Thursday, April 15, 2021

​Morning Coffee by Susan Hoffmann

Jean watched from the front-room window as Annabelle Doran walked past. As if sensing
Jean’s scrutiny, Annabelle turned, smiled and waved before walking on. Twitching the curtain
back into place, Jean picked up her spray-polish and duster and set about the table with
unnecessary vigour.
Maybe I should just go right out and ask, she thought. She’s been in here often enough.
It’s her turn.
The galling part was that others had been into Annabelle’s house. Jean had seen them:
mostly women of around Annabelle’s age, but once a tall young man and on one occasion
recently an elderly gentleman. Strangely enough, there had only ever been one visitor at a
time. How long each one had stayed, Jean didn’t know. She’d peeked through her window
often enough but never actually seen any of them leave. Jean loved a good mystery. What if
Annabelle had…? No, not Annabelle. She was far too gentle to be involved in anything sinister.
They just had morning coffee there, or perhaps Annabelle asked them to stay for lunch.
Annabelle Doran was apparently quite happy to have other visitors, but not Jean. How unfair
was that, particularly when one of Jean’s small pleasures in life was to see inside other
people’s houses? She’d managed to wangle her way into several houses in the area over the
past few weeks but Annabelle’s abode remained unconquered.
Jean put down her polish and duster and peeped outside again. The street was
deserted except for Mrs Binny’s old tom cat strolling up Jean’s path. Jean tapped on the
window and made shooing motions. The cat glared at her and walked sedately on. Striving
for composure, Jean watched as it jumped onto the wall and disappeared into Annabelle’s
front garden.
Annabelle had come to live next door to Jean almost a year ago, and hadn’t Jean tried
her best to make the newcomer feel welcome? A “new home” card, a cake, and even a
casserole that time Annabelle had admitted to feeling unwell. As for morning coffee –
Annabelle must have come to Jean’s at least five times, and never once had the invitation
been reciprocated. It simply wasn’t good enough.
Oh, Annabelle was friendly enough on the surface. She’d chatted quite readily about
how her parents had died in a car crash two years ago and how she’d decided to move away
and make a fresh start in a new area and with a new job. Why, then, had she never invited
Jean into her house?
Jean left the window and picked up her polish and duster again. She gave the table
another rub and then stood back to admire its glossy surface. Well, if that’s what Annabelle
wants, I’ll just let things be, she decided. After all, I won’t be here much longer, will I?


*


The phone call came quite out of the blue, three weeks after Jean had moved house.
“Jean? It’s Annabelle. Annabelle Doran.”
“Oh,” said Jean, unable to keep the surprise from her voice. “Hello. How nice to hear
from you.”
“I thought I’d give you a ring to see how you’re settling into your new bungalow. I
really miss you.”
And that was all it took. Jean hadn’t meant to stay on the phone for twenty minutes
but she didn’t yet know any of her new neighbours and Annabelle did seem genuinely
interested in Jean’s brown and cream curtains, her beige suite in the lounge and her lovely
cream carpet in the bedroom. More importantly, to Jean’s way of thinking, was the long-awaited
invitation to morning coffee.
“Of course, I’m not too busy,” Jean assured her. “Tomorrow is just fine. Will anyone
else be coming? No? Ah, well, that will give us the chance to have a good chat and catch up
on all the news, won’t it?”
*
Mrs Binny’s cat was sitting sunning himself on Annabelle’s driveway when Jean arrived. Jean
bent to stroke him but he rose and hissed at her.
“Forgotten me already, have you?” Jean asked. The cat arched his back and spat as
she walked past. Jean transferred the large bag she was carrying to her other hand. “Is this
what’s frightening you? No need to be scared. It’s not for you.”
Ears flat back, the cat shot away.
Quite what she had been expecting of Annabelle’s house, Jean wasn’t sure. The blinds,
front and back, had always been closed when she had lived next door, and they were still
drawn as she approached and rang the doorbell.
Annabelle answered almost immediately and ushered her through the dimly lit hall
and into the back room. Jean smiled and chatted inconsequentially as she preceded her
hostess into the lounge, set down her bag and lowered her ample bulk into a sturdy armchair.
It was, she realised, the first time she had seen Annabelle without sunglasses. “Photophobia,”
Annabelle had explained when she had kept her sunglasses on in Jean’s house.
As with the hall, there was only soft illumination in the lounge but it was sufficient for
Jean to see that Annabelle’s eyes were an unusually pale grey-blue. No wonder the poor girl
was sensitive to light.
“Well,” said Jean, “isn’t this nice? So kind of you to ask me round, dear.” She
rummaged in her capacious bag and lifted out a foil-wrapped package. “I’ve brought you a
few scones. Made them only yesterday evening so they’re quite fresh. I remember how much
you enjoyed my scones whenever you came to my house.”
If Annabelle noticed the jibe, she gave no sign, merely thanking Jean and fetching an
extra plate for the scones when she brought in the coffee and biscuits.
“Terrible thing, these latest murders,” Jean remarked through a mouthful of chocolate
digestive, nodding towards to the local newspaper lying on the settee.
“It doesn’t say the people have been killed,” Annabelle pointed out. “Only that two
more have gone missing.”
“Good enough for me,” said Jean. “I mean, six people vanishing in similar
circumstances. If they weren’t dead, they’d have turned up by now, wouldn’t they? Can’t be
easy to get rid of a body, though, can it?”
“No, but I suppose there are ways,” said Annabelle.
“Do have another piece of scone, dear,” Jean said. “I’m so pleased you like them. As
for those disappearances, it’s a wonder the police haven’t any clues yet. You think they’d at
least have some ideas. Anyway, it’s a bit of a morbid conversation for such a pleasant morning,
isn’t it? Yes, I’d love another coffee but I just need to pop to the bathroom first if I may. I could
do with a hand up the stairs though, if you’d be so kind. With my poor knees, climbing’s rather
an effort. I realise you can’t stand bright light, my dear, but my old eyes are finding this gloom
a bit of a trial. I’d hate to trip. I’m very glad I moved; you know. The bungalow’s so much
easier.”
With Annabelle behind to steady her, Jean negotiated the stairs safely. She paused
outside the bathroom and regarded her host with concern.
“Annabelle, dear, are you all right? You’ve rather a high colour all of a sudden. Not like
you at all, is it?” She winced a little as Annabelle gripped her arm. “What’s the matter, dear?
Do you feel faint? Would you like to sit down?”
Annabelle nodded. “Yes. I feel awful.” She hunched over suddenly, clutching her
stomach and groaning.
Jean led her to the bathroom stool. “There, there,” she said. “You just sit still. I’ll be
right back with something to sort this out for you.”
Descending the stairs quite easily, Jean hurried back into the lounge for her bag. A
quick check of its contents reassured her she’d brought everything she needed. Disposal was
never easy, but that just added to the thrill, didn’t it? Poor, gentle, photophobic, innocent
Annabelle.
Scones, Jean thought proudly as she climbed the stairs with no visible effort, despite
carrying her heavy bag. Never can see it coming with something as ordinary as scones, can
they?




© Susan Hoffmann

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