Bernice stared out of Lyra’s bay window trying to ignore the hints of peeling paint and fading curtains. At least her own house wasn’t letting the side down, and the knowledge that it set a good example to the rest of the street was a comfort to her. Despite her best efforts to avoid the subject Bernice felt her gaze continually drawn to number 12 where there had been no sign of life all morning.
‘Well, you know I’m not one to judge, but the new neighbours are a bit… unusual.’ Bernice shook her head slightly, in a way that she thought indicated indifference, but came across to Lyra as mild disgust.
‘Really? I hadn’t noticed.’ Lyra rolled her eyes and diverted her attention back to her coffee.
‘You know, at number 12. They arrived in the middle of the night. Woke me up at 1.15 banging their car doors and carrying boxes up and down the drive. In fact, come to think of it, they’ve been in there three days and I’ve only seen them at night.’
‘I must have slept right through it.’ Lyra offered Bernice another custard cream. Anything to stem the flow of snobbery.
‘Oh, thank you but I shouldn’t have any more, trying to watch the figure, you know.’ Bernice tapped her bulging thigh then reached for the plate and took two.
‘I was thinking about the bake sale, are you planning to make anything?’
‘I am! Of course I am, and I think I might make extra to take round to number 12, you know, as a welcome basket. I should really try to meet them soon, make sure they settle in, make sure they’re our kind of people.’ She mouthed these last four words as if worried the sofa might over-hear.
‘How’s Penny doing at school?’
‘Oh, she’s fine, you know, a good all-rounder. Still obsessed with those horror movies I can’t stand, but I can’t seem to talk her into anything more tasteful. They have a daughter about her age, I wonder if she’ll join the same class.’
Lyra gave up trying to change the subject and waited for Bernice to out talk herself and then decide to leave of her own accord.
The street-lights flickered on as Bernice pulled her coat round her and crossed the road back towards the perfectly polished number 10 on her own front door. There was a curtain twitching at number 12 but it may have just been their cat on the window sill. It certainly wasn’t anyone looking out, thank goodness. She wasn’t at all prepared to meet them yet, hadn’t even decided which shoes went best with a wicker basket, let alone what to put inside one.
With a quick glance round the street to check she hadn’t missed anything interesting, Bernice opened her front door and disappeared inside. High heels off in the hallway, comforting deep pile carpet underfoot, familiar ticking of the grandfather clock, and she was home.
‘Richard! Richard, have you seen my baking book?’ she bustled through to the kitchen. ‘The one with the cherry flan on the front? I could have sworn I left it on the coffee table.’
‘I could have sworn you tidied it away Dear. Along with my playing cards, where did you put them?’
‘In their place, as everything should be.’
‘As everything should be…’ muttered Richard under his breath as he opened the left-hand drawer of the sideboard and retrieved his cards.
Bernice flitted into the living room to regale her husband with a blow-by-blow account of her visit to Lyra’s house.
‘…of course she’s still single, I keep telling her to let me set her up with Marcus but she won’t hear of it. I noticed the curtains twitch at number 12 on the way back over, but I think it was the cat.’ She leaned as close as she could to the glass in the bay window, slanting her gaze towards the mysterious new neighbour’s house. ‘I’m going to take them a welcome basket tomorrow. I think I’ll make muffins and an apple pie. Everyone loves an apple pie.’
As the sun came up Bernice readied Richard and Penny’s breakfasts and made herself busy in the kitchen. She had everything she needed for the muffins and apple pie lined up on the counter-top before they left for the day.
‘Have you got your swimming kit Penelope?’
‘Yes Mum. Please don’t call me that.’
‘Richard, don’t forget to pick up the dry cleaning on your lunch break.’
‘Have a lovely day everyone!’ Bernice waved them off from the gleaming front door before she swung it shut behind her and pulled on her favourite yellow apron with the little cream ducks on the pocket.
By mid-afternoon the muffins and apple pie were ready and cooled and packed into a traditional wicker basket. A rather twee “Happy New Home” card, covered in pink roses and signed on behalf of the whole Carver family sat in its pastel envelope underneath the cheese-cloth cover. Bernice had chosen a beautiful pair of classic off-white heels to match the cloth and teamed them with some smart canary-yellow slacks and a charming lemon and white checked blouse. A cream silk scarf completed the outfit. Just because it was grey outside didn’t mean she couldn’t be a ray of sunshine. She sauntered casually down the drive, plastering her most welcoming smile across her caramel-tinted lips as she went. Hoping it wasn’t about to rain on her mascara.
Three confident but kindly knocks on number 12 and Bernice stood back a step, ready to greet the newcomers. She waited long enough for someone to make it through from the garden at the back (a garden which could really do with a little attention if you asked her) but no one came. She counted to thirty and knocked again, a little louder.
‘Yoo-hoo! Anyone home?’
The car was in the drive and no one had emerged from the house all day, surely she would have heard the door close or voices in the driveway. Maybe they were ignoring her. How rude. Bernice trotted back to her own front door, keeping up her well-practised smile until she was safely on the other side of it.
Penny arrived home an hour later, starving as always, and made a beeline for the basket.
‘Were they not home? I don’t suppose there’s a muffin going spare?’
‘Hands off young lady! Those are for the neighbours and the ones on the side are for tomorrow’s bake sale. Cancer research this year, a cause I can really get behind, not like when they did that thing for sick animals last year. Honestly some people value their cats more than their children. But of course I still donated then, you have to be seen to be doing these things.’
‘You didn’t make any for us? None at all?’
‘No I did not. You and I could both stand to lose a few pounds and you know what your father’s like, he wouldn’t touch his dinner if he got his hands on a cake. There’s a lasagne in the oven for when he’s back from work. Won’t be long now.’
‘Are you going to try the neighbours again? It’s almost completely dark.’
‘I suppose it is looking a bit gloomy out there. Yes, I’ll pop round now. Hands off my muffins!’
Three knocks and a Yoo Hoo later Bernice was greeted at the door of number 12 by a pale, spindly lady with long ebony hair and a dress to match.
‘Oh Hello! I am sorry to intrude, I’m Mrs Carver, Bernice Carver, from next door. I thought I’d pop round to welcome you to the street.’
‘Hello Mrs Carver. I’m Lilly, Lilly Black. Nice of you to come round.’
‘Lovely to meet you, Lilly. I hope you like muffins, I did a little baking for you and the family. I noticed you have a girl about my daughter’s age, perhaps they could walk to school together?’
‘Evelyn isn’t at a local school.’
Bernice supressed a frown and held out the basket. Private school perhaps. The one that wouldn’t take Penny? Was Evelyn a beastly little over achiever?
‘Well, I do hope you like these. Half of them are gluten free, in the red paper, just in case.’
‘Very thoughtful.’ Said Lilly and accepted the basket with a weak smile. ‘My family do have some dietary issues.’
‘Is your husband home? Perhaps I could say Hello?’
‘Eric’s sleeping, he works shifts and I try not to wake him until later in the evening.’
‘Oh, right, well I don’t want to be a nuisance. I suppose I should let you get on.’ Bernice repeated her trademark head shake.
‘Yes, it’s probably for the best. Thank you for the basket.’ Lilly slithered away behind her door and pulled it closed before Bernice could respond.
Richard was pulling into the drive as Bernice returned to her own property, a little put out. She had ushered him quickly inside, removed her shoes and opened the oven door before she collected herself enough to speak in a dignified manner.
‘It’s lasagne for dinner, Darling and before you ask the muffins are for the bake sale.’
‘Oh lovely. Have you just been next door?’
‘The lady of the house accepted the basket and that was about all. She seems a little aloof. Her name is Lilly Black, her husband is Eric and their daughter is Evelyn. Evelyn doesn’t go to Penny’s school. I can only assume she’s at King Edward’s or somewhere equally pretentious.’
‘It went well then?’ Richard smirked.
Bernice lifted the lasagne out of the oven and waved a hand towards the table. ‘Don’t expect to be seeing them any time soon. He works shifts, apparently. I can’t believe I wasted my good basket. I’ll probably not get it back.’
‘Did you write them a card?’ asked Richard taking his seat.
‘Of course I did. Though I may be regretting it. I added a note inside to say they should take it as on open invitation to come round whenever they like. They look a little, what’s the word? Gothic I suppose. She was all in black and very pale, that dress did nothing kind for her complexion. Would you go and shout Penelope to come down? She said she was watching The Lost Boys or Buffy or something equally uncouth. We need to wean her off that stuff, she’d move to Transylvania if she could.’
The following afternoon’s bake sale went well and all of Bernice’s muffins, both with and without gluten, were snapped up by the end of it. She made it home just before dusk and fixed herself a small, celebratory, glass of shiraz.
Her phone beeped, it was the family WhatsApp group:
RICHARD: Don’t forget I’m working late tonight. I’ll get a take away at the office.
BERNICE: Not a problem Darling. I’ll wait up for you.
PENNY: Remember I’m staying over at Jane’s tonight. See you both tomorrow.
BERNICE: Have a good evening and remember to thank Jane’s mother.
PENNY: Yes Mum. Will do.
An evening alone, how could she forget? Bernice could finally catch up on her baking shows and read a little Vogue. She was sure there was a recent article on dinner party trends and it was high time she threw another one. Her dinner parties were excellent and those new silver candelabras needed showing off. She popped a quiche she’d prepped at lunch time into the oven and settled down to relax. But not before glancing out of the front window as the streetlamps came on. Was that a bat? Two of them, circling the sky.
‘Well I never!’ she muttered to herself. ‘First goths then bats, whatever will be next?’
Bernice took a long, hot, well deserved, bath after dinner and just as she had wrapped her wet hair in a towel, and got her avocado face mask on, the doorbell rang. She looked down from the front bedroom window to try to see who it was but they were standing too close to the door. Typical, the one night she had to herself interrupted by who knows what. But it could be an emergency, and she had to be seen to be caring and neighbourly, so she grabbed her fluffy bath robe, popped on her slippers and nipped down the stairs.
‘Oh Lilly, it’s you. Do excuse my appearance, I’m just out of the bath. Is everything alright?’
‘Everything is fine thank you. I just thought I would take you up on your offer.’
‘Yes, in your card, your open invitation. Eric and Evelyn will be here shortly.’
‘I don’t suppose we could take a rain check? I’m literally just out of the bath.’ Bernice said as Lilly pushed past her into the hallway.
‘It’s the only night for weeks when Eric won’t be working, and you did say “Any time”.’
Bernice put her hand to her mouth to cover her surprise at the complete lack of manners on show. What was coming next? Before she could even ask Lilly to remove her shoes there were voices on the drive. Eric and Evelyn were approaching the house.
‘Good evening, Eric Black, nice to meet you, you must be Bernice? This is Evelyn.’
Evelyn’s scowl was as clear as the starry sky but Bernice held out a hand to her anyway, hoping it didn’t get snapped off. In stead an unpleasantly weak shake resulted, with about the same amount of tension offered by a dressing gown belt. Dressing gown. Bernice was still in her dressing gown. And she was right, they were not returning the basket. Their hands were empty.
Eric put his foot up onto the doorstep and Bernice gave up.
‘Yes, do come in. I’ll just get myself into a more respectable outfit, you can wait in the living room, if you would.’ She ushered them through before running up the stairs.
A few minutes later, hair still wet but face back to a normal colour (even if lacking make up), and proper clothes on (a rather stylish cerise jump suit), Bernice reappeared in the lounge.
Evelyn was exploring Penny’s DVD collection of video nasties on the shelves by the television and her parents, unconcerned, were kissing on the sofa!
Bernice cleared her throat. ‘I’m not sure you’ll like those films, they’re not very tasteful but I can’t persuade Penny to watch anything more appropriate.’
‘Oh I’ve seen them all.’ Said Evelyn. ‘Some several times over. You should try them sometime, they might be educational.’
Educational? The cheek of it!
‘Some of the things they say are quite accurate.’ Continued Evelyn, stroking the spine of Nosferatu.
‘Can I get anyone a drink?’
‘I’ll have a Bloody Mary.’ Evelyn giggled.
Eric pulled his mouth away from Lilly’s gently biting her bottom lip as he did so. He stood from his place on the sofa and looked deeply into Bernice’s eyes. She couldn’t help but stare back at him, lost in the gold flecks of his bright blue irises. He stepped slowly towards her, holding her gaze, locking her into a contemplative study of his pale face. She was being wordlessly seduced, the heat was rising in her throat and her cheeks began to flush.
Lilly stood too, but slinked around the coffee table, approaching Bernice from behind, closing in on her from the opposite side to Eric. Bernice was lightheaded, dreamy, hypnotised. She stood perfectly still as the couple approached and Evelyn watched with hungry eyes from the corner of the room.
Eric stepped closer to Bernice, his breath hot on her cheek. Her knees were weakening and she started to swoon towards him. He caught her as she fell, scooping her into the crook of his arm, and brushing her damp hair away from her neck with the other hand. His canine teeth extended, glinting in the light as he leaned in.
‘You see,’ said Evelyn, ‘it’s true what they say, most of it. The holy water, crucifixes, lack of reflection. And you should never, ever, invite us into your home.’