Authors: Neil Richards
As the machine began to build a charge, Jack took a second to examine the man who lay before him.
“Do you know him?” he asked Sarah.
“It’s Mr Brendl,” said Sarah. “Everybody knows Mr Brendl.”
“Stay back,” said the fireman.
The machine delivered its jolt of electricity.
“Ambulance on its way,” said someone.
Then the fireman reached in and continued mouth to mouth, while Jack took over pumping Mr Brendl’s chest.
The minutes went by, with the fête now silent, the music stopped, the rides motionless, as if everyone was willing the old man to live.
Jack felt a hand on his shoulder – the ambulance had arrived. The fireman nodded to him to remove the defibrillator pads. He peeled them off.
And then he spotted another detail, in the hyper-reality of that moment. Underneath Mr Brendl’s armpit was a small tattoo. A faded blue tattoo of a bird.
But not a pretty bird. Not a bird of peace. Not a robin, or a dove.
And that stopped Jack.
I've seen that before. But where?
And then, he pictured it. Back in the nineties when the Russian mobs had moved in on Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, he had seen this tattoo on the body of a bloated fat cat whose days of Stoli and caviar had ended with him washed up on the rocks of the Brighton Beach jetty.
And now – the same tattoo, here.
The paramedics lifted Brendl onto a stretcher and moved him quickly to the ambulance. Jack and Sarah stood up and watched them go.
“Do you think – there’s a chance? That he might —?” said Sarah.
Jack hesitated, which he guessed would be answer enough. Then: “They’ll do what they can,” he said. “And we – we did what we could.”
But while Jack hated the fact they hadn’t saved the old man, something else bothered him now.
Brendl … Brighton Beach. Was there a connection?
Jack told himself to go easy.
It’s a heart attack. Takes people every day. End of story.
That's what he told himself.
But that tattoo. The vulture.
Is there something wrong here?
“Kinda feel we’ve done something bad,” said Jack, folding his arms and squirming on the too small chair.
Sitting next to him in the tiny reception area of Cherringham Primary School, Sarah thought he looked like an over-sized schoolboy. And a guilty one at that.
The reception – four small chairs and a coffee table – was guarded by the school secretary who sat in her office behind a glass wall. Sarah smiled at her. The secretary peered back over large glasses and went back to her work.
When Sarah got the call from Mrs Harper, the head teacher had still sounded rocked by Mr Brendl’s now-confirmed heart attack.
But then she’d asked something that Sarah found strange: Could she come, talk to her, maybe with her American friend?
A matter – she said – ‘of some delicacy’. So here they were – first appointment of the day on a Monday morning which should have been basking in the warm aftermath of Saturday’s School fête but which felt miserable and deflated.
“Did you ever get the cane, Jack?” Sarah said, trying to cheer herself up more than anything.
“Cane? You Brits are so primitive,” said Jack. “When I was a kid, my Dad did remove his belt once. After I set off some fireworks in the school gym. Just took it off, and that was enough for me. Of course, in my day we did have God’s watchful eyes on us as well.”
Jack tilted his head. Nodding to the secretary whose eyes were raised over her large glasses.
“Careful. It feels like we’re in enough trouble already.”
The door to reception opened, and a familiar figure entered: the infamous assistant head – Mrs Pynchon.
“Can I help you, Mrs Edwards? Is there anything wrong? With Daniel?”
Sarah looked up. Mrs Pynchon stood above her, face grim, owl-like eyes looking down as she held a clipboard under her arm.
Over two years of parents’ evenings Sarah had learned that Mrs Pynchon had a reputation as a teacher to avoid, whether by parent or pupil. Daniel had been lucky to dodge her – but other parents had told of the joyless months their children had spent suffering in Pynchon’s classroom.
“I’m here to see Mrs Harper,” said Sarah. “And it’s Ms, actually.”
,” said Mrs Pynchon, voice dripping, as if Sarah’s status as a single mother was only to be expected given her obvious failings as a woman.
Sarah saw her heavy lidded eyes swing sideways to alight on Jack. Now this would be interesting …
“And you are?”
“A friend,” said Jack, smiling warmly at her.
“I’m sorry?” said Mrs Pynchon.
“No apology needed,” said Jack graciously.
Jack interacting with the locals. Always fun to watch.
Sarah was just about to burst out laughing when fortunately the little light above Mrs Harper’s door flicked from red to green.
The door opened and Cherringham’s lone uniformed policeman emerged, donning his cap as he came out. Sarah smiled at him – her old friend Alan Rivers.
“Sarah – Jack,” he nodded grimly and then he was gone.
What was Alan doing here?
“You can go in now Ms Edwards and Mr Brennan,” said the secretary.
Sarah and Jack got up. Mrs Pynchon still stood, watching them, confused.
Whatever Mrs Harper’s concern was – Sarah guessed – it hadn’t been shared with the assistant head.
“Ah – parting is such sweet sorrow,” said Jack to Mrs Pynchon with the slightest of bows as he followed Sarah into the head’s office.
Sarah didn’t dare look over her shoulder to see Mrs Pynchon’s expression – but surely, in all her years stalking the corridors of Cherringham Primary, nobody had dared to play her like that.
Sarah had never been in Mrs Harper’s office, but stories of it were legendary.
Books piled on the floor, the desk at sea, drowning under stacks of paper, a computer screen struggling to rise above the maelstrom.
And Mrs Harper herself … not the most stylish Cherringham resident.
Hair twirled and pinned back as if it could be dealt with later. A drab no-nonsense outfit of blouse and tan trousers completed the picture.
But her smile?
Sarah had seen Mrs Harper beam at the children putting on the Christmas play, or at a raucous music recital, or even just watching them run around at playtime.
That she loved those kids and this school was never in doubt.
Now, she looked up from her desk at Sarah, then Jack, as if their visit was an unannounced surprise. And that star smile was clearly missing today.
“Oh, sorry was just looking for —”
A brush at the desk as if magically some errant piece of paper could be made to appear.
“Was just … um, oh and —”
Whatever it was she’d been looking for, she had given up. “Please
Two chairs faced Mrs Harper’s desk and as Sarah sat down she noticed Jack scanning the room.
He’s a good sport coming here,
With an amazing tolerance for village quaintness.
“Mrs Harper, this is —”
“I know. Mr Brennan, I —”
“Jack,” he said.
Mrs Harper came from around the desk to shake his hand.
“I wanted to thank you personally – for the other day. Tending to poor Mr Brendl.”
Jack looked over at Sarah. Neither had been sure what this was about. Now they were about to find out.
“I wish …” Jack said, “that it had turned out differently.”
Mrs Harper looked away, turning to the windows, blinds rolled fully up, showing the empty school field which only days before had been filled with summer activity.
“We all do. Otto Brendl was a special man.” She turned back. “He loved doing his shows, and the children – well you saw the crowd.”
She took a breath. “He will be missed.”
Sarah was tempted to ask the headmistress the reason for the meeting, the so-called ‘matter of delicacy’. But she bided her time, thinking that the woman would come to the matter when she was ready. Finally Mrs Harper walked back to her chair and sat down.
“You know his history, don't you?”
Sarah saw Jack shake his head while she said, “No. Just that he came to Cherringham years ago.”
The headmistress smiled. “I was just a new teacher then, and he was also new to the village, so I suppose I was always aware of him. The Berlin Wall had just come down – seems like only yesterday doesn’t it? He was from East Germany you see. Whenever they showed the news coverage he used to say – ‘look, that’s me with a hammer and the long hair! Knocking down the Berlin Wall!’ – but I don’t think it was. A joke, you know? I think he just walked across the old border one day. Then got fed up in West Germany. Came here. He never talked much about growing up. He was an orphan, I seem to remember.”
“Why Cherringham?” Jack said.
“I don’t know. I suppose it’s just where he happened to end up. Our little village. He got a job at the jewellers, and when the owner there died, Mr Brendl took over the shop.”
“And the shows?” Jack said. “Did he always do them?”
“No, not at first. He had these beautiful puppets – a gift from back home, apparently. He used to bring them in, show the children. Do little stories – German stories. Wonderful. But then, I guess once he felt like he was really part of Cherringham, he built that stage himself, and started to do Punch and Judy. In the end it just became part of village life.”
Sarah saw Jack look over. She had been around him enough to know when his questions were more than polite chit-chat. “Never married?” Jack said.
Did the headmistress harbour some feelings for Mr Brendl herself? Big age difference there, but Mrs Harper’s fondness for the dead man felt so strong.
“No. He eventually became, um, friends with Jayne Reid. She runs the little knitting shop next door to his. They were so sweet together, acting as if nobody knew they were,” a small smile, “an item. They’d dine out together, have tea together —”
“But they kept their own homes, never …?”
Mrs Harper nodded.
“Yes, she lived in her little flat above her shop, and Mr Brendl had his cottage, just outside the village.”
Then Sarah saw Mrs Harper look out of the window. A cloud had cut off the sun over the field.
Sarah shot Jack a look, as if to say …
not sure what is happening here.
And then the headmistress turned, took a breath, and the reason for the meeting became clear.
“I’m totally useless at book-keeping. Records. All the things the education authorities want you to stay on top of.”
That much – Sarah could see – was obvious.
“And at any school function, everyone participating has got to be ‘in the system’. Any health issues, legal history, and all that. But with Mr Brendl, well, you know, he was an … institution.”
She gave the pile on her desk a desultory push.
“You mean you didn’t do any of the checks?” said Sarah, barely able to hide her astonishment. “None at all?”
“I thought we had done – years ago. That’s what Mr Brendl thought too. So I sort of … forgot about it. And then yesterday I came in – and couldn’t find his file. And then I thought – oh maybe we didn’t? So now —”
“You’re worried that something might come out and damage the school?” Sarah said.
“Or my tenure here, at least. You may have guessed that there are plenty of people craving the position, and there have been reports before, papers not filed on time, silly things, you know.”
Sarah could imagine the raptor-like Mrs Pynchon waiting in the wings to pounce on this office and put it
. She couldn’t quite believe that Mrs Harper had been so negligent – especially in this day and age. But to lose this head teacher … that would indeed be a great loss.
“So, I don’t know. I thought of you two. If there was anything I should have known about dear Mr Brendl, anything that might cause problems now …”
Again Jack looked at Sarah.
Not at all what they expected.
Mrs Harper looked from one to the other. Then Jack – as solid as an oak, with an answer that Sarah could have predicted – spoke. “I guess we could take a look.”
Mrs Harper’s face lightened a bit. “Would you? I can’t thank you enough —”
Jack smiled. “Don’t know what – if anything – we might find. But perhaps, if there was anything to be concerned about —”
“You know what they say! Forewarned is forearmed.”
“Exactly,” Jack said, still smiling.
The meeting seemed over, with the two of them having a case … sort of. But then Mrs Harper leaned in close, lowering her voice.
“One more thing. Mr Brendl’s stage, his puppets, his little van. They’re all still here. No next of kin – as far as I know. Eventually I imagine his estate – be that what it may – will go into probate. But perhaps best those things were returned. I don’t suppose —”
“We could take them back?” Jack’s words had to be reassuring. “Not a problem.”
He turned to Sarah. “Perhaps I can follow you in Mr Brendl’s van?” Then back to Mrs Harper. “You have the keys to his cottage?”
A nod. “Yes. They were with his puppets. I had the caretaker load everything back into his van this morning. You’re sure you don’t mind?”
Jack stood up.
“Don’t even think about it. We’ll do it now. And if you think it’s okay, we’ll talk to Ms Reid. Just to be sure there are no surprises for you about Mr Brendl.”
Mrs Harper took Jack’s right hand with both of hers and shook it hard.
“Thank you. For me, for my school, for the children – what we have here is too precious to lose.”
Sarah came to her. “And the village knows that,” she said.
A bigger smile from the head, then: “Right then, to the car park and I can get you started.”
At the door, Jack paused.
“We saw Alan Rivers,” he said. “I guess he was asking questions about Saturday?”
“Actually no,” Mrs Harper replied. “Different thing entirely. We had a break-in last night. Someone ransacked the food stores. Cakes, biscuits. Made a right mess.”