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
“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
“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?
(c) Susan Hoffmann