The April showers had been incessant in Eddleton. The wind moaned, structures creaking as rain hammered on the roof of the small parish church.
The vicar, a locum from Camberwell, South London, paused in her sermon. A rustle went through the congregation. It was interspersed with a few coughs and sneezes, a testament not only to the weather but also to the mysterious bout of flu that had recently swept the village.
From beneath her large hat - matching the rest of her attire, and the same pastel shade as the Queen had worn to Ascot, Hyacinth Bucket critically surveyed the church décor. It was, she thought, fortunate that she had taken over the Easter decorations committee. And even more fortunate that half the members had left, leaving her to say what went were.
For the church, musty from the recent rain, smelled and looked very pleasant – all a result of Hyacinth’s superlative flower arranging skills. There was only one inconsistency: on the altar, a jar of bluebells exploded in front of the vicar. And whilst Hyacinth had nothing – nothing at all – against bluebells in theory, their presence in place of her own elaborate arrangements was – well – frankly preposterous!
Hyacinth knew what had happened. That woman, Jane Brown, who knew the temporary vicar, had asserted her preferences. And now Hyacinth noted, with growing ire, that the flowers looked less than fresh. And a jam jar! The water was probably dirty.
Hyacinth let out a small ‘huff.’ Jane Brown. What an excruciatingly common name! That jar was probably all the woman could afford – but surely her status didn’t have to be flaunted in front of the whole congregation? Not when there were – Hyacinth adjusted her hat slightly – suitably affluent members present.
The vicar’s voice rang out from the pulpit, her ghastly cockney accent filling the church. Hyacinth bristled. She supposed she couldn’t really have expected more. But she did think it lamentable that standards should drop so much in the usual vicar’s absence. How disappointed he would be!
Never mind, she thought. She would inform him tomorrow night at the candlelight supper that she would never again let anyone but herself have control of the altar. It would make up for the jam jar. And also for his recent bout of flu, something from which the poor dear had, by all accounts, recovered - but not enough to be here today.
Beside Hyacinth, Richard shifted uncomfortably. The damp April weather was playing havoc with his rheumatism, and a dull headache throbbed at his temples. He hoped he was not coming down with this thing. Did the sermon have to be so insufferably long?
More depressing still was the expression on his wife’s face. Richard had followed her gaze to the bluebell jar and knew, with complete certainty, that he would be in for a lecture about it later.
But it could be worse, he surmised. At least she did not seem to be scanning the congregation for candidates of a sufficient standing for the candlelight supper tomorrow. But no – she wouldn’t be. Hyacinth did not know of his conversation with Onslow before the service.
Onslow had been at the hospital with Rose. “She’s not lookin’ too good, Dickie, and neither are half the folk what wound up with this lurgie. They say the major passed away about a half hour ago along with that Cynthia Parkes woman. And all what they said about the vicar only gettin’ a light dose, that’s bollocks! They don’t reckon he’s even goin’ to make it!”
Richard had heard that even the Smythe-Robinsons, Hyacinth's most honoured guests tomorrow, decadent ‘nobles’ - supposedly - from Upper Costington, had also contracted the strange ailment which seemed to be causing such horrible complications.
“Don’t say anything to Hyacinth,” he’d said. “She’s uptight enough as it is. I’ll have a word later.”
“Right you are!” Onslow had said, well knowing what he meant.
Nevertheless, Richard smiled to himself. Tomorrow night may have to be cancelled! Then he remanded himself. Heck - he should be sorry about their suffering - even if it did it alleviate him from hell. And he did still have to have that ‘word.’
There was a rustling in the congregation and the choir struck up the last hymn, the lyrics muffled by the ancient acoustics. It was something to do with ‘delivery from evil.’ Hyacinth burst into song beside him, her hat glinting in the lights from the church ceiling. Richard sang along, his voice inaudible beside his wife’s.
“Delivery from supper,” he whispered very quietly as the chorus came around again.
The vicar, in that unspeakable voice, was praising the bluebells! Jane Brown, plain beyond all imagining in a gingham dress with a brown cardigan, was sycophantically lapping it up. Hyacinth hovered in the background, fuming. The vicar hadn’t even noticed her! Just you wait until tomorrow night! Hyacinth thought.
It was a pity that neither the Major nor Cynthia Parkes were here. At least she could have engaged them in loud conversation, such that the vicar couldn’t fail to take notice. Well, the Major, too, when she told him tomorrow night, would be just as horrified by the jar. He would be absolutely supportive of removing the unworthy from the church committee – and the Smythe-Robinsons would, of course, agree. It would never happen in Upper Costington!
The Brown woman was now showing the vicar some horrible cheap bracelet! Hyacinth glanced around in exasperation – and caught sight of Richard hovering near the baptism font. His hands in his pockets, and he started idly across the church, looking but not seeing.
Oh how Hyacinth wished he wouldn’t make matters worse. Why did he have to dither like that? He looked... shabby. That jacket was far too old. And that hat! It looked ridiculous. Hyacinth made a mental note to make sure he obtained a new jacket for the supper tomorrow night, and most definitely didn’t wear the hat.
Hyacinth turned back to see that the vicar had finished talking. But instead of engaging Hyacinth in conversation she had turned away, and was now helping a carer from the local old peoples’ home to take somebody out of the side door in a wheelchair. Jane Brown trailed beside her, babbling aimlessly.
The nerve of it! Well that was it. Turning on her heel, Hyacinth stalked down the aisle, high heels clicking on the stone floor. Ignoring Richard, she swept out of the church.
The churchyard dripped, dank and gloomy. This wasn’t really the weather to be out and about, particularly with the mud and puddles one had to avoid, and particularly with the row of unsightly mounds from a number of seemingly new graves towards the back. But at least out here, Hyacinth was away from that frightful humiliation.
And even if the darkened heavens did promise more weather to come, at least the rain had abated and the wind had dropped. In fact, it was not too unpleasant. Spring flowers peeped around the gravestones, the intermittent chirp of birds punctuating the steady drip of water.
Yes - she would stay here for a while, and think about the supper. Richard would know to get the car and bring it to the gate back there. The Rover was a nice car, even if Richard had moaned about the cost. At least everyone would see it, including the vicar and Jane Brown, who - Hyacinth thought smugly - would probably have to walk home.
Then, driving back, they would plan the supper. Hyacinth would decide on the list of ingredients for Richard to get. Prawn Cocktails, boeuf bourguignon and sherry trifle – and the canapés of course. How impressed the guests would be!
The new graves caught Hyacinth’s eye. She felt just the slightest flicker of alarm. The vicar would be well enough to come tomorrow, wouldn’t he? And the Major’s absence today, surely he hadn’t gone down with it too? But no, Hyacinth decided. All her guests had the superior constitution which came with status. They didn’t get things like the flu. And if they did, they recovered immediately.
The vicar was saving himself for tomorrow and the Major probably couldn’t stand that dreadful replacement either.
Movement caught Hyacinth’s eye. She peered forward, catching at her hat as a gust of wind suddenly swept through the churchyard. The sky had darkened again, and the far end was gloomy and hard to make out. Yet Hyacinth could see, quite distinctly, a figure in black robes pacing between the graves.
At once, she felt silly. How could she NOT think the vicar would be all right! And although it was disappointing that he hadn’t come to the church, if only to admire her flowers, how sensible that he was out here for some fresh air.
“Yoohoo, Vicar!” Hyacinth called out, standing on tippytoes. But the figure kept pacing, staring straight ahead, skirting the new graves.
This was also disappointing. But then, he was a vicar! He was probably praying for the departed, attempting to save their souls. He was thoughtful like that. Still, was her candlelight supper not just as important? Hyacinth cupped her hands to her mouth “Oh VICAR!!!”
This time, the figure stopped, and turned. And now, Hyacinth saw that there were others there too, that she had not seen before. She frowned. Those tall, elegant forms looked like the Smythe-Robinsons; beside them, the military poise of the Major. What on Earth were they all doing down there?
But of course – it was obvious. The Major and the Smythe-Robinsons had gone to see the vicar and now they were talking about her supper! How wonderful that they looked forward to it so much.
The wind gusted again, and a few spots of rain fell. Hyacinth peered into the gloom to see the four figures motionless, their heads turned in her direction. Oh dear – they were probably planning some surprise she wasn’t meant to know about. Well it was a bit late now.
“Lovely for you to think of it, but you’d better get out of the rain, dears,” she called out. “There’ll be no candlelight supper or any of my Royal Worcester double-glazed Avignon china if you catch a chill!”
Why, even from here, the vicar looked frightfully pale.
Where the heck was Hyacinth now? Having fought off two unhappy members of the Women's Institute, trying to tell him that Hyacinth had bullied them on the committee, Richard had had enough. Bidding them polite goodbyes and promising to ‘have a quiet word,’ he headed for the car.
He might as well get in and wait. When Hyacinth emerged, she would expect it to be ready and waiting. It wasn’t worth the hassle of it not being. Especially seeing as how now it was spotting with rain.
But as he passed the gate, Richard was surprised to see his wife in the churchyard. “See you tomorrow!” she was calling out. “No need to bring anything. You’ll have sherry in my special crystal glasses and some very expensive claret!”
Richard followed her gaze. He could just make out some figures among the graves. They nodded, before turning away. Then they headed slowly off, disappearing into the belt of trees beyond. It seemed to Richard that they lumbered strangely, as though unsteady on their feet.
“How odd,” Richard muttered to himself. But, there was no time to think of it further. Hyacinth was in front of him, her handbag dangling from her arm. Spots of rain flecked her hat.
She looked at him reproachfully. “Richard, really! I thought you were going to get the car?”
Richard sighed. “I was just going to fetch it, Hyacinth,” he explained. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
Hyacinth cast him a look of great exasperation. “Richard, I do wish you wouldn’t just stand around when I’m socialising with out guests. It doesn’t give a good impression.”
But Richard wasn’t listening. His eyes had gone again to the back of the churchyard. He could have sworn two of those figures had looked like the Smythe-Robinsons, and that another wore robes. Although it really had been impossible to tell.
“Are you even listening to me …?”
But at that moment, the rain started in earnest, pattering on the gravel and the church behind, as in the distance there echoed a rumble of thunder. Richard grabbed Hyacinth’s hand. To his relief, she took it and they dashed for cover as sudden howling flurries swirled around the graves.
As they made their way along the eaves to the entrance, a crazy notion crossed his mind that this was somehow romantic, and that there was a time when Richard might even have pulled Hyacinth to a halt and kissed her. But as they reached the entrance, and under cover, the look on his wife’s face told him that that, or anything like it, was out of the question.
Not that it hadn’t been for a long, long time.
A now somewhat windblown Hyacinth regarded him reproachfully.
“Well don’t just stand there, Richard,” she said. “You know how important it is that I’m not seen like this!”
The next day ….
The windscreen wipers kept up a steady graunch as the Rover splashed its way home through rain-soaked suburbia. Richard made a mental note that he absolutely must replace the blades before Hyacinth required another trip to the country.
Thinking of his wife, he ran through the list – the third list of his third trip that day. Three bottles of vintage claret, more smoked salmon and caviar, the most expensive mustard he could find, flower-shaped chocolate dots, and whipped cream. Yes, that was everything.
Still, Richard sighed. The trouble was, the items were mainly from Sainsbury’s. The ‘speciality shops’ he had been so forcefully instructed to attend had been mostly closed. Little signs on the doors had said ‘owners unwell’, and the shops showed no signs of life. Except in one instance, where the door was curiously battered and scraped. It looked almost as though somebody had tried to kick and claw their way in.
Richard shivered. He most certainly would not be telling Hyacinth that! She had a dim enough view as it was about the ‘sort of types’ who had started invading the ‘nice’ end of Eddleton, so inappropriate when they had their place on the council estate.
But it was a bad one this flu, Richard thought; he turned the corner into Mead Street, noting how empty the streets seemed. At least, however, their guests for tonight seemed to be all right – and that was, in fact, a relief, given the ear bashing he’d gotten about the cockney vicar. He could only assume that Onslow had gotten the wrong end of the stick. Which was not really surprising. Onslow frequently did. He’d probably been drinking at the hospital.
The rain chose that moment to come down especially heavily. Richard peered into the pall. What was that ahead? Flashing lights? Vehicles? And what looked like – oh surely not in this weather - a house on fire, a fire engine and figures stumbling around. Then there were police barriers, an officer gesticulating. Richard pulled the Rover to a stop.
A road block. Oh how happy Richard was that Hyacinth was not in the car.
The officer was next to the car. Richard recognized the wet-weather-clad form of Constable Burns, the son of one of his former colleagues: a pleasant young man who dispelled Hyacinth’s opinion of the police as ‘inclined to be a little rough around the edges.’ Rain dripped from the rim of his helmet.
Richard wound the window down a crack. Burns smiled apologetically. “Sorry Mr Bucket,” he said. “We got a spot of trouble here. Road’s closed. But Awberry Avenue’s open.”
But Richard was staring again, as near the barrier a woman staggered, dressed in tattered clothes. For a moment he saw her face, pallid but distinctly familiar. “Isn’t that Cynthia Parkes?” Richard gasped.
He watched in amazement as two black-clad figures leapt from the shadows and hauled the woman away. She began to scream, a ghastly, chilling sound; and then – oh no, surely he could not be hearing this – a series of gunshots rang out in the distance.
Richard simply stared. But then he looked questioningly up at Burns.
The constable looked uncomfortable. “We got a few uh... problems,” he said. “Wit... some of the townsfolk. We had to call in the firearms unit. Believe me, Mr Bucket, it’s not something the police do lightly!”
“But I thought Cynthia was…” But then Richard remembered how Onslow had gotten it wrong about the others.
The young constable looked around, then leaned in close. “Between you an’ me Mr Bucket, there’s some strange stuff going on,” he said. “A lot of folks are s’posed to have died from this flu – but they haven’t, see? They’re out here causing havoc! We think its some kind of cover up, maybe one of those cults you read about, makin’ folks sick then abducting them. We’re just trying to round them up. Without too much – er – collateral damage.”
“But that was... gunfire!”
“Yes, well,” Burns shifted. “A few casualties have been unavoidable. I’d be obliged if you’d keep it to yourself, Mr Bucket!”
A few casualties. Houses on fire? People from the nice end of town, shot by a firearms unit?
Richard shuddered. “Oh I’ll be keeping it to myself all right,” he muttered, staring across at the lights, where he could see more stumbling forms and black clad figures. “I just hope whatever happens it’s either cleared up by morning or you keep that road block up,” he said. “I don’t even want to think about what’ll happen if my wife finds out about this.”
Elizabeth sat nervously in the kitchen as Hyacinth fussed around in the dining room. “We’ll use the Royal Doulton china in the sitting room for the canapés, along with the crystal glasses, but I’ve still got the Royal Worcester double-glazed Avignon plates out for supper,” she’d said. “The candelabras are a special edition. I think its best you stay here in the kitchen, dear.”
Although not to her tastes, both sitting and dining rooms did – Elizabeth had to admit – look rather good. All was perfectly in place. Flower arrangements and candles were everywhere, the velvet cushions plumped on the sitting room chairs, and a blue silk tablecloth, frilled placemats and impeccable cutlery adorned the dining table. The food, already cooked and in the special heated trolley, smelt not bad at all.
But the gleaming china and glassware was, as usual, terrifying. Elizabeth was only too happy to accept her ‘confinement.’ Heck! She’d already nearly had an accident with Hyacinth’s Venetian vase in the hallway, on account of it and its contents being placed prominently next to the silver cabinet, ’where the Smythe-Robinsons were bound to notice.’
The doorbell rang. Elizabeth jumped, nearly dropping the tea-filled Wedgewood cup. No, no. Not a breakage this early in the proceedings. She just managed to steady her hand enough to put it on the table.
Hyacinth bustled in and, peering into the kitchen mirror, put a few touches to her hair. Squinting, she adjusted the collar of her floral blouse. Then she looked Elizabeth up and down. “I think I’ll greet the guests too, dear!” she said. “That dress really has seen better days. It’s not a good look to be here without a husband.”
“When I get the vicar and the others settled in the lounge, I’ll call out and you can bring in the canapés, dear!” she trilled as she left the room.
Elizabeth relaxed again. At least she had a few more moments to think about how to cope with this evening. She looked down at her dress, straightening the skirt. It wasn’t that bad, just a little... old.
The pattern was quite pretty. Heck, why was she even thinking about it? Had she not expressly repeated into the mirror before coming here tonight “I will not let that woman get to me?” Oh how she wished Emmet could have been here for moral support! A brother would have substituted fine for a husband!
Disappointed, and now wishing she hadn’t come, Elizabeth stared at the smoked salmon offerings on the Wedgewood platter. However good the food next door smelled, these looked utterly unappetizing.
From the hallway, there came the sound of the front door opening, followed by Hyacinth’s dulcet tones. “Vicar! How lovely to see you! You’re the first to arrive. Do wipe your feet on my Harrods door mat and come in out of the cold!”
But instead of the vicar’s voice, there was a rather odd silence. This was followed by the sound of somebody coming in, except that this was also... strange. Heavy footsteps thudded on the parquet floor, and Elizabeth could hear rasping breaths, accompanied by grunts, and then a loud ca-thunk.
“Oh Vicar dear, I can see you’re still not very well,” Hyacinth cooed. “Never mind! My special sherry and caviar will soon make you better!”
Elizabeth clapped her hand over her mouth, unable to suppress a smirk. The vicar sounded - drunk! That noise – it sounded like he just fell into the wall. Well, why not? She giggled. The clergy were entitled to their fun, just like anyone else. Especially if it meant getting through a candlelight supper when one had been sick.
There were more heavy noises and grunts, and then a crash, and – Elizabeth gasped – the tinkle of breaking china. It sounded like the Venetian vase! And now she felt a rush of pity. Surely not even the vicar would avoid a severe telling off for that? Elizabeth rose from her seat. The vicar would need moral support, never mind what divine help he might receive.
“Make yourself comfortable on the genuine leather settee, vicar, next to the Oak coffee table. I’ll fetch the canapés!” Elizabeth peered around the door; just in time to see the edge of a robe swish into the sitting room. He was wearing his robes? To supper?
On the floor, broken fragments lay scattered, interspersed with the blooms Hyacinth had delicately plucked that morning. Elizabeth gaped at Hyacinth, noting the impossible. Hyacinth looked - shaken. “Are you all right?” Elizabeth whispered.
But in an instant, the well known look of stoic indignation returned. “Of course I am!” Hyacinth snapped.
Picking up the flowers, Hyacinth stuffed them into Elizabeth’s hands. “What’s a few breakages between a vicar and his favourite church committee member?” she said. “Dispose of these, would you, Elizabeth? And then if you wouldn’t mind – I think the dustpan and brush is on order. But use the nice pink set from the cupboard under the stairs!”
Hyacinth seemed to ignore the groans and other very un-vicarly noises which came from the sitting room. “Where on Earth is Richard?” she cried.
The recent installation of a second telephone in the bedroom was proving to be a godsend, far beyond the social implications associated with such an achievement. Richard hid in there with it now, talking to Onslow, pleased to have an excuse to be away from the usual namedropping and fawning associated with the guest greeting routine.
Although, with the noises coming from other parts of the house, it was obvious Elizabeth was in one of her super clumsy moods and that her services alone would not do for long.
“I just thought I ought to warn you, that’s all!” Onslow was saying. “You know our Rose has always had a thing for the vicar!”
Richard sighed. “Isn’t there anything you can do to stop her?” he asked. “I mean – she must be barely out of hospital.”
“Naa she’s a tough little sod.” Onslow said. “And she’s already on her way. You know our Rose.” He paused, as though awkward about what to say next. “I gotta admit, it’s not too good though, Dickie. She looks like death warmed up. And she’s been havin’ this weird fantasy. Reckons she didn’t make it, and now she’s …”
“Richard!” Hyacinth trilled. At the same time, the doorbell sounded, and Richard didn’t catch the last word.
“I gotta go!” he sighed, dismayed further. Constable Burns’ words echoed in his mind. It seemed obvious; Rose had gotten into this cult.
As if her appearance under normal circumstances was not bad enough. Let alone as part of that, with the vicar around and at a candlelight supper! He thought of the police firearms unit.
“Look – d’you think you could kind of - get her?” he said. “Maybe before she gets here. Before there’s any – you know – damage. I’ll make it up, I promise. Tell you what, I’ve got some beers in the cupboard. I could always sneak a couple out!”
Onslow chuckled. “Now yer talking,” he said. “I’ll do me best.”
The doorbell again. “RICHARD?”
Richard hung up. He could fill Onslow in on the rest of the details later. Looking to the heavens, he uttered a quick prayer in the hopeless hope that his brother-in-law would somehow do the impossible and solve everything. “Coming dear!” he called.
As he entered the hall, Elizabeth scurried past him, a china-filled dustpan in one hand, a brush in the other. Observing the absence of the Venetian vase, Richard gave her a sympathetic smile, just as Hyacinth came out of the kitchen, looking agitated - in the sort of way which never failed to herald a ‘trying’ supper. Even without the arrival of her relations.
“Richard don’t just stand there!” she said, indicating to the front door. “I need to attend to the vicar. Poor dear’s not the best. Though he’ll be fine when he’s had some sherry from the antique decanter in a Darlington Crystal glass!”
I wouldn’t count on it, Richard thought, shuffling to the door. Vaguely he was aware of Elizabeth coming back; he heard her gasp.
“Elizabeth?” Hyacinth’s voice rang out. “Fetch the sherry would you dear? Put it in the decanter – but be careful, it’s a hundred and sixty three years old!”
Fighting down the hysteria, Elizabeth fumbled with the sherry bottle. Why did Hyacinth have to choose this precise moment to give her a task like this? Oh if only she had never come here, let alone be entrusted with Hyacinth’s crystal. And oh if only, IF ONLY she had not caught a glimpse of the vicar on the couch through the half open sitting room door.
Yes – nerve wracking though the task was, even the horror of the decanter paled beside that image. Cavernous, dark-rimmed eyes had stared from a pale, deathly face, which was covered in horrid grey patches, as though a mould had settled. His hair, usually sleek and well groomed, stood up in dark, sticky tufts.
And even though the rest was partly hidden by the candle on the coffee table – which was helpful also in making sure she hadn’t seen his face too clearly – it had not escaped her that his robes were filthy and in tatters.
Those rasping breaths! There was something else too - a smell. It wasn’t healthy. Surely even Hyacinth must realize that there was something seriously wrong with the man? The poor dear. He should be at home, or back in the hospital, or anywhere but at one of her candlelight suppers.
And he had fixed Elizabeth with a look, his breaths sounding even more laboured as she scurried past Richard and into the kitchen. Richard, it appeared, hadn’t noticed him at all!
Still - Elizabeth took some deep breaths - there was no point in compounding matters further. She could hear the front door opening, and any minute now Hyacinth would call out some instruction about the other guests. She would wait for an opportune moment, and then pluck up the courage to tell Hyacinth what she thought. Fancy forcing the man to come here tonight!
Emmet would be proud of her. Opening the sherry, Elizabeth shakily poured the contents into the decanter. At times like this she wished she was a drinker herself.
Richard peered into the dim light of the porch. He was still not sure that he was seeing this right.
The Smythe-Robinsons seemed to be covered in mud! A dinner jacket hung limply on Mr Smythe-Robinson, and there was something around his scrawny neck which Richard took to be a bow tie. He seemed to have undergone a dramatic weight loss, as had his wife. She wore a scant ball gown, the tatty stole she clutched failing to enclose a lavish display of bosom which glimmered ghostly pale in the dim light.
Trying not to dwell on that part of his guest’s anatomy, Richard looked them up and down. He could not be sure, but there looked to be something wrong with their hands - like some of their fingers were missing! His gaze travelled up the dirty, ragged forms to their hair. It hung in dank, wet clods.
Richard squinted. He could not see clearly, but visible across Mr Smythe Robinson’s pallid face there seemed to be an ugly gash. His wife’s mouth seemed to be dripping. To his horror, Richard realized that the substance looked like blood.
The Smythe-Robinsons were never the most talkative, being a lot less impressed by Hyacinth’s Dalton and Wedgewood than she imagined. But usually they said something! Now, however, they just stood there, not uttering a sound.
Saints alive, they must have been in an accident! A sour, rotting type smell drifted into Richard’s nostrils. They must have been drinking – and then driven into a ditch!
Well never mind. Probably they needed hospital, but they were obviously well enough to walk here. All was not lost - Hyacinth could have the honour of ministering to their well-to-do damaged selves while Richard escaped to ring the emergency services.
“Er – won't you come in?” Richard ventured.
But the two dithered on the doorstep. There was a noise behind them and Richard saw then another figure lurking in the shadows. Richard strained his eyes into the darkness – just as the other figure moved and the porchlight caught his face. He gasped. It was the Major!
But if the Smythe Robinsons looked bad, then this man – well – it looked like half his face was missing! Bits of flesh hung from around his eyes and his nose was obviously broken. He had a gash which went right down the side of his head. Next to it, something dangled. Surely that wasn’t – an ear?
They stood there, wavering in the wan light; and in another shocking moment, Richard realized also the worst thing so far: that although they made rasping sounds, as of breathing, no vapour filled the night air. Richard’s mouth fell open. He only barely heard the crash behind him, the tinkle of glass and Elizabeth’s scream.
But then the three slowly moved forward. It broke Richard from his transfixation. “Oh no Elizabeth!” he heard Hyacinth cry. “My glasses! Why, it’s a miracle that decanter didn’t break, dear! Oh my – clear this up before our guests come in – and then perhaps you’d better go home!”
Richard opened his mouth. But no words came out. Then Hyacinth was beside him, and the three stopped again. Even she seemed taken aback - over and above the fluster inevitable after an Elizabeth-ism at a moment like this. But only for a moment. Her best fabricated, most cultured laugh issued forth.
“Major! Mr and Mrs Smythe-Robinson - what fabulous fancy dress! Such imaginative costumes. Do come in out of the cold!”
Hyacinth had to admit to being a little disappointed. She had never been one for fancy dress herself, and although she knew the Smythe-Robinsons were part of that set who did weird, rich, decadent type things, this new apparent trend of putting on very odd make-up and wearing dirty torn clothes showing private parts was rather disconcerting.
Still, Hyacinth surmised, it was pleasing that they found her company comfortable enough to behave as they would among their own kind. A sure sign that they considered her, Hyacinth Bucket, of that ilk. The vicar and the major were clearly quite comfortable. The least she could do was go along with it.
Especially after Richard’s embarrassing mistake about a car accident, and Elizabeth on the floor in the hall – even if they had all seemed to not even notice the mess she’d made.
It was, of course, unsettling that as they flopped inelegantly on the calf leather suite, they were leaving horribly dirty marks. But probably, they had servants to clean that up. The last thing Hyacinth should do was appear not able to afford such luxuries herself. And besides, she couldn’t really see them in the candlelight.
“Richard, I think the canapés might be in order – the ones on the Wedgewood platter!” she called out, noting that – rather disappointingly – none of them had touched their claret. If only Elizabeth hadn’t wasted all that sherry!
“I’ve got lots of Arlington crystal like that fine vintage wine is served in,” she explained to her guests. “And I must show you my whole Wedgewood collection later of course. It’s very expensive, so much so that I only bring it out on very special occasions! Now, vicar, as I was saying, we really need to discuss the flower arrangements in the church …”
But they seemed - preoccupied. The vicar had picked up the chintz candle holder from the coffee table and was staring at the flame, as though he’d never seen anything like it in his life. He held it close, then grunted as the flame actually touched his nose. He jerked back, and the candle snuffed out as it fell to the floor.
“Uuurrhhhh!” The vicar grunted, rocking to and fro. The Smythe-Robinsons rolled around, adding grunts and guffaws of their own. Hyacinth tittered, trying to hide the embarrassing fact that she really had no idea what was funny. “I’m afraid that candle holder’s not very religious, vicar,” she said.
Picking the candle off the carpet, she got up and made a point of adjusting the electric light dimmer just enough to compensate for the absence of the candle. “But like this specially installed lighting system, it’s probably very expensive. Richard picked it up from a special candle store last time he went to town!”
The vicar nodded, staring at the blankly at the empty holder. Meanwhile Hyacinth’s gaze shifted to the Major, who had gotten up and moved to the wall, where he gawped, unmoving, at a picture of the Queen and Prince Phillip.
“I’m glad you like that, Major!” Hyacinth trilled. “I always think the Prince looks so handsome in military dress!”
Richard reappeared. She noticed as he put the canapés on the table that he still wore that strange look, as though he were unhappy. Oh how she did wish he would just relax a bit. What was the matter now? Surely he couldn’t be that upset about the crystal? For once, it wasn’t even his fault.
“Hyacinth …?” he hissed.
“Go and check the drains again,” she whispered. “Or see if you can do something else about the smell.” If he was going to be like this, he really was better seeing to that. Even if he shouldn’t really have to. Plumbers these days! Perhaps she should ask the Smythe-Robinsons to recommend one. Even plumbers were bound to be of better quality in Upper Costington.
But the Smythe-Robinsons were busy again. They had picked up the canapé platter. Holding either end of the tray, grunts sounded as each struggled to wrest it off the other. Hyacinth could not disguise her delight. How pleasing that they appreciated the Wedgewood!
“You know, I do believe Princess Anne has a platter the same!” she trilled. “But do have a canapé. Though it is hard to decide between the salmon and caviar, I agree!”
The tussle went on. Mrs Smythe-Robinson won. Holding the tray in one hand, she picked up a smoked salmon puff and stared at it. “Fresh baked today!” Hyacinth said. “In my electric fan oven with the special time regulator!”
But instead of eating it, the woman let out a shrieking laugh. Then, bringing her hand back, she lunged forward, planting it in her husband’s eye. The rest of the canapés fell to the carpet as the platter fell from her hand.
“Whoops!” Hyacinth dived, catching it just in time. Oh dear. That was more like something Elizabeth would have done. But no, this was her honoured guests having their fun – just like they did in Upper Costington, no doubt. She must be - forgiving. She put the platter down – carefully, and out of harm’s way.
Mr Smythe-Robinson’s eye was full of pastry. Bits of salmon slid down his face, and Hyacinth observed distastefully that it ruined the makeup, leaving an ugly black smear. “Urrrrggghhh!” He flailed his arms, making muffled sounds.
Obviously, however, this was all part of the ‘act,’ as the vicar, looking up, dropped the candle-holder and guffawed loudly. Picking up his glass of claret, he emptied it all over Mrs Smythe-Robinson’s head before flinging it on the table. It smashed with a resounding tinkle.
Wild laughter broke out, followed by a steady banging as the Major began to smash his head repeatedly into the picture. The glass split with a loud crack and it crashed to the ground. Everyone roared. Hyacinth’s mouth fell open as the major grabbed another picture from the wall and hurled it at the vicar, howling when it careened into his head, leaving a gash.
And now they were all grabbing objects and hurling them. Cushions, coasters, canapés, and ornaments flew across the room, followed by thuds and crashes. Hyacinth stood up, retrieving the Wedgewood and clutching it.
She had little doubt what must be, now. Her guests had obviously indulged in some expensive Upper Costington type alcohol before they got here. And that was their prerogative - it was probably of a very fine vintage, and undoubtedly explained why they did not want the claret - but this really was a bit much. Even if the best china was in the dining room.
“Richard!” she called, ducking a chintz bowl-missile. “I think perhaps we should move to the dining room soon!” Some food inside them - her peeled prawns and boeuf bourguignon no less - would surely make a difference. And they’d settle down when they how good the Royal Worcester double-glazed Avignon was.
But movement outside caught Hyacinth’s eye. She gasped. Messy though the sitting room was becoming, nothing was as appalling as the sight outside, where a skinny blonde high-heeled figure was hurrying up the front path.
Worse still, an embarrassingly familiar ancient Cortina drew up alongside the front fence under the street light, backfiring with a loud bang. Hyacinth looked on in horror as two even more familiar figures emerged, one in – oh no, Onslow couldn’t be, surely not now – in his undervest!
And now her brother in law was also lumbering up the path, Daisy scurrying beside him. “I need to be excused for a moment!” Hyacinth exclaimed, getting up just as Richard reappeared, gawping at the scene.
“Hyacinth …” he began.
Well don’t just stand there!” Hyacinth trilled. “Get rid of them!” She jerked her head towards the front door.
“I want the vicar!” Rose howled. “I have to have him! We’re both dead now see! There’s no reason ever now why we can’t be together. Forever!”
“You can’t come in, we’re in the middle of something important!” Richard blocked the doorway. “Believe me,” he lowered his voice. “You don’t want to come in!”
He was having trouble, at that moment, even remotely coming to terms with the scene inside. And worse, one look at Rose’s ghastly pallid face and he knew that whatever had happened to her had happened to the others as well. Letting her in would make matters ten times worse.
Folks are s’posed to have died, but they haven’t … Constable Burns words came back. But now, even though he had never believed in anything even remotely supernatural, and had never cared for horror films, Richard seriously entertained the thought that the police really had gotten it wrong.
“Lemme in!” Rose was struggling in Onslow’s grasp. She bared her teeth, never good at the best of times but now horrible, black and jagged. Then she lunged sideways, trying to bite him. But Onslow tightened his grip. “No ya don’t!” he said.
“Fiend” Rose yelled. “Destroyer of true love! Well the vicar doesn’t care, and neither do I! In death we shall be beautiful together!”
Daisy’s hands twisted wretchedly. “Stop saying that!” She looked helplessly at Richard.
“Why? I am dead!” yelled Rose. “I’m coming for you, vicar!”
From the sitting room came loud crashes and tinkles. Shrieks of blood-curdling laughter rang out. There was a bang, and Richard whipped around to see the sitting room door fly half off its hinges.
He saw, for a instant, the extraordinary sight of Hyacinth trying to block the opening. But the next moment his wife shot backwards, crashing straight into the cabinet, the one especially positioned to show off the silver. Glass, objets d’art and teaspoons rained down. The vicar appeared in the doorway, guffawing maniacally.
The things happened fast. Hyacinth got to her hands and knees and Richard lunged to her aid. At the same time, there was a loud “OW!” from Onslow, and Richard was nearly bowled over by Rose pushing past him.
She grabbed the vicar as she stumbled through, and they both crashed down further along the hall. Rose shrieked, her legs wrapping around him as in the doorway appeared what had once been Mrs Smythe-Robinson.
The other zombie tripped and fell on to Hyacinth, grabbing at the wall as she went, clawing gauges in the chintz wallpaper. Hissing and laughing, the ballgown half torn from her hideous rotting torso, she sprawled on top of Richard’s wife, hissing sounds issuing forth.
Rotten fingers clawed. Where there should have been eyes, caverns stared. Dark blood oozed from a hideous mouth to land on the collar of the floral blouse.
“Richard!” Hyacinth reached out her hand, revealing a torn sleeve and bloodied arm. And perhaps a worse sight even than his wife flattened under the hideous abomination was Hyacinth’s face.
There was an awfulness about that face, in which he saw more than an inkling, a horror that all the efforts of today had somehow been wasted. That time Richard had thought of Hyacinth at the church, when things were not as they were now, came back to him with vivid clarity. And he would not have believed how sad that made him. Or how angry.
Richard lunged forward, intending to throw off the Smythe- Robinson thing, to save his wife who despite all did not deserve this, no matter how much of a monster she could be herself. But then he was being grabbed on both sides by a hideous strength, stench filling his nostrils as dead lungs rasped and grated.
He recognized the sitting room door, hanging from its hinges as he passed through the opening . Then his own living breath was knocked from him as he was hurled down. He crashed on to the coffee table, landing flat on his back.
“Urrrggghhhh!” Above, he could see the blackened forms of the Major and Mr Smythe -Robinson. They seemed to be going into spasms. They vibrated impossibly, revoltingly, as froth and filth came out of their mouths and bits fell off them. Richard watched in horrible fascination as the major’s arm came adrift, crashing on to the table beside him. Meanwhile an eyeball fell out, landing on Richard’s chest with a squishing sound.
“Yrllgghh!” Richard flailed, tried to brush it off. But the two zombies were above him, their teeth bared. “Be one of us!” the Major thing rasped, and his rotting, dead face loomed closer. Richard had only a split second to wonder at the fact that apparently the un-dead could talk after all; before a hand punched into the face and the head... disappeared.
“Oh no ya definitely don’t!” Onslow’s voice said, as the window shattered. “Won’t do to have two of us get bit. Besides, I never got me beer!”
This couldn’t be happening. It must have been a bad dream, and Hyacinth would wake up. Surely that cold, horrible damp weight couldn’t be Mrs Smyth Robinson? And surely those noises - those unspeakable hissing noises - weren’t coming from a resident of Upper Costington?
A searing pain ripped through her shoulders as icy hands gripped. Hyacinth cringed with dismay. It wasn’t just the pain. There were spoons and broken china all over the floor. Her beautiful blouse would be utterly ruined, and they never even had a mouthful of boeuf bourguignon!
And surely those other noises didn’t mean that Rose and the Vicar were doing – well – what it sounded like they were doing. Right here on her parquet floor!
Richard was here a moment ago, but now he seemed to have gone. How could he, at a time like this? Hyacinth tried to pull herself forward. It was time to regain some dignity. She refused to believe there had not been some unfortunate misunderstanding. And even if there hadn’t, there was no need not to behave like the lady of the house!
A grubby hand extended. “C’mon Hyacinth!” Was that Onslow up there? Oh no. Somehow Hyacinth could not get it out of her head that had they not shown up there would have been far more decorum, that they would have been enjoying their prawn cocktails by now. And she most certainly did not have to accept help in front of the aristocracy from a man wearing only an undervest.
“I’ll be perfectly all right!” she snapped.
She heard noises from the sitting room, a crash and more of that horrible laughter. Then her sister Daisy’s voice. “Onslow! Help Richard!”
And then Onslow was gone, and Daisy was there. “Daisy if you could just tidy up the hallway …” Hyacinth went to try and get up. She must try and restore some order to the situation! But instead, she found herself squashed flat again. “Mine!” said a hideous rasping voice.
“Take that, you dead bitch!” Daisy’s foot came flying in her direction, but it went over the top of her head. A loud squidge sounded as it evidently made contact with Mrs Smythe-Robinson, and then the weight was off her. Multiple screeches and yells sounded as Mrs Smythe-Robinson must have landed on Rose and the Vicar.
“M’sister Daisy kicked one of my candle-light supper guests in the head …?” But then Onslow was back, and Richard was there, and Hyacinth was being dragged up, and towards the front door.
Mrs Smythe Robinson’s back spit, oozing a foul, greenish sludge. There were crunching sounds, and then limbs were detaching, tattered stumps of bone waving above feet and bits and glass which coated the now horribly stained floorboards. A hand skittered across the floor and came to rest near the kitchen door.
The last thing Hyacinth saw was the headless body of the major fall through the door. It crashed on to the others, just as flashing lights illuminated the grizzly scene, and the shrill wail of sirens filled the night air.
“When I saw those three at the door and the vicar before that, I just knew something was wrong!” Elizabeth was saying. “Then there were all these terrible noises. I didn’t know what else to do!”
“You did the right thing,” Constable Burns reassured her. We know what we’re dealing with now. Believe me, there’s no other way. At least this time we got them all inside. Well – in a manner of speakin’!” he looked at the small piece of tarp on the front lawn which covered the Major’s now decomposed head.
Hyacinth pulled the blanket Elizabeth had given her around her shoulders. She looked at her reproachfully. Evidently she had changed into a night garment after going home. She might have taken time to change back into some decent clothes before calling the police. But for that fact, Hyacinth would have thanked her. As it was, she couldn’t quite bring herself to do so.
Disdainfully ignoring the tarp-covered object, she looked instead at the trail of smoke coming through the sitting room window. “Flame throwers!” she muttered. “All my nice furniture and fine china!”
“Eh, don’t get yer knickers in a knot, Hyacinth!” It was Onslow, and Hyacinth saw that he had a beer in his hand, which was bound in a bandage. How could the man drink at a time like this! Still, at least - for once - he had a shirt on now. Just for that she would ignore the other utterly uncouth reference.
“Fire brigade stopped any serious damage. Front of the ‘ouse is a bit of a mess, granted, but back’s fine, and insurance’ll fix up the rest. Hey …” he grinned toothily. “Y’know there’s a spot at our place until it’s all done. We got a spare room now!”
A sobbing came from beside them and Hyacinth turned to see Richard with his arm around Daisy. Hyacinth huffed. It wasn’t that she didn’t feel sad, too, but somebody had to keep the family side up, not break down in a miserable mess in public. Besides, at the moment it was all still too much of a shock.
She did not dignify Onslow’s offer with a proper reply, however. How could the man even consider such a proposition? “I’d be obliged if you’d not be so callous, Onslow!” was all she said.
There was a hand on her arm. “Would you like some tea, or something to eat?” Elizabeth was beside her. Hyacinth’s stomach gave a rather undignified rumble. And it was only then that she realized that indeed, she had not had a morsel all day.
“Right enough, Mrs Bucket. Rain’s about to come down again. We’d best move along.” It was the constable’s voice.
“It’s Bouquet …” she said reproachfully.
The rain began to fall softly again. The others started to move towards Elizabeth’s house, Richard helping Daisy, Onslow moving to put his other arm around her. But Hyacinth had an idea. She did a quick headcount.
“Wait!” she commanded. And she was rather pleased when all stopped in their tracks and heads turned towards her. Pulling herself up, she addressed Onslow. “Was I not correct in hearing, Onslow, that the dining room is intact?”
Onslow shrugged. “Pretty much!” he said.
“Then in that case, there are seven places set in my dining room for a delightful candlelight supper!” Hyacinth said. “And since there are seven of us, it seems a frightful shame to let a perfectly good boeuf bourguignon go to waste!”
She was forced to admit, on reflection, that Onslow and Daisy had saved her from a most unsavoury predicament. Just this once even they deserved some fine china.