The Fans Mystery Short Fiction By A.M. Porter

The Fans: Mystery Short Fiction By A.M. Porter

A.M. Porter, author “The Fans”, writes about climate and environmental science for a United Nations-sponsored news site, and has published four books of non-fiction.

*****

There are men working on the island when Cheryl walks by that morning with Harold. Three of them, all wearing high-vis vests, placing the last of four tall steel pylons in a square. She stops for a minute to watch as they thread the tops of the posts through with steel cabling, forming a huge ‘X’ over the patch of ground underneath, the rough circle of cedars and spruce trees seeming to stand back as if to let them get on with it.

“That’s the moon thing, is it?” says a voice suddenly coming up behind her, almost making Cheryl jump.

“Oh! Oh, hi Jill,” she says, feeling forced to return the woman’s broad smile just as broadly. “How are you? And how are the Littles today?”

“Oh, right as rain, in as fine a fettle as you can imagine!” A small woman, bustling and bursting with  pointless energy, Jill tends to speak with boundless enthusiasm, as if imparting exceptionally good news. She tells Cheryl that Tony was off his food yesterday, “but don’t worry!” She describes how she gave him Pepto-Bismol, and how it squirted everywhere, but that today he’s okay again. “Brimming with vim and vigour!”

Cheryl blinks a few times, and is about to comment politely, but Jill isn’t listening.

“And how’s His Nibs today?” she asks, bending down to pat the elderly beagle on the head. “How are you Harold?” she asks brightly. “Enjoying your walk?” The dog gazes up at her with rheumy eyes and sniffs the air, before making his way towards Tony and Cleo, a pair of pugs in matching leather harnesses.

“Now what to make of this?” Jill continues, standing upright again and crossing her arms. “This moon idea. Apparently it’s being put on by Arden Summer Music, but I don’t see how it’s got anything to do with music!”

‘This moon idea,’ as Jill has called it, is an art installation called ‘The Museum of The Moon,’ an exact replica, seven meters in diameter, of the surface of the moon using pictures taken by NASA cameras from their lunar space crafts. Later, when it turns dark, it will be illuminated from inside.

“Well, apparently there will be what they call a soundscape,” Cheryl replies, “and musicians playing on some nights. I’m so curious to see what it will look like once it’s inflated.”

“Oh!” Jill exclaims, eyes wide. “Well, good on you, Cheryl. Good on you. Well! Must be off! See you tomorrow, dear!” Then she is gone, the Littles trotting at her heels as she sets off at a brisk pace over the grass verge towards Avonside Drive. Cheryl was about to ask after Miss Wade, but it’s too late for that.

On the island someone lands the punchline of a joke and laughter erupts, as she remains fixed in place on the river path, watching Jill’s hurried departure and feeling that something is vaguely wrong.

Frowning, she pulls Harold away from the clump of water iris he is investigating and walks on, slowly continuing along the river towards the bridge that crosses it. Rather a silly woman, that Jill, she’s thinking to herself. But harmless, she supposes. She was one of what Cheryl likes to call Arden’s out-of-luckers, an actress who neither impressed enough to get beyond as-cast roles and bit parts, nor enterprising enough to simply move on to some other theatre in some other place.

She has been walking Miss Wade’s dogs for about a year now, she reckons, but it’s been a few months since Cheryl has seen Miss Wade – original cast member of the Arden Shakespeare Festival’s earliest productions, retired now, and widowed – herself.  Her real name is Mrs. Irene Bigelow, but to all her fans and for everyone who ever worked with her, she is and will always be, Miss—no Ms., thank you very much – Irene Wade.

That’s when Cheryl finally twigs. The detail that has been bothering her since she watched Jill walk off with the Littles. It’s the blouse the other woman was wearing, a long-sleeved button-up with a pointy collar and a pattern of circular bunches of pink, green and white flower bouquets on a black background. She recognizes it as a Givenchy blouse from the late sixties. One of Miss Wade’s.

She has been walking Miss Wade’s dogs for about a year now, she reckons, but it’s been a few months since Cheryl has seen Miss Wade…

Cheryl walks the rest of the way home, along Windsor Street and then onto William Street, distracted by the realization. Usually this morning ritual, her long walk with Harold along the river, provides a pleasant start to an otherwise lonely day. Ever since her husband, Ted, died the previous autumn, she has needed the small, ephemeral moments of joy this routine has to offer. Birdsong and bird sights, a heron, deep in concentration, behind its fringed curtain of hanging willow branches, a mother duck leading a bobbing string of ducklings, or a cotton-tail rabbit meditatively eating grass. Be careful! She thinks. Predators, in the form of ravens, like menacing black-garbed gangs, abound. Life is fleeting.

Jill has become another daily sighting, strolling impatiently, it always seems to Cheryl, with the easily distracted pugs, Antony and Cleopatra, (the Littles, as Miss Wade has always called them.) A less than tranquil vision. And ever ready with the slew of unfortunate incidents that seem to have befallen Miss Wade lately, a sprained foot, a bad cold, allergies from the springtime pollen.

But this morning, there’s something else, a puzzle in her mind that takes the form of an ocean wave, pushing back, impeding movement. Lost in speculation, it’s Harold who is towing her along the sidewalk rather than the other way around.

She’s home now, Harold whining for a biscuit, the coffee-maker still on in the airy, open kitchen. She pours herself a mug and takes it out to the back patio, where she sits down next to a garden filled with luxuriant colors thanks to all the work Ted put into it over the years. Reminded of him again, she finds herself trawling through recollected scenes of a now-distant past.

Back in the late 50s, when she was 17, Cheryl was taken on as a junior seamstress at the Festival Theatre. That was when she first met Miss Wade, the year she played Portia in The Merchant of Venice.

Over the years, Cheryl eventually worked her way up from just another local girl in the costume department to deputy Head of Wardrobe. The department is peopled by professionals nowadays, youngsters with diplomas in fashion design or costume studies. But when she thinks back to earlier times, back to the remarkable costume designers whose patterns she’d cut and sewn, and the many celebrated actors she measured and fitted, there’s no comparison. And Miss Wade – with her mid-Atlantic accent and her regal bearing – on stage and off – stood out as one of the Festival’s most revered leading ladies. For a teenager from a small city like Arden, she was almost intimidatingly glamorous.

And then somehow, over the decades, as Cheryl had progressed into middle age and Miss Wade into retirement, their working relationship had metamorphosed into a kind of friendly acquaintance, one based on the passage of time and a shared nostalgia. They are by now veterans of the Festival’s storied beginnings, two old ladies – well, one old and one very old – who enjoy a chat over the occasional glass of wine or afternoon tea.

Closing her eyes, Cheryl can picture the moment she could swear she first saw that blouse. It was during one of her visits to the house on Ballantyne Street, Cheryl realizes now, that she had first seen it. Admired the tailoring, the unusual vintage fabric, how well it flattered the figure. “Oh this? Bought it ages ago,” Miss Wade said, pleased by the comments. “I’ve always loved Givenchy, simply can’t resist picking up a piece or two every year when I’m in London or New York.”

Cheryl knew it was more than a piece or two. Miss Wade always had impeccable taste, still does in spite of her advanced age, standing out as a picture of elegance and distinction in Arden. Her fashion choices were usually French design, somewhat daring, yet eternally classic.

So what, she wonders, was Jill Turney doing wearing that blouse? Could Miss Wade have given her it? Seems rather odd that she would, though. Giving an expensive blouse like that to the woman who walks her dogs.

There’s only one thing that occurs to her to do and that is to ring their mutual friend, Maria de Santis. Maria, comparatively young at 65, had been in Wigs and Make-up almost as long as Cheryl had been deputy head of Wardrobe, and also knew Miss Wade well. Maybe she’s had more recent contact with her.

“No, not for months,” Maria replies. “I’ve been by her house a couple times, but it was that woman who walks the Littles –”

“Jill Turney. She’s had small roles and some chorus work in the musicals for a number of seasons.”

“Oh, is that who she is? Well. She answered the door when I buzzed. First she told me Miss Wade was on a trip to Florida. In the summer? I asked myself. How likely is that? But the last couple of times, she told me Irene was unwell, and mustn’t be disturbed. I did send a get well card but never heard anything back.”

“Well that doesn’t sound like Irene at all.”

“No, you’re right,” Maria agrees. “She was always good about sending the little thank you notes and so on.”

Cheryl then mentions the fact that she’s seen Jill that very morning wearing a blouse she’s convinced belongs to Miss Wade. “And come to think of it, I have a feeling that I saw her the day before yesterday in a Dior dress. A cotton shift. Do remember it at all? Pale yellow with a large rickrack banding pattern. 1980, I think. I seem to recall Irene wearing it to a fundraiser for the art gallery a few years ago.”

“I do remember that dress,” says Maria. “I remember thinking that not many women her age could carry off sleeveless so well. But she’s so trim and slim, isn’t she? She can wear anything, really, and make it look like it had come straight off the catwalk.”

“Exactly.”

“Well, honestly, Cheryl,” Maria says, “I don’t know what to think.”

After a moment’s silence, Cheryl makes a suggestion. “I think we ought to check up on her. Just to, you know, make sure she’s all right.”

*****

Jill waits for a car to pass then crosses the street, increasing her pace. Reaching the other side, she angles her way across the wide swathe of grass sloping up from the Avon and extending as far as Front Street. There she turns and walks to Ballantyne Street, heading towards what is, basically and for the foreseeable future, she hopes, home. Closing the large loop of a walk she does every morning with the dogs, through the gardens behind the Festival Theatre, through Upper Park and around a small woods local conservationists had planted years ago beside the river, she marches smartly up the street.

She lets herself in the front door of the large, red-brick house with her key, but doesn’t bother to let Miss Wade know she’s back from her walk. Jill knows she won’t respond.

She doesn’t give the Littles (such a silly name, she thinks for the hundredth time) the snack they’re begging for. She doesn’t want them to become overweight, which is easy with pugs. In fact, if there was one thing she has to be absolutely assiduous about, it’s Tony and Cleo’s good health. Fortunately, Miss Wade has a standing arrangement with Romeo Pet Hospital for regular check-ups, all paid for automatically – just like the utility and property tax bills – from her checking account. In the meantime, she gives them the very best of care, plenty of walks and nutritious meals, special bones for their (remaining) teeth. Every day she brushes their coats, checks their ears, and gives then their eye drops. She wants the Littles in top form.

She switches on the radio, heats up a can of soup for a light lunch and, that over, gets to work. She has already gone through most of the house, seeking out jewelry and other valuables, but more, much more, remains. Last week she sold a silver gravy boat, a crystal vase, and a pair of silver grape scissors on Kijiji, her preferred sales platform thanks to its wide reach and anonymity. Today she thinks she might bring a Cartier watch down to the fellow who fixes clocks and watches and sells antique time pieces in a little shop on York Lane. She will engage the man in conversation about the watch, tell him that Miss Wade wants it appraised as she is thinking about selling it. He’d happily buy it from her, she’s sure, pay for it with cash to then pass on to Miss Wade herself.

Jill’s career as an actress never panned out the way she had once hoped. She never got beyond the occasional small roles and chorus, never earned quite enough with the odd commercial and little one-woman plays she used to put on in Toronto at the Fringe or Summer works. Sadly, she’s getting too old for even that by now, and middle age, with its incipient onset of grey hairs, wrinkles and creeping weight gain, has not been kind.

Over the past several years, she’s found herself relying more and more on what’s referred to as ‘the Gig Economy,’ nowadays, as if it was a performance of some kind. Cleaning peoples’ houses, raking their leaves, walking their dogs. It’s brought in just enough to pay rent for a top-floor apartment in an old house on Ontario Street, a cramped space where the traffic noise kept her from sleeping properly. Getting the job of walking the Littles had been a godsend in ways few people would understand.

Humming along with the music from the radio, Jill climbs the stairs and flings open the double doors to the ample closet in Miss Wade’s bedroom. She herself sleeps in the spare room, there being no need, she reasons, to be disrespectful of the old lady. In front of her, a long row of dresses, jackets, and blouses extends from one side to the other, most of them draped in dry-cleaner bags. Miss Wade liked to have her garments dry-cleaned after only two wearings, three at most, Jill knew. She was the one who had always volunteered to pick them up for her.

But there was a particularly nice dress she also noticed when she hit upon the yellow one. This dress is flowered silk, with short sleeves and a girlishly gathered skirt. Isabel Marant according to the label. Jill tries it on, turning back and forth in front of the pier glass in the corner. A little tight but not bad. She really ought to go on a diet.

Speaking of which, the freezer to which she had been helping herself for the past month is largely empty. She needs to go to the supermarket, and for that she can take Miss Wade’s Mini Cooper, the keys now sitting in a kitchen drawer after Jill took them from the quilted Dior handbag she sold the week before last. Thank God for Kijiji, she thinks. And E Bay. All cash. And never a question asked. Just one more happy person going off with their newly purchased treasure from Balzac’s café, where Jill always arranges to meet.

She closes the closet doors and goes through the chest of drawers, looking for a cardigan to match the dress. She wants to look nice for her visit to the man in the clock shop, to not look like someone who survives hand to mouth, and while it’s  lovely and warm out right now, there’s the possibility of a shower later. It would certainly dampen that silly moon project, she says to herself. Pour cold water on it, she thinks, smiling to herself at the joke. Why can’t they invest in another theatre instead?

*****

Maria drives herself and Cheryl to Avonside Drive, parking inconspicuously among the cars left there by tourists who have come to Arden to see the plays. Along the way, they talk strategy. Best not to venture right onto Ballantyne Street itself, they decide. The last thing they want to do is come across as nosy. Better to approach Miss Wade’s house from behind, since her part of the block backs onto a wide grassy area, dotted with trees, accessible from Avonside.

Five or six houses are exposed this way, two-stories that become three thanks to the slope, and all of the extra floors fitted out with windows and French doors. It takes them a minute to identify exactly which one is Miss Wade’s, until the familiar red sunshade over an outdoor table on the back veranda gives it away. Cheryl suddenly finds herself looking forward to seeing Miss Wade, can already picture the surprise on her face as they tell her that they were just passing by and wanted to say hello.

The back lawn is in bad shape, they see, as they conceal themselves behind the trunk of a large maple tree. The grass is weedy and unmowed, the climbing rose unpruned, prickly tendrils poking out of it like coils from an old mattress. A cylindrical bird feeder, dusty with chaff, stands empty on a leaf-littered wrought-iron table. “We should have brought binoculars,” Maria says, straining to see any movement in either the living room or the upstairs bed room.

As the minutes tick by, it’s the lack of activity, the dearth of any sound or movement, that begins to bother them. She might be napping, of course; she might be somewhere at the front of the house. She might even be visiting a friend, except how could she if she is not feeling well. Miss Wade’s bright red Mini Cooper is missing, they notice, and this, too, seems wrong.

Eventually they draw nearer to the back yard, nervously and silently stepping past a garden shed and a basket of dried weeds that look as if it has been there a long time. Cheryl even slips up to the side of the house and peeks into the dining room but can’t see anything. Returning to Maria, who is now crouched behind the screen of climbing roses, she just shakes her head wordlessly.

“I say we go up closer,” she whispers, “and listen for voices or movement or something.”

“Well, all right. If you think we should.”

“I do,” says Cheryl.

Shoulders hunched, senses attuned, the pair of them creep through the tall grass, Cheryl suddenly reminded of those old television programs where Daniel Boone moves stealthily through a forest glade with his shotgun, looking for game, or Indians with spears sneak up on a wagon train of unsuspecting settlers. What would Ted make of this, she thinks, if he were still alive? Her suspicious prying into an old woman’s private business.

They get as far as the lower room with its floor-to-ceiling windows, and flatten themselves against the brick framing. It is dark here, the veranda overhead submerging the bricked patio in shadow. Slowly they turn, and peer inside.

And there she is. Both women gasp in surprise. Ensconced in a brocade quilt, she lays in a black mesh sun lounger, facing the river. Her head is downcast, slumped forward so they can’t actually see her face, only the fine, white netting of her hair, sparse as cobwebs. Even more perplexing than the idea of her sleeping in an outdoor lounger in a basement room, four floor fans surround her, directing their drafts toward her prone figure.

Neither woman knows what to think, much less what to do. It’s such an odd sight, such a bizarre situation. A peculiar stillness seems to hover over the elderly woman, a stillness and silence that almost seems to suggest something more than sleep. Yet, if she is just asleep, they don’t want to disturb her, even though they have no idea why she has chosen to do so in such an uncomfortable way. And in the shadowy gloom of this lower room, of all places, among her dusty bits of cast-off furniture and old trunks.

Slowly the minutes pass, one by one, then fifteen of them, then thirty. Cheryl almost feels she can sense the sun’s gradual passage across the sky towards the west, the shade beneath the veranda deepening into greater darkness. Neither woman feels able to speak, or to tear their eyes away from Miss Wade. They can only stand there, pressed against the glass, waiting.

It’s Cheryl who finally breaks the silence. She turns towards Maria, a look of horror her face. “She hasn’t moved a muscle in over an hour,” she says. “She doesn’t even seem to be breathing.”

*****

Dinnertime over, Jill clips the dogs’ leashes to their collars and takes them out for their evening walk. She came home to them barking, as if at an intruder in the back. But it was no one, just the clatter of the empty bird feeder blown over by the wind , rolling back and forth on the wrought iron table outside.

She is still wearing her new silk dress and cashmere cardigan, although it hasn’t rained after all. The air has grown cooler. As she traverses her familiar route along the street towards the theatre, she can see the crowds of playgoers thronging the front doors and the gardens, ready for their show to begin. She turns up Queen Street to Water Street, passing the old Normal School and on into Upper Park. Above the trees, the night sky is just edging past dusk, assuming ever darker shades of blue. Far off, the western horizon still blazes with the copper pink remnants of a perfect summer day.

She and the Littles thread their way slowly among the picnic tables, past the bandshell, up towards the rock garden and then back down again behind the art gallery. They are at the furthest end of the river now, or what Jill considers the furthest end since there is no footpath after that point, and she circles back onto Avonside Drive and towards the theatre again. It is completely dark by now, and from that distance she can see the glow of the Museum of the Moon from its place on the island. It seems to float magically over the river, a golden sphere, its craters and ridges distinct, immense and entrancing. To one side of it is the black silhouette of a tall spruce.

She can see, now, how amazing it is after all, how beautiful and extraordinary, and how difficult, really, to it is to describe the sense of seeing something so emotionally overwhelming. It seems to have an effect on her,  as she walks towards it, lifting her spirits in a way she would never have expected, making her feel a kind of awe for life itself, a sense of expanding possibilities. A feeling not unlike the one she had that special morning three months ago, when fortune smiled and the idea suddenly came to her. The day she brought Tony and Cleo home from their morning walk only to find Miss Wade, unmoving, on the living room sofa. Lying there peacefully. Quite dead.

Her heart is buoyant as she leads the dogs slowly along the river, the breeze fluttering the silk skirt of her dress. On the island, a large crowd of people surrounds the moon exhibit, basking in its radiance and taking pictures with their iPhones. Just as she did that morning, Jill stops for a few minutes to watch. But after a while, she takes herself off again, crossing the Drive and cutting up towards Ballantyne Street.

There is a lightshow here as well! she thinks to herself, for one brief moment. Two police cars and an ambulance are parked in front of Miss Wade’s house. The strong white beams from their headlamps command the pavement, and a display of flashing roof lights throws bars of red and blue up into the tree branches. More light spills from the first-floor windows of the house, illuminating everything.

*****

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