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The Nutcombe Tales


One for the Pot

Andrew Riley was arranging a brown earthenware teapot on the counter of his hardware shop when he was possessed by a sudden urge to check yet again that the wedding ring was safe in his pocket. On the following day he was to be best man at Fred Atkins' wedding. Fred had finally persuaded Kitty Dowd to marry him, her first husband Daniel having passed away more than a year since. It was to be a secret wedding, and Andrew had sworn not to reveal it to anyone, even his wife Rosalind. He had just taken the ring box from his pocket to check it, when Rosalind entered the shop. To prevent her seeing the ring, he popped it into the teapot.

Hello, darling. Still here? his wife greeted him. I thought you had calls to make?

I have, he replied, but that wretched Maisie is late again, so I'm just putting this teapot out. A dozen were delivered yesterday.

A dozen? You ordered a dozen teapots? I don't suppose we sell more than four or five a year.

I know, but there was such a good discount I took a full carton. There's plenty of space in the stock room for them, and I doubt if the price will go down.

I hope you're right, love. Anyway, I'm here now, so you run along and I'll mind the shop until Maisie turns up.

Before Andrew could devise a means to distract his wife so that he might retrieve the ring, Mrs Wagstaff entered the shop.

What a lucky coincidence! she exclaimed. Here am I needing a teapot, and in a hurry to get home, and there you are with one in your hand already! How much is it, Andrew?

They are 2/9d, Audrey. I'll get you another from the stock room. This one is a display item.

Rosalind pushed him aside. Don't be silly, darling. You heard Audrey say she is in a hurry. With that, she put the teapot into its box, put the box into a brown paper carrier bag, and handed the bag to Mrs Wagstaff, who paid and left with her purchase.

Andrew grabbed his jacket, gave his wife a swift peck on the cheek, and hurried after Mrs Wagstaff, throwing Must dash. See you later, darling, over his shoulder.

He was following Mrs Wagstaff at a discreet distance, trying to think of a means to recover the ring, when she turned into the beauty parlour. Andrew stopped in his tracks. Despite Mrs Wagstaff's claim to be in a hurry to get home, he knew from experience that most ladies considered two hours in a beauty salon to be but as the blinking of an eye, and there was nowhere he could linger unobtrusively for long outside Mlle Lascelles'. It would be better, he thought, to wait near Mrs Wagstaff's house and watch for her to return home. He turned on his heel and went off in that direction.

*****

Constable George Bunting was making his rounds of the village in his usual leisurely fashion. He had seen Andrew and Mrs Wagstaff walking in the same direction, and had seen Andrew stop and change direction as soon as Mrs Wagstaff entered the beauty parlour. He wondered if Andrew could have been following her, but dismissed the idea. However, when his beat took him along the lane where the Wagstaffs lived, he saw Andrew standing across from their house behind a bush, looking up the road.

He came silently up behind him and said, Morning, Mr Riley. Are you looking for someone, sir? Andrew's reaction could, Bunting thought, legitimately be described as 'a guilty start.'

Er, I thought I saw a willow warbler, Andrew improvised.

A willow warbler, sir? In December? Are you sure it wasn't a chiffchaff?

A chiffchaff? Andrew knew nothing about birds, and wondered if Bunting had just made the name up to trick him.

Yes, sir. They're easily confused.

So am I, thought Andrew, but he was spared any need to reply by the sight of Mrs Wagstaff approaching. He saw, to his dismay, that she no longer bore the carrier bag. Oh Lord, he thought, she must have left it at the beauty parlour. Abruptly he declared, Oh well, constable, I can't stand here all day chit-chatting about chiffchaffs, and he hurried off down the road in the direction from which Mrs Wagstaff had come, giving her a quick nod as he passed.

As he approached the beauty salon, he saw Eugenie Lascelles leaving and locking the door behind her. She was bearing the brown paper carrier bag that held the teapot. He followed her surreptitiously to her bungalow. As soon as she entered the front door, he slipped around the side of the building and looked through a window, hoping to see where she put the teapot. As his eyes gradually made out the interior scene, he realised with horror that he was looking into the mademoiselle's bedroom, and he backed away guiltily.

Eugenie entered her bungalow and walked through to the kitchen in the rear. As she passed her partly open bedroom door, out of the corner of her eye she saw Andrew peering in through the window. Well, well, she thought, Andrew Riley a peeping tom! Who would have thought it? If I'd known he was going to be watching, I could have given him something to look at. I wouldn't mind adding his scalp to my belt. Never mind, perhaps it's not too late. She put the carrier bag on the kitchen table, switched the kettle on, and went out through the back door and around the corner of the bungalow.

Hello, Andrew, looking for me? Come on in.

Embarrassed at having been caught, but grateful that Eugenie did not appear to take any exception to it, Andrew muttered something about seeing an intruder, and followed her back into the bungalow. In the kitchen he saw the carrier bag on the table. He was pleased to think that he was close to attaining his goal. If he could just find an excuse to slip into the kitchen alone, he could get the ring and leave.

Eugenie led him through to the sitting room. I'll make some coffee, she said. Sit here, dear. You'll get a better view, and she motioned to a chair. It was a strange thing to say, Andrew thought, since the chair she indicated had its back to the window.

When Eugenie returned with two cups of coffee, she had discarded her jacket and undone some buttons on her blouse. She placed her own cup on a side table next to a chair facing the window, then leaned over Andrew as she gave him his. She took her time lowering the cup, giving Andrew ample opportunity to find that he could see inside her blouse all the way down to the waistband of her skirt. Acutely uncomfortable, he managed to avert his head, difficult though it was at such close quarters. Eugenie noticed the movement. Ah, she thought, he must be a leg man.

She returned to her chair and swept her skirt from under her as she sat, with a motion akin to that of a gentleman wearing a tailcoat. She crossed her legs and hitched the hem of her skirt above her knee. Andrew now understood what she meant by 'a better view,' as his startled eyes beheld the thin black straps of her suspenders contrasted against two creamy white thighs stretching from the tops of her black silk stockings to the lace of her black silk knickers. His shirt collar seemed suddenly tighter, and he lowered his eyes to his coffee cup, summoning all his will to look anywhere but at his hostess.

Noting his averted gaze, Eugenie thought, Not a leg man either? Well, that only leaves . . . Aloud she said Oh dear, I've dropped my spoon, flicking that item from her saucer as she spoke. Contriving to keep her skirt hitched high, she knelt and rummaged under her chair. At the sight now on offer, Andrew trembled like a fly held fast in a spider's web. Eugenie looked back over her shoulder and was puzzled to see that he had screwed his head around to look out of the window. Resuming her seat, she was more than a little vexed at his lack of interest. While both of them sat at a loss for words, the doorbell rang, and Eugenie went to answer it.

Andrew could hear what was being said. The caller was a boy scout soliciting items to sell at a jumble sale being held in the church hall that very afternoon. Andrew heard Eugenie say, Just wait there. I may have something for you. He rose from his chair swiftly and silently, hoping that he might have a chance to retrieve the ring while Eugenie was away rummaging in corners looking for jumble. In this hope he was disappointed. Eugenie walked through to the kitchen, picked up the carrier bag, carried it to the front door, and handed it to the boy scout, saying, Here, you can have this. It's a teapot, quite hideous, but somebody might be willing to give sixpence for it.

As soon as the boy had left, Andrew offered an excuse and made a rapid departure. He caught up with the boy just outside the gate. Here, son, no need to take that to the sale. I'll buy it off you now for half a crown. The boy however refused, claiming that he was authorised only to collect items, not to sell them. In vain Andrew upped his offer, first to five shillings, and then to six. You can buy two new teapots for that! he insisted, but the boy was adamant.

You'll have to come to the sale and buy it there, mister. That's the rule. Nothing gets sold until the sale starts at twelve o'clock. With that the boy made off, and Andrew despondently made his way home.

Eugenie had watched the negotiations from her doorway. She had seen Andrew offer the boy scout money, and the boy shake his head, to Andrew's obvious annoyance. So that's the way the wind blows! she thought. No wonder I couldn't get anywhere with him. Poor Rosalind, what a brave face she has been putting on it!

PC Bunting was another witness. He had observed Andrew following Mlle Lascelles and sneaking up the side of her bungalow. He had been taken aback when she invited him inside, and had hung around, half hoping to hear her scream for help. He was disappointed in that expectation, and did not know what to make of the interchange between Andrew and the scout.

*****

Andrew was at the church hall before ten to twelve, determined to have first chance for the teapot. He could not see it on any of the stalls, but to his horror saw that there were four identical teapots on the table where tea was being served. He went across to the vicar's wife, who was laying out cups and saucers.

Hello, Joyce. What's going on here then? Don't you usually have an urn?

Oh, hello, Mr Riley. Yes we do, but the wretched thing went wrong, so poor Claud had to dash to your shop and get these. It's quite a nuisance as they only hold about four cups, but we'll just have to make do.

Oh. They were all right, were they? I mean, were they empty, or was there anything in any of them?

Joyce Higgins looked at him in surprise. Anything in them? Should there have been?

No, of course not. I just wondered, you know . . .

Oh, you mean were they dusty inside? Don't worry about that, Mr Riley. Naturally we gave them all a good wash and rinse before we used them.

Andrew spotted the boy who had collected the teapot, and accosted him. Here, boy, where's that teapot you were given this morning?

You're too late, mister, it's already been sold.

Already been sold? Who bought it?

Mrs Wagstaff.

But it's not twelve o'clock yet. You told me nothing could be sold before twelve o'clock.

I know, but Mrs Wagstaff insisted.

I insisted, but you wouldn't let me have it!

You're not Mrs Wagstaff, are you? Nobody says 'no' to Mrs Wagstaff.

Andrew could not fathom Audrey's actions. What the devil does she think she's doing? he asked himself. First she buys the teapot, then she gives it to the mademoiselle, who gives it for jumble, so la Wagstaff buys it back again! To hell with subtlety! I'm going to go round and ask her what she's playing at!

*****

Mrs Wagstaff received him warmly and invited him in. As politely as he could, he asked her to explain what was going on with the teapot. She laughed.

Yes, I suppose it must look rather strange, but it's really quite straightforward. The other day, when I was at the beauty salon, I accidentally broke the pot that the mademoiselle uses to make tea for her clients, so this morning I bought one to replace it and gave it to her. Then when I went round to the church hall to see how preparations for the sale were going, I discovered that the cheeky minx had given it for jumble! I ask you! It was a perfectly good teapot, as you know. A little plain, I suppose, and utilitarian, but there's nothing wrong with that. Why, I have an identical one in my kitchen which I use every day.

Mrs Wagstaff paused to check Andrew's reaction to her tale so far, and he nodded in sympathy. So, she continued, I thought I'd teach her a lesson. As you know, every year before Christmas I hold a party for my ladies, and I give them each a little present, usually some small item of costume jewellery. Well, I thought, this year I'll give Eugenie the teapot she gave away! Here, come with me and I'll show you.

She led him into the drawing room which had been prepared for her party. In the bay window stood a large Christmas tree, with half a dozen gift-wrapped packages under it. All of them were only two or three inches square apart from one, which Andrew recognised to be the size of the boxed teapot.

Imagine her face when she opens that and finds the teapot! Mrs Wagstaff exclaimed. That will teach her to be proud. Of course, she added, I've sweetened it.

Andrew should have heeded the last remark, but he was too busy noting that all the presents were wrapped in the same design of gift paper, one which was sold in his shop. A plan was forming in his mind. All he needed to do was to wrap a new teapot in the same paper, and exchange it for the one under the tree. He took his leave of Mrs Wagstaff and went home to work out how he might accomplish the switch.

*****

After lunch, his wife said, I hope you don't mind, dear, but Audrey Wagstaff and I have volunteered to do an hour or so minding a stall at the jumble sale, so I shall be leaving you on your own.

Andrew was delighted at this unexpected solution to his problem, and replied, That's fine, darling. As it happens, I've got one or two things to do myself.

As soon as his wife had gone, he hurried to his hardware shop. There were no customers. Maisie was reading Girls' Fun, and paid no attention to him as he selected a sheet of the wrapping paper and went into the back, where he wrapped one of the teapots. He placed the package in a carrier bag, and left the shop.

Outside the shop, he ran into PC Bunting, who eyed him suspiciously. Afternoon, sir. Been shopping, have we? He chuckled at his own pleasantry.

No, just going for a walk, constable.

Do you always take a shopping bag with you when you go for a walk, sir?

Not invariably, constable. Only when the mood takes me.

And what do you carry in your shopping bag when the mood takes you, sir, if I may make so bold as to ask?

If you must know, constable, I have a teapot in the bag, though how that knowledge helps you in your duty of maintaining the Queen's peace escapes me.

A teapot? You are taking a teapot for a walk?

Yes, I am taking a teapot for a walk. I don't believe I need a licence for that activity, although you, with your superior knowledge of the law, may be about to correct me in that assumption. Do I need a licence?

No, sir, you do not.

Then I shall say good day to you, constable. Good day.

Andrew hurried off on his mission. Bunting would have liked to follow him, but was on his way to serve a summons, and reluctantly allowed Andrew to pass from his sight.

*****

No-one was about when Andrew reached the Wagstaff house. To be on the safe side, he rang the bell, but it was not answered. He went round to the back door and found it unlocked. He entered and moved through to the drawing room. He took the tag from Eugenie's gift under the tree and attached it to the package he had brought with him. He placed the new package under the tree, and left with the one from the tree in the carrier bag. Delighted with the success of his mission, he whistled on his way back to the shop.

As he reached the shop, PC Bunting came around the corner. The summons safely served, he had returned to see if he could pick up Andrew's trail.

Afternoon, sir. Had a nice walk? I see you still have your teapot with you.

Andrew was feeling pleased with himself, and decided that he could safely toy with Bunting. I have had a nice walk, thank you, constable, but as it happens I do not still have with me the teapot which you are pleased to designate 'my teapot'.

Really, sir? May I then enquire what you do have in the carrier bag?

Certainly, officer. I have a teapot in the carrier bag.

But you just said you didn't, sir.

No I didn't. What I said, officer, was that I do not have the particular teapot you referred to. I have another teapot.

Oh, I see, a different one.

No, officer, not a different one. As a matter of fact it is the same in all respects as the other one, identical one might say - certainly indistinguishable. It is not different in any way. It is simply another one.

When I said it was a different one, sir, I meant it was another one. It's the same thing, isn't it?

You think that 'a different one' means the same as 'the same thing'? Doesn't that get rather confusing?

Bunting took a deep breath. No, sir, not when I'm talking to anyone else. It is you who are confusing, sir.

I'm sorry, constable. I didn't mean to be. Look, to make things clear, let us call the teapot I went out with A.

Eh?

That's right, A. And let us call the teapot I came back with B. See?

BC?

No, B - no C.

No B and no C? What then?

B, just B.

Just be what, sir?

Perhaps A and B was a mistake. Let's call them X and Y instead. Let A be X, and B be Y.

ABX and BBY? Is that some kind of code, sir?

You are not trying, constable.

I wish I could say the same of you, sir.

Look, for the last time, the first teapot we are going to call X.

X.

Exactly. And the second teapot we are going to call Y.

Y.

Because I say so. Now X and Y are two different teapots.

I thought you said they were the same, sir. Identical, you said. Indistinguishable, even.

Did I? I must have meant that there was no difference between them.

But you just said there was, sir. 'Two different teapots,' that's what you said. I heard you.

Is that what I said? Perhaps I should have said 'Two distinct teapots'.

But then they couldn't be indistinguishable, could they, sir? Being distinct means that they can be distinguished.

Oh, these teapots couldn't be distinguished if they tried, constable. Quite the opposite. Plain, run-of-the-mill teapots, that's what they are. Working class teapots, common as muck. Teapots for the hoi polloi. The sort of teapots that wouldn't be allowed within a mile of a Buckingham Palace garden party. Distinguished they are not.

I see, sir, distinct but not distinguishable, the same but different. All I can say, sir, is that it's a good job it's not a coffee pot you are carrying.

Why's that, constable?

Because if it was a coffee pot, sir, there might be grounds for suspicion.

Feeling that he had maintained the honour of the force, Bunting continued on his beat.

Andrew entered his shop. Behind the counter, Maisie still had her head in Girls' Fun. Andrew went through to the stock room and unwrapped the package he had brought from Mrs Wagstaff's. In the teapot was a ring box. Moving quickly, lest Maisie should take it into her head to follow him, he put the ring box in his pocket, and returned the teapot to stock in its box, throwing the gift wrap paper into the waste bin. Satisfied that all was now well again, he went home.

*****

An hour or two later, Rosalind Riley returned home. She approached her husband with a roguish air and one hand behind her back. Hello, darling. Sorry if I'm late. Is everything OK?

Yes, dear, everything's fine.

You're not missing anything then?

No, sweetheart, only you.

What about this, then? she asked. She brought her hand from behind her back and opened it, showing a ring box.

Andrew almost snatched the box from her hand, and looked inside. It contained Fred Atkins' wedding ring. What . . . How . . . Where did you get this? he stammered.

Audrey Wagstaff gave it to me. You know that teapot she bought this morning? Well, she took it to the beauty parlour for Eugenie, but as she handed it over, she heard something rattle inside, and this is what she found. Of course, she realised immediately that it must be Kitty's wedding ring, what with you being best man and all, so she gave it to me at the jumble sale this afternoon. Honestly, darling, what a cliché, the best man losing the wedding ring!

But how did you know about the wedding? It's supposed to be a secret.

And it is, darling, but you don't think a girl is going to get married and not tell all her friends about it? It's still a secret though, because she swore each and every one of us to secrecy, and I haven't told anyone else without swearing them to secrecy too.

But I have spoken to Audrey since this morning. Why didn't she tell me she had found the ring?

Oh, really, darling, sometimes you are dense! How could she, when the wedding is a secret?

But if she knew I was the best man, she must have known that I already knew about it.

Of course you knew about it, darling, and she knew that you knew about it, but you didn't know that she knew that you knew, and if she had mentioned it to you, it wouldn't have been a secret any more, would it?

That doesn't make sense.

Maybe not to you, darling, but it does to us girls. You men, you haven't the slightest idea how to keep a secret, have you? Anyway, all's well that ends well. You can relax now that you've got the ring back. Now I must love you and leave you, because I'm due at the salon to have my hair done for tomorrow. Bye, love.

As soon as Rosalind was gone, Andrew took from his pocket the ring box he had recovered from Audrey Wagstaff's drawing room, and opened it. It contained a lady's dress ring - a narrow silver band with a sprinkling of a few multicoloured stones. Belatedly he recalled Mrs Wagstaff saying that she had sweetened the teapot for Eugenie. He now understood what she had meant, that she had included another present within the pot, a present which he had now stolen. With dismay he realised that all his efforts had not only been unnecessary, they had made matters worse. Yet another substitution was needed to put things right again. Fortunately, now that he knew that Audrey Wagstaff was privy to the wedding, there would be no need for subterfuge. He had only to remake the package with the dress ring inside the teapot, and give it to her with an explanation and an apology.

*****

At his shop, he found Maisie still engrossed in Girls' Fun. She must either be a very slow reader, he thought, or be committing the entire text to memory. He took a sheet of the wrapping paper, and went into the stock room to get a teapot. There were none there. Returning to the shop, he asked Maisie what had happened to them all.

We've had quite a run on teapots, Mr Riley. The vicar bought four this morning, then this afternoon Mrs Wagstaff bought five of them, though what she would want with five teapots is beyond me. She had a couple of boy scouts with her to carry them home for her, she did. Then PC Bunting came in for one. There's only one left now, this one here on the counter. Mrs Riley has ordered two dozen more, and says you should put the price up to 3/6d.

In the stockroom, Andrew put the dress ring into the teapot. He wrapped it in the gift paper, put the package in a carrier bag, and went round to Mrs Wagstaff's house.

As he approached, he thought he saw a movement of the curtains in an upstairs room, but repeated ringing of the front door bell produced no answer from inside. Wanting to bring matters to a close, he decided to make another clandestine entry. The kitchen door was locked, but the casement window above the sink was unfastened. He opened it fully, pushed his carrier bag through onto the draining board, and climbed in. The was a slight crash and the sound of breaking china as he did so. There had been a teapot on the draining board, which he had knocked into the sink, breaking off the handle. Cursing his luck, he went through to the drawing room. Another shock awaited him there. Under the Christmas tree were six packages identical to the one he had in his bag.

*****

After her conversation with Andrew earlier in the day, Audrey Wagstaff had had second thoughts about humiliating Eugenie Lascelles by giving her a teapot. Still, the idea of a small expensive present inside a large cheap one appealed to her. She decided, therefore, to treat all her ladies the same way. For that reason she had bought five more teapots, into which she had repackaged her gifts to the other ladies. Reviewing her gift list, she noted that she had given Eugenie a dress ring, and she recalled hearing the mademoiselle complaining of having too many rings. On the spur of the moment, she switched the labels between Rosalind Riley's gift and Eugenie Lascelles', so that Rosalind would now get the ring, and Eugenie a brooch.

*****

Andrew's initial shock at seeing all six presents looking the same swiftly dissipated when he realised that they all bore gift tags. He found the one bearing Eugenie's name and exchanged it with the one in his bag, transferring the tag. Knowing nothing of Mrs Wagstaff's last minute reallocation of the gifts, he supposed that he now had the empty teapot. Returning to the kitchen he unwrapped the teapot he had just taken from under the tree, and placed it on the draining board as a replacement for the broken one, the remnants of which he collected from the sink and deposited in the dustbin outside the back door, along with the wrapping paper and carrier bag. He relocked the back door, closed the window to the position in which he had found it, and looked around to see that everything was in order. Satisfied, he moved towards the front door to make his escape. As he did so, the doorbell rang, and through the frosted glass he could see the unmistakable silhouette of PC George Bunting.

*****

The constable was still fostering dark suspicions of Andrew's behaviour. While making himself a pot of tea back at the station, he had been so agitated by the recollection of their earlier exchange that he had dropped the teapot and broken it. This necessitated a trip to the hardware shop for a replacement. He had taken the opportunity to question Maisie, and had learned that an unusual number of teapots had been sold that day, both to the vicar and to Mrs Wagstaff. He was convinced that something very strange was going on, but he had absolutely no idea what it might be. He was determined, however, to get to the bottom of it, and thought that an interview with Mrs Wagstaff might shed some light.

*****

Andrew shrank back so as to be out of the line of sight should Bunting peer through the glass. This movement put him at the foot of the stairs. He just had to keep quiet, he thought, and with any luck Bunting would get tired of waiting, and go away. This hope was dashed when another silhouette appeared at the door, and he heard the sound of a key being inserted into the lock. Audrey Wagstaff had returned home and was about to let PC Bunting into the house.

Andrew now had no chance of returning to the kitchen without being seen. His only recourse was to retreat up the stairs, which he did as swiftly and quietly as he could. He chose a door at random and found himself in the main bedroom, face to face with Fred Atkins, who was sitting on the edge of the bed lacing his shoes. His unbuttoned shirt, loosely hanging tie, and general dishevelment indicated that he had just got dressed in a hurry. The two men looked questioningly at each other, at the same time gesturing for silence. They could hear PC Bunting and Audrey Wagstaff talking downstairs, especially Audrey, who was speaking in an unnaturally loud voice, as if wishing to be heard all over the house. Bunting could be heard admonishing Mrs Wagstaff for leaving the kitchen window unfastened, while she was assuring him that nothing was missing and he could safely leave. The constable, however, insisted on inspecting the downstairs rooms, and then wished to look upstairs also.

I assure you that is completely unnecessary, officer, Audrey declaimed loudly. I am sure there is nobody up there. Besides, there is no way to get in or out upstairs, adding fortissimo, except perhaps through the back bedroom window.

Fred and Andrew quickly crossed the landing to the back bedroom. Mrs Wagstaff slowly ascended the stairs, doing her best to impede the constable's progress and view. She was startled to see two figures flit across the landing, expecting only one. She led PC Bunting into the front bedroom.

In the back bedroom Fred crossed to the rear window and raised the sash. Below was the flat roof of an outbuilding, onto which he climbed, Andrew following. They closed the window behind them, and dropped to the ground, using a handy water butt as a stepping stone. By the time that PC Bunting entered the back bedroom and looked out of the window, they had disappeared around the side of the house.

As soon as they were out of earshot, Andrew demanded, What on earth are you up to? For Heaven's sake, man, you are getting married tomorrow!

Exactly, replied Fred, There's only today left for saying goodbye to all my old girl friends.

How did you get in, anyway?

Audrey always keeps a key under the flower pot by the front door. Didn't you know?

*****

Audrey had not followed Bunting into the back room immediately, but had tarried by the front bedroom window, curious to see who had been with Fred. The two came into view as they made their way to the front gate. She was surprised to recognise Andrew Riley. She knew that a best man was expected to accompany the groom on his bachelor night out, but she never thought that the custom extended to his more intimate encounters. Perhaps it was a new fashion. It certainly held intriguing possibilities. She would have to have a discreet word with her ladies to see if their experience extended into this area.

Not wishing Bunting to leave too hard upon the heels of her other visitors, Audrey now became as anxious to detain him as she was previously to see him go. When he had looked into all the upstairs rooms and found nothing amiss, she invited him into the kitchen for a cup of tea. Checking the teapot to see if it had been emptied since its last use, she saw the brooch.

Upon my soul! she exclaimed. What on earth is Eugenie's present doing here?

I thought you said nothing was missing from the drawing room, Mrs Wagstaff?

They went to verify matters, and found the package addressed to Eugenie Lascelles.

That's odd, declared Audrey, It's still here. I'm sure I didn't have two brooches.

They opened the package and looked in the teapot. It contained the dress ring.

Oh my! That was in Rosalind's pot! What can be going on?

They opened Rosalind's package, and found the teapot to be empty.

I know I put the proper labels on all of them, Audrey insisted plaintively. I took especial care to get them right.

When they had repaired to the kitchen with the opened packages, PC Bunting's keen eye spotted a shard of broken earthenware in the sink. Do you have a waste bin, Mrs Wagstaff?

Not in the kitchen. The dustbin is just outside the back door.

Bunting looked in the dustbin and saw the broken teapot and the wrapping paper discarded by Andrew. Returning to the kitchen, he declared portentously, I think it is fairly clear what has happened here, Mrs Wagstaff.

Not to me it isn't, constable.

Well, madam, to start with, someone broke into your house.

Broke in? queried Audrey. There's no damage to the doors or windows.

That's because you left the window open, Bunting said accusingly. Nevertheless, technically it's breaking and entering. Then when he was in, he broke your teapot.

So it was 'entering and breaking' then? Audrey suggested.

Bunting chose to ignore her. He unwrapped Mlle Lascelles' present and put her teapot to replace the one he had broken. He put the broken teapot and the wrapping paper in the dustbin. But then he had to replace Mlle Lascelles' present, so he put Mrs Riley's in its place.

But then he would have to replace Rosalind's - Mrs Riley's - present, Audrey pointed out.

Ah, that's the cunning part, Bunting declared triumphantly. He replaced that present with an empty teapot he had brought with him!

I see, Audrey said doubtfully, but why didn't he just replace the broken teapot with the one he brought with him?

If we knew that, Mrs Wagstaff, we would know everything.

In any case, why would anyone go to all that trouble over a few teapots?

Bunting leaned towards her confidentially. Tell me, Mrs Wagstaff, have you seen The Maltese Falcon?

I'm not sure I would recognise one if I had, Audrey replied, but I often see a kestrel near Farthing Woods. It's the rabbits, you know. I did hear that a willow warbler had been spotted near here recently, but I find that hard to believe. They fly south for the winter, don't they? Now they might fly to Malta. Are you sure you don't mean a Maltese willow warbler?

I'm quite sure, madam, Bunting replied heavily. Anyway, it was a chiffchaff.

A Maltese chiffchaff?

No, not a Maltese chiffchaff, and not a Maltese willow warbler. Please pay attention, Mrs Wagstaff. The Maltese falcon wasn't a real living bird. It was the statuette of a bird, made of solid gold, and studded with the finest jewels of the orient, worth a king's ransom. But it had been painted with black lacquer, to look quite ordinary - the sort of object you might donate to a jumble sale. You bought a teapot from a jumble sale, didn't you madam?

Yes, I did, Audrey admitted, wondering why that innocent action had now apparently assumed sinister implications. She gave Bunting a hard stare. So you think that one of these teapots has only been painted to look like a teapot, but is actually solid gold and studded with precious stones?

I wasn't speaking literally, Bunting replied impatiently. It was analogy.

An allergy? You think whoever did this is allergic to teapots?

No, no, of course not. The falcon was analogy for the teapots.

The falcon has an allergy? Is it contagious? There are a lot of poultry farms in these parts, you know. Should we inform the Farmers' Union? Or the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries?

Bunting took a deep breath. What I am trying to tell you, Mrs Wagstaff, is that several unsavoury characters were looking for the Maltese falcon, and would do anything to lay their hands on it - even murder.

Audrey was by now wondering if Bunting were mad, and possibly dangerous. She edged a little further from him, looking alarmed. Bunting saw the expression on her face and thought, Hello, that's a guilty look if I ever saw one. I may be on to something here. He remembered that the ultimate guilty party in The Maltese Falcon was played by Mary Astor, to whom Audrey Wagstaff bore some resemblance. Casting his mind over the other villains involved, he realised that Alf Wagstaff, Audrey's husband, was a fat man, not unlike Sydney Greenstreet. He concluded that the Wagstaffs were the key to the mystery. Andrew Riley was just Wilmer, their messenger. He decided to probe further.

What we need to know, Mrs Wagstaff, is where these teapots came from.

That's easily answered, constable. They came from Riley's Hardware Store.

Ah yes, ultimately. But where did Mr Riley get them from? Could it have been . . He paused for effect, and then shot at her . . off a tramp steamer from Shanghai?

Audrey was unperturbed. Oh, I shouldn't think so. The Government wouldn't allow it, surely, not with the balance of payments being the way it is. We shouldn't be importing teapots from China when our own pottery industry can produce them. If anything, I should hope we are exporting teapots.

Bunting persevered. Or perhaps they passed through the hands of an eccentric millionaire collector in Constantinople?

Audrey's unease increased.

Who can tell? she replied placatingly, praying that Bunting would leave before his mania turned to violence.

Bunting was sure that he had identified the villains. His problem was what to do next. Sam Spade would simply have denounced them, leaving the police to do the boring stuff like obtaining warrants, filing complaints, and summoning witnesses. Unfortunately, he was the police, and he was realistic enough to foresee that he would have some difficulty persuading magistrate Middleton that there was a case to answer. Magistrates lacked the imagination that was necessary to a skilled investigator like himself. He decided to put the matter on hold for the time being.

We shall leave it there for now, madam, but I shall need to speak to you again.

Of course, officer, of course. Relief was evident in Audrey Wagstaff's voice as she ushered him out of the front door.

Bunting took two steps down the path, then paused and over his shoulder uttered a caution. Mind you don't leave the country. Then he was gone.

*****

That evening Fred Atkins called on Andrew Riley and told him that he and Kitty had talked things over and had decided to call the wedding off. We both agree that it would be a mistake, so I'm letting you know it's off, before you go to any trouble.

Andrew regarded him unsympathetically. What a pity. And after you've said goodbye to all your old girlfriends too.

That's all right, old man. I'll just have to go round and say hello again to all of them, shan't I?

*****

Reviewing the events of the day as he prepared for bed that night, PC Bunting concluded that there was too much fiction extolling the actions of private investigators, and little or none about the real police. He thought he might redress the balance by writing some stories based on his own experiences. He took out an unused exercise book and sharpened a 2B pencil. On the front cover he wrote:

The Case Book of PC Bunting
George Bunting

He opened the book and started writing:

Chapter One - The Case of the Maltese Teapot

A crash woke me, and I leapt panther-like from my bed, truncheon in hand. One swift glance was all it took to tell me everything I needed to know. The teapot lay in pieces on the floor. It had not been a particularly good teapot. I had more than once considered replacing it myself. But it had been my teapot, and when somebody breaks your teapot, you are supposed to do something about it.

Pleased with what he regarded as a promising start, he went to bed. Audrey Wagstaff might have been surprised to know the role she played in his dreams.

*****


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