then?” Wilfred asked the very second Georgie stepped into the stables.

“I don’t know why everyone keeps asking me that.”

“Don’t know about anyone else, but I’m rather loathe to share you with the others. The circus becomes so dull with the same old faces.”

“So you’re saying I’m just a breath of fresh air?” Georgie asked. She raised a challenging eyebrow, but was obviously not the least bit offended.

“Would it be terrible if I said yes?”

“Everyone else keeps sayin’ that too. Last night Gramps let me sit in on the animal carers’ poker night and I swiped them clean of all their peanuts and change ‘cause I told them stories about my life at school.”

Wilfred snorted and Georgie nicked an apple from him with a smug smile. We spent the rest of the evening there nibbling on carrots. There was something sweet about the two of them talking about their dreams - a horse ranch and a small carpenter’s shop on Piffling. It reminded me of Arthur’s students, hopeful in a distant way that only youth allows for.

Georgie turned to him and asked: “If you’re going to have a farm, d’you know how to lasso?”

“Lasso?” Wilfred blanked. “I mean, I do, but what’s it got to do with anything?”

“Nothing. I just think it’s cool. Reckon ya could teach me?”

He thought on it for a moment and then nodded.

 


 

August 16th, Wednesday

Portsmouth - After the bad weather in Southampton, we finally arrived in a safe haven of sunshine. The heat is perhaps a tad oppressive simply due to the odour of sweat that permeated the grounds of the circus all day as the workers hurried to fasten all the tents in place for tomorrow’s show.

Half the company went for a dip in the sea after the brunt of the work was done. We flooded the beach with a goofy joy spread across all ages; stoic, hard faced men, who had been hoisting pleated tent canvases for half a lifetime, ran after one another in the water splashing about with the same vigour as the circus’ youngest. Wilfred and his sister teamed up against Rose in a water fight, the siblings stacked atop one another as they charged toward her, while Georgie played referee to the whole battle.

Later, the older company gathered in the dining tent for a bit of a jig. Some, if not all, passed around various bottles of liquor and many danced around the room together. Some even climbed the tables and I caught Arthur rescuing his pint of beer before Lloyd Abraham came charging over the wooden boards. It wasn’t much of a place for Georgie, so we left not an hour in and ran into Wilfred on our way to the animal tent.

“Georgie, I was actually out looking for you!” He had a coil of rope in his hand and a hat from one of his performances that I assumed to be the closest approximation of a cowboy hat he owned.

And that is how I ended up watching Georgie try to lasso tree branches all evening. It was getting dark by the time she got the hang of it (sort of, anyway) and both her and Wilfred were verging on being utterly exhausted.

“You’re not doing all too bad,” he said, “but maybe we should call it a night.”

“One last try,” she insisted, and Wilfred obliged. He stood by the tree and watched her swing the rope as he’d taught her. Then it went flying, very obviously in the wrong direction, and I was about to remark on it, when I realised it landed on Wilfred and swiftly tightened with a hard tug on Georgie’s part. He was so surprised he fell over in the grass and burst out laughing as soon as the situation dawned on him. Georgie stood over him with a proud grin and declared: “See, I’m great with lassos.”

 


 

August 25th, Friday

Brighton - I took a nap this afternoon and woke up to find Georgie had signed me up for total disaster. Rose had coerced her into a night of fun at the circus on her night off and that’s how I found myself sitting in a crowded hoodie pocket at eight on the dot waiting by the gates with Georgie.

“So sorry I’m late,” Rose said as she ran up to us, “There was a dress malfunction.”

“Did someone’s leotard split in half?” Georgie asked, offering her some one her chocolate popcorn.

Rose laughed, her own smile spreading across her face. “Not quite that bad, thank goodness.”

They decided to visit the animals first, sneaking in between kids on sugar highs to catch a glimpse of the rhino that had been the circuses’ main attraction for the children for years. Some nursery school kid tried to grope me and to my surprise Rose swooped in, saying, “Careful there, Georgie, someone’s trying to snag your furry friend.” She scooped me up just before I met sticky caramel fingers and for a moment I was afloat in the air before she set me down on her shoulder. With a small top hat and a cheering audience, my wildest dreams would have come true.

“Come on,” Rose said, pulling Georgie out of the tent by her arm, “We’ve still got loads ahead of us.”

Loads turned out to be food kiosks and drifting between the local fire breathers and street magicians that adorned the paths between tents for a small fee. Rose bought a bag of honey nuts, Georgie settled for a cob of corn. “Oh my,” Rose held out an arm to stop us in front of a small tent with purple velvet curtains pinned to each side of the opening, “We’ve simply got to go in here!”

She dipped through the beaded curtain separating the tent from the crowd. I briefly lost sight of Georgie, only her hand through with us. That is when I realised we had entered Mystique’s little fortune telling hut, a place I had never dared to visit before.

“Have you ever had a session?” Rose asked, planting Georgie firmly into a chair by her shoulders.

“A session?”

“Yes, having your fortune told.”

Georgie’s eyes widened considerably. “No,” she said, “My nan says that is paganism. The spirit world is best left alone according to her.”

“Nonsense! Right, Evelyn?”

I hadn’t ever heard anyone call Mystique by her real name. In fact, up until that moment I was not entirely sure she had one. Apart from the occasional tarot card reading after dinner for an extra portion of dessert, she tended to keep to herself. Mystique - Evelyn - took her seat at the opposite end of the small table. “Knowing where you are headed is never harmful,” she said, matter of fact, lacking all the showmanship she positively oozed with tipping clients. “Do you have the courage to visit your future?”

Georgie cast an unsure look at Rose, then me. “I s’pose it’s alright.”

“Let’s take a peek then.”

She unveiled a hollow glass globe in the centre of the table, covered with a black silk scarf between clients. Mystique held out a hand for Georgie’s, raising her eyebrows to ask for permission. When Georgie held out a hand of her own, Mystique took it and placed it on the globe under her own before she pulled the scarf over it again. The combined outlines of their hands formed a malformed bump on the perfect roundness of the globe. Mystique closed her eyes and began to translate her visions:

“I see a small place surrounded by water - an island - and lots of wood, though not trees. Something else. Nails and faux silk scattered on the ground. Oh. That’s peculiar. I sense a large number of deaths. Most aren’t tragic, others are… strangely brutal, creatively so, even.” She let out a small gasp. “Is that…?”

Mystique opened her eyes and retracted her hand. “I had no idea I was in the company of a fellow practitioner.”

Georgie huffed a laugh, but Mystique did not appear to be joking.

“I am not a clairvoyant,” she said with conviction.

“No, but I am told you will be contacting the spirits of many and bring them peace. A medium.”

While Mystique appeared to be genuinely convinced and thrilled about the idea, Georgie was obviously not pleased. Rose could tell too and hurried to smooth things over. “You know, why don’t you sleep on it. We still have plenty to see tonight.”

She made a move to get Georgie out of the tent much to Mystique’s dismay, though the clairvoyant stayed quiet. We all wandered down the path toward the caravan in a dazed silence. After a while, Rose stopped in the middle of the path.

“I’m so sorry if I upset you, Georgie. I don’t know what happened there. I’ve never had Evelyn tell me anything like that.”

“That’s okay; I don’t really believe in this sort of stuff anyway. It’s more just a preference not to meddle with the unknown. I think I’ll stick with my Nan’s advice and stay away from people that see or hear things.”

“I reckon that’s a good plan.”

We reached our caravan not long after and I hopped back over to Georgie’s shoulder as the two said goodnight to one another. If Rose disclosed anything significant in the whispered conversation her and Georgie exchanged over a hug, I missed it for being totally knackered. What a bizarre night this has been.

 


 

August 27th, Sunday

Brighton - Another afternoon spent on the outskirts of the circus grounds with Wilfred. He brought a thicker lasso today and they had to start all over with Georgie’s training. I watched the proceedings from a nearby oak tree, although I have to admit I was a little distracted by the discovery of this year’s acorns forming on the branches. I didn’t catch much of their fooling around, but scurried down from the tree when they settled against the trunk to eat the sandwiches they’d made for dinner. Georgie hadn’t forgotten to bring food for me either and so the three of us sat in the shade of the oak tree. She told him about the other night at the clairvoyant’s tent over tuna toast.

“Admittedly a bit ominous,” Wilfred conceded, but didn’t appear to be worried.

“It isn’t that I trust her or anything.”

“No, of course, but it seems stupid to jinx it.”

“Exactly what I was telling Rose this morning. D’you think I ought to be worried?”

“Don’t be silly, of course not. You’re not going to turn into a serial killer.”

“Who knows, I might be good at it,” Georgie said half jokingly.

“I mean, you want to be a carpenter right? You know who build things and meets dead people? Carpenters at funeral homes. Somebody has got to make the coffins.”

“Coffins.” Georgie turned the word over in her mouth. “Not sure I’d like that.”

“Just give it a thought, will you.” Wilfred got up and wiped the crumbs off his trousers. It was getting late by performance night standards, so he gathered up his things and said to Georgie, “I’ve got to dash. You’ll come pack up the stable tomorrow, won’t you?”

We had been assigned to the stables for two weeks now, but Wilfred still liked to check. Georgie nodded and he went off, leaving the two of us alone under the oak tree. “What do you think, Siggs?” she murmured. I told her all I thought about was getting a good night’s sleep.

 


 

August 28th, Monday

Brighton - Five in the morning, life’s a ruin. I never knew how much could go wrong. We all retired to bed early, Arthur snoring softly before the sun had even set properly. I dozed off perfectly happy not long after, huddled in the crook of his neck. Of course it wasn’t meant to last. O’Connor almost kicked our door down banging on it in the middle of the night, screaming, “Arthur, get your arse out of bed; the rhino’s gone amok.”

Hardly a sentence I ever expected to hear in my life. We were all out of bed at a moment’s notice, Arthur pulling his overalls over his PJs in the dark while Georgie struggled to wrap her mind around what was happening as she fumbled for the lightswitch. I wasn’t keen on running around after a wild animal, so I hopped onto her bed and watched Arthur dash out the door, expecting myself and Georgie to drift back to sleep and let the others hunt. Instead, she got out of bed too and stuffed her feet into her boots.

“Come on now, Sigmund,” she said impatiently and I could hardly argue. We sort of stumbled outside into the dark, flashlight beams raking across the circus grounds in the distance. It was slow and clumsy going until Georgie’s eyes adjusted to the dark. I clung to her pyjama top and wondered what on earth we were doing. We could have gotten mauled by a rhino at any moment, after all. No such luck.

Georgie found a flashlight, some rope, and a wooden log to use as a (terribly inefficient) weapon in an emergency, and so we snuck around in the grass like the rest of the circus, only silent instead of shouting at one another. In my opinion this was absolutely not the time for heroics or games and I was going to tell her that too, but the terror of seeing the rhinoceros in front of us got the better of me and I may have squeaked in fear. At least Georgie had the good sense to look frightened too.

It wasn’t a sensation she acted on though, instead getting a firm grip on the rope. She swung it around in the dark - lassoing, I realised with disbelief. She kept her eyes on the rhino and her breathing steady.  I could hardly believe it then and even less now, but she cast the rope and by some incredible miracle managed to fling it toward the rhino too, catch it. The troubles had only just begun. The beast evidently and immediately distressed began to charge blindly. Georgie still held the one end of the rope as she ran for dear life, sprinting toward a tree. I almost fell of her shoulder when she screamed as loud as she could: “It’s over here!”

A dozen flashlights turned toward us, blinding. Georgie hurried ‘round a tree trunk. It seemed to me everyone was screaming, all of them running in our direction. I didn’t realise we’d stopped for a good few seconds and by the time I looked down Georgie was pulling a triple knot through around the tree trunk. The rhino, mere metres away, looked livid. I thought we were going to die. Then Georgie sped off, tripping out of one of her boots and running on barefoot until she’d passed the men with the flashlights that were now coming up to the rhino. All I could think about was my poor little heart giving out.

“Georgie!” Arthur, bending over us to assess the damage. “You okay?”

She nodded, though her wheezing was anything but reassuring. Georgie sat up in the damp grass and peered over at her catch tied to the tree. Someone had shot it with a tranquilizer while we lay on the ground. Arthur followed her line of sight.

“Your mum’s going to kill me. What on earth made you go after a bloody rhino?”

At that Georgie turned to look at him, a wide grin spreading over her face. “Me and Siggs here are just great at acquiring rhinos. Lassoing, befriending horses, what have you.”

“Not what I had in mind when I told you two to look out for each other.”

“Hey, me neither,” I said angrily, or at least tried to. Coming down from a near death experience rather muddled up my words. In hindsight it might be for the best. I’m not exactly mad at Georgie, though I thought her tendency to transgress all protocol is going to kill me by the end of the summer. Thank god we only have a week left.

What happened to the rhino after was none of our concern. Georgie found her boot and we headed off. Half the circus came to clap her on the back as we wandered back to our caravan. Some of them even congratulated me: Sigmund, the unnoticed workman’s squirrel. Who knows what fame this incident will bring me. To be honest, I’m still not certain I didn’t hallucinate the entire thing. Hopefully it will be more tangible later when I wake up and the adrenaline has worn off. Goodnight, I say!

Chapter Text

There was a photograph on Nana Crusoe’s mantelpiece. It was faded, resided in a tarnished gold frame, and depicted a young woman in a floral dress, applying bandages to the fingers of a young man. Georgie knew it well- she saw it every time she went over to Nana’s house during her childhood (which, considering that both the size of the island and the number of her family members residing on it were small, was often). Georgie could tell you many things about the photo, such as that it had been taken at the marketplace, and that behind the two main figures there sat a younger girl with scruffy pigtails. One thing she would not have been able to tell you, however, was that Nana had been 20 years old when the photo was taken.

 


 

It was July of 1964, and it was entirely too hot. Whilst the vast majority of Piffling Vale’s inhabitants were enjoying the weather, for the stall owners trying to make a living at the Piffling Vale marketplace, it was nothing short of hellish. 20-year-old Cynthia Bainsbury, running her father’s stall, had it worst of all- as well as having to deal with the heat, she was also having to deal with her younger sisters.

“Staplers! Finest Bainsbury Staplers!” She yelled at the top of her voice. “Get your staplers here! Edith, please will you actually do some work instead of just sitting there fanning yourself?”

Edith, the youngest of her sisters, groaned, fanning herself more rapidly with her homemade paper fan. “But it’s so hot…”

“I know that, but it isn't stopping me working, is it? Or Andrea, for that matter.” Their middle sister, currently chatting softly with a customer about her new camera, looked up in askance. Cynthia shook her head, communicating wordlessly that she should just get back to work.

“But you and Andy are doing everything that needs to be done anyway. I shouldn't even have to be here.”

“Edith, that’s ridiculous and you know it. Staplers! Handmade on Piffling since 1902! Father told all of us to look after the stall. You’ve tried the rest, now try the best! Bainsbury staplers!”

Just then, a young man entered the marketplace. This fact alone was not unusual. What was incredibly unusual was that he was a young man that not one of the three girls would recognise.

Edith spotted him first.“Oi, Cynth,” she said, poking her older sister. “Cynth!”

Cynthia paused. “What is it, Edith? Is it of any relevance to anything even vaguely important?”

Edith rolled her eyes. “Stop trying to be clever, Cynth, it doesn’t suit you.”

“Edith…”

“Alright, alright! Just look!” She gestured towards the young man, and Cynthia turned to look.

He looked to be around her own age, Cynthia observed, and nervous. He was carrying a battered leather suitcase, had rather adorably curly brown hair, and she was quite sure she’d never seen him before on Piffling. “Oh yes. I don’t recognise him… that’s odd.”

“Andy!” Edith called loudly. Without waiting for an answer, she simply grabbed Andrea’s arm and swivelled her around. “Andy, have you ever seen this man before?”

Andrea, being the kindest of the three, didn’t even look at Edith in a disapproving way. Instead, she obediently squinted through the lenses of her thick glasses. “No… at least, I don’t think so.”

“Me and Cynth both think that’s bizarre. We’ve seen almost everyone on Piffling.”

“He could be from the mainland.” Cynthia offered, still studying the man. There was something endearing about him, some innocent, almost childlike quality he possessed, without seeming immature. It was lovely.

“I think you might be right, Cynthia.” replied Andrea. “He’s even carrying a suitcase!”

As they all watched, the man turned to face them. He smiled a confused smile, and Cynthia blushed in embarrassment and looked away.

“Staplers! Get your staplers- what is it now, Edith?!”

“Look, he’s coming over here!”

She looked over again, and gulped. “Ahh… yes. It would appear that he is.”

And indeed he was, glancing sheepishly over at them as he did so. Cynthia pointedly turned away.

“Get your staplers here! Highest quality staplers you’ll ever use!”

“Erm, hello.”

Cynthia took a deep breath, and turned to face him. “Good morning sir. I haven't seen you on the island before, are you new?”

He set down his suitcase and ran a hand through his hair. “Erm, yes. I’ve come over from the mainland. I’m taking a break from work, you see, as well as doing some advertising.”

He was so very nervous. In all fairness, though, so was she. “How lovely. What do you do, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“I work in a circus, actually. Terribly good fun, but hard work.”

At his words, Edith was over there in a shot. “Did you say a circus? That’s amazing! Have any good stories?”

“Well, I-”

“Edith,” Cynthia said sternly, shooting her sister her best glare. “Please don’t bother the gentleman.”

“Oh no, it’s quite alright really…”

“It’s unprofessional, and rather rude.”

“It’s not, Cynth! Do you know what is, though? The fact that you haven’t introduced any of us!” Edith all but shoved her out of the way. “I’m Edith, my older sister over there with the camera is called Andrea, and my older older sister with the worst luck out of the three of us in regards to names, is Cynthia.”

The man laughed, a kind, genuinely amused laugh. “I can’t agree, Edith. I think that Cynthia’s a beautiful name. I’m Arthur, by the way. Arthur Crusoe.” And he leaned forwards, and held out his hand- not to Edith, but to Cynthia…

…Who had around three seconds to bask in her victory before the scene was spilt by a screech of pain. What had happened- though they only pieced it together later- was that in leaning forward, he’d somehow managed to get the fingers of his other hand caught in one of the display staplers, and pressed down with his elbow. Which, in short, resulted in the stapling of his own finger.

Edith immediately began to babble in panic. Andrea first found the emergency first aid supplies and tossed a roll of bandages and some antiseptic at her older sister’s head, before reaching for her camera. Cynthia just laughed. She couldn't help it- it was so sudden, so thoroughly unexpected, that she just laughed and laughed. She even managed to laugh through the bandages hitting her temple; it was only once Edith essentially shook her and yelled “do something!” that she snapped into action, quickly removing Arthur’s fingers from the stapler and beginning to bandage him up, murmuring soothing words and phrases as she did so.

Neither of them heard the camera go off- Cynthia was too busy concentrating and Arthur, the pain now subsiding slightly, was also concentrating, only on Cynthia’s bright brown eyes, and how her hair was the exact colour of autumn leaves. In fact, none of them payed any attention to it- aside, of course, for Andrea (being the photographer).

 


 

 

None of them could have known that this moment, frozen in time, would stick with them forever. That on their first anniversary, Arthur and Cynthia would receive it, printed out in fresh, bright colours and placed in a shiny gold frame, from Andrea as a present. That Andrea would keep a tiny version on her desk at her part time job- which soon became her full time job- at the Piffling Vale Community Library. That two and a half years later it would be joined on Cynthia’s mantelpiece by a photo of herself in a frothy white dress and Arthur in a suit, flanked by Andrea and Edith in matching dresses, being showered with confetti. That Cynthia would glance at it and smile wistfully every summer, when Arthur went to his circus. That, as the years went by, it would also be joined by pictures of their first child, and his wife, and their daughter Georgie (who bore a striking resemblance to her Great Auntie Edith, particularly when her hair was in pigtails). That Cynthia would consider smashing it, along with every other photo of Arthur she had, when he died, aged 63, in 2006.

That in 2016, having come to terms with her husband’s death, Cynthia, almost a completely different person now, would look at that photo and smile softly, delicately. It was a sad smile, since she was mourning; mourning not only Arthur, but both the happiness of that one moment in time, and the girl she used to be.

Chapter Text

Antigone Funn: The Mystery of the Raunchy Novel

 

Rumor has it they’re eleven when Antigone first comes face to face with the cover of a somewhat questionable novel. It’s a consequence of her and Rudyard squabbling in the attic - “No, Mother said it was on the left side from the door!” - on a rain soaked September afternoon. Antigone pushes a banged up pot under a leaking spot in the roof while Rudyard rummages through the boxes on the wrong side of the room, kicking up an incessant amount of dust as he goes.

“Will you cut that out,” she hisses between two consecutive sneezes. The dust rather rather tempts her to claw her own eyes out for how much they itch, but of course Rudyard has no regard for her extensive allergies.

Instead, he screams, or squeaks at an eardrum shattering pitch, more like. She knows better by now than to ask Rudyard any question she wants an actual answer to, and so Antigone presses the sleeve of her jumper against her mouth and peers over his shoulder to see what she owes being temporarily deaf to.

“Reckon those are human bones?” she asks and Rudyard shudders.

“I have no idea and I don’t want to know either,” he hurries to say as he slams the chest shut, unsettling the thick layer of dust, promptly sending them both into a sneezing fit. Antigone, in turn, kicks him in the shin for that and Rudyard retreats to the other side of the attic clutching his leg while muttering a slew of all the profanities he knows.  Catching her breath, Antigone finally gets the chance to take a proper look at the old chest with the curious bones.

It’s not aged in the same way some of the others, buried beneath and behind the Christmas curtains, are. It doesn’t date to medieval times, but is perhaps an antiquity purchased a few decades ago, judging by the silver initial plate nailed to the top. The most recent addition is at least six shades lighter than the rest of the metal trimmings and adorned with letters that match Antigone’s mother.

She opens it with more care than Rudyard had, peering inside at the yellowing heap of bones crammed into one corner. One she recognises to be an avian wishbone, some of the smaller ones seem like they might well make up the skeleton of an ancient pet. Three larger ones - and these she suspects might be human - sit upright in the far left corner, tied together with a green velvet ribbon. What’s most bizarre is that the bones aren’t the strangest thing in the chest.

Underneath the bones, Antigone finds a grey tinted jar with a molar embedded in some sort of preservative, a half formed hole eternalised in its wait to decay the enamel and rot out the entire tooth. She holds it up to the window and rotates it slowly in spite of  Rudyard whining about how she is being gross again.

“Oh, shut up, Rudyard. We live above a mortuary. What’s a tooth in a jar going to do to you?” she snipes, but puts it back anyway lest he knock it out of her hand.

The rest of the mystery chest seems rather unexciting: some clothes, a half finished piece of embroidery, the odd bundle of faded correspondence, and, at the very bottom, a well worn paperback novel. She doesn’t give most of it any worth, though she stops on the book - face to face with an illustrated skull resting in a bed of flowers in a way that might be vaguely appealing to the general public and extremely so to Antigone. She flips it over and reads the blurb.

‘A chalet next to a graveyard is not what Sophie pictured when she thought of a relaxing summer getaway in rural France. From the moment she left London everything seemed to go wrong: she lost her luggage on the flight to Paris, took a bus to the wrong town after that, and now she’s stuck trying to sign at an impassive hotel manager with an impossible regional accent. Ready to give up on her vacation, she’s drawn in by a light moving in the graveyard one night, and comes face to face with ethereally beautiful Rémy Lebeau, who doesn’t care one bit about her staggering French and the truly abominable arsenal of tourist shirts her wardrobe has been reduced to. There is only one problem: Rémy has been dead for well over a cen-’

“What’s that?” Rudyard asks out of the blue, startling her into dropping the book.

“Nothing.”

“No, it’s definitely something,” he says with a hint of malice creeping into his voice. Evidently, he’s fed up with looking for the tablecloths their mother had asked for, and antagonising her is all that’s left. “Show me.”

“It’s nothing to do with you.”

“You’re blushing.”

“Am not! Shut up, Rudyard.”

“Antigone-” He dives for the book, destined to always outdo her by being an utter lunatic. Antigone puts up a fight regardless and they end up on the floor shoving at each other as each of them scrambles for the novel that’s landed badly a few feet away. It’s a losing fight for her, at least temporarily. While Rudyard gets a hold of the thing first, he only has time to mutter, “Will love manage to conquer even death?” before she’s wrangled it out of his hands again.

Rudyard doesn’t push the matter further, partially because Antigone is off the floor in half the time he is and out of reach in the other half. She finds the tablecloths they were looking for in the box beside the last one Rudyard had opened and storms off to ingratiate herself with their mother.

 


 

 

If Rudyard notices she’s smuggled the book out of the attic in white linen folds, he doesn’t tell on her or attempt blackmail. Antigone knows better than to count on his discretion indefinitely, so she keeps the thing out of sight inside her pillow cover until nightfall. He’s never gone snooping around there since the time he screamed bloody murder at two in the afternoon touching upon the skull of a mouse. Mother had taken it rather well and their father, all things considered, had been lenient with her; she wasn’t allowed to sleep on it anymore (“Antigone, you don’t even know it’s been cleaned properly. You’re nine.”), though he’d let her keep it in the shoebox of personal paraphernalia under the bed. It didn’t quite fit the snowglobe she’d gotten from a fair aged five, but it was right on par with her miniature bug collection stored in three layers inside an old boggle cube. Rudyard doesn’t touch those either.

It’s by this deception that she finds herself awake well past one on a stolen cup of coffee, staring at Rudyard asleep on the other side of the room. He has a tendency to sprawl out in his far too narrow bed; tonight he has an arm dangling off the edge of the mattress at an unnatural angle. Antigone takes it to mean he is safely passed out and shuffles up in her bed to turn on the lamp on top of the dresser.

The light bulb flickers on with a low, pained sound that dissipates like the tension of an old back rising out of a chair. It’s a lucky thing they live in a house old enough to creak and whine, that they’ve got fridge for a basement always humming away, because they’re all so used to the constant noise by now, Rudyard doesn’t even shift as she flops over on the bed and slides the novel from the attic out of her pillow case. Dead Love. She’s seen more imaginative titles, none of them about the deceased though. Antigone skips the foreword and sinks right into the prologue.

 


 

 

She falls asleep sometime between three and four and wakes five hours later to the sound of Rudyard rummaging through the closet (awfully cheerful) and Antigone rises from where she’s crushed the book under herself just past the 130 page mark to glare at him. If she could pick a superpower, it would be a literal death stare, no question about it.

“Must you be so loud?” she complains.

“It’s past eight, so no.”

Rudyard pointedly slams a drawer and she’s quick to fling her pillow at him. He blocks it reflexively and seeing it flop to the floor makes her want to kill him twice over. “I don’t know what’s gotten you in such a strop,” Rudyard says, finding a satisfactory pair of socks, “It’s your day in the morgue, isn’t it?”

“Is it?”

“It’s a Sunday.”

“Oh, yes. Of course.” It ought to be the apex of her week: a day spent away from Rudyard and practising the art of embalming, even if she’s not allowed to try on the real corpses yet.

“Well?”

“Well what?”

“Are you just going to sit there looking like a half shaved rat for the rest of the morning, or-?”

She chases him out of the room for that, leaving Sophie and Rémy under the covers for the rest of the day. Later, when she’s thrust a severed hand at Rudyard (and his tears really were worth every minute of the talking to she’d gotten) Antigone finds herself on the floor of their room reading with baited breath as she waits for the shower to clear. She’s on page 168 by the time the water finally turns off and she shoves the novel back under her pillow just as Rudyard appears in the doorway, flushed red and one arm scrubbed raw.

Still startled from his encounter with the corpse hand, he doesn’t dare ask what Antigone has been doing, though she can see the question flicker uncertainly on his brow. Sharing a womb for nine months and a room for the subsequent eleven years is bound to lead to a pervasive understanding of the other. Even though they’ll never see eye to eye, Antigone knows her brother inside out.

“If you touch anything on my side of the room,” she says, “you’ll find that hand in bed with you tonight.”

“You wouldn’t dare.”

“You’re free to call my bluff.”

He never does. She stays up reading again.

 


 

 

The cemetery was misty that last night, a light summer rain sweeping in somewhere in the distance. It diluted Rémy even further. Among the veil in the darkness his edges were barely visible, but his voice never wavered. “I will miss you when you leave, Sophie. Our time here - haunting the graveyard together - has been, what is the word? Surreal.”

I laughed. He should not be the one to say that. After all, it was I who had fallen in love with a ghost. “You could come with me,” I said for the hundredth time. We had discussed this so many times - filled with hope, then anger, and finally sadness. I could bring it up as often as I like, but that would never change the fact that he would remain a ghost bound by the laws of the afterlife and I had a flat to pay rent for in London.

“Mon cheri, if I could keep you and your beautiful ankles in my life, or, well, my posthumous life, I would die all over again, but I am bound to France as much as you are to England.”

“You’re right, though I wish you weren’t. It’s almost 1990 and yet we’re still chained by national loyalties. What a joke.”

“One cannot choose where home is.”

“But my heart lies with you.”

Even so, I could never be happy here. I left London with so much conviction that quietude is what I wanted, what I needed. But I knew all along that was not forever. So long as I was alive, I belonged in London. Rémy had not changed that. “I’ll come back to you, when it’s all over,” I said to him. How long would it be? Sixty odd years? “I suppose, for now this is goodbye.”

“Will you lie with me under the stars one last time?” His cold lips brushed up against my ear in a whisper and I shivered thinking of the previous time we’d let ourselves sink to the ground a few nights ago. The touch of his fingers still tingled down my-

Antigone startles at a deep sigh from Rudyard, nearly dropping her book as he rolls over in his sleep. He pulls his limbs inward, but doesn’t wake properly. Outside, the moon has migrated from pouring in through the window from high in the sky to the very edge of the house where Antigone can’t see it anymore. She yawns and rubs her weary eyes, the night finally weighing on her. It must be past four by now, but she is only twenty pages from the end. Burrowing into her covers, Antigone finds her place again.

I laid my hand on the bench where his was, our beings entwined. “Fully,” I said and this time I meant it.

 


 

 

“Excuse me, where do you have the, um, romance novels,” Antigone asks the librarian on Monday lunch break, mumbling on the last few words.

“Excuse me?”

“The romance novels.”

“I can’t understand you,” the librarian says and points at her outdoor survival suit mimicking taking the mask off.

Antigone shakes her head, hurrying to say something about her allergies, but the librarian silences her by pulling out a similar mask from under the counter.

“It’s alright. This is an allergen free zone.” She points to a section of the wall with several signs, all featuring a prominent red cross atop an image. Flowers, nuts, pets, rollerskates, perfumes, food, drink, and, naturally, noise.

To be entirely certain, Antigone glances around to check the windows are closed and that there are no houseplants before she undoes the seals on her mask. She isn’t used to being out in public without it - isn’t really used to being out in public, permanent - and Antigone half expects to start gasping for air in a matter of moments. The allergic reaction never comes though and all she’s left with are the red marks on her face where the edges of the mask normally press into her skin all day.

The librarian offers her a faint smile and asks, “Now, what can I help you with, young lady?”

“I am looking for a romance novel.”

“Any specific one?”

“No,” Antigone says, then adds, “I only started reading them recently.”

“I see. Well, perhaps I can help you find a good one then. They’re this way.” The librarian  walks around her desk to lead Antigone to a shelf in the back. “What kind do you like?”

“I’ve only read one,” she confesses. “It’s called Dead Love , but I did like that one.”

“Ah, yes. It is arguably Vivian Belmont’s best work, although it has faced some controversy. Are you looking for something similar?”

Antigone nods. “The scenery in it was very much to my liking.”

“The scenery, huh? Perhaps you would enjoy this then.” The librarian pulls a purple backed book off the top shelf to hand it over. “It’s set on a remote remote island, a bit like Piffling, and deals with the strange occurrences in a lighthouse. Upcoming novelist Veronica Night’s first work and one of my personal favourites.”

Antigone regards the book with some weariness. It doesn’t look at all like Dead Love with its watercolour lighthouse on the front cover and the title above in swirling letters. The blurb, however, is more promising, and Antigone decides it’s as good a place to start as any. “I’ll take it,” she says.

Her name becomes a regular in the records, until the library cards and self lending machine’s are introduced. Years later, when Piffling Vale finally has a proper bookshop, she puts her library card in the chest at the foot of the bed for safe keeping, stashed on top of her old keepsake shoe box inside the cover of her favourite novel.

Chapter Text

Not many people would have guessed that, in his younger years, Sidney Marlowe was something of an actor. Then again, not many would have cared enough to wonder. That was one of the main reasons why he gave it up, actually.

It began when he was seven years old, still in Piffling Primary School. At the time, an intense debate was raging over whether or not his class should be allowed to perform the nativity play they had planned for the end of the winter term. The headmistress and his teacher said that they should, whereas the new young Reverend, who had just arrived on the island, worried that to only focus on Christianity could be seen as offensive.

Seven year old Sid, however, was unaware of this. He was already picturing his Wise Man costume, how well he would perform, and how everyone would applaud, cheer, and shout his name.

By the time the debate had ended- in the nativity’s favour- he’d been talking about it at home for weeks, telling his three siblings and constantly tired, overworked mother about how brilliant the whole show would be. He made them all promise to come- nine year old Jason, twelve year old Emily and seventeen year old Laura- and watched as his mother stitched together tea towels and old brown curtains to create a costume that, whilst not exactly what he’d pictured, would do.

 He sang the songs incessantly, practiced his acting in the huge living room mirror, and got almost everyone- his siblings, his mum, his friend Rudyard from school- to help him practice his lines. The day before the show he was practically bouncing off the walls with excitement and nerves, heart beating too fast to notice the sad, guilty looks his mother kept giving him, and how none of his siblings were really listening to him.

 He should have payed more attention. The first thing he noticed, when the curtain opened to reveal an audience of smiling parents and flashing cameras, was that his mother wasn’t there.

 


 

He’d wondered if he was incredibly unpopular long before the nativity fiasco. He said as much to his only real friend at school, Rudyard Funn, only a few months before the play happened, one slightly chilly afternoon as they sat together in the playground. Rudyard’s sister, Antigone, sat separately from them, all in black and reading a book. Occasionally, Sid would feel bad that she had no friends and that no one ever talked to her, but then he’d try to approach her and he’d remember why- she was really creepy. Her favourite thing to do, should someone approach her who was unwanted (which was everyone, really) was to hiss at them, in the manner of an angry cat. Rudyard, whilst more than a little strange, was good company, Sid thought, even if no other kids seem to agree.

“Rudyard?” said Sid, pulling his coat tighter around him.

“Yes?”

“Do you think people like me?”

“Not really.”

“Hey, that’s mean!”

“You asked me though. Mother said lying’s really bad, so I didn’t lie.”

“That’s true, but it's still mean.” Little Sid stared morosely down at his battered old shoes. “Hey, what d’you want to be when you grow up?”

“I already know what I’m going to be when I grow up. Me and Antigone have to run mother and father’s funeral home. It’s a family business. Tradition. Mother and father always tell us so.” Despite the certainty with which Rudyard spoke, he didn’t sound happy about it. “What about you?”

“Well… I know what I really want to be, but if I tell you you can’t tell anyone. It’s a secret.”

Rudyard’s eyes widened. He'd never been told a secret before. “I won't tell anyone.”

“Thanks. What I really want to be is… I want to be onstage! Or in movies, I don't really mind. I just want people to look up to me and like me and… and to take pictures of me and write stuff about me in the paper.” And Sid could see it, he really could- flashing lightbulbs, the dust and polish smell of a stage, giving interviews to journalists in posh clothes and then going back to the theatre in the evenings, to perform once again to rapturous applause. Spotlights.

Rudyard, mouth hanging open and eyes now even wider, was swept up in the fantasy himself as he listened. Antigone, on the other hand, always the sceptic when it came to matters such as these, simply shook her head, and returned to her reading.

 


 

During the two weeks immediately following the nativity, Sid wallowed in crushed self pity. Never mind that his mother had simply been too busy working an evening shift to come and see it- such things don't matter to children that young. To Sid, the fact that she hadn't come was a betrayal.

But all was not lost. Next year, his school was doing Oliver as their musical, the head teacher had said so. He would make sure his family came to this one.

 


 

A year later, Sid stood outside his school in the rain, his Artful Dodger costume offering little in the way of protection, leaving him shivering and wet as he waited to be picked up after the opening night. They hadn't come. His mum couldn't, he understood that now, but his siblings were just being mean.

“You were really good, Sid!” called Gerry, one of his classmates, as he walked to the car park with his parents.

“Thanks!” Sid yelled back, though Gerry’s endorsement did more to worry him than make him feel better. There was something disturbing about Gerry.

Regardless, the show had gone well. That was what he should focus on. One day, when he was a famous actor, his mum would come and see him, and all would be fine.

A soft, female, “Hey, you’re Sid Marlowe, right?” pulled him out of his thoughts. He looked up to see the girl he recognised as having played Nancy in the show looking over at him. She was one year above him and he couldn't really remember her name… Petal or something? “You played the Artful Dodger?”

“Yes, I did. You were Nancy.”

“You were very good.”

“Thanks!” After a moment, he hurriedly tacked on “So were you,” in an effort to avoid hurting her feelings.

“Are you going to join the Piffling Amateur Dramatics Society when you turn 14? I am. My name's Petunia, by the way. Petunia Bloom.”

Petunia, that was it. “Oh yeah, I probably will.” he replied, despite having never heard of this society before in his life. “I'm going to be a famous actor, you see.”

“So am I,” replied Petunia, before her parents began calling her. She rolled her eyes at her parents, shot an apologetic look back as Sid before running over to where her family stood, back at the school entrance.

He watched her go without paying much attention. The Piffling Amateur Dramatics Society. He'd have to remember that.

 


 

The next six years changed Sid’s life in many ways. He grew older, left primary school, started going to high school, and distanced himself from Rudyard once he started talking to animals. He also did very little acting- his last hurrah before his theatre-less first four years of high school was his portrayal of Joseph in the primary school leaver’s musical, and until he turned 14 he hadn't really given acting much thought since then. His dreams of stardom still existed at the back of his mind but he chose to ignore them, thinking that their chances of coming true had completely diminished.

It was for his 14th birthday that he received tickets for a Piffling Amateur Dramatics Society production of Into the Woods. His mum had worked hard to afford them, and he didn't have the heart to tell her that his interest in acting had never been about watching it, but about being watched. He smiled gratefully, thanked her profusely, and marked the date of the show in his high school planner. She in turn smiled in relief, her kind, tired eyes sparkling for once.

The next week they arrived in the evening at the village hall and joined a long, snaking queue, leading to the large double doors that served as the entrance. The queue did move, but slowly, as each party had to have their tickets checked and there was only one person manning the door. As Sid watched, however, one group of people were able to skip the queue and slip past the doorman without any form of reprimand. Sid frowned.

“Mum, who’re they?”

“Who? Oh, them? They're journalists, probably from Piffling Matters. They must've come to write a story about the show.”

“Journalists.” he repeated to himself, as he watched them turning heads as they made their way to specially reserved seats in the front row. Nebulous, hazy, and cloud-like, a thought danced at the periphery of his consciousness, but before he could grasp it, they were having their tickets checked and it was whisked away.

 


 

After the show, which was not his favourite musical he'd ever seen to say the least, he felt a strong sense of deja vu when, whilst he was standing outside in the cold, he was for the second time in his life approached by Petunia Bloom.

“Did you come to see the show?” she asked, in lieu of a hello.

“I did! You were very good in it.” And she had been- her performance as Red Riding Hood had been one of the show’s only good points.

“You said you were going to join up with me.” she said, her eyes accusatory as she fiddled with her cape.

The memory returned to him with a start- he had said that, hadn't he? “I might still,” he replied weakly. He then realised this was his chance to ask something that had been bothering him the whole show, and said quickly: “Hey Petunia, why do journalists get special front row seats?”

She looked confused for a moment, but it passed. “So they can watch the show better. Why do you care about them anyway? We all hate them.”

“Why?”

“Cause if they give us a bad review we're dead? Anyway, never mind them- you have to sign up for the next one! We're doing Heathers, which is so much better than Into the Woods.”

“I'll think about it. I have to go now anyway.” An idea was forming at the back of 14 year old Sid’s mind, and he needed time to think about it properly. This time it was him who left first, calling goodbye to Petunia over his shoulder as he walked over to a member of his family. There was symmetry in that somewhere, he thought.

 


 

Only two months later, Sid saw the Am-Dram society sign up sheet appear on the village notice board. Sure enough, they were doing Heathers.

There's a few moments in every person’s life during which they make decisions that they know will impact the rest of their lives. As Sid stood and stared at the sheet, he knew that one of those was now upon him. In this moment he had two choices- join the society, perform the musical, continue chasing a dream that may never come true in an effort to create a spotlight for himself, or… or he could become a journalist.

He'd been thinking about it since the night of Into the Woods. Becoming a successful actor was a matter of talent and luck, whereas he could choose to become a journalist and then actually become one with relative ease. As a journalist, he wouldn't have to work to create his own spotlight, but could instead force himself into other people's.

His vision was as dynamic as that which he'd had of himself as an actor all those years ago- he'd report on all the biggest stories, meet a plethora of famous people, be constantly busy. As he stared at that sign up sheet, he felt the last glimmers of his childhood dream blink out of existence. The child he once was would be heartbroken, but there was nothing he could do about that now.

He walked past the sheet without a second glance.

 


 

The irony of all of this, a far older Sid thought as he looked back on it all in early 2016, in an empty office with only ambient noise for company, was that he'd ended up with no really interesting stories to report on.

For the whole of his career.

Piffling had no celebrities. No interesting events. No- to use an impossibly pretentious image he'd used as a teenager- spotlights to force himself into. He'd been such an awful teenager.

He often thought about what might have happened had he tried to become an actor. He could have become incredibly famous, but then again, Petunia hadn't. He saw her occasionally, manning her flower stand, and thought about going to see her, but too much had changed. Would he even have been happy as an actor? Looking back, he thought not.

He sat alone, and in an effort to get rid of his nostalgia, turned up the volume on his ambient noise.

Sometimes, he thought that sounding busy was all he had left.

Chapter Text

Herbert Koff: L’amour Noir

 

Piffling, in spite of its small size, has always had a reputation for its rich cultural life. Anything from the circus to the theatre to the cinema: Piffling has it, temporarily at least. Some installments, though, have etched themselves permanently into the being of Piffling, like the hoodlums’ large scale mural of Mayor Desmond Desmond and Reverend Nigel Wavering kissing in technicolour on the east facing wall of the village hall. Only recently the Cinema Royale celebrated its twentieth anniversary with a repeat showing of its first ever French film L'âne, and I managed to snag a frontline seat thanks to Antigone.

What was interesting wasn’t the film itself - a black and white production of the love life of a rural girl, mute apart from slightly off key music and the sounds of sex and sobbing - but the addendum was worth a good look. Herbert Koff brought to the light of day an amateur film of L'âne : Behind the Scenes , faded colour shots of the main actress with flowers in her hair, no longer Marie Dubois in the credits, but Marie Koff.

Perhaps the mayor’s outburst of, “Oh dear, she never looked like that when she was here, did she?” was a little uncalled for, but he wasn’t exactly wrong. The only recollection Piffling Vale has of Mrs Koff is sharp grace, or so it seems. I never met her, of course, being a mouse with a short life span, but the events of the cinema prompted me to do some research at the library, and the records were unanimous on the matter: Already in the first shot taken at the harbour she’d been an intense eyed brunette with a neat bob, a far cry from the tangled blonde mane caught on film in blurry shots through the bushes of a feverish couple having sex in a vineyard.

In the grainy Piffling Matters picture commemorating Cinema Royale ’s opening night, she seemed to be halfway between the two, the arch of her smile familiar from a scene of her riding over a hill on an old donkey and a hand clasping Herbert’s in quiet companionship.

Some of the later years as a village socialite did not treat her as kindly. Though the cinema did well, the opening of the art gallery seemed to mark the last happy occasion before the turn of the tide, a slow melting in the name of one of Dr Edgware’s saner diagnoses. Admittedly the visual quality of the local newspaper is not the best, but the hollows in her face were obvious enough even before the notice of death in the final issue of 2006.

The last record of her carried over into the next year: an obituary commemorating her legacy on Piffling with a quarter page photograph from her days as an actress. Marie and Herbert Koff pictured with Ivrogne (donkey, centre) on the set of “L'âne”. Southwest France, 1994.

 


 

Bordeaux Region, France. 1994.

The flash is entirely too bright in the glow of sunset, paralysing the moment until Ivrogne takes a few impatient steps and Herbert has his hands tightly on the leash again. It’s the last day of filming and the field is slowly dissolving into an impromptu wrap party. There’s a pile of dirty sneakers and sandals by the barn when Herbert finally concludes his day, months of work kicked off along with his shoes.

He’s beginning to feel the grime of dried sweat on his skin and somehow it’s blissfully authentic with the prick of dried grass beneath his feet.

“A drink?” Marie asks, intercepting him on a path that was meant to lead directly to her anyway.

“Yes, please. I was actually looking for you.”

“Oui?” She smiles at him like he’s stating the obvious, “How does the blanket factor in?”

“The- Oh.” He’d almost forgotten the ratty old thing he’d grabbed from in between some obsolete props by the stable. They’ve had dozens of lunchtime picnics on it over the summer, a few long wine addled evening too, and it’s become a weight he lugs around habitually. “I thought we could sit over there and catch the last of the sun.”

“Very well.”

They end up sprawled out in the slope of field beneath the hilltop party, kept carefully to themselves just the way they like it. The screams of celebration and drunken laughter still float down to them. It reminds Herbert of his farewell party on Piffling before he left, when he snuck out into the garden by himself to stare at the sea. No one here croons like the newly elected Mayor and it doesn’t rain nearly as often, but in the end France isn’t so different from home. The grey tinged blue of the sea and a stormy sky are simply swapped for sun dried hay and a cloudless, gold and brass expanse stretching overhead. He knows it isn’t technically possible, but the sun seems warmer here, like honey on the horizon. And Marie is just the same: freckled and sun kissed, just a touch angelic in the right light.

“Funny, I don’t feel like a fête at all,” Marie says, toying with the rim of her cup.

“It might be more fun when the day is over. The fairy lights will come out properly by then too.”

She sighs. “That is the problem.”

“The fairy lights?” Herbert asks, perplexed.

“No, not the lights. I do not want this day to end.” Marie swallows as she shifts her eyes from the horizon high into the sky. “It is the end of too much. In a few days, I will be on my way back to Paris.”

Without him, this time. Even in hindsight it is only a silly coincidence, but they had arrived in Bordeaux on the same day on the same train without knowing. Herbert hadn’t noticed her beyond the feather in her hat when he’d boarded, but with the other passengers dwindling from the platform to leave them waiting for the same coach, he’d thought there was something in the way he caught her eye. And he wasn’t wrong, because they’d gotten talking over the summer and spent more than a few evenings in dark nooks of the vineyard between themselves.

That had been in a sea of green and now summer is running out, spun up in dry gold and a love he isn’t granted. They are only supposed to be footnotes in one another’s lives.

“City of love comes with a side order of heartbreak in my case.”

“You sound like Émile,” Marie says, but her voice is lacking in the disdain she normally reserves for their assistant director. “Promise me you won’t write a movie about it.”

“The only person I’d want to play the female lead is you and you’ll be too famous by then to snag up a bad script,” he says wistfully, remembering some of the finished shots he’d seen of her.

Marie only scoffs. “This movie will never make big cinemas. It is just another mediocre French film. We have too many to keep making more, and still we do. I will have to hunt down a showing of it when they start.” She tilts her head to look up at him and adds, “You probably won’t get to see it at all. Perhaps I can ask for a cast recording copy to give to you.”

“What about you?”

“This film died when I did,” she says lightheartedly, brushing a hand over the dried patch of fake blood on her dress. “I don’t need a reminder.”

She scratches at the stain, dried flakes flying everywhere. In the morning, the dress was a clean white and now it’s covered in grass stains and red splatters. A rather good representation of the summer, Herbert thinks, though he can’t quite bring himself to admit he likes the outcome better than the beginning.

“It doesn’t have to, you know. Be the end.”

“What do you mean?” The rustle of fabric when she rolls over on the blanket seems deafening even over the pounding of his heart.

“I’ve always loved loved the summer film festivals on Piffling and I’ve been thinking I might want to open my own cinema so there would be movies for than a week in July, but it’s not something I would venture to do on my own.”

“Herbert-”

“We could have weekly French movie nights with authentic picks by a real French woman. You’d have full control: new movies, old movies, personal favourites, bizarre amateur films with donkeys. I’ve been meaning to ask, but I never quite did know how.”

It seems an impossibly large dream even as he’s saying the words out loud and Marie’s silence is dooming in the faint carryover of noise from the rest of the crew.

“I don’t know.”

“I know it’s a lot.”

Marie shakes her head. “Not nearly enough. Cinema would not lose much with me, neither would Paris, or the institute I am a secretary at during the academic year, but it is a lot to leave behind for a... boyfriend, what many would call a summer fling.”

“You’re not a fling to me,” Herbert confesses. “I’d lug around props for the movie you’re making forever, if that’s what you wanted.”

“I do want that,” Marie says, “and your cinema.”

“Well, in that case,” Herbert says and licks his lips as he shuffles onto one knee, “Marie Dubois, will you marry me in the name of good film?”

“Oui.”

Chapter Text

One summer, when Rudyard was four, he won a stuffed toy mouse in a raffle at the Church Fete. It wasn't a badly made toy- it was really rather cute, with velvet-soft fur and bright, tiny glass eyes. But to four-year-old Rudyard, that really wasn't the point. He hadn't wanted the toy mouse. He'd wanted the toy lion.

When he told his mother, she laughed, which incensed him. “Sometimes,” she said in that wise, superior tone that Antigone occasionally liked to adopt, “Things happen to us that are outside of our control. That's just the way the world works.” She was fond of saying that.

At that moment, Rudyard decided he hated raffles.

 


 

Ten years later, fourteen year old Rudyard stared out of his bedroom window at the never ending rain and the steady stream of customers coming in and going out of Stanley Carmichael’s antiques shop. For no particular reason he'd been looking back on that raffle at the Church Fete all day, with a sense of dramatic irony. His mother hadn't just been right- from his perspective, what she'd said had been an understatement. Everything seemed to be out of his control.

Case in point: his future career. He'd always known that one day he would have to inherit Funn Funerals, having been told it practically from birth, but he'd never really thought about it in detail until now, the evening of his fourteenth birthday. He'd just been informed in no uncertain terms that any plans he had for after he left school would have to be scrapped and replaced with what his parents had planned for him: an intense training programme, teaching him and Antigone everything there was to know about the funeral business.

It wasn't like he didn't want to inherit Funn Funerals, but he did wish he'd had a little more choice in the matter. The thing about that, though, was the fact that he didn't actually know what else he'd rather do. Was this the toy mouse, or the toy lion?

He watched Reverend Wavering struggle to get a huge framed oil painting out of the antique shop, and idly wondered for a moment what the painting was of, before returning to the conundrum that was his future. At east he still had four more years to go.

 


 

One morning, three years later, Antigone shook Rudyard awake, her eyes manic.

“It's mum and dad.” She blurted, before Rudyard had the chance to say anything at all. “They went swimming this morning, and the sea was too rough, and…and..” She trailed off, but it didn't matter. Rudyard had stopped listening after she'd said the sea was too rough.

Everyone on the island knew what that meant.

 


 

The weeks immediately following the day he'd woken up to find his parents dead passed in a daze. Rudyard tried to focus on schoolwork, mostly as a distraction. Even when his parents were- still here, he'd never been the most academic of children. That had always been Antigone’s forte.

He felt almost entirely numb- it still didn't feel real, not even full weeks after. Rudyard took the time to observe his classmates. People had never been his or Antigone’s speciality, but even he couldn't fail to notice the difference in how he was now being treated. Before, he'd never been bullied exactly, but he had been ignored. Even Sid Marlowe, whom he'd thought would be his friend for a long while, had abandoned him once they left primary school. People’s eyes used to slip past him as though he simply didn't exist.

Now, people did nothing but stare. Their eyes swam with pity as they stared and whispered and pointed. Rudyard was aware that this should probably have bothered him. Aware in a far off, abstract kind of way.

It was hard to be bothered by anything, anymore.

 


 

Around a month, or possibly two- he'd sort of stopped looking at the date- after, Rudyard's school judged him and Antigone both to be “ready for counselling”. They were both referred to Ms Jenkins, the school’s only counsellor, and were permitted to miss lessons in order to attend these sessions. Antigone, who barely attended school anymore and only visited the library when she did, flat out refused to go. Rudyard thought it was worth a try. After all, he really didn't have anything left to lose.

He asked a teacher where to find Ms Jenkins, and was shown to a small, stuffy office tucked behind several tall filing cabinets. There was a tarnished mental plaque on the door, and upon opening it he found a scratchy carpet, an abundance of worn brown furniture, and no windows. The woman herself seemed pleasant enough, in a smart blouse and a greenish tweed skirt.

“Rudyard Funn?” She asked as he entered.

He nodded in return, and sat in the creaking chair across from her.

“I'm so glad you decided to come; your sister didn't attend her session.”

She seemed to expect a response, so he said, quietly: “Antigone’s quite… antisocial.”

“I do think she would benefit from coming, though. Maybe you could persuade her?”

“I'll try.” He replied, knowing full well he'd never been able to make Antigone do anything his whole life.

“That would be a great help. So, Rudyard, it must be incredibly difficult to have lost both parents at the age of seventeen. How do you feel you are coping?”

“I’m…” I keep making cups of tea and forgetting to drink them until they've gone cold. I keep trying to read books my parents thought I should have read but I can't concentrate on any of them. I feel so sad, all the time, and I don't know what to do about it. I feel like I'm underwater, constantly, and I don't know how to get out. “...getting on.”

Ms Jenkins didn't look like she believed him, and he didn't blame her. He'd never been very good at lying.

 


 

As months went by, the fear of the upcoming exams gripping Rudyard’s classmates failed to faze him. He was really more concerned about Antigone. She'd taken to spending more and more time in the mortuary and refusing to speak to him. Or, rather, to anyone. She'd always had an aversion to people, but this was truly concerning.

During one of his last sessions before he left school forever, he told Ms Jenkins about Antigone’s self-imposed isolation. All Ms Jenkins had to offer was a request that he would once again urge Antigone to come to a session. How incredibly unhelpful.

“Anyway, I did want to speak about something else,” she'd said, after the pause following that request had grown sufficiently awkward. “This is one of the last sessions we're going to have together, and we still haven't brought up one thing in particular; namely, your hatred of raffles. Care to go into that?”

“Why is that relevant? Also, how do you know about that?”

“You told me, a few weeks ago.”

“Oh.” Wasn't that just proof of how little attention he paid during these? “I… it was something that happened to me when I was younger. Childish, really- I entered a raffle and didn't win what I'd really wanted. It was the first time I was really told that things can happen to us that we can't control. I still don't see how this is relevant.”

She looked at him for a moment, her expression unreadable. “Rudyard, do you find the idea of not being in control uncomfortable?” She was writing something in her notes.

“Um… I suppose. Is that a problem?”

Ms Jenkins continued to scribble. “Not necessarily.” she said.

 


 

In the end, both of them drifted through their exams with decent enough grades. Antigone’s were slightly better than his, but that would have always been the case, and he thought his parents would have been proud.

After enduring a leaver’s ceremony with no one in their family in the audience, they returned home. Antigone moved to once again enter the mortuary, but this time, Rudyard stopped her.

“Antigone… has it occurred to you that we were supposed to be starting that training program that Fathe- that he, told us about, right about now?”

Antigone didn't make eye contact with him. She never did, not anymore. When she spoke, her voice sounded soft, and distant. “I already know how to be a mortician. Father taught me, before the accident. All you need to do is learn how to be a funeral director.” She turned away, walking into the mortuary.

It was to be the last Rudyard saw of his sister for a very long time.

 


 

Slowly, Rudyard taught himself how to be an undertaker.

Luckily for him, his parents had a truly vast number of books on the subject. Every day he would make himself a cup of tea and sit with it, by the huge front window with the dusty ‘closed’ sign attached, and read a book to the sounds of the rain, the waves, and the people of the village. More and more often, as time went on, he'd remember to drink the tea while it was still warm.

As warm rain showers made way for blue skies, as all the leaves crinkled and turned brown and eventually fluttered to the ground, as the cold set in and half hearted snow showers settled and then melted and then froze again, Rudyard read book after book after book, and Antigone never once left the mortuary. Twice a day Rudyard would knock on the door and pass through a plate of food, but they never spoke. Every so often, Rudyard would learn something new, something exciting, and would rush to go and tell Antigone. Every single time, he couldn't quite manage it. He would raise his hand, and never actually knock, hundreds of potential happy moments lost to the sea of Rudyard's uncertainty. Still, he made progress.

For a full year, no one, other than various food shop owners, saw Rudyard, and not a single soul saw Antigone. And then one morning, Piffling awoke to the beginning of an era.

Rudyard Funn stood on a stepladder, painstakingly hand painting a new sign. ‘Funn Funerals’ it proclaimed in bright capitals, and then underneath, in a smaller, curly script: ‘We put the body in the coffin in the ground on time’.

Despite it not being strictly his, Rudyard was very proud of that motto. He'd found a version of it scrawled in a book he'd found in the book case. He didn't know when or why she'd written it, but he'd have recognised his mother’s handwriting anywhere.

 


 

Rudyard found his new funeral home to be incredibly popular. Antigone thought this was mostly due to theirs being the only funeral home on the island, but was happy nonetheless.

They'd finally had a funeral for their parents- better late than never, Rudyard thought- and a new gleaming granite gravestone stood in the cemetery. ‘Howard and Eugenia Funn’ was carved on it, along with dates and ‘Beloved mother, father, and suppliers of funerals’ below. For the next twenty years of his life, Rudyard made a point of leaving flowers on it once a month. He often tried to get Antigone- who had progressed to coming out of into the mortuary and into the shop on rare occasions- to go with him, but deep down, he knew she wasn't ready. That was okay.

On one such cemetery visit, around ten years later, Rudyard found himself with company. They'd both changed quite a bit, but not enough so that they didn't recognise each other. It was, quite plainly, Ms Jenkins. After making polite small talk for a while, she turned to face him.

“Rudyard, why did you never come to the final session I had scheduled for you?” She spoke hesitantly, nervously.

“I… I suppose I just couldn't face it, at the time.” The truth- the he hadn't been able to handle the thought of having to say goodbye to someone else- he was unwilling to utter.

“It was a pity. I had something important I wanted to say to you.”

“Well, say it now, then.”

Ms Jenkins sighed. “I just wanted to say this: I understand your hatred of not being in control, however, you can't blame yourself for having no control over certain situations.”

“What do you mean?”

“There was nothing you could have done, Rudyard. You weren't even awake at the time. I remember you saying once you hated raffles. The sad truth is that life is a raffle- you sign up to get something, but you never know what that thing will be until you get it.”

“You never know if you're going to get the toy mouse or the toy lion.” Rudyard said quietly.

“What?”

“Never mind.” Ask he stared into the distance, his vision grew blurry. How was this that thing that was making him cry? After everything that had happened, this?

After they'd talked longer and eventually separated to walk their separate ways, Rudyard felt a weight lift from his shoulders.

It was strange. He hadn't realised he'd been blaming himself for his parents’ death until he no longer was.

 


 

For years and years they continued on in this manner, and Rudyard finally began to feel something akin to happiness.

A few short years after his last conversation with Ms Jenkins, he became friends with a talking mouse. Whilst the irony was lost on everyone else, it affected Rudyard greatly. Looking back on how his four-year-old self would likely feel, he didn't know whether to laugh or cry. In the end, he settled for simply being happy.

They had a few perfect funerals, and a lot more disastrous ones, and Rudyard found it all rather fun. A while down the line they hired Georgie Crusoe, and were forced to confront the scary possibility that she was better at this job than both of them put together. In his heart, Rudyard knew he wasn't the best funeral director in the world. However, he didn't really mind. No one complained. Besides, it wasn't as though the villagers had anyone else to do funerals for them.

Almost eighteen years after his parents deaths, Rudyard Funn finally felt as though his life was coming together. He was finally winning the toy lion.

And then Eric Chapman arrived.

Chapter Text

 

A little known fact about Dr Edgware is that in his time in medical school on the mainland, he dabbled in various forms of spiritual therapy for a few years - mostly a side effect of that one time he accidentally mistook his roommate’s psychedelic drugs for his caffeine tablets and woke up in a dodgy flat doubling as a temple. Given, he did not find painting with his own screams quite as charming sober, but Spiritual Sleeping turned out to be a course he quite enjoyed, even if he only stuck to it because of a non-refundable deposit.

Ten years later, safely back on Piffling and definitely not sleeping well or enough, he still retains two things from his past: a hand-crafted, quite frankly hideous dream catcher hung at his bedside and the habit of recording his dreams.

 


 

Thursday, 20th of August

First full sleep cycle all week and in my own bed no less! The mattress felt so heavenly that the first thing I was aware of in my dream were my fingers touching upon soft cotton. For a second, I thought it may have been clouds – a delirious assumption, in hindsight – but it turned out to be a wad of cotton coming out of a plastic bag. In my other hand, a bottle of antiseptic. Panicked for a moment realising I hadn’t put on gloves, but, considering my patient was an oversized salamander with a scuffed knee, it didn’t seem all that important. The strange part? The salamander child’s mother was an orangutan. I did not ask about the father or stop to consider the biology of it.

Cleaned his wound and put a far too small plaster on it, NHS budgets and all. Afterwards, the salamander thanked me and handed me a lollipop, saying, ”Hang in there, Henry. Just hang in there,” in the distinct voice of David Attenborough. I was no longer certain he was a child, or that I was entirely sane.

Of course, that is when the mother (or spouse, perhaps?) started screeching and I woke up to the shrill rattle of the telephone on the wall. Stanley Carmichael had, apparently, been crushed by a granite sundial and was thus very, very dead. I was still legally obligated to see to him. Arriving at the scene to half a dozen cross-eyed relatives gathered around the body – Stanley’s head flatter than a bulldozed sheet of paper and his limbs splayed out at odd angles – they seemed to have a reptilian quality about them. It might be best to stop showing nature documentaries in the hospital waiting rooms.

 

Wednesday, 26th of August

Had a primary school nightmare following Mr Askey’s long overdue death. May have had something to do with falling asleep on the floor in the hall after taking my soaked through shoes off. Was once again transported to the annual Piffling Primary School race in fifth grade when George Stinton got electrocuted quite spectacularly on his last one hundred meters up the cliff to the finish line. I still wasn’t fast enough to see it myself, running on the heels of Sid Marlowe and not quite far enough from the strange kid with the weird name to not hear his pneumatic wheezing. We weren’t meant to be out in a storm, of course, but Mr Askey has always been more than happy to assist the devil, although I doubt even he meant to fry a child. The rain squished in the soles of my shoes uncomfortably and, as we approached the top of the hill, the smell of burnt flesh permeated the air.                 

Typically, I would have turned to see George’s smouldering corpse, but tonight there was a strange figure in his place, hovering a little above the ground, almost glowing. He flashed a golden smile – the face familiar and unknown at once, like I had seen it a thousand times, but never paid it much attention. ”Almost there, Henry,” he said and his voice was that of a blond angel.

 

Saturday, 5th of September

Slept in for the first time in… four and a half months. Not used to sleeping so much, I woke up three times with one dream phasing into the next. I can’t remember the first two properly anymore, but in the third, toward the end, I quite vividly recall being back on hospital rounds in the midst of the floods during my fourth year in medical school. We all had water up to our knees, apart from the wheelchair patients, who were in it up to the waist and very disgruntled. I told one of them I hadn’t slept in fifty-two hours, which shut him up promptly. It occurred to me that if I fell asleep right there, I might as well drown.                 

Didn’t realise I was in a dream until I ran into Petunia Bloom holding a swath of colour palettes to my face, muttering about how I was a spring person, and promptly sprouted a beard and about a dozen prominent wrinkles. She also pointed out I’m greying. I’m only thirty-five, but even in my dreams I am rapidly approaching a stress related death. Lucky thing I have the day off. Esther and I are going to dinner.

 

Tuesday, 22nd of September

Oh, the bliss. Momentarily thought I would have another nightmare about the village storming the waiting room with pitchforks when I found myself at St Spratt’s, but the door to the waiting room failed to swing open and admit a village on a witch hunt. Finished filing out an entire stack of abandoned paperwork, adjusted the setting on my chair to be non-ergonomic, so I could lean back, lift my feet onto the table and take a short nap in the sunlight. It was paradise. No bunions, no halitosis, no warts.

Only, it didn’t last. The peace itself didn’t waver, but it stopped being welcome. There was something eerie about it. So much so, I woke up in a sweat itching to do something. I’m starting to wonder if Esther was right after all, throwing key terms from a the evening at me when I got home late for the fifth night in a row last week. Workaholic, burn out . I would ask a doctor, but I’m the only licensed one on the island.

 

Friday, 2nd of October

Have woken up post-apocalypse with two hospitals to run. The second one is named after the blond stranger. He’s less of a blessing now, and the nausea won’t subside. I cannot resign. I’ve tried. Last night, I dreamt of cloned patients walking the corridors of the Chapman Community Hospital in pairs with military precision. The same person with the same symptoms, over and over again, each muttering: ”Come on, Henry. It’s almost over.”

But it never is, is it? I’m starting to lose my hair now. Maybe I’ll be bald before I’m grey.

 

Tuesday, 2nd of December

Not a single dream in two long months. I’m so used to blacking out at my desk by now, I was nearly frightened to find myself drifting off into something other than the void. After startling awake, I wondered if I would have to get up and get a sleeping pill (which, at this point, may well put me into a well deserved coma), but decided I was simply too tired. On another night, I may have asked Esther to sing – well, screech – a lullaby, but, having abandoned her on her birthday to declare forty clowns dead in the middle of the night, I didn’t dare make the request. It turns out, counting clowns is just as effective as counting sheep.

Chapter Text

Nigel made himself another cup of tea and sat back down at his desk, his dodgy chair creaking worryingly as he did so. It just wasn't working. He'd been attempting to write this particular essay since 4:45pm, after his final lecture of the day had finished. It was now 1:07am, and he was about ready to give up. The worst part was that this should have been an easy title: ‘Outline and explain three reasons for and against the existence of a Christian God’. They'd been focusing on this topic in his Theology course for the past few weeks, and, with his family, he'd really been studying this topic since he was baptised as a baby. And yet, writing the thing was impossible. Why wasn't it working?!

He took a sip of his too-hot tea and sighed, wishing he had something stronger. He could nip to the corner store and get a bottle of cheap wine or vodka, but there was something really quite tragic about drinking at 1am, alone, over an essay. Besides, whilst his university was in a relatively nice city, going out at 1am in it did carry a significant risk of being stabbed. Setting the tea back down on a coaster, he tried to review what he'd written thus far. He'd rattled through the ‘against’ arguments in about half an hour; it was the ‘for’ arguments that were giving him trouble. The whole point of faith, he'd always been told, was that you didn't need arguments, or facts, or proof. All you needed was exactly that: faith. That same principle had helped him for the 20 years of his life up until this point, but it was failing him now. He slumped back in his chair, this time ignoring the dodgy creaking (after all, it still hadn't broken up to this point) and allowed himself a few brief moments to wallow in misery.

An insistent, sharp knocking broke him out of his daze. Someone was knocking and calling him from beyond his front door. With an exaggerated sigh, more for his own benefit than anyone else's, he made his way to the door to his tiny student room and opened it. His friend Chris, in all his eyeliner-ringed, lipstick-wearing, frilly glory, stood swaying in the doorway. Nigel instantly knew he was already tipsy.

“Chris? What on earth are you doing in my room at 1am?”

“I came to invite you to a party, Nige! I was just there, but I was telling people about you, and they all want to meet you!” He snagged Nigel's sleeve and tugged insistently. “Come on, you've got to come! It's a good party! Promise!”

Chris has clearly had a few drinks as his speech was hilariously slurred. Nigel would normally spend a while laughing at him, but he was honestly not in the mood right now. “Chris, I'm sorry, but I really can't. I have an essay to do.”

“Yeah but that's so boring! Anyway, you do Theology. Theology’s fucking pointless! Why the hell would you do that? You don't actually believe in all that crap, do you?”

Nigel's immediate answer was a vehement ‘of course! but something stopped him at the last second. It had been at the back of his mind for months now, maybe even for years acknowledged- a terrible truth that he had a hard time admitting to himself, let alone anyone else. He looked around at his tiny, honestly pretty shit university room. His faith had lead him here. He absolutely couldn't just abandon that faith, and telling someone that he was even considering doing exactly that made it seem too real. And yet… if you couldn't tell your drunk friend your darkest secret at 1am, after having spent approximately seven hours failing to complete one single essay, then who could you tell?

“Honestly…” Nigel almost winced at how lost he suddenly sounded, “...I'm not sure anymore.”

Chris grinned triumphantly. “Fuck yeah, I knew it! See, Theology’s all made up bullshit. Don't do Theology. Do, like, literally anything else.”

“But I can't do anything else, Chris! I'd be disappointing everybody- my parents, my grandparents, even my sister. I have to be a reverend. I just have to!”

“But why? You don't want to!”

“My parents are incredibly religious, okay. There is nothing that would make them happier than to see a son of theirs join the church. And besides, I used to believe wholeheartedly...”. And he had believed so- he remembered praying nightly as a child; taking his worn, second hand bible with everywhere he went; being excited to go to church. Nothing like that now.

Chris looked suddenly very sad “That's… that's so tragic. People should be allowed to do what they want. Fuck parents.” His normal, joyous expression returned swiftly, however. “But now you can do what you want! You can come to the party with me!” His eyes were wide and pleading.

For a second, Nigel considered continuing to say no. He could stay home, get his essay done or, failing that, just fall asleep. On the other hand, though, leaving his essay behind in favour of going to a party felt almost like an act of rebellion…

“Alright,” he said finally, “as long you promise I don't have to say long.”

Chris practically jumped up and down with glee. “Yes! Come on, I'll get you a cocktail.”

Nigel barely had time to put on shoes and a jacket and lock his door before he was being dragged down the corridor at breakneck speed. Chris’s slurred words echoed in his mind. Was everything he'd believed all his life really just ‘made up bullshit?’

He forced himself not to think about it. Come to think of it, maybe a party was exactly what he needed right now…

“Nige, can I do your makeup?” Chris said.

Nigel thought about how much his parents would hate that, and then shook his head. He wasn't thinking about religion or his parents for the rest of the evening (well, very early morning). At this point, as a failing 20-year-old almost-vicar in university, doubting his lifelong beliefs, what did he really have to lose?

He took the plunge. “Alright, Chris. Alright.”

Chapter Text

The opportunity, or rather the idea, presented itself  when Piffling woke up to the incessant ravings of Mayor Desmond Desmond in the village square one unassuming morning. To be entirely truthful, it wasn’t an unheard of occurrence. It had happened an awful lot recently, and so - not actually concerned enough with the integrity of politics to call the mayor’s professional capabilities into question - nearby residents had gotten into the habit of waking up and grumbling, ”What bloody racket,” as they rolled over onto their other sides and continued sleeping.

It just so happened that on this particular morning, there were three people awake and about at this time: Rudyard Funn, who had been up all night putting together a funeral to be executed at dawn or else it would go to Chapman; myself, running after him not out of interest for how the funeral might turn out, but to possibly prevent him from sustaining any (further) bodily harm; and, which I did not realise at the time would be significant, one of the hoodlums (all indistinguishable from one another, since they buy their hoodies in bulk).

We crossed paths with a grey lump just as the mayor progressed from mere impatient shouting to a full blown tantrum. ”No, no, no! You’re doing this all wrong. I want the entire thing tented off. I know we only have the budget to renovate the front, but the extra plastic is accounted for.”

One of the workmen, dangling from a safety harness looking quite perplexed, asked: ”Wouldn’t just tenting the front have left enough money to do a second wall?”

”Yes, but that doesn’t matter. It won’t have the same effect ,” Mayor Desmond Desmond explained. The effect, of course, was the grand unveiling scheduled to take place in three weeks. ”Besides, we would’ve had to pick a side. Thus the ugly side would either face my house and the harbour or the reverend’s house and the church. It would’ve resulted in a great number of complaints, you see.”

”I’m sure the residents wouldn’t mind.”

”Never mind that. I would . And Nigel would never forgive me, if I painted my wall.”

And so it was that the entirety of the village hall went under wraps for the next three weeks.

 


 

The hoodlums’ main form of public exposure, besides the evening commute out of the village, was the morning commute into it: easy to miss, as it consisted of a staggering two cyclists and five pedestrians. Baz was running late that morning (quite literally running, though he wasn’t very good at it, having subsisted on frozen pizzas and energy drinks for several years) when he got to the village square and witnessed what was, by Piffling standards, a regular riot. It all seemed to go by in a flash in the moment, but by the time he’d ducked into a back alley and rushed down a forest path to emerge out of the bushes behind the bus stop, the possibility of an artistic coup.

It was a profound moment despite the fact that he had bits of greenery stuck to him. Roz demanded ”Where’ve you been?” and Wez chimed in with, ”You missed Miss Scruple. She’s painted flames onto the sides of her walker, bloody blazin’,” to which she nodded along enthusiastically.

”I think I’ve just found us a real project,” Baz said.

”A project?” the other two asked, immediately lowering their voices.

They had never had anything real to put their mark on. The crooked practise attempts to develop a tag spray painted under a mostly abandoned bridge a few years back hardly counted, and the bus stop had been built specifically to be defaced. One could only paint over the same eight square meters so many times before it became pointless, and never illegal. That’s how they had gotten into art theory in the first place, to kill time, not that anyone would ever know about that. This, on the other hand, would go down in Piffling history if they managed to pull it off.

”Remember the village hall renovation?” Baz whispered, even though they’d all been hovering at the edge of the square together on the day it was announced, sucking menacingly on some lollies.

Still the others nodded, automatically huddling closer. ”They’ve put up a proper tent ’round the whole shack – opaque, couldn’t even make out a single window,” Baz said, ”The catch is, they’re only redoing the the front, minimal supervision. You thinking what I’m thinking?”

Roz gasped: ”A mural.”

Wez stammered, ”That’s illegal, innit?”

”’Course it is, genius. ’S what we’re supposed to be doin’ anyway.”

”And historically speaking, art created in the face of an oppressive authority tends to retain more inherent value for the effort,” Baz pointed out.

”Yeah, but is that a valid way to determine worth though? If you maintain political circumstances as an objective factor in evaluatin’ art, work classified as rightful hate speech violatin’ human rights should be more meaningful than a landscape painting in the same way a comic strip confronting an unchallenged dictatorship is.”

Roz mused, ”What about a landscape annihilated under a dictatorship?”

”That’d depend on the intentions of the painter, wouldn’t it?”

”Would it though?”

”Well, if the artist-” Wez started, only to be interrupted by a hissed, ”Shut up,” from his friends. Past went none other than former police officer turned sweet shop owner Agatha Doyle, riding a bicycle with a dozen reflective strips, as well as a bell and a lamp consistent with updated traffic regulations. Her suspicious glare wasn’t diminished in the slightest by the bright orange helmet strapped to her head.

”What commotion have we here?” she asked.

”Just hanging out ,” Roz said at the exact moment Wez muttered, ”Waitin’ for the bus, as usual.”

”Two conflicting stories,” Agatha remarked, eyes narrowing to slits, ”Suspicious, one might say.”

The three of them avoided the scrutiny in incriminating silence, hands pocketed and kicking at the ground. Agatha took up her bike again in the absence of immediate evidence. They watched her drive off, heads crooned like a pack of meerkats, until she disappeared behind Mr Sonne’s millimetre precision trimmed hedges.

Wez was the first to relax. ”So what’s the mural going to depict then?”

”How about a feminist message?”

”Shouldn’t we focus on the structure of politics, since it’s the village hall and all?”

”Or the church. The east wall faces that way.”

”LGBT rights would address both,” Baz suggested.

”That’s touchy though, easy to bollocks up  like that one with Trump and Putin snogging on the back of a building,” said Roz. ”The acclaim of a mural attempting to humiliate two fascist world leaders - both committed to stripping sexual minorities of their rights and safety, mind you – by suggesting they are in a same-sex relationship is just homophobic. It’s attributing their glaring faults as politicians and people to an underlying attraction to men, which ain’t the sort of representation I wanna create on Piffling.”

”No politics, then.”

”Whatever we’re doing, we only have three weeks,” Baz pointed out.

They looked at one another, each willing someone else to come up with a new idea, when they jumped at the sound of a rusty prriiing coming from the road.

”Yoo-hoo,” the reverend shouted, ringing his bicycle bell again, ”you’re not up to anything naughty, are you?”

He went past, the mayor sitting spread legged on the back with his hands clinging to the reverend’s coat tails. He shouted something indistinct at them, which was cut off at the end when the bicycle started wobbling on the uphill stretch, swerving erratically for a moment before the both of them toppled over sideways.

”Oh my, I do believe we’ve fallen,” the reverend remarked, shoving the bike off of himself and mayor Desmond Desmond with the ugly sound of metal scraping against concrete. They both burst out laughing, still sat on the damp ground scraped up like two reckless teenagers.

Roz said, ”I have an idea,” as they watched the odd couple pull one another back onto their feet.

 


 

 

The mural turned out to be anything but easy to paint. Working under wraps with endless spray cans of bright colours and no way to view their work from afar was an artistic gamble at best, made no easier by having to work in the odd stretches no one was supervising the tent. They worked on the mural in shifts, a few hours squeezed in before dark after the work day and another stretch early in the morning before the workmen showed up. By the second week, they’d taken to painting for a few hours at night when everyone was asleep: one of them holding a light, one applying the paint, and a third standing guard in case anyone in the houses surrounding the village hall woke up to see an odd glow coming from the plastic casing around the building.

Their nightly vigils left the bus stop abandoned in the day. Even hoodlums needed sleep and it was difficult to skulk when they were constantly dozing off against each other on the bench, too tired to stand. It was a calculated risk, for their absence didn’t go unnoticed.

On the second day, the news had carried all through the village. A police department might have marveled at the drop in the crime rate, only it was already so non-existent their only officer had retired years ago and a new one was never reinstated. Agatha Doyle doubled up on business in the meantime, speculating about the hoodlums’ sudden disappearance over the counter, amassing quite an audience by the afternoon.

By the end of the week, the islanders saw a change of heart. ”It is a little suspicious, if you ask me,” Agatha muttered as she bagged the mayor’s daily afternoon delight of assorted fudge, ”Three people gone at the drop of a hat. I would be worried if our resident serial killer wasn’t safely locked up. She is still in prison, is she not?”

Mayor Desmond Desmond said: ”She’s kept in lockup in the Chapman Community Hospital and neither Dr Edgware nor the cook have reported her missing.” At Agatha’s raised eyebrow, he added, ”We can’t afford a prison and a warden on an island like this.”

”Oh, is that not the sort of thing a town would have?”

”Is it?”

”I wouldn’t know.”

”I’ll have to look into that.”

And so the hoodlums were forgotten again for the time being.

 


 

 

The unveiling ceremony was scheduled for the Monday of the following week, at the irritating hour of sunrise, people ordered not to come out of their houses or peek out of the blinds after sunset the previous night. Wanting to be absolutely certain he would be the first person to see it in it’s full glory, Mayor Desmond Desmond positioned himself at the centre of the village at four o’clock with a gong to sound at the right time. He set an alarm and blindfolded himself, humming happily to himself in anticipation.

Not long after six, the hoodlums gathered at the corner of the churchyard, where they would have an unobstructed view of their masterpiece and a glimpse at the reverend’s first reaction. The mayor was a small figure in the village square from where they stood.

At six twenty-three his alarm went off and subsequently the gong echoed in the empty streets. Mayor Desmond Desmond reached for his blindfold. People flocked out of their houses and out of shaded streets.

There was an all encompassing silence after the initial, stunned gasps, more and more people noticing that the front wasn’t the only thing that had been renovated. The mayor’s shouting was near inaudible from the church.

Then the door to the reverend’s cottage opened and he stepped out to see the mural in its full, sunlit glory: lime green and cotton candy pink busts of the reverend and the mayor with a touch of silver hair kissing tenderly on the side of the building, a faded rainbow of yellow, orange, turquoise, two hues of blue, and a deep night purple progressing from top to bottom like a blazing sky over the sea. It was vibrant against the clean white of the front of the building, unmistakable and compelling.

Wez had managed to spray their tag into the bottom right corner only the night before, sloppy and dribbled in places. Perfect imperfection that, but painfully recognizable. Mayor Desmond Desmond turned a hard eye on the gathering crowd as soon as he made it out, and, finally spotting them, made a beeline for the church.

”D’ya think we should do a runner?” Baz whispered, but Roz only shook her head, because the reverend got to the mayor before the mayor got to them, and went straight in for a lung crushing hug.

”Oh Des, you didn’t need to do all this,” he said, feigning exasperation even though he was clearly pleased.

Stunned, Desmond asked: ”You like it?”

”I love it. It’s exactly the sort of thing this village needs. Maybe people will even start coming to church more now that that’s what you see out the windows.”

The mayor took a second, proper look at the mural from afar, and said, ”I suppose it is. Just the sort of bold art a town would have, isn’t it?”