Warning - If you accept your invitation to this tea party, there will be mentions of poison and murder. It starts at 3.30pm GMT. Don’t be late.
Why had Hazel invited the taxman to tea? Was he the next to suffer, like they had? Last month she’d asked the planning officer who’d refused to let her build a conservatory, the month before that, it had been the headmistress who’d given Billy a detention.
There was a pattern, but only Jude could see it. The other friends (or were they victims?) thought Hazel was a darling to invite such a range of people.
“So sweet,” they said.
“So generous,” they said.
“So suspicious,” Jude murmured.
The thing was - someone was always ill after tea. Amber had had palpitations after eating a caraway bun, even though it was so small. Jude had listened to her repeating that she was tired and hungry, and her heart was racing. Surely those were symptoms of an insulin overdose? But Amber was always tired and hungry, or so she said, and the only difference was the speed of her heart. Jude, still by Amber’s side, had thought how much of an improvement it might be to Amber’s life if her heart did beat a little faster. She might be better at tennis for a start, and she’d be able to beat Hazel.
Then Mary had been sick after her yellow French Fancy. Jude had helped her to clean the driftwood-white laminate flooring in the bathroom. Mary had been sobbing, mortified that the floor had been stained a luminous yellow. Jude hadn’t the heart to tell Mary that her new white fillings were now the same shade as the floor. Jude had to admit, Mary’s bright smile had been annoying, but now, it would make Jude smile too. They were right, smiling was contagious.
Right there, on the bathroom floor, Jude had known that Hazel was up to something; she’d watched enough forensic dramas to know that rat poison could make your vomit bright yellow.
But why would Hazel do this? What was she trying to gain? Was she practising, trying to get the doses right? Would there be a more dramatic event soon, an imminent death perhaps? Would Jude have the chance to save a life at last? She’d love to do that; she’d be a hero and people would want to talk to her all the time.
Jude had started training as a paramedic once, before her mother’s accident. She’d learnt for real after that, she’d watched medical videos, read medical blogs, and loved her mother until she was gone. Without her, Jude missed the contact with the health service. She needed people to know that she cared, and that she was there for people – if only they reached out to her.
When Hazel first invited Jude to tea, they were in the pharmacy in Fordingbridge. They’d started chatting beside the paracetamol – well, Hazel had chatted, Jude just listened and encouraged her. Then Hazel invited her to tea – just like that, and Jude managed to be there, despite her tonsillitis.
That was last year, before people were getting ill. Now, Jude was considering refusing to go, but she visualised the empty teatimes in her flat, along with the empty lunchtimes and evenings. She couldn’t bear it; it was better to go than to be alone. Jude liked to be invited to things, that was the truth of it. She wanted to be included and that was important to her. Jude had been lucky so far, anyway; she hadn’t been ill. She’d watch Hazel carefully, she had a duty to keep herself well, since she would be needed to look after the others when the time came. Besides, Jude realised, she was fascinated. What condition did Hazel suffer from that made her do this? Perhaps it was Hazel that needed her help, not the others.
It was 3.14pm.
Jude decided to walk to the tea party since there was plenty of time. The house wasn’t far, and it would give her a chance to wear the kitten heels she’d bought last year and never worn. Picking up her handbag and her flowery biscuit tin, she left the flat. Outside, she turned to go up Romsey Street because she liked the bustle of it; the houses were built for families and overseas students. Jude waved at a group of women and prams, and at a window cleaner whose ladder wobbled as she brushed past. She didn’t know them of course, but if she waved, her dress floated around, and she’d be looking flushed and happy when she knocked on Hazel’s door. She’d have to hope the dread that she was feeling didn’t creep into her eyes and give her away.
Hazel’s house was pretty. There were fluffy net curtains at the windows and Hazel in her effervescent tea-dress at the door. What would the taxman think? Was the poor man there already? Jude took a deep breath and crossed the road.
“Hazel!” said Jude, handing her the tin of homemade shortbread, using it like a shield so that she wouldn’t be hugged, or air kissed.
“Come in, Jude. Roxy and Tomas are here already. Everyone’s a little early,” said Hazel, wiping her hands on her pinny.
Tomas? Was that the taxman? She’d pronounced it Toe-maz, as if she knew him well. Was there a way you could pronounce her own name to show she was known well too? Ju-ood or Jood? No, probably not - she was just Jude. That’s what they’d called her at school. Just Jude. “Oh,” they’d say in disappointment, “It’s Just Jude.”
At least Hazel hadn’t done that, and Jude smiled slightly as they walked down the narrow hall into the bright kitchen. The retro-styled units and red gingham curtains seemed to make everyone happy. Hazel mixed retro eras with distressed kitsch, with factory shop bargains, and Jude wondered how anything ever looked good. But it did, somehow, and the kitchen was welcoming, like a little pat on the head from your uncle.
Jude saw Roxy standing by the window, looking into the garden. She’d be imagining a fishpond, more than likely. Roxy worked for a fish charity in Africa and could answer any trivia question about fish in the Zambezi. But she didn’t have her own fish, not even a goldfish. Jude had bought her a Nemo bath toy last Christmas and she hoped that was helping.
It was 3.30pm.
Hazel appeared to be incredibly pleased with her guests. Well, not Jude, Roxy or Tomas to be fair, but the others. They were on time. They’d made Hazel’s day by ringing the doorbell at exactly the right moment. And now she was able to reveal her new three-tiered cake stand, stuffed with potentially hazardous teatime treats.
“Beautiful!” said Amber, looking for caraway buns.
“Um,” said the taxman because he needed to join in.
“Just like Claridge’s!” said Hazel, twirling the stand around so that her guests could see the full wonder of her baking skills.
Jude looked on in horror. She didn’t know how she was going to protect everyone this time. There were so many choices, even little sandwiches, she noticed - it was usually just cakes - and savoury things added to the problem. Jude’s responsibility was huge, Hazel might have used fish paste and that was great for disguising poison. In fact, Jude could smell the sardine and tomato paste from here. She held on to a chair for support. There were goat’s cheese and rocket sandwiches on brown bread – Hazel was even telling them brown bread was better for their health – but the salad leaves weren’t rocket at all. Jude stared. Was that - hemlock?
“We’ll go in the garden,” called Hazel from the back door and they all followed each other into the sun. Hazel took the teapot; Roxy carried the cups and saucers and Jude lost out to Tomas in the rush to carry the resplendent cake stand. He brushed her away, as if she were incapable. Jude nearly swore at him - her frustration had escalated - he’d ruined her plan of dropping the thing on the way out.
It was 3.53pm.
Jude grabbed a goat’s cheese sandwich and took it behind a large hydrangea bush. She pulled the bread apart and examined the contents. Her hands were so sweaty, they were beginning to melt the cheese. She couldn’t be sure about the leaves, but they weren’t rocket, she knew that. Should she try a bit? Take the risk for her tea-friends. Was it worth it?
As Jude crept back to the patio, trying not to gag, Hazel bent forward to Mary, offering her a sandwich from the stand. Mary, thankfully, chose a macaroon and Hazel turned to Jude.
“Did you see my husband?” she asked.
“Pardon?” Jude was taken aback, there hadn’t been anyone behind the bush with her. Besides, she’d never met Hazel’s husband, she hadn’t even been aware that Hazel was married.
“Hazel – “warned Tomas, while Mary sniggered. They were looking at Jude, every one of them. She had a feeling they knew what she’d been doing, but she’d been so diplomatic, how could they? But Hazel’s husband - what had he got to do with it? Jude was getting flustered. She didn’t understand. She looked at them again. Tomas’ hand rested lightly on Hazel’s arm, an informal gesture that you did when you knew someone well. Amber was grinning widely, she knew what this was about, that much was obvious. They all did, Jude sensed from looking around. Embarrassed, she flushed. She’d never understood jokes, they made her feel uncomfortable, like she wasn’t clever enough, like she wasn’t allowed to understand, excluded from the laughing. Jude remembered how it had felt, all those times in the past, when she wasn’t welcome, not invited into the laughing circle. The memories stabbed her, as if they were serrated knives.
It was 4.09pm.
And then Hazel giggled. “Jude, I forget that you don’t really know any of us! I’m sorry – Jerry’s buried there – well, his ashes anyway.” She laughed, high, like a piccolo. Not a tra-la-la piccolo, but a pointy, pokey, nasty piccolo, like a seagull’s beak.
“Hazel, you’re cruel,” said Amber, trying to make things less awkward for Jude. Amber glanced at her, but Jude looked away. She hated them for knowing each other for so long. And to think, she’d been willing to risk her life to protect them. She sat on the edge of the walled flowerbed. She couldn’t join them anymore; she was still the new girl, always the new girl.
But she did have a job to do. Real heroes didn’t help people just so that they could have tea, they helped because it was the right thing to do. And what about the martyrs? No one included them, did they? Joan of Arc hadn’t been on anyone’s guest list, Jude was sure. She straightened her shoulders and monitored the situation.
It was 4.24pm. All was well.
At 4.39pm, the lower two tiers of the cake stand were empty, and still no one had been taken ill.
Maybe Jude had been wrong all along. She’d spitefully let them eat the goat’s cheese sandwiches, without warning them, and then remorse had begun to bite at her. What if one of them had been ill? Would that have been her fault, when she’d known, when she’d kept quiet, deliberately? Did that make her an accomplice?
Roxy and Mary were at the top of the garden now, in the shade. They were chatting about charity work no doubt. Jude had moved to the fold-up chair, which had the only mismatched cushion, and was listening to Hazel explain the art of violin playing to Tomas and the others. She wondered if anyone’s tax was going to be paid this quarter, Tomas had that goofy expression of the easy-to-bribe, and she could just see him turning a blind eye.
“Does anyone mind if I have the Cherry Bakewell?” he asked, reaching towards the top tier of the stand.
“NO!” shouted Jude, her overly loud voice springing out of her. She’d scared them, she could tell. She’d scared herself; she was shaky and jumpy, and her heart was flapping like an old kite stuck in a tree. Jude made a huge effort to recover herself.
“No,” she said again, more calmly, “go ahead, I’m full.” But Jude stayed alert.
At 4.55pm, everyone had survived.
The conversation began to slow down. Amber was the first to leave, followed by Mary, whose children had just come home from school.
Jude began to feel her responsibilities lifting, and she needed the walk home to clear her head. When she saw Hazel and Tomas having a furtive kiss, she knew it was time to go. She felt deflated. The taxman hadn’t needed rescuing after all, nor had anyone, come to that. She let herself quietly out of the front door. She was so wrong, and so stupid; nobody had needed her, there hadn’t been any danger or mystery, just – what? Just - nothing. Just - Jude.
She stomped home in her ridiculous kitten heels and threw herself on her sofa, turning on the TV. It was her favourite, but she couldn’t watch, not today. Celebrity Cakes would have to wait, just like her. Waiting, for ages, just to hear when the next tea party was. And who Hazel had invited. Someone must need Jude’s help next time, and then they’d find out what a good friend she could be.
Three weeks after the tea party, when Jude had fully recovered from the gastroenteritis that had laid her low for so long, she received the invitation. It came through the post this time; thick and formal, in an envelope. She saw the black edge of the card as she put her finger in the flap and pulled up. Jude continued, trying to keep her breathing slow. Her brain was skipping ahead of her fingers, trying to tangle them up. What was this?
The invitation was in her hands. Her eyes had read it, but her brain couldn’t make sense of it. It was to a memorial service, not a tea party. Jude read the words aloud in the hope that she would understand.
“We wanted to let you know the sad news that Tomas McBride died unexpectedly at home on Saturday 25th May 2019 and his memorial service will be held at …”
Jude read it aloud again. The taxman? Her respiratory rate doubled. Toe-maz? It couldn’t be.
Jude reached for her mobile, stubbing her fingers on the screen.
“Hazel?” she said when the phone was answered. “What happened?”
“He died, Jude. Poor Tomas,” Jude heard some sniffling.
“How?” Jude was beginning to feel faint. She sat on the floor, putting her head between her knees.
“It was quick, he went into shock,” Hazel whimpered impressively.
There was silence. Then a whisper.
“I didn’t know, Jude, I didn’t know…” Hazel sounded as though she was being strangled, “I gave him the shortbread to take home, and he was allergic.”
Jude let her mobile slip from her hand. She poked the red phone icon and shut Hazel up. Jude raised her eyes and stared at the wall, waiting for something to happen to her. Fire bolts from hell? Blue flashing lights? A knock at the door?
But there was nothing, nothing at all.
That was the shortbread that she'd made.
She’d left it with Hazel, to teach her a lesson, just a little lesson, to protect the others, to stop Hazel making people ill. Jude had been protecting everyone, she was doing her job - like she’d trained herself to do. She did what others needed her to do because, unlike her, they couldn’t take the risk. She’d been helping Hazel, getting her to see that what she was doing was wrong.
But Hazel had given away Jude’s gift, the one she’d been so careful with.
And now the taxman was dead.
And Hazel shouldn’t have killed him.