Edith drained her glass.
It was with heavy hearts that Job’s comforters knocked on the front door of the vicarage.
A jovial Edith Parsnip opened the door.
“Why didn’t you come round the back?” she said, leading the way to the kitchen. “We are just having a little drink. Would you like one? It’s Beatrice’s home-made elderberry wine, but between you, me and the gatepost I think there’s more rum in it than elderberries. A year’s fermentation has done the rest. Cheers!”
“Edith, don’t…” said Robert.
The vicar’s wife was obviously drink. Robert was sitting on the one comfortable chair at the kitchen table. His glass was almost full. Elderberry wine was a ladies’ drink in his opinion, and it tasted like cough medicine, despite the rum. Edith must have drunk a lot of it in the short time she had been at home.
“How long has Edith been here, Robert?” said Cleo.
“Not long. She went straight for the bottle, “ he said. He was obviously disgusted.
“We want to go to Crumbs’s open day this afternoon,” Edith reported. “Except for Robert. He would be afraid of upsetting his singing, wouldn’t you Bobo?”
“Edith, I think our guests want to tell you something,” said Robert.
“Do you? Oh boy! Well, spit it out then!”
‘Spit it out’ was one of Dorothy’s pet phrases, gleaned from a Hollywood gangster movie. Edith was fascinated by the things people said, and had practised Dorothy’s gangster jargon and Cleo's Chicago accent until she was good at them. Cleo had often been amused to hear Edith imitating her. But that was in the old days of vicarage meetings. Lately she had had other things to occupy her mind.
“You’d better sit down first, Edith,” said Dorothy firmly. She was also disgusted.
“Why should I sit down, Dorothy? I’m not tired.”
“Holy mackerel!” shouted Cleo. “Sit down, will you!”
Edith winced, but sat down on one of the three-legged stools reserved for the boys. She spayed her legs and pulled her skirt high enough to expose her scanty underwear. Shepulled Robert’s drink towards her while he looked away, embarrassed. Robert removed the drink and went to the sink where he poured it away to cries of “Don’t do that, Robert, I’m thirsty”.
“Now listen!” said Cleo. She was disgusted with Edith’s antics. “And pull down that skirt immediately. You are disgusting.”
Edith shrugged her shoulders.
Dorothy decided that under the circumstances there was nothing for it but to tell Edith quite bluntly what she had to know. She gestured to Cleo to let her get on with it.
“Frederick is dead,” she told Edith.
“I said that Frederick is dead.”
“Dead? How can he be dead? He was at Flora Snow’s.”
They all gasped.
“What?” shouted Cleo. “You knew all the time?”
“I got a phone-call from Miss Snow,” said Edith, drinking the contents of Robert’s glass of beer that he had poured himself. She had reached for it so suddenly that Robert had no time to defend it.
“You did what,” he shouted.
“I got a phone-call from Miss Snow saying Mr Parsnip was staying there and what should she do with him.”
“What did you say, Edith?” Dorothy asked in as quiet a voice as she could muster.
“I told her to keep him,” said Edith, laughing at what she thought was a big joke. “Have some wine or beer or both. I’m going to.”
Edith swayed across the kitchen to get more of the elderberry wine. She did not bother with a glass, but drank the contents ex out of the bottle.
Dorothy started to laugh, but not because it was amusing that Edith should have washed her hands of the vicar with one well-chosen retort and drunk anouth half bottle of elderberry wine to increase her drunkenness. It was an absolutely absurd situation none of them had considered.
Dorothy’s laughter froze as the knowledge that Edith had known where the vicar was sank in further. Edith was acting totally out of character, or was that in character? Robert was acutely embarrassed. Cleo decided to phone Edith’s twin sister Clare. Someone would have to get control of Edith and she could think of no one better. Clare said she would come straight away.
“I’ll make some strong coffee,” said Robert, and went to see to it. He was glad to have something to do. He had never seen Edith in that state before. OK, she had come to him and insisted that he make love to her. He did care about her, but not in that state. He was horrified and ashamed that he had succumbed to her sexual demands without giving a thought to where that would lead him.
Cleo went to Robert and spoke quietly to him.
“I’m sorry about all this,” she started. “I wish Gary was here, but he stayed home with the girls thinking Dorothy and I would cope better without him. I expect Edith has been pent up and emotionally starved for so long that she is simply shaking it all off, Robert.”
“Did Gary tell you that?”
“No. We were both happy that you and Edith had found one another.”
“Correction. She found me, Cleo. I liked her, but she seduced me. I’d never been seduced before. It was a shattering experience she rather likes to repeat.”
“Don’t tell me any more, Robert. It’s none of my business. If you have problems, Gary will help you. We think of you as a friend, you know.”
“The awful part is that we go through the ritual of her telling me she is unhappy every time she gets near me. Then she gets very close and kisses me before undressing me and herself and putting her hands everywhere. I’m not used to that kind of sex, Cleo.”
“You needn’t tell me that, Robert.”
“I’m sorry. I forgot…”
“It is not what I expected of Edith, Robert, but you can see from her behaviour now that she likes to indulge in excesses.”
“I’m glad you came, Cleo, and I'm glad you are happy with Gary. I couldn’t make you happy. I’m sorry.”
“I was happy some of the time and I fought for our marriage, Robert, but you didn’t and you lied to me.”
Edith was now sitting on one of the stools at the table in a drunken stupor with her head buried in her hands.
“I’m sorry for the way it all ended Cleo,” said Robert.
“You did me a favour, Robert, and as far as Edith’s excesses are concerned, you’ll have to learn to say no,” said Cleo, who had had enough of a heart to heart with her ex.
“I can’t . That’s just the problem. She gets me to the point of no return and I am a fallen man.”
Since Cleo had never experienced Robert in a state of no return, she did not comment. She would ask Gary what he thought. She was not the right person to be confided in on that topic.
“You’ll have to stop her before she can undress you, Robert,” she said now. “No one can help you if you don’t help yourself.”
“I’ll try,” said Robert.
Dorothy had hidden all the alcohol she could see in the cupboard under the sink. Edith was clearly unable to take in the news of Frederick’s death so it was pointless trying again to tell her. Cleo told Robert in a few words what had happened.
Fortunately for all of them, Clare came in through the kitchen door.
“What’s up, Edith,” she said, putting an arm round Edith’s shoulder.
Clear stepped back hurriedly.
“Why, you are drunk, Edith!”
“I'm fine, Clare. Have a drink!”
Clare turned to the others.
“OK folks. Go home! You can go too, Robert. I’ll stay. Karl is looking after the twins. On the other hand stand and tell me what has happened when I've put Edith to bed.”
“I’ll wait for the boys,” said Robert.
"I'm not going to bed on my own," said Edith.
"Yes you are," said Clare, pulling Edith to her feet and steering her out of the kitchen.
“Thanks Clare,” said Cleo. “Robert can tell the boys about their father later.”
“Just tell me quickly,” said Clare.
Edith sat on the stairs and announced that she was now a free woman; free to enjoy her body and Robert’s.
“Come to bed, Bobo,” she called. “Show me your wares. I’m up for grabs.”
Robert hid in the kitchen.
The onlookers were appalled.
“Parsnip was poisoned at the hospital,” Cleo told Clare.”We don’t know who did it. Edith can’t take it all in because the elderberry wine got to her head first.”
Clare pulled Edith up and dragged her up the stairs.
“I’ll cope,” she called. “Don’t worry.”
Stunned from that scene in the vicarage kitchen and Edith’s obscene behaviour on the stairs, which had included stripping off most of her clothes and lying with her legs sprawled crudely, making unmistakeable gestures to no one in particular and groaning lasciviously, the sleuths set off for home.
I’ll walk home with you before I go to the cottage, Dorothy.” said Cleo.
Cleo and Dorothy made no further mention of Edith’s disgraceful behaviour other than to agree that Robert alias Bobo did not deserve a harlot.
“How was it? Gary asked, as Cleo kicked off her shoes and went into the kitchen to make coffee.
“Awful,” she said. “Edith was drunk and Robert regailed me with his sex adventures with her. I expect he’ll tell you in due course. I referred him to you.”
“Come here,” said Gary. “You are a nervous wreck.”
Gary led Cleo to the sofa, turned her into a lying down position and covered her with the plaid. Then he sat on the edge of the sofa and leant his head next to hers.
“Sleep for a while, my love. You look as if you need it.”
“I’m emotionally exhausted,” said Cleo.
“I’m sorry I let you in for the ordeal.”
“I had time to learn about poor Robert,” she said. “I’m so glad that’s over.”
“I’ll get the coffee and then you should tell me what the guy said.”
An hour later, Cleo was sitting at her laptop writing a report of the weekend events. Gary took care of PeggySue and made supper. Charlie was in her pyjamas and lying on the sofa wrapped in the plaid.
“I’m going to suspend animation at the Hartley Agency,” Cleo announced.
“I’m glad, Cleo. Your health and our baby are more important.”
“This Grisham case is such a mess, Gary. I’ll go on helping if I can, but from home, where I can watch PeggySue growing, look after Charlie and look forward to their new sister.”
“Or brother. Are you going to find out?”
“I’d rather not, Gary. We’re all in for a surprise, anyway.”
“I’m not with you.”
“I have an appointment at the prenatal clinic tomorrow. Then I’ll know more.”
“How do you expect me to sleep with that on my mind?”
“Let’s sleep when we get round to it,” said Cleo.
“One thing is clear: Harmless, timid Edith is a man-eater.”
“You’ve hinted at that before, Gary, and what Robert told me confirms that. She has what I would call a fetish.”
A fetish. A neurosis. In her case it’s all about being unhappy then seducing someone, in this case Robert, and then feeling happy again.”
“You did say seduce, didn’t you?” said Gary
“That’s the word Robert used.”
“I call that rape,” said Gary.
“She goes through the same ritual as when she first went to see Robert, presumably with the intention of sleeping with him, but she has becomes increasingly desperate and violent as time goes on.”
“Are you inferring that it could all come to a terrible end, Cleo?”
“If we don’t stop her, it could.”
“But she’s so small and Robert is is a hunk of a man.”
“Ever heard of K.O. drops?”
“What Robert told you is not something you normally tell a woman,” said Gary.
“That makes it all the more important to rescue him,” said Cleo. “She might otherwise dope him and then smother him for sheer sexual thrills.”
“We won’t let it come to that, Cleo. The woman has to be stopped.”
“Robert could stop seeing her.”
“I hope he will.”
“And Edith won’t stay drunk for ever.”
“She is stone sober when she goes through her sex routine with the poor guy,” said Gary.
“So he has told you, hasn’t he?”
“Not in detail, Cleo..”
“One thing is certain, and that is that he has to sort out his own problem in his own way. I am not going play nursemaid to him, and the infamous Edith must be dealt with.”
“Let’s hope news of Parsnip’s murder stops her sex trail long enough for Robert to get out,”said Gary.
“It should,” said Cleo, not quite believing her own words, "except that he will probably feel responsible for the boys."
"I hadn't thought of that. I gather we are giving the cake shop a miss, are we?”
“Can we? I don’t think I can face cake.”
“We’ll go and try them all when this whole drama has blown over, Cleo.”
"Thanks for not insisting, Gary. I'll ring Beatrice and tell her what has happened. She is the vicar’s next of kin, and should get there to help. She needs to be told about her brother, anyway."
Cleo fed and bathed PeggySue, glad of the distraction, and the little girl went to bed happily.
“It’s pretty horrible, isn’t it?" said Gary, when Cleo reappeared. "You go to the vicarage to tell Edith her husband of good 15 years has been murdered and find a half pissed vicar’s wife prancing around and making lascivious gestures. Then you talk to a guy who is twice the size of someone who is raping him at regular intervals. And finally you witness a solo orgy by the femme fatale herself.”
“My report, such as it is, omits the inuendoes and obscenities of that visit to the vicarage. Let’s go to bed early,” said Cleo.
“That’s a good idea, but I’ll transport Charlie first,” said Gary.
So saying, he carried the sleeping child from the sofa to her bed, tucked her in, dropped a kiss on her forehead and PeggySue’s, and spent some time just looking at PeggySue and thanking his lucky stars that he was her father.