Saturday 12 May 2018

Going Freelance

By Dawn Knox

a mug of cocoa

With the palm of her left hand placed against her cheek, Betty Bentwhistle wiggled her ring-finger, trying to draw her aunt’s attention to the new engagement ring. Aunt Edie, however, was oblivious to the sparkling chip. But then her spectacles were remarkably smeary. Not surprising really, since she cleaned them with anything that came to hand. 

         “’Ere, cut that out, Betty my girl!” Len Malone rose gingerly from his armchair on the other side of the common room and hobbled towards them, “You’re dazzling me with that flashy diamond!” He grinned, displaying a brilliant white set of dentures. 

“Congratulations are in order then?” he asked, taking her hand to inspect the ring.
“Congratulations? What for?” Aunt Edie asked. 

“Looks like your niece has caught herself a fella,” said Len, “If I’d been forty years younger, I’d have popped the question meself!” 

“Engaged?” asked Aunt Edie, “Since when? And to whom?” 

“Yes,” said Betty proudly holding out her hand to display the ring, “Since yesterday and to Sidney Jugg.”

“Jugg!” said Aunt Edie with distaste, “what kind of name is Jugg?”

“Don’t take no notice, love,” said Len, “she’s a bit crabby because the elections for Leisure Organiser are coming up and she’s worried she won’t get in again.” 

“So, are you going to tell us where you met this young man?” asked Aunt Edie. 

Betty told them how she’d met Sydney at Muscle Bounders Gym and how she’d been told by a clairvoyant that she would shortly be marrying the man of her dreams. 

“A clairvoyant?” Aunt Edie asked, “You don’t believe in all that nonsense, do you?” 

“But Ichabod’s readings always come true,” Betty said, “and he’s got lovely eyes.”

Ichabod? What kind of name is Ichabod?” 

“Not Ichabod Bunch?” Myrtle Mayer, the elderly lady next to Aunt Edie said, leaning over to join the conversation, “I saw him at Basilwade Community Centre last month. Oooh, those eyes!”

“I know,” said Betty, “they’re mesmerising, aren’t they?”

Aunt Edie glared at Myrtle, “No one asked you!” She turned back to Betty, “So far, I know more about Ichabod Bunch than I do about Sydney Mugg.”

Jugg, Auntie, his name is Jugg.”

“Mugg! Jugg!” said Aunt Edie crossly, then shaking her head, she added slowly, savouring the words, “Mrs Betty Jugg… Oh dear.” 

“Well, I think you’ll make a lovely mug, love,” said Myrtle, adjusting her hearing aid.
“Nobody asked you,” said Aunt Edie. 

“Who cares,” replied Myrtle, “everyone knows you’re a crosspatch. And don’t think you’re going to get my vote for Leisure Organiser!”

“What? I’ll have you know my Beetle Drive was the most popular event this year.”

“Who told you that?”

“Vernon Pollard.”

“Well, there you are then. How can you trust a man who pours custard on his salad?” 

“It was a mistake! He thought it was mayonnaise.”

“But he ate it.”


Betty crept out of the Willows Retirement Home wondering if she could avoid sending Aunt Edie a wedding invitation. 

Edie Bentwhistle needed to arrange a memorable event before her term as Leisure Organiser concluded, or she’d never get voted back in. But what could she do? She’d run bingo, beetle drives and whist evenings. However, they were becoming dull and predictable. She’d tried poker but Matron banned it after Vernon Pollard ran out of matchsticks and started peeling clothes off instead. And the talent show had been too stressful. Some of Len Malone’s jokes had been a bit racy, and he’d ignored Matron’s orders to come off stage. He later said he was pumping with adrenaline and hadn’t heard her which may have been true as whatever had been coursing through his veins had been sufficient to allow him to forget his arthritic knees as he ran round the room chased by Matron. And as for the incident with Dora and Rex in the broom cupboard, the less said about that, the better. 

And then Edie had it. She would get the clairvoyant and medium with the strange name that Betty and Myrtle had been raving about although she’d have to be circumspect when she told Matron who was rather prim and proper about such things. 

By the time she had the opportunity to ask Matron, she’d forgotten the name of the medium.
“Icarus Punch,” she said uncertainly, “he’s a sort of spiritual… um person.”

Matron looked doubtful, “I’m not sure I hold with anything like that.”

“Actually, he’s a magician,” said Edie, pleased at her flash of inspiration, “you know, pulling rabbits out of hats, that sort of thing.”

“Oh, I see, well, that’s different. Yes, of course you can hire him. What a good idea! Is there any chance you could book him yourself, please Edith? There’s going to be an inspection of the home next week and I’m rather snowed under.”

“Leave it to me,” said Edie. 

She suspected she hadn’t remembered the name correctly but dared not ask Myrtle. The fewer people who knew, the better, in case her idea was stolen by someone else. She telephoned Betty.

“Ichabod Bunch,” said Betty, “why d’you want to know?”  

“Oh, I just wondered.”

By the time Matron discovered there were no hats or rabbits, it would be too late and it might even finish the evening with a swing if Matron chased Ichabod round the room. He would probably be faster than Len and such a finale would round things off nicely. Yes, she would surely be voted in as Leisure Organiser once more. 

Betty had been correct. Ichabod’s eyes were indeed mesmerising, Edie decided as she led him to the linen storage room to change. She wondered how much power they could exert on Matron, if she were to leave the reports she was completing in her office and come to find out how the ‘magic show’ was going. And there was always the possibility that one of her staff members would alert her to the real identity of Ichabod Bunch – but hopefully not until the evening was over. 

“Well, if you’ll allow me ten minutes to dress and prepare myself, dear lady…”

“Oooh, yes,” said Edie, gazing at Ichabod adoringly.

“So, if you’d just go outside while I change…” 

“Oooh, yes,” she said and slowly backed out of the room, unwilling to break eye-contact, “I’ll be right here waiting,” she called through the door that Ichabod hastily closed. 

Arm chairs had been cleared from one end of the sitting room and arranged in rows.
“What’s the idea of this? I can’t see the telly,” complained Vernon.

“Shh! He’s coming!” said Edie who was at the door watching for Ichabod to emerge from his changing room.

“Now!” she said, waving both hands at Len who was manning the CD player.

“It’s not working,” said Len frenziedly twiddling knobs and stabbing buttons.

Suddenly a few notes of music drifted out of the CD player and cut through the expectant hush.
“Oh, my favourite,” said Dora, “Ol’ Man River.”

“Oops, sorry, that’s the radio,” said Len.

“Do something!” squeaked Edie.

Len rose and began to hum the Last Post. 

Vernon staggered to his feet and standing as upright as he could, he saluted. 

Rex stood up, “Just off to the gents.” He winked at Dora, held his hand up with five fingers splayed, tapped his watch and jerked his head in the direction of the broom cupboard. 

“He wants to meet you in the broom cupboard in five minutes,” said Myrtle to a blushing Dora.
“Shut up!” said Edie, hopping from foot to foot, “He’s here!”

And just as Ichabod swept through the door in his voluminous cloak, Len – still humming – found the correct button on the CD player and fell silent as esoteric music wafted round the expectant crowd.
“Oooh! Look at those eyes!” said Myrtle. 

Ichabod raised one arm, his fingers outstretched as if reaching for something. Suddenly, the audience gasped when his eyes flew open and he allowed his gaze to sweep across the eager faces as if searching for someone special. 

“Oooh!” said Dora. 

“I’m being given a message about something blue,” Ichabod intoned, “does that mean anything to anyone?” 

“Len’s jokes are blue,” said Vernon. 

“My husband once had a blue tie,” said Myrtle, “he hated it. It was a Christmas present.”
“I’ve got a blue rinse,” said Dora, fluffing up her hair coquettishly. 

“Does the letter B or P or D mean anything to you?” he asked Dora, “I have a gentleman wishing to make contact.”

“Oh, yes, it could be Brian, Peter or David. Or Bernard, Percy or Des. Or—”

“Quite,” said Ichabod, “I believe it’s Brian. He wants to say hello—”

“Well, that’s rich, coming from him! He couldn’t wait to say goodbye!”

“Ah, erm, perhaps it was Peter. Yes, it’s Peter who wants to send you his greetings.”

“Well, you can tell him from me he can keep his greetings! I’ve never been so embarrassed in all my life! And you can tell him from me…” she tapped her chest and pursed her lips belligerently, “that silk underwear looked ridiculous! Oooh!” she said to Ichabod, “You said you could see blue, didn’t you? That underwear was blue… or was it pink? Well, he looked ridiculous in it anyway!”

“Sadly, Peter has gone,” said Ichabod, “but I’m getting a message about a special day at the seaside. Does that mean anything to anyone?”

Every hand shot up. 

“Well, the evening could’ve gone worse,” remarked Myrtle tipping Cornflakes into a bowl, the following morning.

“I’m not sure it could’ve,” snapped Edie. 

“How were you to know Matron would come by so early in the evening to see the show?” Vernon asked, “Or that she used to teach Ichabod when he was a school lad.”

“Small world, eh?” said Len, “That weren’t very professional of her to call ‘im a fraudster, were it? I thought he were brilliant. I don’t know how he does it. How could he have known what I did with that ice cream in Bognor in 1954? I never told anyone. It were quite spooky.” 

“I know,” said Myrtle “it was a bit harsh of Matron to say ‘once a fraudster always a fraudster’ though, weren’t it?” 

“He had such lovely eyes,” said Dora, “eyes to die for.” 

“Rex nearly died for ‘em,” said Len, “He nearly suffocated in that broom cupboard waiting for you while you were playing fast and loose with Ichabod and his eyes.”

“Rubbish!” said Dora, “there’s plenty of air in that cupboard. He just fell asleep. He wasn’t struggling for breath, he was snoring.” 

“Who’d have thought Matron used to be a teacher? On second thoughts, she is a bit school-marmy, isn’t she?” said Myrtle, “And it’s no wonder Ichabod changed his name. Norman Wormwood isn’t quite as exotic, is it?”

“I thought Matron were going to grab him by the ear and drag him off to detention,” said Len, “but he escaped faster than I did at that talent show.” 

Edie cleaned a blob of butter off her spectacles with a jammy napkin, “There’s no way I’m going to be re-elected Leisure Organiser now,” she wailed.  

 “Don’t worry about it,” said Dora.

“Easy for you to say. It gave me something to get up for in the morning.”

“There’s always a solution,” said Myrtle pulling a flyer out of her pocket, “Why not go freelance?”

On Saturday evening Matron telephoned the duty nurse to find out how the Scrabble evening she’d organised was progressing. She didn’t have enough time to arrange social activities but at least if she did it herself there would be no more fiascos like the previous week. 

“What do you mean the sitting room is empty?” She asked horrified.

“There’s a flyer on one of the chairs, I’m not sure if it might be a clue. It says Ichabod Bunch, appearing at Basilwade Community Centre on Saturday Evening…”

About the author 

Dawn’s third book ‘Extraordinary’ was published by Chapeltown in October 2017. She has stories published in various anthologies, including horror and speculative fiction, as well as romances in women's magazines. Dawn has written a play to commemorate World War One, which has been performed in England, Germany and France.

Links to previous stories in the series:

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