“Well, I quite see what you meant,” the Mayor drew out, giving the meres around him a long look over.
The meres had been around for centuries; and each era had added something to them: hanging bridges; pathways; three gazebos, built and slowly coming to a sad end in the last fifty years; and of course, the Benches. Presently the park carried the traces of exactly the activities it was used for now – bottles, cigarette packs, wraps, and other rubbish of indistinguishable nature – all the telltale signs of juvenile delinquency.
“Don’t we clean this along with other parks?” the Mayor grumbled, and ruffled his hair.
“It’s not officially a park, so it’s left out. Only the Benches are protected by the Town Preservation Act.” Imogen pointed at one of them. “So, we restore and paint them once in two years. Mr. Peterson, the owner of the Peterson Hardware, has the supply of the authentic paint.”
The Mayor hummed and came up to one of the Benches. It currently sported three obscene statement executed in the aforementioned Sharpie marker; burns from cigarettes; and an assortment of scraps and scratches.
“Is there your name featured on one of these?” he asked, and threw her a impish side glance. Imogen who was shuffling through papers in her folder – always stuffed full, always carried with her – froze for a second, and then slowly looked up at him.
“Um… I doubt it. And if it is, it’s hardly in this context.” Imogen pointed at the graffiti praising certain parts of the anatomy of an unknown Izzy Wilson.
The Mayor took a sip of his coffee, and emitted a pensive sound in his throat.
“Do we have any public opinion polls on the area? Anything?” he asked, and Imogen rustled with her papers again.
“I can’t say we do. It’s just one of those corners that has always been here; and no one actually thinks twice about it.”
“So, if we build a bypass through it, whom will we irritate?” he asked, and she snorted. She quite adored when the left corner of his lips curled up like that.
“Well, there are two inhabited cottages here.” She pointed West with her pen. “The Honeysuckle. There’s a family in it, four children. I think they will gladly sell it, and move to the estates. Another one is The Willows; that’s Mrs. McGillicuddy’s residence. She’s 92. Used to work in the town library. She’s a tough one, might not want to move.”
“Then that’s where we start.”
They knocked at The Willows door; the Mayor held the box of sweets they had bought in the teashop; while Imogen hastily fixed his habitually crooked tie.
There was a quiet shuffling inside; and then the door flew open. A pair of bright blue eyes pinned, first, the Mayor, and then Imogen.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. McGillicuddy. Sorry to bother you, but could we intrude for a cup of tea and a chat?” The Mayor gave the woman his most handsome smile. Imogen was quite certain that only a blind, deaf, and anosmic person could resist this man when he wanted to charm them.
“You’re an Oakby boy, aren’t you?” Mrs. McGillicuddy gave him a sarcastic look from under a cloud of permed, pearly curls. “I remember you. Always on time with returning your books.”
“I also happen to be the Mayor of the town, madam.” Oakby gave her a small ceremonial bow. “And this is Ms. Imogen Fox, my personal assistant.”
A bony crooked finger pointed at Imogen’s forehead.
“Pastels workbooks, and art history. Late sometimes, but always gentle with the books.” Mrs. McGillicuddy nodded to her – apparently well-catalogued – memories. “You may come in.”
The cottage was bare but clean. They were shown into the drawing room; and the old lady shuffled to the kitchen, where, judging by the sounds, she was now making tea. Imogen looked around. Every available space was taken by books, neatly organized on shelves and tables. There was a small antique desk, with seemingly hundreds of photos pinned to a cork board above it. All pins were of the same kind.
A large black cat walked into the room, and immediately headed to the sofa they were sitting on. It jumped on the Mayor’s lap, and started purring loudly. Imogen quite expected this: children and animals adored the Mayor. She supposed he had a good vibe, or aura, or some other of that rubbish she didn’t believe in. His large, long-fingered hand lay on the cat’s head, and he started gently scratching it between the ears. Imogen suppressed an envious sigh. To have her head scratched like that!
Mrs. McGillicuddy came in with a tray, and the Mayor tried to rise to help her. The cat made a protesting sound; and judging by the Mayor’s body twitching and a hiss he emitted, there was some claw-sinking involved. Imogen took over, and started arranging cups and the milk jug. She habitually poured three spoonfuls of sugar into the Mayor’s cup, stirred, and passed it to him, before picking up one for herself. Their host gave out a small chuckle.
“Alright, I’ll listen to you two,” she said after sitting down. “Mr. Kelley here has an excellent taste in people.” She pointed at the very pleased looking cat.
The Mayor – precariously balancing the cup above the black round head – explained the situation to the woman. She continued giving him a sardonic look all through his speech.
“And if I don’t want to move? McGillicuddies lived on this land for seven generations. We used to farm here, and then it all came to ruin. And where would I go? Not a nursing home, that’s for certain. I’m all alone. My husband didn’t come back from the War. The children are far away.” She shook her head and picked up a biscuit from the box. “I prefer to wait for the end here.”
“You can go on a cruise,” Imogen blurted out, and three pairs of eyes stared at her. Imogen blushed, and gingerly pointed at the cork board on the wall. “You have all these postcards, but they’re from colleagues and relatives, not your own. And you have travel books, but they are all new.” Imogen nodded at the table by the window. “And then you can go visit your daughter in America. You have several of her photos near the Georgia Guidestones. I can see the family resemblance, and the age is appropriate. She’s also dressed… accordingly.” The woman on the photos was exactly the multi-necklaced, layered-skirted, New Age person who’d expect to go to the ‘American Stonehenge.’ There were many of them; and the woman was smiling sincerely, and waving in some. “And your cat is named after Edward Kelley, I assume; so I bet you’d love to visit.”
There was silence in the room, only the soft purring from the Mayor’s lap heard; and the Mrs. McGillicuddy gave out a surprisingly deep, throaty laugh.
“You got yourself a smart little missus, didn’t you?” She shook her finger at the Mayor.
Imogen felt mortified; and it took couple seconds to finally will her neck to turn so she could check his reaction. Surprisingly, he wasn’t rushing to correct the old lady, and was just drinking his tea – and smiling, his lips curled over the rim of the cup.
“Well, alright, maybe a cruise isn’t such a bad idea.” Mrs. McGillicuddy helped herself to another biscuit. “How much can I expect to shake out of those Americans?”
The Mayor carefully put down his cup and gave her a sly smile. “Oh, I’m sure we can make them pay for your cruise… and a new flat, and a trip to your daughter, plus a small fortune.”
“Good.” The woman nodded. “Very good.”
In the evening Imogen returned the bike to her neighbour’s son, and headed back towards the Mayor House. Imogen was plodding along the side of the road, in her wellies and a raincoat. It was drizzling, and she knew she’d have to go knee deep to get the bike out.
Just as she’d predicted, the cursed machine was stuck deep in the silt. Imogen pulled and pulled; and of course the wellies slid; and she plopped on her backside. The trickle of cold goo merrily rushed into the left boot. Imogen silently rolled her eyes, got up on unstable legs, and pulled again. And that was when the idea came.
Her new mobile was supposed to be delivered the next morning to her cottage; so she had no means of communicating with the outside world – but she just needed to share the idea with the Mayor!
It was after all only eight, and surely he wasn’t asleep.
The keys were floating in her pocket, with a few strings of pondweed and a tadpole. Imogen set the poor animal free; threw the green slimy leaves aside with a shudder; and leaving her fallen Bucephalus behind, she climbed out of the ditch and sped up towards the House.
She knocked at the door to the residence, and waited. There was no answer, and she shifted between her feet, loud squelching being the only sound. And then there were steps; and the door opened.
Not even the view of him in a soft grey jumper, disheveled, with his glasses sitting low on his nose could distract Imogen from the exciting idea bobbing in her head.
“Arboretum!” she hollered into his face. The thick black eyebrows jumped up. Imogen waved her hands in the air, possibly throwing pieces of water fern and algae into his face. “We need to move the Benches, and open a new arboretum in the town! People will love it! There will be a party; people fancy parties! And maybe a fete! And then they will love the idea of the bypass!”
The Mayor was giving her a bewildered look over – she looked like a Fab ice lolly, with silt colouring her lower part dark green; dry yellow coat in the middle; and the wet top. And then his eyes flew up to her face.
He stepped aside inviting her to come in.
“I was getting my bike out of a ditch,” Imogen explained, and gave him a shy smile. “I shouldn’t go in, I’ll tread dirt… But an arboretum, yeah?” she asked; and suddenly his heavy hand lay on her shoulder, and he pulled her into the parlour.
Imogen awkwardly froze, while he closed the door and started marching away.
“I’ll get you something dry,” he threw over his shoulder. “Take your clothes off.”
Imogen couldn’t say she hadn’t imagined him say these exact words many times before – but of course the circumstances and especially the intonation were quite different. But then she realized she was about to put on something of his; and she flushed head to toe.