Staring into the round mirror by his front door, Randall adjusted his monocle. It was slightly too big, but his furry pointed nose kept it in place. He ran his paws down the lapels of his green velvet jacket and adjusted his yellow silk cravat. His feral days of poking through scrap heaps in search of dinner were long over and his spotless front stood as testimonial. Now he could afford to change his clothes daily – even hourly, if he happened to spill a bit of tomato soup down his front at supper time.
All was in order, so he reached for the wooden stick resting by the door. Mrs. Catchpole called it a cane, but he refused to refer to it as anything but a staff. He may have been getting on in years, but he still had his dignity. Ralph would have said that it wasn’t terribly dignified for an elderly raccoon to clomp about the village pretending to be a wizard, but what did Ralph know? He still grew mugwort in his garden and pretended it gave him visions. But all it seemed to do was send him down to the tea shop to crunch down whatever Mrs. Catchpole baked that day.
“Apparently, it only gives him visions of treacle tart,” Randall snorted to himself as he tromped down his garden path, staff clicking on the stones near his feet. He glanced at it – raccoons were just as liable to carry staffs as wizards, he sniffed. He meant to visit the village library, to make sure the medieval histories he purchased had made it into the proper section, but the thought of treacle tart lured him down the side street that housed Mrs. Catchpole’s tea shop instead. Enjoying the way his staff echoed on the cobblestones, he approached the cheery red door.
“Been to visit your dull books yet?” Mrs. Catchpole called out as he walked through, the damn bell tinkling above his head and alerting her to his presence. “Why don’t you ever buy the library some novels, juicy ones that folks can sink their teeth into?”
Her own teeth gleamed in the candlelight, her terrible taste in literature and profound objection to elevating her mind offset by her generous use of beeswax on gray days. Randall grunted and seated himself at his usual table, a small pedestal on a raised dais that both discouraged other animals from joining him and allowed him a good view of both the door and the wide window.
A warm currant scone appeared in front of him, flanked by clotted cream and her famed blackberry jam. Before he could glance up, Mrs. Catchpole’s niece had already disappeared, the organza bow on the back of her apron whisking around the polished copper counter.
A squat dormouse, Mrs. Catchpole still managed a degree of elegance, her smocked gown untouched by the golden syrup that she drizzled over a freshly baked cake. While her niece preferred to stay in the back room, Mrs. Catchpole enjoyed spending her time behind the front counter, so she could greet her customer’s with rude suggestions while tempting them with whatever she was concocting that day. Randall didn’t enjoy being teased, but still found himself sitting down at his pedestal almost every day. He blamed her baking.
“Natty boots, Randall!” Ralph shouted as he swung through the door.
“Why must everyone have an opinion?” Randall said to his spoon full of jam as he sacrificed it to the scone.
“Is Mrs. Catchpole complaining about your volume choice again?” Ralph asked as he pulled up a chair, un-invited, to Randall’s pedestal. Another scone appeared, along with a pot of hot tea. Wedgwood, Randall noted with approval. “Or are you just cranky because you have crumbs on your cravat?”
Jerking his nose toward his breast bone, Randall heaved a sigh of relief as he took in his still spotless front. Ralph guffawed so hard he almost fell out of his chair. Mrs. Catchpole, the fuzzy witch, chuckled behind her counter. Randall sniffed and devoted himself to his scone.
“Willa, dear!” Mrs. Catchpole called out. When her niece failed to appear, Mrs. Catchpole sighed and brought the treacle pudding around the counter herself and laid it down between Ralph and Randall. “Thought you boys might enjoy this,” she said comfortably.
As they thanked her and began to tuck in, Randall began to ask Ralph what he thought about the council’s decision to decorate the oak trees in the town square for yuletide, when Ralph paused and leaned into his half empty tea cup. He poked at it and leaned deeper in. Then he gasped and jerked back.
“She’s sinking!” he shouted and leapt for the door, his baffling expostulation echoing around the tea shop as other patrons turned their heads. As he yanked open the cheery red door, he turned to Mrs. Catchpole and yelled, “Willa! She’s going under!” before dashing into the road.
“But she’s right here,” said a confused Mrs. Catchpole. “Keeping an eye on the ginger snaps.” She waddled toward the back room and swept open the curtain, revealing a plume of smoke from the iron stove in the corner but no Willa.
Grabbing his staff, Randall made his way after Ralph, who was running toward the mill pond. “He’s been at the mugwort again,” Randall muttered. “Cruel to worry you,” he said, glancing back at Mrs. Catchpole as she huffed several paces behind him. “Willa probably just went out for a walk, she likes doing that.”
Sprightly from his half century of daily morning swims, Ralph made much better time than the lame raccoon with a big wooden stick and the overweight dormouse. By the time Randall and Mrs. Catchpole made it to the edge of the pond – warm and idyllic in the summer months but somewhat spooky in the early December light – Ralph’s webbed feet had carried him halfway across its expanse, where he dove fruitlessly into the murky water.
“Come out of there, Ralph!” Randall shouted, banging his staff for good measure, as Mrs. Catchpole wrung her hands by his side. “She’s probably just wandering through the village or at the grocer’s stall!”
Finally Ralph resurfaced, his arm around a limp figure. Willa’s head bobbed, her bright mahogany fur dulled by the water.
Randall splashed into the pond, heaving his staff behind him. His boots filled with water, and he felt sticky moss adhering to his formerly pristine shirtfront. When he got close, he held out the tip of his staff so Ralph could grab onto it and he towed both the exhausted Ralph and the unconscious Willa to shore, where Mrs. Catchpole hovered.
Tucked back in the warm tea shop, Randall had the novel experience of serving Mrs. Catchpole tea and apple crumble, as she huddled under a blanket that Ralph had draped over her shoulders, insisting he didn’t need it. He was a toad, after all, and well used to water, chilly or otherwise.
Doctor Basil had proclaimed Willa none the worse for her tumble into the mill pond and advised her to stay off the rickety bridge, a rickety bridge the council would most certainly replace at the earliest opportunity. The good doctor prescribed bed rest and an hourly dose of a tonic he left by her bedside as he hustled the Mrs. Catchpole back down the stairs to tend to her own nerves and allow Willa some rest.
As Doctor Basil was the first badger to ever attend Oxford, Randall trusted him and told Mrs. Catchpole so. “Much better than the quacks down the road,” he declared, pouring her another cup of tea. “Much better,” agreed Ralph, saluting them with his tea cup and smirking at the ratty flannel dressing gown that had replaced the Randall’s dapper – and now quite damp – suit.
Randall simply picked up his staff and jabbed Ralph in the stomach, abandoning his dignity quite utterly.