Annie’s New Year party: An exclusive short story by Fay Weldon | Books | Entertainment

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FAY WELDONGETTY

DEATH OF A SHE DEVIL: Some familiar faces appear in Harry and Iris’ life

Harry and I bought the house for £389,950. It was the show home for the new Lychmede estate – so we got a 15 per cent discount.

It was a detached, three-bed new build with gentle pink bricks and pale grey tiles.

It stood on its own for three months with us living in it, a pretty dolls’ house stranded in a sea of mud while the developers sorted out some legal wrangle with the council.

It was quite difficult to stay optimistic through those three wintry months; no neighbours, no bus stop, no shops, no clinic, no pub, only ice and mud.

But we managed, and suddenly spring arrived, building started, and our Toy Town rose swiftly around us. 

Street names and numbers were allocated, the pub opened, traffic lights were installed – 1,200 dwelling units in all.

And since we’d been there first, we were the oldest inhabitants. I’m 59 and Harry’s 66. We’re both retirees from teaching.

And Lychmede was fun and rather exciting: you could almost feel the relief quivering in the air. “At last, at last, a home of our own.”

I volunteered at Citizens Advice, started the book-reading group and was voted in as chairperson of the Residents’ Association.

Harry was treasurer and ran the Gardening Club. We organised a Spare Room Centre for visiting friends and relatives.

We were OK in our three-bedder when grandchildren turned up, but not everyone was so lucky, in their duplexes and maisonettes.

And then in November, four months after the official opening, Phil and Annie Wood bought the only house left for sale in Lychmede, another detached three-bedder across from us. 

I had flu and missed the bread-and-salt party we’d devised for newcomers, so I didn’t get to meet Phil, but the first thing Annie did after moving in was to join the Book Club.

She was in her early thirties, younger than the rest of us, a pretty, quiet, rather shy little thing, but she made a good member of the group, read all the suggested books, spoke up when relevant and didn’t try to hog the conversation as some do.

We could be a bit raucous at times, and Merrily Philips always insisted on reading the rude bits aloud, but Annie coped.

She’d blink her wide, blue, innocent eyes and look astonished until Merrily finished and we turned our attention back to “character arcs”, “unreliable narrators” and so on.

Annie was lively, quick and fun. We liked her a lot. Phil stayed elusive.

He was an accountant and off to work before Harry and I were even out of bed – there’s a lot to say for being a retiree – and the couple took to their love nest in the evenings.

And then one Saturday morning, when Harry and I were strolling out to inspect the Christmas market, a stout chocolate Labrador came leaping up to us dragging her lead behind her, and greeted us as if we were lost friends, slobbering and pawing, really glad to see us.

There was no owner in sight. “Oh my God, Harry,” I said.

“It’s Calvin.”

“Don’t be silly, Iris,” he said.

“Calvin is a hundred miles north in Leominster. One middle-aged chocolate Labrador looks much like another: stout and friendly.”

But I could tell he too was shocked. Calvin – Sandy’s dog back in Leominster.

Sandy, my lifelong best friend. Our lives had gone in tandem: we’d even shared a maternity ward on two different occasions, and when she and Phil came to live nextdoor we’d taken down the fence and shared the garden so Calvin could have room to roam.

But Phil had left Sandy after 25 years for some stupid girl half Sandy’s age and half Sandy’s size. Sandy, already suspecting something, had surprised the pair in a pile of coats in our bedroom during a drunken party at our place. She’d stormed out and crashed the car, jumped a red light and killed herself.

Perhaps she’d done it on purpose, perhaps she hadn’t. I can’t tell you how dreadful. Too dreadful to even cry. 

It was one of the reasons Harry and I had sold up and come to Lychmede. Too many memories. Neither of us, by the way, have touched alcohol since. We’ve gone off drunken parties. Someone came running up to save us from Calvin’s enthusiasm.

It was Annie. “It’s OK, Phil, I’ve got her,” she called out to a vague male figure in the distance. “I’m so sorry, Iris. She tore the lead out of my hand and just ran off.

And she’s usually so quiet.” “That’s all right,” I said lamely. The penny dropped. No longer Phil and Sandy out walking Calvin, but Phil and Annie out walking Calvin.

Annie, marriage breaker. “I’ve put a party invitation through your letterbox,” Annie said. “It’s for our New Year and house warming combined. All the Book Club are coming. Please, please do come.”

And she raced off. Calvin went with her, willingly enough. Dogs have short memories. I don’t.

I went to her party. I had every intention of speaking my mind. Harry didn’t come with me.

He went to his mother’s for New Year instead. Our grown-up son and daughter, with us for the holidays, went too. We’d spent a fairly rotten Christmas, me brooding about Sandy, hating Annie. She’d spoiled so many lives, and as good as murdered my friend. I could see through that smiley, wide-eyed innocence.

She was nothing but a vain, lustful little tart, dragging a trail of human wreckage behind her. She’d even seduced Calvin.

I think I fell into a kind of craziness myself, my own mini nervous breakdown. I wished so much ill on her. I could taste nothing, achieve nothing.

My sprouts were soggy. I failed to baste the turkey and it was dry. I had words with Harry. He defended Phil: said Sandy must have been difficult to live with, she’d let herself go after the kids left and got menopausal and moody.

It had been just a passing affair but Sandy had been hysterical and turned it into a tragedy.

“So how many ‘passing affairs’ have you had since we were married?”

I remember asking poor Harry. I turned my ire on to Phil, the philandering murderer, the slimeball. And then New Year’s Eve was upon us. I told Harry I was going to go to the party and by the time I’d finished, all Lychmede would know just what kind of rotten people Phil and Annie were.

“She’d not be welcome in the Book Club any more. Harry said I disappointed him, and went off to his mother’s.

“We were barely speaking. I went to Annie’s party. Lychmede front doors open straight into living rooms and when Phil from Leominster opened the door to me, a glass in his hand, the party was well under way. Phil turned pale when he saw me, and I read a silent “please don’t tell” on his lips.

FAY WELDONGOOGLE

Fay Weldon’s latest novel, Death Of A She Devil is out now

He was stricken, as though the whole dream house was about to fall down around his ears. Which was satisfying to see, because that was exactly what I was about to do. Shake it until it rattled and fell. The room was prettily and expensively furnished. Phil was clearly doing really well, and it was a good party.

Sandy’s dog Calvin was asleep in his basket (he must be getting deaf, I thought) while Annie darted between the happy guests, pretty in a red velvet dress (Sandy had loved velvet), serving smoked salmon canapés (Sandy’s favourites) and surely, surely not – she was wearing the very gold shoes that were Sandy’s best. It was beyond belief.

This little squit of a girl had stolen not just Sandy’s husband and her children, but her home and wardrobe as well. Taken the whole lot from Leominster and dumped it here in Lychmede.

There was Sandy’s lovely yellow sofa, and the serving forks from the cutlery set Phil and Sandy had brought back from their holiday in Bali.

Still I said nothing, holding my fire. I retreated upstairs to powder my nose, and there in the bedroom was the same brass bed in which Sandy and Phil had made love.

Even the same pink and gold coverlet on the bed. I felt quite sick, and heard the crash of metal and the thump of a broken body and I had a vision of Sandy’s tormented face.

My fault. I shouldn’t have poured Sandy the extra drink. I should have looked after her better. My fault, my fault.

Everything went shadowy. I think I passed out just because I was crying so much. When I went back down to the living room, there was still red rage before my eyes.

But midnight was striking and before I knew it I was roped into Auld Lang Syne, and then Annie told everyone it was a very special year because she was pregnant and she and Phil were starting afresh, like all the other guests in the room, happy in their new life at Lychmede.

I looked round and saw it was true. And suddenly Calvin was nuzzling my hand and Sandy was whispering in my ear.

“It’s OK, forget it, I’m all right now: it’s over, let her be,” and all the rage and upset fell away. Sandy was right; it was over.

For every new life, there needs be a new beginning, and we are all entitled to try for one of our own. An extra bad deed would not wipe out the last one.

I took the glass of champagne Phil offered me and cheered and drank with everyone else. To Annie, the new baby, to Lychmede.

If Annie wanted to walk in Sandy’s shoes, let her. They were shoes worth walking in.

She’d learn. I shook Phil’s hand as I left, and I even smiled at him in reassurance, though that was difficult.

Fay Weldon’s latest novel, Death Of A She Devil (Head of Zeus, £8.99), is out now. See Express Bookshop on page 82.