by Nicci Rae
There was blood in the gravy boat. That was the first thing that I noticed. Well, maybe not the first thing but certainly the thing that my mind kept returning to like some kind of a mental stutter. Blood in the gravy boat – in it, on it and all around it, blending in with the floral pattern on the tablecloth. Slowly – so unbearably slowly – I dragged my gaze from the boat and its grisly contents to the nine people seated at the table, some of whom stared back at me. Although they stared, they didn’t see and I wished with every fibre of my being that I could say the same. I also wished, wholeheartedly but in vain, that we’d never come here; not just to this house but to Cobham, to Surrey. It hadn’t been my idea, none of it, I had been perfectly happy in London – content in my work amidst the dirt and fumes of the Capital, a place where we never went to supper clubs, in fact we used to laugh about such things, and a place where you don’t leave the table to go to the ladies and come back to find everybody dead.
Of course I should have known that the supper clubs were inevitable, it really was only a matter of time after all. First it was the move from London to Cobham because, smug with his new-found success, Ed decided that it was the thing to do – it would give us room to breathe, he said, we’d have long walks in the fresh air, he said, lazy lunches in country pubs and still only be an hour away from the city. What he hadn’t considered (or cared about as he wasn’t the one making the commute) was that the unreliability of public transport meant freezing cold mornings standing on train platforms and a level of stress that not even his precious country air could dispel and so it wasn’t long until, with a magnanimous smile, Ed announced that I should leave my ‘little’ job in the city as, after all, he could more than afford to support us both now! I suppose at first this came from some vague idea that the time had arrived for children but, month after month, that didn’t happen and so I found myself increasingly restless, trying one stupid hobby after another whilst Ed worked on his next best bloody selling novel in his study. Then came the bonding in The Running Mare, the pub closest to our cottage and about as far from our local in Southgate as you could get. The ‘Mare was a hot and stuffy barn filled with cold and stuffy regulars, the ranks of whom Ed was determined to infiltrate and he set about this task with an intensity akin to Germany’s invasion of Poland. Once the frosty barriers of the Haverthwaites and the St-John’s had been breached, it was invitations to the Cricketers and to the latest Pop-Up that was the current talk of the town and then, finally, inevitably, the dreaded Supper Club. That was our first Surrey row which is quite impressive really considering – I got ‘A Cob on in Cobham’ Ed quipped at the time and I had laughed, blowing the tension from the room as I did and so, of course, I agreed; we would go to the Haverthwaite’s bloody Supper Club and Ed would owe me a night in London with a show and a swish hotel. I’d already bought the tickets.
That’s what I was thinking as my shocked gaze met Ed’s lifeless one; I’d already bought the tickets – we were going to see Book Of Mormon followed by dinner (definitely dinner, not supper) at Henry’s in Covent Garden then off to The Grosvenor for the night. It was an evening that had been on my mind for days and I’d reasoned that it was well worth the sacrifice of having to attend the horror event – after all, how bad could it really be?
A sudden movement made me jump and I gave a little shriek as Yvette St-John fell forward onto the table, her gaudy gold bangles clanking against her plate and pushing it sideways so that it sent her wine glass tumbling to the floor in a polite tinkle of shattered Waterford crystal. There was something I should be doing, I thought as I watched the remnants of Yvette’s wine puddle by the leg of her chair and then begin to spread. The police. That was it, I should phone the police, they’d know what to do about all this, they’d be able to…..
‘They’ll think it was you, Lainey,’ came Ed’s voice from inside my head and I laughed aloud in the full but empty room; that was absurd wasn’t it? As if they would think that I could do….well, do what exactly? I sat down in the seat that I’d occupied earlier, directly opposite Victor St John and I studied him closely, taking only a second or two to note the neat, almost bloodless hole in his forehead and the more devastating – and messy – one just above his collarbone. Gunshots. Would the police really think that I could be capable of not only getting hold of a gun from somewhere, but then using it to shoot and kill nine people? I picked a piece of pancetta from my plate and chewed it absently, not noticing the drop of blood at the end of it as my mind took a kind of mini-break from the scene in front of me. There was no sound in the room apart from the discreet notes of Mahler’s Symphony 5 coming from a pair of MP3 speakers in the corner but even that was too much and I got up to turn it off, careful not to step in the puddles of blood with my new fawn suede shoes bought specially for that evening and it was then that I noticed it and I turned slowly back to study Yvette more closely.
When Ed and I arrived at the house, an impossibly short hour ago, Yvette had been wearing a delicate yellow silk blouse which she smugly told me, unprompted, was by Stella McCartney and had cost the equivalent of a small mortgage. She had teamed the blouse with a too-tight pair of brown capri pants but now, as I stared at her, gone was the expression of smug entitlement, as were the blouse and capri pants. Now, to accompany the latest fashion of a gunshot wound to the head, Yvette was sporting a fitted pencil dress in a shade that hovered somewhere between lilac and purple. I wasn’t mistaken about Yvette’s previous outfit, just as I hadn’t been mistaken about the clear look of disapproval that Ed gave my simple shift dress as Yvette crowed over her expensively vulgar purchase and I surveyed each guest in turn, trying to remember how each had been attired before the advent of shooter chic. Impossible as it seemed, a quick glance around confirmed what I already knew to be true; gone were Nigel’s city-boy pink shirt and braces, as was Sebastian’s ludicrous plaid bow tie and I surveyed the scene again, believing what I saw but with no idea of what it meant. Was this some kind of elaborate practical joke? Had everybody frantically changed clothes the minute I left the room and then staged this scene? I dismissed this idea almost as soon as it formed – these people were not playing dead, there were no comically glazed expressions or tongues hanging out, this was honest to goodness, messy and distressing, take me to the morgue dead and I had no idea why. In my head I re-ran the last few minutes that I was in the dining room, scanning for anything that seemed odd or out of whack but I came up empty. Before leaving for the bathroom, I’d been having a perfectly innocuous (and perfectly boring) conversation with Nigel about the difficulty of finding good organic vegetables in Surrey and everything had seemed just as it should be, including me as I smiled and nodded politely as Nigel droned on about courgettes and quinoa. Just a quick glance confirmed that the large french windows in the room were closed tight and probably locked, which meant that an intruder would have exited the house through either the front door which, barring a small front garden, led straight out into the village square, the back door which opened onto the Haverthwaite’s capacious back garden or through the side door from the garage. Although more public, the front door was the most likely as I would have heard if the garage door had been opened and anybody entering the back garden would have set off a series of lights which would have been seen from the dining room. Yes, the front door was definitely the one he or she used to escape. Had I known at the time that the murderer was still in the house – and more so, had I known the identity, I believe it would have sent me spiralling into insanity but, for the time being, I chose to believe that whoever had done this terrible thing had slunk back out into the night having sated their thirst for murder.
‘Wait, what are you doing?’ I jumped at the sound of the voice which, despite the fact that she was still currently slumped over her amuse bouche, belonged to Yvette Haverthwaite. I stared at the dead woman and, for a moment, she seemed to flicker in and out of focus like a 1970s television set, one second wearing the outfit that she was sporting when we arrived and the next, a completely different ensemble and then she was back, still slumped on the table and still very dead but her words continued to circle my brain like a memory that stayed tantalisingly just out of reach.
‘You’ve got it wrong Lainey.’ This time, the voice was Ed’s, the unmistakable sneer in the tone designed to make me feel stupid, unsophisticated or both. Running from the room, I strode down the hallway, past the kitchen until I could see the front door – I had, I suppose, hoped to see the door standing wide open and, perhaps, some incriminatingly large and muddy footprints leading to and out of it but the door was smugly closed, the art deco tree next to it bearing a number of coats and scarves belonging to people who would never again have to worry about getting cold. Walking slowly back to the dining room, I thought again about phoning the police and, speaking out loud in the empty house, I practiced what I would tell them.
‘We arrived here for dinner at about seven – I went to the loo about seven thirty and when I came back they were all dead…..and the murderer was nowhere to be seen.’ Yep, the police would find that perfectly reasonable, no problem at all. As I reached the doorway to the dining room, I stopped dead and, for a moment could do nothing but gape stupidly through the opening. The old TV style flickering was back but this time it was all of them – every single person at the table was flickering in and out of focus, changing outfits as they went but then, even stranger, suddenly there were two Eds and two Yvettes; one set continued to slump at the table, impervious to the smell of burning that now began to waft through from the kitchen. The other set stood in the corner of the room, arms around each other but faces turned toward me, their mouths open with surprise. The image only lasted for a few seconds but it was imprinted on my brain thereafter. Ed and Yvette? Could it be true and, if it could, how could I possibly have missed it? I took a moment to reflect on the fact that, of all the thoughts and emotions that had assaulted me in the past half hour or so, grief for Ed had never featured. Whether it was from shock or from sheer horror, I couldn’t say but even in the extreme circumstances I found it odd that I had not yet considered the impact that the loss of Ed would have on my life – whatever my life from then on would be. Instead, my mind ran through all the times that Ed had gone out to meetings with his publisher, lunches with his agent and book signings in obscure bookshops around Surrey; had he really attended all those meetings or had I been completely cuckolded by the man that I’d shared my life with for nine years? Calmly walking to the Haverthwaite’s deluxe kitchen, I switched off the oven and stared sadly at the tray of guinea fowl which, had it not been burnt to a black gluey consistency, would no doubt have been delicious – and probably cost the equivalent of a month’s salary back at my old agency. Satisfied that, despite still not having the first clue as to what was going on, I’d at least prevented Yvette’s house burning to the ground, I retraced my steps to the dining room where the assembled diners were still slumped over the table. God, this party’s dead, I thought and let out a cackle which, even to my own ears sounded hysterical and scared. I knew I should be doing something but I couldn’t for the life of me think what. I couldn’t call the police – Dead Ed was right, they’d think it was me but, if I didn’t call them, someone else would – I vaguely remembered that Yvette had mentioned a cleaner who came in the mornings and I imagined the poor woman arriving to a bit more of a mess than stubborn limescale stains.
‘We’re in love, Lainey’. Dead Ed in my head again and I closed my eyes against the image of Ed and Yvette that obligingly popped back into my head. How long? That was the big question, how long had they been at it? Was it recent or was Ed popping round to Yvette while I was at home failing to have a career or babies or even a bloody hobby? I looked to Ed but he was no help, still slumped over with his cheek resting on his plate and so my gaze wandered to Yvette and the dress that she hadn’t been wearing an hour ago when she answered the door, all fake smile and fake tan. Slightly sickened, I was just about to look away when I noticed something and I moved closer to get a better look. What I’d seen was a wing – at least part of a dark wing with subtle red spots peeking out of the V neck of Yvette’s dress which was gaping forward, her finishing school posture all gone to hell as had, I fervently hoped, Yvette, and I gingerly reached out a hand and pulled the V of her dress open further still until it revealed the entirety of the tattoo; a small indigo and scarlet butterfly nestling on the outside of her left breast, a tattoo that I recognised immediately even though I’d never seen it as Yvette had told me about it two or three times in the last few months. The tattoo that shouldn’t have been there yet as Yvette was planning to have it done during her birthday weekend in London which was more than a month away. My head spinning, I circled the table, looking more closely at each deceased diner in turn in order to confirm the impossible; as well as all of them changing clothes, since my arrival at the house, Yvette had gotten a tattoo, Nigel had had a haircut and Michelle’s skin had the glow of a tan from a holiday in Cannes due to take place a week after the dinner party. This didn’t make any sense………or did it? The different clothes and the other impossible changes, the voices that sounded like memories but were, I began to realise, more like echoes from a time that didn’t yet exist. As my shocked brain gave up its insistence on the rational I was forced to accept what I was seeing; images and voices from events that were yet to happen. As though bringing acceptance, my mind accepted this to be fact and I looked down at myself to discover, with no real surprise, that my simple shift dress had morphed into a slightly smarter A line suede tunic and heels and these were accessorised by the gun which now dangled from my right hand. The murderer was still in the house after all. Reluctant as I was to believe it, the evidence was staring me in the face – literally – as I now saw that Johnny Foreman’s dead eyes were staring at the doorway, at the spot where I must have been standing as I began to shoot. Images began to flick rapidly through my mind like somebody shuffling a set of cards; Yvette and Ed spotted through the window of a local bistro, whispered words; “Does Lainey know”, a kiss in the dark, a letter found hidden in Ed’s desk drawer. The images came faster until they made a kind of story only, instead of time marching forward, the clock was being wound back until I began to recognise some of the scenes that were playing on the big screen in my mind; an evening at the ‘Mare with Yvette and Nigel, date night at a tapas bar in Richmond where I remembered that Ed had been preoccupied and distant, a series of mundane domestic scenes punctuated by nights in the pub and the occasional day or night out alone with Ed. The images began to slow as the past, future and present continued on their collision course until, with a kind of snap, the ethereal slideshow came to an abrupt stop and, opening my eyes, I found myself standing beside Ed on the doorstep of Yvette and Nigel’s home, holding out the flowers that I’d brought as Yvette answered the door in her expensive dress and ushered us into the dining room where the others were assembled, already drinking, smoking, chatting and generally being demonstrably alive. As we were seated at the table, I made the usual small talk with my neighbours, at one point discussing the difficulty of obtaining organic vegetables with Nigel and then, as starters were being finished, I excused myself to visit the little girl’s room. Once outside of the dining room, I turned left instead of right, confident that nobody would have noticed me leaving, let alone noticed which direction I took, and I headed for the front door, slipping quietly through it and onto the street. Walking quickly, I effortlessly put distance between myself and that house, not stopping when I reached the street on which I lived with Ed but continuing onward until I reached the train station. After buying a ticket, I had only five minutes to wait before the train bound for London rolled into the station and I climbed aboard without a single backward glance or regret and took a seat. My mobile phone rang several times as the train propelled me toward the city that I loved and, more specifically, toward the poky little studio flat that I still owned just off Finchley Road but I ignored it, intending to leave it on the train when I disembarked. As the train neared my station, I glanced up in time to see that we were passing a new apartment complex near Kilburn and I smiled as I read the banner which hung the full length of the building reading “If you lived here, you’d be home now.”