Despite a few frights along the way, Karen and Cecilia have walked the streets of Lundern to their destination, just before curfew is due to begin. Cecilia the stock-obstetrician still carries of her package of kittens to deliver. Karen is just keen to get inside.
Standing outside the front door of Cobbler & Cobbler, Karen and Cecilia were flooded with light from the first-floor window.
“Would you?” asked Cecilia, pointing at the bell-pull with her beak, whilst trying not to shake her package too vigorously. Cecilia’s hands were full, in a metaphorical sense.
“Sure,” and Karen took hold of the handle, and pulled down smartly, ringing a bell inside. Almost immediately, there was a rustling at the curtains of the first floor window. From behind them emerged a man in his forties, wearing tatty overalls. His face was unshaven, and he had rounded spectacles upon his nose. In the crook of his elbow he held a white cat, which miaowed excitedly. Seeing who was at the door, the man smiled broadly and shouted down, “we’ve been waiting for you, you’d better come in!” The curtains dropped back into place, and a moment later he and the cat were at the open door, beckoning Cecilia and Karen to enter: “quick, inside, it’s nearly nine o’clock!”
The door opened on to the shop itself. Cecilia stepped in, and Karen followed, a little uncertainly. The cobbler bolted the door behind them, several times over. From the light of the cobbler’s paraffin lamp, Karen saw the shop was cluttered with an array of tools, and surrounded by shelf upon shelf of finished and half-finished shoes. She stood behind Cecilia, feeling slightly shy, waiting to be introduced, but the cobbler turned away and walked back up his narrow stairs to the first floor room from which he had come. As he held the only source of light, Cecilia and Karen followed, without question or comment.
Karen was the last to go up the stairs. In the darkness left behind as the cobbler’s lamp rushed on ahead, Karen chose her steps carefully. As she ascended, she heard the cobbler and his cat talking to each other.
“Yes Agatha, I know. First let Cecilia warm herself in the best chair. It must have been getting cold outside.”
“You know I’ve been waiting so long, Winton.”
“Yes Agatha, I know.”
Their parlour was at the top of the steps. It was a small square room, large enough to seat four people comfortably, or maybe six people uncomfortably. The window was at the far side, the fireplace at the near side. The fire was outshone by a plethora of oil lamps and candles dotted around the edges of the room, on the mantle, and the shelves, and the windowsill. In the middle stood a circular table, and on the walls there were many black and white photographs in simple wooden frames. Cecilia placed her box on the table.
“Come, Cecilia, you have this seat here, by the fire,” insisted the cobbler. Karen surmised that the cobbler’s name was Winton. The cat, Agatha, leapt from Winton’s arm onto the tabletop. She pawed at the box, but was unable to open it. Agatha hailed the cobbler, “Winton, Winton!” and he acceded to her demand, reaching over Agatha to lift the top off the box. Agatha perched herself up and peered within, her nose pressed against the box’s side, gasping: “thank you Cecilia, they’re beautiful!” From Karen’s vantage point, she saw the kittens were still half-asleep. Winton gently tore through each edge of the box, in order to flatten it and better reveal its precious contents. As he did, Agatha stepped inside, nuzzling her three newborn kittens, and licking their faces. One of the kittens dozily protested, “aw, Mum…” and turned around in its bed of straw, without opening his eyes. Agatha purred and fussed on regardless. Without looking up, Agatha repeated: “thank you, thank you Cecilia, they are beautiful.”
“They should be. You’re their mother,” replied Cecilia.
As heart-warming as the scene was, Karen started to feel a little uncomfortable about her own situation. She remained in the corner of the room that lead to the stairway, neither introduced nor even noticed. Agatha circled her young and lay on her side, allowing them to feed on her milk, which they did instinctively. “We were held up,” commented Cecilia, “so it’s no surprise that they’re hungry.”
“We were worried for you. You only got here just before curfew,” said Winton.
With this, Cecilia looked up in Karen’s direction, “please let me introduce Miss Karen Zipslicer of… I’m sorry, was it Lon-don?”
“Yes, no, not exactly,” stammered Karen. It was always awkward to be the lone stranger amongst a group of established friends, especially when most attention was directed elsewhere. “I live outside of London.”
Winton smiled at Karen, “forgive our manners.” He stroked the back of Agatha’s head as Agatha’s children continued to feed. “We’ve been so looking forward to these little ones, we’ve not paid you any regard. I’m Winton, and this,” with his hand cushioning the back of Agatha’s neck, “is Agatha. I can’t introduce you to these three,” he said as he pointed to the kittens with his other hand, “as I don’t know their names yet.”
“Lemuel, Dorothy and Alice,” answered Agatha, without looking up from her young.
“I’m very pleased to meet you all,” said Karen. Karen was not very good at remembering names, so she repeated them around her head – Winton, Agatha, Lemuel, Dorothy and Alice… Winton, Agatha, Lemuel…
“Karen’s a long way from home,” offered Cecilia, who had not expected Karen to be so pensive.
“How so? Didn’t you say you were from just outside Lundern? I admit I don’t know how anybody could live just outside Lundern, but I assume you’re from a nearby city?”
“The nearness of farness of Karen’s home is still in question. It’s called Lon-don. At the train station they said not many traveled that way, leaving Karen with no way back tonight.”
Winton smiled to himself and then at Agatha and her kittens, before turning back to Karen. “Has Cecilia recommended our spare room to you?” Karen was lost for words, so Winton continued, “it’s quite alright. I wouldn’t wish anybody to be caught out after curfew, and you wouldn’t be the first unexpected guest we’ve had. Tonight’s a night for rejoicing. We’ll be glad of one more for company. Make yourself at home.”
Karen felt relieved, and the edges of her mouth curled upwards as she returned Winton’s kindly gaze. She started to relax. Between the fire and the lamps and the candles, the room was very warm. Winton suddenly appreciated that point. He turned to Cecilia and asked, “may I take your cap?” but he cheekily lifted it from her head and placed it comically on his own, before she had a chance to utter a word. “And Karen, your hat and coat?” She hastily removed them and handed them over, glad to be rid of them in this pleasantly warm room. Winton left to hang up the clothes, but soon returned with a bottle, two glasses, and a saucer.
“Sit, sit,” directed Winton. Karen was still stood in the same corner of the room, partly blocking Winton’s entry. He nodded Karen towards the only spare chair in the room, in the far corner from where she stood. Karen hesitated to take it; there was nowhere left for Winton to sit, but the finality of his instruction permitted no dispute. She walked around the cats on the table and plonked herself down in the vacant seat. When Karen sat, she gently but unconsciously swung her legs forward and back, feeling a lot happier than before.
Cecilia said “yes” and Karen said “erm” at about the same time.
“I’ll take that as two yes’s. After all, Agatha can’t have even the smallest sip now that she’s nursing, and you don’t want me drinking alone,” grinned Winton. “Poor Agatha,” he said sweetly as he started to pour into one of the glasses perched on the table around her, “it looks like she’s reached the limit of her excitation after her long wait. Agatha’s eyes were heavy, and she purred deeply. The mother cat said nothing. Soon she would doze like her kittens. “So whilst we enjoy ourselves, we’d better not be too loud.”
“Just a small one for me,” asked Cecilia, referring to her drink.
“Too late, I’ve already poured yours!” joked Winton.
Karen had drunk alcohol before, but the situation made her feel uncomfortable. Not only was she expected to stay in this strange house in this strange place with this strange man, but now there was pressure on her to drink as well. She resolved to take the smallest sip, in order to be polite, but otherwise to drink no more. However, she need not have worried.
“I’m only kidding, Cecilia. I’ve poured you plenty into this saucer, to make it easier for you to drink. What you don’t have, I’ll finish for you,” and with this, Winton slid the saucer around to where Cecilia sat. “And your parents wouldn’t be happy if I let you have much more than a sip,” he said as he turned to Karen, “but you are old enough to have a little, especially as it’s a birthday party.”
Winton left the room to get himself a chair from downstairs. Cecilia lowered her head to her saucer, took a little sherry into her beak, then tilted her neck backwards to drink. “You humans don’t know how lucky you are,” she commented to Karen.
“You’ve got hands. And lips. And opposable thumbs. And depth perception. They’re all very useful things.”
“We can’t fly.”
Cecilia silently reflected for a moment. “True, and your sense of smell isn’t very good either. But then, not being able to smell is actually a blessing in this city.”
During a moment when neither could think of something to say, Karen looked at the photographs on the wall between her and Cecilia. Her tension receding, Karen felt loose for the first time since arriving in Lundern. In this warm room, with its warm decoration, her worries melted out of mind, at least for the moment. Karen’s curiosity turned to other things than whether any given stranger might accost her unexpectedly. Her eyes dined on the images hanging on the walls. Many of the photographs showed Winton with a woman, and a boy. “Who are they?” asked Karen. Cecilia hesitated as Winton re-entered, carrying a stool.
“My wife and son,” said Winton plainly. “She died four years ago. And my son…” his voice trailed off.
“My mother died,” said Karen. She said it as a fact, but a moment later Karen realized how odd it was for her to blurt it out like that. She looked at her sherry, assuming it was to blame.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Winton. Between them, Agatha’s chest rose and fell as she slept soundly. “But I suppose it’s all part of life’s merry-go-round,” he added. “A toast!” and he raised his glass. Karen failed to react for a second, then realized she should stand and hold her glass aloft, just as Winton had. There was no expectation that Cecilia should do likewise. “To the Limahl, Alice and Dorothy, on their birthdays.”
“Lemuel,” corrected Karen. Her memory exercise had been successful.
“It’s Lemuel. You said Limahl.”
“You’re right. To Lemuel, Dorothy and Alice,” and Winton delicately chinked his glass against Karen’s, as they leaned across the table and the cats. Karen remembered her plan and took a tiny sip from her glass. Winton drank more and immediately topped his up.
Her courage returning, Karen asked: “is your son a cobbler too?”
“Your sign says ‘cobbler and cobbler’. I wondered if maybe your son was a cobbler too.”
“No, he didn’t much care for nailing shoes together. I was sending him to school, for as long as I could afford.”
Cecilia looked over at Karen and said: “Winton’s boy, Ellis, hasn’t been home for a few months. We think maybe he got a job and hasn’t had the chance to visit since.”
Karen had no idea what to say next. Winton was the first to break the silence. “I’m the only cobbler round here, but I wasn’t the most popular kind of cobbler round here. My wife liked to bake; apple cobblers, blackberry cobblers, that kind of thing. Now they were very popular, so we sold them from the shop too,” and one corner of his mouth curled into a smile as he said this last sentence, though he lowered his eyes by bowing his head over his glass.
Karen felt awful. Her innocent queries had bore a hole so deep that everyone had fallen into its pit of misery. Winton, who had earlier been cheery, drank some more, and poured himself another drink with speaking. Karen supposed that Cecilia was morose too. Certainly Cecilia was quiet, though Karen had no way of interpreting a stork’s expression. At least Agatha and the kittens were happily asleep. Karen stopped swinging her legs, and she curled her feet around the inside of her chair legs, pinning herself in place.
“We searched for him, for Ellis,” said Winton, still staring down at his drink. “There was no sign of him in any of the poorhouses or sweatshops in this part of town, so that’s a good sign. He most probably found a way of paying his debts and has just been too busy to come by.”
Despite the distressing results so far, Karen could not help but ask another question: “did he have a lot of debts?”
Winton looked up and smiled. “You really aren’t from Lundern, are you? Everyone in this city has debts, or near enough everyone. Even these kittens have debts, unless Agatha’s able to make enough to pay them off.”
Karen’s face epitomized blank incomprehension. Cecilia spoke in her place: “being born isn’t cheap, nor is being delivered. Agatha’s lucky to have a good credit rating. She catches rats who thieve from the grain silos by the docks. It’s honest work, and she pays her bills.” Karen looked quizzically towards Winton, though Cecilia continued: “Tolls, taxes, things like that.”
“So you expect to get paid for delivering these kittens?”
“I’m on a salary,” explained Cecilia, “with the hospital. Agatha pays the hospital, not me, though I can’t deny that some fraction of what people pay the hospital must wind up in my paypacket.”
“She’s not from here, Cecilia,” interjected Winton. “Let her be,” and then, after slapping his hands on his knees and getting to his feet, “this is a party, so I’m going to have a dance. You sit there if you prefer, but you won’t stop me from having a little pleasure tonight.”
Winton had finished several glasses of sherry, very quickly, and it showed. Seemingly forgetting about the sleeping kittens whose birthday he was celebrating, Winton clapped a beat above his head, albeit gently. He softly jigged around the table, in time to his claps, and hummed a sedate tune. Round he went, and again, careful not to brush against Karen or Cecilia as he went past. Occasionally a misplaced elbow would glance against a sideboard or wall, though never hard enough to cause him to spill his drink. Karen put down her glass and stood up too, slowly skipping around in the same direction as Winton, clicking her fingers, and swaying her hips in tempo with his beat. Winton’s hum turned into a murmur, and when Cecilia teasingly complained that the cats would not wake, Winton sweetly sang, prompting Cecilia to circle the table too, gaily waving her wings and smacking her beak in time.
“Warm welcome to all, warm welcome to all.
There’s no time to dance, after you fall.
Whether you’re in the sky, or in the ground.
Life’s no longer of use, if you’re not around.
So whilst you’re here, make yourself merry.
Dance for a while, and drink some more sherry.”
Winton sang his song four times over, before slumping into the chair where Cecilia sat, and grinning to himself.
“Ah, if you’ve taken my place, then it’s not my place to stay,” joked Cecilia.
“No please,” pleaded Winton, “don’t go so soon.”
“I must. I have my own nest to tend to, and a busy day tomorrow: fox cubs first thing, and a human baby in the afternoon.”
“Well, if you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go.”
“Thank you very much,” said Karen to Cecilia.
“No need for thanks, my dear. I was coming this way anyway. Don’t stay up too late – you’ve got your own stuff and nonsense to make sense of tomorrow,” and with this Cecilia waved and started down the stairs with Winton following, holding a paraffin lamp aloft. Karen heard them on the steps when, half way down, Winton loudly remarked that they had forgotten Cecilia’s cap. He came back up the stairs again, and went into the back room, but as he returned to the stairs he popped his head into the parlour and told Karen: “help yourself to another little drop of sherry, if you like.”
Karen’s glass was empty, so she did pour herself a very little more, whilst she listened to Cecilia and Winton leaving. Pulling the curtains back, she saw Cecilia stand on the street, shake out her wings, then hop, skip and take to the air. Karen waved at Cecilia, but she was soon out of sight amidst the fog that clung to the rooftops. Upwards she turned, unable to catch sight of a single star in the sky, but then Winton was back in the parlour with her.
“That Cecilia’s a lovely gal,” said Winton, “you were lucky she found you.” Karen nodded but once again she could not think of what to say. Winton walked around to stroke Agatha, and no words were spoken, until he looked back over his shoulder and plainly stated: “you’ve got the same hazel eyes as my wife had.” Then he picked up Cecilia’s saucer and poured the remaining contents down his throat. Looking a little tired, he began to hum and waltz around the table again, whilst Karen snuggled into the best chair, by the embers of the dying fire.
“I wondered should I stay, or should I go,
The band had reached the last song of the show.
And then I saw you in the corner of the room,
Wearing your masquerade costume.
I had my first waltz with you,
From forty people at dance class.
I stepped upon your toe,
But that did not cause an impasse.
All the love we shared, was started there,
Though we only danced for a dare.
The love we had went on, and on and on,
Not unlike the words of this song.
I learned to waltz round with you,
My wallflower days were in the past.
You stepped upon my toe,
That’s when I knew it was meant to last.
It’s not over yet, the crowd shouts encore,
But I’m blistered, and your feet are sore.
La la la la la la la la la,
La la la la la la la la la.”
Karen was giggling with her hand over her mouth, trying not to wake the cats, who remained soundly asleep. “Funny, am I?” teased Winton, and he reached for Karen’s hand, lifting her from the chair. Winton twirled Karen around, leading her around the table as he completed his song.
“I had my last waltz with you,
We both of us had a good laugh.
Our toes are all so bruised,
Let’s go home and prepare a foot bath.
La la la la la la la la la.”
On the final la-la-la’s, Winton twirled Karen some more, so that she was pirouetting on the spot. Karen showed off, spinning on the wheels in her heels, even after Winton had let go. “What kind of shoes are those?” wondered Winton. Karen collapsed back into the best chair and held up the sole of her right foot, so Winton could see. “Wheels, in the heels?” continued Winton, “that’s an ingenious idea. I’ve never seen them before, are they common where you come from?”
“Not just common. They’re positively old-fashioned,” said Karen, a little glumly, though she was still in good spirits from the dancing.
The fire was nearly out, and Winton noticed that some of the candles had burned low. He started to blow them out and turn off the lamps. “There’s nothing old about you, Karen, not even your shoes or any other part of your fashion. You’re barely older than these kittens,” he teased, “but we’ll need to get you home tomorrow to your parents tomorrow… ” and then he corrected himself, “I’m sorry, to your father tomorrow. Come my dear, it must be your bedtime. I’m sure your father wouldn’t let you stay up this late, even for your own birthday.”
It was actually quite early, thought Karen. “My dad does let me stay up on special occasions.”
“Well, yes, but the birthday boys and girls are fast asleep, and it looks like they’re best not disturbed by our partying in their name. Once you’re in bed, I’ll put them in their basket.”
“Come this way,” though Winton did not lead Karen far; he reached for a ladder from the hallway, then placed it against the wall, underneath a hatch in the ceiling.
“That’s right. Follow me,” and Winton stepped carefully up the ladder, pushing up the hatch which his head. He then hoisted himself into the loft. Karen followed unsteadily. As she climbed the ladder, Winton lit a candle to illuminate the tiny and angular loft room.
“This was my son’s room. Just whistle if you need anything; my bedroom’s behind the parlour. Good night.” Winton left without waiting for thanks, but whilst he was halfway through the hatch, Karen remembered to give it.
“Thanks Winton. Good night. I don’t know where I’d have gone if, you know…”
“Hush, go to bed,” said Winton, “and put out the candle when you’re done.” And with that, he closed the hatch behind him.
There were no windows, and the roof of this room sloped inward in most directions. The floor was no more than two paces wide, and it was only barely long enough for someone to lie down. Even at its highest point, which was near the hatch, it was too low to stand up straight. Karen leaned with one elbow against the wall as she kicked aside her shoes. The bed was narrow and short, on legs cut into stumps, and squeezed so tight against the sloping roof that Karen would have no room to turn over in her sleep. She lay upon it as she pulled off her jeans and jumper. It was cold in this loft room, so Karen did not delay, climbing under the blankets and pulling them right over her head, just leaving a little space to stick her face out at the side. And only then she remembered to blow out the candle, which she had left lying on the floor next to the bed, so she stretched her neck out just far enough to do that, and then she tucked herself in like before. After that, she was asleep sooner than she might have expected.
And because she was asleep, and even snoring just a little, Karen did not notice when, a short while later, the hatch to the room lifted up again. From the opening, a hand reached into the room. It snaked its way inside, hunting its prey. The hand came in further, and further. It crept closer and closer towards Karen’s bed until, it found one, then the other quarry. Back it dragged them, whilst Karen was dead to the world. Out through the hatch went Karen’s shoes; this cobbler would have them examined further.