Malice in the Cotswolds, p.1part #10 of Thea Osborne Mystery Series
Malice in the Cotswolds
For my friend and travel companion
Also for Shirley Pick,
About the Author
By Rebecca Tope
As with other titles in this series, the action is based in a real village. Snowshill is largely as described, in particular where the pub and the Manor are concerned. But Hyacinth House and others close by have been invented. All characters are the product of my imagination.
Yvonne Parker, owner of Hyacinth House in Snowshill, had an out-of-control air about her, which made Thea want to protect and reassure her, as she apologised repeatedly for being such a nuisance. ‘I do hope you’ll be able to manage it all,’ Yvonne said, with a worried frown. ‘It seems such a lot to ask anybody to do. I hate leaving it. But—’
‘It’ll be absolutely fine,’ Thea insisted. ‘It really doesn’t sound too arduous.’
‘I suppose it’s just routine to you, this sort of work,’ said Yvonne wistfully. ‘But I’ve never left it like this before. It’s taken me all this time to get up the courage.’
Never before had this particular line been taken by a departing householder. Most of them had been blithely confident of the house-sitter’s abilities. Some had left exhaustive instructions, covering eventualities of every kind. A few had culpably failed to warn her of pitfalls. But nobody had yet expressed such reluctance to hand over the responsibility to her.
There was a girlishness to the woman, who had to be over fifty. Her blonde hair was obviously dyed, with occasional patches where the natural faded colour was still visible. There was puckered flesh at elbow and armpit, as she flapped her arms in explanation of the way her household worked. She wore a tight sleeveless top and cotton cut-off trousers, revealing pale mottled skin on her lower legs. Thea paid very close attention to everything Yvonne said and did, aware that every snippet of information could turn out to be of vital importance.
The Parker homestead comprised two beautiful young Burmese cats, a large garden and four placid-looking cows in a small field at the end of it. ‘They’re not mine, of course,’ said Yvonne. ‘They’re just here to eat the grass and have a bit of a rest. They’re dry.’ The cows were fat and docile, it seemed, awaiting their turn to give birth and rejoin the milking herd at a farm half a mile away. Yvonne’s easy reference to the cycles of dairy cattle suggested a long involvement with these and other animals. ‘If you think there’s a problem with the cows, call Pippa on this number, look. She’ll come over right away.’
Hyacinth House was modest in size and completely beautiful in appearance. It stood on the south-western edge of Snowshill, a village Thea scarcely knew at all. There was a famous manor house somewhere close by, but she had not yet located it, having only been to see Yvonne on a brief preliminary occasion, three weeks earlier. On that occasion she had found herself staring in disbelief at yet another achingly lovely Cotswold settlement. She had thought it impossible that she could still be stunned by the beauty of the old stone buildings and the way they seemed so carelessly scattered around a church, with a quirky pub for good measure. Snowshill had the same drunken sweeps as Duntisbourne Abbots; the same intriguing walls concealing large mansions as Blockley or Broad Campden – but its short uneven row of gabled houses to the west of the church easily vied with any of the other villages for sheer aesthetic glory. She looked forward to reading up on its history, and learning all about its own special features.
‘That sounds easy enough,’ she assured Mrs Parker, as they stood admiring the cows from the bottom of the garden. ‘And the cats probably won’t take much notice of me.’ She was deliberately putting emphasis on the least worrying part of her assignment, trying not to think about the greater responsibilities that lay within the house.
Yvonne glanced anxiously at Thea’s spaniel, which was nosing around the garden. ‘They’re not used to dogs,’ she said.
‘I won’t let her bother them. She’s very good in that respect.’
‘Of course, it’s the things you’ll be worrying about,’ said Yvonne, as if reading Thea’s mind.
Things was an understatement. The house was densely packed with ornaments, pictures, books, wall hangings, candles, bowls and much more. The ornaments were ceramic, wooden, stone and glass. A great many of them were made of glass. They were displayed on long shelves mostly, in the main living room. But many sat on low tables, window sills, mantelpieces, and on top of other furniture, not just in the living room, but all over the house. Everywhere Thea looked there were accumulations of Yvonne’s things.
The garden was similarly overstocked, with not an inch of bare ground to be seen – even the minute lawn grew lush and green. The colours were bright, if not positively gaudy. Reds, purples and vivid oranges ran riot. Thea could identify crocosmia, calendula, standard roses, lavatera, rampant geraniums – all in peak season in this, the last week of July.
‘Don’t worry about dusting anything,’ Yvonne pleaded. ‘It’s much too hazardous. I like to pretend I’m suffering from the Snowshill syndrome, if you know what that is. Have you been to the Manor?’
Thea shook her head. ‘No, but I do know a bit about it, and how it’s filled to bursting with some sort of eccentric collection. I’ll pay a visit while I’m here.’
‘It makes my stuff look quite modest,’ said Yvonne, with a rare smile. ‘Ten or twelve rooms, at least, all absolutely full of things from around the world. We think it’s wonderful.’
‘The village itself has a bit of a crammed feeling,’ Thea observed. ‘Houses pushed into small spaces, on all these strange levels. It’s even more chaotic than Blockley.’
‘Mmm.’ Yvonne’s attention had wandered, and she glanced at her watch. ‘I’m going to have to leave you in another twenty minutes or so, and I haven’t quite finished packing yet. Are you sure it’s going to be all right?’
Thea wondered uneasily whether news of her previous two years spent moving from one Cotswold village to another had filtered through to this woman. Had she heard stories of the house-sitter’s involvement in violent death and sudden crises, which were making her nervous? ‘Yes, I’m sure,’ she said firmly. ‘Everything’s going to be fine.’
Still the woman made no decisive move to finish her preparations. ‘Where exactly are you going?’ Thea asked, more for the sake of conversation than anything else. She had been given a mobile number for emergencies, but little further information. She thought she recalled a mention of France on her previous visit, but wasn’t sure.
Yvonne grimaced, her pale-blue eyes closing for a moment. ‘Oh! Well … um … London, actually. Crouch End, if you know where that is.’
‘Not exactly. Sounds inter
‘It’s near Highgate. I’m going to see my husband,’ she added unexpectedly.
It took Thea a few seconds to work out what was odd about this remark. ‘I see,’ she lied.
‘Well, he’s my ex-husband now, of course. We were divorced not long ago, and haven’t seen each other since he left, five years ago. He’s between houses, or something. He wants to talk to me about boring legal stuff, I suppose. Our daughter’s getting married in September, and I have to be sure he’ll do right by her. I ought to have gone before now, but I can’t go anywhere in term time.’ She looked to Thea as if she was dreading the coming encounter, but was putting a brave face on it.
‘I don’t imagine that’ll be much fun,’ Thea sympathised, wondering how such a task could possibly take two weeks of anybody’s time. Would Yvonne be staying in the same house as her ex? Wouldn’t he have found a new woman after such a long time? ‘I thought you were going to France, actually.’
‘Oh, yes, I am. That’s next week. I’m not spending long with Victor. My sister has a house near Avignon, and I’ll probably need a shoulder to cry on. I did tell you I teach French, didn’t I? I haven’t been there for nearly twenty years, which is a dreadful thing to admit. I often feel an awful fraud, teaching it to children when I’ve barely been to the actual country. I haven’t been anywhere since …’ She looked sadly around her lovely garden. ‘I’ve been keeping busy here.’
‘So I see.’
‘It … I mean … I was quite ill for a long time. The shock and everything. I didn’t want to see people. It was all so humiliating. And now, with the cats, and the things … I couldn’t just leave it, you see. You do understand, don’t you?’
Thea made what she could of the garbled revelations. Yvonne had probably assumed that her marriage was permanent. Safe and solid and reliable, just as Thea’s own had been before her husband had been snatched from her one calm and cloudy day. The children raised, the finances secure, the habits established. And then the swine had pushed Yvonne Parker over a cliff and very probably replaced her with somebody else. As they did. At least, some of them did.
‘Yes, I understand,’ she said. ‘Trust me. Everything will be all right here. It’s only for two weeks. I’ll make sure the weeds don’t take over while you’re away.’
‘I expect he’ll claim to be short of money, as usual. He’ll say Belinda can afford to pay for her own wedding. If I had my way, we’d leave him out of it completely, but the children insist he should pull his weight.’
She was sounding more assertive, Thea noted, once she started to talk about her offspring. ‘Where does she live?’ she asked. ‘Your daughter, I mean.’
‘Wales. Her fiancé’s a farmer. It’s all very romantic.’ Her eyes went dreamy, and Thea tried to share the emotion, rather than imagining rainswept uplands and recalcitrant sheep. ‘It’s going to be a traditional village wedding, with everything home-made and authentic.’
‘Lovely,’ said Thea. ‘My daughter’s more likely to use a local registry office and a Manchester pub.’
‘Oh? Is she engaged?’
‘Actually no. She does have a boyfriend, but I don’t think marriage is on the cards at all. She’s very young.’
Yvonne’s worried frown was back, the crease between the blue eyes deepening. Despite the momentary flicker of something more substantial, Thea’s strongest impression was of a faded creature overwhelmed by life’s surprises, hair lifeless and clothes hanging shapelessly around her. Defeat and helplessness seeped out of her, making Thea want to take her in hand and brighten her life in some way.
‘You’ve done wonders in the garden,’ she said bracingly. ‘It must have been some consolation.’
The response was gratifying. ‘It saved my sanity,’ Yvonne said, with a wide-eyed smile. ‘Blake next door took pity on me and let me use some of his ground as well – do you see?’ She waved at an extra triangle of land, which began halfway down the adjacent garden and widened as it approached the road, leaving a modest wedge for Blake himself to tend. Seemingly he was not missing the donated area. His part was mainly a space for car parking, boasting little more than a small rowan tree rather too close to the house. The red berries were in full glory. Yvonne continued to explain. ‘We even had the fence moved. Mark says there’ll be the most dreadful legal complications if either of us ever wants to sell, but I don’t think there will. Blake’s very good. You’ll probably meet him later today. He’s called Blake Grossman and he lives here with his girlfriend.’
‘Right. And who’s Mark?’
‘My son. He’s always worrying about what’s legal. I’ve no idea where he got that from.’
It was Thea’s turn to glance at her watch. The spaniel was eyeing her impatiently, waiting for something to happen.
‘Oh, gosh, I must get on,’ cried Yvonne, noting the glance. ‘You’ll think I’m never going at this rate. It’ll take me ages to get there.’ She shivered. ‘I hate driving in London. I never know where I’m going. I ought to get a satnav thing, I suppose, but I could never manage to work it.’
Thea herself would have been hard-pressed to drive from Snowshill to Crouch End, so made no attempt to advise. She’d have been tempted to suggest the train, under the circumstances, but guessed there might be issues involving fear of crowds or panic over timetables.
‘So I ask Blake if I get into difficulties?’ she queried. ‘And I see there’s another house just over there.’ She nodded at a medium-sized building on the other side of the road and slightly further down the hill that led into the village centre. It had mature trees growing around it, and a wrought iron gate firmly closed across its drive.
‘That’s Janice and Ruby,’ said Yvonne distractedly. ‘I wouldn’t think you’ll see them. They’re not very sociable. What sort of difficulties?’ she asked with a frown.
‘Well … you know.’ Thea wished she’d had the sense to keep quiet. She did know better than to specify possible disasters, however. ‘Unforeseen events,’ she laughed. ‘Forget I said anything. It’ll all be absolutely fine.’
Finally, the green Peugeot set out, leaving Thea and Hepzibah to explore Hyacinth House in peace.
The house was old, with thick walls and low ceilings. The kitchen was small, with steps leading down to a shadowy dining room at the back of the house. Most of the ground floor was devoted to a rectangular living room which Yvonne had packed with furniture on which to display her ornaments. There was not a speck of dust to be seen. The glass and china figurines, jugs and plates jostled with all the other objects in deliberate patterns that slowly came into focus. Colours had been assembled together, so that blues were in one corner, greens in another, opposite the reds and pinks. It was an art gallery and a museum, a personal folly and a passionate collection. Thea wondered if Yvonne had started it all as a replacement for the errant husband – or had it contributed towards driving him away? What would happen if a careless move broke the arm off a shepherdess or the handle from a jug? Would Yvonne scream or cry or go into a sulk? And how, for heaven’s sake, was all this clutter consistent with the possession of two young cats?
The cats had a routine which Yvonne had described in detail. They had their own saggy armchair in the dining room, covered with a colourful blanket. They also had an elaborate climbing arrangement with platforms, a tunnel, scratching post and dangling toys. They could go in and out of the house at will, via a tiny scullery off the kitchen. But they were most definitely not permitted outside at night. The cat flap must be firmly locked, once Thea was sure they were both inside, when darkness fell. They were then confined to the kitchen until morning. A litter tray was provided, but was seldom used.
‘Their names are Julius and Jennings,’ Yvonne had said. ‘But they don’t really answer to them.’
‘They’re beautiful animals,’ Thea had said admiringly. One was a dark chocolate colour (‘That one is Jennings,’ said Yvonne) and the other a pale yellowy-grey. ‘Are they from the same litter?’
Thea had made no comment, hoping there would be no delayed reactions to the surgery, under her care. ‘I assume they’re never allowed in the living room?’ she asked.
‘One at a time is okay. They’re very careful, moving so delicately it’s like magic, but if they’re playing, things can get a bit rough. Are you happy with that? It does mean keeping the door shut all the time.’ Both women had eyed Thea’s dog and its long plumy tail.
‘That’s fine,’ said Thea heartily. ‘And Hepzie’s not tall enough to cause any trouble.’
If their roles had been reversed, she did not think she’d have agreed to the inclusion of a spaniel in the house-sitting deal. Dogs knocked things over – everybody knew that. But it was July, and with any luck they could spend almost all their time outside.
On the map, Snowshill had looked tiny, with a pub, phone box and the prominent National Trust manor. Contour lines suggested chaotic sweeping slopes and rises, and there was little evidence of woodland. Her previous house-sitting commission had been at Cranham, to the south, a rather untypical village containing numerous post-war bungalows, surrounded by dense woods. The contrast between the two was dramatic. There did not appear to be any houses in Snowshill under a century old. It was a very contained little settlement, with none of the straggle that had enlarged such places as Blockley and even Broad Campden. No major roads came within two or three miles, which Thea supposed made it more of an adventurous goal for many of the tourists who found their way to Snowshill Manor. Hyacinth House was to the south-west of the village centre, on a small road leading up to sudden wide expanses of cornfields. There was a patch of grass outside the gate, between the garden wall and the single-track road, with space for two or three cars. There was no garage, although Blake-next-door had found space for one on his side. A track ran at right angles to the road, passing Blake’s house, and giving him access to his garage. Yvonne’s front garden was adjacent to a small field which rose to a patch of trees. Beyond that was the village.