Clarice and the Tea Leaf
A Brainy Bird Tall Tale (no.1)
Text by Ross Hunter, illustrated by Catherine Hunter
“Now listen up, Clara and Celia! Drop everything, we are going into town. Get your plushest plumage on!”
Clarice was on the phone to “her Gals”, although you would not be alone in wondering if she needed the phone at all: an Ostrich’s screech carries, and Clarice had a bird bugle.
“Where was I? Ah, yes. There is a new tea shop at the better end of town, the sort of place where gals like us should—deserve—to be seen. The owner is a positively scrummy young chap, a real live Lordship they say. I have my beady eye on him, but that’s bye the bye. We are going to check it out. Dress to impress, Gals. Hats and boas are de rigeur, d’accord?!” Clarice loves to splatter her speech with classy clips of French, some of which she understands. As an afterthought, she phoned cousin Emma Emu, too.
An hour later, we find ourselves on the veranda of the Earl Grey Tea Emporium. The gals are preening and gossiping. Or, rather, Clarice is chatting like a machine gun, and Clara, Celia and Emma are listening.
“Ladies you look lovely! Super peacock hat Celia: as I always say, where there’s a quill there’s a way! Clara: those leggings really suit you! Emma, dahling, when we say ‘boa’, we mean a feathered neck warmer, and we ostriches need good throatwear, not a live constrictor type snake. I don’t mean to be unkind, but is he a friend, a decoration or your lunch? Does it have a name?”
“Her name is Cyd, thank you”, replied Emma with a tear in her eye, despite being used to years of insults like this.
Cheer up, Emma, your moment is coming soon!
The cafe was heaving and even outrageous ostriches didn’t attract too much attention.
That’s fine by me”, boomed Clarice, just a little louder than necessary, “If there’s one thing I cannot stand, it’s people who insist on being the centre of attention!”
Clara, Celia and Emma choked on their tea. Clarice carried on, craning her neck the better to see everything and everyone. She may not have been head and shoulders above the crowd, but head, hat and boa stood well clear of the herd.
She caught the eye of the owner who sidled across to meet our folks’ flock.
“Well, hello laydiees! Sooo pleased to have you heeere! I am Cuthbert Jenkins, your propriateur todaey,” said the owner in a voice that waxed more oil than polish, and anything but lordly, with the wrong syllables strained more than a secondhand tea-bag. Clarice smiled a thin grimace, as she tried and failed to hide her disappointment. Celia and Clara suddenly found the bottom of their tea cups incredibly interesting. Emma blushed. Not from embarrassment but because Cyd stiffened up to stop herself shaking with giggles. This didn’t help Emma’s neck. Clarice gave them a filthy look.
Just then, an argument seemed to break out over by the serving counter.
“’Scuse meee...” wailed Cuthbert and he slid over to see what the row was about. A large man was making a larger fuss about something small, but it caused a bit of a throng to gather. It all looked trivial, unless one has an eye as beady as Clarice’s and a neck as long as ... Clarice’s.
“Gals,” she hissed in a loud but subtle whisper, without moving her beak, “look! Behind the clutter, there’s a little man with his fingers in the till! It’s daylight robbery!”
“A robbery, how exciting!” clucked the gals.
“Yes, but we are part of it now. Be ready!”
And she was right. The little man darted through the shop taking all the day’s takings with him. Everybody froze, except Emma who stuck out a telescopic leg and tripped him up. Clara was next, and leapt over the table, big pink toes spread miraculously among the tea cups without spilling even one of them, just squelching a quince jam covered scone. With a piercing squawk, she landed on the robber, and pinned him down.
The fat man who had started the argument stopped it, and casually eased his way out of the shop and down the street, equally casually snaffling the money bag, unseen by everyone— except Clarice, who sees everything.
“He’s a tea-leaf too! If there’s one thing I cannot stand, it’s tea-leafs! Stop him!”
Too late to trip him, and too many people in the way to chase him, he was escaping. Emma said sorry to Cyd, unwrapped her and flung the startled snake like a boomerang after him. Cyd looked a bit upset, but then realised what was needed. She wrapped the front half of her body round his neck; and her rear end round a lamp post. With a nasty jerk, the nasty jerk was flat on his padded backside, anchored by an anaconda. The money bag flew off. Gotcha!
“Let – me – go,” he hissed, “I am innocent. I will sue you! You’ll go to prison, not me.”
Cyd loosened her grip, and the failed criminal genius wriggled free, straight into Clarice and Celia, who marched him back to the shop.
“You’ll pay for this. Wrongful arrest! I’ll have every penny you’ve got. Better than robbing shops. Oops.”
“Ladies, thank you! Your bravery saved the day,” said Cuthbert in a normal voice. “Don’t worry about these two; we have it all on the shop security camera, including them plotting their plan outside.”
Clarice was thrilled, and ruffled up her best feathers: “You mean we are stars of CCC-TV!”
“What about me”, wailed Emma.
“Sorry, but you are not as alliterate as Clarice, Clara, Celia”, but you and Cyd can split the reward,” she said, with new respect for her under-rated cousin.
The four birds purred proudly as they basked in their fame and scoffed a free tea. Do birds purr? I am not sure if I am allowed to write that, but you know what I mean.
“Just one thing,” asked Celia, “why did you call him a tea leaf? It confused us.”
“Tea leaf equals thief!” exclaimed Clarice: “Don’t you know your Cockerel rhyming slang?! I’ll show you some more in the next story.”