Phyllis and Davina lived at the superior end of Almiston Green, furthest from the cricket pitch and the little houses that so cluttered the lower slopes. Their homes were large, detached and sprawling, commanding chocolate-box views of the church, the war memorial and, across the green, the thatched Duke of Almiston public house. So much nicer than the Nag’s Head Inn at the other end of the village which, no doubt, was full of coarse drunkenness, sin and sawdust.
They peered over their perfectly square-cut hedges down on Lower Almiston with appropriate disdain, knowing their elevated position provided the other villagers with something to look up to.
“Your roses look absolutely heavenly, Phyllis dear,” said Davina. She cast her eyes down the gentle slope of the green. “So much nicer than anywhere else in the village.”
Phyllis leaned on her walking cane and cradled a deep red bloom with her free hand. “We get the best of the sun up here,” she said. “I’m hoping, you know, for another silver cup at the village show.”
“You are bound to win, Phyllis dear,” said Davina. “You always win the Roses Cup. And then there’s your famous apple chutney.”
“You’re too kind, Davina,” Phyllis simpered. “And you’re bound to win the Jam Cup again; eight years in succession, isn’t it?” She let the rose fall back into place with a magenta smile for her neighbour. “When I’ve seen to the roses, would you like me to bug-spray your blackberries?”
“You’re a treasure,” Davina nodded. “And just let me know when you’d like help with chopping your apples.”
“Henry,” Davina’s voice was stern. “How are your marrows, this year?”
“Not bad…” Henry, her husband, was buttering his breakfast toast. “Though I hear there are several impressive specimens down at the allotments.”
“Then you’ll have to do better,” Davina snapped. “We can’t be beaten again by those oiks with their grubby potting sheds and flasks of tea.”
Henry sighed, gazed out at the garden and put down his toast. “I’ve got the best greenhouse money can buy and soil bursting with nutrients. I guess I don’t have the green fingers to go with it. We’ll just have to wait and see. Plenty of water the week before the show should make a difference.”
Davina frowned and placed a pot of her homemade blackberry jam on the kitchen table. Her eyes swept up to the shelf where eight gleaming silver cups stood in a row; she had every confidence that her jam would triumph again. Henry was too laid back; he didn’t take the village show seriously enough. At least Phyllis next door understood its importance. Standards had to be maintained. It would be unbearable if some slattern with ten kids from the bottom of the hill managed to make a better jam, or beat Phyllis to the Chutney Cup. Davina shuddered. If that happened, how could they hold their heads up in respectable public again?
Henry was spreading a generous layer of jam over his toast. “I’m sure you’ll win the Jam Cup as usual,” he said. “Mind you, Bernie who runs the betting shop was telling me there are going to be fewer categories this year. Marrows are being clumped together with all the other vegetables. I could be beaten by a cauliflower.”
“I’m not looking forward to the walk back up,” puffed Phyllis, leaning on her cane. She and Davina had ventured out for ‘an evening stroll’. They both wore dark colours and had their collars turned up in the hope of appearing inconspicuous.
“I told Henry we were just going to walk around the green,” Davina whispered. She looked up at the darkening sky. No moon tonight; it seemed mother nature was on their side. They made their way across the black expanse of damp grass, avoiding the paths and the street lighting; the trouble with being a pillar of society was that one might be recognised, and tonight that was the last thing they wanted.
It seemed, however, that the residents of Lower Almiston were too dim-witted to realise the importance of the two middle-aged women that made their way down the narrow high street. They passed Bernie’s Betting Shop, and Davina peered at the gaudy poster-covered windows enticing people to guess which horse would pass the winning post before the others. This was where Henry spent much of his spare time, and much of his spare cash too, probably. Thank goodness she kept her own money in a separate account. Davina couldn’t see the appeal of betting; the shop looked squalid and run-down in the evening gloom.
Phyllis tapped the betting shop door with her stick. “I once shortened my name to Phil,” she said. “I was sometimes mistaken for a man.”
“Phyllis dear, is this relevant?” Davina urged her neighbour to walk a little faster. They kept their faces averted as they passed the glow from the Nag’s Head Inn and made their way through the housing estate and beyond to the fenced-in allotments. It was very dark now and the ground rough and muddy underfoot. At least they hoped it was mud; there was a sickening stench of manure from somewhere nearby. Typical, thought Davina, dirty, unsanitary and disorganised. Not like their side of the village at all. Phyllis, evidently, thought the same thing. “I’m going to have to throw these shoes away when I get home,” her voice was an indignant hiss.
They stood for a while in silence allowing their eyes to adjust to the gloom. Ramshackle little sheds were dotted about, leaning in the uneven ground where glass cloches or netting threatened to trip the righteous intruder. “How can people bear to live like this?” asked Phyllis with a sneer.
“They don’t know any better,” whispered Davina, gazing around. She touched her friend lightly on the arm. “There’s one,” she said softly.
Phyllis stepped forward; she raised her cane which shook slightly in her trembling hand, then brought it down sharply on the offending marrow. Her magenta lips were curled into a smirk of fury. “I hope your Henry appreciates what we’re doing for him,” she said.
“He wouldn’t understand,” Davina’s voice was weary, evidently tired of Henry’s shortcomings. “But he’ll be happy enough when he wins the cup.” Every marrow they ruined here improved the prospects of her husband’s efforts in the greenhouse at the top of the hill. “Any prizes for our side of the village will just show the lesser folk how superior we are.”
Footsteps sounded on the path outside the allotment gates, and a woman’s laugh could be heard through the gloom.
Davina and Phyllis froze until the sounds had died away. They waited a full two more minutes, then Davina said, “There’s another one.”
Phyllis swung her cane again with all her might.
“Bernie from the betting shop said the whole area had been pulverised.” Henry was once again buttering his breakfast toast.
“Mindless yobs,” was Davina’s opinion. “Trying to spoil the village show. That’s typical of Lower Almiston. You know, Henry, one day we should look into moving to a nicer area. Somewhere with a bit more class, where we’d be appreciated.”
“I like Almiston,” said Henry. “We’ve a lovely house and garden – reasonable, if slightly snobby, neighbours.” He reached for the blackberry jam. “Oh, another thing Bernie said… The shop is taking bets on the show. Nothing serious; maximum stake a pound and any profits go to charity. You were favourite for the Jam Cup, and Phyllis next door was favourite for the Chutney.”
Davina scowled. “What do you mean, was?”
“You know they are combining categories this year…” Henry spooned out a blob of jam. “Bernie says there’s a new category. The Preserves Cup. This year, your jam and Phyllis’s chutney will be in competition.”
Henry had driven off to the office. Davina made herself a pot of coffee and stared out at the garden. Henry’s greenhouse gleamed at the edge of the clipped lawn and, along the border with Phyllis’s garden, the neatly restrained bramble bushes hung dark with ripe blackberries. Your jam and Phyllis’s chutney will be in competition. Henry’s words seemed to throw up another obstacle between the gardens, more thorny than the brambles. Davina sipped from her tall coffee glass; she freely acknowledged her own competitiveness. But with some justification. There were higher principles involved here; there was a certain class of people to be kept in their place. Yes, she nodded to herself, she felt quite justified in improving the chances of Henry’s marrows. There was nothing personal in her actions. She felt no animosity against the other vegetable growers – she just couldn’t allow them to win. She couldn’t allow them to think themselves any better than the residents of Upper Almiston. Phyllis, however…
Davina remembered that magenta smirk as her seemingly respectable neighbour had brought her stick down on the allotment vegetables. That had definitely seemed personal. She had seen a streak of evil in her neighbour she hadn’t noticed before.
And suddenly there she was, evil Phyllis, leaning on her stick, waving from the other side of the brambles. In her hand was her bug-spray canister.
Davina felt a pang of panic. Now that she’d seen Phyllis’s more ruthless side, Davina could easily imagine her substituting the bug spray with some kind of weedkiller. A couple of squirts and her carefully tended blackberries could shrivel and die. Her jam would be ruined – and evil Phyllis would win the Preserves Cup with her apple chutney. Davina rushed out of the patio door, slopping her coffee as she dashed across the lawn.
“Would you like me to spray your bushes?” There was that magenta smile again, but Davina wasn’t fooled, she saw the cunning glint in her neighbour’s eyes.
“No. No, no.” Davina waved her coffee glass in a negative gesture, trying to think of a reasonable excuse. “That’s very kind of you, but Henry sprayed them about half an hour ago, before he went to work.”
Phyllis looked offended. Then her eyes narrowed. “He’s got greener fingers than I thought,” she said.
Davina took a deliberately slow sip of coffee. “I guess tending his marrows is turning him into a keen gardener.”
She saw Phyllis’s knuckles whiten. Her hand trembled slightly as she gripped the handle of her walking cane and used it to prod an apple that had fallen from one of her trees.
“Windfalls already,” Phyllis complained; “and it’s barely mid-September. Would you be free later, Davina, to pick some apples for me – and perhaps chop them? Your hands are so steady and precise, and your little chunks are ideal for my chutney.”
Such audacity! Not only was Phyllis trying to poison her blackberries, but she wanted help in making the chutney too. There was no way Davina would countenance a rival. “Oh, Phyllis dear, I’m so sorry, but I’ve sprained my wrist.” She was suddenly holding her coffee at an awkward angle.
Davina stirred her biggest saucepan with a wooden spoon, praying that the deep purple liquid wouldn’t burn or stick to the sides. The sharp tang of blackberries wafted through the kitchen. She peered into the pan, willing the mixture to thicken. It didn’t.
She hurled the wooden spoon into the sink with a clatter. “It’s no good,” she moaned. “That’s another batch ruined. I just can’t get it right this year.”
Henry looked up from his toast. “You’ll sort it out, love. You always do.” He pointed to the row of silver cups with his butter knife.
“Not this year.” Davina slumped into a chair.
“Can’t you enter it as blackberry sauce?” Henry suggested. “Like the stuff you pour over ice cream.” It seemed to him a neat solution, especially as he was quite fond of ice cream.
Davina gave him her most scathing look.
“Doesn’t Phyllis give you something to make the jam thicken?” Henry asked. “Boiled-down apple peels?”
“Pectin.” Davina slumped further into the chair. “The powdered stuff from the shops just isn’t the same.”
“Can’t you ask her for some?”
Davina didn’t reply.
“She’s bound to have plenty. I saw her last night out in her garden picking up the windfalls.”
Still Davina said nothing.
Then Henry realised. “You’ve fallen out, haven’t you? Rivals for the Preserves Cup.”
Davina slammed a pot of jam onto the kitchen table. “That’s the last jar,” she proclaimed. “I shan’t be making any more.”
Henry peered at his wife. Surely, she was over-reacting. But her expression was murderous. He let a scenario play out in his mind; rivals and repercussions; causes and consequences. He imagined this neighbourly dissent escalating into hostility and unpleasantness. He picked up the jam jar. It was almost empty. He frowned at it, suddenly realising the seriousness of the situation.
“Henry?” Davina’s voice was sharp.
“Sorry, love. I was distracted.” He shuddered. “We don’t want to end up buying supermarket jam – it doesn’t bear thinking about.”
“Davina, take a look at this,” Henry called from the garden the following morning.
He opened the door of his greenhouse for Davina to see the damage. A brick had been thrown through one of the roof panes. Broken glass lay over the floor. The brick was embedded in a growbag and had narrowly missed pummelling Henry’s largest marrow.
“It’s not just the allotments that are being targeted,” Henry said. He prodded the brick with his foot. “Who would do such a thing?”
There, Davina had the advantage over her husband. She looked through the glass wall and judged the greenhouse to be within brick-throwing distance of her neighbour’s garden.
Henry followed her gaze. “You don’t think…? No, Phyllis wouldn’t do something like this.”
But Davina had seen Phyllis riled. She knew exactly what her neighbour was capable of. “Just because I wouldn’t pick her stupid apples for her.”
“I can’t believe it,” Henry said, then his eyes widened.
Phyllis was in her garden. She was standing under one of her trees. She raised her walking cane and swept it up into the branches trying to knock down the apples. Davina and Henry exchanged a glance then, scowling, Davina swept out of the greenhouse and up to the bramble border.
Phyllis heard her neighbour approach. She quickly put down her stick with some show of embarrassment, as if she’d been caught in some wrongdoing.
“Thought you’d spoil Henry’s chance of a cup too, did you?” spat Davina. “Well, you missed.” She waved a hand wildly towards the greenhouse. “And we’ll be sending you the bill for repairs.”
“I don’t know what you mean, Davina.” Phyllis glanced over at the broken glass.
Henry saw her mouth fall open in what he took to be genuine surprise.
“You don’t fool me.” Davina glared.
“I didn’t do anything.” Phyllis glared back.
It was obvious to the two women that they were each thinking of their evening of sabotage down at the allotments, and each was awkwardly aware that they couldn’t say anything in front of Henry.
“Don’t expect me to pick your apples for you now,” Davina snapped.
Phyllis bridled. “How’s your jam coming along,” she asked, “without my pectin?”
That hurt. “Better than your chutney, I expect.” Davina mimicked the tremor of Phyllis’s hands. “You never could chop the apples into those precise little cubes.”
Phyllis glanced down at the blackberry bushes that separated the gardens. Her magenta smirk twisted at her face. “Bugs,” she said with spiteful simplicity.
Davina peered down too, to where something creepy and crawly had the audacity to wave a leg at her.
That was it. Davina stormed back into her kitchen and picked up the phone.
Phyllis glared daggers at her back. And Henry trotted behind. He had expected some confrontation, but was amazed that it had escalated so quickly.
Two police cars appeared, lights flashing. Evidently, Davina had exaggerated the threat.
Four grim officers accompanied Davina and a bemused-looking Henry into the garden. They looked at the brick and the damage done to the greenhouse, then they had knocked at Phyllis’s door. After about ten minutes, one of the cars drove away. Seeing this, Davina sped round to her neighbour’s front garden. The two remaining officers were just departing.
Phyllis scowled from her doorway.
“Aren’t you going to arrest her?” Davina demanded.
The officer in a shiny cap waved a placatory arm. “Your neighbour says she knows nothing about the damage,” he said. “And without any corroborative evidence, there is little more we can do.”
“You mean she gets away with it!” Davina skirted the policemen, yelling towards the doorway. “Phyllis, dear,” she made sure the little group that had gathered at the gates could hear, “I hope you choke on your chutney – in fact, I hope it kills you!”
She stormed back to her own house and slammed the door.
It was left to Henry to watch the police depart. “My wife’s upset, of course,” he told them. “But I do worry about our neighbour. It’s just gossip, but I have heard that she’s got quite a temper and certainly doesn’t like to lose.”
“I shouldn’t worry too much, sir,” said shiny cap. “If she did chuck that brick, she knows we’re on to her. I don’t suppose there’ll be any more trouble.”
The following morning, Henry had scraped out the last of the blackberry jam from the last jar, finished his toast and was looking out at the garden before heading off to work. As he expected, Phyllis was out in her garden again, she had a basket with her and was knocking down apples with her walking stick.
He thought of Davina lying in bed upstairs and took his chance to nip outside.
“I haven’t come to cause any trouble,” he called over the bramble border.
Phyllis stiffened with suspicion. “Where’s Davina?” she asked.
“Having a lie in.” Henry nodded to one of the upstairs windows. “To tell you the truth, she was so agitated last night she took a couple of her sleeping pills. I don’t suppose she’ll wake for a while yet. She didn’t mean any of what she said, you know.” He hoped he sounded sincere. “Not really.”
“Didn’t sound that way to me.” Phyllis leant on her cane.
“Listen, let me help you pick the apples. I’ve got time before work.”
Phyllis seemed unsure, but Henry was already pushing through a section where the brambles thinned and could be stepped over easily.
“It’s the least I can do,” he said sounding apologetic. “You go and make yourself a cup of tea. I’ll bring the basket in when it’s full.”
Phyllis hesitated for a moment. But she had no argument with Henry. She managed a genuine magenta smile and turned towards her back door.
“Oh…” Henry was looking around. “I don’t want to bother getting the stepladder out. Could I use your stick to hook the branches down? It’ll make it much easier.”
“I’ll make you a cup of tea too,” Phyllis said. She handed him her walking cane and wobbled a little unsteadily back to her kitchen. There, she pulled down a tin and arranged some of her homemade ginger biscuits on one of her best plates. Then she put the kettle on and waited for it to boil.
So, Davina had been agitated last night. No surprise there. Agitated because she believed her neighbour had smashed the greenhouse, or agitated because she felt guilty – for making all that fuss calling the police? Phyllis didn’t know. Henry was being helpful, though. The windfalls and those apples she had managed to knock down were all bruised, useless for chutney.
Henry pushed open the kitchen door, leant the walking cane against a cupboard, and placed the brimming basket of apples on the table. Phyllis was grateful and her sour mood had mellowed. She plied Henry with biscuits. “I feel so bad about yesterday,” she admitted. “I really should pop round and apologise to Davina.”
Henry smiled to himself. This was exactly what he’d planned. “Why don’t you two work together,” he said. “Between you, you make the best jam and chutney. I’m sure they could fit two names on one of those silver cups.”
“You’re right, of course.” Phyllis looked abashed. “I’ll suggest it to her.”
“I’d leave it a couple of hours.” Henry stood. “I’m off to work now. Best let her sleep for a while.”
The police called at Henry’s office, interrupting a meeting. Henry’s eyes widened and his heart began to race as he recognised the officer in the shiny cap who introduced himself rather formally as Sargent Jackson. Other police milled about, a woman officer made him a cup of tea, and events blurred into a numbing barrage of questions and information. Davina was dead. And it seemed Phyllis from next door had been arrested.
Henry hadn’t wanted to see the crime scene. It seemed that Davina had still been in bed. The duvet had been lifted over her head, then she’d been struck over and over again with a heavily weighted object. The duvet had absorbed most of the blood, but still Phyllis’s walking cane had been bagged and was being tested for forensics.
Almiston buzzed with gossip and speculation. A woman came forward to say that she’d seen Phyllis and Davina at the allotments the night that the vegetables had been decimated. This showed, according to Sargent Jackson, their excessive competitiveness. Henry could only agree. The police, of their own knowledge, knew of the feud between the two women. The hurling of the brick was seen as further sabotage by Phyllis, and it was assumed that their conflict had somehow escalated into tragedy.
When they felt Henry was able to cope with the details, Sargent Jackson and a pompous chief inspector eased him through the evidence. Phyllis had been seen by people passing by. It was about lunchtime. She had been ringing the doorbell and calling to Davina who had evidently still been in bed. Henry explained about the sleeping pills, though he expressed surprise at Davina not waking. Perhaps, realising who the caller was, she had decided not to answer the door. They would never know.
According to Phyllis, she had then gone around the back of the house and found the patio door to be slightly open. Henry was again able to help. He told the officers about picking some apples for Phyllis that morning. He hadn’t bothered to lock the patio door when he went to work. Davina had been at home, so it hadn’t seemed necessary. Phyllis then claimed that she’d called out and entered the house. Concerned that she received no reply, she’d gone upstairs and found Davina’s battered body. Then she’d raised the alarm.
The police didn’t believe her of course, especially when forensic tests found traces of Davina’s blood on Phyllis’s walking stick. It had been washed, but not enough to remove all the evidence. There was also a brief period when Henry himself had been under suspicion. Phyllis’s fingerprints were found all over the stick, but Henry’s were found there too. Much to Henry’s relief, Phyllis had explained how he had used it to pull down the branches when he picked the apples for her.
“How is Phyllis coping?” Henry asked. His neighbour had been in custody now for several days.
“She’s… bewildered,” said Sargent Jackson. “Sometimes I think she can’t take in what she’s done, as if she’s deluding herself as well as trying to persuade us that she’s innocent.”
“Poor woman,” said Henry with genuine sympathy.
It was two weeks before Henry tried to return to a semblance of his normal routine. He returned to work for three days a week, building slowly. And he visited Bernie at the betting shop. He was surprised to find that he was now listed as favourite to win the Vegetable Cup; it seemed that his was one of the few entries left.
“Do you think I dare enter my marrows?” he asked Bernie.
Bernie shook her head. “I think we should draw as little attention to ourselves as possible,” she said with caution. She had already got involved as the woman who’d witnessed Davina and Phyllis at the allotments. Henry hadn’t been fooled at all. It was obvious what his wife and neighbour had been up to on their ‘evening stroll’. And it all played into his plan. He’d thrown a brick through his own greenhouse and been amazed at how quickly Davina and Phyllis had been at each other’s throats. Then the police had got involved; it was all so easy; he just had to borrow Phyllis’s walking stick for a few minutes; she had been the perfect scapegoat.
And, as for Bernie… Now that snobby Davina, with all her pretentions of grandness, was out of the way… They’d wait till his inheritance was sorted, then she could move in with him. Perhaps, at the posher end of Almiston, she’d call herself Bernadette.