By Arden Hunter
“Excuse me - mind if I sit here?”
Selwin looked up, irritated. He was sitting in the corner of a tiny tea-shop in Wistleworth village, soaked to the skin, with a broken waterlogged phone and in no mood to make idle conversation - not that he ever was in that mood. He glared at the stranger, barbs lined up and ready to go on his tongue, but…
The man looked at him apologetically. He had piercing blue eyes, and was wearing what Selwin thought of as the ‘country uniform’ - all tweeds and green canvas. This was probably why he looked slightly better off on the drowned-rat scale than Selwin did, but it was a close-run thing. He was also leaning rather heavily on a carved wooden walking stick.
Selwin frowned, reconsidered… gestured to the empty seat at the spindly table. The place was packed; peak district tourists having flooded in to escape the downpour, much as he had. It was one of those excruciatingly twee affairs, covered with bits and pieces of faded lace, mounted china plates, and random bits of Victoriana. Selwin wouldn’t usually be caught dead in such an establishment, but in his excitement at solving the case this morning he had dashed out of the inn into the summer heat, leaving his coat behind and stupidly assuming that the weather would hold.
The stranger settled himself on the wooden chair, gave him one curious glance, then started surveying the room. The little table was too small to get their legs under it, so they were both facing the hubbub of people. Selwin looked back at the scene again as well, wondering what the other was seeing. All he saw was the grubbiness of human nature.
There - three local old ladies, chattering about the scandal at the flower-arranging club, as unbeknownst to two of them the third had instigated the whole thing out of petty revenge. By the cake counter, an adulterous couple, calm facades cracking the more and more people tried to squeeze into the space and unknowingly behold their secret rendezvous. By the door, a group of American tourists, exclaiming loudly over how ‘quaint’ and ‘charming’ everything was. Their current focus was a set of cameo brooches - which even from his seat at the back of the room, Selwin could see were plastic fakes.
“Got caught out in it?” the stranger enquired. Selwin snapped his attention back to him, shifting in his seat awkwardly as his clothes were still clinging to his skin.
“Yes, obviously,” he snapped, but the man only chuckled. He had an open, kind face, but the more Selwin observed, the more his interest was reluctantly peaked.
“You aren’t from around here,” he said, then wondered at himself - he was not the type of person to engage in idle chatter, and definitely not with strangers.
“Why do you say that?” the man asked, still smiling.
“Your clothes - they smack of country living, but are of a more antiquated style than the residents in this county tend to sport. You obviously work outside, and forgive me but the faint odour around you tells me you work with cattle. There are no cattle farms in this vicinity, if I’m not mistaken.”
The stranger’s smile got, if possible, even wider.
“Amazing!” he said. He had been holding his stick off to one side, but now he maneuvered it so it was in front of him, resting both hands on the top and leaning forwards. “You’re right, I’m from the next village west of here. What else?”
“You… you want to hear more?” Selwin asked, incredulous but pleased. He tried to tamp it down.
“Oh, definitely! This is the most interesting conversation I’ve had in a long time.”
“Well… you are an amputee, and you need, if I may say so, an immediate upgrade to your prosthesis. It’s possible that are merely not the kind to spend extravagantly on himself - more likely, you are involved in some sort of financial dispute. Over land?”
“Hah! Right on the nose! Yes, I had been feuding with the neighboring landowner for quite some time - he was of the opinion that his land ran right down to the weir that divided the two plots. However, according to the deeds, an acre on the opposite side belonged to me as well... though the situation was ultimately resolved.” The man still did not seem perturbed at all, and Selwin felt compelled to continue the conversation. It had been a long time since anyone had wanted to listen to him for this long.
“Amazing,” the man said again, grinning, and Selwin smiled before he realized what he was doing. He tried to force his expression back to annoyed, but the effect was ruined as he was suddenly overcome with sneezing. He realized then that he was far colder than he had realized - and soaked to the bone still. Looking around the tearoom in embarrassment as he sneezed again into his elbow, he realised no-one else was in quite the state he was. In fact, some had removed their jumpers and were acting like it was warm in there.
He looked back at his companion, who was watching him sympathetically. “Best to dry off, before you catch your death,” he said, tone concerned.
“I’ll be fine,” Selwin said, and the man nodded, though obviously unconvinced. Selwin looked a little closer, then. While the man was quite damp, he was nowhere near as badly off as Selwin. His silver-blonde hair hung close to his head, but wasn’t still dripping as Selwin’s was. The man who owned the tearoom had been aghast at the state of Selwin while ignoring the other man entirely - probably because he wasn’t leaving his own puddle to spread over the floor. The hair was cut unevenly - quite a bit shorter on one side than the other.
“You’re barely damp,” Selwin commented, frowning. There weren’t any buildings around, that was how he had gotten so soaked while walking between the crime scene and his inn. “How…”
“I’ve had longer to dry off,” the man said with a chuckle. “Sorry, what’s your name?”
Selwin blinked at him.
“...Selwin,” he said, trying to remember the last time anyone had asked. “And you?”
“Eric Williams,” he said, smiling again. Selwin wondered if he should shake his hand, but Eric’s remained firmly on the top of his walking stick. “It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Selwin.”
“It is?” Selwin blurted before he could stop himself. He fancied that the blush rising in his cheeks was causing all the rainwater to turn into clouds of steam around him.
“Absolutely,” Eric said, tapping his stick on the floor to punctuate his statement. “I don’t get to talk to a lot of people.”
“Oh? Why is that?”
“Oh, you know,” said Eric airily, gaze wandering around the crowded little place. “I’m not usually noticed… what do you think of this place?”
“Oh… I… it’s… fine,” Selwin stammered, thrown by the abrupt topic change.
Eric laughed, and it was a warm, friendly sound. Selwin found himself smiling again, a foreign feeling, especially doing it so much in one day.
“You’re a terrible liar,” said Eric, and there was something almost affectionate in his tone.
Selwin wondered if telling Eric that he frequently lied and pretended to be other people was going to play to his favor or not… then wondered why he cared what this man thought of him.
“OK, it’s awful,” Selwin said, and Eric laughed harder. Selwin started to laugh too, feeling a little punch-drunk, but then a shudder went through his body as the cold seemed to close in once again.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Eric said, smile dropping from his face. “I keep forgetting you’re cold… well, Selwin, there are some things in this place worth looking at. It’s not all fake.”
Selwin frowned, confused.
“You mean… the plates, jewelry…”
“Yes,” Eric agreed, nodding earnestly. “A lot of it is junkstore crap, but a few of these trinkets… they hold some real value.”
There was an uptick in the general chatter, and Selwin’s eyes flicked to the other patrons. Apparently the rain had finally stopped, and many were getting ready to depart with their respective groups. He felt a sudden pang, even as the warm air rolled in from the now-open doors, and a strong compulsion to stay with the stranger a while longer.
He stared at the empty chair. Raised his head, looked towards the door, where the people were still crowding out - but no Eric Williams, and no way he could have gotten past them. He glanced towards the counter, craned his neck to see if there was a way out there - no.
But that wasn’t possible...
He jumped up from his chair, slipping slightly on the water on the floor, stared at the completely dry area around Eric’s seat. Took the two steps to the counter.
“Can I help you sir?” asked the owner.
“The man - the man who was sitting there, with me - where did he go?”
“The man! The man - Eric Williams - he was sitting right there, talking to me. You must have seen him.”
The man behind the counter looked a bit worried.
“Sorry sir. I saw you sitting there, waiting out the storm, but I didn’t see anyone sitting with you.”
Selwin glared at him, running out of patience.
“If I was sitting there alone, then who was I talking to?”
“I… sir, you weren’t talking. You… I actually thought you were meditating or something like that. You were just… sitting.”
“What?!” Selwin put both hands on the glass counter. “Are you seriously telling me you saw no one?”
“Yes, sir,” said the man, then swallowed and plastered on what he probably thought was a good customer service face. “Can I… can I get you something, to take with you? We have the cakes here, or maybe a souvenir?”
Selwin glanced down into the display, confused and starting to get a headache. He was feeling much warmer now, and wished something would start making sense.
“No, I don’t want a bloody cake, or…”
He stopped, stared.
There were strings of plastic pearls, paste gems, useless miniature figurines, plastic brooches and other assorted trinkets - all strewn around cakes and biscuits to presumably give the effect that this tearoom was from another time. But one of the brooches…
“Wait,” he said, looking back at the man who now appeared less than friendly. “I’m sorry,” Selwin blurted. “That… that brooch, there. Can I look at it?”
There was definitely some attitude now as the man pulled the brooch out and handed it to Selwin to inspect, but Selwin was well-used to that, and ignored it easily.
This was not a fake. The brooch was rectangular, with an outer ring of garnets and an inner ring of real seed pearls. In the center, there was an intricate woven design - made of hair.
Made of silver-blond hair.
“How much is this?” Selwin found himself asking, unable to take his eyes off of it.
“Ah yes, good eye,” the owner said, begrudgingly. “A genuine Victorian mourning pin. That’s real hair, you know.”
“Yes, I am aware,” said Selwin, coming back to himself and levelling the man with a withering look. “I asked how much it was?”
A few minutes later and he was standing in the afternoon sunshine outside the shop, brooch clutched in his hand, at a loss of what to do next.
“Alright Ethel,” came a voice behind him. The three old ladies were slowly exiting the tearoom. “You just let us know that you got home safely.”
Selwin turned, regarded them thoughtfully.
“Excuse me,” he asked, attempting to put on his most courteous smile and realizing what a state he must look, slowly drying out in the sunshine. “But you’re from around here?”
“Oh hello!” said one of the women amiably. “Well, Doris and I are from the village, but Ethel here is from the next village over.”
“West?” Selwin asked quickly.
“Yes, that’s right.”
“How are you getting there?”
In short order, he found himself accompanying Ethel on her bus ride home. She was a chatty, friendly sort, in general content to go on and on extolling the virtues and transgressions of her various grandchildren. Selwin clung onto his patience almost as tightly as he clung onto the brooch in his hand.
“And what takes you to our village?” Ethel asked after some time. “Chasing after a young lady?”
“Ah,” said Ethel knowingly, and gave him a wink. “A young man, then.”
Selwin gaped at her, and she laughed - it sounded quite the naughty laugh for a woman of her age.
“Not… not young,” Selwin stammered, wondering where all his usual poise had gone.
“Tell me about him,” Ethel asked kindly.
“I… well, he’s… I’m not sure, mid forties. Silver-blond hair,” and for the hundredth time he checked he was still holding the brooch. “Served in the military, only has one leg, walks with a limp.”
Ethel was frowning.
“Doesn’t sound like anyone I know dear,” she said. “What’s his name?”
“Williams…” Ethel mused. “Well, there’s Rosalie Williams. She owns the big dairy farm…”
“He said he worked with cattle,” Selwin said, perking up.
“Alright, but she’s around my age, dear,” Ethel said, patting his hand. “She hires people to take care of everything - it’s not good for her to be traipsing over that land, with the river and the weir and all.”
Selwin suddenly felt cold again.
“Hmm, yes. Been a few poor souls lost to that weir. It looks a safe enough way to get across, you see, but it’s slippery and the water is fast and deep. There are a few sad stories about that weir.”
Ethel continued explaining about village life, but Selwin was barely listening. Once they arrived, Ethel nudged him off the bus, pointing back down the road the way they had come.
“If you want to go to the Williams farm, go back 5 minutes, turn left, and you’ll see it. Are you going to be alright?”
“Yes, fine,” Selwin said, forcing his face into a smile. He wasn’t fine, didn’t even know what he was doing out here, miles from his room at the inn and his hot shower and soft bed. He nodded goodbye to Ethel, and set off back up the road.
Soon enough he was walking down a much narrower lane. He could see a large farmhouse with extensive outbuildings on the horizon, and had just started thinking about what he could possibly say to the woman who lived there, when…
Water. The sound of running water.
The road became a small bridge, crossing the babbling river as it tumbled over stones only a few feet below. To the left, towards the house, the river seemed narrow but overgrown and difficult to cross. To the right, it widened, and the land became more scrub-like.
Selwin got off the road, and started to follow it right. He walked and walked, head devoid of thoughts, though he felt very purposeful in his actions. It was like his body knew where it was going, and he didn’t need to give much input on the matter. At length, he found himself staring across a wide expanse of water on two levels. Above, it appeared limpid and calm. Below, thunderous and dangerous, a low weir in between the two.
“So, what do you think?” Eric asked. He was standing next to Selwin, leaning on his stick, staring out into the water.
Selwin was not afraid. He thought that perhaps he should be, but Eric just seemed so familiar, it was impossible to do so. He did however feel the chill again, though it was not as bad as earlier.
“I think the landowner next to yours lured you down here somehow, perhaps asking for a reconciliation, or even an inspection of the deeds and land borders. I think he managed to pull you out onto the weir. I think he pushed you in. I think he pushed you into the water, and I think you drowned.”
“Oh, well done!” Eric cried, delighted, as though Selwin had merely deduced another normal everyday detail about him. “You really are very good at this, you know.”
“I’m a criminal barrister,” Selwin said, fully turning to look at the apparition at last. He looked far less solid now than he had in the tearoom - Selwin could see the line of the horizon where it crossed over his torso. “But I’ve never been consulted by the murder victim before.”
“Ah, yes, sorry about that,” Eric said, but he didn’t appear or sound very sorry. He was smiling at Selwin again, but now that smile was making Selwin sad. “I couldn’t help trying - you are one of the very few people who has come into the tearoom and actually seen what was in front of them. Most people go their whole lives without doing that.”
Selwin didn’t know what to say to that.
“It was my daughter, you know,” Eric said, turning away again to stare at the rumbling water. “When they had found my body, ruled it an accident - she refused to believe it. Knew I wouldn’t be so stupid to go out there, with my leg and all. Very smart girl. It never went anywhere though. She’s the one who commissioned the mourning trinket that you’re carrying.”
Selwin uncurled his palm. The edges of the brooch had caused indents to appear in his skin.
“‘Course, she didn’t know I’d end up connected to the blasted thing,” Eric said, and again his words were harsh but his tone jovial. “Been haunting that tearoom for what seems like an age.”
Selwin traced the tip of one finger over the fragile hair in the centre of the brooch. He looked up at Eric, who looked back, eyes soft.
“Thank you for bringing me out of there,” Eric said quietly. Selwin felt a sudden lump in his throat, tried to blink it away.
“What… what happens now?” he asked. “I can tell the police, but without any evidence…”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” said Eric briskly. “The bastard is long dead anyway. No, best to leave that be. As for what happens now… I suppose you could chuck that ugly thing into the river...”
Selwin’s hand tightened around it again convulsively.
“Or?” Selwin demanded, unable to disguise the hope in his voice.
“You said you’re a criminal barrister?”
“Sounds like a man who could use some backup,” Eric mused, voice a little sly.
“You… you mean…”
“You live in London, I’m guessing? Never been to London.”
“You… what? Never?” Selwin said, for some reason hooked on this piece of information.
“Not a lot of call for invalid ex-soldiers in London in my day,” said Eric, laughing.
“When was that?” Selwin asked, head spinning.
“Oh, I died in… must have been eighteen ninety three. What year is it now?”
“Twenty twenty-one,” Selwin said, faintly. This did not appear to put Eric off.
“Is it really?” he crowed, delighted. “What marvels you must have!”
“Well… yes, I suppose…”
“Look, Selwin,” Eric said, tone suddenly serious. “I know that this is a lot to ask. Too much, probably… but I always felt like I was living someone else’s life. Like there was something else I was supposed to be doing.”
He stepped towards Selwin, and that familiar chill swept over him again, though now it was refreshing rather than unpleasant.
“But,” Eric continued, “If you want to just throw that brooch into the water and be done with this, I wouldn’t blame you. I didn’t have a bad life, and I’m sure whatever comes next will be another kind of adventure. I leave it up to you.”
Selwin stared at him, then out into the water. Looked down at the brooch in his hand, the silver-blond strands secured there, still gleaming after all this time.
“Oh good, you’re back. Post is here,” said Phillip, his secretary, wandering in and over to the filing cabinets.
“Thank you,” Selwin said absently, still absorbed in the emails he had missed on his laptop.
“There are some late bills in here, Selwin,” he said, tone chiding as he put them down. “Make sure you pay those this week.”
“Oh, what’s this?”
Selwin looked up, and saw Phillip holding the little mourning brooch. He had found it a place on the shelves next to the bird skull, the perfume bottle, and other assorted knick knacks.
Pride of place, really.
“Oh,” he said, feigning nonchalance. “Just a trinket, really. Another souvenir.”
“A bit macabre,” Phillip said, eyeing it closely and then setting it back down. His tone was at first disapproving, but then he laughed as he took in everything else that was on display. “Fits in perfectly,” he said, heading back to the door.
“Yes,” Selwin said with a smile, glancing over at Eric who was reading from the open newspapers that Selwin had spread out over the table for him. Eric glanced up, winked, went back to reading. “Fits in perfectly.”
Arden Hunter is an aroace agender writer, artist and performer. With an eclectic range of interests from the horrific to the whimsical, the theme tying all of their work together is an inexplicable and unconditional love of the ridiculous beast that is called 'human'. Arden has words and art hosted and upcoming with Cinnabar Moth, The Bear Creek Gazette and Thi Wurd among other places. Find them on Twitter.