Friday, April 23, 2010

The Lesson of the Walking Stick

“So, what can you tell me about the man that owns this walking stick?” asked Sir Arthur.

I took the proffered stick and made a show of examining it thoroughly. Sir Arthur, with his templed fingers pretended not to be observing me, but I knew that he was taking in my every move. I also knew that this was a test. He was testing my powers of deduction and, as his apprentice, I was expected to fail. Sir Arthur was only allowing me to tag along on his investigations because he had a bet going with Sir George. Sir George believed that I was at least as clever as Sir Arthur and Sir Arthur was convinced that he, and he alone, possessed the intelligence for which he was renowned and had made him England’s greatest detective.

I hefted the walking stick and tested its balance by twirling it between my fingers. I held it up and looked down its length. I examined the silver handle and scrutinized the worn tip.

“He’s a pompous ass,” I said and laid the walking stick down on the table that separated me from my mentor.

Sir Arthur’s hands dropped to the arms of the chair, but he only glanced sideways at me. His aspect was one of disciplined emotional control. After a long minute of silence, he finally said, “That’s a rather terse assessment. On what do you base it?”

“It’s quite simple, really. Anyone who would use such a pretentious thing as a silver-tipped walking stick in this day and age could only be a pompous ass.” I paused. “He also owns a dog.”

Sir Arthur’s looked at me then. If he’d taught me anything in the nine months since this ridiculous bet had been made, it was the art of maintaining disciplined emotional control. My face was devoid of any expression. I noticed his eyes narrow ever so slightly and I knew that the real game had just begun.

“I’ll not give you any points for the dog. The teeth marks near the bottom of the shaft are a dead giveaway. Any idiot could see them and tell there is a dog involved. You’ll have to do better than that,” he snapped. He gestured with his left hand for me to continue. He was yet to be impressed.

“Very well. He’s a pompous ass...”

“Never mind that part. You’ve made your point quite adequately.” Sir Arthur resumed his focused posture with his fingers templed under his chin.

“He shops at Mackey’s,” I said.

“Mackey’s? What makes you say that?”

“There is a Mackey’s insignia etched into the wood just below the handle.”

“Indeed?” Sir Arthur picked up the walking stick and pretended to search for the Mackey’s crest.

“That’s no better than the dog. Carry on.”

“He’s six feet tall, wears a size eleven shoe and limps. He’s clean shaven, but wears his hair just a bit longer than is currently fashionable. He takes enormous pride in his appearance. He carries a pocket watch and shuns modern technology. He thinks the walking stick is both debonair and intimidating. He hates salads and he’s well read; has an extensive and enviable library. His nose was broken once in a fight when he was learning to box in college and he’s left handed. He’s single – no woman in her right mind would ever marry him and...”

“All right! That’s quite enough.” Sir Arthur stood up and walked to the other side of the room where he poured himself a brandy from a crystal decanter. He sipped the amber liquid either thoughtfully or in great consternation. I was not entirely sure as I could not see his face. He was looking out the window.

“You think you’re very clever, don’t you William?” Sir Arthur spoke quietly, keeping his back turned toward me.

“Don’t you?” I challenged.

“Not really. You saw the walking stick in the closet at some point. You simply remembered it that’s all. But insulting me... Well, that’s not clever, William. It’s shear insolence.”

“You asked. I merely answered. If you did not want me to tell you the truth, you should not have asked.” I joined him next to the brandy decanter and helped myself to a finger or two. Sir Arthur snorted at my audacious display of self esteem. I took a sip of the vile liquor and managed to keep my distaste from showing. A swig of beer would have hit the spot just then, but brandy was all he had.

“So, after all I’ve done for you, that is what you truly think of me? A pompous ass? An undesirable man?”

“And a lousy boxer. Don’t forget the lousy boxer part,” I said.

“Get out. Get out of my house, you ungrateful little wanker!”

I put the brandy snifter on the table and looked at Sir Arthur. “Good-bye, Sir Arthur,” I said.

I took my leave of the man who would win a thousand pounds because I had to call it the way I saw it. And I was okay with that. What I was not okay with was having to face Sir George when I got home. I was not looking forward to looking him in the eye and telling him that I called his best friend a pompous ass.

I had grown up listening to Sir George talk endlessly about Sir Arthur. Sir Arthur this and Sir Arthur that. I had followed all of Sir Arthur’s cases and when I decided to become a police officer, Sir George insisted that I train with him. Sir Arthur, though, had no interest in me until I solved a particularly vexing case involving the serial murders of thirteen old ladies and their dogs. (The groomer did it!)

Sir George had been boasting about me to Sir Arthur, who wagered that I had not solved the case as much as it had been conveniently solved for me with an anonymous tip that paid off. Sir George wagered that I was just as good as Sir Arthur and, with one thousand pounds on the line I managed to become Sir Arthur’s Pygmalion, so to speak. I don’t know why I agreed to it, but there was a certain allure about studying under the tutelage of the great detective. It didn’t hurt with my superiors, who worshiped the man, either. They had visions of getting Sir Arthur to become a police consultant instead of a private investigator. With him in their pockets, they were sure that crime would all but cease. That is the level of awe they held him at.

The truth was that Sir Arthur was good at what he did. That he harboured the not-so-secret belief that he was some real-life version of Sherlock Holmes – only better – was a clear indication of how out of control he potentially was. His ego was the size of the British Empire (when it still covered most of the known world).

I arrived home to find Sir George sitting by the fire in the great room of his familial manor house, a pipe dangling from between his clamped lips and the evening edition of the London Times gripped in his perfectly manicured hands. I helped myself to a beer from the kitchen and joined him, ready to take my lumps.

“A pompous ass, eh?” he said around the pipe and paper.

“He called you?” I asked, somewhat surprised. I half expected Sir Arthur to call, but I did not expect him to give the details so forthrightly.

“A lousy boxer? No woman in her right mind would have him?” Sir George put down the paper and withdrew the pipe. “I dare say William that was the easiest thousand pounds I ever made!” He threw his head back and laughed until tears rolled down his cheeks and his ample belly ached.

I sipped my beer from the bottle, thinking that that Sir Arthur had been right about me all along. It was clear that I had missed something rather fundamental to the case.

“My dear boy,” said Sir George when he finally composed himself enough to speak, “you have no idea how happy you’ve made me.”

“I don’t understand,” I said. “I thought that you wanted me to prove that I was as good as Sir Arthur.”

“And you did. You did, my boy. In fact you proved that you are better than him.”

“Just how did I do that?”

“Don’t you see? Sir Arthur expected you to give him some tripe about the walking stick’s owner. He was desperate to make a fool out of you and win the bet.”

“Didn’t he win the bet?”

“As I recall, the bet was that if you did not master his techniques within a year, I would pay him a thousand pounds.”

“Yes, and?”

"And you bested him at his own game. He’s really quite impressed with you, William.”

I was confused. “So he asked me to tell him about the man who owned the walking stick with the intention that I would assume it was a clue in some case and rattle off some nonsense about it belonging to some wealthy aristocrat with excellent taste and a love of the opera?”

“Something like that, yes. He expected you to be entrapped by the stereo type associated with that sort of thing.”

“So he really had no idea that I knew that the walking stick was his?”

“None whatsoever.”

“I guess I should apologise to him.”

“Whatever for?”

“For... Well for calling him a pompous ass, for starters.”

Sir George laughed again. “Nonsense. He knows he’s a pompous ass. He found it quite refreshing that you had the stones to say it to his face. I’ve been saying it for thirty-eighty years, but my opinion doesn’t count for much with him. I’d have to solve more than the Sunday crossword before he’d take anything I have to say seriously.”

“So why’d he call me an ungrateful wanker and kick me out?”

“Oh, that! Well, when he went over to pour his brandy, he saw his neighbour disrobing in her bedroom window. She only does that when she wants him to,” Sir George cleared his throat, “uh visit.”

My eyebrows meshed with my hair line. “I see. Well, then. I suppose that I should at least apologize for saying no woman would have him.” I drained my bottle of beer.

“Who said she was in her right mind?” Sir George and I both laughed, then retired to our beds for the night.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

It's Time to Go

Jacob pulled his watch out of his pocket and looked at it in dismay. It had stopped again. The darn thing just could not seem to keep time properly anymore. What was worse, though, was the fact that he had no idea what time it was and the closest guess he could make was ‘late.’ Again. He doubted very much that Bethany would forgive him this time. She had been very specific about that last time.

Oh, well, Jacob thought to himself. Might as well go take my lumps and be done with it.

When he arrived at Bethany’s house, the party was already in full swing. Several dozen people, none of whom Jacob knew, were milling about in the living room and dining room. The smokers had been banished to the patio and Jacob decided to join them. Maybe he could convince Bethany that he had not been late, but delayed by some chatty smoker on his way in. It was at least plausible.

After making sure that Bethany was nowhere in sight, Jacob joined a small group of puffing guests in the midst of a deep debate. The trio, two men and a woman, made room for him, widening their circle without missing a beat in the conversation.

“Personally, I think she’s quite mad,” said the woman.

“Well, she’s always been a bit eccentric, but I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say she’s crazy,” said the taller of the two men.

“She isn’t eccentric at all. She just has a penchant for falling for the wrong kind of guy.” The shorter, more diplomatic man sipped a rum and coke.

“Wrong kind of guy, indeed.” The woman gulped her own drink – a martini – and fingered a string of pearls that was draped across her ample bosom. “She’s a bloody nut bar, if you ask me.”

“You’re just jealous,” said the short man.

“Of what? Her imaginary boyfriend? I prefer my men to have flesh and blood, thank you very much.” The woman tossed back the last of her drink, abandoning the olive in the bottom of the glass.

“What makes you think he isn’t real?” the tall man asked.

“Do you see him anywhere?” countered the woman. She looked around as if seeking this unknown, unseen man of whom they were talking. “Well, do you?”

The others looked around as well, the tall man, the short man and Jacob, though it was clear than none of them even knew who they were looking for. It seemed to Jacob to be a wasted effort, but he looked nonetheless.

“How do you know he’s not here?” asked the short man, standing on tiptoes to get a better look. His eyes fell on Jacob. “I mean, this fellow here might be him.” He pointed at Jacob.

“Are you?” the woman and the tall man asked in unison.

Jacob was taken aback for a moment. “It’s hard to say,” Jacob said. “I don’t know who you’re looking for.”

“Neither do we,” said the tall man.

“I see,” said Jacob. There seemed little else to say in the circumstances.

“We’re looking for Bethany’s imaginary boyfriend,” the woman explained. “He’s supposed to be some sort of musician, but no one’s ever seen him. Apparently, he doesn’t even have a cell phone.”

“Doesn’t believe in technology,” said the short man. “According to Bethany, he carries one of them silly pocket watches that went out of style about the time the dinosaurs died off.”

“Doesn’t own a computer. Doesn’t even drive!” the tall man said. “Bethany says that he lives off the grid.”

“Whatever that means,” said the woman, shivering in revulsion. She lifted her empty glass and teased the olive into thinking it was going to be consumed, then changed her mind and let it fall back to the bottom of the glass again.

“Well, if I see him anywhere, I’ll tell him you want to meet him,” Jacob said and backed away from the group.

Through the patio doors, Jacob saw Bethany working the crowd inside. He stepped into the shadows under the eave next to an open window. He could hear Bethany talking.

“I’m going to kill him,” she said. “I told him to be here by nine and it’s after nine-thirty.”

“Why don’t you call him?” Someone suggested.

“I would if I could,” said Bethany, “but he doesn’t have a phone.”

“He doesn’t have a phone?”

“Doesn’t believe in them.”

“How can anyone not believe in phones?”

“Well, he has a phone, but it’s only for emergencies.”

“Serious? How do you get in touch with him?”

“We make arrangements when we’re together.”

“That doesn’t sound very efficient.”

“It’s not. It’s a bloody pain. I don’t know how many times he’s said he’d be somewhere and not shown up.”

“Well, honey, I’d dump the clod if I were you.”

“You think? This is the last straw. Next time I see him, I’m going to tell him that either he gets a phone so I can get hold of him or he gets lost.”

“Good for you. Who needs a deadbeat like that anyway?”

Jacob, having heard enough, moved away from the window and crossed the patio. He had to pass the trio who were still debating Bethany’s sanity.

“Hey, bud,” the tall man called out to him, “Do you know what time it is?”

Jacob stopped. “Sure,” he said, pulling his watch out of his pocket and holding it up so they could see it clearly. “It’s time to go.”

They all stared open-mouthed at Jacob as he and his watch disappeared into the night.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Good Cosmetician

Pam was thrilled. It was her first shift at the cosmetic counter at Max-Well's Pharmacy. She had just completed a ten-month program in cosmetology at the local college, graduating at the top of her class. Max-Well’s had been known to recruit from the program, and Pam was their first pick. She didn’t even have to apply; they called on her! Now here she was, in her pale pink smock, ready to make every woman in Cedar City beautiful. Her goal was to be made head of the department. From there... Well, the sky was the limit. For Pam, the future looked very bright, indeed.

Even though she knew the Max-Well’s cosmetic department inside and out – she’d spent more time there than anywhere since she was old enough to wear make-up – Pam dutifully followed Courtney, her ‘shift sister’ through the mandatory orientation.

Courtney, bored and unimpressed with Pam’s high grade, made it clear that Pam was the new kid on the block and that she wouldn’t be getting any special treatment. In fact, when the orientation ended, Courtney made Pam dust all the shelves and polish all the mirrors. It was tedious work, not an ounce of the glamour that she had anticipated. Just dust and window cleaner fumes for a full eight hours.

The cleaning seemed endless. Every day Pam showed up for work and every day Courtney found something else for her to clean. In the first week, Pam broke four fingernails. She should have been applying them to the hands of her new clients, not having her own ripped off. But the cosmetic counter sparkled in a way that Pam, at least, could be very proud of.
On her fifth day, Pam noticed a new lipstick display in the back room. Deciding to take initiative and hope to win some points with Courtney, she set it up while Courtney was on her lunch. It seemed fairly straightforward. The clear plastic display case was ready to go. All she had to do was enter the stock into the inventory control program on the computer, label the testers and load the stock into the display. There were only a dozen each of nine colours, it wouldn’t take long. By the time Courtney returned from lunch, not only would the cosmetic counter shine, it would sport the attractive new display case.

Pam used the procedure manual to guide her through the process of entering the stock into the computer. Just to be sure that she was on the right track, she scanned a few samples of the product into the point of sale terminal and was pleased to see that she had done it right. Surely this would prove to Courtney that she was capable of more than keeping the glass counters streak free. She finished five minutes before Courtney was due back. And Courtney never returned early from her breaks.

Just as Pam had put the last lipstick into the display, a woman approached the counter. “Good afternoon,” Pam greeted the woman. “Can I help you find anything?”

“I’m just browsing,” the woman said. She moved away from Pam, but paused at the new lipstick display. Pam smiled at her, then got out the glass cleaner and started looking busy so Courtney would have nothing to complain about. The woman hovered around the display until Courtney came in, then quickly moved away toward the toy section.

“Hi, Courtney.” Pam chirped. “Did you have a nice lunch?”

“Yeah, great. You better get going. You only have forty-five minutes left on your lunch.” Courtney walked behind the counter and disappeared into the back room to put away her purse.

Pam, deflated and disappointed, retrieved her own purse from the back and walked quickly down the mall to the food court where she grabbed a ready-made sandwich and a can of diet cola. She sat on a bench to eat and people watch. Half-way through her stale and uninteresting lunch, Pam saw the woman from the cosmetic counter leaving Max-Well’s wearing a new pair of sun glasses. Her large purse appeared to be bulging. Pam didn’t think that it was that full at the cosmetic counter, but a good-looking guy walking by distracted her from pursuing that thought.
She finished her cola and checked her watch. There was just enough time to run over to the shoe store and pay for the mules she’d had her eye on for the last week. She felt she deserved a treat for surviving her first week with Courtney. But she’d have to hustle. She didn’t think that Courtney would be too forgiving if she was late, in spite of the fact that Courtney had tacked fifteen minutes of it onto her own lunch.

When Pam returned to Max-Well’s Pharmacy, Courtney was waiting for her. And she didn’t look very happy.

“So,” Courtney sneered, “what did you do while I was having lunch?”

Pam couldn’t help but look over at the lipstick display. “I thought you might have noticed,” she said. “I put that new lipstick display out for you.” She tried to sound upbeat, but the look that Courtney was giving her had her blood running cold.

“Oh, I noticed, all right. I also noticed that seven of the lipsticks are missing. I don’t suppose you sold them, too.” Courtney’s tone was accusing.

Pam went over to the display. There were several gaping holes where product was supposed to be. Where product had been only three quarters of an hour ago.

“Um, no, Courtney. I didn’t sell any. There was a lady looking at them, though.” Pam gulped. She couldn’t believe that the woman had stolen seven lipsticks right out from under her nose. She felt terrible.

“You let some shoplifter steal them. Weren’t you watching?” Courtney spat.

“I... I was cleaning the counter. She just looked at them for a few seconds. I didn’t see her touch the display at all. I’m so sorry, Courtney. I really didn’t see her take anything.” Pam was trying not to cry, but it was a losing battle. She knew she was in trouble and she could see her dream dying before it even got off the ground.

“It’s your job to prevent theft,” Courtney hissed. “You’re fired.”


Could Courtney even do that? Pam just stood there, crying and apologising.

Just then, Pete Jackson, the pharmacist and store owner came up to the cosmetic counter. He stopped next to Pam and put a gentle hand on her arm. “Pam, what’s wrong? Are you okay?”

Pam sniffed loudly and confessed her sin. “I’m so sorry, Mr. Jackson. I’m afraid that some lady stole a bunch of lipstick while I was manning the counter. I didn’t see her take it, but she must have. She was the only one anywhere near the display. I’m so, so sorry. I’ll turn in my smock and leave.”

“Hmmm...” said Pete thoughtfully. “What did this lady look like?”

“Um, well, she was blond. Quite pretty. And she had a huge, green handbag. That’s all I can remember.”

“I see,” Pete said. “And you’re sure she took the lipstick?”

“Courtney said she did. I had only just finished the display right before Courtney got back from her lunch.” Then she added, “at ten after one.” Courtney glared at her.
Pete looked at the senior cosmetician with a raised eyebrow, who looked quickly away. “Well, I doubt very much that the blond lady with the green purse was the one who stole the lipstick.”
“Of course, she did,” Courtney snapped. “Who else could have taken them? Pam said she was the only one around.”

“She wasn’t the only one,” Pete said. “You two come with me.”

“I have to look after the cosmetic counter,” Courtney said by way of excuse.

“Don’t worry about it, Courtney,” Pete said. “Jenny will take over for a few minutes.” He gestured for Pam and Courtney to precede him to his office.

Courtney seemed to panic. “Really, Mr. Jackson, I think I should stay here and see if Pam let anything else get stolen.”

“I’m sure Jenny can take care of that. Now, please, come into my office.”
Jenny arrived at the counter. She patted Pam’s shoulder, but gave the agitated Courtney a cold shoulder. Courtney watched her closely, then dashed into the back room. “I have to get my purse,” she said.

Pete waited patiently next to the sniffling Pam.

When at last they arrived in the office, their boss asked Pam and Courtney to take a seat. He then sat down behind his desk and looked at the two cosmeticians. One had mascara streaked down her face. The other was chewing on the inside of her cheek. Both of them were staring at the floor.

“So, Pam, why don’t you tell me what happened,” Pete prompted. He handed the distraught young woman a box of tissue that was gratefully accepted and utilized.

When Pam could finally speak, she told him about doing nothing but clean the cosmetic department since she started and not even being allowed to serve any customers, except when Courtney was on lunch or break. She explained about wanting to impress Courtney and show her that she was capable of something more than dusting and polishing. Then she told him about coming back from lunch and being fired by Courtney for letting the lady with the green purse steal the lipstick. Pete listened without interruption. Every now and then he shot Courtney a serious look.

“I see,” said Pete, when Pam finished her story. “Is that about right, Courtney?” he asked.

“No one asked her to put out the lipstick, Mr. Jackson. That’s my job. She shouldn’t have touched it. She doesn’t even know how to enter the inventory. She probably screwed that up too.” Still she made no eye contact.

“Well, let’s just see,” Pete said. He punched a few keys on his computer and brought up the inventory list. It took several seconds scrolling through the vast list before he found what he was looking for. Turning the monitor so Courtney could see it, he asked if it looked okay to her. Courtney barely glanced at it. She merely nodded and hugged her purse close to her chest.

Pete leaned forward and clasped his hands in front of himself on the desk. “That lady with the green purse is my wife, Pam. She didn’t steal the lipstick.”

“Your wife? Oh, Mr. Jackson, I’m so sorry for accusing her. I didn’t know who she was.” Pam’s tears started all over again.

“There’s no reason why you would know who she was, Pam. And you didn’t accuse her. Courtney did.” Pete let the silence bloom between them for a few minutes. “This isn’t the first time that product has been stolen from the cosmetic counter. Lately quite a lot of stuff has gone missing. Just yesterday – while you were on your lunch, by the way – four bottles of expensive bath salts were taken.”

Courtney’s head snapped up. “What are you talking about? Nothing was stolen yesterday.” She almost shrieked.

Pete ignored her. “And the day before that a number of eye shadows and mascaras were taken.”

“Mr. Jackson,” Pam said, horrified at the implication, “I assure you I didn’t take them.”
“Oh, I know you didn’t,” Pete said. He punched some more keys on the computer and turned the monitor so that both employees had a clear view.

A grainy, black and white picture of the cosmetic counter was visible. For a few seconds nothing happened. Then a figure appeared. A female figure. A female figure in a Max-Well’s cosmetic counter smock. The figure looked around and then snatched four bottles of bath salts off a shelf and stuffed them into a large purse.

Pam was shocked at what she was seeing. She looked at her ‘shift sister’ with a mixture of horror and disbelief.

Courtney was escorted out of the store by mall security after they had found the seven lipsticks in her purse. (Along with a bottle of perfume and a tube of moisturizer.) Pete Jackson decided not to press charges, but he banned her from ever entering his store again. Her photo was circulated among the other businesses in the mall and her humiliation was complete.

And Pam did become the head of the Max-Well’s Pharmacy cosmetic department. Eventually.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Curse of the Hand-painted Egg

It stood on the mantle in Grandma’s drawing room for as long as I can remember and for many years before that. The precious egg with its brass stand and hand-painted scene of a person of indeterminate sex trying to catch a phoenix in flight was strictly off limits to us kids. We were under pain of death if it even crossed our minds to touch it, so we would stand on the hearth with our hands clasped firmly behind our backs and stare at it.

My sister, Lindsay, thought it was beautiful. But she thought everything was beautiful. “Look at the beautiful spider,” she would say. Then she’d cry when I stomped on it. It was not beautiful to me. It was the stuff of nightmares and stomping on it kept the bad dreams at bay. Lindsay didn’t understand that any more than I understood how she thought an eight-legged creature could possibly be beautiful.

The egg wasn’t beautiful either. The figure chasing the phoenix was creepy and the A-frame cabin in the back ground reminded me of the witch’s cabin in Hansel and Gretel. I was sure that the egg was cursed and the reason we were not allowed to touch it was because it was cursed. I was sure that the figure was some other poor kid that got sucked into the scene when he/she touched it and was forever stuck trying to catch the phoenix, because that was the only way he/she would ever get out of the egg. My hands were more firmly clamped behind my back than Lindsay’s ever were and I secretly kept hoping that she would touch it and get sucked into it like the other kid.

“When I grow up,” Lindsay would say to me, “I’m going to have that egg on my mantle.”

“You can’t,” I would say. “It’s Grandma’s egg.”

“Grandma isn’t going to live forever,” Lindsay would tell me. And that made me cry.

I never knew how she was going to get the egg onto her mantle when it was cursed and we were not allowed to touch it. I never asked either. There were some things that I just didn’t want to know when I was six years old.

Time passed and so, eventually, did Grandma. I got the call the night before my English Lit. final in my senior year at college. It had been years since I thought about the egg, but when my tearful mother broke the news to me over the phone that Grandma was dead, the egg was all I could think about. Twenty-two years of fear came flooding back over me and I knew that I had to destroy the egg before Lindsay touched it and got sucked into it.

It was silly, I know. I was not a kid anymore and I knew that the egg was harmless. But I couldn’t shake the notion that I had to get rid of the egg to save my sister who thought everything was beautiful.

I managed to get through my final exam and earn my degree in English Literature. The moment I put my pen down, I bolted out of the room and sped to Grandma’s house. I had no plan. I just thought that when the moment presented itself, I would ‘accidentally’ knock the egg off the mantle. All the way there my rational brain kept telling me not to be stupid, but my six-year-old brain kept insisting that the egg had to go.

When I arrived at Grandma’s house there were relatives everywhere. Uncles, aunts and cousins milled about in the drawing room, the hall and even up the staircase. I squeezed my way inside, looking for Mother and Lindsay, and dodging hugs and handshakes.

Mother was in the kitchen cooking, of course. Her way of dealing with Grandma’s death appeared to be an urgent exercise in ensuring that every recipe she ever learned from the old lady was remembered and prepared exactly the way Grandma had taught her. Grandma wasn’t dead as long as her strudel was alive. I hugged my mother.

“Oh, John,” she said with a rueful smile. “I’m so glad you’re here. Help me get this turkey out of the oven. You can do the honours and carve it for me.”

Carving the family dinner turkey or roast was indeed an honour in my mother’s eyes. It was traditional that the man of the house do the carving. I wasn’t sure why Uncle Joe wasn’t doing it, since he was the oldest surviving male in the family. It might have had something to do with the fact that he was half-blind and probably would have carved himself instead of the turkey, which was enormous, by the way.

Before I made a show out of honing the carving knife, an ancient piece of cutlery that, I’m sure, was forged in a smithy sometime in the dark ages - probably about the same time that the egg was being cursed by some wretched hag - I needed to take off me coat.

“Um, sure, Mother. I’ll just put my coat in the closet and I’ll get right to it. Where’s Lindsay?”

“She hasn’t arrived yet. She’ll be here tomorrow with the kids. Ted had to take care of some things at the office before they could get away.” Ted was Lindsay’s husband; another curse I had tried to save her from, but that’s just me being petty, as Mother would always say.

Plenty of time to break the egg, I thought as I manoeuvred back through the throng of relatives to hang up my coat. I noted that none of them were helping with the food. Mother probably wouldn’t have let them anyway. But still...

I detoured into the drawing room. I needed to check on the egg, to see if it was still on the mantle. The obsession with the egg was getting ridiculous, but for some reason I could not suppress the need to smash the damned thing. I was hoping that it would be gone already, snatched up by one of the milling relatives who thought it was worth a small fortune. Alas, it was still there, standing as it always had on its brass stand. And standing before it were two young cousins with their hands firmly clamped behind their backs.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” asked the eight-year-old Julia.

“It’s scary,” said the six-year-old Tristan.

“No, it’s not,” said Julia. “One day it’s going to be on my mantle.”

“But Mommy said that Aunty Carla was going to take it home with her.” Tristan sounded relieved to know that it was going to be far, far away from him and his big sister soon. Tristan and Julia lived two hundred miles away and they understood from the drive in that morning that was a long way from Grandma’s house.

“Well, I’m going to ask Aunty Carla to give it to me.”

“You can’t,” cried Tristan.

“Why not?” asked Julia.

“Because it’s cursed. If you touch it, you’ll get sucked into it like that guy.” Tristan pointed up at the figure on the egg chasing the phoenix. In an effort to stop her younger brother from touching the egg, Julia tried to pull his hand back. Somehow, in the process, they managed to knock it off the mantle.

In slow motion I saw the egg leap into the air. It seemed to hang for a long moment before it began its descent toward the stone hearth. Without thinking, I jumped forward, reached out and caught the egg before it smashed. A collective gasp rose from the throats of all the gathered relatives. Little Tristan vaulted off the mantle, giving me and the cursed egg plenty of room. “Oh, no!” he shouted. “Don’t touch it!”

I looked at the egg in my hand. Not a crack.

I looked up at young Tristan. His eyes were closed tight behind his hands. He trembled with fear.

I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. The poor little thing thought I was going to be sucked into the cursed egg.

“It’s okay, Tristan. Look,” I said as I pried his hands away from his terrified face. “It’s just an egg. It can’t hurt anyone.”

Tristan peeked out at me, opening one blue eye. Seeing that I was safe – even with the egg in my hand – he sighed in relief.

“It’s not cursed?” he asked.

“No, it’s not. It’s perfectly safe.” I placed the delicate ornament in his small hands.

“It’s still not beautiful,” he said and handed it back.

There was a twinge of disappointment in his voice. I returned the egg to the mantle and it occurred to me that I was a little disappointed, too. Thankful, but disappointed nonetheless.

As it turned out, I was something of a hero that night. The egg, it seemed was a bit of a legend in the family, it’s ‘curse’ going back at least two generations to Uncle Joe who believed that the reason no one could touch it was because it would suck you into the scene and trap you there when he was six.

“Nonsense!” Mother admonished. “It’s just an egg. If you touch it, it will break.”

Mother hadn’t witnessed the near miss and no one felt compelled to tell her about it.

I no longer have the urge to break the egg. I think that its curse is going to be keeping little hands from touching it for a long while yet. Maybe even after it does end up on Lindsay’s mantle one day.