In the Cozy Crafts sewing shop, Penny was giving Izzy one of her ‘serious talks’.
It wasn’t that Izzy disliked Penny’s ‘serious talks’ exactly; she agreed entirely that it would be a good thing if they could make the business sustainable. It was more that Penny went on at length about things like ‘cashflow’, ‘forecasting’ and other things that sounded like wizardry. Experience had taught Izzy that the best way to handle these situations was to force an attentive expression onto her face and look out for an escape hatch. The escape hatch would normally come in the form of an idea. If Izzy could come up with something that addressed a key problem then she could often drag the conversation into a more interesting place.
“Say that part again,” said Izzy.
“Which part?” Penny asked.
“There was something like ‘blah blah doesn’t make any money and we need to do more of something something’.”
Penny narrowed her eyes. “I wish I could be certain that you were joking sometimes. I was saying that I think we need a multi-pronged approach to build our brand.”
Izzy made a rolling motion with her hands. “After that.”
Penny sighed. “And that we need to be selective about the garments that we make to order. They can help build our profile, but the margins are low. Workshops are good, especially if they can bring us a new audience.”
“Yes, that!” Izzy jumped off her stool and did a little dance on the spot. “I have an idea for a workshop that we can target at boys.”
“Interesting. What did you have in mind?”
“We run a workshop, or maybe a series of workshops aimed at getting boys sewing. A new audience, right? We get them making a camouflage utility vest. A sleeveless jacket. Easy to construct, and they can add pockets and all sorts of extras if they want.”
“Oh, you just reminded me of something I saw on social media today. Someone was looking for ideas for a boy’s birthday party activity.”
“Get on there and recommend this to them,” said Izzy with a grin. She had successfully derailed the serious talk. It was a win for Izzy.
“I’ll add a quick comment,” said Penny, “but we need to quickly work up a costing model so that we can quote a price to them.”
Penny brought down one of the unopened boxes from the store room. The quantity of old stock in the shop was such that she and Izzy had been working through it for many weeks. They had fallen into a ritual on a Tuesday morning where they would bring down a box and go through it on the large cutting table. If someone came in to buy fabric they would have to move it out of the way, but it was generally a quiet time.
“So we decide swiftly,” said Penny. “Over here we put things we want to photograph for the website, over here we put things that need throwing away, and over here we put mystery objects that need more research.”
“Good starter piles,” said Izzy. “As always, we’ll need more piles, like one for vintage things that are useful for window displays, oddments to donate to the school for crafting and of course a pile of cool stuff to play with.”
“All the fun is in the discovery!” said Penny. “In fact, we should share this on social media. Let’s make an unboxing video.”
Penny set up her phone to record them, and then she opened up the box. “We’ll take out one thing at a time and show it to our audience. Do you want to go first, Izzy?”
Izzy peered into the top of the box and pulled out a large cardboard reel, making a mysterious face at the camera.
“What’s this? It’s cotton tape. It’s pretty old, but it’s still very usable. There must be yards and yards on here.” She unspooled a little of the cream-coloured tape and tugged it between her hands. “Look how strong it is! There would be dozens of things you could do with this. You could make bunting, use it as a drawstring on bags or maybe even use it t0 make little loops on your utility vest, so you could hang things from it.”
“My turn,” said Penny. She pulled out a cardboard box. It was heavier than she had expected from its size. She pulled off the top to reveal many packs of sewing machine needles. “Oh, spare sewing machine needles.” She tilted the box to show Izzy and the camera.
“Huh. These are not a standard size.” Izzy pulled out a packet to examine them.
“So we can’t use them?”
“We can’t, no, but there are people with the sewing machines that use these needles that would be very happy to buy them from us. They’re not made any more. Do we have a pile for very specialised items to sell to collectors?”
“We do now,” said Penny. “Your turn to get something out of the box.”
This time, Izzy made a show of putting one hand over her eyes and rummaging through the box, lucky dip style. “Here we go!” She pulled out a cardboard box and rattled it. “This is newer than the last one, based on the look of the box. Something metallic inside.”
Izzy opened the box and poured the contents onto the table.
“Well those look useful,” said Penny. “What are they?”
“Metal rings, buckles and some swivel clasps. They are all things that people use to make bags, but they’ll also be great for the utility vests.” Izzy patted her side. “Picture it. Here you have a metal ring so you can clip on your compass. Here you have a buckle-down pocket for your explorer’s map. Here you add a clasp to hang your torch.”
“Why would I want all of those things when I can just take my phone with me?” asked Penny, ending the filming.
“Put yourself into the mind of a ten-year-old boy,” said Izzy. “They love things like hardware and useful pockets. It’s going to be great.”
Following this discovery, Izzy suggested they make a test utility vest for the birthday party.
“If we run through how it’s going to work, with you taking the part of the learning guinea, pig then it will be easier on the day, because we can both help.”
“I think we’ve already established that I am not a ten-year-old boy, Izzy, but it’s a good idea.”
“I’ve got a pattern here that I reckon is about right for size. I’ve also made one that’s a bit bigger and another that’s a bit smaller, so that we can accommodate all sizes on the day. Why don’t you make the middle size, Penny, and we can get some pictures?”
“Plain green or camouflage?” Penny ran her hands over the two rolls of sturdy cotton canvas.
Penny chose plain green, knowing that the embellishments would show up better. She selected a spool of matching thread.
Deciding on pockets and hardware was more entertaining than she had imagined. She added metal rings, loops for pens and tools and pockets in all sizes.
“If you felt daring,” Izzy told her, “you could add some splashes of colour. Orange would be fun, maybe make some small tabs for the tops of the pockets?”
Once it was all sewn together, Penny turned to Izzy. “Are we making buttonholes?”
“No, we’re doing something more fun than that. Your inner child will love this. We’re going to use the special pliers to add poppers, and maybe some eyelets as well.”
Penny found that the poppers were indeed fun to apply. They were added to the vest by sandwiching a front and a back piece of metal onto the material and squeezing really hard with the pliers to mesh them together. She pointed at the box with the assortment of mysterious bits that Izzy had fetched out for this. “This is great. How many other things can I put on with pliers?”
“There’s probably a catalogue around somewhere,” said Izzy. “But loads of things like eyelets, rivets, those buttons that you get on jeans. All sorts.”
“Good grief. You mean we can fix jeans if that button comes off? This is a game changer, Izzy! Why did nobody ever tell me that was possible? And you’re right, this will be great for the party.”
Penny put the phone down. “That was Caroline Starling, who’s having the party here. She’s given me a list of things.”
“A list of demands?” Izzy asked. “How intriguing. What are they?”
Penny consulted the pad where she’d jotted them down. “There is a cake being made by a local baker, Cat Wallerton. It will be delivered directly here, and we are to hide it from view until the end of the party when it will be presented and the candles lit.”
“Fair enough,” shrugged Izzy.
“There’s a size issue. It will be in a box that is two metres by one metre.”
Izzy held up the tape measure, swinging it to show the size. “What? That’s insane. What cake needs to be that massive? Is someone jumping out of it?”
“Apparently it’s a football pitch.”
“Right. What else is on the list?” Izzy was paying attention now.
“A fashion show.” Penny paused. “There will be a catwalk show for the parents where each of the boys will show off their garments. There should be a prize for the unique achievements of each one awarded by a celebrity guest.”
Izzy looked at her for a long, silent moment. “Catwalk. Celebrity guest. Crazy, made-up prizes. Did I miss anything?”
“It doesn’t actually say crazy, made-up — but I see what you mean. No, that’s it.” Penny glanced down and held up a hand. “Apart from the sage burning the day before to purify the air and to reduce creative blockages.”
Izzy clapped her hands. “I guess the sewing is the least of our worries, then. We’ve nailed the design, and now we need to figure out how to do all this other stuff. We need to get our thinking caps on.”
Izzy jotted down ideas for prize categories. “If they all need to win something, then we’ll need to think laterally about this, like those dog shows where they have a prize for the waggiest tail, yeah?”
“So, we want stuff like ‘neatest seams’, maybe?” said Penny.
Izzy jotted it down. “Pfft, yes. While we’re doing boring ones, we can have ‘best fit’ as well.”
“Boring ones?” Penny was affronted. “I suppose you want stuff like ‘maximum bling applied’?”
“Good one. We should reward speed, too. ‘First to finish’.”
“Then why not ‘most tenacious’ for the one that finishes last?”
Izzy jotted them all down, adding others as they thought of them. “That works. We can get some cheap trophies and a label printing machine so we can add the categories and names on the day.”
“I am a bit worried about the celebrity guest,” said Penny. “What shall we do about that? It would be great to get someone from the world of fashion. I don’t know anybody, but perhaps we could make some calls?”
“Oh, there’s a thought that actually makes it easier!” said Izzy, pacing with excitement. “Caroline Starling and her friends won’t know any fashion people, either. We can just invent a celebrity guest.”
“Seriously, Izzy, I don’t think that will work. The people here will definitely notice if Izzy disappears into the next room and then suddenly Izzy-in-a-wig turns up wearing Elton John glasses and pretending to be the editor of Vogue.”
“No,” said Izzy thoughtfully. It can’t be one of us. How about your boyfriend?”
“I don’t have a boyfriend.”
“Aubrey? The painter and decorator?” Penny coloured. “For one thing, he is not my boyfriend —”
“He’s seen the inside of your bedroom.”
“To decorate it! And for another, I can’t drag him into something so, so —”
“—so fun?” Izzy suggested. “I reckon he’d love it. You should give him a chance to decide for himself.”
“I’m not sure when I’ll see him,” said Penny.
“How about now?” Izzy saw her opportunity and walked over to the shop front to rap on the window. Aubrey was walking across the market square, and looked up at the noise. Izzy beckoned to him, a manic grin on her face.
She turned back to see that Penny had her head in her hands.
Penny tried hard to maintain a poker face, but it was almost too much to bear. Izzy was laying out her absurd plan and Aubrey was listening, he was actually listening.
“So let me get this straight. You want me to dress up and pretend to be some influencer, say nice things about the vests these boys have sewn, and dazzle the parents with my brilliance or my weirdness?”
“No,” said Penny.
“Yes,” said Izzy at the exact same time.
“I have one thing to say to you about a plan like this,” said Aubrey.
Penny braced herself. Here came the part where Aubrey walked out of the door and refused ever to set foot in the shop again.
“Go on,” said Izzy.
“Don’t you dare ask anyone else to do this, it sounds great! You pair are proper livewires. It’s why I love coming in here. You’re making a good go of this place and I really want to help.”
“Oh. Right,” croaked Penny. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” said Izzy.
Izzy wrestled her load through the door. “Can you give me a hand with this, Penny?”
Penny came and held the door. “What have you got there?”
“Carpet off-cuts from Framlingham Carpets. All red, see? It’s our catwalk.” Izzy plonked them down on the floor and then dragged them around into position. “So our fashion models will come down the staircase, make a half-turn and then sashay along here. There will be rows of chairs either side for the spectators.”
Penny nodded. “This will look really good. Nice work!”
“I think we’re all set,” said Izzy. “Seriously, who knew we’d be able to meet that crazy list of demands?”
Shortly afterwards, the cake was delivered, carried in by two bearers with solemn ceremony, and placed down on the cutting table as if it were the object of some sacred rite.
“Well, it’s certainly as big as they said it would be,” said Izzy, after checking with the tape measure. “Shall we take a look? I want to see what this monster cake looks like.”
They both lifted the lid and peered inside. It wasn’t just a football pitch, it was an entire stadium. Tiers of cake formed its banks. There were players and a ball on the pitch. Izzy tapped the ball and it rolled a track through a layer of icing.
“What are you doing?” hissed Penny.
“It looks like you could play a game. I wondered if that was the idea.”
“Maybe it is the idea, but now you messed it up!”
“It’ll be fine.” Izzy patted the icing flat with a fingertip. “Good as new.”
“We still don’t know where we’re going to put this,” said Penny.
“I say that we go with the path of least resistance,” replied Izzy. “We put it right there in the window and drape some nice fabric over it, so it looks as if it’s part of the display. It will be out of our way and nobody will mess with it.”
Penny nodded. “Actually, that makes a lot of sense.”
On the day of the birthday workshop, Penny made sure that she greeted the parents at the door with a glass of cava. She waved across at the rows of chairs. “You are very welcome to wait down here in the shop, or, of course, you could come back when it’s time for the fashion show.”
Without exception, each parent opted to return later, chugging down their glass of fizz and making a hasty exit. Were tweenage boys so exhausting that an afternoon off was a rare treat? Perhaps they were about to find out.
Caroline Starling was last to arrive, with Monty her son. A small dog ran into the shop on her heels.
“Oh, a corgi!” said Penny. What she really wanted to say was “Oh, a dog in our shop, please put it on a lead and keep it well away from our stock,” but Caroline seemed rich and eccentric and chose to ignore the heavy hint.
“The sage smudging was carried out as directed?” asked Caroline. “Monty’s energy can be exacerbated by impurities in the air, I find.”
Penny nodded. Someone had indeed turned up and lit something that looked like a massive cigar. She had been worried that the shop would smell weird, but the odour soon dispersed. She wasn’t convinced that young boys would be calmed by day-old herbal smells, but only time would tell.
The noise levels had risen with each new arrival, and when Penny took Monty up to the first floor workshop it reached such a level that a responsible employer might have considered providing ear protection.
“Can I please have your attention, everyone?” Izzy howled.
The noise dropped a little and Penny assigned each boy to a group. She found that she needed to shout every instruction and repeat it a number of times.
“Make your choice of fabric and thread, and then we can talk about embellishments. Got that?”
“Miss! How will we each be able to sew? There aren’t enough machines!” came a voice.
“There will be a machine and a workstation for each group of two,” said Izzy.
“But this one’s broken!”
“No it’s fine,” said Izzy. “I checked — oh.”
Penny craned her neck and looked across to where a pile of bits sat on a desk that had previously held a working sewing machine.
“It just came apart!” said Monty, who held a screwdriver and had a large smirk on his face.
“Well, we can’t have that, can we Monty?” said Izzy, sweeping across and taking the screwdriver from him. “What with you being the birthday boy and everything. Let’s make sure you have a machine that you can use.” She lifted a large and very ancient sewing machine down from a shelf. It was primarily a decoration and sometimes featured in the window display, and it had a hand crank instead of a motor. Penny had seen Izzy oiling it, so it was definitely functional, but it would be slow. Monty’s face fell. “Let’s thread it up and get it ready for you.” Izzy smiled and set to work.
Monty was not downhearted for long. The boys got busy cutting out their pattern pieces and working out what they needed to do.
Once everyone was underway with construction, the mood was calmer, and the boys were drawn into the competitive business of creating the most interesting and functional utility vest. Penny and Izzy spent a lot of time making sure that metal hardware and fingers were kept clear of the sewing machine needles, as nearly all of the boys would insist on stomping their feet on the pedals to make the machines sew as fast as they possibly could. Monty and his partner were the only ones who couldn’t do the same; they could only crank their machine as fast as their hands would go.
“It’s interesting that Monty’s work is really quite neat, as he’s being forced to take his time,” whispered Izzy to Penny. “He might actually win the prize for quality.”
Eventually the boys all reached the point where they had finished sewing their utility vests and it was time to use the pliers to add fasteners. As predicted, this was a big hit, and some of the vests had many more fasteners than were strictly necessary. Izzy showed them how to add eyelets as well.
The boys tried on their garments, which was an exuberant moment. One boy realised that the many rings dangling from his vest would clink together if he jumped up and down. This caught on within seconds, and soon the room was filled with a hideous boyish percussion.
From here, it was the shortest of steps for the boys to discover that they could also join themselves together with their metallic add-ons.
Penny and Izzy exchanged glances.
“I think this has gone well,” said Penny. “If you can get them ready for the fashion show, I’ll unlock downstairs and give Aubrey his signal.”
Penny trotted downstairs and sent a message to Aubrey. As she put down her phone she heard a noise, but couldn’t immediately identify it. When it came again, she walked to the front of the shop, where she thought it was coming from.
From what she could see, it was clear that the corgi which had appeared earlier had been trapped inside the shop for all this time. Worse still, it had dragged away the fabric and lid from the birthday cake. It looked up at Penny now, its face covered in frosting.
Penny had conflicting emotions, all of them threatening to overwhelm her. Panic, rage and embarrassment vied for her attention and momentarily locked her into place. Should she scream? Should she run away, never to return? She saw a glimmer of hope as she realised that the problem wasn’t of her making. She texted Caroline.
You left your dog behind. It’s here in the shop.
The reply came almost instantly.
I don’t have a dog.
“Oh no. Oh no, no, no!”
Aubrey appeared at that moment, tapping the door. Penny opened it, attempting to form words to express her distress, but failing. She fell back on demonstrating the urgency of the situation by pointing at the dog and the cake and the upstairs and making small mewling sounds.
“Ohh, this is tricky. I see that this is tricky. We can fix things, though,” said Aubrey, his hands on Penny’s shoulders. “Deep breaths. Whose dog is this?”
Penny shrugged to indicate that she had no idea. “Sorry. It came in with the parents, I thought it went out with them again. Look what it’s done!”
Aubrey nodded. “When will the parents be here?”
Penny checked her watch. “Ten minutes for the early birds.”
“Izzy’s got the kids upstairs?”
Aubrey thought for a moment. “I’ll go and meet the kids, make sure they’re all set for the show. Izzy can come down here and do something with the cake. You sort out the dog and then make sure you’re ready to greet the parents.”
“Sort out the dog, sort out the dog.” Penny stared at its grinning face as it licked frosting from around its mouth. She gave a low whistle, and to her surprise it bounded over. “Hello there! Do you have a name?” The dog had a collar, but there was no name on it.
“He’ll probably want a drink,” said Aubrey, from halfway up the stairs.
“Yes, definitely a he,” replied Aubrey with a nod towards the dog.
Penny fetched a bowl of water and the dog slurped greedily. She found an offcut of tana lawn and used it to wipe his face free of cake frosting.
Izzy clattered down the stairs. “Oh my, Penny! How bad is it?”
Izzy went over to the cake and peered in the box. “I think I can remodel what’s there so that it looks more or less as it should. The perspex ruler should work wonders on cake frosting.”
“But we can’t let people eat a cake that a dog has licked! No offense,” she said to the dog.
“If we cut it up at the earliest opportunity we can make sure to remove the frosting from the top. It’ll be fine, Penny. I think that dog needs to go out.”
Penny found a length of cotton tape to form a makeshift lead for the dog, and took it for a walk around the square. Even though she had a hundred things to worry about, it was diverting to see the world through the eyes of a dog. The simple joy of examining every corner and wagging a tail at every passer-by was infectious. When Penny returned to the shop a few minutes later she had a smile on her face.
“I’ve found a box he can have a sleep in,” shouted Izzy. “Behind the counter.”
Penny showed the dog to the box and was relieved when, after sniffing it and circling for a few moments, he lay down in it.
“What do you think of the cake?” asked Izzy.
Penny inspected the patch-up job and had to concede that it looked reasonable. If the bakers were to see it, they would no doubt be appalled at the destruction of their work, but by most people’s standards it was good.
“Let’s put it as far away as we can from where the audience will be,” suggested Izzy.
Parents started to arrive, and Penny took care to sit them all down ready for the show. Izzy and Penny exchanged a smile as the last of the parents took their seats and were handed a glass of fizz.
Caroline stood, and her words dashed Penny’s optimism in a moment. “I would like to see the cake more closely!”
She began to pick her way through the chairs, and other guests decided to join her, murmuring that they too would like to see the cake.
Penny couldn’t think of a way to stop them, and worse still, they all had phones in their hands, ready to take pictures that would surely tell a damning tale of disaster and hasty reconstruction once they had found their way onto social media.
“Why is my audience not ready for the show! I was informed that everything was in place!”
The voice that boomed down the stairs was Aubrey’s voice, but it was not Aubrey’s quiet demeanour. It had the rich resonance of a Shakespearean actor, but perhaps an actor who was trying to make himself heard at a Metallica concert.
The parents froze in place. Izzy had the presence of mind to flap urgently at them to return to their seats, which, to Penny’s astonishment, they did.
Aubrey descended, pausing when he was part way down so that he was visible to them all. Penny realised that the dog chaos had distracted her from properly looking at Aubrey when he had entered the shop. He was a shocking and undeniably compelling vision. He wore a pink brocade frock coat with biker boots and what might have been leather trousers. His hair was tucked into a beret, and he sported a pair of oversized sunglasses. There were people in the audience who might perhaps have known him casually as Aubrey the local painter, decorator and odd-jobs man, but Penny would not have been able to pick him out of a line-up in his current attire.
“Our models will follow me down shortly, and I will announce their achievements as they pass before you. I encourage you to show your appreciation for the detail and enthusiasm that has gone in to their creations.” He clapped his hands, urging the audience to join him. Everyone in the audience clapped along. Music started to play. Had Aubrey brought a speaker with him? Penny wasn’t sure, but it was perfect. Loud, brash rock music played as the first boy descended the stairs.
“Here is Adam. You will notice that Adam’s vest has eyelets along the bottom. This is a feature that will enable him to hang fishing lures, craft supplies or snacks while remaining hands-free. Adam has today won the award for the most symmetrical arrangement of trimmings. You will see that each side is perfectly matched to the other. A round of applause for Adam.”
Adam walked down the stairs and strutted along the catwalk in front of the spectators. He performed a twirl at the end, then stalked to an empty row of chairs where he took his seat to watch the rest of the show. All of his moves were eerily model-like. Had Izzy prepped the boys in how to stand tall and lead with the hips or whatever it was models did?
The next boy was on his way. “Now here’s Samson. See the densely-packed area of rivets on Samson’s pocket? It’s so that he can change things up by adding a fridge magnet if the mood takes him. Samson has won the award for the best use of colour in his garment, with his daring mix-up of fabric for pockets. A round of applause for Samson!”
Penny realised that Aubrey had a real talent for this. The audience was in a no-man’s-land, somewhere between being stunned with awe and completely cowed by Aubrey’s aggressive shouting. They looked where he told them to and remained silent apart from when he told them to clap.
He continued through the entire group. Penny looked over to see Izzy hastily operating the label machine so that the trophies would match the awards.
“And finally, here is Monty. You will see the detailed contrast topstitching on Monty’s vest. It is accurate and very effective. Monty has won the award for the best construction. Applause for Monty, please!”
Even after the show, Aubrey continued to boss everyone around. There was a chorus of Happy Birthday for Monty, the candles were lit and blown out, and then Penny and Izzy dived in to cut up the cake. All of this was performed with the audience still seated.
“Aubrey has properly saved our bacon,” whispered Penny to Izzy.
Izzy nodded. “All of that while wearing leather trousers, too. Don’t pretend you hadn’t noticed.”
If you want to find out what happens next, and join Penny and Izzy in a country house murder mystery investigation, then order your copy of THE PAINTED LOBSTER MURDERS straight away!
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