Going home time.
Tilly Dawkins wiped the last of the tables in Beryl’s café, studiously, ignoring the aggravating boy outside.
The foul Shane Fowle. Outside in the cold, wet, dark street.
With hands cupped around his face, he pressed them against the window.
Shane had taken to tapping on the glass. Tilly increased the volume on her AirPods and with one final exaggerated sweep of the table – and a wiggle of her bottom to keep him interested, she’d walked back to the sink. She glanced in the mirror to reassure herself he was still there, then with a flick of her wrist, she switched off the lights, plunging the cosy café into darkness.
Beryl let Tilly out of the back door and went upstairs to her flat. Tilly walked home, avoiding the High Road where Shane Fowle stood waiting and tapping. And pining. His heart was broken, and the pilfered woollen hearts in his hand sopping wet.
The following morning, Effie Wiggins, the cleaner, arrived at Bonzer Buns early as usual. Never was a woman better suited to her job. Effie could not abide dirt and disorder.
She started in the kitchen. That didn’t take long because Beryl always left it tidy when she finished each day. The café, however, usually required attention because Tilly didn’t have an eye for detail. Not that she didn’t notice dirt. She did. But rather than clear it up, she swept it into places she thought Effie wouldn’t find it.
Effie had seek-and-destroy capabilities when it came to grime.
She waddled across the floor, heaving her vast bulk and her set of cleaning tools in her arms. WOMD. Weapons of Mess Destruction. Effie’s arsenal looked like an armful of bizarre, fluffy and bristly golf clubs. A cleaning tool was not a cleaning tool unless it had an extendible pole.
Effie did not do bending or stretching.
Mops and brooms came with long handles, but Effie also had squeegees, feather dusters, brushes, and dustpans –all attached to extendible poles.
Minimal reaching required.
Effie turned the lights on and glanced about assessing what needed to be done. She halted and gaped at the red mess on the mat.
Adjusting her spectacles, she waddled towards it; a broom outstretched. Liquid oozed from the red objects when she prodded them, and she stepped back with a gasp of horror.
They would have looked at home on Mr Snyde’s butcher’s slab. Or in a horror movie.
Effie sniffed the air and reached for the can of air freshener in the kangaroo pouch pocket of her apron. Thankfully, there was no tell-tale odour of decay. Good. She simply refused to permit unpleasant smells. She blasted the offending red articles with a squirt of summer haze, anyway.
Extending her long-handled brush towards the foul stuff, Effie was just about to use the trigger to open her long-handled dustpan and clear it away, when she had a dreadful thought. Those revolting squashed, red things lying on the doormat, reminded her of a ghastly incident at her friend’s house.
Slovenly, sloppy Gertie Funnell was an unlikely friend for fastidious Effie Wiggins. Whenever Effie visited, she took her cleaning arsenal with her. Gertie invited her around regularly and by the time Effie had left, the house would be spotless.
The filthiest thing about Gertie’s house was Gwillum, a malevolent and mangy, feral cat, which came and went. The previous month, Effie had been cleaning Gertie’s windows when Gwillum had presented her with several gifts. Three mice lay on the kitchen doormat in a line next to a fledgling bird. Effie awarded Gwillum full marks for neatness, then, feeling the bile rise in her throat, made her excuses, and hurried away before even giving the windows a final buff. Before she’d left, she’d considered clearing the dead bodies up, but hadn’t wanted to contaminate her precious cleaning tools. And Effie was not going to bend over for anyone, particularly not Gwillum, so, she’d left them on the mat.
Her lumbago twanged at the thought of shifting out of the vertical.
So, were these mushy things similar offerings? She decided to risk another poke with the broom. After all, it was already contaminated. The red stuff squelched. Effie stepped back further and made a mental note to clean her broom head later.
Who’d put them there? They were beneath the letterbox. Had someone posted them through there as an act of malevolence? Mafia, perhaps? Unlikely. Everyone loved Beryl and her buns.
Had she got a cat? No, not Beryl. She wouldn’t allow one of those revolting creatures into her café. So, it must be something wild that had crept in.
A rat? Or… Oh no!
When Effie had arrived that morning, she’d seen a squirrel run across the High Road. Was it possible?
Last year to her absolute horror, she’d called in a man to investigate what she thought might be rats in her loft, only to find she had a squirrel infestation. Once the man had blocked all the holes and left, Beryl had somehow prised herself up through the loft hatch and spent the day cleaning up. It was amazing what one determined woman could do with a vacuum cleaner and a long hose, even if it had blocked twice.
However, back to the problem. Squirrels were vindictive, vicious creatures with beady eyes and grasping claws. Yes, now Effie thought about it, that squirrel she’d seen earlier had regarded her with a shifty stare. There was no doubt, this mess was squirrel-related.
Well, she’d tell Beryl later, in the meantime, if those squirrels thought she was going to be intimidated, they’d better think again. She stepped forward and with her trigger finger, opened the lid of the dustpan. She briskly swept the offending articles inside, allowing the lid to close with a satisfying clunk.
With the dexterity that comes with hours of practice, she transferred the contents of the dustpan into a large plastic bag and zipped the top up with a flourish. All without inclining her body more than a few degrees. She left the bag by the side of the bin as evidence to show Beryl when she came down.
Effie’s mobile phone rang. She sighed when she saw the caller’s identity. It was her brother.
‘Hello, Des.’ She paused to listen.
‘Oh, honestly, Des! If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times. You shouldn’t let the budgie out. Where is it now?’
Pause. ‘Well, I’m not surprised! Wouldn’t you be flying around if someone was chasing you with a vacuum cleaner hose? You’ll give the poor thing a heart attack! Beryl won’t mind if I leave early. I’ll come round. Turn off the vacuum cleaner. There’s nothing worse than a blocked Hoover.’
Pause. ‘It’s off? Good. And where’s the budgie now? Good. Right, see you in a few minutes. Cheerio.’
Vera Twinge, chairperson of the Creaping Bottom, Post Box Topper Society arrived at 9 o’clock, when Beryl’s café, Bonzer Buns, opened. The four other members joined her shortly after. They took their usual table in the window, ready to keep vigil, watching the February post box topper. Hearts had disappeared regularly off the Valentine’s-Day-themed display, but Stuart had been pleased his roses had remained unmolested. No one mentioned his knitted creations had been as similar to real roses, as hobnail boots were to ballet shoes. Still, they’d only be on the post box for another week.
Already, March’s post box topper was almost complete. Today, they would knit the finishing touches which would be attached with ultra-strong thread and wire to deter any interference. The Barbie doll in the centre, ready for Barbie Day on the ninth of March had given most cause for concern.
Initially, Vera had a few sleepless nights imagining that someone might steal it – until she’d actually seen Petronella’s old Barbie doll.
Many years before, a young Petronella had practised her hairdressing skills on the doll. The best that could be said, was that it was fortunate Petronella had become a librarian.
Levi had made a rather fine Ascot-style hat, and he’d tucked what remained of the doll’s hair up into it. The Biro tattoos gave Barbie a rather rugged, biker look, but the knitted clothes had hidden most of them.
And really, one had to take risks in life, didn’t one? If Barbie disappeared, well, so be it. And Vera, for one, wouldn’t be too disappointed.
The rest of the display consisted of leeks, shamrocks and a profusion of daffodils. Stuart’s mathematical Pi had presented problems, but since it had only given Stuart problems, Vera hadn’t been too concerned. He had, in the end, cleverly inserted wire into a knitted tube and fashioned something that looked like the Greek letter Pi. Most people would probably think it was some sort of triumphal arch, but that didn’t really concern Vera. Stuart was pleased with it, and arguably, that was all that mattered.
To commemorate World Book Day, there were several knitted books with titles embroidered on them. Of course, they’d had to be choosy with their choice because embroidering Alice in Wonderland had resulted in such tiny stitches, it was illegible. They’d finally settled on Emma, Macbeth and Dracula. A strange selection, but it covered various genres and hadn’t been too challenging to embroider.
The bonnet Vera had crocheted was green which blended in with the fresh spring colour scheme. All in all, Vera was satisfied.
A frisson of excitement surged through her as she anticipated an email from A. Godbin as soon as the March topper was installed.
But would he email?
Vera would be disappointed if he didn’t – even if she could then claim she’d won the Post Box Topper Wars. Winning was always a heady experience, but if A. Godbin just gave up, she’d feel like the general of an army who was waiting for an enemy that never arrived.
She was still no closer to knowing the mysterious emailer’s identity even though she’d carried out discreet enquiries. There were three golf clubs within a reasonable distance from Creaping Bottom. She’d enquired at the closest, but they’d claimed there was no A. Godbin on their books.
The second club she’d contacted had been very secretive – as if the first one had tipped them off. Vera was now investigating the most distant club. It was proving tricky. The obvious club was the one where Inspector Crimini belonged because A. Godbin had mentioned him. But he seemed to belong to all three. Was that possible? Vera didn’t know. But no one would confirm anything. Well, she’d just have to persist.
Vera looked up and sighed. Sally had slipped into the seat next to Levi and was fussing over him in a very unseemly manner.
Where was that girl’s self-respect? As usual, however, Levi was ignoring her. He must have had a long night of painting because now he was quietly snoring, his chin on his chest.
Thankfully that sullen teenager, Tilly, arrived with their order and Sally gave Levi a gentle nudge with her elbow. She held out his triple espresso. He woke, his eyes flying open, as he looked about wondering where he was. Unfortunately, he hadn’t seen the coffee Sally was holding, and he knocked the entire contents of the cup over the table. A mad scramble ensued, while daffodils, shamrocks, and Macbeth were rescued. Petronella squealed and leapt up, as hot liquid cascaded into her lap.
The coffee spread across the tabletop, and Vera pulled tissues out of her handbag. She dabbed at the puddle and the paper disintegrated immediately leaving a pulpy, brown mess.
Everyone turned to look for Tilly, but she’d disappeared into the kitchen.
‘She’s ignoring the mess on purpose,’ Sally said. ‘I’ll fetch a dishcloth.’
Seconds later, she rushed back, her eyes wide open in shock. Forgetting about the mess, Sally sat down and beckoned to the others. She leaned in, hand on her chest, fingers splayed. Everyone bent forward to listen.
‘You’ll never guess what I’ve seen!’
Sally quivered with indignation. ‘Look at this!’ From her coat pocket, she withdrew a plastic bag filled with something red. ‘It was in Beryl’s bin, and they look like our hearts!’ The bag was passed around and with a nod, each person agreed.
Eyes swivelled from one face to the next. What did it mean?
‘The only people in here this morning are Beryl and Tilly. But what motive could either of them have for sabotage?’
‘Plenty!’ Stuart’s eyes lit up with anticipation. ‘I think we need to interrogate them.’
Vera had a dreadful vision of a uniformed Stuart armed with a powerful spotlight. She shook her head to banish the thought.
‘With Tilly, it could be revenge,’ Petronella said. ‘She doesn’t like us being here all the time because it gives her more work.’
‘But it could be Beryl.’ Stuart’s eyes narrowed. ‘She’s charging us mates’ rates even so, we’re paying her a fortune. It’d suit her if we sat here all day eating and drinking while we guard our topper. Then when we’re not here, she could cause enough damage to keep us coming back. And as for the surveillance camera being broken… I bet she’s just turned it off.’ He stood up. ‘Shall I get her—’
‘No!’ Vera said quickly. ‘Leave it to me.’ That glint in Stuart’s eye was rather disturbing. They’d start with Tilly.
Vera raised her hand to summon the sulky teenager who’d re-emerged from the kitchen.
Oh, not them again! It was going to be another day of ‘Tilly-get-me-this’, ‘Tilly-get-me-that’. Those weird, knitting people were seriously getting on her nerves.
She lingered as long as she dared by the sink and then walked over to them slowly.
Well, that was strange. It wasn’t the sort of tone the old dear who was in charge usually used for ordering coffee. She was being suspiciously friendly.
‘So, Tilly,’ the Twinge woman said. ‘What do you know about A. Godbin?’
Tilly frowned and looked up to the ceiling. A godbin? Was it some kind of new coffee? One of them new cakes Beryl had been experimenting with?
The Twinge woman stared intently. Her expression suggested she would not give up.
‘Umm, a godbin?’ Was it some sort of waste bin? Was she hinting Tilly hadn’t tidied up? The table did look rather messy, but she was sure she hadn’t left it like that.
‘No,’ Twinge Lady said slowly as if Tilly was a bit dim. ‘Not a bin. A. Godbin is a person…’
This was just like school. Teachers gently prompting until they ran out of patience and snapped.
But Tilly needed a clue. ‘Is it someone from history? Only I’m not doing history at school.’ Perhaps it was someone like Shakespeare or one of them kings what all had the same name.
‘No.’ Twinge Lady spoke slowly. ‘A. Godbin is very much alive now.’ She obviously still had patience left. Probably not for much longer though.
‘Like Boris Johnson?’ Tilly was quite pleased with herself. She didn’t know much about politics, but everyone knew about Bojo.
‘Call me a stickler for convention but I rather feel that man’s name would be B. Johnson. Not A. Godbin.’
Judging by that vein throbbing in the old dear’s temple and the flared nostrils, her patience had just about run out.
‘Don’t know, then.’ Tilly shrugged. ‘More coffee?’
‘Triple Espresso,’ said the dozy, drippy guy with the long hair and paint-stained fingers. Tilly turned away, eager to escape their strangely watchful eyes.
Work, work, work.
Tilly wondered whether to hand in her notice, but she needed the job if she was going to Torremolinos in the summer with her friend. Turning away, she rolled her eyes to the ceiling and went behind the bar to make the coffee.
When she returned, Beryl was standing next to the crazy knitting people, and apparently, she didn’t know who the Godbin person was, either.
Then, the strange, little guy with glasses and wonky teeth leapt up and accused Beryl of sabotaging the weird, knitted thing they’d put on top of the post box. Twinge Lady tried to calm him down, but Beryl wasn’t a woman you accused of anything. Not if you valued your life.
She came out with a few words even Tilly hadn’t known, and she might have marched them all out of the café except for the dazzling flash.
Everyone stopped and turned as one, towards the man with the camera.
‘Tony Parstedd. Reporter with CBN.’ He flashed an identity card. ‘So, what’s going on here?’
Vera stepped back in alarm. The press? What on earth would people think when they saw that photo? The humiliation! The society would be ruined.
‘CBN?’ Beryl released Stuart from a stranglehold. Sally moved away from Levi, who was now completely awake. Petronella dabbed at the coffee stain on her skirt, Stuart smoothed his comb-over back into place and rubbed his throat. Vera wondered how much money she’d have to offer the journalist to lose his photo and forget he’d been there. And it would have to be CBN… Wait! Why would a reporter from CBN be in Creaping Bottom? Unless…
‘Show me that identity card again,’ Vera demanded.
He sheepishly held it out.
Tony Parstedd, Local Reporter. Creaping Bottom News.
CBN… standing for Creaping Bottom News.
Vera began to laugh.
A whip-round had raised seventeen pounds and thirty-four pence. Beryl had topped that up to twenty-five pounds and thrown in a box of Canberra Cupcakes, Melbourne Melts and Wagga Wagga Whirls.
Tony had deleted the two incriminating photographs from his camera, and armed with his booty, and the promise of exclusive rights to future post box toppers, he’d left the café. It had virtually been armed robbery.
The camaraderie everyone had feigned for Tony Parstedd’s benefit faltered, although outright warfare hadn’t resumed – that was in no one’s interest. There was a chilly impasse.
‘Well,’ said Vera. She was determined not to allow such disgraceful behaviour to take place again on her watch. ‘Perhaps we were hasty in accusing Beryl of sabotage.’
Beryl sniffed and peered down her nose at everyone. ‘Stabbed in the back.’
‘The evidence was rather overwhelming,’ Petronella said, gesturing to Sally to put the bag of hearts on the table.
‘Is that what Effie found on the mat this morning?’ Tilly asked.
All eyes swung towards her.
She stepped backwards as if the combined force of their hostility had shoved her in the chest.
Beryl’s air of martyrdom slipped, to be replaced by suspicion. ‘What do you know about this, Tilly Dawkins?’
‘Effie said I was to tell you about it and that we have an infestation of squirrels. But she had to rush off early. Something about a blocked vacuum cleaner. Or lost bird or something.’
‘So, why didn’t you tell me?’ Beryl’s eyes bulged.
‘I did. I told you Effie’d put the rubbish by the bin, and you told me to put it in the bin.’
‘And do you know what these are?’ Vera asked, thrusting the bag of hearts towards her.
Tilly shrugged, and then recognition lit her face. ‘Well, I’m not sure, but they look like what Shane Fowle was waving at me last night. He might have pushed them through the letterbox.’
‘And you didn’t think to ask him?’ Beryl’s eyes were in danger of popping out.
‘No, I didn’t want to encourage him. He was waiting out the front for me, and he kept tapping on the window. I just ignored him, but he was holding something that looked like that.’ Tilly nodded at the hearts.
‘So, our masterpiece was partially dismantled by a lovesick teenager?’ Vera shook her head in amazement.
‘I’m surprised he didn’t steal my roses,’ Stuart said. ‘Perhaps they were fixed too securely.’
Everyone ignored him.
Beryl crossed her arms over her chest. ‘So, does that mean I’m no longer under suspicion?’
‘Well…’ Vera said.
‘Where’s the apology? And the grovelling?’ Beryl tapped one toe.
‘I think,’ Stuart said with an edge to his voice, ‘that under the circumstances we were justified—’
Vera kicked him on the shin. ‘Yes, Beryl, we apologise unreservedly. We unfairly jumped to conclusions.’
‘Good of you to say. I think that calls for coffee and cake all round. Added to your tab, of course.’
Stuart opened his mouth to speak but closed it again and moved his legs out of Vera’s kicking range.
Once Beryl had gone to fetch coffee and a plate of her best Brisbane Brownies, Stuart shot Vera a disgruntled glance. ‘The evidence against Beryl was almost overwhelming; she stood to gain financially from us. She originally offered CCTV coverage – strange it hasn’t been available since we’ve been coming. I’m still not completely convinced…’
As if Stuart’s words had summoned him, the CCTV repairman appeared from the kitchen closely followed by Beryl.
‘All fixed, Beryl,’ he said cheerfully. ‘A software glitch. The camera was working all the time but for some reason, the footage wasn’t showing up on your computer. I’ve tested it out, and it’s fine now. It caught that fracas earlier and the bloke with the camera.’
Vera and Beryl groaned.
‘Don’t worry, I deleted all past footage.’
‘So, there’s no record?’ Vera asked.
‘Not on Beryl’s computer, no. I’ve cleaned everything. But from now on, the system should work perfectly.
Vera and Beryl sighed in unison. It appeared the incident had been contained.
The repair man left. He wondered if perhaps he should have mentioned that on some of the earlier footage he’d viewed, there were lots of squirrels running about outside the café. Beryl probably wouldn’t have been interested in that. After all, they were in the street. Not Beryl’s problem.
The only other thing he might have mentioned was a shifty-looking hooded character outside the café, interfering with the bobble hat on the post box. But really, why would she need to know that? Surely it was the Post Office’s responsibility? And anyway, it was too late now; the footage had been deleted.
Part 1 – Post Box Topper Outrage – https://www.cafelitmagazine.uk/2023/02/the-post-box-topper-outrage-by-dawn.html
Part 2 – Post Box Topper Surveillance – https://www.cafelitmagazine.uk/2023/02/post-box-topper-surveillance-by-dawn.html
About the author
Dawn’s three previous books in the ‘Chronicles Chronicles’ series are ‘The Basilwade Chronicles’, ‘The Macaroon Chronicles’ and 'The Crispin Chronicles' published by Chapeltown Publishing.
You can follow her here on https://dawnknox.com
on Twitter: https://twitter.com/SunriseCalls
Amazon Author: http://mybook.to/DawnKnox
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