White Rabbits & A Haunted Postbox – Part V
The books are cooked at the family board meeting and Ned descends from the heavens…
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.
Now he’s happy. He’s got the answer he wanted. His plan has worked. He has cash to work with and no one any the wiser. Much relieved, he slips one set of accounts back into his bag and starts to pass the alternative version down the table. ‘Here we are, ladies and gentleman. My report to the board.’
He glances around the room. The implied insult has no impact. Graham Drake assumes he’s the gentleman referred to and the Bishop’s Secretary looks as if he’s asleep. Howard McAllister still hasn’t appeared but that’s no loss to anyone except his mother.
Clarence sits back, fingers steepled in front of him. He smiles. ‘I would, of course, be delighted to answer any questions. Alternatively, if anyone wants to propose a motion to accept the report then you can get on and sign it. After which, you’ll have performed your duties and can all resume whatever other, more important business you have to attend to.’
* * *
The snapping sounds and almighty crash that come from the back yard instantly silence the gathering of Judds.
Arthur jerks around in astonishment. Sally and one of the girls shriek, while Davey and his young friend Nathan both do impressions of drowning goldfish, their mouths opening and shutting in silent wonder.
‘What on earth?’ George is the first to move. He turns to the kitchen door and throws it open. Bursting through, he makes it several feet into the yard and then stops, confused. While he tries to make sense of what he’s seeing, other members of the Judd family pile up against him from behind.
‘Dad! What is it?’
George frowns. The back of the yard is where the rabbit pens should be. There’s no sign of them though. In their place, all he can see is a pile of broken branches. Sticking out of the top of the mess is what looks like a pair of human legs in ragged trousers.
A loud groan comes from the mound of foliage. There’s a twanging sound and the legs slide out of sight.
‘Hold on, Davey.’
‘Where the bleeding hell are my rabbits?’
George and Arthur pull some of the branches out of the way. Beneath them, they find Ned Hawkins lying prostrate.
‘Is he dead?’ Davey jumps around behind them, his friend Nathan peering over more warily.
‘Dunno.’ Arthur looks up. Above them, a hole torn through the overhanging tree shows the origin of the broken branches. What looks like a section of iron railings is hanging from one of the snapped-off limbs.
It’s hard to believe where Ned Hawkins came from. The backyards of Goat Street are dug into the side of a steep hill. The only thing directly above them is the rambling mansion the Black Family calls home. Tower House stands on a spur of higher ground and looms over the huddled terraces where common folk live. There are no ground floor windows or doors on this side of the building. So, unless Ned jumped from the roof itself, the narrow balcony on the first floor is the only other option Arthur can see.
He squints as he tries to calculate the height. The old ash tree that leans above the rabbit pens is probably thirty feet tall. The distance between the top of the tree and the balcony is at least half as far again. It must be getting on for fifty feet.
‘Jesus!’ Arthur breathes the word out with soft reverence. However Ned came to fall, it was a long way down.
Ned’s eyes open slowly. He hurts in all sorts of places but his head’s in such a whirl the pain hasn’t filtered through. He’s completely disorientated. All he’s really aware of is the little, fur-covered face beneath him. The one that’s staring up at him with wonder and what looks like love.
‘Jesus.’ The word is soft. Ned isn’t sure where it comes from. The only thing he can see is the little white rabbit.
‘He came from the sky.’
‘Did he fly?’
‘Look up there.’
‘Is he alive?’
‘Has he come from heaven?’
‘Maybe he’s an angel.’
‘Has he come to save us?’
Ned is only vaguely aware of the conversation going on above him between the younger Judds and their friends. Some of the children’s words seep in though and rattle around the inside of his bruised and befuddled brain.
His mind is still trying to make sense of the different messages it’s receiving when the young rabbit beneath him wrinkles its nose.
As if in response to the signal, three other white rabbits appear in his vision. They hop forward from wherever they’ve been hiding. Now, all four are looking up at him and Ned realises who it is that’s talking about him. It’s the rabbits. They’re saying he’s their angel. He can’t quite remember how it happened but he must have been sent from heaven to save the white rabbits.
* * *
Margaret’s hand lifts slowly and Keziah resists the temptation to slap it down. She doesn’t want interruptions or questions, just to get the papers signed and the meeting over.
Clarence Wherry tries to pretend the raised hand isn’t there but, much as he’d like to, he can’t really ignore it. He slowly turns his head. ‘You have a question, Mrs McAllister, or one of your observations?’
‘Well… I thought… that is…’
Cynthia Drake sniffs loudly from the opposite side of the table while her cousin Graham makes a lacklustre attempt to cover a yawn. Margaret grinds to a halt for a moment then gathers herself.
‘I thought we should, you know, discuss the state of the company. I mean; there doesn’t seem to be much profit shown.’
‘But there is profit and that’s what matters.’
‘Yes… but our dividend, well, it’s tiny.’
Clarence shakes his head. ‘Oh, Mrs McAllister. You know, if there was money to be thrown around, I’d be delighted to drown you in it. But, we have to be realistic. We’ve had some ups and downs in the past year. Black Island is a wonderful place but sadly our prosperity does depend on the outside world. I try to keep the company in as healthy a financial state as possible but even I can’t do anything about financial crises in places like Japan and Russia.’
‘We are all affected, Mrs McAllister. Like it or not, the Black Island Company does get a bit of a buffeting from these economic storms. The state of world markets does affect prices and that means our profits aren’t always as high as I’d like. But, as I say, we are in profit. Not by a huge amount but we are in profit.’
‘Yes, but I don’t understand how.’
‘I’m sure you don’t, Mrs McAllister.’
Graham laughs openly and Margaret blushes a deep red. For a moment, Keziah thinks Clarence has succeeded in shutting her up and the old lady bites her lip as she silently prepares for the vote.
‘No! I don’t.’ They all turn towards Margaret in surprise. For once, she sounds almost forceful and Keziah realises her cousin’s daughter is determined to have her say.
‘I don’t understand how we’re in profit because most of the figures for the company appear quite bad.’
‘Well, they’re obviously not all bad.’
‘No. But they nearly all are. I mean: I know I’m not an accountant and I do have trouble following your report, Mr Wherry.’
‘Yes. Now, obviously I don’t mean that as a personal criticism of you or your handling of the company.’
‘Heaven forbid, Mrs McAllister.’
‘But the thing is, from the bits I can understand it appears to me the company should be making a loss. If you examine them carefully, nearly all sections of the report show things really aren’t going very well. We seem to have spent money on things that haven’t returned a profit. The costs are very high.’
‘In fact, if it wasn’t for this one payment shown at the bottom of page twelve, I don’t think we’d be in profit at all.’ Margaret sits back in her chair: apparently exhausted and overwhelmed at the effort it has taken to get her point out. ‘And what I just don’t understand is where the money has come from.’
Clarence’s smile seems very thin at this point but Keziah is impressed to see it never actually falters.
‘The payment shown there is from… an investment, Mrs McAllister. We make many over the years and sometimes it looks like we’re pouring good money after bad but then, you see, that’s what makes a prudent manager. Knowing when to invest and when to stop. I know the accounts can seem a little baffling to one not familiar with all the nitty-gritty of the company’s business but let me assure you the fundamentals are all there. And, the important thing is… the Black Company is… in the black.’
Graham Drake smacks his fist on the table. ‘Well, that’s good enough for me. I can’t see any point in prolonging things further. Basic thing is, we’re in profit. There’s a bit of a dividend coming our way and I trust Mr Wherry to look after our interests.’
‘You would.’ Cynthia raises an eyebrow. ‘Saves you getting off your backside and having to do anything to help run the company.’
‘That’s rich! You’ve never worked a day in your life.’
‘I work hard every day, Graham. You wouldn’t understand the hours that go into running all the organisations in which I’m involved.’
‘What? Oh, which one of your many important social commitments do you mean: the Ladies Cake Eating Committee? Or are you talking about your Flower Arrangers Who Do Lunch Club?’
‘Please!’ Clarence puts on his slimiest peacemaker’s smile and holds up both hands before the two cousins descend further into their usual state of acrimony. ‘Perhaps we could just deal with the report.’
‘Oh, god.’ Cynthia lifts a single finger in a world-weary fashion. ‘I move we accept the damn report, sign the thing and get out of here.’
‘Seconded.’ Keziah gets in before Margaret can speak.
‘Thank you, ladies.’ Clarence starts to relax. ‘Now… all those in favour?’
* * *
George Judd hesitates. They’ve just left his back yard. His older brother is with him, in a hurry to get to the pub.
To be continued…
I missed yesterday’s instalment because of the holiday but this one’s a bit longer. Tomorrow, George tells his brother a chilling tale.