It could have been right out of one of my own sitcom scripts. I received a telephone call late one evening from an old lady, Miss Jean Sycamore, if you please. She was most insistent that I undertake some detective work for her. I tried to tell her that I was a TV comedy scriptwriter and not a detective, but she said she’d heard I’d written some episodes for Detecting the Detectives, a CID spoof, and being that I lived locally, she was prepared to pay me a handsome price to find a lost object.
So, the following morning I called round to her rambling country estate, Enderby Manor, where I was shown in by a crusty old butler who could have been acting in Toad of Toad Hall. “Madam, a Mr. Frederick Rossiter to see you,” he announced in a wheezing voice to a rake of a woman with a wild frizz of white hair.
She got up from a sofa and peered at me. “Mr. Rossiter? No, I don’t think I know such a fellow.”
“Look, Miss Sycamore, you phoned me last night. You told me you wanted me to find something for you. Something valuable I assume.”
The old woman looked perplexed. “Did I? Did I really?” She stood staring into space for what seemed an age, then her frail body shook all over, as if she’d been given an electric shock, and she suddenly smiled at me. “Mr. Rossiter, thank you so much for coming. That’ll be all Porterhouse. I do apologize, Mr. er, … I’m afraid my memory isn’t what it once was. Now, please take a seat. Porterhouse will get you a drink. Oh, sorry, I sent him away, didn’t I?”
I sat down. “Look it’s OK, I don’t need a drink. How may I help?”
“Well, you see, I’m looking for a mirror.”
Maybe I should have had that drink? “Well, they sell them all over the place. You could try Boots, you know.”
She made a gesture as if swatting a fly. “Oh, don’t be a rascal, I mean my mirror, a special mirror I’ve had since I was a girl. And that was a long time ago I may tell you!”
Well, seems this mirror was stolen in a burglary some months earlier, some jewelry and furs too. But Miss Sycamore shrugged her shoulders. “They can be replaced. And they were insured too.” She gave a falsetto giggle. “For a lot more than they were worth!”
But it was the mirror she particularly wanted back, a small hand mirror in the shape of a butterfly and with a minor defect in the handle, she told me. She offered me a thousand pounds, a reward I could sorely use, the TV writing lark having been sketchy at best of late. To look efficient, I took a list of the other stuff taken, a pretty impressive haul, for reference. In fact, a copy of one given to the police who had failed to recover any of the stolen property so far.
I made enquiries with an acquaintance of mine, a gypsy fellow by the name of Cullum who had his ear to the ground, and his one good eye on the constant lookout for anything that had ‘fallen off the back of a lorry.’ His other eye had been lost to a gamekeeper’s shotgun pellets.
Time passed and Cullum had nothing to report, and I’d almost given up on Miss Sycamore’s precious mirror when one weekend I noticed a sale of bric-a-brac at the local village hall and for no real reason decided to take a look.
I was pleased to find a good book stall where a wealth of paperbacks and the odd hardback were just twenty-five pence each or four for a pound. Well, that’s what the sign said. I found a few titles in the Penguin Play series, where a number of the plays were comedies from the sixties, always good to refer back to the ‘old masters’ I think, when comedies were actually funny and made you laugh.
I recognized old Oswald Farthing and his enormous wife, Bessie, who latched onto me, the latter insisting on describing at great length her method of making lemon curd. Just as I’d almost reached breaking point, I spotted something that quite took my breath away. There on the table, right behind her huge bottom, was a box of odds and ends, and blow me, right at the back, a mirror in the shape of a butterfly.
“Fred, are you OK?” Bessie was asking, but I only had eyes for the mirror. Picking it up, I noticed the characteristic bullet hole in the handle Jean Sycamore had described. I paid the very reasonable asking sum, excused myself from Bessie’s curd-making instructions, and made a bee line for Enderby Manor.
Porterhouse eyed me curiously and showed no sign of recognition as I explained who I was and why I was there. He ushered me into the lounge where Miss Sycamore sat on a sofa, staring into space. She looked right through me, as if I wasn’t there, then her eye fell on the handle of the mirror which was sticking out of my jacket pocket. A strange transformation came over her as I pulled it out. She jumped up and seemed to glow all over. “Oh, Mr. er … how wonderful of you to find my lovely mirror. I had this as a child, you know. I am so grateful to you. Look, Porterhouse will bring you some tea and biscuits, and I will show you photographs of when I was a little girl, holding this very mirror!”
Seeing her excitement, I felt loath to mention the reward but, well, needs must. “Er, Miss Sycamore, would it be possible to have the reward in cash, please?”
“Ah, the reward … yes … um.” She rummaged around in a box for a minute. “Ah, here it is!” She held up a photograph of a young woman dressed as a cowboy. “I don’t remember saying anything about a reward, dear. Look, this is me when I was eighteen. I performed in a rodeo show in South Dakota, can you believe!” She began to hum an old show tune as she looked in the mirror, holding the photograph against the glass and gazing at it lovingly.
Two hours later, I made my escape, somewhat shell-shocked by the arduous trip down memory lane. But there was one consolation. The lady who sold me the mirror had remembered where she’d bought it. From a ‘woman who looked like a gypsy.’ She’d had two young urchins in tow and a husband lurking in the background. A husband with one eye. Which would explain why Cullum had come up with nothing regarding the robbery. And, in fact, the insurance company were offering a hefty reward for information leading to the recovery of Miss Sycamore’s stolen jewelry and furs. I decided I didn’t owe Cullum any favours, so it looked like celebrations were on the horizon after all. And as for Miss Sycamore, well, she would serve nicely as the inspiration for ‘Calamity Jean,’ a character in my latest sitcom.
Taken from the book, Letters from Reuben and Other Stories: 40 Little Tales of Mirth, 146 pp. Dec 2021
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