A short story/ flash fiction
Ducking her chin to catch limp, yokey toast, Chloe watched Audrey Jeffries slip out from ‘that room’ across the hall again, glancing bird-like towards the dining room to see if she’d been noticed.
Quickly hiding her face behind a huge bowl-style coffee cup, Chloe flicked her own eyes to the other two tables of B&B guests as they mumbled enthusiastically over their adventurous, only-when-on-holiday style eggs.
Dad had his maps out again, and Mum was talking to no one as usual, while Josh nodded in time to an indecipherable Ka-tick, ka-tick. Ka-tick, ka-tick. Katickatickatickaticka from his headphones and piled whole hash browns dripping with combined cooked breakfast goo into his gob.
Chloe responded with a safe, neutral, ‘Yurp,’ at whatever caused her mother’s voice to rise questioningly and looked again at the door across the hall. She squinted, thinking she could see a key still in the lock.
Yesterday Mrs. Jeffries had locked it every time, and, with habitual deftness, had slid the key into a front pocket on her clothes. Maybe she’d forgotten something and was coming back with one of her mysterious bundles.
‘Right!’ Dad was up, wiping his face. ‘Are we ready?’
‘Loo folks,’ said Mum. ‘Everyone go to the loo. And no texting this time, Chloe, please. Leave your phone here, will you?’
Chloe was alone in the hall. Just inches from the door now she could see that, yes – the key was still in the lock. Mrs. Jeffries must have been intending to bring another of her cloth-covered bundles but got sidetracked by breakfast. Why did things go into the room but nothing ever came out? And why all the secrecy? Maybe she was a kleptomaniac and was stealing from the residents. That would explain why she did it at mealtimes.
She heard her father whistling in the front porch. He would be re-lacing his walking boots again. From the kitchen clearing-up sounds clattered. Chloe put her hand on the handle and the door opened six inches. ‘Whoops,’ she whispered, feeling around the frame and snaking into the dark room.
It was warm – beautifully so. She shut the door behind her and headed instinctively to a wide, open fireplace. Without quite knowing why, she settled herself into a large old, high-backed armchair, angled so that it had a view of the door and the rest of the room but so that the occupant would still catch the warmth from the fire. She heard herself groan deeply and felt an ache lift from her muscles as her back was supported by the firm padding. She hadn’t realised how tired she was. A clock was ticking with the hollow richness of old wood and the enormous log fire blazed ferociously, with more logs freshly laid at the sides. That was a good fire. Just how she liked it. She lifted her feet onto a raised hearth surround and grunted approval. As she closed her eyes, she could smell animal… A dog?
That’s okay, it was just old Bruno.
‘Been tracking fox scents again, have you?’ she asked, without opening her eyes. ‘I know you. Don’t think I can’t smell it.’ She laughed a low, chesty laugh that made her cough weakly. She patted her chest and wasn’t surprised at all to find that she no longer had breasts. She reached down and touched Bruno’s head. He licked his master’s hand lovingly.
Rose had done a good job of the fire. Chloe must remember to tell her. Where was Rose anyway? They needed to talk. They couldn’t have Audrey going off with that Jeffries boy.
Ah, there she was. She’d been sitting opposite all the time.
‘How are your hands today?’ Rose smiled. ‘Up to a little tune? How about a wee rendition of Father O’Flynn?’ Rose fetched a fiddle from its case on a side table and passed it to Chloe, whose hands were bent with fingers bulging at the knuckles.
‘Is the rheumatism bad today old boy, would you rather the whistle?’
‘This lovely heat has fixed me fine dear, don’t you worry,’ replied Chloe, taking the fiddle and warming up. An old man’s boot on the end of Chloe’s left leg began to tap a 2-beat jig and the fingers played the simple old tune from memory.
There was a voice in the hall and Chloe dashed from the room handing the fiddle back to a disappearing, smiling Rose. She shut the door behind her just as Audrey Jeffries appeared from the kitchen with a cloth bundle. It was obvious now that it was an armful of logs wrapped in a traycloth.
Her mother was already in the hall.
‘Chloe! What are you doing?’ her mother asked.
‘Oh nothing,’ she answered brightly, heading to the porch, and singing, ‘Taahhh… Dee da da, dah da da. Dah de da, dah da da.’
‘Mmm… I must have smoked haddock omelette for breakfast when we get back,’ belched Dad, happily. ‘What’s that tune you’re humming?’