The owner of the Grange Ridge Hotel, Mr Edgar Megson, had been in two minds about accepting the booking. But he prided himself on being broad minded and after all, especially when they had never really recovered after that bad business with the bootleg booze in the bar (and it wasn’t even as if it had done anyone any harm, apart from the off license up the road!) he wasn’t going to turn away a group booking. Certainly not for a convention. And you had to give the nice lady who phoned up to enquire (and did sound like a very nice lady, and Mr Megson, or Teddy, as the privileged called him, also prided himself on being able to judge people by their voices) credit for honesty.
“You see, Mr Megson,” she said, confidingly, “When we say we make models of dead pets, people get the wrong idea unless they’re in the know.” It was not a video call, but Teddy was pretty sure she was tapping her nose, just as he would have done in the circumstances. “So don’t you worry. We don’t do taxidermy,” (she pronounced the word as if it were a bad smell, which in a lot of cases, it probably was) “or mummification, or anything like that.”
“Well, that’s a relief,” said Teddy, and of course he wasn’t lying. “So you just make nice models for people to remember their four legged friends by.”
“Or feathered,” said the apparently nice lady, whose name was Clarissa. “Well, that’s not QUITE right, I mean, there wouldn’t be anything too original about that. Why don’t you have a look on our website?”
“Oh, of course I will” he promised.
“It’s called Fur-n-fevva-4-evva” , she helpfully spelt out.
Once the phone conversation was over, Teddy looked on the website. And it was quite an eye-opener. Because Clarissa and her colleagues rendered Fluffy or Fido, or for that matter Woody the stick insect or Hamlet the pot bellied pig into a scale model, anatomically correct, but compete with large, shimmering wings and a hovering halo. Not that rendered was the wisest choice of word, especially where Hamlet was concerned. Sometimes they were basically stand alone, but you could (for an extra charge) have a model of your dear departed sitting on a cloud, looking expectant at the Rainbow Bridge (or at least part of it) or even playing a harp. They were made out of high quality resin, and were also (unless stated otherwise) rain resistant so they could sit in the garden where once they played.
Teddy gave a bit of a shudder, but not much of one. It was certainly not fear, and wasn’t even revulsion. But he couldn’t help thinking it was a bit tacky. And Teddy couldn’t be doing with tacky. He was, his employees had to admit, generally a generous and good-hearted man to work for though he had his little ways and intermittently reminded them he wouldn’t be made a fool of. But putting a dolly with a crocheted skirt over a toilet roll, having toilet roll in any shade except white, and putting a completed jigsaw glued to a piece of MDF onto the wall might well have led to instant dismissal. Of course, like all of us, he didn’t always practise what he preached, and had a bit of a weakness for novelty teapots of the kind that were never meant to have tea in them.
Now Teddy was quite an animal lover himself. He was deeply fond of his dog, a fastidious little Maltese terrier called Mimi, and didn’t doubt that when she passed away he would be very sad, just as he had when his previous dog Jingo the Jack Russell fell asleep in his basket one last time and didn’t wake up. And Orion, the cat who had become resident in the hotel kitchen when they had a problem with mice, or as Teddy said and preferred his staff to say You Know What certainly justified his name, but was a friendly and engaging creature with humans. He and Mimi didn’t cross paths that often, but tolerated each other. Still, he had already ascertained he could trust the vet to see to such things when the time came (as they said on the ads for human over-50 plans). And he had never quite bought into that Rainbow Bridge business, though he supposed if it comforted folk it did no harm. But the mere notion of Mimi or Jingo or Orion being reproduced as a resin model complete with wings and/or harp was – well, preposterous.
But not preposterous enough for him to think of cancelling the booking. When he spoke to Clarissa on the phone again the next day, he said, casually, “Are there a lot of people in that line of work?”
“More than you may think,” she said, “Though of course, we think of it as a hobby – really.” He realised he had left it too late to contradict her on that, when it dawned on him that he was supposed to, but she didn’t seem to take offence.
When Clarissa and her colleagues arrived they all seemed reassuringly normal. She herself reminded him of a favourite Auntie, though in the general sense, not with reference to once specific Auntie. His experiences in that department hadn’t been too happy and sometimes he swore he could still feel the imprints of Auntie Lena’s bony fingers on his cheek though of course those pinches had always been friendly and complaining about it just made him whiny.
Anyway, he and Clarissa were probably pretty much of an age, so the Auntie analogy didn’t work. Not really. He would have said that her significant other Cedric was hen-pecked, but suspected that he was actually very happy leaving things to Clarissa. She was a good head taller than he was and he suddenly thought of a flamingo and a plump little partridge trotting by its side.
The others in the party were all, it seemed, perfectly pleasant. And nobody could say that it was an age-limited hobby (or job, or whatever). He suspected that the youngest member of the party, a very earnest boy called Leo, might be under 18 which was his technical minimum age for unaccompanied guests, but he certainly had enough people to keep an eye on him, and despite his childish appearance he struck Teddy as 17 going on 40 anyway. But Aileen, as she proudly told anyone who asked (or didn’t) was nearly 90. In fact she would celebrate her 90th birthday during their stay at the Grange Ridge. “But I don’t want any fuss making,” she said. Teddy made a mental note of the date, realising that he would be in serious bother if he didn’t make any fuss.
“Aileen is legendary in Animorial Circles!” Clarissa said, basking in reflected glory. A nano second before he asked, “I beg your pardon?” it dawned on Teddy that this was, presumably, a portmanteau word from Animal Memorial.
“I expect it will be fine for us to leave some leaflets in reception, Mr Meigson?” asked an efficient lady whose name badge (they were already wearing them) informed him she was called Kathryn. He suspected she was particular about people getting the spelling right.
“Yes, of course, and please do call me Teddy.”
But he was already wondering if there was just the tiniest possibility of a chance of issues. It would, indeed, be fine for them to leave leaflets in the reception area. The reception area was the natural repository of leaflets, for anything from the local arboretum to someone offering acupuncture, to the local garden centre. Not that he supposed people often bought plants on holiday. So he had no problem at all with leaflets. But what if the animorialists(he presumed such a noun must, logically exist) decided to, well, exhibit their wares? Especially at the breakfast table? Or even in the breakfast room? Teddy had very firm ideas about what was acceptable in the breakfast room. White tablecloths (or very occasionally checked ones) were, as were white plates. Egg-cups shaped like chickens or salt and pepper shakers shaped like little cottages were not. And waterproof resin models of deceased furry or feathered friends on clouds or with harps most definitely were not.
And he was in a quandary. One of his mother’s favourite sayings (and one of which Auntie Lena most emphatically didn’t approve was “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” There was a good chance they might never come to that bridge. But at Catering College he had always been told “Fail to Plan and Plan to Fail”. Teddy couldn’t suppress a little sigh at the thought that he seemed to be living his life by others’ conflicting clichés. He wondered if, were such a request proffered, he could come up with some Health and Safety Law that forbade it. But try as he might, and Teddy knew his Health and Safety inside out he couldn’t think of any such law that excluded the presence of resin animals in the Breakfast Room. On the tables, possibly. But not in the room.
To his relief – though relief of that nature is always, by definition, a transient thing – nobody made a relevant request that day. But that did not mean he was spared awkward questions. Lydia, who was the kind of woman who looked plump and cosy and entirely inoffensive but still sometimes made him nervous, took out one of her sketches. “What do you think of this one, Teddy?” It showed a tortoise, halo surrounding his leathery head, on a bed of straw. “I’m going to call it The Last Hibernation,” she said. “Only of course when I work on the model there is going to be glitter in the straw. I may even use some of that golden lametta, I think it’s a shame only to use it at Christmas. Well, what do you think?” He wished she had not repeated the question. The fact he disliked live tortoises did not make him any more disposed to like resin models of dead ones. He had once read a Ruth Rendell novel where the hero’s horror of tortoises contributed at least in part to him becoming a serial killer. Well, of course, he was not going to go that far. But he was glad that the model was still hypothetical. It wasn’t quite so awful on a sheet of paper from a sketchpad that she’d bought in WH Smiths. “You’re a very good artist,” he said, not entirely untruthfully. She was never going to be up there with Leonardo or even with Beatrix Potter but her representation of the tortoise was perfectly competent.
“Thank you,” she said, and he had to admit, with a laudable lack of simpering. “But I always say, we all do, that it’s only when they’re three dimensional that they really come to life.” Half thinking that come to life was meant ironically, Teddy stifled a chuckle in the nick of time. “We could give you a lesson, you know.”
“Oh, that’s so kind of you,” he said surreptitiously crossing his fingers behind his back, and telling himself it was only some superstitious gesture to be made when telling a lie, and not to ward off the evil eye of the resin tortoise. “But we’re so busy today.” The look in her own eyes remained polite, but he realised what he had half suspected all along, that she was not so easily fooled and gullible as he might have thought.
He was pleased that after breakfast (which remained entirely without any traces of resin animals) he didn’t see the animorialists. He supposed they were happily going about their own pursuits in the Conference Room which was really just a large room on the 2nd storey with some tables and chairs and (theoretically) the means to give a Powerpoint presentation. It was used once every two weeks by the local Chamber of Commerce, once a month (or so) by the organisers of Beaches in Bloom, and once a week by the local Dolls’ House Society and the local branch of Alcoholics Anonymous (fortunately it could be accessed without needing to pass the bar, though he knew better than to make a joke like that as it might be deemed tasteless and disrespectful).
Teddy told himself he might feel better about his white(ish) lie if he at least saw to some work rather than just having a bit of a lazy day, though he knew perfectly well there was no logical connection. Not that there was anything that drastically needed doing. He was a firm believer (and he hated to admit it, but that was one of Auntie Lena’s dictates) on not letting anything get on top of him. He decided that he would have a little break after all, indulge in a cup of Earl Grey and listen to something on Radio 4 Extra. He opened the door to his own private lounge and came over all peculiar. Because there were two dogs in the room. One was Mimi, which was absolutely fine and normal and he didn’t doubt she had been a little lady and well behaved as usual. But the other, sitting on an armchair and looking demonic and cherubic at the same time, was Jingo. Now one may argue that for Jack Russells, looking demonic and cherubic at the same time is not entirely unusual. But when the said Jack Russell has barked his last several years ago, but is sitting there with white and tan wings it is another matter. He even gave a little yap that had suddenly turned harmonious, and pawed at the chair. Mimi, he realised, was not just being a little lady. She was positively traumatised. And her master wasn’t far behind her. He picked her up under his arm, muttering “Good girl, don’t worry, nothing to worry about,” and was about to march up to the Animorialists and confront Clarissa, demanding if this was her idea of a joke, and saying that her party were no longer welcome at Grange Ridge. But as he did, several things occurred to him. Nobody else had the key to his private lounge. None of the models had been life size and none of them had made a sound or moved. Indeed he had heard the animorialists lamenting that so far they had not quite got the hang of that and was afraid that their works would have to be too expensive if such things were included.
But it wasn’t just that. The animorialists had departed immediately after breakfast, on a trip to the local animal sanctuary for inspiration.
There is a logical explanation for this thought Teddy.
But he suspected it might be rather hard to think of it.