The boy hesitated, a wild lost figure in the silence of the London Square. They were all against him, these tall remote houses with their sense of order and permanence. He came from the outside, from the dark and cold which was not allowed to disturb the peace of those lighted rooms and the people who lived graciously behind them. From a world where a penny Oxo cube with bread might be supper, and a pennyworth of chips and a tuppeny slice of fried fish a banquet.
The boy consulted a scrap of paper underneath a gas lamp, and then ran forward, driven by a concern greater than his fear of intrusion. He lifted the brass knocker, then struck it twice against its metal base.
He stood shivering on the doorstep, feeling as out of place as a fish on a cloud. The boy wanted to run back into the all-enveloping black of the night but he was determined to pass on the message. Not just for the shiny shilling he hoped to be paid – a veritable fortune – but out of respect for his friend and mentor, Kezia.
The door opened and a man in a black uniform with a white collar looked down at him. “Go away before I call the police.”
The boy felt emboldened. “Please, sir, can you give this to Mrs Duxford? It’s important.” He held up the scrap.
The butler, for so he was, took the crumpled piece of paper with curiosity, then perused it with rising annoyance. “Lamb chop! Are you out of your mind, lad?”
“Please, sir.” The boy hopped from one leg to the other, as if he needed the lavatory.
The butler was minded to tear the paper into tiny pieces and throw them into the gutter, but a part of his mind touched upon the idea that the words might mean something to the mistress, absurd as it seemed. If he failed to pass it on and she somehow heard about it, well then, he might even lose his job. “Wait,” he commanded, then closed the door in the boy’s face.
The boy bit his fingernails, what was left of them, anyway. Perhaps Kezia had got it wrong. Of course, that was it, it was all a huge, stupid mistake. He turned to run.
The door opened and the butler glared at him but in a different, softer way. “Would you, er, would you come in?”
In a lighted drawing room that looked to the boy like he imagined a room in a palace to be, sat a lady in a neat blue dress down to her calves, belted at her slim waist and with a bow underneath the collar. She dabbed an eye with a tissue and looked at him. “Where did you get this, my boy?”
The boy shifted awkwardly.
“You may sit.”
Hardly able to believe the luxury, he sat on a chair covered in smooth red leather. It barely shifted under his feather-like weight but felt firm and comfortable.
“From Mistress Kezia,” he exclaimed, wiping a runny nose on his sleeve.
The woman averted her eyes. “And who is she?”
“Well, she’s the woman what’s cared for me since I was a nipper. Taught me her ways, and right from wrong. She can see into the future, can Mistress Kezia. Says those words would mean something to a Mrs Duxford. Then she made enquiries and sent me here.”
Mrs Duxford coughed. “Well, why did she not come herself?”
“She’s not so well in herself, is Kezia. Aches and pains all over. Arthritis, she says.”
Just then, the butler entered with a tray of tea and sandwiches and cakes. The boy’s eyes almost popped out of his face.
“Well, young man, I will tell you that these words are significant. Very significant indeed. Now, before you tuck in, I will tell you why.”
Salivating, the boy sat on his hands.
“You see, I had a son. A fine son by the name of Hugh. Well, Hugh was interested in the other side of things, what some call the occult. Magic, life after death, and so forth. You understand?”
The boy nodded. “Mistress Kezia, she talks about spirits all the time. And talks to them too. She tells fortunes and reads the cards, them Tarot cards. That’s what pays the bills.”
The woman sighed. “Well, Hugh told me that if he were to die, then he would communicate these words – lamb chop – to me of proof he was still alive. Alive in the world of spirit. The real world, some even believe. He died three years ago from pneumonia.” Mrs Duxford dabbed an eye once more. “So, you see, your mistress must have communicated with Hugh. For some reason, his soul came across the veil to her.”
“That is so, ma’am. The mistress mentioned the name, Hugh.”
Mrs Duxford let out a little gasp. “Look, I’m sure you are hungry. Please take tea … and sandwiches and cake, then you may reveal more.”
The boy didn’t need to be told twice.
Mrs Duxford watched as the boy wolfed down what she considered to be an enormous quantity of food. But then, she told herself, he lived in a world of scarcity, whereas, she admitted, she was fortunate to live in a world of plenty. And, by the looks of it, this Mistress Kezia, whoever she may be, had taught him precious few manners.
Finally, the boy settled back and let out a belch. “Oh, pardon me, ma’am.”
Mrs Duxford flinched.
“It’s just that we never had much in the way of food, like.”
“I understand. Now, what did you wish to tell me.”
The boy gathered his wits. “Well, the mistress, she said that Hugh had come to her at first in a dream, then at her crystal ball. She saw him clearly. He had curly blond hair and glasses. Glasses with a golden frame. Is that right, ma’am?’
Mrs Duxford nodded vigorously, without speaking.
“He said he’s watching over you, even moving pictures and photographs. One of you with your dad, that’s what Kezia said.”
To his surprise, Mrs Duxford laughed.
“Bless him. I wondered if I was going mad. Now it all makes sense. Thank you!”
The boy continued, “She said that Hugh, er, your son, said you should learn the piano. And that you need help in your kitchen.”
Mrs Duxford stood up. “Well, my boy, you are a good messenger, and your mistress is a great seer. Just this morning, I ordered a Steinway Baby Grand to arrive on Sunday! I also engaged the services of a most excellent teacher to start next week. What is your name, boy?”
The boy blushed. “It is Adam, ma’am.”
“Well, Adam, I do hope Mistress Kezia, as you call her, will be able to visit me, despite her ailments. As for our kitchen, well, we need a scullery lad with an eye to advancement.” She smiled and winked. “Would you, perchance, know of such a boy?”
- Please consider making a small donation to help towards the running costs of this site. It would be greatly appreciated.
- Don’t forget to check out some other stories on this blog. There are over 450!
- To purchase the stories on To Cut a Short Story Short up to December 2021 in paperback, Kindle, eBook, and audio-book form, and for news on new titles, please see Shop.