To celebrate the publication of The Trouble With Goats and Sheep on 28 January by The Borough Press, Joanna Cannon has written the short story The Greatest of These which features her two young detectives Grace and Tilly. I’m delighted to be able to share Part Three with you here. If you need to catch up, you can find Part 1 at Litro and Part 2 at Bookanista.
The Greatest of These: Part 3
The butterfly led us back into The Avenue.
I was quite disappointed at first. I was hoping it would take us into town, more towards Woolworth’s, and perhaps the Pick-and-Mix counter. Tilly was worried we’d lose it, but it was easy to spot – a shout of colour on a blank canvas, a flicker of possibility on a landscape of nothing.
It was quick, too. So quick we had to hurry to keep up, and the more we hurried, the more the snow fought against us, pulling at our wellingtons and drawing us backwards. Halfway up the road Tilly sank into a drift and had to be uprooted, but the butterfly seemed to wait for us. It was never far away, forever in our sight, but always just a fingertip out of reach.
When we arrived in The Avenue, Mr Forbes and Eric Lamb were still standing with their shovels, arguing, and Thin Brian was there too, holding a sweeping brush and half a slice of toast. The butterfly had landed on Eric Lamb’s shoulder, but people were so busy shouting, none of them had noticed.
‘Look!’ I said.
We had appeared in front of them in a tangle of arms and breathing, and everyone stopped and stared at us.
‘Look,’ I said again. ‘On your shoulder.’ And I pointed and everyone looked.
‘A butterfly,’ said Eric Lamb.
‘In January?’ Mr Forbes anchored his shovel in the snow and took a step forwards. ‘You don’t get butterflies in January.’
‘You get this one,’ said Tilly. ‘We found it by the drainpipe.’
Mr Forbes narrowed his eyes. ‘I wonder what it means?’
Everyone moved in a little closer, except Thin Brian, who bit into his toast.
‘It probably means we’re going to have a hot summer,’ he said, in between chewing.
Mr Forbes leaned back and put his hands on his hips, and laughed. And Eric Lamb laughed as well, and Tilly and I put our hands on our hips and laughed too, even though we didn’t really know what we were laughing at. I actually thought it was quite a sensible suggestion, but sometimes copying what everyone else is doing is just easier.
‘Don’t be daft, lad,’ said Mr Forbes. ‘It’ll be as wet and cold as it always is.’
We all did agreeing noises, and Thin Brian’s chewing was very slow and quiet.
I think the butterfly might have stayed on Eric Lamb’s shoulder all day, had Thin Brian’s mother not appeared at that very moment and slammed her front door so hard, an avalanche of snow fell from the porch roof and smacked itself onto the lawn. She was wrapped in an enormous blanket, and fur sprouted from the tops of her boots. She looked quite grumpy.
‘If you’re all standing around doing nothing,’ she said, ‘one of you can get up there are brush off my television aerial. I can only get the test card, and even that’s haphazard.’
Mr Forbes and Eric Lamb became very busy. Thin Brian stared over at his mother. He still had crumbs on his chin. ‘I’m not very good with ladders,’ he said.
‘I’ll miss Crossroads at this rate.’ She started crunching her way over the lawn. ‘And you’re forty-two, Brian.’
The butterfly stopped Mrs Roper in her tracks. It darted around her face, and the colours faltered on a backcloth of silence.
‘Well, I’ll be,’ she said. ‘In January.’
We all nodded.
‘What do you think it means, Mrs Roper?’ I said.
Mrs Roper drew the blanket around her shoulders. ‘Well,’ she said, and took a very large breath. ‘Of course, no one knows The Bible better than I do, but I don’t recall any mention of butterflies. However, it’s clearly a symbol.’
‘A cymbal?’ said Tilly.
‘A sign.’ Mrs Roper crossed herself, although with the blanket there, it was a bit hit and miss. ‘I’ve just not decided what of.’
Eric Lamb’s spade found the pavement, and it scraped against the concrete. It was strange how the snow made all the sounds wait their turn.
‘A butterfly is a symbol of hope,’ he said, when the scraping noise had disappeared. ‘The caterpillar dies, but it turns into a butterfly, so just when you think everything is done for, you discover there’s hope after all. A fresh start.’
‘Like the snow,’ I said. ‘Like cleaning the blackboard.’
I didn’t think anyone knew what I meant, but then I saw Tilly nod. Tilly always understood the inside of my head. It was one of the best things about her.