The cottage where Sally’s mom lived was more modern than Allison expected. It wasn’t leaky or poorly insulated like her freezing cottage back home, but somehow lacked its warmth. It had been built this century, and the whole back of the house seemed to have been tacked on later. The fence around the pristine back garden was clearly new, as well. When she and Sally hung their coats on a rack by the door and carefully lined up their shoes on a rubber mat, Allison could hear Sophie tinkering around in the kitchen. While Sally gave her a tour, Allison kept straining to hear and smell lunch being made, but she could identify nary a truffle or sausage roll. The house smelled clean, almost like industrial cleaner. It looked as though it had been deep- cleaned this morning, in fact. There was no wear and tear, no dust, no clutter, no evidence that someone lived here, and that that someone had been suddenly hauled from her home by the police earlier that same day.
In the formal living room, Sally stopped at a low table of photographs, each in polished ornate silver frames and selected one toward the back and lifted it out of its place so Allison could see. In it, younger versions of Sally and Sophie stood with a man on the front steps of this house, Sophie holding the “sold” real estate sign and grinning brightly. The man had his arm around Sally and seemed to be grimacing.
“Tha’s my dad,” Sally said, quietly. “He never did like this house. He didn’t want to move from London. Had himself a right little kingdom of mates there.” Dropping her voice even more, she craned her head around to see where her mum was, and added, “And dames.” She set the photo back down and moved on. Allison lingered, noticing that the rest of the photos were of Sophie and Sally, and other relatives who favored them, possibly Sally’s cousins and aunts and uncles. As they toured the rest of the immaculate home, Allison noticed more hanging photographs of loved ones, but none of Sally’s dad. The only evidence he had once lived here was the small family photo at the back of the table. Interesting. One might expect a worried, grieving woman would have a shrine to her missing husband, but this missing husband was altogether missing from the décor.
“Girls, come have tea,” Sophie called from the kitchen. The room was muted yellow and smelled of toast. On the small kitchen table, she had set out clearly store-bought toast and jam with their mugs of tea, and Allison wilted a little. Not that she wouldn’t eat it, but she had held out hope for something exotic and gourmet. Fancy cheeses, or at the least, homemade bread and jelly. As she sat down on the stiff white wooden chair, she wondered if chefs stopped cooking after they retired, like athletes who stopped all their training, or teachers who wrote books, not about their area of expertise, but about loony things like…murders in an English countryside. Allison glumly ate her toast.
As they sipped tea and crunched toast, Sally coaxed Sophie into talking about her flowers. Allison turned in her chair to see out the large sliding glass door that led to the patio and garden. There was no apparent dog-sized pile of dirt that looked like a freshly dug grave, but it was clear that a lot of work went into the beds and paths, the perfect lawn and hedges. All the flowering plants were covered with burlap against the cold and the whole thing looked like a brown bagged sculpture garden. Sally was attempting to paint a picture of what it looked like in all its spring glory.
“Yeah, she’s got violets and orchids. What else?”
“Wild strawberries,” said Sophie.
“Oh, yes! You tamed those, didn’t you? Never seen strawberries fall in order so obediently. And how many, mum? Seven? She’s got seven different colors of roses!” Sophie nodded, beaming, as Allison went on. “Won’t hire anyone to help. Says she doesn’t trust anyone else.”
“I just find that people aren’t as conscientious as I would like,” Sophie sighed, standing, and walking to a low cupboard to the side of the kitchen and pouring herself a small glass of dark red wine from a crystal decanter. As with everything in the home, the set of glassware, the tray, and the cupboard were all perfectly polished. “It really started to get at me when I was still working in the kitchen. People are sloppy. No care for their work, for their homes, for themselves. For their pets!” At this, she narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips. Allison followed her gaze into the backyard, presumably toward the Johnsons’ house and the ghost of the hated dog. “Port, dears?”
Allison declined and while Sophie poured a glass for Sally, she looked down and saw she’d dropped toast crumbs all over her shirt. She considered flicking them off but feared making a mess on Sophie’s spotless rug, so she hunched over and inconspicuously picked them off. When the other women were preoccupied, she popped them back into her mouth. She was dying to ask more about Sally’s dad. They’d been talking flowers for too long. She decided to use the restaurant as a segue.
“So, you and Mr. Brown lived in London for a long time?”
“Yes,” Sophie said, as she sat back down. “Let’s see. Stan and I bought our flat in nineteen seventy…three? Seventy-four?”
Allison noted dully that the family consisted of “Sophie,” “Stan,” and their only child, “Sally.” Sigh. Why do people like this breed? Sophie was talking about the London food scene through the eighties and how much it had changed recently, how eventually they were forced out of their space as interest in fine food went down and rent went up.
“People these days go out in jeans and they consider chips with Hellmann’s a delicacy. No one wants formal dining anymore, formal life.” She sniffed and drank her port, apparently done with that topic.
Allison tried again, “Well, the country seems to suit you, but I imagine it gets lonely in this house all by yourself?”
“Well, this is certainly not how I imagined my golden years. I do love my garden, but I wish my daughter lived closer.”
Sally rolled her eyes playfully. “Mum, I’m no more than an hour. Think of Allison’s mum. Her girl is halfway across the world!”
Allison laughed and spotted another opportunity to probe. “Oh, my mom doesn’t mind. She and my dad travel all the time now that they’re retired. They’re going to spend a week here around the holidays with my wife and I, and then they’re going to explore the rest of Europe, as well. Do you and Stan like to travel?”
“Oh, you have a wife then?” Sophie asked, ignoring the question, and cocking her head toward Allison. “Cheers. I’ve always wanted a nice lesbian friend.” As she slathered butter onto her toast she said, pleasantly, “Sally, you should really consider getting yourself one.”
“A lesbian friend?” Sally asked. “I think we have the same one.”
“No, dear,” Sophie said. “A wife. You’re too old for babies now, so no need for the sperms.”
Allison set her toast down. Sally choked on her tea.
“You might as well find a nice woman to share the load of the bakery,” Sophie said. “And just avoid the drama of life with a man altogether. They’re really too much trouble.”
“MUM,” Sally hollered after she finally was able to swallow. “That’s not how any of this works.”
“Fine, fine,” Sophie said, sipping her tea. “Don’t take my word for it. Just keep on dating the plonkers and prats you usually date then. I just don’t want you to make the same mistakes I did. Men will just break your heart.” She got back up and shuffled over to the decanter, refilling her own glass, and ignoring Sally’s.
Allison wanted to smooth things out between them and get them back on topic. “It’s been an eventful few years, though, right? A hard time to find a good mate for Sally, with opening the bakery and her…dad disappearing, and everything.”
“Now that is true,” said Sophie, again patting Sally’s hand, that rested on the table. “It’s been a difficult time. He may have been a plug-ugly skiver, but I know him not being here is hard on you.”
“MO-THER!” Sally yelled again. “Tha’s my dad you’re talking about.”
The three of them sat silently, staring into their teacups. Sophie hiccupped delicately, and put her napkin to her lip. Allison wondered if she’d gone too far in trying to get them to talk about the missing Stan, but if she was going to satisfy her curiosity at all, now was the time. It was feeling like their visit may be wrapping. She asked, “Any idea where he’s gone? Stan? Or when he’ll come back?”
Sally and Sophie glanced at each other and then away. Allison wasn’t sure what that weighted look meant. Did they know something about where he was? Did they want him back at all? What the hell was a plug-ugly skiver? It wasn’t a good thing; she knew that much.
Finally, Sally said quietly, “Mum thinks maybe he took off with another woman and is living abroad somewhere.”
“Abroad with a broad,” Sophie said, nodding. “Man always was like a dog with two dicks.” She sighed and stiffly pulled herself to her feet, clearing the dishes from the table. “When we retired and scattered from London, I thought he’d finally focus on proper old men hobbies like whittling or gardening…or me.” With her back to them, she looked out the kitchen window into the garden and sniffed again.
“I’m sorry about all this,” Sally said, leaning in to Allison and speaking in a low voice. “We should probably get back. Joan should be home by now, yeah?”
Allison pulled her phone out of her pocket and saw that it was after six o’clock and that Joan had been texting. While she sent emoji responses to pictures of Sir Benjamin and Joan playing outside in the drizzle, Allison realized that this was the longest she’d gone without compulsively checking her phone in ages. The toast was dry, there was too much talk of flowers and not enough of mysterious disappearances, but overall, this was the most pleasurable day she’d had since she moved to England. She hated for it to end.
She whispered to Sally, “Do you really think you can leave your mom like this? She seems distressed, and it’s still unclear what will happen with the police. Do you want to stay? I could come back and get you tomorrow, or even stay just one night with you here?”
Sally tilted her head, thinking, and got up to take the rest of the dishes to the sink. In the kitchen, Sophie was draining her glass of port and pouring herself the remainder of what was in the decanter. Sally gently took her elbow.
“What do you think, mum? Should Allison and I stay with you tonight? We could run to the grocer’s and whip you up a proper steak and kidney pie. I know that always makes you feel better.”
While Sophie fussed about Sal’s Bakery being closed for another day, Allison wondered if she’d made a terrible mistake. Maybe the grocer’s would be out of kidney?
“That would be lovely,” Sophie finally said. “Do get some port, too. I would really like to have a glass or two in front of the fire and let this whole awful day just fade away.”
Allison took her phone into the living room to call Joan. They caught each other up on the details of their days and Allison recounted her bizarre afternoon in a low voice. Joan asked her if she thought Sophie had killed the dog, and Allison said she genuinely didn’t know yet, but there was something odd about the woman, and the whole place. Before they hung up, Joan called Allison her little “Sherlock Holmes,” and then laughing hysterically, amended it to “Herlock Homo.” After listening to Joan snort-laughing at her own joke for a minute, Allison told her she loved her and she should go to hell, and then hung up.
When she padded into the kitchen, she heard the tail-end of Sophie’s huddled conversation with Sally. “That’s why I had to kill the dog. He was going to find your dad!”