Trinket

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.


Hateful.


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.”


“Ok…?”


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.


“Eric…”


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.


Eric had…


Vanished…


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?”


“What man?”


“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.


“...souvenir…”


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?”


Selwin fidgeted.


“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.