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Small Town Hospitality

By Rachael Llewellyn



We never saw a moving truck. The new neighbours moved into Number 38 in the middle of the night. One day they weren’t there, the next they were.


You remember how that old house had been empty forever? Long before we moved to town. Remember before we bought the cottage, Tyler tried to get us to check out Number 38? You told him again and again it was way out of our price range, but he was desperate.


It had been empty for so long that even Agnes couldn’t remember the previous owners. It just stood, looming over the other houses in our street.


I’d see Tyler sometimes, down at the pub, complaining to anyone who’d listen about that old house. His frustration always seemed so ludicrous. You felt sorry for him, but come on, babe, look at the reality. I’m not sure who he expected to come calling for it. I mean, we’ve been here six years and are still considered ‘newbies’ at best, or at worst ‘visiting city folk’, ‘tourists’. People just don’t move to places like this. It’s too remote. The nearest school was an hour’s drive away.


Outsiders wouldn’t be impressed by our town with its one street. The market with its four stalls – one of which exclusively sold black t-shirts with a wolf on the front – the unfriendly pub. The corner shop which served as the post office and the greengrocers. The one café which sold stale cakes, or our town hall with its permanently damaged roof. The only shop was run by Doug, and we always used to laugh at how he managed to stay in business selling dust scented candles and birthday cards browned with age.


We don’t get tourists. Most of our neighbours had been born here, just like their parents’ parents’ parents before them.


*


Our cottage sat in Number 38’s shadow. Remember how when we moved, your sister said our place looked like the servant’s quarters. You got so mad, but I can see what she meant. That house with its arched windows and high walls.


Spooky, you called it. Said you could almost imagine some ghostly figure stood at the window, watching us.


When the Sold sign appeared, you asked Tyler about the new owners, and he was strangely cryptic. That was weird, right? He’d been trying to sell the place for so long. It had been the bane of his life, but he didn’t brag about it once.


But then, no neighbours moved in. Six months went by. And just when the neighbours started to wonder if the deal had fallen through, the people at Number 38 arrived in the night. At first – well you remember – it was that no different from before, just with a car on the drive. The curtains were open. There was no movement. No face at the window. No voices in the garden.


The move was a hot topic in the pub; in a town like this gossip is always aplenty. But nobody seemed to know anything about the new neighbours. Pete said he’d heard that they were a wealthy couple from overseas, no, Londoners, Londoners moving to the countryside for some fresh air.


You suggested going over there, with brownies or fairy cakes, to welcome them. You said that would be the neighbourly thing to do, it’s what people did in small towns.


I was against it.


It’s weird, to go calling on someone you don’t even know. When I was five, my family moved from Birmingham to Kenilworth. We didn’t stay long; really it was a failed experiment by my parents in suburban living. The local kids had spotted me and my brother helping our parents shunt boxes from the van into the new house. They came calling the next day, asking if we wanted to come and play out in the street. My mum sent them away – the very idea of letting her five year olds run wild in the cul-de-sac – my dad laughed, said it was what kids did in places like this.


You always said that I was still too much of a city kid. I think you envisioned life was like that in the countryside. Neighbourly. It was why we came here, you wanted us to live as extras in Gilmore Girls or The Darling Buds of May. You saw our cottage, and I could see your envisioning summer fetes, town meetings and small town hospitality. I could see how much you needed this. So we moved and I waited for you to admit that this wasn’t what you wanted really, this wasn’t what you imagined when we came here.


But you didn’t. You stayed in your fantasy, and you dragged us to town meetings where the roof leaked, and you smiled when the locals asked us every year if we were ‘visiting for the summer’. And when the new neighbours appeared, you made your fairy cakes and went over there to do the neighbourly thing.


I managed to resist saying ‘I told you so’ when you came back, baked goods in arm.

“The ignorance of some people,” you said through mouthfuls of iced sponge. “I saw someone upstairs. Just bloody ignorant.”


But that evening after I came back from my shift, I found you in a strangely elated mood.


You’d had a visit from the woman in Number 38. She’d come by with wine and apologies for missing you. Jet-lagged, just like you thought. The family had moved from America and were still struggling to operate under a new time zone. Her daughter had spotted you from her bedroom window.


You gushed over how beautiful she was, the woman from Number 38. Like a model, you said, she was so elegant and so fashionably dressed. You went on about her for so long I started to feel embarrassed for you.


“There are just three of them in that big house, Mischa, her husband Vincent and their daughter, Lydia-” You went on and on, talking about them like they were old friends.


*


At the pub, I learned that almost everyone else had met our neighbours. Dawn had fallen under Mischa’s spell, she told anyone who’d listen how beautiful Mischa was. The man, Vincent, had been to see Albert down at the garage, about his fancy black car, and had clearly impressed him. He told me, as I poured him a pint, that he was a really down to earth guy, he knew all the banter.


I never learned their surname, the people from Number 38. Everyone adapted straightaway to a first name basis, like old friends. Whenever I asked, the regulars, you, and even Tyler seemed at a loss. What is their name, can you tell me?


Thought not.


You know, it would be a lie to say that it didn’t wind me up a bit how easily they fit in here, the way they were absorbed into the small town hospitality you so craved. Mrs Winthorpe bragging about having the couple from Number 38 in her shop, like they were royalty, when she still referred to us as ‘the lesbians’.


But I did meet one of our neighbours. It was a few weeks after they settled in so well amongst our town. I didn’t tell you, did I? I was walking home after locking up the pub when I spotted her. A little girl of maybe eight or nine. I thought at first that I must have imagined it. My route home after work was usually a solitary one, save for one or two old men staggering home full of beer.


I blinked. She remained.


And yeah, this has always been the kind of town where the children played out in the street, but never this late.


“Hello,” she said. “Good evening. It’s ever such a nice night, isn’t it?”


“Yes,” I said. “I suppose it is. Though it’s late, don’t you think?”


“I lost track of the time. I suppose you’re coming from the tavern, aren’t you?”


“Yes,” I told her. “That’s right.”


Her tone was so polished and polite and her gaze so intense that I no longer felt like an adult addressing a lost child wandering the streets.


“I suppose I should be heading home,” she said. “Do you mind if I join you? I believe we’re neighbours. I’m Lydia. My mother knows-” And she said your name, like the two of you were old friends.


I found myself agreeing to walk with her. The two of us followed that long road back down to our cottage and Number 38. Lydia chatted pleasantly to me, the kind of small talk you make with an acquaintance in an elevator, rather than your child neighbour. And yet, at the time, that didn’t strike me as odd.


“Here we are,” Lydia said as we reached her home. “It was lovely to meet you. You must come and visit us sometime. My parents work in the day, but we’re always delighted to have company in the evening.”


“Thank you,” I said. “You’re…” The words went dry in my mouth and instead I simply wished that strange little girl goodnight and crossed the street to the cottage. As I lay in bed awake afterwards, I realised that I had nearly gone to say, ‘You’re welcome at any time’. It unnerved me, how quickly and readily those words would have spilled out of my city kid’s mouth.


*


Do you remember when the Mitchell boy went missing? The pub closed early and you and I took up torches to search the woods with our neighbours. We had done this before – the neighbourly thing to do, you said – when the McCallister family lost their dog.


At first, everyone was optimistic; so certain, reassuring ourselves that he was just playing a prank. His dad joked about selling his son’s PlayStation as punishment. His mother, too worried for jokes. You held her hand and told her everything would be fine.


But as the search went on into the night, that optimism turned to panic. Boots slipping on damp, muddy earth, twigs crunching, all of us shouting the boy’s name over and over. And just when all of us started to lose hope, the boy was found.


He’d tripped and fallen in the woods. Unconscious, but alive.


That night we all went home congratulating ourselves. We’d come together as a community and found him. The relief was sweet, like rain after a long dry season.


Which was why it came as such a miserable shock when the child died just two days later. It didn’t make sense, that’s what we all kept saying, it just didn’t make sense. The doctor from the clinic in the next town had said that he just needed to rest, that was the story I heard in the pub. There was talk of a fever, symptoms like pneumonia that came on so suddenly there was nothing to be done to save him.


We grieved as a community.


But the Mitchell boy wasn’t the first loss we had that autumn.


It happened slowly at first. Two of the regulars died within a few days of each other. We had a small wake at the pub. Then Mrs Winthorpe passed away so suddenly. It seemed every week a small group all in mourning would occupy the big table at the back of the pub.


It was strange to have so many deaths in such a short space of time. But the majority of these deaths were the elderly. It was only the Mitchell boy whose death seemed strange or mysterious.


*


After a while, the pub, which had always been rowdy to a fault, suddenly started to empty. Dave started sending Dawn and I home early during the week because there was so little business.


You liked that, come on, you can admit it. I think you were lonelier on those late nights than you ever wanted to admit, and I’m sorry for that. We stayed in, drank red wine, and shut our door to the rest of the world.


Then one day when we were out in town, I saw the candle shop was all boarded up. After, I heard that Doug had closed his business and moved away to be closer to his parents. It struck me as so strange and so sad that he’d left without saying goodbye to anyone.


But it wasn’t just Doug’s place.


Do you remember? When we first moved to town, the way people walked made me so angry. It was like the people who lived here had no spatial awareness, they’d just plough along from A to B, ignoring whoever or whatever was in the way.


But after the pub got quiet, we went to a town meeting, and you joked that it was the first time we’d gone into town together without me complaining. You were right. Just like the pub, the street was empty, only one or two people about.


Then Dave got sick and suddenly I was called to work most nights again. It felt redundant, to tend bar for the two or three people who came by. Those who did come by shuffled from the bar to a booth where they sat silently staring down their pint. It was so depressing. It used to be those old guys would chat your ear off but getting more than five words out of them turned out to be a Herculean task.


I called Dawn to see about her covering my shift but couldn’t get her on her mobile. I tried her house and her mum told me that Dawn had a fever. She sounded so strange, almost like she was reading from a script. It creeped me out so much that I even offered to drop by, and instantly she changed her tone. She told me that Dawn was quitting her job at the pub and hung up the phone.


Eventually I was opening up the pub for no-one. I’d sit, thinking of you, lonely and waiting up for me at home, as I stared out at an empty pub.


It was frustrating, because outside of the pub, the town was rife with night life. It was gradual at first, I’d lock up, and walk home, noticing a few more people than usual along the way. A gaggle of middle-aged women going for a run. Two old guys I knew from the pub hanging out on a park bench. Sometimes they’d wave or say hello, sometimes they wouldn’t. But for the last week now, I’m locking up the pub, and stepping out onto a crowded street.


I saw Dawn, the other day, sat on a garden wall, bright eyed and cheerful. She looked different somehow, I don’t know how to describe it. I’m not even sure what I mean. She said hello but that she couldn’t stop and chat.


But it’s weird. You can’t tell me it isn’t. I walk home in the middle of the night and at no point am I alone. And even later into the night, I look out the window and in the dark I can make out gangs of teenagers roaming around the hills in the distance. Their laughter carries on the wind. Their path lit by torch light.


I don’t feel safe walking home. Sometimes I see people looking at me, just people from town, neighbours we’ve known for years, and I don’t know them anymore. The way they look at me makes me walk a little bit faster.


And then there’s the woods. Do you remember when we moved here and it unnerved me how quiet the woods were at night? Whenever I approach our road, love, the woods behind our cottage aren’t silent anymore. The trees pulse with sound. Almost like the day that boy went missing, like there’s a crowd of people in the dark, wandering around without torchlight.


It was around then that you changed as well.


*


You stopped getting out of bed in the morning. You stopped showering. I’d cook your favourites and you insist again and again that you aren’t hungry. You lie there when I tell you about the pub, how quiet and distracted everyone seems, and you nod, without listening, your expression pre-occupied.


You’re doing it now.


The other day I came back from work and found you in the garden in your pyjamas. Your shoes were covered in mud, and you couldn’t tell me where you’d been. You showered eventually, and when you came out you looked me right in the eye and said, ‘I would never hurt you’.


I’m not afraid of you. Have never been afraid of you. I love you.


But recently I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night. Three AM usually. I wake up because of the noise. I could swear that recently at night, I can hear something moving in the dark. Something in our bedroom, dashing across the walls and floors. I wake up with my heart racing and turn on the light. The room is always still, and you are beside me, but sometimes I wonder…


No, I don’t think I want to ask.


*


Tonight you were up and dressed. Your eyes sparkled. There was colour in your cheeks. I thought for a moment that I had you back.


But then you told me that the woman in Number 38 is coming to visit. And as I left I saw you watching me out of the corner of your eye and there it was. The urge to walk faster, to run as fast as I can. Like I need to get out of here.


Darling, you are my heart, my universe, my one and only. But the way you looked at me tonight made me want to get in the car and drive until the cottage, this town, and you, are hundreds of miles behind me.


Darling, I love you, but I don’t think you are you anymore.



 


Rachael Llewellyn (she/her) is a novelist living in Wales. She has published two novels and a collection of short stories.


Her short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and journals, including Crow & Cross Keys, Sapphic Writers Online and Polari Press. She is a PhD candidate at Swansea University, working on her thesis on trauma and memory in folktales.


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