Extract from Lavender and Brown - The York Mysteries
Monday 1 October 1888
‘WHAT?’ Mrs Wilkins shouted, rubbing her greasy hair with that damn grey towel of hers.
She knew what.
‘Do you have my papers? My tea? Are you planning on lighting the fire before the year's out?’
She twisted the towel in her hands, unleashing another flood of water. ‘I’ve just got in. I’m still wet through if you must know. Have you seen it outside?’
Yes, I had, actually. The weather this morning was particularly horrific, true. I’d happily observed her from an upstairs window not half an hour ago, struggling in the stormy conditions, red headscarf flapping around her thick jowls as she hobbled under the weight of her heavy bags. None of that, however, excused my lack of morning provisions. My trusty oak desk holds no morning papers, not even one, the fire to my right has not been lit, and there’s no sign of my little cream teapot anywhere. This is the sort of thing I’ve had to endure since moving to York.
Yet, she continued to ramble on, completely oblivious to my suffering:
‘I didn’t even know you were downstairs, why do you always sneak past me, anyways? What’s wrong with you? You’re a little creeping Jesus, you are.’ The towel paused and she stared at me disconcertingly, narrowing those evil eyes of hers. ‘What’s happened to your face? Someone beat you up again? A previous housekeeper returned to say hello?’
She always brings up the previous housekeepers. I’ve already lost count of how many of them have walked out. This cannot be simply down to my bad luck as it’s beyond the fathoms of statistical probability for it to be so. So, the obvious conclusion to draw is that housekeepers in York are of a particularly troublesome nature.
Averting the bruise on the side of my face from her continued inquisition, I pretended to look over the ledger. Not that there was anything in there – hence the card game. ‘Paper, tea and fire, please.’
Mrs Wilkins sighed deeply, dropping her wet towel on the floor. ‘What would His Highness like first?’
A heavier-than-normal gust of wind rattled and clattered my office windows, and I leaned over my desk to get a better view. I noticed for the first time, that the trees arching violently in the courtyard were tinged with autumnal decay. Another year was nearly gone with little to show for it. Even York Minster stood grim this morning. But, like everything in life, the blast eventually subsides and the room falls into a silence, broken only by the ticking of a solitary clock and the continual dripping from Mrs Wilkins’ coat, which hung on the hatstand by the door.
Mrs Wilkins repeated her question, this time without the allusion to royalty.
‘Papers,’ I said.
Her head jerked as if I’d poked her with the wet end of her mop. ‘You want me to go out? Out, in that? Just for your silly papers?’
As she spoke, another arctic blast rattled the windows, heavier this time. If that was even possible. It felt like we were sitting on the precipice of a cliff in a storm as opposed to being in the centre of York.
I made a show of searching my desk, lifting an inkpot in the process, and peering under the ledger. ‘Well, do you see my papers? I can’t find them at all. I must be going blind.’
She growled at me. ‘Fine. I’d rather get soaked again than spend another minute with you.’
That was uncalled for. Just because I’m an intellectual, it doesn’t mean I don’t have feelings.
She wrapped her wet dog blanket of a coat around her shoulders. Squirming as she buttoned up the scruffy thing, not for one moment looking at me.
I turned my attention back to the ledger. Our financial situation was dire. If things did not change very soon, we’d end up like the man next door.
‘Don’t know what you’re reading that for, you’re not making any money.’
I threw the ledger back down. ‘Well, yes, no thanks to you.’
‘Me? What do you mean, me?’
I took a deep breath the way Sydney had often told me to do.
‘The missing coinage.’
She stared at me blankly, feigning innocence.
‘The kitchen expenses, you know, unless pennies can walk from old tea jars now?’
‘That’s got nothing to do with me.’
Her aura flashed red. An indication of a lie. The ability to read lies is a condition that’s plagued me since birth. ‘Move to York and open a detective business with me,’ Sydney had said, spooning another boiled potato into his gaping cavern of a mouth. I’ve since learnt that well-intended plans over potatoes and pints don’t always work out.
‘It has everything to do with you but…go on.’ I shooed her towards the door.
‘It’s going to take more than a few odd pennies to save your business. The way you go around insulting people…I suppose that’s my fault as well?’
‘Yes, it is. How can I concentrate on my work when I don’t have the correct starting foundations? No tea. No fire. No papers. It’s hardly the basis for intelligent musings, is it?’
Her nose twitched, and she gave me a crabby little smirk. ‘You didn’t find the cat, then?’
I sniffed involuntarily and rubbed my leg. It was numb with cold and probably turning a violent shade of blue. I wished she could hurry up and light the damn fire. It was right next to me. It wasn’t as if she had to undertake an arctic exploration.
Her smirk fell and she turned around, picking up her red headscarf that had been squeezed, but still looked sodden, and placed it over her head. She knotted it under her thick chin and then reached for the door.
‘Oh, actually, Mrs Wilkins. I’ll take the tea first.’
She spun around, her face the colour of rotten beetroot. ‘Ugh, you absolute apeth, you. I’ll give you a piece of my mind, I will.’
‘Apeth? What on earth is an apeth?’
She ushered forth some disagreeable noises, but I declined to listen. Housekeepers don’t hold interesting conversations. It wasn’t even possible. The same could be said for the vast majority of people come to think of it. The dream I had last night, on the other hand, was certainly interesting, if rather brutal.
I slid open the top drawer of my desk. The fascinating essay on fingerprints was there but not the dream journals. I must have left them by my chair in my library on the second floor.
‘Are you even listening to me?’
The hatstand banged against the window and Mrs Wilkins disappeared into the kitchen. I suspected my tea would take a while.