The bus was late. Imogen had taken a cab to her place from Rosie’s – she needed clean clothes, and fresh bandages – and couldn’t afford the expenses of another trip. So, she was now standing on the stop, nervously checking her watch, and cursing under her breath.
“He’s flirting with the coffee girl again, down at the station, mark my words,” an elderly gentleman on the bench near her grumbled. Imogen thought his name was Spencer or Spence. They had taken the bus together for two years now; and she could vaguely remember filing an official complain of his at the office. It had to do with smoking, and not buses, though.
Imogen sighed. She was now late for work, and had no means to let her boss know, since her phone was impersonating Titanic at the bottom of a ditch.
“You’re the Mayor’s girl, aren’t you?” Mr. Spencer or Spence asked, and Imogen tensed. The eyes of everyone on the stop were predictably on her now. “What is he going to do about them geese then?”
Imogen sighed. She then plastered a polite smile on her face and turned to Mr. S.
“I’m sorry. What geese?”
“The geese from the Mallow’s farm. They wander on the Northern road, you know. Someone might get killed on that curve.” Mr. S. pointed his bony crooked finger at Imogen.
“He’s right, you know,” some middle-age woman chimed in, and shook the leek bunch she was holding. Imogen edged away from it. “That curve is a death trap! First, Peters; then Joan Smith… Who’s next to die there?”
“Leave the poor child alone,” an old lady sitting on the bench interfered, and gave Imogen a comforting smile. “Firstly, Peters and Smith died there twelve and seven years ago respectively; and Peters was drunk out of his mind; while Smith was run over by a lorry from another county. And even if the curve is dangerous, what is this child supposed to do about it?”
“Let the Mayor know people are worried!” several voices joined in.
“Mr. Oakby is aware of the state of the Northern road,” Imogen answered levelly. “It’s in the reconstruction plan for May.”
“Oh well then…” Mr. S. huffed couple times; but since he had been the most active out of the spontaneous protesters, the conversation then died out. Imogen exhaled discreetly.
The bus finally arrived, and everyone climbed in.
Imogen was getting off at her stop, when the old lady who’d supported her caught her sleeve.
“But my dear, you do need to grow out your hair,” she said in a soft reproachful tone. “I understand it’s of the unfortunate colour, but he will not notice you with this army haircut of yours.” She pointed at Imogen’s pixie hair with her eyes.
Imogen’s hand unconsciously flew to the short curls at the back of her head.
“Who he?” she asked the lady in a conspiratory whisper.
“Well, Mr. Oakby, of course. Such a dashing gentleman, despite that dreadful beard of his.”
Imogen laughed, and patted the woman’s hand on her sleeve.
“He wouldn’t notice me even if I grew a beard,” she answered, twisted out of the surprisingly tight grip of the little wrinkly hand, and tumbled out of the bus.
Imogen opened the door to her office and stopped in her tracks, her jaw descending on the floor. Everything in the small room seemed to fly around – and smoke – and spit out sparks: the electric kettle, the coffee machine, Mrs. Harris… and the Mayor.
“Imogen, where have you been?” Mrs. Harris hollered, and flailed her arms, splashing the coffee out of the pot she had in her hand.
The Mayor meanwhile pulled the cord out of the kettle, which indeed was smoking, and not steaming as it was supposed to.
“The Americans!” he barked at Imogen, and grabbed the kettle. At that moment the printer spat out three sheets, two of which were crinkled. “The Americans!” he repeated, pointing at the papers with the kettle. The water predictably flew, rendering the printer inoperative. It beeped mournfully and jammed the next sheet.
“And she’s dead!” Mrs. Harris joined the Greek tragedy style chorus of the roaring Mayor and hysterical beeping of various devices. “Could you believe it? Killed, at the Northern road! On the Mallow curve!”
“By geese?” Imogen blurted out, and that made Mrs. Harris and the Mayor – who was jerking the paper out of the printer with his left hand, while sloshing the boiling water from the kettle in his right over Imogen’s desk and telephone now – freeze and gape at her.
Imogen sighed and got to work.
She pulled the beverage containers out of the hands of the town administration, and stuffed the pot and the kettle on the window sill. She then turned off and turned on the printer that happily greeted its true owner with a blink of a green eye and started printing, buzzing busily. She pulled out the cord from the coffee machine that was still producing the beverage.
“Mrs. Harris, we will need more coffee and more tea, please. Would you be so kind as to pop across the road to the teashop? Some pastries would be great too.” Imogen then leaned to the older woman and whispered loudly, “We need sugar to keep his temper in check. Tell me all about the death when he’s busy.” She theatrically pointed at the Mayor with her eyes, rightfully assuming that he wouldn’t hear or notice anything, since he was already absorbed into reading the still warm papers from the printer.
Mrs. Harris gave Imogen a conspiratorial nod, and pranced away.
Imogen grabbed the Mayor’s upper arms from behind and started softly pushing him towards his office, maneuvering him between the furniture.
“So, what is it about the Americans?” she asked, and deposited him in his chair.
He handed her page one and two, while reading number four.
“It’s that motorway contract the county is pushing on us.” He vaguely gestured towards the papers in her hand, and Imogen skimmed through them. “The one to go through the meres. The councillors and magistrates all voted ‘aye.'”
He then handed her the last pages. Even without number three, Imogen could grasp the gist of the letter from the county council. After all, the idea to allow an American construction corporation to build a tarmac near the Western border of Fleckney Woulds had been discussed and re-discussed for the last year. The Mayor had been resistant; and Imogen loved him for it only more. Not loved – respected and appreciated, she would correct herself.
The latest proposal was even more detailed, and sounded even more enticing than the previous ones. More locals were promised jobs; and the Americans were now offering an even shorter period of works, and alluded to more subsidies from the Government Department of Highways.
Imogen lifted her eyes from the papers, and saw that the Mayor had dropped his head at the back of his tall chair and was staring at the ceiling frowning. Imogen habitually appreciated the masculine jaw line under the thick dark beard, and the strong neck. It had become a sort of a background activity now, in no way interfering with her primary work functions.
“What do you think about it, Imogen?” he suddenly asked, and Imogen tilted her head.
He straightened up and looked at her, his – mesmerizingly bright blue – eyes focused on her. Imogen gulped.
“Yes, you.” He was calmly waiting for her answer, and she cleared her throat.
“Well, on paper it sounds very good,” she drew out cautiously.
“But…” he encouraged.
“But when was building a tarmac through a historical village ever a good business?” she drew out, and he nodded and drummed his fingers on the armrest.
“Exactly. And again, those meres… that’s where those footpaths are? The Dweller’s Roams, isn’t it how they’re called? My grandmother used to walk them with me when I was little…”
Imogen pushed the thought of a ‘little’ John Oakby – dark curls, chubby cheeks, adorable curls – at the back of her mind, and stepped closer to his table.
“They are not… what they used to be now. I took my children there last year, and it’s just all rubbish and vandalized benches there now.”
Imogen had read many times about a person’s pupils dilating, or their eyes widening – but she had never observed it in reality before. And yet, here was the Mayor – staring at her flabbergasted.
“You have children?” he rasped out.
“Oh, I meant my nephew and niece. My sister’s kids.”
“Oh…” The Mayor blinked couple times, and seemed to be getting over his shock now. “Right… You were saying?”
“Well, before those were meres, right? And there are a few old cottages there, the Yew Cottage, and a few others. But then the town grew, and it’s sort of… hugging the meres on the North.” Imogen mimicked something vaguely round in the air with her splayed fingers; and the Mayor followed the gesture with his eyes. “And it’s not much left there… And teens go there for… you know.”
The thick black eyebrows slowly rose questioningly, and Imogen blushed.
“Parties?” Imogen said in a squeaky voice, and one of the eyebrows stopped, while the other one continued its journey. “Didn’t you go when you were young?” Imogen blurted out, and then choked on her words, mortified by the realisation of what exactly she’d just said.
Some new expression danced in the Mayor’s eyes. Imogen couldn’t quite place it – but she seemed to see a tiny smile in the corners of his lips.
“No, Imogen. In the olden days, when I was young and not as decrepit, I spent my evenings in the library.”
“Right,” Imogen whispered, her cheeks flaming painfully. “Of course, your law degree, and preparing for the bar, and so on…”
“Indeed.” He was still eyeing her with the same odd twinkle in his eyes; and Imogen considered a hasty and embarrassing retreat; but he took pity of her. “So, you’re saying there isn’t much there to preserve. Didn’t you hand me over five petitions from concerned subjects just last month regarding the heritage footpaths, and something about the red benches?”
“The Scarlet Benches, sir,” Imogen corrected him, regaining her footing. “Regency era, wrought iron, made circa 1830s, donated to the town by Mr. Patrick Fitzroy, the grandfather of the current Mr. Fitzroy, in 1960-something; traditionally painted scarlet red upon the request of his batty wife. She was a ginger.” Imogen added, and the Mayor threw Imogen’s own carrot coloured head a look. “But you see, they aren’t looking this good these days. Especially after the invention of Sharpie markers.”
“You have an excellent memory, Imogen,” the Mayor pronounced slowly, once again giving Imogen a lingering studying glance, which she – once again – didn’t understand.
“Thank you, sir,” she muttered.
“Alright, get me all the information on the footpaths, the benches, and the meres; and tomorrow you and I are going to visit the place and see for ourselves.” Imogen nodded, and was ready to leave, when he asked, “Two more questions. How many of those bloody benches are there, Imogen?”
“Good lord, four benches, and so much headache,” he mumbled, and pinched the bridge of his nose. He then looked up at her. “That would be all, Imogen.”
“You said two questions, sir.”
“Ah, yes.” He gave out a fake little cough, and Imogen wondered what could have made him squirm on his chair in an obvious discomfort. “Have you known… do you know anything about Mrs. Patricia Fitzroy?”
“The current Mr. Fitzroy’s daughter-in-law?” Imogen did know quite a bit, but not all of it she was willing to share with the Mayor. “She’s a school teacher, in Fleckney Woulds Comprehensive. My niece goes there. Mrs. Fitzroy teaches Arts.”
“Married into money then?” he asked pensively.
“Well, the Fitzroys have five thousand acres, and the Hollybranch Mansion in the center of it. While Mrs. Fitzroy’s father was a butcher. And a drunk. Nasty woman…” Imogen breathed out, and then bit into her bottom lip in embarrassment. “I’m sorry. That was inappropriate. But she is so horrible!” Imogen exclaimed, losing her composure again; and the Mayor tilted his head inquisitively. “She simply tortures those children! She has no talent of her own, and she tramples over anyone who shows any potential. And she hates the job! I don’t understand why she wouldn’t just quit and enjoy some of more appropriate pursuits: like furniture collecting, or… bridge.”
“She died in a car accident this morning,” the Mayor said calmly, and Imogen gasped and pressed her hands over the mouth. “But don’t feel bad. I have a feeling what you’ve just said will be the most polite and kindest of what will be now discussed about her.”
Imogen’s lips trembled. A bully, or not – the woman was dead!
“My sister is the Headmistress of the school,” the Mayor suddenly announced. Imogen was aware. “There will be inquiries. The Fitzroys are the ‘pillars of the community’ after all.”
“Was it on the Mallow curve?” Imogen asked, remembering Mrs. Harris’ frantic clucking.
“Yes, and it’s due repairs in May, right? Get me all the information about it as well, please. And a coffee.”
Imogen promised him both, and went into her office. She needed to make a few calls in private.