Bunty and Maxine

Paddy Johnson

It was a cloudy grey Saturday in November. A boisterous wind rattled windowpanes and forced occasional gasps of smoke into the room from the morning fire set in the parlor. Bunty hadn’t seen a soul since breakfast and was entertaining herself with her kitty doll, Maxine. Maxine was a dark striped tabby cat with large expressive eyes, white whiskers, and a calico dress. Everywhere that Bunty went Maxine would come along. They were both now poised atop the red leather ottoman, Bunty holding Maxine for safety, as she surveyed a great deluge of liquid lava coursing over the parlor carpet, consuming the furniture in its path.

“Don’t worry Maxine, we’ll be safe on this mountain. But I don’t like the way that lava just swallowed up Armchair Valley.”
     Just then the fireplace belched a cloud of grey white smoke out into the room. Bunty’s nose tingled with the acrid scent. “Oh no! The volcano has erupted again. We must flee to higher ground. We must flee! Over there to The Curtain Forest. Don’t be afraid. We can make it if we’re quick.” Bunty sprang from the ottoman, skipping along the carpet’s decorative border. “Ow! Ow! That lava is hot, but I’m stepping so lightly it’s not burning me up.” They made it to the green satin curtain and Bunty ducked behind it where they could be safe. The looser windowpanes gave a rattle, shaken by a strong gust of wind, and she turned to look outside. Coming up the driveway, a sack slung over one shoulder and a scarf flying out behind him, was Bill the postman. The wind seemed to tug at him from all directions, but he just lowered his head, put one hand on his cap, and pressed forward to the front door.
     Bunty dashed out from behind the curtain and bolted toward the door. “I’ve got it!” she called, just as the doorbell sounded its deep chime. “It’s postman Bill.”
     “Hello Bunty. How are you today?” asked Bill with a smile as she opened the door wide. A gust of wind rushed into the hall and far off a door slammed.
     “It’s very windy!” Bunty declared excitedly. “Aren’t you afraid of being blown away?”
     Bill laughed. “It’s a bit rough alright, but I’ve seen worse than this. It should simmer down by lunchtime. Is your uncle in?”
     “No. He’s gone into town on business.”
     “I’ve got a telegram for him. Can I leave it with you?”
     “Of course.”
     Bill extended a piece of buff colored paper which had little strips of type written wording stuck onto it. Bunty took it, opened it, and quickly read the two lines it held.
     SORRY TO APPEAR INSISTENT STOP BUT I MUST HAVE MY TRINKETS STOP
THIS IS THE LAST CHANCE
     A door behind slammed again and Hannah drew up beside her in an apron and a smell of baking. “I’ll take that, Missy,” Hannah said plucking the telegram from Bunty with a white, flour-dusted hand. “Morning Bill.”
     “A telegram for Mr. Fosdyke, Hannah,” he replied cheerfully.
     “Thanks very much. I’ll see he gets it. That’s a bit of a breeze you’ve got today,” she nodded, smiling from her kitchen-reddened face.
     Bill winked. “Nothing I can’t handle.”
     “I’m sure,” Hannah chuckled. “Take care now.”
     “Good day to you, and to you Miss Bunty.”
     “Say goodbye to Maxine too,” Bunty demanded, holding up the doll for Bill to see.
     “Oh, pardon me. Good day to you Miss Maxine.”
     Hannah and Bill shared a laugh and then Bill was gone, retreating down the drive, one hand holding on to his cap, his scarf jumping this way and that around him. Hannah pushed the door closed as there was another sharp sound of a door slamming deep within the house.
     “Mercy, what a day,” she said, squinting at the telegram.
     “Sorry to appear insistent, stop, but I must have my trinkets, stop, this is the last chance,” Bunty sang peering up at Hannah.
     Hannah looked from the telegram to Bunty and gave a funny little grimace. “Now you should know better than to read other people’s mail,” she admonished.
     “It’s a telegram,” Bunty replied.
     “Nevertheless.”
     “But you just did.”
     Hannah looked at Bunty and blinked. Bunty gave what she thought was a sly smile.
     “And you should know better than to leave the door wide open when the wind is blowing like it is! You’ll have the whole house down around us. Now get along with you and play quietly, like a good girl. I’m making onion pie for lunch and it should be ready in about an hour. See that your hands are clean when I call you,” and she bustled off back to the kitchen muttering to herself.
     Hannah wasn’t usually cross with Bunty. What had she done to make her so annoyed? The telegram? That she had read it, or what it had said? She walked slowly back to the parlor and slumped down in an armchair.
     Sorry to appear insistent.
     Who was appearing insistent?
     I must have my trinkets.
     What was a trinket? Did her uncle have the trinkets?
     This is the last chance.
     Was that a threat? Was something bad going to happen? Was her uncle in any danger?  She decided she would consult him when he returned. Would he be back for lunch? Hannah hadn’t said so. He had left early today, before Bunty had finished her breakfast, without their usual morning chat. He had kissed her abstractedly on the top of her head. She had had a mouthful of toast she was working on and had crumbily mumbled goodbye without looking up. But there had been something different about the morning farewell, the typical inquiry about how she planned to spend her day, and how was Maxine’s French coming along. After he had kissed her head she had felt her uncle’s hand rest on her shoulder a moment. It was a light touch, and then it had patted her twice, as if to console her about something. Then with a waft of cologne, he had left. A great gasp of smoke from the fireplace announced his departure by the front door, and there had been a chorus of banging doors in its wake. Had he gone to see Uncle Marty?
     The last time there had been such a racket of slamming doors was when Uncle Marty had visited. Voices had been raised. Bunty was in bed upstairs, listening to the house’s night sounds. Her uncle and Marty were in the study downstairs. It was her uncle’s voice she heard first, heated with anger, scolding. The conversation had dropped to a steady drone for a while, and then it was Marty’s voice she heard, loud, pointed with aggression. The voices had proceeded from the study to the library, where they began to volley back and forth at each other, the words indistinct. From the library they had moved into the drawing room where they had lowered once more.

     Uncle Marty wasn’t really her uncle the way Uncle Harvey was. She just called him uncle because she liked to. And now Uncle Harvey called him Uncle Marty too. As long as she could remember Uncle Marty had been visiting, often staying days on end. Uncle Marty was younger than Uncle Harvey. He was playful and nimble in ways Uncle Harvey was not, joining in Bunty’s games, racing with her over the lawn and hiding in the shrubberies. When she was younger and smaller, he would sweep her up and throw her in the air, catching her and swinging her about as if she were a rag doll.
     Though Uncle Harvey and Uncle Marty were the best of friends – everybody said so – there were occasions when sparks would fly, and Hannah would be called to take Bunty to the kitchen. Then, no matter what Hannah would devise to distract her – a tumbler of fresh lemonade, cutting out pastry with an up-turned wine glass – Bunty could hear the voices raised against each other, followed sometimes by the sound of doors slamming. But it wouldn’t be long before they were agreeable again, eyes smiling as Uncle Harvey might ask her what she thought of Uncle Marty’s new hair cut, or Uncle Marty asked her if she knew what a fortunate pair they were to know her Uncle Harvey the way they did. The best was when they went to the park together, and she could walk with one on either side of her, holding hands.

     Listening from her bed to the voices below, Bunty had decided to investigate. She slipped out from the covers, Maxine in hand, and tiptoed onto the landing. It was dark and shadowy, the only light coming up from lamps in the hallway below. She knelt by the banisters at the top of the stairs, resting her head against a railing. The air filtering upwards held traces of cigar smoke and the sweetness of brandy. She could hear a mumbling of voices coming from the drawing room. The mumbling gradually grew louder, two voices over-lapping, trying to out do each other. Abruptly there was a crash, and the voices were moving rapidly then – about the drawing room, into the library with the slamming of a door, then into her uncle’s study, the slam of a door. A door from the study was thrown open to the hallway and Marty’s voice was shouting “I swear she does, she means it this time! She means to do it, Harvey! How can you be so blind?”
     The door closed with a bang behind him and he stalked to the coat hanger by the front door. He threw on his overcoat and snatched up his hat. His cheeks were flushed red. The air about him seemed to pulse. Rounding to leave, he glanced suddenly upward and his eyes locked with Bunty’s. Uncle Marty had large dark eyes fringed with long black lashes. Glistening in the light, they grew wide with surprise as they drank in her presence. He emitted a low groaning sound, spun around, ground his hat down on his head, and left without even saying goodbye.
     Something had prompted her not to say anything about the row to Uncle Harvey the following morning. That had been several days ago and she hadn’t seen Uncle Marty or, really, thought about it since.

     Uncle Harvey had not returned and was not joining them, so Bunty was served her lunch in the kitchen. Hannah was quiet and distant, with the air of an offense.
     “Hannah, I think this is the best onion pie I’ve ever tasted,” Bunty said helpfully.
Busying herself by the stove, Hannah merely sniffed and nodded.
     “Hannah?”
     Hannah grunted in response.
     “What’s a trinket?”
     “A trinket?” Hannah sniffed again, and sighed. “A trinket is a small keepsake, or
perhaps a piece of jewelry.”
     “Like a treasure?”
     “It’s more something that has value mostly for the owner, not for others. Sentimental
value. Like a memento.”
     “Like a souvenir?”
     “Like a souvenir, I suppose.” Hannah batted a spoon against the rim of a pot.
     “But why would you give away something which has value only for you?”
     Hannah wiped her hands with a cloth. “Well, maybe you want to show someone how much they mean to you. So you give them something that is valuable to you.” She reached over and lifted the lid from a large cooking pot that was simmering breathily. Bunty could tell Hannah was pleased with herself for giving such precise answers. Sometimes Hannah was not so good at answering Bunty’s questions and that made her flustered and too busy with kitchen things to talk.
     “In the telegram…” she began.
     Hannah replaced the lid with a clatter, and whirled about to face her. “What did I tell
you about other people’s business? Hmm? Now that’s enough about a telegram. You’re too much indoors, that’s your trouble. You should be outside more, in the fresh air. Put on your coat and hat when you’re finished lunch and get out in the garden and play.”
     “But the wind!” she protested.
     “The wind, the wind! The wind should do you good! Anyway it’s dropped away now,
so you’ll be going out to play as soon as you’re done. I can’t have you jumping about the furniture and lurking behind doors all day. It’s not good for a growing child.”
     Bunty thought it best to do exactly what Hannah asked when she was in such a bad temper. Without any further questions, she finished her lunch, put on her coat and hat, and with Maxine under her arm, went out the back door to the garden.

     Outside the air was cool and moist, with a fresh un-nameable scent. Hannah was right, the wind had slackened and died. In passing it had left broken branches and scatters of leaves across the lawn. She stooped down and picked up a slender branch with a burst of twigs at one end. It looked like a miniature broom. She sat Maxine on the broom and ran about sailing her through the air. “Maxine, the witch’s cat!” Maxine rode the broom up and down the garden and came to a stop by the cherry tree. “The villagers are out hunting, Maxine, with their torches. They won’t be friendly to a witch’s cat. Better hide in this tree until they pass.” She propped Maxine on a low branch, her back resting against the trunk. Bunty raced off, flying the broom herself about the lawn. When she returned, the little cat lodged in the tree looked very small against the expansive garden.
“Mama,” Maxine called, and held out her paws for Bunty to take her.
     “There, there Maxine,” she said soothingly, “Mama’s back. She’s home. She was away in Paris all this time. That’s in France. Mama had to go to Paris because of her career as an actress. Only in Paris can you get to be a truly great actress, so mama had to go. And now she is a truly great actress. All of Paris is at her feet. So she can come home again, home to her little Maxine. And home to collect her trinkets. I must have my trinkets!”
     She retrieved Maxine from her perch in the tree and kissed her. A blackbird with a yellow bill and bright round eyes landed in the grass just twenty paces away from where they stood hidden by the tree trunk. Bunty froze, catching her breath. The blackbird hopped this way and that. It cocked its head slightly, then pecked violently at the ground extracting a fat, twisting earthworm. It threw the worm up and jumped on top of it where it had landed. With a few jerks of its head it swallowed the thing whole. It hopped about some more, its head turning as it listened for prey. It didn’t notice Bunty and Maxine at all. They remained still as statues, watching.
     Then Maxine did a strange thing. Very stealthily, she knelt down and picked up a jagged stone lodged near a root of the tree, and with a sudden lunge, threw it with force directly at the bird. The stone shot by the blackbird, almost catching its tail feathers, and in a glossy flapping it flew off.
     “Maxine!” cried Bunty. “Why on earth did you do that?”
     Maxine just looked at Bunty with her expressive eyes and said nothing.
     “Maxine, I’m speaking to you young lady! I want an answer and right now!”
     Maxine twitched her whiskers slightly and yawned widely, showing her little curling tongue. She looked at Bunty and blinked. “I’m not a young lady,” she replied calmly.“I’m a cat.”
     “But Maxine!” Bunty protested.
     “I’m a cat,” Maxine snapped resolutely, “and cats don’t like birds. Or only to hunt.
Feathered foolishnesses. They even look stupid stuck in a hat.”
     “Oh, but Maxine…”
     “And furthermore,” Maxine continued, “you’re not my mother and you didn’t just
come from Paris.”
     Bunty grew quiet.
     “It’s your mother, Miss Bunty, who is in Paris. It’s your mother who has been there all this time pursuing a career as an actress. It’s your mother who wants to be a truly great actress, so much so she hasn’t visited you since you were a baby. Not since you were a tiny baby, when she left you with Uncle Harvey, her dear, dear brother.”
     “But Maxine, it takes dedication and years and years to become a truly great actress.”
     “And trinkets.”
     “What do you mean?”
     “What I mean,” said Maxine, stretching luxuriously, “is that it takes dedication, and
years and years, and trinkets, to become a truly great actress.”
     Bunty was silent.
     “She sends for her trinkets. Why do you suppose she never sends for you?”
     “Because she has left me in the loving care of Uncle Harvey, her brother; and her dearest friend, Uncle Marty, that’s why Maxine. If you want to be a truly great actress
you can’t be an attentive mother at the same time.”
     “Her dear brother and her dearest friend? Why, if they are so dear to her, has she
never once visited them?”
     “Because of her dedication to her craft, that’s why Maxine. I’ve explained already.
Really you sound like a child, a little child.”
     “I’ve heard it’s because she can’t stand them.”
     “Uncle Harvey and Uncle Marty?”
     “Yes. The shirt-lifters. That’s what she calls them.”
     “Uncle Harvey is her brother, Maxine! You know that.”
     “She says that no one would stand them if they knew what shirt-lifters they are. And
Uncle Marty is not really even your uncle. You know that.”
     “He’s her friend. An old and dearest friend of her and Uncle Harvey’s.”
     Maxine gave a slow, sly smile. “Uncle Marty,” she said calmly “is your father.”
     Bunty laughed shortly, “Hah!”
     How quiet it was. Where was the wind?
     Everything was very still.

--

Geoffrey Johnson was born in Nigeria and raised and educated in Ireland. In 1993 he moved to New York City, where he presently lives. He is the author of works published and unpublished, both non-fiction and fiction, with contributions to websites and journals based in Ireland, Britain, and the U.S.


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