WHAT A SURPRISE!
By Robert Ferguson
spiked orange juice
The four ladies met each Tuesday for tea at 4.0 pm. It was a comfortingly genteel routine, reminiscent of the entertaining of their mothers, which each remembered from her long-off childhood. Each took her turn to be ‘at home’ for the occasion, and prepared carefully her ‘best’ cups and saucers and plates, and the cake-stands and pastry forks which each had inherited. They would all resist the description that they were elderly. After all, they could all still get around the village, and to church on Sunday. Mavis still rode around on her bicycle, even, however unsteadily. But, if pressed, which nobody would dare to do, they would all have had to admit that the years were catching up with them.
On this particular Tuesday, their gentle conversation about the village and the world was interrupted.
“Frances, dear,” one of them said to their hostess, “you’ve put away your beautiful Royal Doulton dinner service!”
Two more heads turned to the handsome, mirrored dresser against the drawing-room wall, and one bowed.
“Not put away, dear,” the bowed head murmured. “I took it to that man Astley, when I was last in the town. I wasn’t sure at the time that it was the right thing to do, but I could see no alternative when the electricity bill came in. Well, the price he gave me covered the bill, but with nothing to spare for next time. I even went into the Central Library afterwards, and looked it up in the reference section. Such a helpful young lady there! And, yes, he’d only given me a fraction of its true market value, apparently, but it was too late by then. I’d taken his money and shaken his hand, so there was no going back.”
The silence lengthened, until one of them said,
“Oh, Frances dear, he’s done that to us all, in our time. There was our grandfather clock, which had been in my husband’s family for generations … But, as you say, dear, where else can we go and what else can we do, now we’re alone, and the prices in the shops continue to go up.”
There was a long silence before another lady asked generally,
“Did you notice what the Vicar’s daughter was wearing at church this week? Goodness me, my mother would have been scandalised!...” and the conversation altered course into less troubled waters.
* * *
“Here we go again,” Valentine Aspley – born Arthur Brown - thought to himself as the bell on his shop-door rang sharply. He had been a great enthusiast once, and something of an expert, even if he did say it himself. The years had not been kind, however. Oh, he had made a living. Scratched a living, perhaps he should say. But the great find had never come his way, the well-to-do but ignorant amateur collector who could be allowed to fool himself into mis-identifying “school-of” for a master’s hand, or the aristocrat-fallen-on-hard-times and needing to sell something – never sure what – to put a bottle on the coffee table. Just little old ladies like this one, with a sugar bowl or cream jug to sell to eke out their parlous pension.
She was indeed very small. Well under five feet. The grey hair beneath the shapeless, green felt hat was a nest of pins and whisps. The coat, once startling red, had faded to an attractive ‘old rose’ pink in places, but unevenly. Her calf-skin gloves were elegant, but cracked and worn. The wire-rimmed, pebble-lensed glasses had not been seen by any modern optometrist, he was willing to wager. And those grey stockings! Well, Aspley thought to himself, whoever had worn grey stockings like that for – how long? – a good forty years? And the inevitable worn but capacious, brown leather shopping bag. Why did they all seem to have the same shopping bag? Did they pass it around at the Mother’s Union to whoever needed to use it the following day?
Aspley unfolded his six-feet four inches of slim elegance from the repro-eighteenth century table which he used as his desk and shop-counter. “How may I be of assistance, madam?” he asked egregiously. Well, manners cost nothing. You never knew, and the old dears were always put at ease, not to say lulled, by an expert gentleman. He had learned that long ago.
The little old lady was fingering things! Oh dear, oh dear. They all did it. Picked up precious things and frightened him that they would drop them. He stepped forward quickly and took the willow-patterned plate from her hands. Not actually porcelain, but not a bad early-20th century product of the English Potteries.
“Such pretty things, and such a sad story,” the old lady squeaked. “My mother had the set, you know, but… well, they had to be sold many years ago.” She twinkled up at him bravely from behind the pebble glasses. “But I fear that I might be in the wrong place. You appear not to deal in weapons. Swords and knives and so on?”
“Er… no, madam. We specialise in ceramics and furniture, as you see. Beautiful though so many of them are, the days of wall-mounted displays of blades are hardly sought-after for today’s … less-expansive … houses, ha, ha.”
She twittered genteelly with him, but nonetheless reached into her shopping-bag.
“However,” she smiled up at him, “I’d like to show you this one, if I may. It has been in the family for a very long time.”
She drew from the bag quite an ordinary-looking, if unusually large, kitchen knife, and plunged it into his belly, just beneath the fine brocaded waistcoat of which he had long been so proud. She stepped aside smartly as she stabbed him, avoiding the spurt of blood caused as she twisted the instrument sideways and then, with remarkable strength, jerked it upwards until the buttons of the waistcoat checked its progress. Then, to maximise the effect of her action, she withdrew the knife and allowed his blood to flow generously down his trousers and spread across the silk of the fake-Persian on which they had been standing.
He folded to the carpet, uttering not a sound other than a subdued gurgle. His hands groped towards his stomach as he attempted to staunch the pain. His glazing eyes could not see the blood. How he would have regretted the mess, and resented the cleaning it would have required! The expression on his face was sheer astonishment.
“I’ve wanted to do that for so very long,” the little old lady said composedly, still twinkling down at him where he lay at her feet. She stepped back, clear of the spreading pool around him. “I researched it in great detail, of course, on the computer-thing, Wiki-something, in my local library. The Japanese made an art-form of it, of course, when they did it to themselves. Hara-kiri, they called it, which I expect has some arcane meaning which I’ve forgotten. The point was, however, that it was both efficient, ritualistic and symbolic. And so is this, Mr. Aspley. I have watched you for years, cheating my dear friends around the county repeatedly. I shall enumerate the cases, and the depth of your cruelty, when I appear in court. Friends whose circumstances were becoming no longer tenable, as were those of their friends, and of myself, incidentally, so that we could no longer help each other, never mind ourselves. Well, it’s done now, Mr. Aspley. I enjoyed it. I do like a surprise, and I hope that you do, too.”
His head slumped to the floor as she threw the knife carefully into a corner of the shop and left, as unsurprisingly and unnoticed as she had arrived so few minutes before.
About the author:
Robert Ferguson has published a collection of poetry (“Late Starter”, available through www.latestarterpoems.com), contributions to quarterly anthologies, and several short stories on CafeLit. He has recently completed the first draft of a novel.
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