Vera didn’t know which way to turn. The society needed to design a topper that would be suitably extravagant for Christmas as well as a fitting finale to an extremely successful year. Furthermore, the design had to be completed with great speed.
However, there was now the unwelcome problem of A. Godbin. Vera had taken his email insults personally and the whole unsettling episode required a satisfactory conclusion.
Effie had been on the point of calling the police, but had been persuaded to wait for further developments. After all, as she finally admitted, there was no evidence Alice Gruber was a mass murderer. In fact, so far, there was no evidence of a crime having been committed at all. Two sets of clothes had been found in a garden shed, but changing clothes wasn’t exactly an offence. And there were lots of complaining emails. But again, being cantankerous wasn’t against the law.
And who would they report to the police? Alice Gruber, A. Godbin or both? One person or two?
However, it appeared that fate was on their side because at the December topper meeting, Effie and Tilly joined them, although Tilly remained engrossed in her phone and didn’t participate. Shortly after Vera had opened the meeting, Effie’s phone rang.
Vera drew in a deep breath and ground her teeth when Effie pointed at the screen and, in a stage whisper, said, ‘So sorry, I’ve got to take it, it’s Des.’
Vera drummed her fingers on the table while Effie turned away and took the call.
Good gracious, Vera thought, they were wasting precious time that should have been used to plan the December topper. And it wasn’t as if Effie was a member of the society.
Drum, drum, drum.
There was too much at stake here for chit-chat.
But if Effie had noticed Vera’s annoyance, it certainly hadn’t speeded her up. She greeted her brother and then paused to listen for several seconds. Her face lit up.
‘Yes!’ she replied to Des excitedly. ‘I’ll be over immediately.’
‘Has Pegasus escaped again?’ asked Beryl. She was hovering nearby ready to serve the cake of the day, Fremantle Fairy Cakes.
‘Not as far as I know,’ said Effy. ‘However…’ she placed both hands on the table and leaned forward, excitement lighting up her eyes. ‘Des has just seen Alice Gruber sneak across the back garden to the shed.’
There was a collective intake of breath. Then, without further discussion, the topper society members stood and thrust arms into coats.
‘’Ere!’ said Beryl, ‘What about my Fairy Cakes?’
Effie rushed into the kitchen and returned with her coat and long-handled tool caddy.
Tilly looked up confused by the commotion, glanced about blinking, then looked back at her phone.
‘Tilly!’ yelled Beryl, making the girl jump. ‘You’re in charge. I’ll be back when I’m back. And don’t scoff all the cakes.’
By the time, Effie arrived, puffing and panting at Hurrah House, the others had already gathered in the entrance hall. Levi was keeping watch through the window of the back door. He reported there was no one in the garden. Not surprising because it had started drizzling as soon as they’d left Bonzer Buns, and everyone was damp. Who would want to stroll in the garden?
It was decided that Levi should creep out to see if anyone was in the shed, and if not, whether there was a pile of clothes.
Levi returned a minute later, dripping. The drizzle had turned into a downpour. There was no one in the shed, although there was a pile of lady’s clothes with a wig on the top.
‘Now what?’ asked Petronella.
They all looked towards Effie who pressed the button to summon the lift.
‘Tea in Des’s? We can keep an eye on the garden and make a plan.’
The doors of the lift slid open.
‘I can make believable owl noises,’ said Stuart as the lift rose to Des’s floor.
Everyone looked at him in confusion.
‘In case of danger,’ said Stuart. ‘I can make an owl noise to signal something’s wrong.’ He demonstrated, filling the lift with owl hoots.
‘Right,’ said Vera slowly. ‘I’m sure that will come in handy, Stuart. In case of danger, we’ll be sure to call on your services.’
Really. Sometimes Stuart was remarkably obtuse. But at least in this instance, his heart was in the right place. Even if his brain wasn’t.
Once in Des’s flat, they took it in turns to keep guard at the window.
‘Whoever it is, they’ll have to return for Alice’s clothes eventually, and then what do we do?’ Petronella asked.
‘Oh!’ Sally wailed, her eyes wide and anxious.
What indeed, thought Vera. Since she’d been the recipient of A. Godbin’s complaints regularly for the last year, this – whatever it was – felt personal. As soon as Alice Gruber came back, Vera would confront her… or him.
It was decided they’d keep Des’s front door ajar, so that when Alice returned, Vera could intercept her.
It was the best plan they could come up with.
‘And I’ll hoot like an owl if there’s any danger,’ said Stuart.
‘Excellent,’ said Vera. ‘It’s most reassuring to know you have my back, Stuart.’
‘Look!’ yelped Sally, who was on watch. ‘Someone’s coming into the garden through that broken piece of fence.’
Everyone rushed to the window to see a man in a trilby, slip into the shed. Several minutes later, Alice Gruber, dressed in a skirt and twinset, and carrying a bag, emerged and hurried up the path towards the back door of Hurrah House.
Everyone rushed to Des’s front door, which was slightly open, ears straining.
‘Is she coming?’ whispered Stuart.
‘I only asked because I need to be ready in case I need my owl hoot—’
The sound of footsteps along the carpeted corridor sent prickles up Vera’s spine.
‘If you need any help, just yell,’ Sally whispered. ‘Gosh, I hope she’s not violent… or armed… or—’
‘Thank you for your good wishes,’ Vera said, not wanting to hear any more possible threats. She opened the door and stepped into the corridor.
‘Excuse me, please’ she said loudly but politely.
Alice Gruber jumped as she inserted her key into the lock. She turned to look at Vera and then froze. ‘Yes?’ the sound was a deep croak, like a frog with a sore throat.
‘If you don’t mind, I’d like a word with you,’ said Vera.
‘I’m busy,’ said Alice, the deep croak rising to a squeak.
‘It won’t take long,’ said Vera, striding along the corridor, shoulders back and head held high.
She’d expected a bit more resistance and attitude, but she’d obviously taken Alice Gruber by surprise and had the advantage.
‘I’d like to speak to you about A. Godbin,’ Vera said. ‘And I believe you are the person to ask.’
Alice stared at Vera, her mouth opening and closing. Then her shoulders slumped.
‘You’d better come in,’ she said, but the voice was no longer high pitched. It sounded more like a man’s voice.
Vera hesitated. Effie thought this person – whatever he or she called him or herself – was a mass murderer, and although Vera doubted that was true, it might not be wise to go into the flat with an unknown man, woman… or person.
‘I’m not explaining in public,’ said Alice, still with a deep voice. ‘So either come in or go away.’
Put up or shut up, thought Vera. Well, she’d put up.
Vera stepped inside the flat, and as Alice shut the door, she heard a sound like a distant owl being strangled.
Alice indicated Vera should sit down and she perched on the chair; straight backed, with hands in her lap. It was unsettling being in this strange person’s, unkempt flat alone.
Alice sat in a chair opposite. ‘So, you want to know about A. Godbin?
Vera nodded. ‘Is it you?’
Alice, in her baritone voice replied, ‘In a manner of speaking. But you might know me better as Arnold Grimshaw. Back in the day.’
Vera frowned. The name certainly rang a bell, although having taught hundreds of school children over the years, that wasn’t surprising.
No, wait… ‘Arnold Grimshaw, you say?’ Alarm bells were now ringing in Vera’s head.
Vera had known an Arnold Grimshaw at university. A strange-looking chap who’d spent an entire semester stalking her. Everywhere she’d looked, there had been Arnold. Surely this couldn’t be the same person? Vera peered at Alice but with the wig, and the distance of many years, it was hard to tell. ‘And did you study bicycle design and fabrication by any chance?’
Alice nodded. ‘That was me. I am, in fact a man, but for reasons that don’t concern you, I prefer to present myself to the world as a woman, Alice Gruber. However, I was Arnold Grimshaw when you met me, and you broke my heart.’
‘I hardly think that was the case,’ said Vera. ‘You asked me out once and I said no. As I remember it coincided with an important rehearsal for the Operatic Society. It was nothing personal.’
‘But I adored you from afar and you ruthlessly spurned me.’
‘Nonsense. I did nothing of the sort,’ said Vera. ‘I think you’re exaggerating.’ Well, that wasn’t what Vera had expected to hear. Was it some kind of joke? But Alice’s face had fallen, and it appeared she was telling the truth.
‘I was so distraught,’ Alice continued, ‘I asked another woman out and she later became my wife.’
‘Well, there you are then. It all worked out for the best.’ said Vera briskly.
‘My wife, Mabel, had an affair with her boss and fleeced me for every penny I had, so I would strongly disagree.’
Vera sat in silence for a few moments. ‘Are you seriously suggesting that because I turned down your invitation to go on a date, your failed marriage is my fault?’
‘I am,’ said Alice.
‘That’s preposterous nonsense. I had nothing to do with it. Everyone makes their own choices. It’s not my fault you made the wrong one.’
Vera peered at Alice in alarm. ‘What are you doing in Creaping Bottom? Are you still stalking me?’
‘Certainly not. It was just chance. You ended up here. Why shouldn’t I have done? But when I realised who you were, I couldn’t resist getting in touch.’
‘Normal people would simply walk up to someone and start a conversation. Not send complaining emails…’
‘Complaining is my hobby, along with making drones. They’re the only pleasures I have now I have no friends.’
‘I’m not surprised you have no friends. What a very vindictive person you are.’
Vera’s gaze alighted on a drone sitting on the sideboard.
‘Wait,’ said Vera. ‘Was the drone that attacked my post box topper your creation?’
Alice smiled nastily. ‘Yes. I thought I’d discovered the perfect way to carry out surveillance on the High Road without leaving home. If it hadn’t been for that Australian woman and her cricket bat…’
‘Hasn’t it occurred to you to stop complaining and start being nice? You might make some friends,’ suggested Vera, although once everyone knew Alice was A. Godbin, she doubted that.
Alice’s face showed she didn’t believe Vera either.
‘So, what happens now?’ Vera asked.
Alice sighed and looked up to the ceiling for inspiration. ‘Now you know all my secrets, I’m probably going to have to kill you.’
Vera leapt to her feet, a squeak dying in her throat.
‘Oh, sit down, Vera,’ said Alice crossly. ‘I was joking. I like to spy on people and then complain about them but it’s ridiculous to think I’d murder anyone.
Vera swallowed. She wasn’t quite sure what to believe.
‘But I suppose in answer to your question, Vera, I shall have to leave Creaping Bottom now you know my secret. You’ll tell everyone and I’ll have to give up my hobbies.’
Alice looked downcast, and Vera felt quite sad.
‘I’m very sorry if I hurt your feelings, Alice… er… Arnold,’ said Vera. ‘I had no idea you felt like that about me back then. Perhaps I could have handled things a bit more tactfully.’
‘Well,’ said Alice. ‘You had your own life. No need to worry about me suffering.’ His voice was bitter, and Vera recognised it would be no help if she apologised again. Alice/Arnold was determined to bear a grudge and obviously needed to blame someone else for all her or his troubles.
As Vera walked back to Des’s flat, she wondered what would happen next.
‘He’s at liberty to dress up and behave like a woman if he chooses,’ said Sally once Vera had revealed everything to the others.
‘And he has the right to complain about anything he likes,’ said Petronella.
‘And if he really isn’t a mass murderer, I don’t have a problem with him,’ said Effie.
‘So, how do we proceed?’ Vera asked.
‘March him straight down to the police station as an impostor,’ said Stuart.
‘Oh, shut up,’ said Petronella. ‘How typical of you to be so intolerant.’
‘Perhaps,’ said Sally, ‘we ought to leave him be. He sounds like a very sad man with a miserable, aimless life. And now he’s not going to be able to continue his hobby of complaining.’
‘Unless,’ said Levi, ‘we channel his hobby in a slightly different direction.’
‘Not murder,’ said Effie. ‘I don’t agree with it. And I don’t want to encourage others to murder either.’
Levi tapped his lower lip thoughtfully. ‘No, nothing so drastic. But perhaps if he teamed up with the Parish Council, he could be their eyes and ears for the improvement of Creaping Bottom. If it was his job to find all those details that other people miss, he could report them to the Reverend Prendergast and his team. Then they could do something about it – or not, as they chose.’
Vera gasped with delight. What a marvellous idea. Turn Alice’s complaints into something positive for Creaping Bottom. And even better, they’d pass the problem onto the Reverend Prendergast. It was a perfect solution.
Vera informed Prenderghastly of Levi’s idea the following day. The vicar had been delighted with the suggestion and had immediately arranged to visit Alice to put the proposal to her. Alice had gratefully accepted. It was enough for Prenderghastly to know that Alice had used the pen name, A. Godbin, for her complaining emails. The fact that Alice was really a man hadn’t come up during Vera’s conversation with Prenderghastly. And really, it was none of the Reverend’s business, thought Vera. Poor Alice needed some privacy.
And now the A. Godbin issue was sorted out, back to the all-important December topper…
Levi had submitted a remarkable plan. Vera couldn’t wait to tell the others of his proposal at the next planning meeting. Yes, the December topper was going to be spectacular – a fitting finale to the year.
Vera couldn’t wait.
To read the previous stories in this series:
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
Part 3 – Post Box Topper Confusion – https://www.cafelitmagazine.uk/2023/03/post-box-topper-confusion-by-dawn-knox.html
Part 4 – Post Box Topper Shock – https://www.cafelitmagazine.uk/2023/04/the-post-box-topper-shock-by-dawn-knox.html
Part 5 – Post Box Topper Triumph – https://www.cafelitmagazine.uk/2023/04/the-post-box-topper-triumph-by-dawn.html
Part 6 – Post Box Topper Photo-Opportunity – https://www.cafelitmagazine.uk/2023/05/the-post-box-topper-photo-opportunity.html
Part 7 – Post Box Topper Summer Scene – https://www.cafelitmagazine.uk/2023/06/the-post-box-topper-summer-scene-by.html
Part 8 – Post Box Topper Animal Extravaganza - https://www.cafelitmagazine.uk/2023/07/the-post-box-topper-animal-extravaganza.html
9 – Post Box Topper Star Trek Theft – https://www.cafelitmagazine.uk/2023/08/the-post-box-topper-star-trek-theft-by.html
Part 10 – Post Box Topper Celebration of Creaping Bottom – https://www.cafelitmagazine.uk/2023/09/the-post-box-topper-celebration-of.html
Part 11 – Post Box Topper for Remembrance – https://www.cafelitmagazine.uk/2023/10/the-post-box-topper-for-remembrance-by.html