The Sunset Years of Agnes Sharp - Leonie Swann - E-Book

The Sunset Years of Agnes Sharp E-Book

Leonie Swann



It's an eventful day at Sunset Hall, a house-share for the old and unruly, when the police arrive with news that a body has been discovered next door. Everyone, including Agnes Sharp, is secretly relieved that the body in question is not the one they're currently hiding in the shed. Perhaps the answer to their problem has fallen into their laps. If they find out who murdered their neighbour, they can pin Lillith's death on them, thus killing two old birds with one stone.

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Translated from the German by Amy Bojang

For Fyo, who left too soon





Hettie felt hot. She had spent too much time on her sun stone and the afternoon heat had got into her shell and was incessantly buzzing around in her head. Like any responsible cold-blooded creature, she had to do something about restoring the balance, and the right place for that was traditionally the shady ravine of old plant pots behind the sky-high wooden structure where ferns grew unchecked from cracks, and snails felt their way across the damp earth.

Hettie got going, one scaly foot in front of the other. Over the gravel path, underneath and through the hydrangeas, past the big stump.

But there was something different. Where normally the wooden structure loomed, there was nothing – a big, gaping nothing, and shadows behind it. Like all tortoises, Hettie didn’t have much time for curiosity, but this unknown realm of shadows attracted her. She crawled up the ramp, hesitated briefly at the sunshade border and glided on into the pleasant coolness. Her shell brushed against old wood, smoothed by time and countless Big Feet. She could smell the Big Feet even now, near and unmistakable, salty and leathery.

In principle, Hettie had nothing against Big Feet, they had always treated her with respect and were sometimes accompanied by Lettuce-holding Hands. Emboldened, she crept on, deeper into the shadows.

Back there. Aha.

She could see straight away that something wasn’t right with the Big Feet. Unlike most of their contemporaries, they weren’t flat and firmly on the ground, but had their pointy end sticking upwards, up into the ether, where sunlight cut through the half-dark and dust stars danced.

Highly unusual. This little pair was strangely motionless too. Clearly unwell, Hettie had never come across an ill Big Foot before. Now a feeling a bit like curiosity came over her, or if not curiosity, then at least appetite. As an experiment, quite daringly, she bit into one of the Big Feet. The foot did not fight back, and triumphantly Hettie bit down a second time, more out of principle than enthusiasm. Leathery and hard. Not to her taste. But wherever there were Big Feet, Lettuce-holding Hands weren’t far away. She decided to go looking for them, and to her amazement, discovered that on the other side of the Big Feet it went on, on and on, a whole realm of hills, valleys and humps.

And indeed back there, deeper in the dark, was a Lettuce-holding Hand. Only it wasn’t holding any lettuce, but seemed bent double, not dissimilar to a dead spider. Tortoises are generally impatient folk, but Hettie was an exception. She could wait. Above all for lettuce. She found a comfy place at the foot of the hilly landscape. Not too warm and not too cold. Cosy, but not claustrophobic. She could grow to like this place.

However, after some considerable time had passed and no lettuce had appeared, Hettie had had enough of waiting around. Apart from that, the hills next to her that had started out as pleasantly temperate, had got colder and colder, uncomfortably cold, and the flies were starting to get on her nerves. To start with it was only two or three, and Hettie had ignored them in true tortoise-style, but now there was a whole cloud of them circling overhead. Buzzing, ducking and diving, flitting around the hills and Hettie herself. When one of the flies had the audacity to land on Hettie’s head and tried to drink out of her eye, the tortoise shuffled indignantly out of her place and walked through a strangely sticky, metallic-smelling puddle and out into the afternoon sun again.



The doorbell rang, and Agnes Sharp abandoned the search for her false teeth, simultaneously pleased and annoyed.

Pleased that she had even heard the doorbell – her ears hadn’t really been playing along recently, and sometimes all she could hear was a high-pitched, nerve-jangling ringing, accompanied by a rushing sound. So, the doorbell was a welcome change.

On the other hand, it would be quite embarrassing to open the door without the aforementioned false teeth, unclear and toothless. But the caller had to be gotten rid of before he had the idea of going snooping around in the garden – teeth or no teeth.

‘I’m coming! Juft a minute!’ Agnes bellowed into the hall, then she sallied forth. Out of the room. Mind the threshold. And then the stairs. A step forward, a step down, then bring down the other foot. A vertigo-inducing moment without any sense of balance, a deep breath, then gather courage for the next step down. And so on. Twenty-six times.

A minute, my foot!

The doorbell rang again.

Her hip grumbled.

The doorbell rang once more.

‘Juft one moment, for God fake!’

When she reached the first landing, a real rage had built up in her, towards the stairs, the caller, the renegade false teeth, but also her housemates. Why did she always get the difficult jobs? Like scaling the stairs. Or taking out the bins. Or … absolutely everything.

Edwina would have made it down the stairs somewhat quicker, but she would of course have been useless at the door. Bernadette was sitting in her room crying her blind eyes out. At this time Marshall was mostly somewhere on the Internet, unreachable, connected to the computer as if by the umbilical cord. And you obviously couldn’t expect Winston to attempt the descent without the stairlift.

Why had nobody repaired the stupid stairlift?

Then Agnes remembered that it had been her job to call for it to be repaired, but with her unreliable hearing and her aversion to the telephone she had kept putting it off. It was her own fault then, as so often seemed to be the case these days.

The only scapegoat left was the caller, and her rage towards him was mounting.

She had mastered the last step and was dragging herself to the front door with a calculated slowness accompanied by the doorbell’s staccato chimes. Did they think she was deaf? What was the buffoon playing at? What did they even want at this time? And what time was it anyway?

Agnes fumbled briefly with the latch, then threw the door open. She would have liked to give the caller a piece of her mind, but nothing came to her.

‘Yef?’ she snapped. She didn’t quite carry it off and got even more annoyed.

‘Err … Miss Sharp?’ The caller peered rudely past her into the house. A bloody whippersnapper with officious glasses and a briefcase under his arm. This couldn’t be a good sign. Agnes crossed her thin arms, while the whippersnapper switched on a winning smile, rather too late.

‘Miss Sharp, I have wonderful news for you!’

He really shouldn’t have said that. Up to now Agnes had simply planned to get rid of the troublemaker, but now she lost it. Wonderful news? Today of all days? It was too much.

Despite her missing teeth she tried a friendly old-lady smile – with moderate success, as she gathered from the puzzled look on the sales rep’s face. ‘Oh, for me? How lofely! Come frough to the sitting room.’

He only had himself to blame!


‘Anofer bifcuit?’

Where on earth were her teeth?

The whippersnapper silently shook his head. He had taken a single bite of his biscuit and since then had been sitting strangely tensely in the battered wingback chair, chewing. Agnes poured piss-yellow herbal tea into his cup and studied the brochure the intruder had pushed into her hand with feigned interest.

The visitor put the half-eaten biscuit back on the plate – a cold clatter like stone on stone. Edwina’s biscuits were generally even spurned by the mice, but for occasions like this they were priceless.

‘Do you liff on your own?’ the whippersnapper asked with a mouth full.

He didn’t want to swallow or spit, so he was stuck.

Agnes thought about Winston and sobbing Bernadette, about Edwina, who was probably trying to find her inner balance through yoga, about Marshall, and finally, about Lillith, and sighed deeply.

The visitor nodded sympathetically.

‘What we offer if perfect for people like you. We manage your houfe, take care of renting it out. We take care of everyfing, whilft you fpend your golden funfet years at Lime Tree Court …’ He went quiet and fixed his gaze strangely past Agnes on the floor, where Hettie the tortoise was passing by with her usual elegance.

And on her shell – the false teeth! Presumably they’d been travelling around the house by tortoise for quite a while, a disembodied, mobile grin. Exactly the kind of thing Marshall would find funny.

Agnes leant right forward, fishing for her false teeth and grabbed them. Hurrah! She quickly put the dentures into her mouth and beamed at the whippersnapper with rows of pristine teeth.

‘Golden sunset years, you said?’

‘Wifout finanfial worrief!’ The sales rep gave in and stood up. ‘I’d freally luf to ftay and chat, but I …’

‘You’re going already? What a shame. Are you sure you don’t want another …?’

Agnes picked up another biscuit threateningly, but the whippersnapper was already on his way to the door, and a good thing that he was too.

Because Lillith was lying out in the woodshed, a bullet in her head and a smile on her lips. It was going to be a tough day.


They held their crisis meeting in the sunroom on the first floor. It was easiest for Winston that way. Agnes had prepared tea and got Edwina to take the teapot and cups upstairs. They had real biscuits out of a packet too.

Agnes took an experimental bite – her dentures held firm – and looked around. Marshall was next to her, upright and sharp-eyed. Next to him Edwina was in one of her impossible yoga poses with a dreamy expression on her face. Winston just looked calm and sad in his wheelchair. Dignified, like Father Christmas. The scoundrel! How did he do it?

Unlike Winston, Bernadette almost never seemed dignified. Instead she came across like a Mafia boss, not least because of her dark glasses. She had calmed down a bit, but it was the calm before the storm – or, better put, between two storms. With a downpour.

To Agnes’s right there was a gaping empty chair.

‘The engineer for the stairlift is coming tomorrow,’ she reported. After she had finally picked up the phone, it had been surprisingly easy to get the appointment. ‘Marshall has ordered the groceries for next week online. Loo roll too.’ Marshall gave her an encouraging smile. Another crisis averted.

‘And as regards the problem in the shed …’

‘She is not a problem!’ interrupted Bernadette. ‘She’s Lillith!’

‘Not any more,’ said Agnes softly. ‘That is the problem.’ Bernadette made an unhappy sound.

‘It is warm for the time of year,’ Agnes continued. ‘We can’t just do nothing …’

‘We can put her on the stairlift!’ Edwina beamed. ‘On the stairlift, up she goes, upstairs. Into her bed. Peacefully in her sleep. Maybe she’ll even recover! And if not … peacefully in her sleep!’

‘She is not going to recover,’ said Marshall decisively. ‘And as far as peacefully in her sleep goes …’

‘Indeed!’ Bernadette puffed bitterly.

‘We could just call the police,’ suggested Winston. At heart, he was someone who liked order. ‘The police usually deal with such matters.’

‘We could do that,’ said Agnes, ‘if we knew where the gun was. Without the gun …’

Three pairs of eyes turned to look questioningly at Marshall.

Bernadette’s dark glasses reflected the light.

Marshall seemed confused for a moment, then sheepish. ‘The gun … it was in the shed. I had it … and then I was in the thingummy … in the sitting room, and … I must admit …’ He attempted a military stance, but didn’t pull it off completely.

‘We don’t know where the gun is,’ Agnes repeated. ‘And now if the police come and find it – shall we say, somewhere in the house – it could look suspicious.’

Edwina’s laugh rang out.

Bernadette snorted.

Winston nodded sagely.

Nobody had anything useful to say. Typical.

The high-pitched ringing started up in Agnes’s ear. She used the acoustic intermezzo to think. How long could they wait before reporting Lillith’s death? On the one hand, it was definitely an advantage to leave her in the shed for a while, especially in this heat. The more time that passed, the more difficult it would be for the police to make sense of it all. On the other hand, it could obviously seem suspicious if they kept Lillith’s passing to themselves for too long. Sure, most of the people in the village had them down – completely unjustifiably – as a load of senile hippies, but at some point, even they had to notice that one of their housemates was missing. When exactly? After a day? Two days?

Edwina said something. It wouldn’t be anything sensible. Agnes drank a mouthful of tea and waited for the high-pitched ringing to go away.

Bernadette took her sunglasses off her nose, got a tissue ready and waited for her next sobbing fit.

Winston patted her knee to comfort her.

Marshall said something to Agnes, and she acted like she understood him. An attentive look and a short but encouraging nod should do it.

Then the ringing suddenly disappeared, and Agnes heard the word ‘umbrella,’ as Marshall looked at her expectantly.

‘Well, yes,’ said Agnes unsure.

‘Just an umbrella,’ Marshall repeated. ‘That’s all. But it doesn’t make much sense.’

‘How could you!’ hissed Bernadette. Her blind eyes stared into empty space. It had an unsettling effect. ‘Just like that. Without a goodbye, without … anything!’

‘With a goodbye, it wouldn’t exactly have been a surprise, would it?’ Agnes responded more sharply than she’d intended. Typical Bernadette, making a drama out of the whole thing. They had all agreed! It wasn’t as if Lillith’s sudden death wouldn’t haunt her, quite the opposite, but sometimes you had to think practically.

‘We’re all going to drink our tea,’ she said decisively. ‘And take our pills. And then we’ll have a look.’

‘For Lillith?’ asked Edwina delightedly.

‘For the gun!’ said Agnes. ‘Winston and Bernadette will look here on the first floor. In Marshall’s room, obviously, but in all of the others too. Everywhere. Edwina and I will look on the ground floor, and Marshall will take care of the garden.’

She looked at a row of long faces. ‘Just like Easter!’ she cried cheerily.

‘Work smarter, not harder.’ Winston said, and grinned.


First, they looked in the kitchen, then in the sitting room. Agnes let Edwina climb ladders and peer under sofas and tried to keep a cool head. Together they looked in the vases on the cabinet, behind the books on the shelf, in pots and boxes and jars, behind cushions and under blankets and even in plant pots – and brought a whole host of useful things to light. Three of Edwina’s biscuits, hard and firm like the day they were made, eight pairs of reading glasses, a hearing aid, a blood pressure monitor (that’s where it went!) and pills aplenty, craftily hidden in nooks and crannies. Someone in the house wasn’t taking their medication as prescribed. Agnes would follow up on that later. They just had to …

For the second time that day, the doorbell rang.

Terrible timing.

Edwina was already at the door and opened it.

‘Cooey!’ she said.

Agnes rushed after her, as fast as she could. Edwina answering the door was rarely a good idea.

From the other side of the door came a serious male voice. ‘The police!’ cried Edwina excitedly. ‘It’s the police, Agnes! Look, how handy!’

Agnes rushed. The police? Already? It was too early, much too early! They didn’t have a plan yet! Maybe Bernadette had …? No. As far as she knew Bernadette didn’t think much of the police …

‘Do come in, Inspector,’ Edwina blathered excitedly. ‘We were just looking for—’

‘The tortoise!’ gasped Agnes, who had finally made it to the door. ‘We’ve lost our tortoise.’

The policeman made a strange face and stepped inside hesitantly. He was in uniform. So far, so bad. ‘Miss Sharp? Agnes Sharp?’

‘I’m Edwina,’ corrected Edwina, but the policeman didn’t allow himself to be distracted and looked Agnes in the eye with, to her mind, a much too critical look. She felt herself getting hot. ‘Are you the homeowner? Miss Sharp, I need to talk to you briefly. Regarding a very serious matter.’

Serious! Oh God. What to say? As little as possible! She would have preferred to deal with the policeman straight away in the hall, but Edwina had already taken him by the arm and led him into the sitting room, where following their hunt it was full of vases, pots and jars standing everywhere.

Incredulously, the policeman looked at the pile of pills and the mountain of reading glasses.

‘We—’ said Edwina, and Agnes hastily interrupted her.

‘Just ran away, the cheeky thing. We’ve looked everywhere!’

‘In pots?’ asked the policeman.

‘She likes to play hide and seek,’ Agnes explained, without batting an eyelid.

‘Please take a seat,’ murmured the policeman in an official tone and motioned to the sofa, where the biscuits were lying. ‘What I have to tell you might be quite a shock for you both.’

‘We’re not made of sugar,’ snapped Edwina.

But what the policeman had to tell them really was quite a shock.


‘Mildred Puck?’ Agnes asked for the third time. She was sitting uncomfortably on the rock-hard biscuits. ‘Dead?’ Her head was swimming. Mildred? Why was the man talking about Mildred? Something wasn’t right!

‘Shot dead,’ said the policeman. ‘On her own terrace. In her deck chair.’

‘What a coincidence!’ cried Edwina and clapped her hands together.

‘It’s not really a coincidence,’ responded the policeman. ‘We suspect that the perpetrator broke in through the garden and Mildred surprised him. I have to ask you if you noticed anything unusual today? Did you see – or hear – anything?’

‘But …’ mumbled Agnes shaking her head. The Mildred she knew hadn’t been capable of surprising anyone for years. Total … invalid. She felt dizzy. Mildred too? It didn’t make any sense!

‘I don’t want to worry you unduly,’ murmured the policeman and looked awkwardly at the pills in front of him. ‘But, if there really is someone trying to rob vulnerable senior citizens … we would ask you all to be cautious, make sure doors and windows are locked. And if you notice anything unusual, please don’t hesitate to …’

He gave Agnes his card.

Agnes hesitated.

‘But Mildred is … Mildred was an invalid. We, on the other hand …’

She fell silent. It was pointless trying to explain the difference between a torpid vegetable like Mildred and her little community of active senior citizens. She took the card, sighing. Of course. The print was far too small. Their chances of correctly reading the number in an emergency and dialling it on the phone were about as good as Hettie the tortoise’s.

‘Biscuits?’ asked Edwina and fished a specimen from under her joggers.

‘Not while I’m on duty,’ said the policeman with a hint of a smile. Edwina lost interest and slid from the sofa into one of her yoga poses. The cobra if Agnes wasn’t mistaken.

The policeman’s smile quickly vanished.

‘There is no need to panic,’ he said. ‘But you should be vigilant. And we would be grateful of any information.’

‘Of course. That’s very thoughtful of you.’ Agnes noticed her heart was pounding wildly. Maybe the whole Mildred thing wasn’t a catastrophe at all. Maybe it was an opportunity! Edwina had finished her cobra and wandered through to the hall.

‘Did she … die instantly?’ asked Agnes.

The policeman looked at the pills again with seeming fascination, and the way he said nothing told Agnes that it hadn’t been a quick death. Not at all.

She shuddered.

‘Were you close?’ The policeman tore his gaze from the pills and looked at Agnes. His eyes were red and tired and somehow shocked, and for the first time Agnes felt that he wasn’t just a policeman, but a human being too with floppy, sand-coloured hair and a beer belly. He even looked a bit familiar to her. These days, with some people, she felt like she had already met them, as if there were a finite number of faces in the world and at some point, when you’d lived for long enough, you had seen them all.

‘We had known each other for a long, long time,’ she said quietly.

The policeman opened his mouth, presumably to say something sympathetic, when a little triumphant cry came from the hall.

‘Gotcha!’ cheered Edwina.

The gun! Agnes’s heart leapt about in her chest like a tormented frog.

Edwina! No!

Not now!

The high-pitched ringing was back, and Agnes clung to the arm of the sofa. She watched helplessly as the policeman jumped out of his chair and rushed to the door. She couldn’t do anything, say anything, and the wonderful opportunity that had just presented itself was slipping through her fingers. Like sand. Like peas and pastry forks and coffee beans. Like quite a few things these days.

Then Edwina was back again and was blabbering excitedly and inaudibly into her ear, and then the policeman appeared, beaming, with Hettie the tortoise in his big policeman hands.


Agnes woke up, squinted and could see four quite blurry but clearly concerned faces above her. She made sense of the colours and shapes as well as she could and tried to concentrate.



Hettie the tortoise.

And the policeman.

Somebody was holding her hand.

Agnes groaned. The policeman had to go!

She opened her mouth, but no sound came out. She rolled her eyes towards Marshall, then back to the policeman. Once. Twice.

‘I think she’s having a fit,’ said the policeman.

Marshall seemed to have understood what Agnes wanted. ‘Pah, fit. The old girl was just a bit hot. These things happen!’ Agnes sighed gratefully.

‘I think she wants a glass of water,’ said Marshall.

The policeman laid Hettie on Agnes’s rib cage and rushed out of the room. ‘Where’s the kitchen?’

‘Back left,’ called Marshall, being deliberately vague. Agnes could hear the policeman pulling open doors in the hall. She found her voice again.

‘He’s got to go!’ she hiss-whispered. ‘Right now. It … it’s an opportunity!’

Hettie the tortoise tried to eat one of her mother-of-pearl buttons.

‘And if I hear the words “old girl” again, there’ll be trouble!’ Marshall grinned and let go of her hand.

The law enforcement official returned with a red face and a glass of water.

‘I really didn’t want to shock her like this. At first, she seemed to take the news quite well. I mean … we thought it would be best if the neighbours … it really is a bit remote here, you must be careful … are you sure we shouldn’t call the doctor?’

Strange that nobody really spoke to you any more, just because you were lying on your back – or on your stomach in Hettie’s case. They all talked over you, literally. Agnes looked up, as words were sailing over her, like she wasn’t there at all. She had a drink of water and watched as, in a rare moment of unity, Marshall, Edwina and Hettie tried to get rid of the policeman. It was probably Hettie who made the final call with her impatient snarl.

The policeman distributed a few more of his cards and bits of advice, then Marshall and Edwina manoeuvred him towards the door.

Hettie and Agnes looked at each other. ‘That was close!’ Agnes exhaled.

Hettie hissed in agreement.


And then …

Agnes was a girl with thin, sun-tanned limbs, white socks and pigtails reaching down to her bottom. Agnes didn’t like her pigtails. The boys pulled them. The girls teased her.

But her mother wouldn’t hear of it.

When she skipped, her pigtails skipped too.

But now they were hanging limply.

Agnes was standing beneath a cloudless summer sky watching someone squash firebugs on a stone. The bugs were running back and forth, but they didn’t stand a chance.

‘Why are you doing that?’ asked Agnes.

The sun was warming her neck. A bird was singing. Agnes wanted to go home.

‘Because it’s easy,’ answered the someone.


Agnes opened her eyes wide and stared into Hettie’s wise tortoise face. Hettie was the youngest member of the household, but also the most sensible. That sometimes gave Agnes food for thought.

She was still lying on the sofa with her feet on a cushion. Her pigtails were long gone. Agnes had other problems now. She tried to sit up. Hettie snarled disapprovingly. ‘Could someone possibly take the tortoise …?’

Edwina picked up Hettie and gave her a sloppy kiss on her shell. Agnes got hold of the arm of the sofa and heaved. Somebody pushed from behind and then finally she was sitting upright, if a little askew.

She patted her hair (ravaged of course), sighed and looked at everyone. Bernadette had joined them in the meantime and was listening with her head tilted to one side looking in the direction of the sofa. Marshall had pulled up a chair; Edwina was sitting cross-legged on the rug, and Hettie, who finally had solid ground beneath her claws again, made off with dignity.

Agnes gathered herself.

‘There’s good news and there’s bad news,’ she said. ‘Mildred Puck is dead.’

‘Is that the good news?’ Bernadette asked drily. She had got herself a plate of fondant creams and was hoovering them up, one after the other, like a confectionary vampire. The question stung Agnes. She and Mildred had been friends, best friends. But obviously that was a long time ago, and since then Mildred had spent a considerable amount of time making herself thoroughly unpopular with everyone.

‘The bad news is that some burglar is going around bumping off old people,’ Agnes corrected. ‘And the good news is that he’s using a gun to do it!’

‘Ah!’ said Marshall.

‘Poor Mildred,’ said Edwina. ‘Why is that good?’

‘We can pin Lillith on him!’ Agnes explained excitedly. ‘Don’t you understand? It’s ideal! Two old ladies shot in the garden, practically at the same time! Everyone will think that this burglar is responsible for Lillith too. Now we’ll go to the shed and find her. We can cause a bit of a ruckus and run about all over the place. And then we’ll call the police!’

‘The police again,’ Edwina said, bored.

‘Good plan!’ echoed from above where Winston was sitting on the landing listening.

‘Why should I be a part of this?’ snarled Bernadette not quite as skilfully as Hettie, but venomously nevertheless. ‘When nobody ever …’

‘Because there are no fondant creams in prison,’ said Agnes. ‘That’s why.’


Things turned out to be rather more complicated than she had expected. The police didn’t just come and pick Lillith up, but put up yellow and black plastic tape, striped like hornets, took photos, took samples and searched the garden. Agnes was worried about her hydrangeas.

And the flies! All of the flies! Agnes hadn’t reckoned on those, that Lillith would attract so many flies in such a short space of time. It had been a shock for them all. Now Agnes was standing befuddled in the hall wanting nothing more than a nap. Police officials hurried past her. Edwina and Hettie had disappeared, Marshall was being questioned in the garden, and Winston was looking down from the landing with curiosity. Bernadette had used up the house supply of tissues and was now sobbing into toilet paper in the sitting room. A policewoman was helping her.

Agnes didn’t have anything more to do, other than get in the way. She leant on the doorframe exhausted, when a shadow fell over her.

‘Hello there,’ said an unfamiliar voice.

Agnes squinted into the light and looked into two sparkling green eyes, the brim of an antiquated feather hat hovering over them.

‘I’m Charlie,’ said the feather hat. ‘The newbie! Fabulous house!’

Agnes groaned. The newbie. In the excitement about Lillith and Mildred she had completely forgotten.

At that very moment two police officers carried a stretcher past. On it a big white plastic bag, still surrounded by hopeful flies.

‘Oh,’ said Charlie with the feather hat. ‘I’ve come at a bad time.’

Agnes remembered her manners.

‘No, not at all. I’m Agnes,’ she said and offered her hand. ‘And, err, that was Lillith.’

‘Ha!’ Charlie took her hand and shook it enthusiastically. ‘Good timing then, huh? Fabulous!’

Agnes attempted a smile. ‘Welcome to Sunset Hall!’



Once again nobody else seemed to want to take responsibility, so it was left to Agnes, who was tackling the stairs for the third time that day, to show Charlie her new room. It took a while. Lillith and Mildred were whirring around in her head. Mildred and Lillith.

Mildred. Lillith.

Lillith. Mildred.

And a thousand hungry flies.

Agnes’s knees felt wobbly.

She had to have a rest on the landing.

‘The stairlift is being repaired tomorrow,’ she said apologetically.

Charlie waved dismissively, and sat down beside her without waiting for an invitation. It was better that way, and Agnes didn’t know whether she should be grateful or annoyed. Charlie smelt unfamiliar, not just like laundered clothes, hand cream and eau de cologne, but stranger and more surprising. Real perfume, Agnes assumed. A hint of wood and iris, and beneath that something else, something familiar, but difficult to identify. Maybe just human?

Winston was sitting up on the landing smiling and dignified. ‘There’s a lot going on today,’ he said sympathetically.

Agnes’s hand surreptitiously slipped from Charlie’s forearm. ‘This is Charlie,’ she said. ‘The newbie. And that’s Winston. He’s stuck at the moment.’

‘Hello there,’ said Charlie, and Winston doffed an imaginary hat from his bare head.

‘Your room is back there to the left,’ Agnes explained as she slowly, but purposefully, pushed past them both. She wanted to finally have her nap.

‘Fabulous,’ said Charlie.

The door swung open, and Agnes squinted.

It had been her mother’s favourite room, and sometimes Agnes thought she could see her standing there at the window, a slim silhouette with a straight back and her hair up. Violets and sunlight, a delicate tea set on the little table in the bay window and sometimes, if she was lucky, the aroma of coconut macaroons.

But this time the stars didn’t quite align. Agnes looked through Charlie’s eyes and saw the dust on the mantlepiece and the sun-bleached patch on the rug. The bed was freshly made, thank God, but someone really should have gone to the effort of putting out a few fresh flowers … Only with no stairlift and all the excitement?

‘En suite, desk, sitting area,’ she explained superfluously. ‘As agreed.’

‘Hmmm,’ said Charlie and took off her feather hat. The hair beneath it was white and silky like swan’s down. And long. Down to her bum. You would get a couple of decent plaits out of it.

‘A splash of colour maybe …’ she murmured, throwing her hat in the direction of the coat stand and landing it. ‘And houseplants of course. We’ll get there! Fabulous!’

‘It has a lovely view of the garden,’ Agnes said defensively and drew the curtains. Dust danced in the sunlight. Together they looked down at a labyrinth of hornet tape and some police officers clambering about in it wearing white bee suits. Agnes spotted a damaged hydrangea.

‘Ah,’ she murmured. ‘Normally … it’s idyllic.’

‘Does this happen very often?’ Charlie asked, standing next to her. Her red fingernails tapping the window sill searchingly.

‘I hope not,’ Agnes mumbled, but deep down she had this uneasy feeling that she would soon be seeing more of the hornet tape, in the garden, in the house, everywhere. And the flies … She shuddered, waggled her hands about, and decisively closed the curtains again. ‘I’m sure you’ll want to freshen up,’ she said, nodding cheerfully and making her way towards her nap.

At the door she turned around again. Charlie had sunk down onto the bed and was stretching all four of her limbs revealing a shocking amount of leg in the process.

‘I hope you’ll feel comfortable here at Sunset Hall,’ said Agnes.

‘Sunset Hall!’ Charlie repeated. It sounded mocking, but friendly too. ‘More sunset than hall, I would argue. Just like me!’

‘It is what it is,’ Agnes responded perhaps a little too harshly.

When it came down to it, Charlie was right.

‘Tea’s at four!’ Agnes reminded her.


Obviously, it took a bit longer for them all to gather in the sunroom, around some rather beaten-up-looking, anaemic Chelsea buns. The police had finally left, leaving behind a load of hornet tape and good advice. After his chat with the police officer, Marshall looked pale and grey, deflated like a pre-sucked fondant cream. Bernadette had finally cried herself out and was listening to everyone with an almost perky countenance. Edwina picked away at her bun. Winston poured the tea. Charlie was sitting amongst them chatting in a red kimono like some kind of bird of paradise. About her summers in the South of France.

About her third husband, the rogue. About hospitals, they were the absolute last-ditch. Why was she blabbering the whole time? Nerves, Agnes assumed. The move to Sunset Hall was a huge step for every new arrival.

Charlie finally shoved a bit of Chelsea bun in her mouth, chewed and swallowed unenthusiastically, and Agnes took her chance. Someone had to explain the house rules to the newbie after all.

‘Mostly we all eat together,’ she said quickly. ‘Usually in the dining room, unless the stairlift is broken and Winston …’ She realised she was running the risk of tying herself in knots, and started again. ‘Everyone gets his own breakfast from the kitchen depending on when he gets up. Not before. Obviously not.’ Frustrated, Agnes stared at her napkin. In her head her thoughts were arranged neatly in rows, one after the other, like beads on a string, but more and more often they seemed to get twisted in her mouth. The outside and the inside. The two were getting further and further apart. She sat in exasperated silence.

‘Or she,’ Charlie said with her mouth full.

‘Mostly she,’ Agnes admitted. ‘There’s a list of smaller chores, but other than that we have a cleaning lady.’

‘Sylvie,’ Winston said appreciatively.

‘She also bakes for us,’ Edwina added, pointing towards the shapeless Chelsea buns. ‘I bake too!’

Marshall rolled his eyes. Bernadette groaned.

‘A physio comes on Wednesdays …’ Agnes tried to not allow herself to get confused. ‘Mainly for Winston, but anyone can …’

‘Ha!’ said Winston.

‘Sometimes she cooks …’ Edwina continued.

‘On Fridays we have frozen pizza,’ said Bernadette. ‘Or we order fish and chips from the pub.’

‘We discuss what groceries we buy,’ Agnes explained. ‘And what we cook. We discuss everything.’

A sudden silence fell over the table like a cheese dome. Recently there had been a raft of things that had not been sufficiently discussed.

A whole raft of things.

A car horn sounded outside followed by a deep, bloodcurdling bark.

‘Ha!’ said Charlie. ‘Thomas and Brexit! Fabulous!’


Thomas turned out to be a young, unashamedly handsome wearer of sunglasses. White shirt, healthy tan, ripped jeans. Normally Agnes didn’t think much of jeans, never mind ripped jeans, but in this case … While the more mobile factions of her group went to take a closer look in the flesh, Agnes observed from the window as the fairy-tale prince dutifully lined up suitcase after suitcase at the front door, whilst a grey hurricane raged in his van. The van was rocking.

Then Charlie was on the veranda, closely followed by Marshall and Edwina.

‘Darling!’ Charlie opened her arms and Thomas let go of the suitcases, rushed towards her and gave her a peck on the cheek. A peck. More like a full-blown smacker on the cheek. Agnes was glued to the glass.

‘Is one of those for me?’ Edwina was jumping around on the veranda like a little kid.

Charlie pointed at Edwina. ‘Edwina. Marshall.’ Then with a sweeping gesture, ‘SUNSET HALL!’

From her window, Agnes couldn’t see Marshall, but he had to be down there somewhere in the shadow of the front door. She could imagine it. Hands behind his back. Sceptically. Militarily.

‘Very nice!’ The youngster picked up the first suitcase.

‘Looks really good actually! Shall I take them straight to your …’

‘Would you, darling?’

Their eyes met for a moment and something flashed across their smiling faces. A kind of sadness.

‘So, that’s it?’ Thomas said quietly. ‘You’re sure …?’

Charlie seemed to nod, then she suddenly threw her hands in the air.



Agnes watched suitcase after suitcase drift through the front door, presumably up the stairs, presumably into Charlie’s room. What in the world did Charlie have in all of those suitcases? Agnes could vividly imagine: feather boas, fur coats, lace blouses, diamond brooches, little bottles of perfume, nail varnish.

Her thoughts turned to Lillith, who had also arrived one day with her suitcases, accompanied by her grumpy daughter. Something had to be done with her things. Would they be collected? Someone would have to get in touch with the daughter – or did the police do things like that?

A sudden silence pulled her back to the present.

The stream of suitcases had ceased; the space in front of the house was empty.

Then there were voices on the stairs. In the hall.

Agnes rushed back to the table. She didn’t want to be caught spying. Her mother had never liked it, and presumably people nowadays didn’t either.

Nobody liked a spy. Apart from Edwina of course. Edwina had once been a kind of spy herself.

As the door flew open, she threw herself into the nearest chair. Charlie of course. And the tireless jeans-wearer.

‘The sunroom,’ Charlie declared. Thomas had taken off his sunglasses and was nodding dutifully. ‘My grandson Thomas. This is Agnes. She’s organised the whole thing. Great project!’ The finger pointed again, and Agnes had to drag herself out of the hard-won chair to greet Thomas properly. Organised? Ha! Charlie didn’t know her very well.

Apparently, she had gone a bit over the top with the greeting because Thomas gently removed her hand.

‘I’m going to bust a move then, Gran …’

Charlie nodded. ‘Of course, darling. Thank you so much.

‘And don’t forget Brexit!’ Thomas laughed. ‘As if!’

Bust a move? What move? And Brexit? Who could forget Brexit? The two of them were speaking a language that Agnes didn’t really understand, and she realised she envied them. Recently it seemed to her that she had to fight for every shred of understanding, and here everything just seemed to be babbling along like a brook. Then the helpful grandson was already halfway out of the door, ‘busting a move,’ Agnes assumed, and Charlie was watching him go, her eyes glistening damply.


At some point Agnes managed to make it to her wingback chair and close her eyes, but the conditions weren’t quite conducive to a nap. There was something going on out in the hall; she could hear voices, footsteps, laughter. Edwina let out a little cry of delight.

Agnes considered checking to make sure everything was alright. She was tired, too tired to go to the door, let alone to the stairs. Let the others screech! She was exactly where she belonged. She would just sit there until … what was for dinner tonight? And whose turn was it to cook? Hopefully not Edwina. Lillith possibly? They would have to rewrite the rota – not much could be expected of Lillith’s culinary skills now …


And then all of a sudden Agnes was sitting high up in the apple tree. The cool night air giving her goose bumps on her bare arms. She peered down where the first windfalls grew like pale boils out of the black grass.

Fear was everywhere, in the moonlight that caught in her night dress, much too white; in the rough bark beneath her hands; in the wind, making the leaves riot; in her breath, too quick and too loud; even in the nightingale’s song.

Quiet, quiet!

Don’t make a move! Not a sound!

Because down below, beneath the apple trees, there was a monster roaming about.


‘Agnes, we’re going out for a curry!’

Agnes’s eyes shot open, she wrestled with a cushion for a moment and looked around in a fit of panic, but it was just Edwina in her blue going-out coat with gleaming eyes and red cheeks.

‘Out of the question!’ is what she wanted to say, but instead she just huffed, ‘Huh!’

A hairy face had appeared behind Edwina, brilliant white teeth, a damp, flexible nose and surprisingly soulful eyes.

Agnes wondered how quickly she would be able to make it to the bathroom door – not quickly enough! The wolfhound swept past Edwina – my goodness, he reached up to her shoulder! – and went about undertaking an extensive sniff-inspection of the carpet.

‘She’s treating us!’ Edwina explained. ‘We’re taking a taxi!’

‘Treating us?’ mumbled Agnes. The sniffing nose came closer.

‘She said we should celebrate her new start.’


‘To be honest, I just don’t like cold cuts. Especially on my first night. Are you ready?’

Charlie with her ridiculous feather hat again. Obviously! Something wet touched Agnes’s hand, and she recoiled.

Where her cushion had once been there was now a huge grey dog’s head, black nose to the front, fur all over the place.

Agnes could hear herself laughing. It sounded mildly hysterical.

Then a pink tongue poked out between sharp teeth and licked her hands. It tickled. It was quite a damp affair. Agnes stopped laughing and caught herself really smiling. It was fun being licked. It made her feel alive … somehow.

She carefully reached out her hand and touched the fur. Silky, in a bristly way, and warm.

The back end of the dog was wagging.

‘He likes you!’ Edwina said enviously. ‘Shall we go now?’

Agnes remembered the latest crisis and reluctantly let go of the dog’s head. Brown eyes looked up at her reproachfully, then off the wolfhound went again, always following his nose. ‘We can’t just go out for a curry,’ said Agnes. ‘Not on the day they picked up Lillith! Have you forgotten again? How does that look?’

‘But I’ve never been to an Indian restaurant!’ Edwina stamped her feet, and Agnes would have liked to remind her that she had once been married to an Indian man – albeit not always particularly successfully. But why bother?

‘Ah! Hmm. That’s obviously …’ At least Charlie seemed to appreciate that the curry thing wasn’t such a great idea, and blushed beneath her feather hat. ‘I didn’t mean to … It’s just, I didn’t even know her … We’ll wait a while, huh?’

‘And cold cuts are …’ Agnes broke off. She had wanted to inform Charlie that cold cuts were one of their culinary highlights, but the dog had snatched the cushion and was shaking it back and forth growling. Agnes held her breath.

‘Brexit!’ Charlie’s voice suddenly sounded harsh as whiplash, and the dog immediately let go of the cushion, bounded over the coffee table and parked himself in front of Charlie on his furry backside.

‘This is Brexit!’ Charlie declared proudly. ‘He’s just a bit playful still.’

‘Ah,’ mumbled Agnes at a loss. For her Brexit was something going on non-stop on the radio. Hairy, sure, but not that hairy.

‘But …’ she hesitated. Who had decided Charlie could just bring her huge dog with her? How in the world were they going to cope with it? Bernadette, who couldn’t see? Winston in his wheelchair? Marshall, who had just recently marched out into the garden with a gun and now couldn’t remember a thing? And Edwina, whose head was full of nonsense and yoga. Sometimes it was even a challenge to command the necessary respect from Hettie the tortoise, so such a big animal …

‘Brexit!’ Agnes repeated disapprovingly. The dog panted at her cheerfully.

‘Brexit is coming!’ Charlie explained with utter conviction. ‘You have to move with the times. Stay on the ball and the like … Brexit loves balls!’


Of course they all had a curry, just not in style at the restaurant, but on the quiet in the sunroom, out of plastic cartons and foil trays. Without further ado, Charlie had ordered something for them all.

‘That is not Indian food,’ Edwina complained for the hundredth time, chasing chickpeas around her plate with her fork.

Agnes blew a gasket. ‘It bloody is!’

Then she felt childish. It wasn’t Edwina’s fault that she was a sandwich short … Why did she let herself be goaded? She should have known better!

‘Delicious,’ mumbled Winston for the hundredth time, clutching Charlie’s hand and miming a kiss. ‘What a wonderful cook you are!’

‘Charmer!’ Charlie pinched Winston’s cheek as if he were a schoolboy, and Agnes looked down at her curry with mixed emotions.

‘What’s the story with the dog?’ she whispered to Marshall. ‘Who told her that it’s okay?’

‘Well,’ mumbled Marshall, ‘we have Hettie, and I thought …’

‘Hettie is quite a compact thing,’ Agnes hissed. ‘Brexit however …’

‘I thought it was a hamster,’ Marshall admitted. ‘She asked if she could bring her cute little friend with her …’

He looked so embarrassed that for a moment Agnes was tempted to pinch his cheek too. Instead, she shook her head disapprovingly. Charlie had only been there a few hours and had already managed to create chaos, not just out there on the dining table, where there was an unholy pile of plastic rubbish, but also in here, in her head. She exhaled deeply.

‘It’ll all work itself out somehow,’ Marshall said reassuringly.


‘You know, with Brexit!’

‘That’s what they say on the radio as well,’ mumbled Agnes. ‘Personally, I don’t believe a word of it.’

Bernadette suddenly leapt up, wobbled a bit and raised her glass of mango lassi. She was too shaky and the mango lassi sloshed over and dripped onto the table.

‘To Lillith!’

‘To Lillith!’ The others raised their glasses too. More lassi sloshed, and the high-pitched ringing started up again in Agnes’s ears.

She wondered if anyone was toasting Mildred over there in the big house. Probably not.

Mildred of all people! It made her think. Deep in thought she shovelled more rice and spicy sauce onto her plate. Had it really been a normal burglar that had killed her neighbour? Strictly speaking he could have just marched up to her, and Mildred, who was in a vegetative state in her wheelchair following her stroke, wouldn’t have been able to do the slightest thing to stop it. So why the violence? And why had the attacker not broken in properly after the murder? Nobody had said anything about an actual burglary!

Agnes sipped her lassi thoughtfully and listened to the high-pitched ringing.

She had to admit she was looking forward to the funeral.


Later that evening, once the bin was full of plastic cartons and Agnes was unpleasantly burping curry, Marshall ceremoniously fetched the black book from the safe. They sat in silence as Charlie entered her name and filled in the questionnaire. Then they signed one after the other, first Charlie, then Winston with a flamboyant squiggle, Marshall with two jagged letters, Bernadette big, jolly and a bit off the page. Edwina drew a butterfly.

Agnes wrestled with the pen for a moment, but then got hold of it and signed. Her signature looked scrawly and strange. Charlie sat at the table, still and a bit pale, and for once wasn’t finding everything fabulous. Bernadette went towards her – celebratorily, but also a bit shadily with her gangster sunglasses – and pulled her into a badly aimed embrace. ‘Now you are one of us!’

Agnes and Marshall looked at one another. Marshall was nodding almost imperceptibly.

Only Agnes could tell that his hands were shaking as he crossed Lillith’s name out of the register and put the book back in the safe.



The next morning everything looked a bit rosier. Agnes was woken by a lark singing and lay there for a moment, still swaddled in sleep. Nothing. No ringing, no problems, no dead bodies to worry about. She was just Agnes, and for the moment that was enough. Then she stretched and her hip made its presence felt. Not just Agnes then. Old Agnes. Every morning it was a little shock. How could seventy-eight years have sailed by like that? Or was it eighty-seven? Better not to think about it.

With the help of the bedpost, she carefully manoeuvred herself into an upright position. Cool morning air tickled her forearms. It felt good. She could use a little break from the constant heat. Heat attracted flies and Agnes had had enough of flies for now.

The curtains billowed ominously in the wind, and she was suddenly wide awake. Old, half-forgotten things floated up from the bottom of her pool of memories. She couldn’t just sit on her painful hip and do nothing. That just wouldn’t do! She gave herself a shove. Bare feet touched cool floorboards. It felt exactly as it had during her school days, or later on, when she was engaged and woke up at all hours with her head full of scattered thoughts. Emboldened by familiar floorboards, Agnes stood up and padded to the window to get the wildly flailing curtains under control. Then she jumped. There was a dark shadow in the garden looking up at her: Brexit with a mouth full of hornet tape!

Ha! Fine by her. The sooner that stupid tape was out of her garden, the better. She gave the dog a friendly wave.

Brexit wagged his tail.

Agnes opened the wardrobe, to just get … and hesitated. For years she had always just grabbed something from the wardrobe, no matter what it was, as long as it was clean, weather-appropriate and easy to put on. Skirts with an elasticated waist, baggy jumpers and cardigans – but it didn’t seem good enough to her any more. Not with Charlie strutting about the house in red kimonos showing a bit of leg. Agnes’s fingers brushed a jacket made of fine green velvet – too warm obviously, then a delicate lilac dress that she hadn’t worn in … but no, she would never be able to get a handle on the zip. And apart from that, it was only yesterday that they had picked up Lillith and the hideous flies from the shed, so Agnes could hardly rock up in pastels. Her hand kept searching and finally found a respectable black skirt with snaps and a blouse with black lace. For a while she struggled with the round and strangely uncooperative buttons on the blouse, then she managed it. She washed her face and hands in the bathroom, combed her now wispy hair and held it in place with a few clips. Her teeth had spent the night in a dip and were grinning at her encouragingly from the edge of the sink. Agnes rinsed them carefully and put them into position. Tried a smile. It was weird how well you could smile with teeth that weren’t your own. What else? Perfume? Did she even have any …?

She padded over to her desk and managed to wrench open the top drawer. There we are! Chanel No. 5. But on closer inspection she realised the bottle was empty, dried-up, faded away, vanished, vamoosed. Chanel had slipped away long ago. Instead, Agnes came across a little golden lipstick case and went back into the bathroom with her find. She twisted the red lipstick cone up and painted away. Her heart was racing. She could feel her heavy pigtails again and the disapproving look of her mother, but also the thrill, fizzing like sparkling wine. Once she was finished painting, she pressed her lips together. Then she dabbed a touch of red onto her cheeks and rubbed it in.

There we go! She felt good.

On the way out of her room Agnes ventured a look in the mirror: a skinny, withered lady in black, a bit like dried fish, but also almost elegant, with a nice blouse, weird hairdo and surprisingly red, somewhat uneven lips. Her eyes peeked out from beneath wrinkly eyelids, alert and even a little aggressive, and they were still her eyes, the eyes belonging to the girl with the pigtails. Blue and inquisitive. That was good. This time she would hardly make it up an apple tree, but it would help to at least maintain a cool and alert air.

Agnes was pleased with herself.

She managed to get down the stairs without incident and quietly hobbled into the kitchen. She was normally the first person at the breakfast table and that was just how she liked it. Quiet. Undisturbed. She put the kettle on and looked in the fridge without a great deal of optimism. It had been a few days since Sylvie had been shopping and all the interesting groceries had vanished. Fruit. Yoghurt. Ham. All gone.

It would be a boring breakfast. Agnes got herself some butter and jam, poured some tea, put bread in the toaster – and was suddenly eye to eye with Brexit.

He was back from the garden and looked hungry.


He was so big!

‘Go away!’ Agnes whispered.

Brexit panted hopefully.

‘We haven’t got any more ham,’ Agnes said truthfully.

Brexit was not discouraged.

Agnes cut a slice of bread and threw it into his mouth.

Snap. Gone.

His tail wagged.

She started to cut another slice, but then she thought better of it. On the radio they were warning of food shortages due to Brexit; she couldn’t just feed all of their provisions to the dog. So, she stood up straight to her full height – which was as much as about eight inches taller than the wolfhound – and thought back to what Charlie had done.

‘Brexit, down!’

Brexit gave her a look, of surprise or reproach, she couldn’t tell, and then really did stretch out on the kitchen floor – a vast, furry, mountainous landscape at her feet.

‘Good boy!’

Agnes threw him a second round of toast as a reward and thought to herself that maybe Brexit was actually a good housemate – the only one in the house who did what he was told. She poured milk into her tea and buttered her toast. As she went to sit down to eat, Edwina suddenly appeared in the doorway.

‘You look colourful,’ she said clapping her hands together. ‘Colourful and black!’

Colourful was a shameless exaggeration. It was just a bit of lipstick after all. Agnes wanted to silence her with toast, but she was already back in the hall.

‘Agnes is colourful and black!’ she shouted. ‘Colourful and black!’

She could kiss goodbye to her quiet breakfast now. Marshall rushed through the door in his dressing gown, saw her sitting at the table, coughed. Slowly, but systematically Bernadette felt her way into the kitchen like a snail with invisible feelers. Charlie floated in wearing her red kimono.

‘Is that all?’ she asked calmly. ‘Just a bit of lipstick?’

‘Lipstick?’ Bernadette repeated disapprovingly. How could she disapprove of something she couldn’t even see? Look who’s talking, with her fat behind and never-ending fondant creams!

Agnes could feel real red joining the drawn-on rouge. She stood up.

‘I’m going out!’ she said emphatically. ‘Over to the Pucks’. Someone should extend our sympathies to them. Someone who looks a bit presentable.’ The idea had only just come to her, but it suddenly seemed brilliant.

‘But we never go to the Pucks’!’ Edwina exclaimed. ‘Nobody goes to the Pucks’!’

‘This is an exception!’ With a pang of regret Agnes left her breakfast and made her way to the front door, both cross and emboldened. Maybe she could find out a few things, uncover something that the police had overlooked.

She got her walking stick out of the umbrella stand. Normally her walking stick embarrassed her, but now it felt right. Like a weapon. A sword, a cutlass, a dagger! Agnes stepped out onto the veranda and slammed the front door shut behind her.

Driven by determination and a healthy dose of rage, she made it across the veranda, along the path, past her beloved hydrangeas and up to the front gate. Then she noticed how quickly her heart was racing and how rapid her breathing was. She felt dizzy. Her left foot was unhappy, her hip in uproar. Agnes allowed herself a little rest and looked back at the house.

At her house.

At the house of her life.

Sunset Hall.

The house hadn’t begun its life as Sunset Hall. When Agnes was growing up it had been optimistically called Morning Cottage, but a few years ago, when her house share came into existence, someone from the village had painted over the sign in red paint. Sunset Hall. Some yob. It was meant as an insult, but for some reason Agnes and her housemates liked it. You had to face your weaknesses, turn them into strengths. Sure – maybe they weren’t spring chickens any more, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t still have a decent sunset!

So, they hadn’t scrubbed off the red paint. Instead they had registered the new name with the authorities. It suited the house quite well, Agnes thought. Strong. Warm. Dramatic. She liked the way her home nestled in greenery, a fat, contented duck of a house surrounded by cypress and apple trees, birches and elderflower bushes.

The trees had got so tall – and the shadows beneath them had got so big. An impressive wisteria snuggled around the façade and the sky was reflected in the windows.

All except one.

One of the windows on the first floor seemed darker than the others.

Someone was standing up there.

Someone was watching her.

Agnes spun around – or wanted to spin. What came out was more of a lurch. Why did they have to gaze after her just because she was wearing a bit of lipstick? It wasn’t exactly the most free-spirited thing you could do.

Determined, she turned her back on the house and followed her walking stick across the road and cross-country into the park. Hadn’t there been a path here before? Nobody seemed to use it any more. Obviously not.