Mrs Dandridge had been one of a dozen old ladies living in the row of terraced houses known to the post office as Honeybee Avenue but to everybody else, it was known as the Hive. She was presumably a widow, although Mr Dandridge had been dead such a long time that nobody could ever remember seeing him.
At one time, she had been friendly with the other older ladies living on the street, but her reluctance to invite any of them inside her own home and her extreme reticence about standard subjects, (such as the degenerate youth of the rest of the town with the notable exception of some grandson or other, or the influx of a small Polish community that threatened to overthrow the natural order of things), meant that she had experienced a gradual ostracism from the rest of the street. A year before she died, in the manner of outsiders the world over, she had instead become the subject of lurid gossip.
The nosy Mrs Beasley said she had seen Mrs Dandridge wandering around her back garden at an ungodly hour in some kind of haze, muttering strange things to herself (what Mrs Beasley was doing looking into someone else’s garden at this time was not discussed).
The magnificent Mrs Cole said she had heard strange noises from one of the upstairs windows; in the manner of an actress who really knew her audience, she refused to elaborate further – she simply raised an eyebrow and repeated ‘strange’.
The excitable Mrs Allen had confirmed Mrs Cole’s story, and added that at one time she had seen a green light blaze suddenly from the spare bedroom for a few seconds at the crescendo, but Mrs Allen was known to be a tad imaginative.
The final nail in terms of approval came a week before – a large package had arrived for Mrs Dandridge, and when there was no answer, the postman had delivered it to Mrs Allen next door and pushed a note through the letterbox. Mrs Allen, whose active imagination had been running riot after every discussion of Mrs Dandridge, couldn’t resist the opportunity to find out more, and opened the heavy box to “have a looksee”.
Inside was an extremely large, extremely ancient book with a set of symbols unlike anything Mrs Allen had seen before. The lettering and patterns seemed to weave together and shift on the cover and, after a few seconds, Mrs Allen’s head began to hurt. She couldn’t take her eyes off it.
A furious hammering at the door interrupted her trance. A full quarter hour had passed.
A wild eyed and wild haired Mrs Dandridge stood on the doorstep.
“You didn’t open it!”
Mrs Allen’s eyes widened in indignation “Certainly not!” Mrs Allen did not expect to be accused of such things on her own doorstep. The fact that she had was beside the point.
“Give it to me.”
It wouldn’t hurt to say please, thought Mrs Allen as she hastily shut up the lid and awkwardly carried it to the front door. Mrs Dandridge interrogative tone had vanished, and been replaced with a vague, dreamy look.
“Thank you, m’dear.”
And she was gone.
A week later a heat wave had struck. Mrs Cole’s dutiful grandson Paul had been visiting his grandmother and her friends in the way all good grandsons should – telling slightly risqué stories, pouring the tea, and flattering Mrs Allen. He was on his way home when he caught the edge of a very strange smell. Paul had never been around a body before, so he had little idea that, left in the heat, the smell becomes overpowering in a confined space and leaks out of windows and doors to pollute the street. He approached the house that seemed to be the source.
Unable to get any response from knocking, and remembering that this was Mrs Dandridge’s house – a woman he had found odd, but not known well enough to form the concrete opinions of his grandmother – he went around the back and found the back door ajar. Curiosity and concern overcoming trepidation, he pushed it open and went in.
The smell was overpowering, invading his nostrils and seemed to coat him in a layer of grease. Acutely aware that he was potentially trespassing, he called out.
She wasn’t downstairs. He began to ascend.
The smell was worse on the landing. He pushed open the door to the spare bedroom.
The tableau before him was in many ways simple, but it took his eyes several seconds to process it. The simplicity itself underlined the stark, revelatory sense of horror he experienced.
A mirror was at one end of the room. On it had been scrawled a series of symbols and patterns in what was now a brown, flaky substance.
In front of the mirror was an emaciated corpse, a mummy that had been carefully dried out and preserved – this was later identified as the late Mr Dandridge.
In the far corner, a pizza delivery boy sat upright with a surprised expression and a cut throat.
In the middle of the room, a large book was opened at a page showing a horrific image of a demon that seemed to shift on the page. The two dimensional drawing seemed to have its own depth, and the mocking expression of the creature itself seemed to stare straight into Paul’s soul.
Finally there was Mrs Dandridge. The medics would later state that the expression of exquisite horror frozen on her face suggested that she had died immediately of fright. Paul could only hope that was the case, because whatever the strange Mrs Dandridge had seen that had taken her life had taken her eyes along with it.