Dirty Little Secrets – Jo Spain

The bluebottle had no idea it was about to die. It zipped upwards in the blue sky, warm sun shimmering on its wings, bright metallic stomach bloated with human skin cells and blood. The bluebottle didn’t see the blackbird swoop, beak open in anticipation. It didn’t hear the satisfying crunch that brought an untimely end to its short, blissful life. The blackbird continued its descent. There, just beyond the sycamore, streaming from the chimney of the cottage, were more mid-flight snacks. Hundreds of them – fat, juicy, winged insects. The bird didn’t see the boy, with his Extreme Blastzooka Nerf gun and the bullets he’d modified to cause maximum damage from what was supposed to be a minimum-impact toy. When the missile hit, slate-coloured feathers exploded in all directions. Death and gravity cast the bird onto the top branches of the tree, from where it thump, thump, thumped the whole thirty metres down to a soft patch of grass below. The boy, breathlessly running towards his felled prey, didn’t see his mother throw open the kitchen door and bear down on him – the bird’s squawk and the boy’s squeak had jolted her from all thoughts of her absent lover. Instantly, she saw what her son had done. But before she could grab him, the boy pointed up and said, with more awe than even the dead bird had incited: ‘Fuuuuck!’ And despite the itch to now punish him twice as hard, the mother’s eyes were drawn to the cloud on the periphery of her vision, a black, menacing, humming mass of bluebottles rising out of next door’s chimney. The mother clamped her hand over her mouth. That swarm could only mean one thing, and it wasn’t anything good.

Whatever had happened next door, the mother certainly hadn’t seen that coming. * Once upon a time, they’d all tried to be more neighbourly. As recently as a couple of years ago, that effort had taken the form of a street party. Nobody could remember who had suggested it. Alison, a newbie at the time, reckoned the street party was Olive’s doing. Chrissy thought it was Ron’s. Ed presumed it was David’s. Nobody supposed George had come up with it. Not because he wasn’t a nice guy, but he was painfully shy and you just couldn’t imagine him saying, Hey, let’s have a bit of a party, mark the start of the summer hols! George, though, had put in the most effort. His house, number one, was the largest on the Vale and, therefore, he clearly had the most money (well, his family did – they all knew his father owned the property).

That day, George, very generously, brought out four bottles of champagne, a crate of real ale and giant-sized tubs of American toffee candy and wine gums. They were added to the haphazard mix of sweets and savouries already laid out on the trestle table. The sugary wine gums sat between the large bowls of Jollof rice and fried plantains that David had provided. The adults had floated around each other nervously, despite the fact that most of them were professionals, used to networking and performing. Matt was an accountant. Lily a school teacher. David worked in investments. George was a layout graphic designer. Alison owned a boutique. Ed was a retired something or other – whatever he’d done, it had left him very wealthy.

They all had money, in fact. Or at least appeared to. They were social equals and the majority of them had lived in proximity for years. And yet there was a shyness amongst the grown-ups of Withered Vale. In a domestic setting, out of the suits and offices, metres from their own private abodes, each of them felt an odd sense of discomfort, like they should be more relaxed than they were. Like they should know each other more than they did. The children, forced into being the centre of attention and with far too much responsibility on their tiny number, had awkwardly played football in an attempt to entertain. The twins were useless. Wolf kicked the ball with such intensity it was like it was diseased and he needed to clear it as quickly as possible. Lily May, his sister, defended herself, not the goal, twisting her body in knots any time the ball was aimed in her direction, at all times nervously sucking the ends of her braids.

Cam, a couple of years older and many degrees rougher, was brutally violent, with John McEnroe’s indignant temper whenever he was called to order. And Holly – well, she stood slightly aside, old enough to babysit, too young to be in the adults’ company, painfully self-conscious and bored and mortified. Somehow, despite the alcohol, the generous food portions, the sun’s gentle warmth and Ron’s best attempts to get an adult football game going, the party just didn’t come off. If you’d asked any of them why, they’d have all shrugged, unable to put a finger on it. But if you’d made them think hard . Olive Collins had moved from group to group, chatting to the women, harmlessly flirting with the men, trying to amuse the children, generally being a pleasant, sociable host. Of all the seven homes in the privileged gated estate of Withered Vale, Olive’s was the smallest and the one that stood out as the most different. Of all the residents, she was the one who probably belonged the least. Not that anybody would think that. Or say it, when they did.

The horseshoe-shaped street was a common area. And with the exception of Alison, nobody believed the party had been suggested by Olive. Olive preferred one-to-ones. But she’d taken over. Olive, Withered Vale’s longest resident, had an awful tendency to act like she owned the place. Slowly, they peeled off. Chrissy, a reluctant attendee in the first place, steered Cam firmly by the shoulder towards home; Matt sloping loyally behind his wife and son. Alison linked arms with her daughter, Holly, smiling and thanking everybody as they left. Ron, the singleton, made away with two bottles of ale and a cheeky wink. Ed half-offered to keep the party going in his house until his wife, Amelia, reminded him loudly that they’d an early flight the next day.

David, eager to return to his own kingdom, brought the twins Wolf and Lily May home, all walking in a row like ducks. Lily told David she’d follow on shortly and offered to help George carry the remains of the crate back to his house. Of all the residents, these two had managed to strike up an unlikely but genuine friendship – just chit-chat on the footpath, little more, but some neighbourly engagement in an otherwise very private estate. Only Olive was left, folding up the chequered tablecloths she’d supplied. ‘Olive looks a bit sad,’ George remarked, when they were out of earshot. ‘Does she?’ Lily said, casting a discreet backwards glance at their neighbour, the ponytail of dreads she was wearing in her hair that day swinging on her bare shoulders as she turned. Olive was pulling together the corners of the cloth, mouth turned down, fringe falling into her eyes, her cardigan buttoned up to the neck. A lonely figure. ‘Well, you’re an eligible bachelor, George,’ Lily said. ‘And you’re the neighbourhood saint,’ George retorted.

‘I have to put the twins to bed.’ ‘I have to put myself to bed. Alone.’ They both smiled tightly. Neither could bring themselves to invite Olive over for a nightcap. Their neighbour was always perfectly amiable but both Lily and George knew the wisdom of the saying ‘if somebody is gossiping to you, they’re gossiping about you’. ‘Maybe Alison . ’ Lily said, catching sight of Holly’s mother making her way back down her drive towards Olive. Alison hadn’t yet got the measure of everybody but everybody reckoned they had the measure of her. She was a soft soul.

Kind. ‘Ah,’ George said. They were off the hook. Alison chatted away to Olive and the other woman nodded happily. Then the two women made their way into Olive’s cottage. Thank goodness for lovely Alison. Poor Olive. She was so very hard to relax around. Even then. Even before she properly began to wreak havoc on the lives of her neighbours.

News Today Online Edition 1 June 2017 The body of a woman found in her home yesterday may have been in situ for almost three months, according to a police spokesperson. The gruesome discovery was made after a resident in the wealthy gated community where the woman lived contacted the emergency services citing concerns about her neighbour’s property. Local officers had to force entry into the woman’s home to ascertain her whereabouts and safety. After finding her body, a police forensics unit was summoned to the scene. The woman’s identity has yet to be disclosed. It has been revealed that the deceased was in her mid-fifties and lived alone. Cause of death also remains a mystery and will be determined by a postmortem, due to be conducted later today. The woman’s home is situated in a quiet residential area just outside the village of Marwood in Wicklow. This morning, locals reacted with horror to the news that her death had gone unnoticed for so long. At time of printing, nobody from Withered Vale itself has been willing to talk to the media.

Olive No. 4 At first, there was just me. Before my house had a number. Before the others arrived. I hadn’t intended to live on the outskirts of the village on my own. I’d ended up there by chance. I couldn’t afford any of the houses on sale on the main street. Or the side streets. Or the streets off the side streets. My income from the health board, where I worked as a language therapist for children, was good.

Just not good enough. Priced out of buying a house where I’d grown up, one day in 1988 I drove over the bridge and out past the pretty woods that dotted most of my home county. Just beside the woods and before the fields that made up John Berry’s land, I saw the cottage. Its owner had died months earlier and we all knew his son, by then an illegal immigrant in the States, had no plans to return. A home wasn’t much use when you couldn’t get a job for love nor money and anyway, nobody left America once they’d got in. It was just a matter of the estate agent phoning and telling him somebody was willing to take it off his hands. I got it for a song and a promise to ship some personal belongings over. ‘Withered Vale?’ my mother said, eyes wide and appalled. ‘Why would you pick there, are you mad?’ ‘It’s picked me,’ I laughed. ‘It’s the only place I can afford.

’ My parents only knew the Vale because of its history. At the start of the twentieth century, an overenthusiastic and most certainly drunk farmer had decided to tackle pests on his land by going hell for leather with arsenic spray. He poisoned all his crops in the process – they withered and died in the fields. ‘But it’s miles away,’ my mother protested. ‘How will I get by without you?’ ‘The cottage is minutes away in the car,’ I said. ‘I’m twenty-six. I can’t stay living at home forever!’ In truth, it wouldn’t have mattered if I’d gone to live on the moon. I still had to call around to my parents’ every evening on the way home from work, at least until they both died, a year apart, a decade later. After the initial period of grieving, I realised I was glad to be able to go directly home each night. The remoteness and the single life didn’t bother me at first.

I was exhausted from all the running about, before and during my parents’ illnesses. I could imagine nothing nicer than arriving home from work to a lovely, clean house, with a takeaway, a video, a bottle of wine; nowhere to go, no duties to fulfil. I happily went on like that for, oh, I don’t know, at least a year. It’s true what they say. What’s seldom is wonderful and my routine soon became, well, routine. And as time wore on, I became lonely. I’d no siblings and no close friends and I hadn’t planned on being a spinster. There was no revelatory moment, no decision, when I thought, I’m so thrilled with this life, I think I’ll just stay on my own. If anything, I’d been convinced I’d follow the traditional route. I wasn’t a dainty and pretty woman exactly, but I certainly wasn’t ugly and boyfriends were never a problem.

For whatever reason, though, I never met anybody I was willing to settle with, or for. I was destined to be just the one. But I did enjoy company. So, in 2001, when John Berry sprang it on me that the land under my cottage actually belonged to him and he’d sold it to a property developer to build on, the only concern I had was whether my home would remain standing. ‘Of course!’ he assured me. ‘You don’t have the freehold, but you’ve bought the place and it’s yours. This fellow would have to buy you out but he has no plans to. He’s going to build around you. He’s not going mad, either. Just a few houses to see how it goes.

It’s going to be an exclusive development – large, fancy homes for rich, important types. The ones who like their privacy. Withered Vale, right next door to Marwood, a whole village on your doorstep. Everybody will want to buy a place.’ ‘Is he really keeping the name?’ I asked, amazed. Pockets of these developments had begun to spring up all over the country at the turn of the century, copycat American-style estates for the privileged few. But they all had names straight from the LA handbook: The Hills; The Heights; Lakeside. ‘Oh, he’s keeping it,’ Berry said. ‘He loves it. Thinks it will make the place unique.

He reckons he’s going to blow the property values around here out of the water.’ One by one, I watched the houses go up around me in a semi-circle. While they were big, each one was different, and all had a quality of design. And the fact each house was unique meant my cottage, despite its far smaller size, didn’t stand out quite as much. In fact, when he brought the landscapers in, the developer added the same hedge border as mine around all the properties. It gave the Vale a feeling of continuity, he said. Sadly, it was just a tad too tasteful for him. He lost the run of himself and turned us into a ‘gated’ community. He hung a big wrought-iron sign over the railings in case anybody struggled to find Withered Vale, the only outpost for miles between Marwood and the next village on the other side of the woods. I’d gone from being a one-off cottage on the edge of civilisation to part of an elite club.

As the families moved in, one by one, I greeted them generously and genuinely. The homes were numbered one to seven and my cottage, after some initial wrangling with the developer about where I would sit on his patch, was number four. Right in the middle of everything. Some of them came and stayed, some of them moved in and moved out and we got new neighbours. They were all blow-ins to me. I tried to be friendly with everybody. I hope people remember that. That I tried very hard. The police men and women beavering around my body right now don’t know anything of my story yet. They don’t know anything at all, really.

They’ve spent the last twenty-four hours trying to rid the house of flies and maggots and the pests they know are here but can’t see – the mice and rats. The gnawing at my fingers and toes speak to their existence. It’s amazing there’s anything left of me. It’s the heat, you see. After an unusually cold spring and early summer, I was doing okay, sitting there on the chair, silently decomposing. The same chair Ron from number seven bent me over for three and a half minutes of mind-blowing passion the night before I died, leaving with my knickers scrunched up in his pocket. I hope, for his sake, he’s got rid of them. Then late May came and the weather turned on its head, sending temperatures soaring and bringing all sorts of nastiness into my living room. It’s amazing how long they left me, my neighbours. Not one, not a single one, came to check on me.

Not even Ron. And Chrissy only rang the police when my cottage looked like a public health hazard. Was I really that hated? Those poor detectives. I almost feel sorry for them. It’s going to take them forever trying to figure out who killed me.

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