White Rabbits & A Haunted Postbox – Part IV
Things take a nasty turn for Ned…
Margaret looks at the water coursing down the window. The unpleasant brown stain has disappeared. She can also see the first glimmer of brightness breaking through the clouds. ‘Look, Keziah. I do believe it’s going to clear again.’
‘Yes, I have a feeling the sun will be back with us soon.’
‘I think a walk by the fort might be called for later. One does so enjoy the invigoration of the fresh air after the rain has passed. I always find it very bracing, a tonic for the lungs and the soul.’
Margaret looks around. She always finds it very hard making conversation with her second cousin. Keziah is never exactly rude but her responses are invariably abrupt.
She smiles vaguely at the others gathered around the table. The three other members of the board have now arrived: the Drake cousins and Reverend Presley, the rather plump Bishop’s Secretary. The cousins are arguing yet again over some old disagreement. The overweight churchman is staring silently into space, probably dreaming of pies.
Margaret looks at her watch. It’s now almost ten past twelve. She glances sideways. ‘Do you think we should start? Howard is on his way but he won’t mind if we start without him.’
Keziah looks blank for a moment. Then Margaret sees the old spinster’s eyes twitch towards Clarence Wherry. At the far end of the table, the family steward lifts a pile of papers. He appears more distracted than usual. He was so involved with his work earlier that he didn’t even notice when Margaret came into the room.
‘Oh…’ says Keziah. ‘There’s no rush.’
‘It’s alright. Howard won’t mind. I can speak for my son as well as myself if there are any decisions to make.’
At the other end of the table, Clarence laughs. ‘That’s not exactly a problem, Mrs McAllister. The boy doesn’t have any shares. Which means he doesn’t have a vote.’
‘Well… no. But he’s part of the family, isn’t he. Everyone in the Black Family is entitled to speak.’
‘I thought he was a McAllister.’
‘Well, yes. But… his grandmother was a Black.’
‘Well, if you must quibble.’
Clarence gives one of his humourless smiles. ‘It’s part of my job, Mrs McAllister. I have to question everything. On behalf of the company, you understand… And, since you’re not allowed to sell your own shares, I presume your son still doesn’t have any.’
Margaret feels herself going red. She is feeling flustered and hates herself for it. She knows she isn’t stupid but she does get in awkward tangles while trying to express herself. And Clarence Wherry always seems to make it worse. She could almost imagine he does it on purpose.
‘No. No, he doesn’t,’ she says, trying her best to sound decisive. ‘Either way, we don’t need to wait for Howard do we? So we can get on with the meeting.’
Clarence opens his mouth to say something but to Margaret’s surprise Keziah gets there first. ‘Are you going for your walk before or after lunch?’
‘Oh… I don’t know.’ Margaret wasn’t even sure if she was going for a walk. She’d only said it as a way of trying to find something to say to Keziah. ‘I… er… I haven’t quite decided.’
‘You should eat before going. Otherwise you might get hungry. Then… you might have to come back before you were ready. Or get faint and fall over.’
‘Well… yes, I suppose so.’
‘You could take some food with you. Get the cook to make you a sandwich. Or take a pie. Pies are good. I like mutton ones. With lots of mustard. Although they do make me fart.’
‘Oh!’ Margaret gives a little gasp. A horrible snorting laugh comes from the other side of the table but she ignores it.
‘Maybe a sandwich is better. Not so messy to eat.’
‘No… I suppose not.’
‘But what if it rains again? You could come to my room instead. Play cards or… have tea.’
‘Really?’ Margaret is astonished. She’s only seen the inside of Keziah’s rooms once before. That was years ago when her cousin had caught a particularly nasty virus and was bed-bound and delirious with fever for a week. Invitations from Keziah herself are unheard of.
She’s about to reply when Clarence’s nephew Douglas enters the room. He glides in his usual boneless walk to his uncle’s end of the table. There’s a letter in the boy’s pale hand and he passes it over. Clarence almost snatches the envelope. Then looks around when he realises he’s being watched. He bares his teeth in what’s meant to be a smile.
* * *
Ned Hawkins slowly lowers his hands and takes a deep breath. His eyes have been closed since seconds after the downpour started. Like a crucified rag and bone man, he’s spent the last twenty minutes standing stock still on the balcony. Face pressed against the solid reassurance of the granite wall as torrents of rainwater bucketed down.
Now, his clothes are clinging to him and he can feel water slopping around inside his boots. But there’s a faint bit of heat on the back of his neck. Warily, he opens his eyes a fraction.
His drenching is finally over. The rain has stopped and the glass to his side glistens as sunshine lances through a break in the clouds. The window is only a couple of feet distant. It looks like the seagull splatter has washed off. After taking a deep breath, Ned tilts his head back. He can see most of the glass but the pane is nearly eight feet across and the angle isn’t enough to be certain.
Ned bites his lip as he shuffles his feet an inch from the wall and leans away from the granite, just a little. It’s only a small movement but enough to trigger Ned’s vertigo. His head swims and his vision blurs. He gasps and his arms flail for something to hold. One hand connects with the railing behind him. Instinctively, he grabs it, seizing the rusted metal as his knees go limp.
Ned sags and his weight, though not great, comes down on the old wrought iron: metal that’s been eroded by years of exposure to salt water and Atlantic gales. It resists only a moment. Then snaps.
Gravity takes hold.
Ned continues to clutch the railing but it’s no longer attached to the building. Together, man and metal topple, spinning as they plummet into thin air.
* * *
Clarence smiles and relaxes. Mad Keziah announced a few minutes ago that she needed to go and pee. The fuss the old lady made as she rushed for the door gave him the perfect opportunity to spread out a couple of ledgers and use them as cover while he hastily opened the letter.
To be continued…
Tomorrow, Ned meets the white rabbits.