‘No. Stop. Put it back.’
I was startled, I admit. Firstly because I hadn’t noticed her behind me, and secondly because taking the small pot of yoghurt from the fridge hadn’t seemed like the sort of thing that would be likely to cause much offence.
I turned towards her. I probably looked a bit guilty although I’m not sure why. It was after all Emma who’d invited me on my arrival that afternoon to help myself to food and drink. ‘Treat it like your own home,’ she’d said.
She was standing in the doorway to the darkened kitchen wearing pink and blue patterned pyjamas. The only light came from the open fridge. Her blonde hair was tied up in a pony-tail and even without make-up, and with her face set in what I could dimly perceive to be a menacing scowl, she was still the prettiest girl I’d met for a long time.
She spoke again. ‘I said, “Put it back.” Please?’
It sounded as though she’d had to force the “please” out. I was still holding the yoghurt and took a few seconds to work out a response. I chose the wrong one.
‘It’s only yoghurt,’ I said.
‘But it’s not your yoghurt. You’ve got no right to charge down here in the middle of the night and just steal it.’
None of this was making sense. I tried again. ‘You told me I could help myself.’
There was a pause. I’m not sure she had really thought this through. ‘That was this afternoon, not at 2 o’clock in the morning.’
I couldn’t see the relevance. ‘I don’t know what the time’s got to do with it, darling. I was hungry. I usually have a bit of supper before bed.’
‘Don’t call me darling. And are you suggesting my parents haven’t fed you?’
Emma had been happy enough for me to call her darling for the past fortnight, virtually since we’d first met in fact, but apparently not now there was purloined yoghurt in the equation. I turned and, with deliberately over-exaggerated care, placed the yoghurt back in the fridge and shut the door, dimming the light in the room even more.
‘Satisfied?’ I asked. I probably sounded a bit petulant.
She crossed the room, brushed past me, reopened the fridge, took out the yoghurt and left the room abruptly without looking back, taking it with her. She didn’t bother closing either the fridge or kitchen doors behind her.
I shrugged, shut the fridge and made my way back upstairs to the small room I’d been allocated for this weekend trip to meet her parents. It took me a few minutes. It was a large old house and my room was on the second floor around a series of unexpected corners. It was a long way from Emma’s room, probably intentionally. Her parents had been extremely polite to me since our arrival in time for afternoon tea, but hadn’t really displayed much in the way of warmth. I supposed that was to be expected. I’d only been seeing their daughter for a couple of weeks, and they knew nothing about me.
I had been encouraged by the rapid invitation down to Dorset, but Emma had not let on in advance about the gigantic, historic, nearly prehistoric old pile inhabited by her parents. To say I was surprised when it appeared around a bend in the half-mile long, tree-lined avenue leading up from the A35 would be so far below an understatement as to be virtually invisible.
She had not shown any sign of poshness herself since we’d met in a supermarket. Although, now I think of it, it was a Waitrose. It had been a classic ploy: Emma was failing to reach an item (encouragingly a bottle of red wine) on the top shelf and I insinuated myself upon her as a knight in shining armour, or at least a knight in Guns N’ Roses t-shirt and jeans. They say that supermarkets are an excellent place to meet women but I hadn’t gone there with that thought in mind. I’d just fancied a pie for lunch and happened to be passing.
Anyway, back, eventually, in my room, I couldn’t sleep. It was a warm night anyway and what with that and the whole yoghurt business, I spent the next four hours tossing and turning in a state of indecision, before finally getting up and dragging yesterday’s clothes on. I would have had a refreshing shower but my bedroom in this mausoleum of a building did not boast an en suite and nobody had bothered to point out the nearest bathroom. I had, however, found a toilet down the corridor with a small hand washbasin containing a cold tap that I persuaded to produce a thin trickle of frankly brackish water.
I stumbled down the endless corridors and staircases to find a door out into the cool early morning. I needed some air.
I had thought Emma was the one. Maybe she still was. It was after all just a minor argument about the theft of a 50p pot of yoghurt and would surely blow over. Wouldn’t it? I decided to be apologetic and charming when I saw her at breakfast.
Or before that possibly, because there she was, unexpectedly twenty feet ahead of me as I turned through an arch into what was clearly a kitchen garden. I was about to call out to her when something about what she was doing stopped me. Dressed now in an old shirt and worn jeans, she was kneeling down in the corner of a herb bed with her back to me and appeared to be busy wielding a small trowel. I couldn’t see what she was doing but to my astonishment, placed next to her on the ground, was a yoghurt pot. I couldn’t see if it was the same pot from the early hours but the coincidence for it to have been otherwise was simply too great.
Almost unconsciously, I slipped back through the arch and hid behind the wall until I heard the sound of her rising to her feet. There was a crunch on the path. She was headed straight for me. I froze, holding my breath. Emma appeared in the archway, marching purposefully back towards the house. She was holding the yoghurt pot and trowel loosely in one hand. Her eyes were fixed in front of her and she didn’t spot me.
After a few seconds, I exhaled quietly, then tiptoed back onto the path, through the arch and across to the herb bed. There was a small patch of newly disturbed earth. I didn’t have a trowel, so would have to use my bare hands but I definitely needed to see what was under the earth, even if it meant the end of a burgeoning new romance.
A couple of inches down, I uncovered a smallish metal box, black, shiny and conveniently unlocked. I opened it and gasped in astonishment. Inside were half a dozen of what appeared to my unknowledgeable eye to be exquisite brooches, all with enormous precious-looking stones set in intricate silver and gold surrounds. Antiques by the look of them.
I rocked back on my heels thoughtfully. I could only assume that Emma had temporarily secreted one of the brooches in the yoghurt pot until she was able to transfer it to this hidden cache. What did that make her? I believed I knew. Something was nagging away in the recesses of my brain. I took out my phone and searched the news channels. Yes, I thought so.
There had been a recent spate of jewel robberies from country houses in Hampshire and Dorset. I had vaguely half-listened as the latest theft was reported on the car radio on the way down.
She was the thief. That was obvious. I sighed and dialled 999, then after a conversation with the police, I made my way back to the house, hoping to slink away unnoticed.
It was not to be. Emma was waiting for me when I entered the hall. She was beaming. Somehow in the fifteen or so minutes since I’d seen her she had showered and put on make up and clean clothes and looked ravishing.
‘Where have you been?’ she asked scoldingly, but still smiling broadly. Grabbing me by the arm and not giving me a chance to reply, she hurried me closely into the breakfast room where a small crowd of what I assumed to be neighbours and friends who I hadn’t yet met were gathered around the buffet table. ‘Never mind,’ she continued. ‘You’re just in time to take part in our annual Hunt For Mother’s Birthday Present.’
‘I didn’t know it was your mother’s birthday,’ I stammered lamely, looking around at the expectant faces.
‘Didn’t I say? Oh, yes, that’s why we’re here. I couldn’t miss the hunt, it’s my turn to organise it. We do it every year. It’s huge fun.’ She handed me a sheet of paper. ‘There are ten clues here. The present will be in a box hidden somewhere in the house or garden. The winner gets to pick something from the box, the rest is mother’s present. Grab a bite of brekky and we’ll start.’
There was no mention of the night’s yoghurt incident. ‘By the way,’ I started. ‘That business in the night…’
’Oh, sorry, darling,’ she said, giving me a peck on the cheek. ‘I only like the strawberry yoghurts. I over reacted, didn’t I? I’ll make it up to you.’ And the peck on the cheek was followed by a longer one on the mouth.
At that moment, I heard the distant wail of sirens approaching up the long avenue. Everyone’s heads turned towards the sound. A few seconds later, two police cars could be seen through the window pulling up on the gravel outside the front door.
A bell jangled in the depths of the house. ‘I’ll go,’ said Emma’s father. ‘I wonder what the matter is.’
He went to open the door. A muffled voice could be heard saying, ‘Good morning, sir. Police. Could we speak with Miss Emma Barclay please?’