The white elephant stall was chock-a-block with lampshades and books, a strange combination of offerings from members of the Brookhampton Branch of Gardener's Forum. Emily Jenkins had expected to be inundated with plants and seeds, but the only offering remotely connected with gardening was a thin publication on house plants. She grouped the larger items at the side of the trestle table to allow for easier inspection of smaller contributions, giving place of honour to a wooden box of ornate knives that looked as if they'd never been used. Nestling on white satin, the lustrous instruments looked rather superior amongst the cracked teacups, battered handbags, two steel toast-racks, and a souvenir clothes-brush in a plastic clog.
Emily loosened her cuffs and undid the top button of her cream blouse. It was a very warm, but pleasant in the shade of the horse chestnut tree, and peaceful now that a nearby car alarm had stopped its deafening din.
Behind her a voice said, 'Afternoon, Miss Jenkins.'
It was Martin Crisp, village postman and hero of the rugby team. His wife Sandra, impeded by a pencil-slim skirt, was striving to catch him up.
Emily greeted them cordially, pleased that her first customers were people she knew so that if she made a mistake in her reckoning she wouldn't feel so bad. 'Not playing today, Martin?' she enquired.
'Not this weekend.' He grinned at Sandra and gave her ribs a playful dig. 'Thought I'd give Sandra the benefit of my company for a change.
Sandra blushed and gave him a coy glance.
Moving to the front of the stall, Martin began to browse through the hardbacks. 'Might find something suitable for your brother,' he said, flipping the books one by one.
Sandra picked up a pale pink Tiffany lampshade. 'I like this,' she said, wheezing a little, still breathless after her short run. 'The colour's perfect for our spare room and it only needs stitching around the rim. Maybe there's a book here which would help.' She started to search through the craft books which Emily had displayed on a cardboard box.
'Crikey, look at this.'
Sandra's ash-blonde hair swung like a curtain as she spun round to face Martin, who had his sturdy arm outstretched as if wanting to select a book but afraid to do so. Emily put on her spectacles and peered over a heap of paperbacks trying to make out what had attracted him, but it was difficult to read anything upside down.
Forsaking her own search, Sandra drifted to her husband's side and quizzed him on his discovery.
He pointed a stubby finger at a distinctive leather-bound volume, blue in colour with black lettering and a silk marker. 'Black Country Stories,' he said. 'Like Gran used to have, though if I remember rightly hers was thinner. This could be an omnibus edition.'
'What are Black Country stories?'
Though Sandra addressed Martin, she peered at Emily as though she might have the answer pushed up her sleeve, which of course she did not. She had heard of the
Black Country, but didn't know there was a book about it.
'Anecdotes about life in the Black Country,' Martin said as he lifted the book from the stack. 'This must be more than sixty years old. Can't be too many around.' Carefully he opened the cover. 'Nineteen-thirty-four. What a find.' He lowered the book and, according to his later account, was about to ask the price when a slight man in a filthy grey raincoat shoved Emily to one side, stretched over the handbags and plucked the book from Martin's hand.
Sandra watched open-mouthed as the man sprinted towards the exit carrying a bulky brown canvas bag.
Martin quickly regained his composure. 'Blimey, the book wasn't old enough to warrant a snatch.' He leaned across the lampshades. 'You look a bit pale, Miss Jenkins. You all right?'
Emily nodded, but continued to rub her arm. Sure as houses there'd be a bruise by morning. 'I never ...' She stopped to clear her throat which had gone dry with nerves. 'I swear I hadn't seen the book until you picked it up.'
Sandra wailed, 'Ooh, Martin, d'you think the man was a crook?'
'Don't be daft. He probably can't afford to buy it, that's all. Pity, though, I'd have liked it. It'll be worth a bob or two in a few years.' Suddenly, Martin stood on tiptoe, stretching to see over the hawthorn hedge. 'Hey, there he is. Perhaps I can persuade him with a tenner?'
'Who?' asked Sandra.
But Martin wasn't able to reply. He had taken off in pursuit of the man, knocking the knife box askew as he hastily bypassed the counter, but the scoundrel, on hearing Martin's cry and observing his athletic form sprinting in his direction, swiftly took to his heels.
'Ooh!' exclaimed Sandra. 'Isn't Martin brave?'
The following morning
While washing up at the sink, Emily spotted Sandra teetering up the path on her incredibly high heels.
'Coo-ee, Miss Jenkins,' she called, seeing Emily peeping round
the net curtain. She waved and pointed to the door as if she was in a hurry to be let in.
Absorbing some of her urgency, Emily dabbed her hands with the tea towel and went to the door.
'Ooh, Miss Jenkins. Wait 'til you hear what happened yesterday.'
Emily took her in the kitchen and invited her to take a glass of squash but Sandra didn’t hear, she was already in full flight with an account of events rushing from her mouth like cascading utterances, each one rolling so close to the next it was impossible to decipher the arrangement. Eventually, after listening for a few minutes in complete bewilderment, Emily shouted, 'For heaven's sake, Sandra, be quiet.'
'Ooh, Miss J. Was I babbling?'
Emily pulled out a chair. 'Sit down, there's a dear.' Regardless of whether her visitor wanted one or not, Emily poured two glasses of lemonade and placed one in front of her. 'Now, Sandra, start again, slowly.'
'Well, it was like this ....'
Apparently, by the time Martin caught up with the loathsome villain (Sandra's description of the thief) he was preparing to leap on a moving bus, but Martin went headlong into one of his famous rugby tackles and frustrated the attempt. Fortunately, the man's holdall burst open and a load of valuables fell out, vases and picture frames and boxes and things. Martin surmised they were stolen and made a citizens arrest.
Sandra hoisted back her shoulders and beamed with delight. 'Not afraid to have a go, isn't Martin.'
When Emily asked if the book had been rescued, Sandra speeded up, stumbling through a garbled version of facts as if she hadn't a minute to live. Emily laid a hand on her arm to calm her excitement and finally received a coherent report.
The book had been stolen from Myers' Mansion on the hill, innocently taken, the police thought, scooped from an onyx table with some costly silverware. But it didn't take the thief long to discover that the book was a facade for a cleverly disguised box containing a diamond necklace. The felon had shrewdly dispersed the gear amid a clutter of people's discards on sundry stands until the heat died down. A risky thing to do, considering everything at the fete was for sale.
Emily rubbed her greying widow's peak, a habit of hers when fraught. She wondered what the thief would have done if she had sold the bogus tome. Her heart pounded inside her chest at the thought of what danger she might have faced, imagining that scruffy individual threatening her with a dagger or a gun.
'You O.K. Miss Jenkins?'
'Course I am. Your news knocked me a bit off kilter, that's all.'
Sandra smiled and chattered on about how fortunate Lord Myers was that Martin was around to single-handedly save the day.
'He should be rewarded,' Emily said, feeling like doing a spot of rewarding herself.
'Oh, he was,' Sandra said, amazingly nonchalant all of a sudden. 'Lord Myers wrote a cheque for two thousand pounds.'
Emily was astounded. Such a substantial reward implied that the necklace was of immense value. And to think she had it on her white elephant stall. She had a vision of awarding it pride of place amongst the teacups and toast-racks, adjacent to the silver knives and the clog, debating the price with the Vicar and thwarting bids to steal it with a bag.
Two thousand pounds! No wonder Sandra was in such good spirits with such a sizeable sum on its way to the bank. Emily was pleased for Martin whom she considered deserved a reward, but as far as she was concerned it was the end of her venture into selling. In future she would offer to run something less risky, the tombola, maybe, or welly-whanging.
Sandra drained her glass. 'I wouldn't have been surprised if those fancy knives were part of the haul. Lovely they were. Strikes me the robber didn't have a clue about thieving. Imagine stealing, then disposing of half the loot. Stood to reason he'd lose it. Mind, I'd most likely do the same with alarms ringing loud enough to wake the dead.' She set the glass on the table and wiped her lips with a tissue. 'Shows how much I know about burglarising.'
Emily has a pressing matter to attend to
After Sandra had gone, Emily put the glasses to soak in the sink and stood for a minute or two gazing through the window, watching the squirrels tracking each other through the conifers, then she let lowered the blind to keep the sun out of the kitchen. The cuckoo clock struck the hour. already, and she'd done nothing in the house. But she had a more pressing matter to attend to so the housework would have to wait.
Bustling into the dining room, she opened the sideboard drawer and withdrew the box of beautiful knives, the only item on the white-elephant which had taken her eye. Opening the lid, she selected one and took it to the window for a better view of it. The handle was so smooth it felt velvety and fitted her hand as though it had been specially crafted for her. She studied the tiny monogram. It wasn't easy to see, but she guessed it was the Myers' family crest. Replacing the knife in its slot, she closed the lid and tucked the box under her arm, then scurried into the hall to change her shoes.
Humming a cheerful ditty, she chose her best cardigan from those neatly arranged on the closet shelf. 'One day soon,' she muttered as she checked her appearance in the mirror, smoothing her hair and removing a speck of dirt from her chin, 'when Marmaduke Myers advances my reward, I'll buy some fine knives like those.'
She felt exceptionally happy as she grabbed her bag and keys and stepped out of the front door. Numerous coveted items orbited her brain: bone china to display, silk sheets to lie on, Turkish carpet for the lounge. Pulling the door to with a bang, clutching the knife box to her bosom and singing, 'New coat, new shoes,' to the tune of
, Emily Jenkins took her
first jaunty step towards Myers' Mansion on the hill. New York,