This is the fourteenth tale in a year and a day of weekly short stories that British author Emma Newman has set in The Split Worlds and was inspired by a prompt from me. If you would like Emma to read it to you instead, you can listen here. You can find links to all the other stories, and the new ones as they are released here. — Alex
A Humble Buttercup
The road ended with an abrupt drop into the ocean. Jim stood at the edge of the tarmac, his car parked on the other side of the barrier a few metres away. He’d had to get out and see it for himself, disbelieving the horizon from the driver’s seat.
“Blimey,” he whispered.
“Bit of a shock, isn’t it?”
A foot was sticking out from behind an outcropping of rock. He walked round to find a man sitting on a picnic blanket wearing a tweed suit and waistcoat. A suitcase, a hamper and a set of three crystal decanters held in a wooden tantalus surrounded him. Jim looked up at the clouds, all the colour of depression. Hardly picnic weather. The man was looking out over the sea, towards where the village was before it was washed away.
“I can’t quite believe it,” Jim said. “My parents told me, but it’s different when you see it for yourself, isn’t it?”
“Tarquin,” the man extended a hand. “Tarquin Ranunculus, pleased to meet you.”
His voice was slightly slurred, when Jim shook his hand he saw one of the decanters was almost empty. “Jim Tanner.”
“A tanner eh? Join me for a drink. Brandy or whisky? ‘Fraid there’s only an unsociable amount of the sherry left.”
Jim sat on the blanket where it was patted, it was cold and slightly damp. “Whisky. Interesting surname you’ve got. Italian is it?”
Tarquin laughed, long and heartily. “No dear chap. Latin. I’m just a humble buttercup and soon to be homeless. No, I’m being dramatic, it’s the sherry. Soon to be cottage-less. Is there such a word?” He handed him the decanter. “Sorry old chap, no glasses. Had to fill the hamper with books and cheese. Would you like some Wensleydale? It’s very good.”
“No thanks,” Jim pulled out the heavy crystal stopper, took a swig. It was an excellent single malt.
“Bloody fools,” Tarquin muttered, waving the sherry decanter at the sea. “Listed the cottage, didn’t stop the village being taken did it? Spent my October’s there for the last hundred years, what will I do now?”
“You mean your family did?” Jim asked; the man didn’t look much over thirty.
“No, me. I. The favoured son. He won’t be happy.”
“My patron. Gave me the cottage. I didn’t notice until the dining room went squiffy and then, gosh, I’ve never been so afraid in my life. Have some more whiskey, it’s a terrible thing for a man to drink with one who is sober.”
“No you’re not, you’re sitting. Besides, my carriage will be here in the morning, I’ll have my man drop you wherever you’re staying.”
“You’re going to spend the night out here?”
“Yes. I’m going to get utterly lathered and have one last night near the cottage, before it’s gone forever. You must join me, dear chap, I’m grieving I tell you. Grieving.” He slapped a hand over Jim’s. “You will stay, have a drink, won’t you?”
The urge to get in the car and leave the slightly mad drunkard to his own private picnic disappeared. “Alright,” he said, and Tarquin released his hand to clap him on the back.
“So what brings you to this wet graveside?” Tarquin asked as Jim took another gulp. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a drink.
“I used to live in that village. We moved away when I went to secondary school. Just as well. Which was your cottage?”
“The oldest one.”
“At the far end, near the church?”
“I think so. Didn’t go into the village you understand. Not worth the wrinkles.”
Jim gave up trying to make sense of him, feeling his toes getting warm and his head gently fuzzy. The fog, rolling in from the sea, seemed appropriate. “My Mum said you can still hear the church bell if there’s a storm. That true?”
“No idea, but we’ll find out tomorrow, one’s coming in. Then the cottage will be gone. Gone here and there! Forever!”
Jim scratched his head. “Didn’t the cliff collapse last year?”
“Here it did. If I’d known chunks of Mundanus could simply disappear into the sea I would have… oh…” He covered his face with his hands. “Oh no. I left it behind.”
“The locket! John-”
“Jim, you have to get it for me. It’s hanging over the mantelpiece, you’ll spot it straight away.”
“It’s under water now, I’m not a diver!”
“No, if… when…” Tarquin stared back out at the sea again. “Yes, that’s it, when the fog comes in, they say you can still walk across to the cottage. My cottage.”
“You’re mad.” Jim took another swig, deciding it should be his last.
“I’ll give you five thousand of the Queen’s pounds if you do this for me. Just walk over to it, go inside, get the locket and leave again.”
“If it’s that easy, you do it.”
“I can’t go back in there! Not after seeing the dining room just… I can’t.”
“You’ll really give me five thousand pounds?”
“Yes, I swear it, on my family’s honour. Here’s the key, stand up now, there’s a good fellow.”
He leaped up and pulled Jim to his feet, both of them swaying as if on board ship. Tarquin pressed a huge key into his hand, it looked like it was made of old oak, but was heavy enough to be iron. Jim was steered towards the cliff edge as Tarquin muttered something and pushed him forwards. There was a brief tickling across his skin, like walking through spiders’ webs and the air lost its chill.
The fog was thinner, now more a gentle mist, but the ocean was gone. Ahead, a single cobbled road stretched away from the cliff, in the distance he could just make out the shape of a cottage, looking like an artist had suggested its presence with a few strokes of watercolour paint. He was alone, the decanter still in his other hand and with whisky-fuelled logic Jim decided to see whether it was a real road heading to where the village used to be.
His shoes clicked on the cobbles, he took two more decent swigs before reaching the cottage. He recognised it, but the church which should have been next door was nowhere to be seen. It took three attempts, but he finally got the key in the lock and opened the door. Inside, the cottage was warm and cosy, opulently furnished for such a humble dwelling. He found the living room easily.
He saw the locket, then noticed a note rolled and tied with black ribbon tucked between the circle of silver and the chimney breast. He took both, glanced through another door into a dining room which seemed to have lost a wall and half of the chairs round the table, and then felt the cottage shake. The floor undulated briefly, then settled, but it was enough to make Jim bolt out of the house and stumble back down the cobbled road.
Tarquin was nowhere in sight; there was only the road, the mist and above him a disturbingly silver sky. He sniffed at the neck of the decanter, wondering if it was just whiskey in there, then a hand grabbed his arm, pulled him sideways and he was tumbling onto the picnic blanket. The air was damp and cold again, the fog thick, the last thing he saw before passing out was Tarquin, grinning.
When Jim woke it felt like his brain had been sucked out and replaced with a hedgehog. He was drenched and freezing cold, lying on the cliff top in a storm. Slowly, memories of whiskey and a drunken toff surfaced.
“Tarquin?” he called. The hamper, the picnic rug, tantalus, every sign of him was gone. Jim struggled to his feet, relieved to see his car was where he’d left it. He thrust his hands into his pockets, found something unfamiliar and pulled it out. A large tie-pin, sporting a huge diamond was wrapped in a piece of torn paper and tied with a familiar black ribbon. “Payment, with thanks, T,” was scrawled just below the only word remaining from the original note; “curse.”
Jim looked over the cliff edge, imagining Tarquin’s body crumpled below, but there was no-one there. There was only the sound of the wind, the violence of the waves and, ever so faint, a distant church bell.
Thanks for hosting – and the great prompt – Alex!
I hope you enjoyed the story. If you would like to find out more about the Split Worlds project, it’s all here: www.splitworlds.com – you can also sign up to get an extra story and get each new story delivered to your inbox every week. If you would like to host a story over the coming year, either let me know in the comments or contact me through the Split Worlds site. Em x