Bourbon Penn 12

Boxing the Breakable

by Charles Wilkinson

From her sitting-room window, Mrs. Jennett watched the car draw up outside her house. A tall man climbed out of a black saloon and stretched his back in the manner of one completing a long journey. The woman, already on the gravel drive, was smaller; her pale oval face had the prim, old-fashioned air of a lady in an Elizabethan miniature. The man shut the car door and stared up at the building. The narrow house with steep gables lay in the middle of a forest. The Jennetts had lived there for thirty-five years. Built out of the local sandstone, the facade varied in shade according to the weather: gray-green, blue-gray and a whitish-yellow, which in sunlight came close to pale Cotswold gold. Although a wind worried the tops of the pine trees, it was a fine day; fortuitously so, for the house was set into a heavily wooded hill and the brick could appear damp in bad light, as if infected by the backdrop of dripping greenery.

“They’re here, Godfrey,” said Mrs. Jennett.

When there was no reply, she turned round to check on her husband, who was standing in front of the fireplace and shivering in spite of the blaze.

“I said they’re here. The Slaynes have arrived.”

Before his illness he’d been a plump, jovial man with a high color and a saloon bar laugh. Now debilitated by a series of strokes, he had lost so much weight she’d replaced his wardrobe. In his magenta sleeveless sweater, Viyella shirt, blue corduroy trousers and burgundy slippers, he had the pampered appearance of a child dressed up by an overprotective mother.

The couple outside were older than expected. With his pallid, heavily lined face and wrinkled neck, the man must have been in his late fifties. His hair, which he wore slightly too long to fit with a conventional suit and tie, was dark and shiny enough to belong to an altogether different race, perhaps from the Indian sub-continent.

“Mr. Slayne. And my wife … Mrs. Slayne. I believe we are expected.”

“Of course, of course. I’m so sorry. Please come in.” Mrs. Jennett realized she must have been standing there, a picture of blankness. No doubt it was their appearance that had distracted her. The dowdiness of their dress and Mrs. Slayne’s severe expression made them resemble members of a religious sect of a puritanical persuasion. Perhaps they would produce a selection of faith-improving tracts.

“Do come through,” she continued, ushering them into the sitting-room. “This is my husband, Godfrey. He has been unwell of late.”

Mr. Slayne gave a very slight nod, which suggested he was aware of this fact. For once the estate agents must have done what she had asked and warned prospective buyers of the state of Godfrey’s health. Mrs. Jennett was never sure whether to offer a cup of tea before or after the tour. Her Godfrey was very attached to the house; his eyes were more watery than ever and his lower lip was jutting out, petulant and trembling. She decided to show them around at once.

“The dining room is through here.”

To her surprise, neither of the Slaynes made a move to follow her. They were staring at the porcelain arranged on the shelves on either side of the fireplace.

“Collectibles,” said Mr. Slayne, in the manner of one who had spotted a tempting side-dish.

“Yes, I suppose you could say that — although I bought them because I like them. Are you interested in Staffordshire too?”

“Anything with a provenance. I always admire what’s passed through other hands, if you take my meaning.”

Mrs. Slayne picked up a porcelain King Charles spaniel, one of a pair, a typical piece in colors of cream and rust. She inspected it carefully, turning it first one way and then the other, before taking a couple of steps toward the window to view it in natural light.

“The dining room,” Mrs. Jennett reiterated, looking in the direction of Mrs. Slayne. “Or would you prefer to go upstairs first?”

Mrs. Slayne glanced up, but made no move to put back the Staffordshire dog. The lenses in the frames of her large glasses were so thick that the eyes behind them blurred like oysters in brine.

“The nights are drawing in. If there is a view, perhaps it would be best to go upstairs first,” said Mr. Slayne.

It was hours before dusk, but Mrs. Jennett assented at once. After giving the Staffordshire dog a final inspection, Mrs. Slayne placed it, not on the shelf from which she taken it, but on top of a small side table near the door, as if reserving it for further consideration.

“The staircase is difficult for my husband. It’s the main reason we decided to sell. It’s rather steep, I’m afraid.” She lost sight of the Slaynes as the stairs twisted up to the attic bedrooms. “But we love living here,” she added with some emphasis.

… so fragile. We’ll have to be careful when we pack.

The voice was not identifiable. Mrs. Jennett realized she had not heard Mrs. Slayne speak. At last they assembled on the top landing. The ceiling was low and the carpet worn.

“I’m sorry … I didn’t quite catch … did your wife say something?”

“My wife?” said Mr. Slayne, as if denying the existence of the woman standing next to him.

“Never mind. This is the one part of the house that hasn’t been recently renovated. It was the servants’ quarters, I believe.”

The remainder of the tour was brisker than Mrs. Jennett had anticipated. The Slaynes asked no questions, though the husband examined the windows of every room they entered, apparently to assess ease of ingress rather than to admire the view; his wife contented herself with glancing at the ornaments on bedside tables and mantelpieces.

They returned to the sitting-room to find her Godfrey had not moved from his position on the carpet. His once fleshy face was dough-like, although the broken capillaries suggested former self-indulgence.

“Would you like a cup of tea?”

“Thank you, yes,” said Mr. Slayne; “we have a long journey ahead of us.”

“Godfrey, you couldn’t possibly do the honors?”

But there was something wrong with her husband. It was improbable that he’d suffered another of his mini-strokes since he was still standing; however, he had clearly been crying and would do so again if asked to perform anything out of the ordinary.

“Excuse me,” she said. “It won’t take me long.”

By the time Mrs. Jennett came back, Mrs. Slayne was once again holding the Staffordshire dog; her husband, standing on a Windsor chair, was reaching up to the top shelf to examine a Toby jug: a roly-poly, archetypal Englishman with a rubicund face and a rictus. Mrs. Jennett put down the tray so that the cutlery jangled.

“Do you like Toby jugs?” she asked, adding milk and sugar as required. “I must confess I’ve never been quite sure about them. I inherited that one from my uncle.”

“Whatever has been used or broken is of interest to us,” said Mr. Slayne.

“Do you restore china?”

From behind her came a ringing noise, as though a tuning-fork had been struck. She turned round to see Mrs. Slayne holding the Staffordshire dog to her ear as if it were a conch.

“She can hear what’s cracked,” said Mr. Slayne.

“Indeed? I can’t say that’s a technique I’ve come across before.”

After the Slaynes had gone, her husband helped with the washing-up. He was at his best if she could persuade him to concentrate on some small task. To limit breakages, she gave him the job of drying the cutlery. Now that their visitors had left he was calmer, but as he stood next to her, dish cloth in hand, he seemed smaller. Well, people do shrink as they get older, she told herself as she put away the last of the cups. Outside, the forest floor darkened under an increase of leaves. Deep in her unconscious, she knew the canopy was growing, spreading across the county.

• • •

At six o’ clock Mrs. Jennett poured herself a glass of sherry. Her Godfrey was sitting in the armchair she had drawn up to the fire. A folded newspaper lay on his lap.

“We won’t be hearing from those two again.”

Her husband’s mouth opened in distress as he struggled to understand the implications of what she had said.

“Don’t look so upset, Godfrey. I’m merely trying to tell you we will not be selling the house to the couple who came round today. The Slaynes. I don’t think they were interested; but even if they were, I wouldn’t do business with such people. There was something about them I didn’t like.”

They were implausible prospective buyers, she thought; indeed, they’d been more interested in the porcelain than the property they had come to view. Were they antique dealers? Their dress sense was unlike that of the flamboyant members of that fraternity. Or was it possible they were criminals? She remembered how Mr. Slayne had scrutinized every other window frame. With their look of belonging to a crackpot cult, some sort of extreme evangelical outfit, they didn’t appear equipped for lives of breaking and entering. Were they passing on information to professionals? It would be as well to lock up with great care.

It was dark when she heard a vehicle grate and rasp up the potholed gravel drive. This was followed by the slow crunch of careful parking, the sounds of car doors being slammed and voices. The bell rang, its note somehow harsher, more obdurate than during the day. Mrs. Jennett got up and opened the front door to find the Slaynes, so close to the threshold it appeared they were about to push their way in uninvited. Behind them the night forest shivered.

“Yes?” Mrs. Jennett said, folding her arms and planting her legs further apart than was dignified. For a second, they shrank into themselves.

“We’re sorry to disturb you,” said Mr. Slayne, “but when we reached the town we realized there are one or two details we need to check before we decide to make an offer. Our journey is a long one and rather than come back another day we’ve returned this evening.”

“The estate agents were told to make it clear that viewing is by appointment only. My husband is a sick man and needs to be forewarned of any visitors.”

“We were hoping you might view our arrival as an extension of the original appointment. We won’t take long.”

“No, I’m sorry. This is completely unwarranted. It’s a pity you’ve seen fit to return from the town, but you might at least have had the courtesy to ring before coming back.”

“There’s no chain,” he said.

“What?” For a moment, she had a vision of glittering links dissolving — before grasping his mundane meaning.

“We don’t have to sell our property. We’re cash buyers.”

Perhaps it would be simplest to let them in for five minutes. Of course, if they really were in a position to make an unconditional offer …

“What do you want to know?”

“We need to check a few dimensions.”

She considered them; they were in less of a hurry now. “Very well, you may come in for five minutes. But you are not on any account to disturb my husband.”

In the sitting room, Godfrey was asleep, his cream and rotting-strawberry complexion glazed by the dying fire.

“You wouldn’t have a copy of a structural survey of the house to hand?” asked Mr. Slayne.

“Well, yes,” she whispered, shepherding them through to the dining room. “But it was done a very long time ago.”

“I’m sure it will have most of the information we need.”

She knew exactly where it was: in the bottom drawer of the desk in the study. She’d come across it only the other day when searching for Godfrey’s will.

“You stay here,” she said. “I’ll get it.”

When she was only halfway down the corridor, she turned back. They had left the dining room. Mrs. Slayne was in the sitting room and kneeling down beside Godfrey. Her left ear was held to his wrist; preposterously she appeared to be listening to his pulse. Mr. Slayne was holding a tape measure, the other end of which had been placed under the heel of Godfrey’s shoe. He was speaking to his wife in low tones. It sounded like, “The timber we’ll have to …

“Just get out,” said Mrs. Jennett. “Leave right now. This minute.”

For once, there was no demurral. As soon as she heard the front door bang shut, she knelt down next to her Godfrey. He was asleep and must have been oblivious to the entire unsavory and inexplicable episode. She felt his forehead; it was firmer and yet smoother to the touch, as if a fine film of perspiration had solidified. In spite of being close to the fire, his skin was cold like an object. His chest, however, rose and fell to the rhythm of his breathing. Nevertheless, she left a message on the doctors’ answering machine.

• • •

The next morning Godfrey was late down for breakfast. Perhaps it was best to let him sleep in for another half an hour. She would ring the estate agency. Although she was convinced no offer for the house would be forthcoming, especially after the previous evening’s scene, she would remind them that the poor state of her husband’s health made it imperative that obvious time-wasters, such as the Slaynes, were refused appointments to view. A woman with a cut-glass accent answered the phone.

“It’s Mrs. Jennet. I’m ringing to say the couple you sent to us yesterday, the Slaynes, were unsuitable. They had no intention of buying this house or, I suspect, any other property, and their behaviour was discourteous in the extreme.”

“The Slaynes?”

“That’s correct?”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Jennett. We didn’t make an appointment for anyone of that name. In fact, I don’t think there has been a request to view your property for several weeks.”

“But a man from your office phoned. He said a couple called the Slaynes were visiting the area and wanted to look around.”

“Did you recognize his voice?”

The voice had been distant and the line bad. “No, I suppose not.”

“Well, did he give a name?”

“No, but he said he was from your office.”

“Mrs. Jennett, this is not to do with us. Have you put the house on another agency’s books? I’ll ask around here if you like, but there’s nothing in our diary.”

“That won’t be necessary. Thank you for your help.”

She put the phone down. With every minute, it was becoming more apparent that the Slaynes were either crooks or lunatics.

Just as she placed her foot on the staircase the front door bell rang, the sound less minatory in the daylight. The doctor. She hurried into the hall.

“Good morning. Mrs. Jennett? I’ve come to see your husband.”

It was a doctor she’d had never seen before. He was tall, wore a dark three-piece suit and carried an old-fashioned leather medical bag. His hair had been dyed black.

“I don’t think we’ve met…”

“Dr Nayless. I’m filling in for your regular physician. How is Mr. Jennett this morning?”

Already Dr Nayless was in the house and striding toward the staircase.

“No, I was letting him have …”

She was taking two stairs at a time to keep up with him. “Second door on the left,” she shouted as his heels disappeared round the first bend in the staircase. By the time she reached Godfrey’s bedroom, the doctor was bending over her husband.

“Um ... I think it will be easier if I prop him up on the pillow.”

The doctor put his hands under Godfrey’s arms and lifted him up. Her husband looked smaller than ever — as if he were moving toward lightness and the convenience of greater portability.

“When was the last time he said anything?” asked the doctor.

It was true Godfrey was becoming more taciturn day by day. But had he said anything at all since the Slaynes arrived? There had been a few grunts when she asked how he was feeling, but nothing more.

“About this time yesterday. He asked for …”

Godfrey began to cough. Thin cracks like pencil lines began to appear on the shiny surface of his cheeks. His skin had a delicate, lacquered appearance.

“Could you please fetch a glass of water and another pillow,” said the doctor.

Although she could not have been away from the bedside for more than a few minutes, on her return there was no sign of either her husband or the doctor. She rushed to the window, expecting to see a car turning off the drive in the direction of the hospital. But all was still. Not even a wisp of exhaust smoke. Then incredulity turned to fear: a cold frisson on the spine; sweat on her neck and palms. Rocking and nauseous, she stretched out an arm. But a minute later she’d straightened herself. She marshalled her thoughts: Don’t panic — it doesn’t suit you; deal with this matter methodically, Mrs. Jennett!

She searched every room at least twice. Nothing, apart from one sheet of torn bubble wrap near her husband’s bed. Later, when she was in the sitting room, a sudden change in the angle of the light filled the space about her with dancing dust. A glimmer on the top shelf. She stood up and walked toward it. The smiling Toby jug resembled her husband’s face, but the beefsteak cheeks were red with the rude vitality he’d enjoyed in the early days of their marriage; the stomach as plump as when he’d been in his pomp at the local pub; and the eyes, no longer watery, were filled with jovial devilry. Then the light dimmed and the jug’s cold glaze lost its aura of animation.

She rang the surgery, only to have another version of an exchange that had already taken place. Later, in the disused workshop at the back of the house, she found traces of powdery porcelain, curls of wood shavings and a little sawdust. A burgundy-colored slipper lay by the door. There was a sweet smell of super glue and a sense of old surfaces broken and then re-aligned.

• • •

Half an hour after Mrs. Jennett had phoned the station, a policeman was standing in her drive. She was waiting by the window with the intention of examining him unobserved. It was odd there was no patrol car parked nearby. Behind him lay the forest, its floor shadowy with ferns and secrets, even the upper branches submerged in green light. The few pathways were long buried beneath docks and thistles, and yet for an instant she thought he must have walked out of that place, bringing the laws of the undergrowth with him. Although he was not in uniform, it was obvious he was on the force from the angle of his dark hat, black boots and a rock-gray raincoat with the collar up, even though there was no wind to shake the trees and the one cloud was motionless, as if pasted onto a blue backdrop. To her irritation, the officer was making no move toward the front door; instead, he was gazing up at the house. Mrs. Jennett found herself entertaining the ludicrous notion he was waiting for a minute adjustment to the quality of the light that would pick out the gold in the stone facade.

With an irritable sigh, she put on her jersey and then went to the front door. By the time she opened it, the man was on the doorstep.

“Ah, you must be …”

“Sergeant Lansey, madam.”

Lansey? And before him … Nayless and the Slaynes. A connection surely? But one that wasn’t immediately apparent. There was no time to think about that now. “Please do come in. I’ve been so worried. My husband has vanished. A very strange couple came to the door and then a doctor …”

“Two men and a woman. They’re known to be working in the area.”

“I’m so glad you’re on to them already. Do you expect to have them in custody soon?”

“Custody? No. There’s something about them that resists apprehension, if you take my meaning.”

“I’m not at all sure that I do.”

Sergeant Lansey was sitting in the chair by the fire and glancing around the room. “A nice collection, you have here, Mrs. Jennett. Every object perfectly positioned if I may say so.”

“I can’t see the point of that observation. A man, my Godfrey, has been kidnapped by people who are, on your own admission, known criminals …”

“What happened to your Godfrey is immaterial.”

“Well, it isn’t to me, I can tell you.”

“You mistake the sense of the word, Mrs. Jennett. He was weighed and measured, so I’m told. His condition assessed most professionally. What with all that time and space wearing him down, he’d started to crack up. He couldn’t stay here.”

“Are you trying to tell me he’s dead?”

“One way of thinking of it is that your husband is like a cat that has just taken up residence next door. Not that you’ll see him around as he was.”

“I can’t say I find that even very slightly helpful, sergeant. Will you please give me your word that you will do everything in your power to find my Godfrey?”

“Sorry. Not sensible.”

“How can you say that? A man has disappeared and …”

“Exactly. They’re short staffed down at the station and, if you’ll forgive me Mrs. Jennett, there’s no point in searching for what’s no longer perceptible. That’s where I come in.” He paused and looked out of the window, as if waiting for a breeze’s signal in the top branches: a gesture from a station in the forest, a source of ethereal information. Then satisfied, he turned back to her: “I’ll tell you one thing; if he does come back in any shape or form and we find him, we’ll pop him over to you right away. He’ll still be fragile but much easier to handle.”

A month later she found a small wooden box on the kitchen table. Inside, carefully wrapped in tissue paper, was a flawless white plate. On one side was the figure of her Godfrey; he was slim, his hair gilded the colour of Welsh gold; a young man served to her, painted in his prime. She turned it over; there was no stamp or mark. Yet she was sure it was not Meissen but fine bone china, made in part from the powder of ox, animals that had once moved in lush fields and chewed grass. She took it outside and raised it to the sun; it glowed celestially white all around the figure; slowly, testing the translucence, she passed one hand behind the plate until she saw a powerless shadow. When she went back in, she put the plate on a shelf that was in easy reach, where it could be dusted every day.

Charles Wilkinson’s publications include The Pain Tree and Other Stories (London Magazine Editions, 2000). His stories have appeared in Best Short Stories 1990 (Heinemann), Best English Short Stories 2 (W.W. Norton, USA), Unthology (Unthank Books), Best British Short Stories 2015 (Salt) and in genre magazines/ anthologies such as Supernatural Tales, Horror Without Victims (Megazanthus Press), The Dark Lane Anthology, Rustblind and Silverbright ( Eibonvale Press), Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, Phantom Drift (USA), Bourbon Penn (USA), Shadows & Tall Trees (Canada), Nightscript (USA) and Best Weird Fiction 2015 (Undertow Books, Canada). Ag & Au, a pamphlet of poems, appeared from Flarestack in 2013. His collection of strange tales and weird fiction, A Twist in the Eye, has just come out from Egaeus Press.