‘Ah, there you are, Celia,’ the slip of a girl said. ‘The bus was due to leave five minutes ago. I’m Laura from the festival office.’
If she was expecting an apology, Celia wasn’t giving her one.
‘Good afternoon.’ The man with gold chain stepped forward and shook her hand. ‘I’m the mayor of Ripon, and this is my sergeant.’ He pointed to the thin bodyguard type, who stepped forward to shake her hand, only to be brushed aside by the slipper-wearer.
‘Celia love,’ he said. ‘Name’s Colin. Can I have a snap of you standing in the bus entrance, pet?’ he said. ‘Have you got a notebook or something? Make you look more like a writer?’
‘I do look like a writer,’ Celia said, handing her bag to the young woman and swiping her fingers under her eyes to remove any smudges of mascara.
‘Can we get a move on, please?’ the bus driver asked from his cab. ‘It’s just I’ve got passengers.’
Celia peered inside the bus, which was, indeed, full of people. Half of them looked curious about the strange crowd gathered at the entrance. The rest looked rather cross.
‘Here, have this.’ Colin the photographer thrust a shabby reporter’s pad into her hand. ‘And this,’ he said, proffering a half-masticated biro.
‘Oh God,’ Celia said, not touching the things for fear of catching something. ‘I’ll use my own.’ She drew her Mont Blanc and Smythson from her bag. She might have to look cheesy, but there was no way she was going to appear shabby.
‘And we’ll have you, too, please Mr Mayor,’ the photographer said, ushering the mayor up the step onto the bus. ‘Cosy up now, you two,’ he said. ‘And try to look a bit more cheerful, love, why don’t you?’
After five minutes of snapping, during which Celia felt her face would freeze from forcing a smile, the photographer declared himself satisfied and shuffled off.
‘Without so much as a thank-you,’ Celia said, rolling her eyes at the mayor who, she realised, was rather attractive. She liked a powerful man. And gold.
‘Could I get this bus off now, please?’ The driver revved his engine.
As the mayor stepped onto the pavement and held out a hand to help Celia down from the boarding platform, some of the passengers – the cross ones, she presumed – cheered.
‘It’s a great pleasure to meet you Miss Fairweather,’ the mayor said, shaking her hand again. ‘My wife is a great fan of your novels.’
‘Is she now?’ Celia said, her mood brightening for the first time since she had stepped on that bloody train without a boiler.
‘In fact,’ the mayor said, reaching into his briefcase and pulling out a copy of Mistress Murder, Celia’s twelfth book, ‘she asked if you would sign this for her.’
‘Of course,’ Celia said, graciously flourishing her Mont Blanc.
‘She’ll be delighted. Now let me show you round my marvellous city,’ he said as she handed the book back to him.
‘Why thank you, Mr Mayor,’ Celia said, curtseying playfully.
Celia found the mayor utterly charming, and when, at the end of the tour, as the light was fading, he asked her if she’d care to step into his parlour, her heart skipped a girlish beat.
In fact his parlour turned out to be just a rather formal function room, and in any case Laura and the sergeant were tagging along behind them.
‘So what does your sergeant do, then?’ Celia asked the mayor.
‘He looks after my gold chain, even when I’m
wearing it. And all our other valuable artefacts. Shall we show her the horn, Sergeant?’ He winked at the thin man, who nodded and disappeared behind a heavy, ornate wooden door.
Celia entertained a flurry of wild imaginings about what might be about to happen – she couldn’t help it, but she’d always found regalia and ritual strangely erotic. The sergeant reappeared with a large animal horn, covered in velvet and decorated with ornate silver, with a black leather strap embellished with small silver symbols.
‘This is our Charter Horn,’ the mayor said. ‘It’s centuries old. Some say it dates back to 886, but I suspect it’s somewhat younger than that. However old it is, though, it’s priceless.’
The mayor continued to explain in great and what was probably fascinating detail the history and symbolism of the thing. But Celia had stopped listening. It was getting late, she was exhausted, dying for a G and T and disappointed that this, her first day, had failed to provide any inspiration whatsoever for the short crime story she was supposed to be coming up with.
‘What are these?’ Celia asked, pointing at the horn and cutting the mayor off in full flow – he had been talking about some ritual or other that had been carried out nightly for centuries. ‘On this strap, here?’
‘That’s called a baldric,’ the sergeant said – the first words she had heard him utter.
‘Yes. I do know that,’ she said crossly, before turning
back to the mayor. ‘And what are these little silver things on this “baldric”?’
As the mayor explained that they were symbols of the guilds of previous mayors, Celia gazed on them. She really liked them, especially the horse shoe, buckle, and small pair of scissors. They looked like something John Galliano might have come up with before his own personal debacle in that Parisian bar. She thought they would look lovely on a velvet choker around her neck. She smiled as she entertained a fantasy about stealing her favourites while the mayor’s back was turned, just whipping out her nail scissors and snipping them off.
Now that would be a crime story.
As the mayor turned away to answer a question Laura had asked about some historical detail, Celia’s fingers itched with the real possibility of doing it.
But then she looked up and saw the sergeant resting his beady eye on her, as if he knew exactly what she was thinking.
And of course, even if she weren’t under such scrutiny, she couldn’t do something quite so outrageous. Since the debacle she had a reputation to mend. The festival would never invite her back if she was convicted of stealing a piece of Ripon’s civic heritage.
As if to atone for her thought crimes, she turned a beam of her most charming attention back fully to the mayor, asking him many, many questions about other artefacts in the room. ‘Who was that in that glorious photograph? What’s on that coat of arms? Is your chain solid gold?’
He dealt with her interrogation with fortitude. He really was a most charming man, Celia thought.
It was only when Laura told her they had better leave because they only had five minutes before the bus was due, that Celia remembered the transport arrangements and her mood changed.
As they headed towards the bus-stop, Laura handed Celia a slim, plastic wallet. ‘Transdev, the bus company would like to give you this.’
Celia opened the wallet.
‘It’s a week-long, access-all-areas bus pass,’ Laura said.
Drizzle formed a cold mist around them and, as early as four o’clock, it was almost completely dark.
‘We’d better get a step on,’ Laura said. ‘Or we’ll miss the bus. We’ve got a meet and greet with the Transdev directors.’
‘I simply can’t wait,’ Celia said, pulling her cashmere pashmina from her bag and wrapping it tightly around her throat.