The day before I left university for good, a chorus of squabbling sparrows outside my Roehampton flat woke me around dawn on that Sunday morning. I rolled onto my side, curling up into the foetal position as a wave of nausea flooded over me. An uneasy feeling lodged in the pit of my stomach.
There was no reason for me to feel anxious because I’d had things to celebrate. I’d submitted my Dissertation, a play called Leading Lights, about local amateur dramatic society. Unashamedly inspired by DADS (the Didsbrook Amateur Dramatic Society), of course, but the characters were unique. Created from the pandemonium swirling around in my imagination, although, I confess, I imagined myself playing the lead while writing it; which I suppose shows a narcissistic streak. I had posted a copy of it on a USB stick for Jocelyn to read, but she hadn’t got back to me. There had been no need for her to do so, I was looking forward to discussing it with her, face to face.
The second cause for celebration was that the London-based magazine Review U.K. had offered me a job, starting at the beginning of September. The third excuse I had for letting my hair down was, taking time out. I had made plans to go backpacking around Europe with my best friend, Evie, which we thought would take our minds off the nerve-wracking wait for the results of our degrees.
So, I hadn’t held back on the celebration front the night before, which had culminated in drinking shots at the Revolution in Putney. So, I assumed the uneasy feeling I had was something to do with my hangover from hell. I was already packed and ready to go home to Didsbrook the following day. So, after a few involuntary groans, I turned over, pulled the duvet over my head and slept off my katzenjammer.
While I was sleeping, the watery early morning spring sunshine poured through the mullioned window of the east-facing master bedroom at Didsbrook Manor. The window was slightly ajar, and the heavy damask curtains flapped lethargically against its frame. The room was flooded with the sound of pealing bells from the belfry of Didsbrook Church, calling its flock to Sunday matins.
Jocelyn lay propped up in her four-poster bed cocooned in a v-shaped pillow. Iridescent in a pink monogrammed bed-jacket, her eyes closed, and her laptop balanced on a bed tray table in front of her. She had typed furiously throughout Saturday night and into the early hours of Sunday morning. Nothing unusual for a multi-published author.
‘I write when the muse takes me, day or night. I just let it lead me, and the words flow.’ She always used to say.
Fellow art aficionada, Edna Fowler, was someone who liked to be in charge. It was in her DNA. She may well have aspired to step into both Jocelyn’s theatrical and literary shoes. Still, it was very fortunate she and her husband, George, decided to walk to church that morning, as their route took them past the Manor.
‘I wonder if dear Joc is going to church today? It would do her such a lot of good to get out and about.’
‘Why don’t you go and ask her if she would like to walk with us, my little plum pudding?’
‘Oh, George, dearest, such an inspired idea. Wait here, I’ll go and ask.’
Edna strode across the sweeping gravelled drive and up the flagstone steps to the front door flanked by an impressive pair of six-foot standing lions. She banged the gothic cast iron door knocker against the solid raised panel front door, which was slightly ajar. Didsbrookians never felt the need to lock their doors, so it never crossed Edna’s mind to think there was anything untoward about the door being open. Jocelyn was also an avid gardener, so she could be out pruning or potting, or indulging her passion for equines and riding around the estate.
Edna went inside and closed the door, as George took the opportunity to light up a cheeky Cuban cigarillo.
‘Joc? Where are you, darling? George and I wondered if you were going to church today. If so, would you like to walk with us?’
She had expected Jocelyn to respond along the lines of, ‘I’m in my boudoir, my darling. I’ll be down in two ticks.’ But there was silence, broken by the sound of an agitated Mimi, scampering down the impressive oak staircase her claws clattering against the wood. She jumped up on Edna’s ample thigh, snagging her tights through the material of her dress.
‘Naughty girl, Mimi, you shouldn’t jump up. You never jump up. Where’s your mother? She should think about getting your nails cut.’ Mimi responded by snatching Edna’s handbag out of her hand and running back up the stairs. She stopped halfway up, dropping Edna’s bag and started barking.
‘Mimi! What is the matter with you today?’ Edna puffed her way towards the staircase and grabbing on to the baronial bannister, she heaved her fourteen stones up the stairs. She was almost in touching distance of the rebellious Mimi, when she snapped her jaws around the handbag again, turned and raced up the stairs into Jocelyn’s bedroom.
‘Yoo-hoo, Joc, I’m coming up. Your naughty furry friend has stolen my handbag. I hope you’re decent, darling because I’m coming in!’ As Edna walked into the bedroom, Mimi was on the bed fussing over Jocelyn.
‘Oh, my darling, I’m so sorry! You’re normally up with the lark; I hope we haven’t woken you up?’ Edna walked around the bed to get a closer look, as Mimi watched her with a soulful, pleading stare.
‘Joc… darling? Are you all right? You look very pale.’ Jocelyn’s mouth hung open a little, and a dribble of saliva had dried in the corner of her mouth. Edna’s heart started to pound as she instinctively reached out to touch Jocelyn’s left hand lying limply at her side. Cool to the touch, it confirmed what Edna had already dared to suspect.
‘Oh, my dear God, no!’ She snatched her hand away and crumpled to her knees as Mimi tipped her head back and unleashed a wolfish yowl. Overdubbed with Edna’s mezzo-soprano scream, it produced an eerie, blood-chilling lament, prompting George to stamp on his Cohiba and rush inside.