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Authors: Rebecca Tope

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BOOK: Malice in the Cotswolds
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The ointment made little immediate difference, but the mere fact of another person taking charge had a soothing effect, at least to start with. Then questions began to form. ‘Were you watching me? In the garden?’ she asked, with a frown. The idea was distinctly unwelcome.

‘No, of course not. I heard you moaning and came out to see what had happened. My door and windows were open, and you did make quite a noise.’

‘Did I?’ She could only remember uttering one soft complaint. ‘I thought it might have been a snake. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a hornet.’

‘They’re increasing, apparently, but they’re not usually aggressive. They look exactly like wasps, only three times the size – at least.’

‘This one was definitely aggressive. I didn’t do
anything to provoke it. Am I allergic, do you think?’

‘You are very swollen. Lucky it wasn’t your throat, or you might have been choked to death.’ The relish in his voice was unmistakable.

‘I’ve never known such pain. I didn’t know where to put myself.’

‘Is it better now?’

‘A bit. Either that, or I’m getting used to it. I’ll be scared to go outside again after this.’

‘Honestly, you don’t have to be. It’s not likely to happen again.’

‘Have
you
ever been stung by one?’

He shook his head with a rueful smile. ‘Actually, I think they’re rather beautiful. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s true.’

‘I’ll take your word for it. Why doesn’t Yvonne have the nest destroyed? Why didn’t she
tell
me about it?’

‘She’d never do that. Live and let live is her motto when it comes to nature.’

‘You’re both mad, then,’ said Thea with feeling. ‘I’ve a good mind to call the council first thing in the morning.’

His eyes widened and the smile vanished. ‘Don’t you dare!’ he flashed. ‘You have no right to do anything of the kind.’

‘The way I see it, I’ve got a
duty
to do it. What if they stung a small child? It could be fatal.’

‘Nonsense. They hardly ever sting anybody at all. Just leave well alone, you silly woman.’

Her rescuer had turned into an adversary, which felt deeply unfair in her weakened condition. She lifted her chin, and fought back a renewed urge to cry. ‘Well, don’t let me keep you,’ she said coldly. ‘You must have packing to do.’

‘What? Oh … yes. I mean, no, it’s all done. But I’ll go, if you think you’ll be all right.’

‘I’m fine. Thanks for the ointment.’

‘I’ll leave it with you, in case you want some more. It should start working any moment now.’

‘Yes … it is, I think. And the swelling seems to have stopped. Thanks again.’

She waited in vain for an apology for his rudeness. ‘No word from Yvonne?’ The subject change was offensive to Thea’s sensitive feelings and she merely shrugged and shook her head.

‘I guess we’d have heard if she’d had an accident. But I must admit I’m worried. She can’t be coping as well as I thought she would.’

‘Coping with what?’

‘People. Surprises. Unkindness. The usual things.’ He gave her a direct look. ‘You probably wouldn’t understand. I don’t detect much vulnerability in your robust little soul.’

She took it as blatant criticism, the effect of which was to once again make her want to cry. She had rapidly come to hate Hyacinth House and Snowshill and everything that had happened through the long day since she had left her home in Witney at 9 a.m.
‘Mind your own business,’ she hissed, turning away from him. ‘Now please go away.’

He went, with a faint smile and not a vestige of apology.

 

She took Hepzie up to bed with her at ten-fifteen, closing the windows tightly against any possible incursion from hornets. The thought of a nest of them somewhere just above her head was terrifying. Her arm throbbed, still fiery to the touch. The room felt airless and she fetched a large glass of water for thirsty awakenings during the night. The bedroom was marginally less cluttered than the rest of the house, but still contained too much furniture and a crazy excess of ornaments. A deep-red wax sculpture sat proudly on the mantelpiece over the tiled fireplace. It was shaped like a fantasy castle, with twisty turrets and shadowy grottoes, which she found appealing in spite of herself. The fragility of it, combined with the obvious imaginative work that had gone into it, raised paradoxes in her mind, echoing Blake’s accusation that she herself was unnaturally strong. It carried implications of a lack of femininity, and worse – a lack of empathy and consideration for others. This she emphatically rejected, as she rehearsed the many occasions when she had been kind to people. Hadn’t she offered her daughter all the sympathy and attention anybody could wish for, that very day?

But these fragments of self-justification were
eclipsed by memories of much less benign conduct, particularly towards her former boyfriend, Phil Hollis. She was never going to forgive herself for the way she had shown such selfish impatience over his damaged back, when they were in Temple Guiting. Every time she thought about it, she accused herself more deeply of cruel and callous behaviour. She had even told Drew Slocombe about it, as if to warn him about her darker side. He had laughed it off and claimed to be equally cold-hearted at times. She had not believed him for a moment.

She drifted off to sleep, eventually, after an hour or more of jumbled thinking, most of it uncomfortable. Her dreams when they came involved her sister Jocelyn, whose life was never easy and who at times needed more help than the family willingly gave. She dreamt that Joss was being attacked by a gang of small boys with sticks while her own husband and children looked on uncaringly.

 

When she woke on Sunday morning, the dream was still vivid, its message seemingly important. Something to do with victims and wanton cruelty and the necessity of giving assistance without asking questions or making excuses.

‘Hmm,’ she said to her dog. ‘I wonder what that’s really all about.’

A car horn pipped in the road outside and she got up to see what it was. Blake was walking quickly down
his crooked garden path, wheeling a heavy-looking bag behind him. The driver did not get out, but from the dispassionate nod Blake gave him, Thea concluded that it was a taxi of some sort. ‘Have fun,’ she muttered, unsure as to whether or not she was glad of his departure.

The phone rang at nine-fifteen. It was Yvonne Parker, full of gushing apology. ‘Victor told me he phoned you yesterday, because I was late. I’m really so terribly sorry for worrying you. Everything’s perfectly all right. I just …’ she faltered. ‘I lost my nerve, I suppose. When I saw the place he lives in, I just turned round and went to find a hotel for the night. I needed to have a proper think before I could face him. Of course, he’s furious with me.’ She gave a little giggle and Thea guessed that the man himself was listening.

‘The place he lives in?’ she queried, thinking that Crouch End was rather a good address as far as she was aware.

‘It’s an awful little flat in a shared house. He told me he’d rented somewhere while he looked for a new house, but I never dreamed it would be something so small.’

Plainly, Victor was
not
listening, Thea decided. She made a sympathetic sound and waited for further disclosures. ‘Anyway, he’s gone out to get some milk. We’re supposed to be getting down to business over coffee.’ The laugh she gave was decidedly forced.

‘Well, I’m glad you’re all right. I wish I could tell
Blake, but he’s gone already. We were worried about you.’

Yvonne laughed. ‘Oh, Blake’s always like that. He’s like an old mother hen, isn’t he?’

‘He seems to be,’ she agreed, not really wanting to talk about Blake. Instead, she wanted to ask a dozen questions: What did Victor say about her delay? How was it possible that she hadn’t known how he was living? Was she going to bunk up with him in the bedsit? And could she, Thea, please call the council about the hornets?

‘I was stung last night by a hornet,’ she said, slightly too loudly. ‘Blake says there’s a nest in the roof.’

‘Oh God. You weren’t, were you? Was it in the house?’

‘No, the garden. But really, it’s a serious health hazard. They ought to be exterminated.’

‘Oh, no. The poor things don’t deserve that. I’m so sorry you were stung, but they honestly aren’t a bit aggressive. That’s the first sting there’s been. You were just unlucky. It won’t happen again.’

‘You can’t know that. I’ll be scared to use the garden.’ It was the first time this had properly occurred to her and the idea was shattering. ‘I’ll feel as if I’m under siege.’

‘No, no. It’ll be fine. Is the sting still bad this morning?’

Thea examined the place on her arm. She could clearly see the point where the sting went in, with
the surrounding flesh still tender and stretched. ‘It’s swollen and itchy,’ she reported.

‘Oh dear. Where is it exactly?’

‘On my arm. A couple of inches above the wrist.’

‘That’s a sensitive place,’ Yvonne sympathised. ‘I really am sorry. But please don’t let it bother you. It’s only a small nest, and they won’t be troublesome for another month yet, at least. It was just bad luck,’ she repeated. Her voice sounded stronger than Thea had so far heard it, the insistence hard to withstand.

‘Well …’ she began reluctantly. ‘It isn’t really fair …’

‘I’ll pay you extra for the injury,’ said Yvonne quickly. ‘And if it happens again, then I suppose you will have to call somebody to get rid of them. I just hope it won’t come to that. Is that all right?’

‘It’ll have to be, I suppose,’ said Thea grudgingly. ‘And thank you for letting me know you were all right. I might have reported you as missing, otherwise.’

Yvonne gave a little shriek, either of amusement or alarm. ‘Gosh – don’t do that,’ she said.

When she’d gone, Thea realised she had cast herself as the stern voice of common sense and responsible action. Never seeing herself as exactly feckless, she was nonetheless capable of breaking a few rules when it suited her, and defying some of the more bureaucratic authority that seemed designed to obstruct for the sake of it. How had she come to be such an upright citizen all of a sudden?

Somehow the resolution of the mystery of Yvonne’s whereabouts during Saturday afternoon left her feeling more troubled than before. Yvonne’s apparent ignorance of her husband’s circumstances felt very strange, particularly as Blake-next-door seemed so confident that he knew most of the story. The purported reason for Yvonne’s visit was basically to do with money for Belinda’s wedding – and now there seemed good reason to think Victor was perhaps rather short of cash. Thea’s natural curiosity burgeoned as she tried to construct a convincing narrative to explain the Parker family’s situation. After all, she told herself, if a person invited you into their home and gave you full jurisdiction over it, even paying you to fill that role, you had every right to enquire into the background. There were things a house-sitter needed to know, if she was to do a good job.

The threat of the hornets receded somewhat as her arm began to feel more normal. It was Sunday morning, the day was dry and she had no immediate tasks to perform. Time, then, to go and make the acquaintance of the cows in the field behind the house. Before embarking on her new career in the Cotswolds she had never imagined the existence of these small patches of land belonging to so many individual houses. With the decline of traditional agriculture it seemed that homeowners had managed to snap up odd acreages as small farms were swallowed up by massive agribusinesses. Awkward shapes, large trees,
steep slopes and ancient restrictions all led to the ready sacrifice of these unprofitable nooks. They made little difference to a farm of five hundred acres or more, and a massive improvement to the value and quality of a family house. Yvonne seemed to have no use for her amenity, however. Somewhere there must still be a small farm with more cattle than was comfortable, so that these few had overflowed into an auxiliary field.

These creatures plainly came from a dairy farm. Yvonne had said they were due to calve shortly, and were enjoying a short holiday from the relentless milking routine. They were all black and white, with prominent hip bones and little sign of any spare flesh. Their pregnancies swelled their sides, giving an impression of flagons on legs, viewed from the front. Two looked to be past their prime, with flaccid udders all too visible. They turned their big monochrome faces to her in idle curiosity when she went to the small gate to view them.

The grass seemed plentiful on the small uneven field, and she remained for several minutes watching them snatch mouthfuls of it, swallowing it whole. They were like efficient harvesting machines, moving forward and scything the grass in a pattern that seemed random, but might not have been. The rhythm was soothing and timeless. Ungulates such as these had been mowing grass for millennia, all across the world, and she liked to trace the bygone links down the centuries, from the first concerted efforts by man
to slaughter and eat the beasts, through to a realisation that their milk was good to drink and their hides made excellent coverings. She found herself approving of animals with a purpose.
Unlike those damned hornets,
she thought crossly.

Then one of the cows made an ungainly leap forward, emitting a low bellow as she moved. Before Thea could understand what had happened, another animal did the same thing. Were they being stung, as Thea had been? She could see no swarming insects. Instead, as the second cow gave a startled jump, she saw a stone roll to the ground. A few moments later, a third missile came into view, this time missing the cows and landing in the hedge close to Thea, with a rustle and a clunk.

‘Hey!’ she called, to the invisible attacker. ‘Stop that!’ Across the field there was a wide metal gate, opening onto the track beyond Blake’s house. She glimpsed a small fair head, and immediately made the link with the nasty little boy who had chopped down the roses the day before.

The blond head bobbed out of sight. Furiously, Thea ran through the garden of Hyacinth House and out into the road. Fifteen yards to the right, she turned into the opening onto the track, her faithful spaniel trotting after her.

BOOK: Malice in the Cotswolds
8.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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