There was no doubt at all which person was Phyllida Kynaston in the waiting crowd outside the station. Her very appearance was enough to almost make me stop and stare but at the last moment I refrained from such rudeness. Still, I cannot call to mind having encountered a single person quite as quirky as all that. I had some vague memories of a visit by aunt Phyllida conducted when I was a child. Perhaps it was ten years ago? Twelve? That was the only time I had met her in the flesh. I knew my mother kept a regular, though infrequent, correspondence with her but I remained a tad surprised she had agreed to have me.
Phyllida was not old, only recently had she turned forty-two. She was six years older than my mother who, it goes without saying, was very young indeed when she brought me into the world. Some people tend to age prematurely but Phyllida had avoided this mishap. In fact, she looked very young. Her dark hair was neither short, as was fashionable, nor long but somewhere in between. It was quite unheard of. Her coat, as well, was simply too figure-hugging. The strangest thing was her stance because she stood as if nothing in the world frightened her, quite unusual for a woman.
I could see from yards away how her eyes glittered with mischief and wondered if I should indeed dare to approach. However, there was not a lot else I could do, apart from once more board the train, and thus I tried for a smile as I boldly paced up to where she was waiting for me.
‘Aunt Phyllida?’ I asked though mostly for form’s sake. It would not do to assume.
‘Darling Matilda, welcome!’ she said with genuine warmth in her voice. ‘Please, do call me Phyllie. Phyllida is such an over-bearing name. I shall never understand why my parents decided to shackle me with it!’
I did not know what to say to that so I merely kept smiling. Being received by someone who was, in truth, quite the stranger was a very odd experience. However, the town itself seemed pleasant enough and to my surprise I realised I very much liked the air which felt clearer than in Manhattan. The sun was setting and washed the landscape with gold.
‘Now dear, are you hungry?’ At her question my belly started to rumble and I had to concede that I was, indeed, famished.
‘Should we take dinner at yours?’ I asked and was rewarded with an expression of utter shock.
‘Goodness gracious, do I look like a person who knows how to cook? I swear here and now that I cannot even boil an egg without botching it! My darling girl, if you expect food cooked by me during your stay here you will be greatly disappointed. No,’ she said with a gesture toward what I assumed was the town centre, ‘we shall eat out, naturally. Of course I also have a cook but I gave her the night off, having planned to take you out on the town, such as it is.’ She eyed me and I did not know what for.
‘Very well, then,’ I agreed after a slight pause. I would soon find this was the case after a fair number of Phyllida’s statements.
‘Splendid! Let the people who are paid to do so bring your luggage to my house. The butler will receive it and see it sent to your room. Come, I know you must be tired so I came here by automobile. You know, a car.’
I nodded. Who did not know what it was? Hers was waiting for us just over the road and we got in. I saw it was a modern one, run on fuel rather than steam or cogwheels. Honestly, I thought, the stories one had heard about those contraptions! Mother’s, and I suppose also Phyllida’s in that case, parents had had one and apparently you had to get out all hours at a journey and rewind it. This one took off smoothly and we travelled a short distance to some food establishment.
‘Now, it’s a rather simple place, my dear. Don’t expect fancy, elaborate dishes. It’s more along the lines of classical home-cooked food, but I assure you that the quality of their stuff far surpasses some of the places in York or even London.’
With that we ventured inside and I was enveloped by an air of homeliness, completely at odds to what I was used to in a restaurant. The first thing to catch my attention was the rather large fireplace situated in one of the far walls. Flames danced there merrily and several people were lounging in armchairs in front of it, while sipping what I thought was whisky. The walls were of dark wood and the ceiling of course sported the Tudor beams.
When I had taken all of this in I noticed the stares. Goodness, I thought, have they seen me in that fateful newspaper? As if reading my thoughts aunt Phyllida whispered in my ear.
‘Never mind the stares, they’re doing it because you’re an outsider.’ Then she spoke up. ‘Why hello there folks! How do you do? This is my niece Matilda visiting.’
At once it seemed they relaxed while nodding at me and some even cracked a few smiles. A pretty woman hurried up to us, with a huge smile on her face. I noticed she had dimples and envied her at once.
‘Rosie,’ my aunt said with warmth, ‘please, may I introduce you to my niece, Miss Matilda Arkwright.’
I wanted to correct her and point out that I was not just a ‘miss’ but a lady, though I managed to refrain. Maybe when I had been here a few days I would correct people in their erroneous assumption. Rosie turned to me and smiled, if that was possible, ever wider.
‘Good evening Miss Arkwright, how do you do?’ I smiled and nodded back.
‘Could we have a table, please, Rosie,’ said my aunt.
‘Certainly, just come with me. I have a good one free in the corner over there.’
We followed her and ended up at a small table in the far end corner, by a window decorated with a few flower pots and curtains. The light was a bit dim where we sat, though we had a candle at our disposal. When we had sat down Rosie carried on by telling us the evening’s menu.
‘We have steak and ale pie, steak and kidney pie, bangers and mash, roast beef and of course pork pie with mashed potato. What would you like?’ She looked at me expectantly.
I was a tad overwhelmed by the heaviness of the dishes she had presented me with. They were what I suppose people refer to as ‘hearty food’ but nothing really caught my fancy and I turned helplessly to Phyllida. She looked at me with a raised eyebrow and laughter dancing in her eyes.
‘I think she’ll have the bangers and mash, won’t you, dear?’ I nodded gratefully. Nothing could be worse than the rest, surely. ‘And I will have the pork pie, please. We’ll have beer with that, thank you!’
‘Beer?’ I burst out when Rosie had left. ‘On a Tuesday evening?’
‘Girl, you are in Britain now. You will find, I promise, that no evening is wrong for a good alcoholic beverage. Besides, the beer in this place is mighty good.’
‘I shall have to take your word for it.’
She grinned. ‘Indeed! Now, tell me, what has happened, really? Your mother was very brief in her reason why you are here, but so distraught. It’s just like her to work herself up like that.’
I felt a blush creep up on my cheeks which was ridiculous really. After all, I was not the one in the wrong, I was the one who had been wronged. Still, it felt like I was somehow lacking. I told her as much of the terribly situation as I could muster up the courage for and her eyebrows wrinkled in sympathy. Thankfully our food arrived just then. I stared dubiously at the two large sausages resting on my plate. Aunt Phyllida had no such qualms but began eating with gusto and silence ensued.
‘But really, are you telling me that Hiram actually sent for his gun?’ she asked after a few bites.
Unexpectedly I felt laughter bubble up inside me and I began to giggle. ‘Yes! Oh, can you imagine the look on my supposed groom’s face if he had actually gone after him with it!’
‘Quite!’ Phyllida started giggling too and suddenly we both sat there helplessly with tears streaming down our faces, and in Phyllida’s case she was almost spreading half chewed pieces of peas everywhere meanwhile before she managed to swallow them in between gasps for air.
Eventually we both managed to calm down and dabbed at our eyes carefully while trying to deduce whether the other guests had caught us at it. Of course they had but nobody frowned, rather they seemed curious what had been so very amusing. The whole thing had also left me much cheered up.
‘Oh, Matilda, it’s good you’re here. It sounds like it was all so very serious,’ she said while pointing at me with a forkful of peas.
‘But what should I do with my life now? I had always believed I was to get married, and it seemed to be all settled. Now I am at a loss.’
She shook her head. ‘Really, it has only been a few days, and the world is big. There are plenty of things you could be doing.’
‘Such as?’ I asked while taking my first bite of one of the sausages. It was not as bad as all that.
‘Oh go to South America or Egypt and participate in the excavations of those fabulous ancient people. Or maybe you should go to India and start an elephant farm? Beautiful creatures, elephants. They’re so very regal, in a strange sort of way.’
Again I had no idea what to reply to the statement about elephants. Regal was not a word I associated with them.
‘What I mean to say,’ she continued, ‘is that money is not a problem for you. Enjoy it. You can do anything you like, and you would find it rewarding, I know it. We are quite alike.’
I sputtered slightly.
‘Aunt, no offence, but you are an eccentric. Everybody knows it.’
‘Yes?’ She raised an eyebrow. ‘Do you mean to say you’re not? Trust me, my dear girl, you are. I would recognise one anywhere. If you think you’re not you’ve merely not realised it yet. It’s a shame, the world becomes a much more fun place once you do.’
I stared at her while chewing my sausages and mash.
‘In any case, darling, once we arrive at my house your room will be ready and if there is anything you need you can just ask good old Fernandez.’
‘Oh, Fernandez is my butler.’
‘Isn’t that a very…’ I searched for words. ‘A very Spanish name?’
‘Why, yes, I believe it is because he is from there.’
‘You’re employing a Spanish butler?’ I was aghast.
‘Please dear, don’t hold it against him. Once he learnt English there was never a problem again. Besides, it keeps people away unless they really want something.’ Her eyes twinkled. ‘After all, they don’t want to encounter the Spaniard unnecessarily. Though I don’t know why, he’s a brilliant man, very well educated, and the recipes he brought to my house-hold? Marvellous, simply marvellous.’
We continued to speak about this and that but I was indeed exhausted so once we had finished our meals auntie decided we should return to her home. I could, as she said, spend time in town at a later date. Once we were in the car again I recalled there was something I had not asked her.
‘Phyllida,’ I said, ‘what exactly is it that you do here?’
‘Oh, I do apologise, and please call me Phyllie. Horribly rude of me not to say, I suppose. Why, I work as a private detective.’
‘Ah that is… you what? You work? And you work as what?’ I could not believe what I had just heard.
‘Don’t make a fuss, it’s a perfectly respectable occupation. Plus I get to meet so many interesting people in this line of work.’
Just then we arrived at her house and I simply followed her, lost for words. The fact that she worked at all was bad enough, in its way, but as a private detective? What did one of those even do? And why would anybody want to hire my eccentric aunt to do it?
The house was very large, by what I had understood to be English standards. They seemed fond of doing things rather on the small scale. At least I would be comfortable, I thought, and that is when I saw the sign hanging above the door.
‘Goodness me, auntie, does that sign say what I think it does?’
She turned back toward me. ‘That rather depends I should think.’
‘Does it really say ‘Old Herring Detective Bureau’? And is that…’ I took a step closer. ‘Is that a herring and a spyglass intersecting?’
‘I should hope so, that is what I specified when ordering the sign!’
However, I never got an explanation because right then she opened the door and from inside the house I heard a very strange sound. When stepping inside I saw something white, brown and fluffy run around on the floor, emitting a very strange noise. It sounded like…
‘How on earth, is that dog… twittering at you?’ I asked in astonishment as the dog kept up his sound.
‘Frrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!’ he kept saying happily while his tail wagged so much it was going in circles.
‘I believe so!’ said my aunt, bending down and scratching him behind the ear. ‘Matilda, this is my darling Patrick.’
‘But surely a dog shouldn’t be twittering!’ I held onto this belief. ‘Why is he doing it?’
‘I assume he does it when he is happy. And why shouldn’t he? Do you have but one means to express yourself?’
‘There you go then!’ she said. ‘Now, off to bed. Fernandez will take you upstairs.’
Suddenly a man materialised in front of me. I could swear he had not been there before and I almost jumped back in surprise, partly because he did not look Spanish in the least. He nodded at me and began walking towards the stairs. Dazed, I followed him. It had been a very strange day.
‘Good night, darling Matilda!’ called out Phyllida.
‘Frp!’ twittered Patrick.