If you ask me, Dame Cecile Savoy was overdoing it. Chewing the scenery, in fact. I'm as sympathetic as the next person â providing the next person isn't Evangeline â but she was beginning to set my teeth on edge.
I mean, widow's weeds were all very well in their day, I suppose, but I can't imagine where she'd even found any in this day and age. They must have been left over from some ancient theatrical production â
, perhaps. Especially that long, all-enveloping, rusty black cloak.
The draped black veil concealed her face. Judging by the whimpering snuffling noises coming from behind the veil, that was probably a mercy From time to time, a black-gloved hand holding a black-bordered handkerchief slipped under the veil to dab at streaming tears.
Evangeline rolled her eyes at me and I rolled mine back. We were both trying to ignore the inert body in the pet carrier on the jump seat facing us. Dame Cecile had adamantly refused to allow it to be placed in the boot.
It was going to be a long day.
âNow then â¦' Eddie shut the door on us and climbed into the driver's seat. We had hired his taxi for the day to take us down to Brighton from London. âWhere to? The pet cemetery, is it? I don't have The Knowledge down 'ere. You'll have to tell me where â '
âStuff Yours!' Dame Cecile said in a muffled voice.
âEh?' Eddie turned to look over his shoulder at us. His eyebrows would have disappeared into his hairline, if he'd had a hairline. âThat's not very nice.'
âStuff Yours!' Dame Cecile repeated.
âNow, now, Cecile,' Evangeline said between clenched teeth. âWe realize you're distraught and it's all terribly sad but, after all, the damn â er, the dear creature was about two hundred and fifty years old in human terms. It isn't as though it were cut down in its prime.'
âIn any case,' Evangeline decided to be pedantic about it, âI believe the correct expression is
âStuff Yours!' Dame Cecile trumpeted, in a voice that would have rattled the opera glasses in the chairbacks of the second balcony. âStuff Yours â the taxidermist, you fool!'
The day was going to be even longer than I had thought.
It had all started with that telephone call yesterday morning. Some day I'm going to train myself to stop answering the phone. But I had been expecting a call from my daughter, Martha, who had been hinting for days that she was soon going to have something wonderful to tell me â and so, I took the call.
âHello? â¦ Hello?' At first, I thought the person on the other end of the line was under water. The strange gasping, gulping, bubbling noises sounded more as though they emanated from a faulty water supply pipe in an aquarium than from any human source.
â¦ sniff â¦'
âYou want to speak to Evangeline?' I guessed wildly. âWho's calling, please?' It didn't sound like a call she'd be delighted to receive.
âLet me talk to her!' The voice found itself and became almost coherent. âI'm desperate! I need human warmth, sympathy, understanding â¦' it wailed.
âAnd you want Evangeline?' She must be desperate. Or
else there was some other Evangeline in the city âWhat number are you calling?'
âTrixie! Stop playing the fool and put me through!' The momentary whiplash of command in the voice â which was beginning to sound familiar â was ruined by several more
and sniffs. âThis is an emergency!'
âOn your head be it,' I muttered and called out, âEvangeline, it's for you!
âAt this hour?' It was barely 10 a.m. and, although we were both up, we weren't really functioning yet â just sitting around waiting for the caffeine in the first cup of coffee to kick in enough to enable us to pour ourselves a second cup.
âShe said she wants â ' This was no time to repeat the warmth and sympathy routine. âShe wants to speak to you.'
Evangeline snatched the phone from me with a dirty look, as though I had been personally responsible for engineering the call just to annoy her.
âWho is it?' she snapped. âDo you know what time it is? Or hasn't anyone explained the big hand and the little hand on the clock to you yet?'
Well, it was warm enough, I supposed, practically sizzling, in fact. But somehow I doubted that it was quite what the caller had had in mind.
Unusually for Evangeline, there was a long silence while the other person held forth. Even more unusually, Evangeline began to smile. It was not a pleasant smile. That was more like her.
âOh, my poor dear Cecile,' she cooed unconvincingly, confirming my suspicion that it was Dame Cecile Savoy on the line. âHow too, too tragic for you. You mustn't worry about a thing at a time like this. Of course we'll do it for you.'
âWhat time like this?' I bleated. I didn't trust that smug look on her face for one second. âWhat will we do?'
âBe quiet!' Evangeline snarled. âNo, no, not you, Cecile.
Trixie, er, dropped a cup. So clumsy â and noisy. Do go on.'
I picked up the nearest dish and made threatening gestures with it. I
drop it â right on her head.
âYes, yes, of course we will. Tomorrow, I promise. We'll be with you first thing in the morning. Er, that's when we'll start out. We should be with you by noon. No, no â don't thank me. What else could we do but stand by an old friend in her hour of grief?'
âWhat grief? What's happened?'
âUntil tomorrow, then.' Evangeline replaced the receiver and turned to me with a triumphant light in her eyes. âTrixie, we've got our play back again!'
âWhat play? What's going on?'
going on! At the Royal Empire Theatre, Brighton, in the revival of
Arsenic and Old Lace
that was rightfully ours! The Show Must Go On â and Cecile is too distraught to step out on any stage for the foreseeable future. So you and I, Trixie, are going to step in and Save the Show!'
âOh, no, we're not,' I said. âWe have our own brand new show being written for us!'
âOh, yes.' Evangeline was momentarily abashed, âI'd forgotten that in the heat of the moment.'
âWhat moment? What grief? Why can't Cecile go on?'
âOh, she's lost that revolting little floor mop she was so attached to. Fleur-de-Mal, or whatever it was called, has finally popped her tiny clogs and Cecile is taking the whole thing rather badly.'
âFleur-de-Lys has died?' I gasped. âOh, poor Cecile! No wonder she feels so awful. She adored that cute little Pekinese â and she'd had her practically for ever.'
âExactly.' Evangeline poured her second cup of coffee. âThere's no need for her to take on so. The thing has gone through about ten normal doggie lifetimes. I'd begun to think the damned creature was immortal. And so, I suppose, had Cecile.'
âAnd what's all this about tomorrow?' I persisted.
âI told Cecile we'd stand by her during the final rites.'
Evangeline began to look more shifty than usual. âAfter which, of course, we can go over to the theatre and get in some rehearsal time. They're opening in a week.'
âWhat do you mean,
? So Cecile can't â or won't â go on with the show. But what about Matilda Jordan? She's co-starring and I can't see her going into deepest mourning just because Dame Cecile has lost her dog. She'll still want to play her own part.'
âThat's a point,' Evangeline admitted. âWe'll have to work on that one.'
âWhat we'll work on,' I said coldly, âis getting Dame Cecile back on stage herself. We agreed it would be bad strategy to present ourselves as a pair of dotty old eccentrics and we've commissioned a bright new playwright to create a musical especially for us. Everything else apart, suppose we did do
Arsenic and Old Lace
and it was a big hit and we got stuck in a long run? We could lose the new show
the theatre Nigel is arranging for us. And I don't even want to think about Matilda Jordan's reaction to being dumped.'
be a hit â with us in it.' Evangeline was weakening. âBut I'm sure Nigel could persuade his uncle to hold the theatre for us. He's such a dear helpful boy â and so misunderstood.'
âMmmm â¦' In my opinion, people understood Nigel only too well. That was why he had lost most of the clients he had been financial adviser to. Mind you, so long as one didn't get financially involved with him, he was quite a pleasant chap and he did have an uncle with a jewel box of a theatre he'd kept dark for decades, but might be willing to release to us. But that was in the future and this was now.
âAll right,' I said. âWe'll go down to Brighton and see Dame Cecile through her darkest hour â but we're going to persuade her to get back on that stage herself. No way are we going to get tied up in
. We have better things to do!'
âStuff Yours,' Dame Cecile said. âHere we are.' She gave a muffled sob.
Eddie pulled up in front of a dingy shop sprawled across the end of a shallow cul-de-sac. Behind its grubby plate glass window, a variety of wild and domestic species were frozen for eternity in poses that were presumably typical of them in life.
âI can't go on,' Dame Cecile moaned, falling back against the seat. âNot without my darling Fleur.'
I resisted a strong impulse to kick her out of the cab. Besides, it isn't so easy to do from a sitting position.
âBe brave, Cecile.' Evangeline rose to the occasion. âFleur would have wanted you to be.'
âThat's true,' I chimed in. âFleur loved you dearly. She never would have wanted to think that she was causing you any pain.'
âYes, yes, you're so right.' Dame Cecile mopped at her eyes and struggled forward in her seat. âShe was such a dear loving little darling. I must always think of her that way.'
âThat's right,' Evangeline encouraged, adding, a little tactlessly, I thought, âBesides, you'll soon have her back again â even if not in quite the same form.'
Dame Cecile gave a heart-wrenching sob. Eddie opened the door and swung the pet carrier off the jump seat, which promptly snapped shut.
âDo be careful!' Dame Cecile cried.
âWhy?' Evangeline asked. âIt can't hurt the â Ouch!' The hard push I gave her reminded her that she could still be hurt. She scrambled out of the cab with more haste than dignity.
âPlace looks closed.' Eddie peered through the window into the deserted showroom.
âIt can't be! They're expecting me!' Dame Cecile swept past him and rattled the doorknob. The door swung open and we stepped into gloom and silence.
âSure you want to go through with this?' Eddie looked around uneasily and I didn't blame him.
We were surrounded by dead creatures. They stared at us with glassy eyes from dark corners. Birds perched on rocks beneath glass domes, a fox lurked in the shadows behind a trestle table, on top of which white mice paraded in increasing sizes from a baby mouse up to a large white rat. In a spotlit showcase in a corner was a Victorian tableau of baby squirrels enjoying a tea party. Beside the showcase, a hooded cobra coiled, ready to strike.
âCor!' Eddie shuddered. âThis place doesn't 'alf give me the screaming âabdabs.'
âAnd how!' I agreed. All those small creatures that had once vibrated with life, now frozen for eternity in lifeless display, chilled me. As well as those not so small: how could I have overlooked the horse dominating another corner of the room? Or the huge golden eagle, wings outspread, suspended from the ceiling?
Eddie deposited the carrier containing the late Fleur-de-Lys on the counter and shook his head.
âWhere is Mr Stuff Yours?' Dame Cecile looked around impatiently. âHe promised he'd take care of me personally.'
Coming from him, that sounded more like a threat than a promise to me. Only Evangeline was unfazed.
âShop!' She strode forward and thumped the old-fashioned bell on the counter, sending out a sharp
to disturb the atmosphere and perhaps summon a shop assistant. âShop!'
The echo died away, the dust motes stopped dancing in the air, the place became quieter than ever.
âMaybe he forgot the appointment,' I suggested.