“Where on earth is Mary?” Olive demanded, tapping her shoes on the dirty floor.
She was sitting at a table covered in puddles of alcohol in her favourite pub, the Barmy Duck, opposite three other women, who sat nibbling peanuts or, in the case of Hetty Waters, sipping a tall glass of beer. The atmosphere was quiet: it was eleven o’clock on a Tuesday morning and there was no one else in the pub but the solitary barman, Herbert Grease, a strange-looking solitary drinker sitting in the corner, and her own small circle of friends. The pub was not usually very full anyway. The Barmy Duck was generally a magnet for the elderly; young people were often put off by the cramped room, furnished sparsely with dirty wooden tables and mis-matched chairs, the stench of vodka, or the sight of the barman, a miserable, middle-aged man called Herbert Greese who rarely spoke except to grunt when anyone (usually Hetty) gave an order, and who smelt badly of alcohol and stale sweat. Olive was fond of supposing that the place was too full of mature and intelligent company to attract most young people, who were all stupid, lazy idiots with no regard for class.
After twenty more minutes of Hetty sipping, Herbert grunting and Olive tapping her shoes crossly on the floor, the door swung open and crashed against the wall, allowed Mary Maggott to hurry in. She was armed with about six plastic bags bearing the logos of several local supermarkets, and was staggering towards the table under their weight. Olive immediately stood up and demanded where she had been as Mary heaved the bags to the table and sat down heavily in a chair next to her.
“Sorry, Olive, the bags were heavy!” Mary puffed. She looked around the table and grinned as she got her breath back. “Hello, Hetty! Hello, Edith! Hello, Alice!”
“Hello, Mary!” echoed the three other women with varying levels of enthusiasm.
Mary turned around to face the counter. “Hello, Herbert!” she called.
“Mpfh,” Herbert grunted, not looking up from the glass he was wiping with a dirty cloth. In another moment, he had disappeared to the small room behind the counter, where he apparently began muttering to himself.
“Right, shall we get started?” Olive said, sitting back down. She looked at Mary expectantly.
Mary heaved the first of the huge carrier bags onto the table. Hetty yelped as it nearly knocked over her beer, Edith protectively grabbed the bowl of peanuts, and Alice, the smallest, concentrated on balancing the weight of the bag on the table so that it didn’t topple over and crush her.
“Oooh, it’s the old photo albums!” Olive squealed. She reached into bag, grabbing one of the brown leather books and threw back the cover, exposing eight brown photographs. “Oh, wasn’t I sweet back then, Mary? Look at me, there! Wasn’t I adorable?”
Olive was stabbing at the first photograph on the first page with her finger. It was the oldest, and showed just two very little girls. They were tiny, four years old at most. The first child, the smallest, stood to the left, looking towards the camera in a blank sort of way. It was the first picture ever taken of Mary Maggott.
The second child, who stood prominently in the foreground, had taken on a purposefully dramatic air. Her eyes were squeezed shut and she had her tiny head thrown back, her mouth wide open. The girl’s arms were both in the air, and had been moving about so rapidly that they had blurred the photograph, as had her stamping feet. Mary even thought that she could catch a glimpse of a thin, pale-faced woman in the corner of the photograph (Olive’s mother), gazing at the second girl with a look of pure panic and with her hands clasped, as though she were praying.
Mary frowned. “Hmmm, I suppose we were,” she mumbled uncertainly.
But now Olive was excitedly chatting about something else, laughing delightedly. Mary peered over to the photo which Olive was pointing at. She saw a group of seven young children: three girls and four boys. The two taller children in the middle of the photo were a tall fair-haired boy and girl with pinched expressions, each of them moodily folding their arms and keeping as far away from the other children in the photograph as possible. The three little boys on the left side of them all looked very alike indeed, other than the rather overly-plump boy in the middle. Then Mary peered over to the left side of the photograph. She saw two little girls: a small, grinning one with dark plaited hair and clutching a bag. The other little girl was scowling, slightly taller, with pigtails and a downcast gaze.
Mary immediately recognised it. “I remember that!” she said. “Isn’t that the picture that the Baxters took of us all while we were in the countryside? Just after we arrived?”
“Ooh, don’t I look lovely?” Olive continued obliviously. “Ugh, look at Fred; it’s like his clothes were full of cotton-wool or something. And Augustus and Adolphus just standing there looking blank, like they’re mentally subnormal. What was the matter with them? It’s a shame they couldn’t take another picture…Oh, and Albert and Priscilla should have at least smiled. Nevertheless…Mary, where’s the map?”
Mary glanced at the remaining bags lying spilling detritus on the floor close to the table. She located the bag that Olive needed. Although fairly brimming with strange objects, the bag was one of the lightest, so Mary lifted it quite easily onto the table top and was able to draw out a large square-shaped board. Hetty, Edith and Alice, not receiving any help from Olive, struggled for a few seconds to clear the table of everything else before Mary could put it down. The photo albums were put back into their bags, the bowl of peanuts placed on a neighbouring table, and Hetty cradled her glass of beer in her lap between sips. They eventually drew out what looked like a very large board belonging to a board game set, which seemed to have been intricately illustrated, and which had to be unfolded twice before it opened up completely.
The board was placed on the table as Olive looked on. She was trying desperately to find something to complain about.
“That tape isn’t a very nice colour, Mary,” she said disapprovingly. The board had become four times as large as before, Mary having unfolded three more boards from underneath the first, all of them joined with a lot of thick, brown tape.
“I know,” said Mary sadly, fingering the offending object. “I couldn’t find any pink tape, no matter where I looked. The man at B&Q said they didn’t make it. I tried to colour it in with felt tip but the ink just rubbed off.”
“Hmph,” Olive muttered.
The ‘map’ had by now been laid out flat and covered the entire table, as well as partly hanging off it. Mary had done rather a good job, considering that the map had been made from four game boards. She had painted over the parts displaying the names ‘Monopoly’, ‘Cluedo’, ‘Trivial Pursuit’ and ‘Snakes and Ladders’ with thick white paint, which in turn had been drawn over in coloured inks with a complex, detailed plan of two medium-sized, two-storey houses. Each room had details of all of the furniture; everyone could see that the beds on the first floor plan even had tiny inked pillows and bedspreads, and in the middle of each room was written the room’s name and some details about its general purpose, and even the times at which it was most commonly occupied by the houses’ inhabitants, every word written clearly and neatly in Mary’s best handwriting. Mary had been working very hard on this plan; she had spent hours crouching outside one particular house with a pair of binoculars, trying to figure out where everyone had been at certain times, and even managing to get herself invited for tea, but she hadn’t been able to avoid being spotted sneaking away to search through the other rooms. Now, finally, it was complete. Mary had phoned Olive the previous evening, and they and their three closest friends had agreed to meet in the pub the following day just to go over ‘The Plan’ again before they arranged the first proper meeting with every participant.
Whilst Olive gazed sternly on and Hetty, Edith and Alice leant forwards to admire the careful drawing of the garden outside the house plan, Mary poured the remaining contents of the bag onto the table. Sixteen wooden shapes fell onto the table with a clatter. Olive made an angry noise at Mary as one, painted red, fell on her hand.
“Gosh, Mary!” Edith said immediately and predictably, gazing as each painted figure was stood up in various placed on the map. “These are wonderful! So realistic! Oh! Is that me? Oh, doesn’t it look like me! Hetty, Alice, Olive, look at the face on my figure! Doesn’t it look awfully like me?”
“Yes, it does,” said Alice, peering at the figure through her spectacles. “But then, that is a photograph of your face, Edith.”
Indeed, the figures’ faces were small circles cut out from photographs of the people they represented. Each figure was cut from thick pieces of wood which used to be chair and table legs. Mary had even taken the trouble to carve each ‘person’ with her trusty penknife to resemble their figure precisely. Her own caricature was small and slim and wearing her own usual dark clothes, each button painted separately and carefully. On Mary’s head was a small ball of pink cotton wool. This figure happened to be the one that Olive now held in her hand.
“The hair isn’t very accurate, Mary,” she said sternly. “It’s too thick, too full. You haven’t included that big bald patch round the back, or anything…”
Mary looked a bit upset rather than embarrassed, as the others usually did when Olive remarked on their own imperfections. “But Fred saw it before you did, just yesterday when he came to fix my power drill, and he thought it was great!”
“Oh, it is, indeed, I just think you should make the appearances a little more accurate,” Olive murmured. Then she noticed something more. “Mary, why have you painted the lips red on your photo? And why have the eyelashes been made longer? And….oh, Mary, have you made your figure skinnier?”
She suddenly reached over, and seeing her own photograph crowning one of the figures, snatched her own caricature. She peered at it suspiciously. It was no slimmer than Hetty’s or Edith’s or Alice’s. The face had no alterations; it had a very odd expression anyway; Olive thought it must have been from that old picture of her looking extremely startled at one of James’s birthday parties.
“Look at mine, Mary!” she said, stabbing at the face with her finger. “No improvements whatsoever!”
“I didn’t think there needed to be. You have a nice face already, Olive,” Mary said with a practised gaze of admiration. “You’re the object of affection here, after all.”
Hetty, Edith and Alice looked up from their own figures to smirk at Mary, but Olive grinned and looked quietly thrilled. “Of course,” she said modestly. “Anyway, Mary, you’ve got the clothes right, but I still think I look a bit too fat.”
Edith realised what Olive meant just as she opened her mouth to recommend the fabulous new diet plan she’d seen in one of the magazines, and she quickly shut it.
“I could take it home and take a bit off the waist,” Mary suggested anxiously. “How about the hair? Do you like the hair?”
“It’s a bit raggedy,” said Olive.
“Well, it is made from rags of material.”
“Yes, yes,” said Olive. “Mary, where’s you-know-who’s?”
“Oh, right here,” said Mary, handing over a blue-painted figure. Raymond’s figure seemed to be a bit bumpy, as Mary had carved a great many muscles onto his arms and legs. Knowing it would please Olive, she had specially printed off the best of Raymond’s Facebook photographs to stick to the face.
“Oooh, isn’t he gorgeous?” Olive cooed, gazing at the figure. “Well done, Mary!”
“Hmm, he is very handsome, isn’t he?” Mary said, glowing with pride.
Olive didn’t seem to hear her. It took about ten minutes to prize the Raymond figure out of her hands.
“Righty-ho,” said Mary, grasping the opportunity to take charge. She took a quick swig of beer from Hetty’s glass and started to re-arrange the figures. “So, we have Raymond, Ethel, Abigail, Alexander and Anastasia in the house here…”
“Who?” Olive barked.
“Abigail, Alexander, and Anastasia,” Mary said, slightly louder. Olive looked blank. “Well…you know, your grandchildren?”
“Oh, yes!” said Olive. “Those three. Funny-looking children, I must say.”
“Yes,” said Mary uncertainly. “Anyway, the children are usually doing homework in their rooms, Ethel is either in the front room watching television or in the bathroom looking in the mirror, and Raymond is usually on the computer. I will be doing my usual thing; watching through the front room window or setting up small cameras looking through all the other windows. Hetty, could you move the figures?”
Hetty nodded. The figures representing Ethel and Raymond’s three children were moved into the upstairs rooms labelled ‘Child 1’s room’, ‘Child 2’s room’ and ‘Child 3’s room’. Mary having confirmed that Ethel usually spent more time looking in the mirror than watching television, Ethel’s figure was put in the bathroom in front of the mirror, and Raymond’s figure was placed where the desk with the computer was. The figure representing Mary was placed outside the living room window.
“Good, good,” said Mary. “Right, Alice, do you see that rectangle at the side of the board, the one labelled ‘Olive’s house’? Can you put Olive’s, Fred’s, Augustus’, Adolphus’ and James’s figures there? Then you need to put yours, Edith’s and Hetty’s figures in your houses. Those little squares over there, near Olive’s house. OK, now put Albert’s and Priscilla’s figures in the ‘Rowlings Manor’ rectangle.”
“That’s everyone,” Edith felt forced to point out.
“Oh, great,” Olive said, tearing her eyes away from Raymond’s figure and leaning forward so she could see better.
“So, as you can see,” Mary began, feeling a thrill at finally having Olive listening. “Most of the board is taken up with the plan of the Calzones’ house…”
Mary gestured to the house which now held the five members of the Calzone family, with Mary outside the front window.
“…and my house.”
Mary gestured to the empty house next to Ethel’s, where she had carefully inked down things like ‘Mary’s living room’, ‘Mary’s kitchen’ and ‘Mary’s private lingerie storage space’, after measuring each room exactly to try and create a completely perfect plan.
“So,” she continued. “I have only included these two residences exactly because these are where most incidents of ‘The Plan’ shall no doubt take place; the residence of Raymond Calzone, and myself. My own home is a convenience as it both provides plenty of space for official meetings of the Team. The other convenience is that my own home has both adequate facilities for the Team – a living room for making plans, spare bedrooms if some of us need to stay over, and a sauna in the cellar for relaxing – and is also very close to the home of our targets. Should we require a plan of any other place, we can make one up out of a smaller board. I think I have an old game of ‘Scrabble’ somewhere…”
“But what happens if one of us isn’t at yours or Ethel’s house, or any of the others? What if we’re somewhere else not mentioned on the board? A public place, or something, that isn’t very important?” asked Alice.
“The figure is put in this square labelled ‘Other’,” Mary explained. She also gestured to tiny pad of lined paper stuck to the side of the board with a disposable biro attached with string. “Then we’ll specify exactly where that person has been, with the time and everything, in this little notebook. Then, at the end of every week we’ll write up a report saying what’s happened during the week with all the necessary details, and what progress has been made.”
“Who will write the report?” Hetty interrupted anxiously.
“Oh…I suppose I’ll do it,” Mary said awkwardly. “I think that’s about it to do with the map and everything…”
“Oooh, good, is it my go now? Splendid!” said Olive, standing up. Mary reluctantly sat down.
Olive took her much-worn notebook out of her bag. At the top of the relevant page, in messy black ink, the words ‘Members of Team Olive’ were written, and then, just below, another title which read, ‘Leaders’. There was just one name below that title: Olive Juliet Whinging. Mary was quick to spot this.
“Oh…Olive!” she cried. “You said I could be a leader too!”
Olive sighed exasperatedly. She forgot how stupid Mary could be at times. “You need to earn your place as a leader, Mary,” she said, rolling her eyes. “I founded the Team, so I’m a leader. You need to show me that you’re truly devoted to the Team before you can even start to climb the ladder.”
“But the Team was my idea! I said we needed a plan to target Ethel, you know, when we had that conversation a few days ago after Operation Shannon failed? And I made the map and the figures! I spent ages spying on the house and getting myself invited in!”
“Mary, a leader has to be sophisticated, with leadership qualities.”
“I am sophisticated! I do have leadership qualities! And you already told me I could be a leader. Remember, you got everyone to write that essay called ‘Why I Should Be Olive’s Co-Leader’? Mine was twenty-three pages long, and I used commas and colons and I even spell-checked it! It took me six hours, and no one else’s was more than half a page long!
“But Mary, I already promised Albert that he could maybe be a co-leader if he showed determination when we had the first proper meeting.”
“But he hardly did anything for his essay! He only wrote about his family and drew that family tree!”
“I still think mine was good,” Edith piped up. “Remember, I said all those things about how deserving Olive is?”
“Now, let’s stop arguing!” Olive said loudly, clapping her hands. “I’ve already decided about leaders, all right?”
There was a lot of grumbling around the table, but no one else found it necessary to shout out any objections. Olive nodded and continued reading. “Main target is Ethel.”
There was a short silence around the table. Slowly, Edith raised her hand again, looking a bit nervous.
“What is it now, Edith?” Olive asked tiredly.
“It’s just…there isn’t going to be any murder or anything involved here, is there?” Edith asked. “Only, I’m not sure I’m up for that…”
“No, no…I won’t kill her; I’m not some kind of psychotic maniac. No, I’ll just, you know, tell her off a bit.”
“All right then,” Edith said. She suddenly smiled. “I wouldn’t want her to get hurt, anyway. She was such a sweet little girl. So lovely…so pretty….such good manners…”
Edith trailed off. Olive stopped glaring ferociously at her after a few seconds and got back to The Plan.
“Now, lastly, we need to arrange our first plan-of-action,” Olive announced. She looked back down at the map. “There’s no time to lose. The sooner we get started, the better.”
“I think we should have the first proper meeting tomorrow,” Alice suggested quickly. “There’s no Bingo tomorrow.”
“Oh, that’s true,” said Olive. “Got that, Mary? Our first meeting will be tomorrow. Six o’ clock. In time for tea. Have something ready, Mary.”
“Of course!” said Mary gleefully.
“So, see you tomorrow, everyone,” Olive said loudly, standing up. Everyone else followed suit, though Mary was taking very long getting all of her things together back into the huge bags. “It’s been a good first meeting.”
And, with that, Olive, Hetty, Edith and Alice strode out of the bar grandly, and Mary followed slowly in their wake, carrying the contents of Olive’s Plan with her.
But they had failed to notice the other customer in ‘The Barmy Duck’: the strange person in the brown coat, whose hood covered its face, carrying Olive’s notebook under its arm as it crept slowly out of the door and promptly vanished into thin air.