when a woman decides to forget (For all women battling domestic violence)

Oh, to heal the world…

The Lonely Author

My long time followers know I am a crusader against domestic abuse. A precious friend finds herself trapped in a relationship of physical/mental abuse. Although her husband will never read my poem, this is for him and all the other losers.

when a woman decides to forget

a white table cloth
stained by unspoken words
lays dead in a frigid kitchen
like a red rose in a morgue of poetry
a barren tree outside the window
extends branches of remorse
for once a fallen leaf has wilted
it can never be reset
some fires can’t be rekindled
there is no going back
when a woman decides to forget

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Hallbury Summer – Episode Nine      Silver’d in the Moon’s Eclipse

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The story so far: 

While job-seeking in town Joe Palliser meets Emma, his best friend’s wife, and is reminded of his feelings for her.  When she abjures him to return to London he lets slip that he cannot, which Emma takes to mean he has separated from his wife, just as he – in her view – abandoned her, years ago.

Meanwhile, Joe is melting opposition from his Uncle, who, whilst advising him on village politics suggests he might set up home in Hallbury.  He is considering this when, on a walk past Violet Parkin’s farm, he is hailed by Davy, the local constable, who provides an insight into the complacency of the local force in pinning Violet’s husband Jack for her murder.  Heading up the lane to his local pub, his progress is interrupted…

“Don’t like the police.”  Growled a deep voice behind Joe; “You doesn’t want to be seen consortin’ with they, Palliser.”

Joe’s heart skipped several beats.  The voice was Charker Smith’s.  The presence was Charker’s.  He suppressed a desire to run, which was the one thing he was pretty certain he could do faster than the big labourer.

“It’s just Davy Hallett.”  He said as evenly as he could.  “I’ve known him for years.”

“All same – bastards.  You aren’t moved on, then?”

“Thinking of staying for a while, Charker.”  Joseph said, determined not to be intimidated.  “I grew up here, you know?  It is sort of my home.”

“Ah.  You and those brothers of your’n.  I had a brother once, Palliser.”

“I know.”  Joe responded solemnly.  The more he looked at Charker’s massive slab of a body, his small, almost conical head which rose from a neck that would not have disgraced a Hereford bull, the more he marvelled that this man could have been engendered from the same seed that created Rodney.  “I’m really sorry, Charker.  I still remember that day very well.  There was nothing I could have done – you must believe that.”

“So you said at the time.  ‘Tweren’t like ‘im to drive too fast, see?  He were a good driver, were Rod.”

Joe sighed.  “Look, I know I can never convince you, but I wasn’t responsible for Rodney’s death.  I happened to be the one who found him, that’s all.”

Charker was poised with his hands to his hips, legs astride.  His breath came in regular gusts, like a steam engine at rest – vast and immovable.  “You’re right.  I aren’t convinced.  ‘Tis daylight now, but it won’t allus be, so if I was you, I’d be movin’ on – you got that?”

There was no point in protest.  “I got that.”  Joe said.

Charker’s fierceness suddenly evaporated, though somehow the menace remained.  “That’s right, boy.  Now, you comin’ fer a drink?”

“In a minute, Charker.  I’ll come in a minute.”

“Collect yerself, eh?  Have a think about it.”  Charker nodded approvingly The steam engine puffed into gear and rumbled on, rolling up the lane towards The King’s Head.   Joe watched him, remarking that in spite of his size, Charker had hands that were quite small, with long, sensitive fingers.

He might have accepted the big man’s invitation, had he not caught a glimpse of a tall, slightly stooped figure making its way along the adjoining road.  The sight of Tom Peterkin also bound for the King’s Head jolted his resolve: Joe tucked his chin into his chest and turned quickly, retracing his steps. Whereas he knew he could not ignore Tom, neither could he face him this night.

An official-looking envelope arrived for Joseph in the post the next morning.  He drew it close to his chest as he read the contents before tucking it into his trouser pocket.  “It’s from London.”  He told his aunt and uncle by way of explanation.  “Can I use the ‘phone later?”

As she cleared the breakfast table, Julia said to Owen:  “That was a solicitor’s letter.  He was worried.  Did you see his face?”

Joe read the letter again in the privacy of his room.  He read it three times.  Then he went to the telephone.

“I have to go into Braunston tomorrow morning;” he announced at lunch. “Is there anything I can get for you?”

“No, darling.”  Julia appeared content to let her curiosity take a back seat for now.  “But there is something you can do for me this afternoon if you have time?”

Joe laughed at the gentle sarcasm.  “Nothing but time.  What was it you wanted, aunt?”

“Do you remember the Forbes-Pattinsons? “

“Up at the top of Church Lane?  The ‘nobs on the hill’?  Of course I do.”

“I have the minutes for the Parish Council meeting ready to be copied.  Emily Forbes-Pattinson normally calls down for them, but she’s a bit tied up today, apparently.  I would take them myself, but it’s such a struggle up that hill in this heat….”

“I’ll be happy to do it.”

“Oh, Joe, you’re such a dear!”

When they rose from lunch, Joseph accepted the package of Parish Council documents from his aunt without any hint that he had seen through her very transparent ploy.

“I’ll just change my shoes.”  He said.  And he climbed the stairs to his room where he made sure that the confidential letter would make his errand with him,  secure in his pocket.

He set out up the lowert part of the hill, a road strewn with memories bitter and sweet.  To his left after the Masterson farm was Staggers, the old house where the Honourable Mrs Palmerston once harangued him from her first-floor windows.

“Keep off my grass!”

“Don’t come in!  The dogs will savage you!”

On the right was Hallows Cottage.  How many times in childhood and youth had he knocked on that door, dragging Madge Peterkin from her comfortable chair?

“Can Tom come out?”

“’Tisn’t ‘Tom’, Joseph dear.  It’s ‘Thomas’.”

She died before he left for London.  Albert, her husband, found her when he returned from work, in the bath she had been taking when he left that morning.  Albert still lived there, and Tom was a dutiful son.

House after house, memory upon memory:  the Pollocks with their sad-eyed daughter –where was Stella now?  The Ravenscourts who never emerged beyond their front door; and on, climbing past St. Andrew’s Church into Church Lane, narrow and steep.

There were three houses on Joe’s left, two close together, whitewashed thatched affairs with split front doors and tiny windows.  Mary and Paul Gayle lived in one of these; he couldn’t remember who owned the other.  Then Charlie Lamb’s home, the house Owen had suggested he might buy.  Charlie had a young family when Joe left years before, and a sharp-nosed, vivacious wife with a penchant for the ridiculous.  When Charlie played the dame in Abbots Friscombe’s pantomime his wife dressed him for the part, in a costume which kept the village talking for years.  The cottage had a red sandstone facade, a good sound roof:  there was a garden at the back (the front door opened directly onto the lane), and yes, that door invited him.  He could see himself living there.

Thus preoccupied, Joe scarcely noticed the sun, though it beat down upon him remorselessly.  Perspiration was beading on his brow by the time he finally arrived at the iron gates of ‘Highlands House’, residence of the Forbes-Pattinsons, which stood at the top of the lane.

Behind a high brick wall, ‘Highlands’ was hidden from the road.  To those who applied a structure to village society, this was the ‘Squire’s Manor’, sufficient reason to open its gates with respectful care.  Beyond the gates, a driveway plunged through a screen of laurel which parted after twenty paces or so, revealing ‘Highlands’ to be a large nineteen-thirties’ construction, faced delicately in faded brick.  Everything about the place exuded permanence, from the mature oaks that bordered the acre of lawn to the Bentley Continental parked before its polished wooden front doors.

All this should have impacted profoundly upon Joseph, and would have, were there not a nearer view that was much more distracting.  For stretched upon the grass in the sun was a girl, her slender form clad only in a pair of brief green bikini pants.  She lay on her back with her head turned towards him, her face. framed by silken ash blonde hair and soothed by the perfect innocence of sleep, in which state she had rolled from her original position –  leaving her unclipped top lying uselessly beside her and exposing a pair of small, invitingly white breasts.

It took Joseph a full five seconds to realise that his eyes were devouring the girl whose horse he had frightened the previous week, and to rebuke himself for staring.  With exaggerated quietness he retraced his steps to the driveway gates which, whistling tunefully, he swung open and closed with an audible metallic clang.  A cry of alarm emitted from beyond the laurels, and by the time he ambled back into view the girl had disappeared.

“Oh, thank you.  So you must be Joe?”   Mrs Forbes-Pattinson greeted him, accepting Julia’s package with a glint in her eyes which suggested she had not entirely missed the drama his approach had caused.  She added with a touch of mischief:  “Did you happen to run into my daughter Sophie on your way in?”

“Almost,”  Joseph answered.  Mrs Forbes-Pattinson in a lemon-coloured summer dress was every bit as stunning as her daughter.  At times like these he could easily be persuaded that the very rich were, in truth, a race apart.

“You look awfully warm!  Would you like to come in and have something to drink?”

“That’s very kind, but I must be getting back.”  Joe stumbled over his reply, cursing his ineptitude.

He walked away, carrying with him in an entirely new compartment of his imagination a vivid picture of Emily Forbes-Pattinson and her lovely Sophie.  He was quite sure he wanted to meet them again.

That evening, as Joseph was once more browsing the ‘Situations Vacant’ columns, Tom Peterkin called.

“Yer been avoiding me, lad?”  He nodded towards the gate, beyond which a dark green Cortina saloon car stood waiting.  “I brought the car down, ah?  Thought we might go for one or two in Braunston?”

Joe threw on a coat.

“Nice!”  He approved.  “What did you do with your Sunbeam?”

“Sold it.  Emma made me see sense.  Family man, see?”

Joe was surprised and showed it.

“Oh, no; she’s not pregnant or nothing.  But we got plans, ah?  Been trying for a while, now.   I asked ‘er to come with us, but she aren’t feeling so well, ‘pparently.”  Tom grinned toothily.  “Women, ah?”

Emma had evidently not managed to prevail upon her husband to drive slowly.  The Cortina flew the back road to Abbots Friscombe in minutes.  Once clear of the village, Tom patted the steering wheel enthusiastically.  “Goes well, du’n ‘er?  So how come you’re not driving these days, then?”

Joseph explained that he had driven very little since Rodney Smith’s accident.

“Can’t let it put yer off, Joe.  Somethin’, mind, seein’ an accident like that.  You and ‘e never did get along, though, did yer?”  Tom asked.  It was a rhetorical question, because the conviction with which he threw his car into the next bend put Joe beyond speech.  The next time Joe trusted himself to open his mouth; the Cortina was drawing into a car park outside the Shire Tavern.

“As a matter of interest, Tom, why didn’t we just go to the King’s Head?”

“Ah, you might ‘ave problems at yon’.  I was up there last night, and Charker Smith were getting hisself drunk, and he were swearin’ ‘bout ‘ow he’s goin’ ter get you for Rodney?  I tried to calm ‘un, but you know what ‘eem like when ‘eem drunk?  Steer clear, that’s my rec’mendation.  Anyhow, didn’t I see you change yer mind ‘bout goin’ in there yourself, early on?  Could of sweared that was you in the lane.”

At the centre of Braunston was a square dominated by a mediaeval shire hall, one-time host to the Town Council, and now containing meeting rooms, offices for an insurance company, and the Shire Tavern.  Always crowded, ‘The Shire’ offered sufficient anonymity for self-conscious youth, and so had become a favourite watering place for Tom and Joseph in their teenage years.

The Wheelwright’s Bar on the first floor was unchanged from those days.  Creaking narrow stairs were packed with chattering girls and grunting, recalcitrant young men whose fashions might have altered – no more the long jackets with velvet collars, the flounces and back-combed hair – and the fake beams and cart-wheel tables might have looked a little tired now, yet it retained enough familiarity to make Joe feel at home.  He fought his way through smoke-haze to a crowded counter, emerging with pints of beer.

Tom said:  “We got to get you a car, boy.  There’s a nice Wolsey up Maybury’s – I’ll take yer to look at ‘un on Saturday if yer wants?”

This began an evening which, mainly spent in idle conversation, should have been pleasant and relaxed.  Faces Joe remembered came and went, a few stopping to say hello, like small, dependable eddies in the current of humanity.

Tom did his best to distract.  “That old Ford Pilot of yours?  That’s up Pettisham way.  Emma seen it there, t’other week.  Still looks alright, ‘pparently.”

But just the mention of Emma’s name felt like a poniard in Joe’s heart.  Although he disguised the pain he did not altogether deceive his friend.  Tom had known him for too long.

“Good car, ah?  Bet you wish you’d kept that ‘un.  Would have served yer well in London.”

Joe changed the subject hurriedly:  “Tom, do you know more about Violet Parkin than I do?”

“She’m dead, I know that.”  Tom pursed his lips.  “’Pends what you mean, I s’pose.”

“Well, the way I remember her, she never went anywhere much, did anything much.  All I remember her for was the day I disturbed her bloody ducks.”

Tom laughed.  “She were a queer bird ‘erself, mind.  There were always stories.  She were Ben Wortsall’s daughter, weren’t she?”

“Never heard of him.”

“What?  Been in the village all they years and never heard of Ben Wortsall?  You must ‘ave cloth in your ears, boy!  Ben was a witch, that’s what!”

“You mean…pointy hat, and stuff?”

“No!  No!  I mean mad old bugger used to go round cursin’ anybody he took ‘ception to.  Mind, folks swore by ‘e’s spells and potions.  No-one went near no doctors when Ben was around.  He died when I was still a nipper, but some say that Violet…..you ask Aaron Pace about Violet.  He’ll tell yer some tales.  Whether they’re true or not, though…”

There the conversation ended, for Tom was as obsessed with automobiles as ever.  He would always return to the subject; whether in the context of his activities for the week -“Called out to one of those old single-pot Fordson’s.  Wouldn’t start, no matter what.  Told ‘un he’d have to get a new tractor.  Seen them John Deeres?”  – or in his assessment of people:“That maid over there?  She’m a Mini owner – you can see that, can’t yer?  Not much room for it in they, eh boy?”

Joseph was glad when eleven o’clock struck and the evening was forced to draw to a close.  He had joined in the prattle, served his turn as he thought:  but on the way home Tom disabused him.

“Sommat wrong, ain’t there, Joe?  See, I thought if I took yer out, got a few pints past yer, you might loosen up a little, but no.  You got more cards in that ‘and than you’m showin, ‘aven’t yer?”

They had passed through Abbots Friscombe, driving up the narrower back road for the final mile towards Hallbury.  Wednesday Common lay dark and unfathomable on their left, laced with little trackways through the bracken that the farmers used to access the fields beyond.  Tom drove off the road into one of these, switching off his car’s engine.  The headlight beams probed into the darkness through a mass of tiny flying and floating things.

“Now, for sake of your conscience, boy, you’m goin’ to tell me what they are, see?  But first, I got to get shot of some of this bloody beer.”

He got out of the car, unzipped his jeans and urinated copiously into the long grass.  A car roared past on the road behind him and he waved to acknowledge the cheers of encouragement from its occupants.  Joe waited apprehensively for his return, uncertain what to say, uncertain how much Tom knew.  He, Joe, was certain of one thing he must not say:  that he suspected Emma was still in love with him; and of something he must not even think – that maybe he was still in love with Emma.

When at last Tom returned, with a “Well then?” that brooked no refusal, Joe told him the London story; the full London story he had confided to Owen and Julia.  He revealed all he could to his friend, aware even as the words spilled from his mouth that each one could be a word too many;  that although Tom and he were once the closest of allies he had no right to expect that same loyalty again – that he might be arming an enemy.

After he had concluded all that he dared to say he felt at one with those tiny bits of life out there in the headlights; adrift on the wind, rudderless, and lost.

“Well!”  Tom said, staring at his steering wheel.  “There’s a tale!”

Joe nodded.   That genie was with him again, its bottle shaking in its anger.

“So you aren’t married to this Marian, then?”  Tom said.

Why did it slip out?  Did he want it to?

“No.  She was married to someone else.”

For a second or so he thought Tom had not heard him, or noticed.  For a second, two, five, ten, Tom said nothing.  Then:

“‘Was’ Joe?”

The genie’s face became one enormous leer. “She’s dead.”  Joe muttered.  “Marian is dead.”

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Photo credit:  Lucas Huter on Unsplash

 

 

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode Eight   A Question of Belonging

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The Story so far:

 

Joseph Palliser returns to his home village on the day a respected villager, Violet Parkin is murdered.  Whilst Jack, Violet’s husband, is arrested for her murder Joe also attracts attention from the police.  In the decade of Joe’s absence his ex-girlfriend, Emma, has married Tom Peterkin, who was his friend throughout his youth.  When they meet Joe discovers that Emma still has feelings for him.

Joe visits his mentally unwell brother Michael, who, despite his confinement in a nursing home, inexplicably knows about Violet Parkin’s murder.  He discovers his brother’s expensive residential care is being paid for, but no-one will disclose the source of the funds.  Back in Hallbury he is confronted by a police detective who raises doubts about his movements on the day Violet was killed…

The Detective was clearly waiting for an answer.  Joseph took a deep breath:  “This is relying on the word of two elderly people who probably don’t remember which ‘bus they were on.  As to the Abbots Friscombe train, I’m not surprised if no-one remembers me: there was no-one in my compartment.”  He decided upon attack:  “Anyhow, does it matter?  Are you suggesting I leapt from the ‘bus, ran down to the other end of the common, stabbed Violet Parkin to death and then came back here to greet my uncle and aunt?  Ask them what time I arrived.  And what possible reason would I have to attack Violet Parkin?”

The young constable was staring fixedly out into the garden.  His superior gave Joseph a piercing look.  “The time of Mrs Parkin’s death was approximate, sir; so maybe you wouldn’t have had to rush.”  He leant forward a little:  “How did you know Mrs Parkin was stabbed, Mr Palliser?”

“Shall we say I have inside knowledge?”  Joe asked, glancing meaningfully at the young constable and gratified to see his shoulders stiffen.  “Detective, do I honestly strike you as someone who sharpens pitchforks?”

The detective sergeant sighed.  “Pitchforks, now?  No sir.  No, you don’t.  But you do strike me as someone who knows a lot too much about Mrs Parkin’s death.”

“I’ve been away for several years, Sergeant.  I didn’t even know Violet Parkin was still alive.”

“True, but you have associations with this village, don’t you?  I wonder if you arrived earlier than you claim, and if you did, you might have seen something, or done something you would prefer not to talk about here.  Please think carefully; if you remember anything new and you want to talk to me….”

They left then, the one middle-aged, bearing the weary cynicism of someone accustomed to lies, the other a fresh young puppy-dog with waggy tail, pleased to have discovered something of value to his master.  The word they left behind, the one that dwelt with Joseph for a long time that evening, was ‘associations’:  did he still have those?  And if so, who in the village would have given that information to the police?

In spite of Michael’s plea for urgency, some days would elapse before Joseph could catch up with Ned Barker, the landlord of the King’s Head.

Dot explained.  “He’m gone fishin’, lover.”

In village parlance she might have meant he was camping out by a stream somewhere, although he was more likely to be on some other mission entirely.  It was no-one’s business but Ned’s, and Joe lacked the persistence to enquire further.

He filled his time by taking the train to Braunston for a visit to the Labour Exchange.  The day was warm and sunny so he bought a local newspaper and sat on a bench in the park to browse through the ‘vacancies’ column.  Employers seemed to be so discriminating; the qualifications they demanded followed more and more precise lines –  ‘Qualified Administrator:  HNC or higher’; or maybe ‘Trained Supervisory Assistant – must have at least five year’s experience’.  At thirty-one Joseph was, he had to admit to himself, qualified for precisely nothing.

Despondent, he turned to the front page, where the Parkin murder was splashed in giant headlines.  Their ‘Suspicious Death Shocks Hallbury’ was less than inspirational, and the report lacked substance, but it brought Joseph face to face with Violet Parkin, for the ‘paper had managed to obtain a photograph of her.  A head and broad shoulders glaring awkwardly at the camera, she frowned directly at him, as though she had never forgiven him for disturbing her ducks.

If asked, he would be unable to say how long he had been there when he heard the brush of clothing as someone settled on the bench beside him.  He did not look round, or acknowledge the newcomer:  his mind was too busy.

“I keep running into you, don’t I?”  Said Emma Peterkin.

She sat primly with coppery hair riffling gently in the wind, hands clasped on a small brown handbag in her lap, staring before her; a young married woman in her ‘town best’ – her pale green blouse loosely tucked into the waistband of a hounds-tooth checked skirt which finished just above her knees.  Sheer tights or stockings over legs too well-proportioned to go unnoticed, white heels on narrow feet.  Undeniably respectable, entrancingly pretty, Joe thought; and utterly miserable.

She turned her face towards him.  It was so close to being the perfect face; it was, still, so close to being Sarah’s face: wide set, soulful eyes, a strong nose, broad, sensuous mouth;  those two little pink patches on her upper cheeks which flushed furiously whenever she was embarrassed or aroused.  Small wonder then, that he had found his way to her when Sarah had gone – small wonder that she still tugged at his heartstrings dangerously, despite the passing of the years.

“I should have just walked past.  I’m sorry,” She said.  “But I couldn’t.  You looked so….”  Her voice tailed away.

“Emma.”  Joe began.

“How are you, Joe?”  She had determined upon a greeting; a normal conversation.  They were friends, reunited after a long absence.  They had much to share.  “I come to town each Tuesday to shop, when it’s quiet.  I works the other days of the week and Tom never likes it if I break into our Saturday together.  People say the shops should start opening on Sundays and I don’t know if I don’t agree with them – what do you think?”

“I really don’t have an opinion.”

“Really?  Really, you don’t?”  Emma’s eyes sought about her frantically:  “Well, I think it would be a blessing, I do.  I…I can’t sleep, Joe!  For thinking about you, I can’t…”

“Emma, please?”  He reached out for her, covered her hand with his; and simple gesture of compassion as that was, her flesh trembled at his touch.

“Not since you come back!  Why the fuck did you come back?”

The word was never more startling in its impact than when it came from Emma.  It passed through Joseph like an electric shock – a surge of anger, and pain, and – yes, a stab of intense longing too.

“Emma, I…”

“No!  No, you tell me!  Not a word from you, Joe Palliser; though I waited.  Yes, I did.  Because you promised, didn’t you?  I’ll write you soon as I get settled, Emma?  Remember?”  She clasped her hands about her knees, leaning forward, half-hunched, eyes filling with tears.  “So why are you here?  So you can…”  Emma spat out the word…  “use me again, to forget your precious bloody Sarah?  Because that’s what you did, Joe.  That’s what you did!”

“Stop it!”  He went to her then, because he was unable to bear her fury; because she was hurting too much.  He put his arm about her shoulders and stilled her, took her hand in his and held it there.  “Stop, Emma, please?”

“Oh, god!”  It was a suppressed wail.  “Why’d you have to come back?”

“Emm, you know why I left?”

“Yes, I know.  Because Charker was after you.  I got news for you, boy.  He’m still after you.  Charker don’t forget.”

“If it hadn’t been for that…”

Emma glared at him.  “Don’t give me ‘ifs’!”  Her face was too close to his.  Realising, she quickly turned her head aside.

He said:  “All this was a lot of years ago.  It was more than just Charker, it was Owen and Julia, it was my brothers; the whole thing.  But it wasn’t you.  All right, perhaps at first I might have been getting over Sarah, I admit it; but all that changed.  Believe me, I didn’t just use you.  It was far more than that.”

“Oh, the lies we want to hear!”

“No, not lies.”  Joe sighed, unashamed that his own breath should give him away:  she would sense it, he knew.

“Why didn’t you call me?” Her voice was calmer.

“Emm, I made a mess of London.  If I’d managed to find a job I could keep or a home that was more than a bedroom, I would have called, but it wasn’t like that.  It wasn’t the answer for me.  I did a lot of things I can’t talk about. In the end, this was the only place to come.”

“Oh!  Oh, enough of an answer to find yourself a wife, Joe!”  Emma snapped back. “Where does she come into all of this?  Or are you just goin’ to drop her as well?  What must she be thinkin’?”

“She understands.  I needed to get away – she knows that.”   Why did he choose to be evasive?  Did he think the symbolic defence of a wedding ring would be sufficient to deny the temptation sitting beside him?

Emma made no reply.  For a long time, nothing was said.  People walking by, idling in the sun, would make up their own versions of the story of a man and an unhappy woman huddled together on a park bench.

At length, Joe said:  “Look, I’d better go.”

“What are you going to do now?  You going back to London, or what?”  She muttered.

“No, that’s all over.  Wherever I go, I can’t go there.”

“Over?”  Emma turned to look at him, red-eyed.  The pink spots on her cheeks were afire, her lips were slack.  “Then you are droppin’ her! You be careful, Joe.  Soon the world’s going to be full of places you can’t go.”

“I thought I’d stay:  try and do something with my life.”  He could not deny the need to kiss her or, despite her misgivings, how much she wanted that too.  Her thigh was pressed to his, sending him arrows of its warmth, and there were so many words that needed to be said – so many things that could never be said.

I want you, Joe!  I’m so ready for you, right now.  You could take me, here, in front of everybody and I wouldn’t care!

“It’s a good job this is a public park.”  She said.

“This is wrong, Emma.”  He said.

“I know it.”  She shook her head sadly.  “And if you stay, we’re going to meet time after time like this, and just pass each other by, I suppose.   Oh, I can’t, Joe!  I can’t!”

She got up then, thinking she might begin to cry again, and brushed her hand down the back of her skirt.

“Oh, Lord!”  She said, and walked away.

Joseph watched her go.  It was pointless to deny the way he felt for her, although it surprised him by its intensity:  there had been times, after all, when months had gone by without his sparing her a second thought.  But then, there had been not just months, but years of denial, of truths unacknowledged.  Doing what he had to do – surviving as he had to survive.

Now, seeing her again, hearing the soft invitation in her voice, being close to the heat of her – he shook himself physically.  Emma was married:  what was more, she was married to the only person in Hallbury he had ever been able to call a true friend.  And life was complicated enough.

For a few days Joseph stayed at home, helping Owen with his beloved garden as he gradually melted the old man’s distaste for his ‘gigolo’ ward.  In his turn he gained new respect for Owen, an always distant figure in his past.  This stern, disinterested father substitute seemed more comfortable with Joseph the man than with the child he and his wife had so selflessly agreed to raise.  Once he had learnt to adjust to Owen’s slow, exacting logic, Joseph found depths he had not believed could exist.

There were also moments of startling acuity.

Half-way up the garden Owen had grown two rows of tomato plants.  It promised to be a good year, and abundant trusses were already set.  Any new shoots had to be picked out, and the pair were engaged in this chore when the older man observed:  “You’re behaving like someone who wants to return to the village.”

Joseph grinned:  “Really?”

“Is it true?”

“I don’t know.”  Joe straightened himself to ease his back for a moment.  “I think there may be too many issues, Uncle; I’m not sure Little Hallbury would exactly clasp me to its bosom right now.”

“I won’t deny you’ve got some problems.  Funny thing, acceptance.”  Ferreting in the depths of his gardening corduroys, Owen retrieved his pipe; pulling a half-used pack of fragrant Amsterdamer tobacco from the same source.  He tapped out the pipe on a stone.

“Outsiders see our community as being inbred, insular, positively hostile.  It isn’t true, of course – Hallbury is really a well-oiled social machine.  It has perfect balance; it consumes and produces on a steady plane, settles its own feuds and petty crime, and so on.”

He turned away from the breeze, cupping his hands around his pipe to light it ,  then he resumed, speaking between puffs as he coaxed the smouldering bowl into life.

“If you’re born into it, you’re a member.  If you aren’t there’s nothing you can do.  You won’t know, for instance, because no-one will openly speak of it, that old Josiah Regan, Janice’s grandfather, went completely mad and got caught trying to eat one of Hal Turker’s ducks raw back in ‘46 – you won’t be acquainted with an unfortunate habit of Aaron Pace in his younger years:  there’s scarcely a bedroom window in the village he hasn’t peeked through.

“You see, the rural idyll is nothing of the sort.  This place has more secrets, more closeted skeletons, more social crime than you can possibly imagine.  It seethes below the surface.  Unless you’re a part of it the true natives will never be that comfortable with you.  You’ll never ‘belong’ in that way.”

Owen wagged a finger.  “That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  For instance, you can leave your door unlocked without fear that someone will just walk in for a cup of tea and a conversation.  And it doesn’t mean that the village will ostracize you.  They just won’t treat you as a part of their machine.

“You’re closer to acceptance than most incomers would get.  You came to Hallbury as a child, your best friend lives here, and you’ve made enemies as well, so you’re interesting.  You could do worse than settle here.  I believe the Lamb family’s cottage on Church Hill might be up for sale soon.  Charley Lamb works in Hurley Walter now and I know he’s looking to move.”

Joseph shook his head.  “You know, Uncle, you are surprising me.  I always thought you wanted me as far away from you as possible.”

The old man ruminated upon this for a moment.  “I’ve never been confident around children.  Julia and I agreed a long time ago not to have any of our own, so taking on the three of you was a big demand on us.  I don’t want you living in this house forever, but I admit I like you better now you’re full-sized.”

“Even though I’m a gigolo?”  Joseph reminded him.

“Nobody’s perfect.”  Owen allowed himself a secret smile:  “There was a time in Cairo, during the war…”

On Thursday the weather broke. The garden being unworkable, Joe retired to his room to work on his curriculum vitae.  Only after tea did the rain ease enough to allow him to venture out.

He set off for the King’s Head by the route around Wednesday Common which would take him past the Parkin farm.  He strode ahead, enjoying the steady rhythm of drips from waterlogged hedges, dodging larger showers stirred from trees by a freshening wind.  Violet Parkin’s house festooned with police tape.  Nearly a week had passed and Jack Parkin languished in a cell somewhere, accused, a Timothy Evans figure too confused to plead his cause.

A police car squatted next to the front gate.

“Evening!”  PC Hallett clambered stiff-limbed from the driver’s seat.  “Is that Joey Palliser, by any chance?”

“It is, Davy,”  Joe replied, recalling this avuncular figure from his youth.  “How are you these days?”

“Oh, much the same.  I have to watch the place, case somebody tries to get in, see?”

Joe acknowledged it was a bad business.

“Oh, ‘twas, ‘twas.”  Davy Hallett looked Joseph up and down.  “Now you’ve growed, lad.  Went to London, didn’t you?  You just visitin’ us, then?”

Joe summarised his less detailed version of his London story, “Did you know Violet well, Davy?”

“No, not many did.  Although,””  PC Hallett added darkly, “there were a few as knew her very well.  Very well indeed.”

“Strange.  Somebody said something similar to me the other day.  I didn’t know what he meant by it, though.  Am I going to get you to tell me?”

Davy shook his head.  “No lad.  These are police matters, see?  Not that they’re going to do much. They reckon they got it all sewed up.”

“Really?  Do you think they’re right?”  Joe asked.

“Murders, see?  We don’t get many, and there’s the truth.  When we do, they’d usually be acts of drunken rage.”  The policeman was studying him.  “How come you’re so interested, Joe?  Like you said, you didn’t exactly know her, did you?”

“I just don’t want to see Jack go down for something he didn’t do, that’s all.  I don’t think he did it, Davy.  I don’t think you do, either.”

Jack Parkin; the police were content to consign him to a gallows; the village seemed to have turned its back.  Jack was not the easiest of people to like.

Davy Hallett shook his head.  “I don’t know.  Jack’s drinkin’s got a lot worse, of late years.  Some might say he’s a little bit mad.”

With a few brief words of parting, Joseph left the constable easing his ample proportions back into the relative comfort of his little car, and lost in thought, wandered up Feather Lane towards the King’s Head.  It was going to be difficult to verify even the simplest details concerning Violet’s last moments, he told himself: but that made his task all the more challenging.

“Don’t like the police.”  Growled a deep voice behind him; “You doesn’t want to be seen consortin’ with they, Palliser.”

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content. 

Photo credit:  Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode Seven    Ship of Ghosts

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The story so far:

After an uncomfortable encounter with the police, Joseph Palliser decides to visit Michael, his younger brother, who is resident in a nursing home; but the ‘bus trip which takes him there evokes harsh memories of his bullied childhood, and his involvement in the car accident  which killed his tormentor, Rodney Smith (Charker Smith’s brother).  He is reminded of this, and the subsequent rumours which drove him into leaving Hallbury all those years ago, as the ‘bus passes the place where the accident happened.

Joe remembers his first car and the modifications he made which led to his implication in Rodney’s end.  If he were to try to forget there are others in Rodney’s home village of Abbots Frsicombe ready to remind him, like village busybody Mary Harkus,.  She warns Joe to beware of Charker…

By the time the bus reached Maddockgate, its holidaymaking passengers’ faith had been repaid.  The rain had stopped.  Over hills which rose steeply across the southern horizon a watery sun elbowed its way through the clouds, endowing wet-leaved hedges with a welcome sparkle.  Joseph quitted the bus here at a request stop on the corner of Manor Lane beside a telephone box.  A discreet white signpost declared that Maddockgate Manor Nursing Home was a half-mile away, so he set off up the lane with a spring in his step.

‘The Gate’ was a large Victorian manor house of red sandstone standing upon a rise in five acres of its own grounds.    Despite its grim age it was far from the worst place to be sheltered if you were one of those who society deemed insane.  The dayroom Joseph was shown into had freshly painted walls and large bay windows through which what sun there was shone a welcome.  The leather chairs looked comfortable and there was a studious, subdued air about its five inmates who, distributed about the room, were each engrossed in something, though precisely what might have been hard to define.

“Michael,” The nurse called.  “Look who’s come to see you!”

He rose from an oxblood red winged chair at the end of the room; a tall, gaunt figure with scant, wispy brown hair and a patch over one eye, upon whose face flesh was tensioned like canvas on a stretcher.  It was an old canvas, that face, painted by a master perhaps: lined and faded with wide mouth slashed darkly across it as though opened by a knife.  His check shirt, covered in turn by a yellow V-neck pullover drooped about a thin neck and long, bent body.  Baggy grey trousers went the rest of the way to the floor, revealing the toes of tartan slippers peeking furtively from beneath their turn-ups.

Joseph barely recognised that wasted figure:  he had to try hard to remember that Michael was younger than him.  Yet, for all his physical impoverishment, Michael had a certain nobility about him, the bearing of a gentleman not favoured by fortune.  He waved Joseph regally to a chair on his right.

“Welcome, stranger!  Come and sit before me.”

It was clear that Michael did not know who he was, Joseph thought.  And why should he?  Drawing closer, he could see his scars had faded considerably from childhood days, although the long one which had all but taken out one eye was still obvious.  It vanished behind the eye patch to re-emerge below it, a savage weald he guessed would never go.

“Do you bring news from the east?”  Michael enquired anxiously:  “Come, tell me at once.  Are our armies lost?”

“Michael, I didn’t come from the east.  Well, not today, anyway.”

“Damn!  So they have us!    I’ll have to break it to the men.”  Michael sat back in his chair, this time crossing his legs as though they were upon a large cushion and saying, in a thick Arabian accent:  “Sit with me.  You honour my tent.”  Then, with startling clarity:  “What brings you here, then, Joseph?”

Joe’s face must have shown his relief.  Michael gave a slow chuckle.  “Well, you expect it, don’t you?  Coming in here, I mean?  Got to give my public what they want to see.  Jesus, Joey,  how many years has it been?  I barely recognised you.”

Joseph returned his brother’s smile.  “Too many,” he said; “too many.   How do they treat you here?  Are you well?”

“I’ve been ill from time to time, who isn’t?  Medication, Joey; that’s the answer for everything here.  Avoiding medication is the secret of happiness, I’ve found.  They teach you that.”

“How do you mean?”

“Tell me, dearest brother; what do you think of this place?  Pleasant – airy?  It is, of course, if you pass through here for a day.  You might even stay for a week and find it educational, at the very least: soft bed, a radio in your room.  But if you stay here for a year, five years, seventeen years….”  Michael leaned forward, speaking confidentially.  His breath had a slight menthol smell.  “You count the blemishes in the paint on the walls.  You know intimately every leaf on every bush in that garden, you know everything about everybody who cries in the middle of the night and it’s a bloody prison, then.”  He sat back.  “But you don’t protest.  You don’t raise your voice.  If you do, you’re ill, so you must have medication.  Medication messes with your head, it twists up your nerves and makes you wild inside but you can’t do anything.  Illness is a crime in here, and medication is the punishment:  a sort of perverse Christian Science, if you like.  You met the matron on your way in, I expect?  Frau Forster?  I call her Mary Baker Eddie – got away with it to her face for years, until she looked it up one day.  I was medicated for a week.

Michael’s face split in a thin smile.  “But things aren’t so bad now.  I don’t get ill very often, and I’m allowed out, you know.  I have friends in Marsden where I can go and stay for a few days if I want.  And from time to time I can take myself on days out if I’m good.  So, you – where have you been all this time?  What have you been doing with yourself?”

Joseph knew the question was coming, of course.  He re-told the story he had given to Julia and Owen, leaving nothing out.

When he had finished, Michael nodded sagely.  “Children of demons.”

The remark took Joseph aback:  “What?”

“Demon-spawn:  they feed on us, Joey.  They’re everywhere.”

It was the first serious intimation Michael had given that he was still unwell.  Joseph disguised his reaction to it as best he might by managing a bleak smile.  “True.”  He said.  He was beginning to wonder why he had come.

Together the brothers opened the scrapbook of their respective memories, sharing recollections of the past, speaking a little of the present, but never of the future.  Because, Joe would have to acknowledge, Michael did not have a future he would want to discuss.  There was no further mention of predatory demons.

Something interested Joseph.  “You haven’t asked about Ian.”  He said.

Michael returned him a blank, almost glazed look.  “No.”

“Why not?  He’s doing very well for himself, he’s….”

Michael cut him short.  “There are some things in here; things close to you, you have to forget.  Memories are bad for you, Joey.”  It was as though he had slammed a door.  There was obviously no room for further talk about their elder brother.

“Oh, I have some hot local news!”  Joseph tried to restore some lost ground:  “You remember Violet Parkin, the big woman who used to do all that stuff for the church?  She’s been murdered, Mikey!  What do you think of that?”

Whatever reaction he had anticipated, it was not the reaction he was given.

“Ah.”  Michael said.  His head began to nod in affirmation; not quite naturally.  It was an exaggerated, almost stylised movement.  “That I do know.”

“Really?”  Joseph said, very carefully:  “Who told you?”

Michael’s eyes met his own with a look in them that was remote, as if he were staring at something inside himself.  “There are things I know.  You must accept that.”  He spread his arms, slowly raising them above his shoulders, hands limp and drooping, as if in crucifixion.  With horror Joseph realised he was imitating the position in which Violet Parkin’s body was discovered.

“How do you….”

Michael dropped his arms, raised a hand in a quieting gesture:  “There are things I know.”

“I see.”  Joseph chose his words.  “So do you know why she had to die?  Because that’s what puzzles me, Mikey – what could a woman like that have done to get herself killed?”

“Who have you spoken to about this?  It’s vitally important!”

“Oh, most of the village, I suppose.  Everyone wants to discuss it.  Why, Mikey?  I barely knew the woman.  And why is it vital?  And how the hell do you ‘know’?”

“I just do.”  Michael’s thin features were almost lupine; had Joseph noticed that before?  Or was his face changing?  His hands had begun to twitch, stretching their long, skeletal fingers and curling.  He had begun that strange smoothing gesture he had shown to Aunt Julia once, at a breakfast table, a long time ago.

“Look, Michael, I don’t want to distress you.  Let’s change the subject, yes?”

“I’m not distressed, brother – not for me.  I’m distressed for you; for all you once knew and you’ve now forgotten; for the Earth-Lore that was yours to take and is lost now.  You left the pack, didn’t you?  You should have stayed.  In the pack you learn.  It teaches you your place in the order of things, who is first to the kill; who takes the first bite.  Oh, the glory in that first bite, Joe!  I know because they’ve tried to keep me away – tried for years.  They try, Joey!  They don’t know the pack is inside me.  They can’t know!”

A quiet voice spoke at Joseph’s shoulder.  “Mr Palliser?  I think we ought to let Michael rest for a while if you don’t mind?”

Joseph nodded.  “I’m going now, Mikey.  I’ll be back soon, though, Okay?”

There was no other description to fit it:  Michael bared his teeth.  “Talk to Ned Barker.”  He growled.  “Talk to him, Joey.  Do it before it’s too late!”

The nurse, a pretty, petite girl in a neat blue uniform, led Joseph from the room.  She gave a meaningful nod to a male nurse who encountered them at the door.

“We’ll take good care of your brother, Mr Palliser; don’t worry.  He gets excited like this sometimes.  It soon passes.”

“Is there a doctor around – anyone who can explain his symptoms?”

“I’m not allowed to discuss the patients.  I’ll see if Doctor  Bernowski’s available, if you’d like to wait?”

Bernowski was a man of challenged stature, with piercing eyes behind rimless spectacles.  “You are fortunate to catch me, Mr Palliser.  I have much to do, you see?”

“Thank you for sparing me the time.  What is wrong with Michael?”

Bernowski shrugged.  “Essentially he is brain-damaged – his malady is a legacy of the accident in his childhood, and the trauma associated with it:  as to its manifestation, in these cases it is so difficult to say.  Often we work for years and years and never find a cause.  I thought at first schizophrenia, but now I think more likely a personality disorder.  It is not harmful anyway, and he has a good life here.”

“He told me he’s allowed out.  Is that true?”

“Not strictly.  We have – how you call them – sheltered accommodation in some places, where they can go for a few days.  They are always supervised.”

“In Marsden on Sea?”

“Yes.  This I believe.”

“And was he there last week?”

“He was due a visit, I think.  You must ask the Matron that.  She will tell you.”

Joseph waited a further ten minutes for Mrs Forster, who was a friendly, tall woman with a frank, professional smile.  Yes, Michael had been on a ‘visit’ last week.  He had stayed in Marsden but, no, she was sorry, they did not give out the address.

“The people who perform the service for us have no visiting arrangements, you see.  But it is one of the advantages we offer our patients here.”

“I’m impressed.  The National Health Service never ceases to surprise me.”

Mrs Forster treated Joseph to a bemused glance.  “Mr Palliser, we are not a National Health Service hospital.  Maddockgate Manor is a private concern.”

By the time Joseph returned to Little Hallbury it was early evening, a weak sun had yielded once more to heavy cloud, and there was a far-away drum-beat of thunder.  He had questions to ask.

“Aunt Julia; who pays for Michael to stay there?  It’s quite expensive, isn’t it?”

Julia looked puzzled.  “I thought you knew that, dear.”

“Until I asked yesterday I didn’t even know where he was. “

His aunt shifted her gaze uncomfortably.  “Well then, I suppose you are owed an explanation.  Your parents left money in trust for whoever looked after you.  We became your guardians, so their will left us free to dispose of that part of their estate as we saw fit.  Michael’s care was the obvious solution.”

“So we should have had some money coming to us, Ian and I?”

“Any residue would have been passed on to you at the age of twenty-one: but with Michael the way he is, dear….”  Julia left the sentence open.  “Owen discussed all this with Ian and yourself years ago.  You must have forgotten.  Now, what would you like for your tea?”

Nothing simple:  the answers, if they were there, begged questions and those questions spawned more questions still.  Joseph went to his bed that night with questions spiralling through his brain.  Somehow Julia’s answer did not satisfy him:  his father, or so he had always been told, was a civil servant:  assiduous in his career, yes:  frugal in his habits no doubt; but able to finance the fees of Maddockgate Manor for the whole of Michael’s lifetime?  No.

That night, Joseph drifted like a ship of ghosts into a crewless, aimless sleep.  Without any obvious reason, Violet Parkin’s death had become important to him.  She had died in a manner wholly inappropriate for a god-fearing woman – with no explanation – none at all.  Yet Michael knew something – thirty miles away and never without someone to keep watch over him – he seemed to be convinced of a dangerous secret pertaining to that grisly event for which Ned Barker, the landlord of The King’s Head could provide an answer.

The next morning the police came again.  This time the young constable was accompanied by an older man:

“Detective Sergeant Stonebridge, Mr Palliser.  Can we have a word?”

While the young constable dithered by the French windows,  DS Stonebridge perched on the arm of a chair, reminiscent, Joseph thought, of detectives he had seen on television.

“You haven’t been quite honest with us, Mr Palliser.”

Joseph suppressed an inner tremor:  “What do you mean?”

“You told my assistant here you arrived at Braunston on the…what was it?…”  He consulted a notebook; a ragged-edged affair produced from his trouser pocket:  “Ten-o-five am train from Paddington.  Correct?”

“Yes.”

“And you got to Abbots Friscombe at about four thirty.  Is that right?”

“Yes.  It should have been four-twenty-five, but the train was late.  The train usually is late.”

“Then you took the four forty-five bus from the station?”

“Didn’t I already say that too?”

“Well yes, Mr Palliser, yes you did.  Trouble is, though, it doesn’t quite square.  Like, for example, if the ten-o-five out of Paddington got to Braunston in time, which it did, more or less, why wasn’t you on the earlier train out of Braunston?  Then you’d have arrived in Abbots Friscombe in time to catch the three-thirty ‘bus.  That would have got you here at three forty-five, Mr Palliser.”

“True.  But I didn’t.  I missed it.  My London train was a little late arriving, and I don’t like to use the lavatories on trains.  When I got to Braunston I needed to…well, to freshen up, shall we say?  And I missed the two fifty-five for Friscombe.”

The detective sergeant nodded.  “I see.  So you’re saying….”

“I’m saying I was on the four o’clock train from Braunston.  I got to Abbots Friscombe at four thirty, in time for the four forty-five ‘bus.”

“And you want to stand by that statement, Mr Palliser, do you?”

Joseph gritted his teeth.  “Can you tell me the problem here?”

The detective shifted in his chair.  “The problem:  all right, Mr Palliser, I’ll tell you the problem.  No-one can remember you, either on the four o’clock train from Braunston, or on the four forty-five ‘bus.  There are two elderly passengers who do think they remember you, however:  but they tell me they were on the three thirty ‘bus.”  He leaned forward.  “If that were true, it would put you in Little Hallbury well before four pm, which was when Mrs Parkin died:  now, Mr Palliser – you tell me the problem?”

 

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Photo Credit:  Annie Spratt on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

Hallbury Summer –Episode Six                     The Road to Maddock Gate  

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The story so far:

 

Joseph has admitted to his relationship with Marian, the wealthy married businesswoman by whose patronage he managed to survive through most of his years in London.  Yet, to his aunt and uncle, his explanation for leaving her seems unconvincing, and too much interrogation sends him on a walk through Wednesday Common, from where he can view the outside of the farm where Violet Parkin was murdered.  He meets his former girlfriend Emma there.  She warns him not to discuss their past relationship with her husband, Tom, once Joe’s best friend.

Joe is helping his uncle at home in his garden when his aunt announces that the police have arrived…

Owen Masefield could hardly have failed to notice his nephew’s reluctance as they joined the uniformed constable who stood in their front room, gazing out through the french windows at Julia’s summer garden.  He was a young man with bright, eager eyes and a narrow, slightly pallid face.  His domed helmet sat on the chaise longue like an obedient pet, waiting for him to sit beside it.  He immediately picked up on Joseph’s misgivings, though Joseph had thought to disguise them.

“Am I keeping you from something, sir?”  Joseph shook his head dumbly.

“Joe hasn’t been well,” Aunt Julia explained.

The constable studied Joseph for a moment before he went on; “We’re asking everyone in the village if they saw or heard something which might help us with our investigation into a suspicious death.  This was on Friday.  About four o’clock in the afternoon it would have been.”

No, Joe’s aunt and uncle declared, they hadn’t.  And the other routine questions the young constable asked received similar negatives.  He jotted down their answers in his notebook.  It seemed, he admitted when he had completed his list, that no-one saw and no-one heard.

“Mrs Parkin must have struggled – she did struggle.  There would have been some noise.”  The constable’s eyes kept returning to Joseph.  “You weren’t here, though, were you sir?   You didn’t get into the village until when?”

“About five o’clock.  I caught the four-forty-five bus from Friscombe.”

“An hour later.  Come down from London?”

“Yes.”

“What train?”

Joseph filled in the details for the constable, who dutifully recorded them all in his notebook.  He thanked everybody for their co-operation, made complimentary remarks about Julia’s garden, and left, wandering down the front path towards the road.  Joseph caught up with him.

“I wonder, officer, can you tell me?  How did she actually die?”

The young man frowned.  “Now why would we want to know that, sir?”

“There are wild rumours.  I had a bit of respect for the old lady, and I know some of her relatives.  It would be better to know the truth.”

The constable subjected Joseph to puzzled scrutiny.  “Well, I can’t tell you everything, but I can say whoever killed her must have really wanted to hurt her.”

“He must have been strong, too.”  Joseph prompted.

“He?  How do you mean?”

“The thing with the pitchforks?  It can’t be easy to drive one of those so deep into wood?  Oh, come on, sergeant, it’s all over the village!  Or is that just embroidery?”

Joseph could not tell whether his deliberate promotion of the policeman’s rank flattered him, or not.  The young man certainly made no effort to correct him.

“No, it’s not embroidery.  But it would be easier if the pitchforks were specially sharpened, wouldn’t it now?”  The policeman shook his head.  “I think I’ve said enough, if you don’t mind.”

He turned away.  Joseph called after him, without knowing why:  “If I can be any help?”

And the policeman replied, over his shoulder:  “But Mrs Parkin passed away before you arrived, sir – didn’t she?  Anyhow, I’m sure we’ll be in touch.”

The next morning Joseph confirmed his brother Michael’s whereabouts from Julia and announced his intention to pay him a visit.  Michael spent his days in a care home a little less than thirty miles distant, near Maddockgate village, a tiny hamlet on the road to Marsden-on-Sea.  The only drawback was rain, which began soon after Joseph alighted from his local ‘bus in Abbots Friscombe.  With half an hour to kill before the ‘bus to the coast arrived, he sought shelter in a café on the village square.  A short woman in a floral apron and flat shoes shuffled between her five deserted tables.

“What can I get you, dear?  Got some nice tea-cakes.”

Joseph ordered coffee.  The woman shuffled away.

Condensation ran down the window-glass.  Outside, the rain was becoming heavier, inducing shouts of panic from passing perms, the clack of running feet.  Traffic on the square splashed past, black and half-seen through runnels of moisture.  The café door burst open.

“Oh my lord, Bella!  It’s just pissin’ down out there!”

Bella was making Joseph’s coffee.  “Manners now, Mary.  We got comp’ny!”

“Oops, sorry!”  The new arrival, a woman in early middle age, encompassed Joseph in an unseeing glance; then she looked again.  “Good lord!  Joey?  Joey Palliser?  What are you doin’ ‘ere?”

Joseph smiled bleakly:  “Everyone asks me that.”

“It is a surprise, you’ll admit: ‘specially after…”  Setting Bella about the task of brewing a pot of tea, Mary came to his table, resting a suggestive hand on the opposite chair to Joseph.  “Mind?”

“No.  No, of course not.”

“Well, we got to catch up, haven’t we?  Why you come back?  You reckon ‘tis all forgotten now, then?”

“Clearly not,”  Joseph muttered.  Mary Harkus certainly wouldn’t have forgotten.  Tom Peterkin once referred to her, kindly, as ‘The Voice of the Community’.  It was a title she fully justified.  Her small grey eyes fixed steadily on his, rain dripping slowly from her blunt features onto the bare wooden table.  “It’s been more than ten years, Mary.”

Bella brought their drinks.

“Folks don’t forget Joey,”  Mary poured some milk from a small creamer into her cup, topped it up with tea.  “No, they got long memories, dear.”  She spooned three sugars.  “What’s our Charker got to say?  Have you met ‘un yet?”

“I’ve met him.”

“Ah, well….”  This, laden with emphasis:  “He don’t forget his brother.  Often talks ‘bout him, he does.”

Joseph nodded curtly.  “I’m sure he does.”  There was no other recourse than to leave, his coffee untouched.  He paid Bella, ignoring her sotto voce:  “What did you expect?” and resigned himself to the rain.  As he closed the café door, Mary Harkus called after him.

“You watch out for our Charker, mind, Joe Palliser.  You watch out, now!”

 

True to the country tradition, the ‘bus was late and grew later with every mile as it picked its way north to Maddockgate.  It was fairly well filled, in spite of the weather: optimistic trippers with hopeful smiles and determined expressions:

“It’ll clear up later.”

“Just a shower.”

Joseph settled into a corner, watching through the fog of spray and steam as the world went past.  How foolish he had been to even consider returning here!   Of course they would remember – he could never forget, how should they?  And it was this road, and in a minute it would be the precise place…

Rodney Smith – as lean as his brother was fat, as clever as his brother was slow-witted, with a long, hooked nose, and Dickensian pomposity:  imbued with a swift, sarcastic tongue.  The Smith family took pride in his intelligence, his diligence, his certainty of success – but to Joey Rodney Smith was a relentless tormentor.  To Rodney, Joe was a target for humiliation; a hapless, worthless adversary who seemed a little slow, a little shy.

“You, Joe Palliser?  You won’t ever amount to anything!”

Whenever Joseph voiced an ambition that taunt sapped his confidence, drawing spikes of laughter from all about him and snapping shut like an iron maiden on the meagre flesh of his self-esteem.  It followed him through school, this malignancy, and into adulthood.  Wherever Joseph was, whoever he was with, Rodney would always be somewhere near.  Talking with girls:

“Now there’s a surprise!  Are you turning straight, Joey?”

Rodney excelled at sports.  Not just one, but any sport.  He scored goals, he ran like a cheetah, his tennis game was accurate and vicious.  Whenever teams were selected, Rodney was always the first to be picked.  Even then, the barb:  “If I play for you, you have to promise not to pick Joe Palliser.  I want us to win.”

Once, reduced very nearly to tears, Joseph grabbed Rodney’s hard-muscled arm.  “Why do you keep doing this to me?  What did I ever do to you?”

“Do to me?  Whatever makes you think you could do anything to me?  I just don’t like you, Palliser.  You’re a worm.  You belong in the soil where I can tread on you.  I enjoy it!”

Joseph would have succumbed completely, were it not for Sarah.  She nick-named Rodney Smith ‘Achilles’. It irritated him visibly, the more so because Sarah was as widely admired by the girls’ half of the school as he.  Finally, he was driven to ask her:

“Why Achilles?”

“Too much muscle and too much pride – and because you’ve got a heel, mate.  You’ve got a heel.”

Nobody knew what Sarah saw in Joseph Palliser, least of all Joseph himself.  One morning when Rodney, who constantly attempted to add her to his list of trophies, put that question, she smiled at him kindly.

“He’s all the things you’re not, Achilles dear.  One day you’ll find out.”

Sarah had departed for London and her new life long before that day came.  Joseph had begun working for a firm of solicitors in Braunston, with the hope of eventually taking articles.  His employer, an amiable old solicitor called Carnaby, bore his immaturity with resigned patience as he coaxed the best from this spotty-fleshed youth with his large, soft eyes and downcast look.

By then Tom Peterkin was Joseph’s closest friend.  Tom was a mechanic by nature and birth, performing little tasks in his father’s garage from an age when Victorian pauper children would have been too young to climb chimneys, only happy if he was oily fingered and greasy-faced, attacking an obscure nut or a recalcitrant bearing.   So when in the summer of fifty-nine Joseph bought an old Ford Pilot car, he provided a catalyst for them both.

Tom’s grin split from ear to ear.  “Now then!”  He said ecstatically:  “What can’t we do with that?”

Thereafter, car modification filled their weekends:  Tom’s Sunbeam in one corner of his father’s workshop, Joe’s Pilot in the other.  Tom wanted a ‘rod’, a highly modified, brightly painted street car, while Joseph, typically for him, craved anonymity and disguise.  As Tom’s car gradually mutated into a squat, barrel-tyred, garishly painted speed machine, Joseph’s underwent far more subtle changes.  Under the senior Peterkin’s tutelage Joe transformed his Pilot’s eight cylinders, subtly widened its road wheels and replaced its suspension, all without any obvious alteration.  He revelled in secret pleasure, enjoying the efficiency of the machine he created:  an inward smirk, maybe – or another aspect of the tightly introverted person he had become?

All that changed one Saturday morning in February nineteen-sixty, when Joseph drove into the garage, to find Tom standing triumphantly amid a stack of boxes.

“All the way from America!”  He proclaimed proudly.  “Absolutely the fashion, this.  We got Nitro, boy!”

Nitrous oxide; laughing gas:  the dentists’ companion and the street racer’s fuel of choice.  A sleeping giant, in the disguise of one small cylinder, a few fittings and valves, all concealed from general view.  At the turn of a tap, a monstrous surge of raw power, which might turn the exhaust pipe into a cannon, overheat and destroy an engine in seconds if used unwisely – but what seconds!  Joseph was not immune to a boy’s addiction to speed.  Before a week had passed, his dignified old conveyance had developed a more sinister aspect.

Joseph was proud of his driving skills and his car was admired by the local girls, not for its undiscovered pace – it retained its innocent outward appearance – but for the sheer shiny care he lavished upon it.  He enjoyed their attention.  It was not for him to acknowledge that his popularity was for all the wrong reasons: he was, in so many ways, a child still.  But he was no longer an outsider.

This did not escape the notice of Rodney Smith, whose new stamping ground was Braunston.  Rodney was bound for Cambridge that autumn, so why he could not simply put the Palliser boy behind him and move on, no-one could understand: yet Joseph remained the object of his jibes, a butt for much of his humour.  Palliser’s emergence, his seeds of success seemed to gall Rodney particularly; especially when one of his girlfriends enthused about the gleaming black Ford Pilot.

The ‘bus slowed down, dropping a grating gear for the winding descent towards Maddock’s Teirny.  A bend to the left…..no, not here:  not this one.  Very near, now though…

Joe had been alone, driving his favourite route into the hills.  He was so relaxed he did not see the sleek MG convertible that swept up the road behind him:  with a blare of twin air-horns it thrashed past, a brief snapshot of Rodney’s grinning face and an obscene gesture as he cut in viciously, sending Joe’s Ford careering out of control into the verge.

For a few seconds Joseph’s precious machine teetered at the brink of a ditch which would surely have sent it to its grave before he managed to stabilise it.   Receding into distance, Rodney Smith drove with his left arm resting across the top of his passenger seat, chuckling as his mirrors revealed the drama behind him.

Rodney drove fast, laughing as he rotated the joke in his head.  That stupid Palliser!  So pretentious, so impertinently neglectful of his station!   The boy was working class, and utterly naive.  It may have passed muster with the village tarts, but he, Rodney, was not convinced by a cheap old banger larded with polish.

At length the event ceased to amuse Rodney.  He began planning his first date with  Josephine, who he had promised to pick up from her Marsden home by half-past-ten.  There was a champagne picnic – a new concept even for him – in the car boot.  It promised to be a very special weekend indeed.

A raucous shout from a car-horn gave him a moment of alarm, which redoubled when he glanced in his mirror and saw the low bull nose of the Ford Pilot right behind him.  Through its windscreen he could pick out Joseph Palliser’s face, set in a grim smile.

So he wanted to compete, did he?  Good god, hadn’t the repeated humiliations, the thrashings at every game he played, the constant ridicule been enough?  Very well then!  With a calculated skill which typified everything he did, Rodney dropped a gear, put his foot to the floor.  The MG answered him willingly, and he allowed himself a leer of triumph as the old Ford fell back.  A right-hand bend at speed, a little tail-end drift, neatly controlled while the wind rushed through his chestnut hair – why didn’t he do this more often?

The Ford was still there.  Now it was drawing closer, its headlights set on full beam, its horn repeating that demanding yell.  All right, then, Joey Palliser – a bit more; is that what you want?  Again, Rodney decked the pedal: pounding along the straight towards the summit of Tierney Hill, watching Joe’s car drop back.  Then, a crackle like distant gunfire and all at once it became larger; very much larger.  There was a hard-edged whine from the pursuing car’s engine, a throaty bellow from its exhaust.

No-one would know at what precise point Rodney’s perception of Joseph Palliser changed from one of sneering contempt to acknowledgement of imminent threat.  Later, Joseph explained to the police how Rodney succeeded in negotiating the first three bends of the hill before the MG’s front tyres lost their grip.

“He was just going too fast – much too fast.  The speed when he overtook me…well!  Coming down the hill, I knew I was going to find he’d left the road somewhere…”

The bus slowed significantly now, sought out yet another gear.  This was it – this next bend.  Joseph could not resist scrubbing at his cloudy window as the bus heeled sharply left.  Still there, the gap in the hedge, after all these years, closed by chestnut hurdles.  Beyond it the field which dropped sharply away into the valley:  the field where Rodney Smith’s glittering future ended.

Joseph could not wipe away those memories.  Although there was nothing he could do, it was a high price to pay and the first time he had ever seen someone die.

The police did not even investigate Joe’s car.  After all, as he explained, he was well away from the accident when it happened.  There was no reason to believe he was anything other than a witness.  The Ford looked like quite an ordinary vehicle, so they never sought out the cylinder of nitro in the boot, or checked it to find it was nearly empty.

Joseph was free from suspicion.  He took care to remove all trace of gas injection from his car the same afternoon, replacing the old parts in the carburettors.  But rumours began to spread in Abbots Friscombe, tales of how Joey Palliser had forced young Rodney Smith into a duel, and by some devious trick or another Rodney had lost.  Some alleged Joe Palliser had run the innocent Rodney from the road; people who would have treated that suggestion with incredulity a week before, but such is the way of rumour:  it makes heroes or villains wherever its appetite takes it.

Tom Peterkin gave him the warning:  “The Smiths are after you, boy.  Charker’s sworn to get even.  I’d lie low if I was you.”

Tom, of course, knew more than anyone.  But he was a true ally:  he kept his peace.

But where, you might ask, did Joseph’s brother Ian feature in all this?  How often was he called upon to leap to Joseph’s defence through those lonely, harassed years?  Well, the answer is nowhere.  Ian, you see, counted himself one of Rodney Smith’s best friends.

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do I Vote?

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Do I vote on Thursday?

Here in the UK, I’m supposed to do my meagre part in electing a Member of the European Parliament, yet I know very little about the running or conduct of that institution.  In this, I am not alone.  This is anecdotal, but I am prepared to bet only a very small percentage of my fellow electorate understand who they are voting for, or what alliances they will follow.

In UK general elections we vote using a most-votes-wins system, commonly called ‘first past the post’.  The D’Hont proportional representation system used for EU elections asks us to vote for our chosen political party and the party then allocates seats to selected candidates according to their percentage of the total vote.  So although the candidates’ names will be listed for the party of my choice I will not directly influence the choice of candidate:  that will be up to the party.

Once elected, the candidates will ally themselves to party groups within the EP, groups with names quite different to their party label in the UK.  Members of the UK Brexit party, for example, are likely to align with the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) group.  Others may choose the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) or the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR).   Some may select the Greens/EFA.  I know about the Greens, but EFA?  Well, that’s the European Free Alliance which is an association of smaller parties, one of which is called the European Pirates Party!!

A massive disconnect exists between the British system of personal accountability and this complex, remote, mildly patrician institution, separated from the UK by more than the English Channel’s defensive ditch.  Few will feel any connection to it, and fewer understand the gurglings in its politically bilious maw.  Its edicts are impersonal, then, and often ill-judged; its laws inappropriate to an island nation.  The British are ferociously independent, and they conspicuously resent anyone who tries to tell them what to do.

Thursday will add a further layer of perplexity.  Whomsoever wins will most probably be a member of the new Brexit Party or UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party), and therefore opposed to the institution they are legally required to join.  If the received wisdom is to be believed, they will then be forced to surrender their seats when the UK finally leaves the EU on 29th October.

These new ‘Members’ or MEPs will by then have been in place for four months.  The election that put them there will have consumed £100,000,000 of taxpayers’ money, which is clearly a very expensive fiasco unless there is an underlying intent to abandon the whole Brexit project, ignore the democratic process and keep the UK in the Federalist Union.

It is easy to become paranoid in British politics at the moment.  Machiavellian ‘Remainers’ are busy in the woodwork, digging new tunnels and hatching new plots.  Ever since a referendum came in with a result they did not want to hear they have been feverishly scheming, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if they produced another rabbit from their collective hat.

So, do I vote?  Do I contribute to this devious debacle, this deliberate travesty?

If I do, it will be to add my ‘cross’ to the millions of others our self-serving and arrogant ‘leaders’ will be compelled to find reasons to ignore.

Hallbury Summer – Episode Five Marian Brubaeker

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The story so far: 

Having fled from his life in the big city, Joseph Palliser is re-establishing himself in the village where he grew up and renewing the acquaintance of people from his past, but it is clear his Uncle Owen, particularly, and Charker Smith, who lives in a neighbouring village, are unwilling to accept him.

Joseph’s attempts at explanation for the failures of his time in London seem to put extraordinary pressure upon him, causing him to faint, or black out, when Owen raises questions about Marian, the woman he has claimed to be his wife.   Recovering, he admits he was never married to Marian.

Joseph adjusted his position in his chair uneasily.  The truth, or at least a scintilla of it, was finally out.

“I wrote you I had got married, and I used Marian’s name, but our relationship wasn’t a marriage, it was an arrangement.  I knew you wouldn’t understand that.”

“You’re right,” Owen snorted.  “I don’t.”

Joseph could see in Julia’s face that she, at least, did.  How could he explain, describe, justify Marian to someone as morally inflexible as Owen?  Were there even words?  He wanted to say mercurial, or brilliant, or beautiful: to eulogise (how curious his mind should search out that word!) her figure, her fever-bright eyes, her indomitable determination, but he could not.  Any more than he could convey his feelings when he woke that cold November morning, warm between sheets of dark red silk – away from the chill reality of his tiny,  colourless bed-sitting room;  away from his tiny, colourless life.

“The world is changing, Uncle.  There are a lot of people like Marian.”

When she walked into the room; when, through the fog of morning, he really saw her for the first time, their first encounter – he remembered that so clearly, down through all the years.

“Well, you’re still alive?”

He had been drunk, so very drunk the night before.  Someone – someone with perfectly manicured, unvarnished nails:

“This bowl?  Here?  Come on, let’s try and catch it, shall we?”

And obligingly his stomach had delivered; obligingly and repeatedly, until sleep came.  Then nothing until…

His leaden brain had cleared slowly.  He was lying on a large, luxuriously comfortable bed in a room he did not recognise.  Cerise walls, kidney-shaped dressing table, a chaise upholstered with powder-blue cloth and lots of fashionable chintz.  An aggressively feminine room, as he then thought.

The woman in a white bathrobe who addressed him from the doorway had eyes which in the distance and light looked a steely black, but which later he would see were the blue of midnight. Her straight dark hair framed a small-featured, resolute face with porcelain-pale skin.  A petite, almost gamine creature who, if she was older than he, showed it neither in pallor nor figure:  she was as fresh-looking and vital as any girl of nineteen or twenty years, yet there was an authority about her; a confidence that could only come with time.  She was surveying him with a half-amused expression.

“I’m Marian – Marian Brubaeker.  My god you were pissed!  Can I get you anything – stomach powders; aspirin?”

He shook off some of the fog.  “No, thank you.  Although if I could use some coffee…”

Marian came closer so he could catch a first breath of her scent.  It was delicate, a cultured perfume.  It was expensive.

“Coffee, of course.  Come with me and I’ll show you where things are.  Then you can make us both a mug and I can come in here and get dressed…”

There was a wedding ring.  “Does your husband mind my staying over?”

Marian’s laugh was internalised and tiny – almost a hiccup:  “Dear boy, my husband doesn’t know you stayed over.  Nor will he.  He has a somewhat narrow perspective on such things.”

Although the figure he followed – out into a short passage, through another door – was spare and lithe, Joseph was never in doubt of Marian’s power:  she exuded it effortlessly; it was part of her.  Even in his heavy, hung-over state he found himself admiring the grace of her walk, the smoothed sway of her hips.  Already he was thinking of her in terms of those dark red sheets.

The kitchen was simple, practical.  It was also very neat.  Marian’s fingers played over the components for making coffee then left Joseph while she ‘slipped into something more suitable’.  By the time she returned coffee was waiting in two mugs.  Her business clothes – “I have to go to work, I’m afraid” – gave the same impression of trim simplicity as her kitchen: a two-piece suit of warm blue mohair, a striking red blouse open just enough to hint at cleavage, a pair of expensive heels to match the suit.

She saw his eyes approving her, so she performed a quick twirl:  “what do you think?”

“The suit makes you look older.”

This time her laughter was a more expressive snort:  “I didn’t mean you to be truthful!  Is this my coffee?”

She perched beside him at her breakfast bar.

“I actually think you are very beautiful,”  Joseph said.

“That’s better.”  She said.  Her fingers reached out and touched his hand, hesitantly; then quickly moved away.  “Justyn told me your name was Joe. Are you Joe?”

“Yes.  Thank you for looking after me last night.  I behaved like a pig.”

“I’m not sure Cara was very impressed.  You had better call her and grovel a little, I think.”

“A lost cause.  She deserves better than me.”

Marian stared into her cup.  “We don’t always get what we deserve, Joe.”  She held her silence for a moment, then shrugged slightly.  “Well, I’ll leave you to find your way home now.  Just make sure the lock catches when you close the door, could you?”

That was all.  Marian walked out of her flat and out of Joe’s life.  He had no reason to believe he would ever see her again.

A week later a telephone call to the hallway of his latest Bayswater burrow found him packing his suitcase for the next in a series of moonlight flits.  A female cockney voice bawled up through the network of bare wood staircases to his fifth floor.   “Call for Palliser, anybody?”

“Joe?”  The voice was Marian’s:

He was breathless from the stairs.  “How did you find me again?”  He asked her.

“Your temp agency gave me your address.  Would you like to come to dinner?”

He ironed his one respectable shirt: he put on his only smart suit. When he rang Marian’s doorbell he hadn’t eaten for twelve hours and he had walked to Earls Court from Bayswater.  He was unemployed, broke, and uncertain where he would sleep the next night.

“Hello Joe; it’s good to see you,”  Marian said.  She was wearing a short, low-cut green dress.

“You look ravishing.”  He told her.

“And you look as though you called by on your way to a funeral.”  She responded.  “But that doesn’t matter, Joe.  You’re here, that’s all that matters.”

He should not have had qualms:  after all, he was warm that night for the first time in a week and he ate more in one hour than he had eaten for most of the week; but still he wondered:  “What do you see in me, Marian?  I can’t be important to you.”

She rose from her seat, came around the table to replenish his wine.  She stood close beside him, bending so that, should he just move his head a little, he would brush the soft flesh of her arm.

“You are, Joe.  Do I have to have reasons?   I suppose I do.    As to what I see in you, I see someone who is not very good alone:  someone who needs support and company.  Look at me and you will see the same things, though my reasons may be different.  I like your company, Joe.  You might even say I need it.  And I could do with your support.”  Marian returned to her seat, flashing him an impish look.  “Will that do?”

He shook his head.

“I’m lonely.”  She said quietly:  “Now, will that do?”

That was where their love-making began – at that table, that night:  and the beginning of the journey was neither comfortable nor promising.  He was overawed by her; he was clumsy, lacking in art.   She was patient, he was impatient.  At its quivering, uncoordinated conclusion Marian declared their first encounter ‘interesting’.  Joe, aware of his capacity to disappoint, mentally prepared himself for a long walk home.

“And where exactly will you go?   After that little episode, young man, I’d say you have a lot to learn.  I have an intensive course in mind, if you are prepared to study hard – are you?”

It was a Rubicon, a point of no return.  Joseph might have, should have, turned back then.  He did try.  He fumbled with words:   “I have to leave my flat, so I don’t know where I’ll be after tomorrow; I could end up anywhere, possibly even dossing.”  That was true, although it was the first time he had allowed himself to contemplate it.

“The course I have in mind is residential. Now, come back to my bed, Joe.   Let’s leave this talk of vagrancy until the morning.”

All sorts of contrary arguments passed through Joe’s mind, of course, not least among which was that gold ring on Marian’s finger.  But she was right:  he had nowhere to go, nowhere warm for any night beyond this.  Marian’s gentle touch, her warm body against his back, the soft silk beneath and above him, was unanswerable.  Sinking back into her arms and hidden as he thought from her ministrations he allowed himself that moment of contentment; and with her cheek pressed to his she felt it too, as together they dreamed themselves into sleep.

So their intimacy grew.  Joe became the sort of tenant who never pays rent.  Marian owned the building, keeping the top floor flat for herself and renting the ground floor shop to a commercial tenant.  The flat on the first floor, which she had originally intended to offer to one of her business managers, was empty.  Joe moved into it when Marian returned home to her husband for Christmas.

As relationships begin, it was the worst of beginnings.  Those who witnessed its formation were few, mostly colleagues of Marian’s at work, but they might have expressed cynicism at the difference in their ages, as well as Joe’s obvious reliance upon Marian’s wealth.  Who knew when all that began to change for Joe:  when was the definitive moment he fell in love with Marian?  That, though, was how it happened.  That is how the story was composed.

“That’s it.  That’s how it happened.”

Joseph looked at his adoptive parents:  no, he could not show them Marian through his eyes.  They could not visualise her tears when she was immersed in a Thomas Hardy novel, or her elation at a simple gift:  they wouldn’t be able to encompass her frustration: the way a thoughtless employee or an act of discourtesy could penetrate her seemingly impregnable façade and leave her hurt and alone but for his consoling arms.  No, they would see another side.

“Marian’s husband lived in Sussex.”  He told them.  “She stayed in London all week, at the flat in Earls Court, while I lived in a second flat downstairs her husband knew nothing about.  I – we – spent most of our time there, or in hotels when she was travelling.  We did a great deal of travelling.  Hotel rooms were where she felt the most alone.

“She gave me money.  Housekeeping, gifts sometimes, you know?  I was always to be well dressed so she paid for clothes.  Over the years I’ve saved quite a bit, actually.  I don’t think she knew that.  But now, it’s…well, it ended last month.  When it happened, I had a sort of breakdown, I think.  I had a couple of these episodes in town, and saw a doctor who prescribed rest.  That was when I telephoned you.”

Aunt Julia shook her head:  “Joey, I really don’t understand…”

“Why not?”  Owen retorted.  “It’s quite simple, woman.  He’s a bloody gigolo!”

“Oh, Oz!”  Julia remonstrated.  “Look, Joey, whatever you did, I’m sure it was for the best of reasons.  You must stay for as long as you want:  re-charge your batteries, dear.  Yes, that’s it.  We are just happy to have you here, aren’t we, Oz?”

Joseph could see quite clearly that his uncle was not happy, but Owen bit his tongue.

Joe languished for a while, drinking in Julia’s attention, sipping tea and trying to describe more of his London time to her.  But there were things he did not want to tell her or anyone, and she was, in her roundabout fashion, quite inquisitive.  She persisted in returning to the subject of his relationship with Ian, which was one of those areas.  So, around lunchtime, he excused himself on the pretext of needing some air.

For who knew what reason his feet took him along the path across Wednesday Common to stand in front of the old Parkin farmyard.  There was, he thought, a sort of natural ruin about the old house and its tumbling stone barns – a biodegradability which was appropriate, somehow.

The farmyard, or that part of it visible from the path, formed a rectangle once defended by a rough stone wall some four and a half feet in height.  There were several breaches now, however, and the rotted five-bar access gate hung open, jammed by the grass overgrowing those remnants of flagstones which, in more prosperous times, had formed the paved floor of the yard.  To the left a large stone barn in relatively good repair formed the boundary, rented by the Manor Farm for storage of hay.  The rear of the yard was fringed by buildings in a lesser state, a half-open flagstone-roofed shed, historically a smithy, at one end; a long, rendered barn which had once contained loose-boxes at the other:  the doors to the loose boxes remained, five in number, gaping or drooping in various stages of disrepair.

Between smithy and barn was the dairy, constructed from random rubble and never large enough to house more than five or six beasts, although no milking or churning had taken place here in many years.  Behind that large pair of doors was where Violet Parkin had been found – in there, if you cut through the police tapes and warnings, her blood would still lie sticky on the slabs of the stall where they found her – where they released her from the pitchforks that held her erect.

At the right-hand corner of the yard the farmhouse lay like a sleeping dog, its dark old walls, once whitewashed but now grey with lichen, beginning to bulge and spread where the sagging roof bore down upon them.  Tiny, sightless windows, unfathomably black, were stabbed randomly into the walls like snake-eyes beneath the heavy brow of the tiles.   It had been a comfortably-sized house – maybe three or four upstairs rooms:  Joseph wondered how many of them had doors that would even open now – where the Parkins had slept, if they slept upstairs at all.

“She delivered me, you know.”  Emma’s voice, so sudden in the silence, made Joseph start.

“I didn’t know,”  Joseph said.  “How long have you been standing there?”

“Long enough.”  Emma’s words were clipped, almost nervous.  “Vi Parkin:  she brought me into the world.  I’m not just saying.”

She was simply dressed, in a pale blue t-shirt and denim jeans.  The t-shirt had a v-neck.  Joseph realised he was staring at her cleavage.  He snatched his eyes hurriedly away.

“Sorry!  Of course not.  I mean, of course you’re not.  She was a midwife, then, was she?  I didn’t know that.”

“Lord no.  There wasn’t no midwife around, so Vi did it.  She delivered a few round here. What makes you interested in ‘un, anyway?”

Joe shook his head.  He really had no answer.  It was the question he had begun to put to himself.  Violet and Jack Parkin meant very little, other than a memory.  Why, when all was said and done, should he care?

“I suppose because it doesn’t fit.  After all, why would anyone want to murder someone – because they owed them money perhaps, or for some sort of revenge, or even jealousy? I shouldn’t think Violet was a debtor, and – well, I suppose she was a bit fierce, but I can’t ever see her rubbing up somebody so badly they’d want to kill her.  As for jealousy; Jack and Violet were together all their lives, and honestly, if he’d caught Violet in bed with someone else I doubt if he’d even notice.”  The thought brought a smile.  The idea of Violet attracting any male attention he thought inconceivable, but he liked the image it conjured in his mind.  “Oh sod it!  Now I’m going to have to apologise again!  I didn’t mean to be disrespectful.”

“It’s alright.  I don’t believe it either!”  Emma stood beside Joseph, as if by doing so she might see with his eyes.  “Joe, why’d you come back?”

He could catch the faint scent of musk on her breath:  he knew if he just turned to meet her stare; if he looked down into those pools of brilliant green he would…oh, god, what would he do?  “Didn’t I say?”  He muttered.  “I wanted to renew my acquaintance with this place – I grew up here, after all.”

Emma was silent for a moment.  In the trees behind the buildings, a blackbird struck up an alarm, as if a sparrow hawk were near.  Then she said:  “Tom doesn’t know.  He thinks he do but he don’t.  And you’re not to say anything, Joe – not anything, you understand?”

Joe nodded.  He understood.

Emma looked up into his face, just long enough to betray the tiny lines of begun tears around her eyes.

“You shouldn’t have come back here, Joey Palliser.  Best you were gone.”

She walked away then, hands plunged into her jeans pockets, head down.  Joseph’s eyes followed her small figure as it retreated, watched her until she turned the corner into Feather Lane.  A decade was suddenly no time at all.

That afternoon Joseph was fulfilling his promise to Owen, helping him to earth up his potatoes when his aunt’s voice shrilled from the kitchen door.

“Oz, Joe!   Come inside, both of you.  The police are here!”

Joseph Palliser’s heart missed several beats.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

 

 

Grinding Doors

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First let me say mine is a small, humble dwelling, though of infinite variety.  If I further divulge that one source of variety is the incidence of different door designs I may provide a clue concerning my week’s activities, and possibly be drawn into admitting to one of the challenges of advancing age.

Doors various – below stairs (that’s the ground floor, of course, but I like to imagine I have servants and that’s where they live) the internal doors are all of glass panels, the frames of which, though naturally finished, fail to meet any standard of uniformity, although I have endeavoured to standardise the handles (in brass, I fitted the last one just in time to be told that brass had become ‘so last year’).   Upstairs, and yes, I promise I will use the proper term ‘door furniture’ from now on, there are four internal doors in four patterns, none of which are glass, and none of which bears even a passing resemblance to its siblings.  Siblings???.

Gripping, so far, isn’t it?

Irreproachably, the Memsahib gave notice that conformity needed to be established, so I ordered three doors of identical design to the last one I fitted.  On Saturday, after keeping vigil before my tools through the night, I set about preparing Door One, which incidentally is the door to my ‘airy nest’.   The Vale of Despond yawned open before me, but undeterred I removed the old door, used it as a pattern, and trimmed its replacement neatly to size.  Then I cut recesses for the hinges into the new door…

Yes, I cut them on the wrong side.  I swear I studied all the possibilities for an hour before I made the first incision, turned the patient – sorry, the door – over and over in my mind, but I still got it wrong, and I still don’t know why!

It’s a spatial awareness thing, I know that; the condition of being unable to reverse images and angles in the brain – but I never used to suffer from it:  where did it come from?  Oh, and the door doesn’t fit, in spite of all my careful trimming, but that is down to latch revenge, and a separate issue.

So, in summation:  there are those who will persuade you that old age has not affected their abilities, or impaired their mental function.  Maybe they are lucky, or maybe they are delivering a brace of testicles, but I do not count myself among their number.  I can measure my deterioration in units of door.  A task I could achieve comfortably in a couple of hours not many years ago now detains me for one-and-a-half days (two if you count the afternoon I spent sitting here with an ice-pack on my head, muttering incoherently).  The thought that two more doors await me before I can claim to have performed my mission fills me with dread.  I may need counselling.

 

 

 

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode Four Lone Wolf

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The Story so Far: 

Succumbing to the temptations of Ned Barker’s famous beer at The Kings Head pub Joseph Palliser has lunched not wisely but too well. 

As he relaxes beneath an alcoholic haze of beer and warm sun in his Uncle’s garden, he recalls the time his younger brother Michael became ill, and the terrible circumstances that brought his family to Hallbury.

A remark by Aaron Pace, one of his drinking companions, is preying on his mind.  Can Jack, Violet’s drunken husband, be innocent of his wife’s murder?  With time hanging heavily on his hands, he decides to investigate for himself.

 After Michael’s act of defiance on the morning of his brothers’ School Sports Day his behaviour became more and more irrational, and he alternated between short stays in hospital and time at home.  Then, early in February on the week of his fourteenth birthday, Michael stole a billhook from a local farmer, which he used to threaten a courting couple in a car parked on the village common.  As a result, Michael had to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act, and everyone agreed there was no longer any alternative to residential care.  He did not return, then, to Little Hallbury, for many years.

Lazing in the back garden of his erstwhile home, Joseph wondered if that was the moment when he and his older brother Ian finally sealed their pact of mutual dislike – whether Michael’s departure had so affected Ian that he decided to put his family behind him as soon as possible: to move on.

Where would Michael be now; Joseph wondered?  They had lost touch many years since. although – intrigued by the thought, he opened his eyes, shaking off his alcoholic mantle – a memory of Michael might remain here even yet.  Easing a reluctant Benjy from his lap he persuaded himself to rise and follow a dirt footpath which led through his Uncle Owen’s lovingly-tended vegetable garden, around the garage by stands of tomato plants, to the high garden wall with its row of espaliered plums.  At the end, just before its south-east corner, there was a section of wall much older than the rest.  Joseph counted from the top to the fifth brick from the end on the twelfth row down.  It was loose; it slipped out easily.

And there, nestling in the cavity was a little piece of wood, a tiny carved effigy with a crudely whittled head, long arms and a stumpy body.   The back of the brick was covered in scrawled letters which Michael would have insisted was a secret code; for it was he who had carved the effigy, one of many concealed about the house which he swore, in his torment, were the root of his ‘power’.

“I shall rule these people.”  He had said in the low growling voice which became so characteristic of his last semi-rational phase.  “You are all my pack!”

Joseph shook his head sadly, replacing the talisman and the brick.  Maybe he was right, he thought.  In a way, maybe we are.

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“I think,” Sarah said; “It’s a little bit sad.”

Joseph had opened one eye, squinting against the sun.  “What is?”

“Marty Bignall.”

“O.K.  Marty Bignall.”  He opened the other eye, turned sideways.  Sarah was propped on her elbows, gently chivvying a large red and black caterpillar with a stem of grass.  “What made you think of him?”

“My beliefs.”  She treated Joseph to a superior smile, shifting the attention of the grass-stem to the end of his nose.  She had been a Buddhist since the beginning of June.  “You see, I believe we come back – after we die, you know?”

“Yes.  You told me.”

“Well, Marty Bignall ate himself to death, didn’t he?  Just kept eating and eating?  And now here he is.”

Joseph glanced at the caterpillar.  “So you think that’s Marty?”

“I’m certain of it.  He was always hanging around me, the dirty old man.  I thought when he died I’d got rid of him.  But no, he’s still hanging around.”

“If it is, he’s getting what he wanted,”  Joseph replied.  “From there, he can see right down your blouse.”

“Oh!  He can’t, can he?”  Sarah feigned alarm, shifting sideways.  “There!  That’s solved that little problem.  Although…”  She pushed herself upward, allowing her neckline to tease, “although now I suppose you can, can’t you?”

Joseph grinned at her and nodded dumbly.  Sarah was an unselfconscious young woman, aware of her gifts.  He did not object.  It was an affirmation of their familiar friendship, a toe dipping in the deeper pool of love.

“It’s so beautiful today!”  Sarah looked around, taking in the horizon of trees, the acres of long grass and fern.  “Do you think if I lay flat I could take this off and tan my back?”

Joseph nodded.  “No-one ever comes to this part of the common.”  They were in a place they had made their own, one that he had known since childhood – at the far end of Wednesday Common, beyond the road and nearly a mile from the village.  To get here they had waded through long grass, away from the track.  “You’ll have to move Marty first, though.”

Plucking ‘Marty’s’ leaf gently, Sarah put the caterpillar aside, then unbuttoned her blouse, and chuckled at Joseph as he averted his eyes.

“Ow!  Prickly!”  She complained.  And, after a pause:  “Are you keeping your shirt on?”  Then, in a darker voice:  “What are you doing?”

Joseph stirred at the memory.  What was he doing?  Taking her shoulder, rolling her so she was open to his gaze, falling upon her so, so clumsily!  Sarah, far from displeased, tumbling with him and laughing at his ineptitude, until…

“No, Joey!”  All at once afraid of herself.  “No, Joey, please?”

And he wanted her:  oh, he so wanted her!  He might have taken her then, or any of those precious, remembered times; had he been other than the boy he was.  But the boy he was loved her, and would not hurt her no matter how powerful the desire.  So he had sighed and fallen back, to lie dreaming next to her in the grass.

Tonight, somewhere between dream and memory, Joseph turned sideways and opened his eyes, almost believing he would see Sarah beside him in his bed.  One time, just one time in all their years of growing together, they had completed their act of love.  It was a struggling, desperate thing made wonderful by the powder-keg of their passion:  her gift to him, as though she knew that before they parted forever there must be a moment that would be kept sacred in their hearts – a memory for them both.

How could Sarah have understood the yoke it would place on those young shoulders, or how he would wander through life, fruitlessly seeking her image in every new face?  After all, it had been he who had insisted they finish their relationship.

On the platform waiting for her London train.  There to see her off to her new life – there to say goodbye.

“I’m not going to write – no point.  You’ll make new friends, forget….”

She had cried, of course – Sarah would – but she agreed.  And no, though he hoped against hope, waited for the post every day for a year, she did not write.  And no, though the first thing he did when he arrived in London was to search for her, she was nowhere to be found.

Yes, he could blame Sarah.  Joseph lay still, making the act of will he always made that would blank her from his mind for another few hours.  He might try to sleep, now.  His old bed, his old room:  the old house, talking to him – a living thing, not of bricks and plasterboard, but of stone hewn from the earth itself with all its history to carry with it.  Never silent, always talking.  As if the ancient spirits which once walked upon those rocks were constantly returning to find their way again, going from room to room searching out each footprint in turn, from a stone in the walls to the flagstones of a floor.   They groaned their frustration, clicked their pleasure, creaked as they passed.  The wind was their breath, whining through lungs encrusted by the dust of time.  But they were not malevolent ghosts – they were friends, friends he remembered.

“Things isn’t always how they seems, is they?”

Aaron’s crooked face, coming to him in the dark; another, very different ghost.  What made him think of that?   Joseph had never really liked Violet Parkin; few people did.  ‘Liking’ was not a verb that applied to that formidable woman.  ‘Respect’ felt more apt.  Nobody deserved to die that way, especially if their agelessness was so vital to a place and its identity.  This little village would be the poorer now she was gone.  Well, he had nothing but time, and it might be worse spent than by enquiring further into Violet’s demise.  Joseph sailed into the ocean of the night with Aaron perched like a parrot on his shoulder.

It was Tuesday morning.  Word of Jack Parkin’s arrest for murder had reached the breakfast table.  It animated Julia.

“Oz, you don’t think he could possibly be guilty, do you?  I know he’s a drunkard and all that, dear, but murder?”

Owen glanced over the top of his paper, and over the top of his glasses, and over the top of Julia’s head.  “Guilty as sin.  Hang the old bugger!  And get that bloody cat off the table!”  He raised the Daily Telegraph curtain again.

Jack Parkin’s drunkenness had warranted his eviction from The King’s Head many years before, forcing him to drink in the nearby village of Fettsham; which he did with relentless regularity and in copious amounts.  In earlier days, when Joseph was still quite new to the village, Jack had possessed a horse which knew its way down the turnpike road to Fettsham as well as he knew it himself; so that when it was time to return home, dead drunk, he would just clamber aboard and hold onto the bridle, allowing his horse to do the navigating.  More than once he fell off, to be found asleep by the roadside the next morning with the horse in patient attendance.  In recent years, after the horse had gone to its maker, a bicycle had become his vehicle of transmission. The bicycle having no independent sense of direction, when Jack was too sozzled to steer he merely leant against the hedge, still perched on its saddle, and slept.  Could Jack be capable of murder?

After breakfast Joseph took a walk in the garden, breathing in the morning.  The air in Hallbury had a sweetness that tasted, a substance of vitality he had so missed in the smoke of London.  It was good to savour it again.  The sun was already well above the east wall when, feeling particularly aimless, he took a cup of coffee to sit at the little oak table in the yard.  Owen was already there.

“I’m going to earth up those ‘lates’ this afternoon.” He said over his ‘paper as Joseph pulled up a chair.  “You can help me, Joseph.  Might as well earn your keep.”

Joseph nodded.  He had noticed the four rows of potatoes at the bottom of the garden.  He did not relish shovelling dirt in the hot sun, but Owen had made a point.

A bee circled above the table for a while, confused by heat from the coffee cup.   Benjy, ever attentive, took a speculative swipe at it.  Aunt Julia, who was watching through the kitchen window, went into a minor panic.

“Oz!  Don’t let Benjy catch the bees!  Don’t!  Stop him, dear!”

As he pushed an indignant Benjy from the table, Owen asked:  “When are you going to tell us?”

“About?”

“You.  Why you’re here.  Don’t hear from you for donkey’s years, then suddenly here you are.  What’s happened Joseph?”

“Does anything have to have happened?  Suppose I just wanted to see you both again – felt homesick, or something?”

Owen shook his head.  “This was never your home.  We tried to make it your home, in the beginning; but you never quite fitted in.”

No, Joseph thought. His head was hurting: pain, like an old friend coming to his rescue. Ian was the one who ‘fitted in’.

“So why have you come back?”  Owen persisted.  “I’m interested.  I want to know how long we’re going to have to put up with you.   What does Marian have to say about you just miking off by yourself?”

“Marian?”  This was the attack he had half-hoped would never come.  Of course they would ask him about Marian – how should they not?  Joseph felt his mind closing down on him, the way it did so often lately, the way it did whenever Marian’s name was mentioned.  Soon, the blankness would come and he would not be able to answer or remember anything.  Where he had been, what he had said, what he had done.  Stress, the doctor had told him, but the doctor had no idea – none!

“Marian doesn’t mind.” With a conscious effort he focussed.  “She has her own interests.”

“She’s your wife, boy!  Of course she’ll mind!  Have you called her?  Does she know you’ve arrived here safely?”

Marian – strange how he had managed not even to think of her, for nearly a week now, not since he stepped off the train at Abbots Friscombe – how he had succeeded in losing himself, shutting down that corner of his mind.  He was drifting.

“Not any more.  She isn’t …with me, anymore.”

“You’ve separated?  Good god, lad!  Heaven knows, you never were much use for anything, but I thought you’d make a go of marriage, at least!  What did you do?”

The constant accusations, the assumption, always, that the fault was his.  “Do?  I didn’t do anything…anything…”

He did not seem to have moved, yet his cup of coffee had gone.  Aunt Julia was bent over him, her eyes full of concern.

“Joe, are you alright?  Oz, what have you done?  Do you need a doctor?  Shall I call you a doctor, dear?”

He was mouthing something – doctor not needed – just faint:  maybe the heat?  His head felt foggy, he couldn’t think.  In the background Owen’s eyes watched him, and he knew that Owen missed nothing.

“You passed out, darling.  We were beside ourselves!”

They gave him tea, offered an ice-pack.  Julia rigged a parasol over the table, insisting he have shade.  “You’re to take plenty of rest, Joe:  but I suppose that’s why you came, didn’t you – to get away?  Perhaps, when you’re ready, you could tell us the whole story, dear.  I think we ought to know.”

“I believe we all need a drink.”  Said Owen, with finality.

So Joseph told them his story.  Or he tried.  He put ten years into five minutes like a genie into a bottle, hoping to absolve himself from all the guilt he felt.  It was an evil, malicious genie; a creature of black spells and vicious deeds, and it had things to say.  It stared at him through the glass, waiting for the release it knew must come.

“In London – you know – the job wasn’t what they promised.  Oh, I tried it for a while, closeted in a little back office like a battery hen; but it didn’t work out.  I wasn’t good enough to rise above it, I guess.  So I was out within six months, looking for work.”

The things he could not admit.  Why he was sacked – why he didn’t go to work but went looking for Sarah; was there some kind of desperation in that?  He did not find her:  Sarah had left her musical training after only a term:  some said she had gone to America with a band, others that she had moved to Scotland; but nobody really knew.

“I tried all sorts of stuff:  if there was a pay-day at the end, I did it.  I sold encyclopaedias, repaired office machinery, worked as a temp for a modelling agency.  I did some – other things:  I don’t want to give you details.  Meanwhile, I wrote to you about forming a new business and how well I was doing:  it was all rubbish, really.  I was one step away from eviction:  in fact, a couple of times I was evicted.  I ended up in a bed-sit in Bayswater: more rats than tenants.”

Julia interrupted:  “Why on earth didn’t you go to Ian, Joe?  He would have been glad to help!”

Joseph shook his head.  “Too proud, I suppose.  After I wrote to you about my business successes I was sure you would have spoken to him so I would have been found out.  But for all that, I had one stroke of what I suppose you could call luck.  Up there, if you get a chance, you grab it with both hands and I did.

“I made a casual acquaintance with one of the models from the agency:  we dated, off and on.  Cara was in with the circuit, so, for a while, I joined it too; went to some parties; got to learn how the so-called jet set live, and in a strange way, I think I fitted in.   There was a night at Maxim’s, a club on the King’s Road when I was quite drunk. We had a fight and Cara left.  Marian rescued me; took me home.”

“Marian, your wife?”  Owen asked.

“The same, Uncle; but…” Joe hesitated, reluctant to frame the words.

“But what?”  Owen wanted to know.

He wasn’t to be let off the hook so easily.  Taking a deep breath, Joe said:  “But Marian was never my wife.”

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

 

 

 

Out of Darkness

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The pavement is narrow here.  They elbow against him as they pass.  He remonstrates; they laugh at him, the children.  Nervous laughter, child laughter.

“I’m not frightened of an old man!”  One of them says.  “He looks like a paedophile, du’nn’ee?  You’re a paedophile, mister!  Dirty old ****!”

Maybe it is a conceit, he thinks, to assume the little boy’s remarks are directed at him.  I am old, he protests in the silence of himself.  That is my only crime.  The heinous effrontery of age, the obscenity of blemished flesh, of that crime alone, am I guilty. Yet it qualifies as another milestone on his descent into chaos, another small reminder that the narrow path to darkness is nearing its (and his) conclusion.  He turns for home, fleeing in his hesitant gait for the four walls that have become ever more a refuge with the advancing years.  Inside his house he need not face a hostile world, or openly parade his profane old age.  Here he may sit with his book, seeing, not the black of the words or the white of the page, but the crinkled parchment of his hands, their yellowing skin, the veins ever bluer, the brown freckles that grow and multiply.  He can study a new language, shutting his mind to the truth that he will never travel abroad again.  Is not learning a virtue in itself?

“Did you pick up your pills?”  His wife asks, knowing.

“No.”  Had that been the motivation which thrust him onto the street, put him out there?  “I forgot.  I can get them tomorrow.”

She smiles at him, her sad eyes filled with an understanding she is powerless to express.  She has been a good wife to him, faithful and selfless in her care as the storm clouds of his greater years gather above them both.  But there is no ‘both’ anymore, no unity.  Love, however deep, has transmuted into a bond of duty, and she moves around him in a different world, tidying, cooking for him, suffering the harsher edges of his fragility.  She has her own life, her ordered world.  She has her friends, she has her faith:  he has none.

He will not detain her long, she tells those friends.  Day by day she watches him fade, reads the terror in his eyes, the self-disgust.  Within the carapace of his four walls he treads the path to the end of each day, always aware how time is speeding past.  He is waiting for the one absolute certainty – afraid of it, unable to close his mind to it, reluctant, even in jest, to speak its name.  He goes to bed each night, carrying it like a raven on his shoulder, knowing it may strike before he wakes.

He seems to be in a restaurant that is not unfamiliar, although he cannot recall when he might have been there before.  There are many tables, spruce with starched table-cloths, red on white, and there are firm, reassuring upright chairs.  He is the only customer.   A waitress brings coffee to his table.  Once again, he feels he knows her too, although he cannot remember where or when they might have met.  She wears a uniform blue, he thinks, though he cannot say for sure.  Of just this he may be certain – she has the loveliness of innocence.  Such is the unspoiled softness of her cheek as she stoops to serve him he cannot forebear, but must reach up to stroke it with his hand.

He starts back, alarmed at his transgression.  He stammers:   “I’m sorry!  I don’t know what came over me!”

Her reply is gentle.  “It’s all right.  It’s meant to be.”

She does not draw back, the girl, but stoops so she is closer to him; so he can feel a brief zephyr of her breath upon his face.   Her eyes meet his, and they seem to say that if he kissed her that would be all right, too.

“I know you.”  He says, although if he were truthful he does not.

“Do you?”  Her smile is like a shaft of sunlight through rain, as she murmurs, “I seem to be affected by you.”

He begins to rise from his chair, until only inches separate their lips.

And he wakes.

For some hours into the new day the perfection of the girl is radiant in his mind; he cannot forget the sweetness of her voice; his heart is full and hopeful.   When next he dreams, might she be there, awaiting him?  And if she is, will their lips be joined in the honesty of that unaccomplished kiss?

But no matter how strong his desire, though he may deliberately put her image in his mind each time he finds himself slipping into sleep, she does not come again.  A week passes, then two.  He has pictured her walking hand in hand with him along the pathway to the beach, her bare feet splashing in the shallows, the wind in her hair.  All that, and yet he does not dream of her – or dream at all.

Then, one day when waking of itself is pain, he hears that voice again.  “You do not know me, but you will.”

The words are spoken so sweetly and so clearly he cannot do other than understand their meaning.  It is a promise.  For now he must be patient, keep her in his heart as an uncorrupted memory, because when the time comes he must recognise her face again.

In his twentieth year of another time, of maybe another place, he will be sitting in a restaurant with clean red tablecloths where he goes to read the research on  his thesis, and a girl will come to serve him coffee, and he will not know her, but his heart, his innermost soul will remember.  He will gently stroke her cheek and she will smile because her heart has remembered too.

With this certain image for his future tightly wrapped inside his mind he is ready at last to shake off the snakeskin of his years and begin a new journey.   When, later that morning, his wife discovers him she can feel no grief, because the expression those shrunken features wears is of peaceful acceptance.  He rests content.

Phtot Credit:  Alex Blajan at Unsplash

 

 

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