Ice cream and incidents, p.8

Ice Cream and Incidents, page 8

 part  #13 of  Peridale Cafe Cozy Mystery Series

 

Ice Cream and Incidents
 


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  “In that case,” Marvin said, pausing to glug the remainder of the wine, “you better hope he does die.”

  Julia gasped and took a step back. From the slur in Marvin’s voice, she guessed he had stayed up all night to drink rather than having only just started.

  “I don’t see much way out if he pulls through,” Russell said before sipping from his own drink. “He will come knocking for his money, even if he doesn’t want to come back to work.”

  Marvin sighed and put the bottle of wine on the dressing table before crouching down so that Russell’s face was level with his.

  “Then I really hope he does die,” Marvin whispered, wobbling on the spot. “You don’t deserve this. Simon did the same thing to me when he got me fired. You’re a great person, Russell.”

  There was a moment of silence between them, and Julia took another step back, sensing what was coming next. Marvin leaned in and kissed Russell, but Russell wheeled back the chair just as quickly.

  “What are you doing?” Russell snapped.

  “I – I’m sorry,” Marvin mumbled as he stood up and lifted a hand up to his face. “I’m drunk. I -”

  “Yeah,” Russell said quickly as he stood up. “You are. I – I need to – I need to go.”

  Russell walked so quickly out of the room that Julia had no time to make it look like she had not just seen what had happened. Russell’s face reddened, and for a moment, Julia thought he was angry with her. He pulled the door closed behind him, his expression softening.

  “Has something happened?” he asked with concern. “I don’t mean to offend, dear, but you look awful.”

  “As do you,” Julia replied with a smile. “You couldn’t sleep either?”

  “Not a wink.”

  “I locked myself out,” Julia explained. “I left my room, and I forgot to take my key. Do you have a spare?”

  “Sure, they’re in -” Russell looked over his shoulder at the closed door as though a wild animal was locked inside.

  “Starting breakfast?” Julia asked, the key the last thing on her mind now.

  “I’m going to attempt to,” Russell said as he walked around the fish tank and towards the restaurant. “It might not be my best effort, but I’ll give it my best shot.”

  “I’ll help,” Julia said as she followed him. “I’m awake now, and I know a thing or two about cooking. Do you have cake ingredients?”

  8

  Despite being exhausted, Julia did not mind helping Russell get the kitchen ready for the morning. She had hoped he would mention what she had overheard and seen, but he did not. Even though she wanted to push the topic, she decided it would be best to wait until they were both better rested. A tiredness-fuelled argument was the last thing she wanted.

  As it turned out, Russell had all the ingredients for a simple jam sponge cake. Even though it was a basic cake that Julia could have thrown together with a blindfold, the process of baking was enough to centre her. Julia slipped so deep into her own special world, she forgot she was miles away from home. For a brief moment, she felt like she was preparing for a day at the café. Remembering that it was Sunday was enough to pull her back, and also to remind her how tired she was. If it was like any other week, she would have been snug in bed and enjoying not having an alarm set.

  Before the guests rushed down for their breakfast, they paused to drink large cups of extra strong coffee and enjoy the product of Julia’s baking. The sponge was perfect, even by Julia’s standards, and she enjoyed seeing the comforting fluttering of Russell’s lids after he took his first bite.

  Despite Russell insisting that Julia should get some sleep, she stuck around for the breakfast shift and helped Russell with the frying and stirring. She knew too many cooks could spoil the broth, but with them both sleep-deprived, she knew two tired cooks would be better than one.

  After popping out to the restaurant to let Barker know that she had not run away, she slipped out of the back of the kitchen and into the courtyard behind the B&B. Inhaling the warm morning air, she looked up at the metal fire escape. Her trip up to the roof with Alfie felt like a hazy dream, but his admissions had been too raw to be imagined.

  Sitting on a set of stone steps next to a giant bin, Julia dialled the number for Peridale Manor on the B&B’s phone. With her mobile phone in her bedroom, she was glad she had the number memorised. Her father answered instantly and passed her over to Katie, who had nothing to report about the café, other than that she was having the best time having a ‘normal’ job. Julia stopped herself from asking too many detailed questions, something she might have done if she had sensed anything other than joy in Katie’s voice.

  After the conversation ended, Julia dialled another number she had memorised due to the sheer number of times she had used it recently. A robotic voice reminded her that it was Sunday and therefore the social worker’s office was closed, but they provided an emergency out-of-hours number. She called that one instead, but they were even less helpful than the usual people she spoke to. They promised to get someone to call back tomorrow when they had more information. Julia knew not to hold her breath for that happening.

  After hanging up, she looked up at the clear blue sky and tried not to worry, even though Jessie’s birthday was creeping ever nearer. She knew the adoption going through would not change anything about their relationship, but it was important to Jessie to have that official certificate to say that she had legal guardians, even if they would be redundant after her birthday.

  “You look like you’ve got the weight of the world on your shoulders, poppet,” a husky voice whispered from the other side of the courtyard. “Want to tell Arthur your troubles? They tell me I’m a good listener.”

  Julia looked across the courtyard to a door where Feather Duster, or rather, Arthur, was standing in a doorway. He was wearing a pair of baggy striped cotton pyjamas, a steaming mug cupped in his hands. His face was makeup free and his head bald.

  “You don’t happen to have any peppermint and liquorice tea in there, do you?” Julia asked.

  “Let me see what old Feather can do for you.”

  Arthur had been standing in the doorway to his own self-contained flat under the B&B, which he revealed had been his home for the past thirty years. The flat, which was modest in size, was decorated in a style Julia could only describe as organised chaos. The dark red walls were lined with an overwhelming number of framed pictures, some of them so old they were black and white. Julia realised they all had one common figure in each photograph: Feather Duster.

  “I’ve worked with more queens than I’ve had hot dinners,” Arthur said as he handed Julia a cup. “I only had peppermint tea and liquorice tea, so I threw both bags into the cup. Don’t feel obligated to drink it, poppet. I’m more a PG Tips man myself.”

  Julia sniffed the steaming liquid before taking a small cautionary sip. It was not quite the same as the tea she adored at home, but it was a close imitation.

  Arthur shuffled over to the couch and pulled off a blanket and two large pillows. He carefully folded the blanket with shaky hands, humming Somewhere Over the Rainbow as he worked.

  “I’ve told that boy to tidy up after himself, but he lives in his own world,” Arthur said with a roll of his lined eyes. “But, Honey does what Honey wants.”

  Arthur chuckled as he motioned for Julia to sit on the newly tidied sofa. She did, the fabric old and worn but comfortable. The coffee table was filled with a stack of hardback books, the top titled Making Faces by Kevyn Aucoin.

  “That’s one of Honey’s,” Arthur said as he sat in an armchair swathed in multiple brightly coloured throws. “He called it the definitive guide to makeup. I had a flick through, but it’s more for the young ones. I’ve been painting the same face for the past fifty years, and I’m afraid I’m a bit stuck in my ways, even if the canvas is a little droopier than it used to be.”

  “Honey lives with you?”

  “I’m letting the boy sleep on my sofa until he lands on his feet,
” Arthur explained before sipping his tea. “I’m afraid he’s not the first, and I doubt he’ll be the last. His mother kicked him out.”

  “His mother?”

  “Changed the locks behind him.”

  “That’s awful.”

  “She could wrap her head around the sexuality thing, but not the drag,” Arthur explained with a heavy sigh. “It’s a sad state of affairs when a mother can abandon her child for wanting to artistically express themselves, but that’s the way the dice rolls. It rolls that way a lot less than when I was Honey’s age, but ignorance will always persist. Drag goes all the way back to Shakespearian times, and yet people still misunderstand it as something perverted and twisted. I’m seventy-five now, but I was twenty when I first discovered drag. Homosexuality could get you locked up back then, but that was part of the thrill of it. It was counter-culture. We knew we were risking everything for art, but I always find the best art comes when one takes a risk, don’t you think? For Honey, I’m afraid five decades of social change means nothing when your own mother kicks you out.”

  “That’s heart breaking.”

  “That’s life,” Arthur offered a slight shrug. “When you’ve been around the block as many times as I have, you’ve seen everything this world has to offer. The good and the bad. Sometimes, I think it’s more weighed in the latter’s favour, but I keep donning my wig, and I keep singing because it’s the only thing that gets me through to the next day. I see that same fight in Honey. He’s full of angst and rage. When he learns to channel that into his art, he’ll be unstoppable. I just hope he gets there before the cigarettes kill him.”

  Arthur motioned to a full ashtray on the table. Julia noticed that it was on top of a copy of Barker’s book. She smiled but decided against mentioning that she knew the author.

  “When you’ve been around as long as I, the pattern of excess emerges,” Arthur continued after another sip of tea. “The drink, the drugs, the cigarettes. I don’t touch any of it. Unfortunately, those three evils seem to go hand in hand with drag. Drag queens have been rejected by society for decades. Sometimes I wonder why we still press on, but then I remember how important our work is. We make people laugh and smile, and maybe we could do that without the wigs and outfits, but don’t you think life needs a little razzle-dazzle to make it bearable? If people see us as jokes and not real people with real stories that we are, then I fear that’s their loss.

  “Nevertheless, I’ve spent thirty years as a Sparkle Girl trying to pass on that message, but it never seems to get through to the girls. They feel the rejection deep in their core. Some lash out, some turn to vices. I’ve told Honey not to smoke in here, but the boy seems intent on disobeying every rule put in front of him. He could change the world if he just let himself.”

  “With a mentor like you, I’m sure he will.”

  “Me?” Arthur replied with a raspy chuckle. “I’m simply an old queen singing show tunes for a crowd that would rather me do the splits and a handstand.”

  “That’s not true,” Julia argued. “I was captivated by you during the show. You’re a real talent.”

  “You’re too kind.” Arthur blushed as he readjusted the hem of his cotton shirt. “The trends come and go, but the classics persist. I noticed you in your vintage dress when you arrived. It put a smile on my face.”

  Julia smiled in return. People often questioned her love of vintage dresses with 1940s necklines, but they made Julia feel comfortable and safe. Subconsciously, she knew it was because her mother wore similar clothes, even if they had not been contemporary to her era either.

  “I’m glad,” Julia replied, pulling together her pink dressing gown and feeling anything but put-together at that moment. “It is rare people appreciate them.”

  “Well, I do.” Arthur reached out and rested the cup on top of the stack of books before turning to Julia. “So, poppet. What has got you so down?”

  Julia considered holding back, her problems feeling insignificant compared to the stories Arthur had shared. Knowing it might help to open up, she decided to tell him all about the adoption process and how she was running out of time to get the final official confirmation. Arthur listened with the concentration of someone who was being asked to memorise details for a quiz. When she was finished, she felt a little of the weight lift off her shoulders.

  “I’ve had many children in my lifetime,” Arthur confessed when Julia finally stopped talking. “None of them biological, and I never had any certificates either, but I’ve met countless ‘Jessies’. Honey is one of them, even if I think he will be the death of me. You and I are the same. Kindred spirits, you might say. We see the downtrodden and the helpless, and we lift them up. It might not even feel like we’re trying to do that or putting in much effort, but it’s in our nature. It sounds like you’re the best mother Jessie could have asked for given her tragic circumstances. If the adoption is legalised before her birthday, that’s just icing on the cake. If she’s truly become your daughter, you will both know that deep down in your heart of hearts, poppet.”

  Julia had said those same words to herself but hearing them from Arthur with such conviction and authority made her actually feel them to be true.

  “She is my daughter,” Julia said, her voice more forceful than she had intended. “You were right, Arthur. You are a good listener.”

  “It comes with age, poppet.” Arthur forced himself out of his chair and shuffled across his flat to an antique dressing table. He picked up a hairbrush and handed it to Julia. “Might I prescribe a good brush, a bubble bath, and a nap. You’re in Blackpool, after all. This isn’t a time for heavy hearts and overthinking. It’s a place for fun. The show must, and will, go on.”

  Arthur returned to the dressing table and passed Julia an ornate silver hand mirror. She brushed through her tangled curls, the soft bristles soothing. As she stared at her reflection, she wondered how Arthur had taken a word she had said seriously; she looked like a zombie.

  Feeling grateful that Arthur had called to her across the courtyard, Julia handed the brush and mirror back. The front door opened, and Julia turned to see Honey walking towards her. When he met her eyes, he paused as though he had just seen a predator about to hunt him. Julia offered a smile, but Honey did not return it. Knowing Honey’s story, Julia felt like she understood him; Honey and Jessie had been cut from two ends of the same cloth.

  “What have I told you about leaving the couch like that?” Arthur called as he settled back into his chair. “What time did you leave this morning?”

  “Five,” Honey muttered. “Six. I don’t know. I couldn’t sleep, so I went for a walk on the beach to clear my head.”

  “You didn’t visit that mother of yours, did you?” Arthur asked with a shake of his head. “You know nothing good will come of that. In time, maybe, but not right now. It’s all too fresh.”

  “I went for a walk on the beach, alright!” Honey snapped. “I need to get ready. Russell has asked me to do the ice cream brunch. He wants to see you too.”

  Honey pulled a cigarette out of a packet and lit it as he walked away, the door slamming behind him. Julia thanked Arthur for the tea and conversation before leaving him to get dressed.

  She walked back into the kitchen, where Russell was leaning against the counter, his mobile phone resting against his chin as he stared into space. She pulled the hotel phone out of her pocket and placed it on the table, breaking Russell’s gaze.

  “Did you get through to who you wanted?” Russell asked, forcing a smile that was obviously for Julia’s benefit. “You’ve been gone for a while.”

  “Arthur invited me in for tea. We had a lovely chat. Is everything okay? You look shaken.”

  Russell sighed as he tucked his phone into the pocket of his jeans. He turned to the sink and started to fill it with hot water before looking at the high stack of dirty plates and pans from breakfast.

  “The hospital just called,” Russell said, his voice shaking as he squirted washing up liquid into
the water. “Simon’s awake.”

  9

  Julia resisted the urge to jump in the taxi with Russell and Arthur to visit Simon at the hospital. Instead, she went up to her room and passed out the moment she climbed under the covers. When Barker woke her up at three in the afternoon, opening her eyes felt like peeling back Velcro.

  “You’ll thank me later,” Barker whispered as he pulled back the covers. “You won’t rest tonight if you sleep the day away.”

  Barker drew back the curtains, the bright afternoon sun blinding her. Julia flung her legs over the side of the bed and forced herself into a sitting position. She looked down at the bed, and for a moment, she wondered where Mowgli was. The Liza mural reminded her where she was.

  “We’ve been at the beach all day,” Barker said as he applied sunscreen to his arms. “The weather has been lovely. Why don’t you jump in the shower and we’ll go back down? Jessie and Alfie are still there.”

  The shower helped awaken Julia’s mind. By the time she was across the road and on the beach with Alfie and Jessie, she felt almost human again.

  “We were just daring each other to run into the sea,” Jessie said as Julia settled onto a beach towel next to them. “Alfie said he’ll give me twenty quid if I do it.”

  “It looks freezing,” Barker said. “And it’s grey. We’re still in England, Jessie.”

  “But twenty quid is twenty quid,” Alfie said, wafting the note under Jessie’s nose. “Go on. Are you chicken, sis?”

 
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