It was a dull claustrophobic December day and flakes of grey-white snow were settling on the terrace behind King’s Antiquarian Booksellers. Maggie Swann, matriarch of Swann’s Rare Books, crossed it to enter an annex. Inside, in eerie silence, anonymous leather-bound volumes filled dusty bookcases.
At the back was a steel cabinet, housing rows of ancient books, bound variously in leather, suede and vellum, standing incongruously on grey metal shelves. Maggie caressed cotton-rich paper, hundreds of years old, admiring the lettering, still fresh-looking, in rich black and deep red. The books were mainly in Latin, which she left to Sammy, her bearded expert on incunabula.
Glancing around, she took a speckled brown leather volume from her handbag. Removing an almost identical book from a low shelf, she secreted it, replacing it with the substitute. She smiled. The difference was slight and it could be many months before the subterfuge was discovered. Who would know which of the visitors to the annex was responsible? In the meantime she had a customer, rich and discrete, desirous for the particular edition just removed.
Selecting two books, she returned to the main shop to pay and talk with Sarah King, the owner.
A week later she received a phone call. “Hello Maggie, it’s Sarah, King’s Books.”
“Hello Sarah, what can I do for you?”
“Maggie, I need a little favour in return for that psalter you took last week!”
Oh God! “Sorry, I haven’t a clue what you’re talking about!”
“It’s OK Maggie, the prof isn’t as discrete as you think. I know you took it for a fact!”
“Look Maggie, no-one else knows. I’m willing to overlook it, I just want to ask a little favour in return.”
“Well, I’m not admitting it, but what would that be?”
“I want you to come to a Christmas ball with me at the Grosvenor next Thursday. It’s in aid of Otter Protection.”
“Well maybe, but don’t expect me to dance with you!” She forced a laugh.
“That’s just it Maggie, I DO want you to dance with me!”
“Women dancing together at the Grosvenor? They wouldn’t allow it!”
“No, I want you to come in drag. Then all’s forgiven and we’re as before.”
“Bloody hell, Sarah!”
“Look, I’ve a friend in Soho, she has a theatrical supplies shop, they’ll do you up a treat. You’ll make a lovely companion, better than a Chippendale!”
Seeing no alternative, save the ruin of her business, Maggie reluctantly agreed to become Roger.
The following Thursday ‘Roger’ found herself seated at a sumptuous table in a crowded suite at the Grosvenor. An enormous Christmas tree, covered in twinkling golden lights stood at one end.
The band stopped playing and HRH Princess Brian of Carmarthen appeared on stage to huge applause. Behind her, images of playful furry otters were projected as she began an impassioned speech, bemoaning the widening and dredging of rivers, depriving them of their habitat.
One of Sarah’s companions spoke sotto voce. “Surely it’s dredging that stops flooding?”
“Don’t be annoying Harold!” snapped his bespectacled wife.
“Don’t be annoying Harold!” snapped his bespectacled wife.
Maggie cast her mind back to the theatre shop, visited just hours before. An old woman with garish lipstick, secreted just inside the door, greeted her – “Oh you want Maurice!”
Maggie proceeded through a maze of rooms, packed with the most amazing costumes and props. Finally reaching a door labelled ‘Make Up’ she knocked, emboldened by the exciting strangeness of the place. “Come in Ducky!” a high-pitched voice called.
Unsure if ‘Maurice’ was male or female, he/she nevertheless did as promised. Maggie left, wearing a smart tuxedo, her chest pressed almost flat, sporting a neat black moustache and her long chestnut hair cropped and coloured black. She even had a strategically placed ‘lump’ in her trousers. For once she was grateful for her husky voice.
The speech thankfully over, they took to the floor. “Just remember, do the man’s steps!” Sarah whispered. The dance-floor was crowded and Maggie enjoyed the feeling of Sarah’s body against hers.
They returned to the table, exhilarated. Suddenly Maggie’s world collapsed. Her daughter-in-law Freda was approaching! Apparently Harold was a mutual friend. Freda, slim and blonde smiled hellos at the company. Maggie tried to avoid Freda’s eye as the latter seated herself.
“Freda, this is Sarah and her, ah, partner Roger…” said Harold. Maggie’s stomach lurched, fearing exposure. To her surprise though, Freda appeared unsuspecting.
Sarah excused herself to visit the bathroom and Maggie suddenly found herself facing Freda.
“What do you do Roger?”
“Oh, I’m in the book trade” – Oops!
“Oh, my mother-in-law’s in books, Maggie Swann, d’you know her?”
Freda quaffed wine and giggled, “Sorry Roger, you remind me a bit of the old cow!”
Maggie bit her lip. “Oh, and what do you do, sorry, Freda is it?”
“Yes. Oh, I own a restaurant in Camden.”
‘You bloody liar!’ thought Maggie, ‘You just work behind the bar!’ “That sounds interesting…”
Suddenly everyone returned to the table and Freda got up to leave. The band struck up again, stifling conversation. Freda scribbled on a card and passed it to Maggie.
“Roger, come!” said Sarah, and Maggie, pocketing it, proceeded, not-unwillingly, onto the dance-floor again.
Maggie awoke at mid-morning the following day, head throbbing. She looked in the mirror and reeled. What in God’s name had Maurice done to her hair?! She’d have to return the tuxedo too later, damn it!
Several hours passed and, about to return the tuxedo, she checked the pockets, fishing out a card. On it was scribbled a note followed by a familiar mobile number. ’I like you Roger, let’s meet, we can have fun! Freda xxx’. ‘Bloody Hell!’ thought Maggie, her sympathies with son, John.
Suddenly she remembered she had complementary tickets for the New Year Masquerade Ball at Tobacco Dock. Hmm, surely it wouldn’t do any harm to dress as Roger just once more, and, after all, Freda wasn’t bad looking.
Featured in the book, To Cut a Short Story Short: 111 Little Stories
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