The Stain of Scandal | Tim Dadswell

He noticed her among the other pedestrians on the pavement and doffed his cap.

Mabel Smith grinned at the driver of an empty cart pulled by two aged horses. In the main road leading into Dunechester, she found the familiar rhythmic sound of hooves pleasing.

Seagulls surfing salty thermals overhead, Mabel reached a dressmaker’s and turned down a side street. At a hanging sign displaying a silhouetted teapot, she entered the shop beneath.

Mabel greeted her friend, Ivy Dawson. Bunches of keys hanging from their waistbands, they were dressed in black, ankle-length dresses with white collars. When Mabel placed her bonnet next to Ivy’s, it became clear they sported similar chignons.

A plain wooden tray, loaded with their regular order, rested on a white linen tablecloth.

“Beautiful day, Ivy!”

“I suppose it is, for some.”

“Thank you for sending that gentleman artist my way. He’ll be staying at Dovecote Villas for three weeks.”

“Good for you. Mind he doesn’t drip paint on your carpet. I hate turning away customers. I wish I’d never set eyes on that pair from London.”

“I know. Since it happened, I can’t think of anything else.”

“Neither can I. You’d think you’d be safe with a well-to-do young couple dressed in the latest fashions. Now I face long evenings, eating my meals in the kitchen, with only my embroidery for comfort. The builder reckons my dining room ceiling will be repaired by next week, so I’ll be able to redecorate, but will my regulars ever come back? Who wants to stay where there’s been a grisly murder? I’ve a good mind to write to Her Majesty for advice. As a widow herself, she’d understand my plight.”

“Yes, you deserve better, Ivy, poor thing.”

They sipped their teas and munched on freshly baked sugar-frosted biscuits. Every so often, Ivy shook her head and sniffed.

A group of people left together. Only one other patron remained, sitting behind Ivy.

“Got your money’s worth?” cried Mabel.

Ivy turned around to see the subject of her friend’s reproach. A gaunt man in a shabby suit sat at a table bearing an empty teacup and a notepad. A stubby pencil gripped between his tobacco-stained fingers, he stared like a salivating wolf.

“Sorry ladies, no harm intended. I believe the Duval murder happened at your place madam, The Lapwings?”

“Who’re you?”

“Arthur Crabbe. I work for The Echo. Interesting case. Doesn’t happen every day.”

“I should hope not! If you’ve been earwigging, then you’ll know I don’t need the likes of you to stoke the fire!”

“Easy, lady. I know what you must be feeling. But there’s not much chance of this dying down. Now they’ve caught the girl, there’ll be a trial. As you were there when she stabbed him, you’ll be called to give evidence. Why don’t you tell me what you know? Either way, I’ll be writing about it for weeks.”

Ivy turned to her friend. “Did you hear that Mabel? Will my torment never end? Have I been wicked enough to deserve this? I can’t sleep with all the worry, not to mention the nightmares about blood pouring through my ceiling.”

“Careful Ivy, he’s writing it all down. You’re lining his pockets.”

Ivy turned back to Crabbe. “Listen, with my business suffering such grievous detriment, I deserve to make a few bob out of this. It wasn’t the first time Duval brought a girl to The Lapwings you know. It’s all there in my guest book. If I was to tell you all the details, then what?”

“Now you’re talking. If you sign a contract with us, on account of your great distress, I’m sure my boss would see his way clear to paying you a little sum. We could run your daily diary of the trial. And if it’s anything like the murder I covered last year, tour guides will soon be calling at your premises.”

“Really?”

“Oh yes. The public are rivetted by murder cases.”

“I never knew that. Whatever next! In that case, I’ll pay a visit to your editor tomorrow.”

While Crabbe scribbled more notes, Ivy left like a destitute duchess who has discovered a Rembrandt in her attic.

Mabel hurried after her like an attentive lady’s maid. They paused in the street outside.

“I’m not sure about this, Ivy. Can you trust him?

Ivy looked down at her shoes. “Don’t know.”

“Come and speak to my lawyer. Isn’t that what your Walter would have done? I’ll go with you.”

Ivy met her friend’s gaze. Her brow unknitted and her smile returned.

***

Once home, Mabel glowed at the thought of collecting another fee from her cousin Arthur. They made such a good team, she thought.

The next morning, she would take a bowl of pease pudding to a neighbour whose wife had been seen by no one for a month or more. Why?

 


Tim Dadswell is a retired civil servant living in Norfolk. He has had work published in and by Ink, Sweat & Tears and Cocktails with Miss Austen. He won second prize in a Brilliant Flash Fiction contest and was a runner-up in a Writers’ Forum flash fiction competition.

Twitter: @TimD_writer

Beyond a Joke | Tim Dadswell

Will could not detect the slightest flicker of curiosity from the apothecary as he handed over a paper bag containing a vial.

Outside the shop, he thought how easy it would be. Easy to find a quiet place, remove the cap, down the contents in one gulp and wait for oblivion.

He raised his right hand and kissed the gold signet ring on his finger.

Walking on, he rejoined Jack under an oak tree on the village green.

“Did he have the right medicine, pa?” asked Jack.

“Yes son, I’ll be fine now.”

*

A month later, his shoulders sagging like a spent athlete, his eyes ringed by grey skin, Will sat on a low wall. Fifty yards away, two peacocks kept their distance. Mist lingered in the gaps between lines of elm trees.

Between sculpted shrubs and beds of spring flowers, Jack darted like a multi-coloured dynamo, tumbling and pulling faces.

Thin, gaunt, in drab, tattered clothes, Will studied Jack’s movements against the backdrop of a manor house’s verdant grounds, which stretched towards the horizon.

“Good, that’s funny,” said Will, “You have my gift, but with new tricks of your own.”

“I want to learn all your routines,” said Jack, with a broad smile and bright chestnut eyes.

“I know. And it must be soon. His Lordship’s charity won’t last forever. I no longer amuse, so you must keep us both. Now, come sit awhile.”

Jack sat beside him. “Pa, I can remember when you left. Ma warned I might never see you again, yet the money you sent us told me you’d return one day.”

“It was hard on us all, but the chance was rare, not to be refused. Lord knows, I had no other talent.”

“Tell me about life at court.” Jack’s voice was eager.

“At first, it was just as you’d imagine – jewellery, fine clothes, lavish banquets. When a prince leads a glorious, carefree life, his jester’s work is easy. I was a stray cat walking with a lion. I spoke the truth and he would take heed. But I was foolish to forget that princes become kings. Their enemies circle like buzzards. By his side, I faced the same darkness as he. My own words began to drip poison. I couldn’t have foreseen that the dangers would grow so great.”

“How did he die?”

“He grew weak and made many mistakes. Too high up the mountain he was, to see through the murk. When he discovered his daughters were not as he wished, his rage freed demons from their shackles.”

“Why did you leave?”

“A jester can also fall prey to demons, mark my words. I knew then I had to leave the royal household.”

“Kings may have you executed in a moment’s fancy.”

“True. Yet I wonder if I could’ve done more to prevent his death. Since he died, a phantom hound has been my constant companion. This ring is all I have left to remember our times together.” He kissed his gold ring.

Jack put his arm around his father’s shoulder. “Don’t say that, pa. The sadness will end.”

“You sound like your dear mother. I miss her every day.”

“So do I. I’m glad we can give each other solace.” He hugged his father. “But I shan’t call myself a jester until I make you laugh.”

Clouds of thistledown drifted across the gardens, as they rose and headed for the kitchen. There were chores to do. Whatever cook commanded.

*

After dining on scraps and leftovers, Will and Jack perched on gravestones in the nearby churchyard, eating apples. The air was warm and clear.

Twenty feet away, two bare-chested men were standing in a freshly dug grave, resting from their day’s labours.

A dishevelled vagrant shuffled up to the graveside. “Who’s to be buried ‘ere then?”

“You’d better beware it ain’t you!” snapped one of the men.

“I’m not so foolish. Tis bigger than most, is it for a lord?”

The men ignored him.

“Tis for the mayor, I’ll wager. I ‘eard he died last Sunday.” The vagrant became agitated. “Why don’t you answer? You’re no better than me!”

“Be gone, you mangy cur!”

The vagrant untied his string belt and dropped his trousers, displaying his behind.

The men voiced their disgust. One of them threw a clump of earth at his bare white skin.

“Bullseye!” cried Jack.

For the first time in months, Will laughed. So did Jack. They rocked back and forth.

*

That night, while Jack slept, Will took a stroll down to the river. He reclined on a grass bank and basked in the moonlight.

He was proud of his son. The boy was making progress yet still had much to learn. Only he had the power to teach him.

With a sigh, he sat up, took the vial from his pocket and removed the cap.

He poured the contents into the fast-flowing water.


Tim Dadswell is a retired civil servant living in Norfolk. He has had work published in and by Ink, Sweat & Tears and Cocktails with Miss Austen. He won second prize in a Brilliant Flash Fiction contest and was a runner-up in a Writers’ Forum flash fiction competition.

Twitter: @TimD_writer