Selling the Protected Area Myth (No Wildlife Need Apply)

Reblog – Something all of us interested in the world we are passing on to our children should read?

strange behaviors

Chevron’s Gas Plant Being Built in a Class A Protected Area

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

It’s widely celebrated as one of the few success stories in the push to protect the wildlife we claim to love: Since the early 1990s, governments have roughly doubled the extent of natural areas under protection, with almost 15 percent of the terrestrial Earth and perhaps 5 percent of the oceans now set aside for wildlife. From 2004 to 2014, nations designated an astonishing 43,000 new protected areas.

These numbers are likely to increase, as the 168 nations that are signatories to the 1993 Convention on Biological Diversity work to meet their target of 17 percent terrestrial and 10 percent marine protected area coverage by 2020. And at that point, even more ambitious targets should kick in.

So, hurrah, right?

Sadly, there are two big delusions at work here. The first…

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Nowhere Lane – Chapter Four.   A Game of Hearts.

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Karen Eversley kept her word.  Patrick discovered her occupying a window seat in the lounge bar of The Hunters, staring moodily into a glass of something short.  When she saw him, her features tightened in a slow smile that her eyes failed to imitate.

“I thought you weren’t coming.”  She chided him lightly.

Patrick apologised. “I’ll get us some drinks.  Another of those?”

She watched him as he returned from the bar, idly wondering what lay in the eaves beneath that tousled mop of hair that so attracted her.  As he carefully set their glasses on the small table beside them she picked out the little shards of reserve at the corners of his green eyes.  “You were thinking about standing me up, weren’t you?”  She accused him.

“No.”  He hesitated.  “Well yes, maybe. I’ve been doing some hard thinking.”

“Why?”

Patrick stared into his beer-glass,  “Doubts.”  He said.

“About, is this a good idea?  Did we get carried away, the concert and everything?”  Karen asked, adding cynically, “or maybe I just don’t look so good in this light.”

“You look – you look incredible!  It’s because…”  He stuttered into silence.

“Ah!”  Karen’s smile was thin-lipped, “The bush telegraph’s been at work, hasn’t it?  The Chinese whispers, the Caleybridge underground?  What have you been told?”

“Alright, perhaps I have – heard something!”  Patrick acknowledged.  “Oh, how do I say this?  Karen, I like you, a lot.  But is there anyone who might be concerned, our meeting like this?”

“You mean is there a jealous boyfriend-stroke-husband-stroke-girlfriend?”

“It did cross my mind:  would you?”

“Would I what?”

“Stroke a girlfriend?”

Her eyes brightened.  “I might.  Then again, I might return the question, mightn’t I?”

“I think you already have the answer to that.”

“Whereas?”  She asked.  She was looking at him in that certain way, and he might have reached for her hand, or at any rate close the heavy curtain of distance he felt was hanging between them.  The easy familiarity of their Saturday date whirled like corn-chaff on an awkward breeze.  “Whereas I wouldn’t want to destroy anything.”  He said.

The clouds crossed her eyes once again.  “Don’t worry, you aren’t.”  She volunteered nothing more.

Patrick could not read her expression.  Was she angry or simply uneasy because he had learned something she would have preferred to keep secret?

“Boulters Green,”  Karen said, after they had sipped their drinks in silence for a while.

“Three ruins.”  Patrick replied.  “do not a village make.”

“Not in our eyes, certainly.  But Frank Purton thinks it is a village.  And Mr Purton is paying my fees; so help me?”  Her handbag was open beside her on the seat and she produced a piece of paper from it, tossing it onto the table so he might see.  It was a letter.  Patrick did not reach for it at once.

“Frank Purton.  Isn’t he something in the County Clerks’ Department?  He does legals, doesn’t he?  What’s it about?”

“Questions, questions! Please, Pat; read the letter?”

The letter was coarsely hand-written, barely readable in the half-light of the bar.

Dear Councillor Burnett,

Now my son Casper is of an age for schooling I would wish him to attend a local preparatory school.  I cannot find such a school or how it is for him to get there, as I have no transportation at all.

Please write for me to say what I am to do.

Yours respectfully

Joshua Turnbull.  Number Three, Smith’s Lane, Boulters Green.  He is aged five.

“Joshua Turnbull, he thinks it’s a real village,”  Karen said.  “And Councillor Burnett, he’s worried because he’s chairman of the Education Committee and they’ve already had to ride out one scandal this year.”

“You mean the Beauchamp case?  Yes, I remember.”  Patrick replied half-absently, reading.  The scrawl was heavy and rich in ink, as though scratched by a crude instrument; perhaps a quill.

Karen watched him.  “I investigated the Beauchamp case for the County.  Frank Purton instructed me on that one, and now he’s asked me to follow this through.”

“It was you who caught the demon teacher?  Wow!  I am profoundly impressed.”

“The work’s important to me, Pat; I need it.  I need to do well too so I could use your thoughts.  What does that letter say to you?”

Patrick gave his impressions of the letter, and she frowned.  “Those were my conclusions.  It isn’t any older than a couple of weeks.  It was delivered last Monday, stamped and everything, with a Caleybridge postmark.”

“Not a Boulter’s Green postmark?” Patrick suggested flippantly. “I suppose he posted it while he was in town, him not having any transportation and all.”

“You think it’s a hoax, don’t you?  So do I.  But why?”

“I can’t explain it any other way.  It’s the ‘why’ that troubles me, too.  What is there to be gained from it?”

“Some political points, maybe.”  Karen sighed.  “Anyway, it seems to have run out of mileage.  I’ve checked all around the County departments and nobody’s heard of Boulter’s Green.  I’ve even been into the census records and looked for birth certificates.  Nothing!  The only lead I had was those three ruins.”

“So, is that why you agreed to meet me tonight?  Your last hope of keeping the case open?”

Karen’s fingers played with the stem of her glass and she did not speak for a while, because the thoughts in her mind ran too deep for speech.  Then she murmured:  “No.  No it wasn’t.”  And she glanced up at Patrick, giving him the feeling that there was an added note behind her voice.  “Walk home with me, Pat.  No strings, no promises.  Just that.”

They strolled along the riverside path that followed the Caley’s meandering journey through the town’s Albert Park, watching as children cast bread upon the waters, and listening to the waterfowls’ eager demands.  Sometimes they were arm-in-arm, sometimes Karen would break away, turning to lean upon a railing, or just to create space between them.  They spoke very little.

Leaving the riverside after the bridge that took it beneath a main thoroughfare, to Patrick’s surprise Karen guided their steps, not in the direction of her parents’ house and the place of their weekend meeting, but up a network of roads on one of the sharp, steep hills which bordered the river, arriving at a small block of purpose-built apartments.

“I live here.  I have the top apartment.  It isn’t very grand or expensive or anything, but its home.  Sometimes I go back to stay at Mum and Dad’s for weekends.”  Karen had stopped in the shelter of the street door, turning to lean against the brick recess as she sought her keys.  “Thank you for walking with me, Pat.”

“This is goodnight, then?”

“Yes.”

He wanted to kiss her, but somehow he knew it would expose him to a gentle rejection,  “Will I see you again?”

“Possibly.”

“That’s it?  I have to make do with ‘possibly’?”

She gave a faint smile and looked away.  “Possibly.”

Impulsively he took her chin and turned her face to him, so she couldn’t hide the clouds in those cool blue eyes.  “Karen…”

“No!”  She said sharply.  “Look, Pat, it isn’t as simple as you think.  I’m not good at hurting people, you know?  There are loyalties…”

“Then the bush telegraph was right.  There is a Tim.”  He said grimly.  “That’s alright.  I understand.”

“Do you?”

“Well, honestly, no I don’t.  You’re sad.  You’re unhappy about something and I want to help, Karen.

“Could be because I gave up smoking last week?”  She volunteered another weak smile:  “Jumpy!”  She twitched her fingers a few times as a demonstration.

Patrick shook his head.  “I’m not wrong about us.  We may have only just met, but…”

“Stop!  Just stop!  You found out about Tim.  I suppose I expected that you would, but you’re going too fast and I’m not sure I’m ready for that.  Okay?  Goodnight, Pat.  Look, just…goodnight!”

The key was in the lock, the latch was turning.  Then she was inside and gone, and he was left with a blank, unfeeling door closed to him, and a half-curious look from a man passing on the street.

“I know about the martial arts, too.”  He said to the door.

Patrick began the long walk back to his car as the last of the daylight faded, a red sun slipping beneath the far horizon like a weary traveller, pulling the distant hills like blankets over its head.  Its final efforts bathed Karen’s little apartment building in a soft vermillion glow, making mirrors of its windows to hide the sorrow inside.  His mind was a whirl of thoughts and pictures.  He could envisage her tiny hallway as she entered, her quick steps into her private world and in his fantasy he thought that she might be secretly weeping.  He could see her cheeks wet with tears, hear those quiet, lonely sobs in an empty room.  If he had doubted before or if he had wanted to keep a distance between them, he was certain now.  His heart was hers.

Standing back from her window Karen watched him walk away, filling the void of sound with her own imagining so she might hear his firm tread on the pavement, feel his purpose rush through her like a howl of need.  He was so strong, with such confidence in his stride, such power!  And her heart was full of wishing, but her head would not let her call out foolishly, or run after him, or catch him in her arms.  She stayed to see the sunset, looking down over the town and bound by the enchantment of flickering streetlights as they caught fire, red embers into yellow flames.  But there was a conscience within her that would not be ignored.  Karen went to her ‘phone, picked it up and dialled.

“Karen?  Hello, love, where’ve you been?  I called three times.”  Tim’s voice contained a hint of petulance.

“I know, you called home:  Mum told me.  I was out.  You sound tired.”

“Yes, I am.  Busy day!”

“Beginning to wish you’d stayed in Caleybridge?”

“What?  Oh, no.  No, I did the right thing, Kerry.  I miss you, darling, of course, but it’s my career, you know?”

Karen knew; Tim repeated it often enough.  Tim was strong, wasn’t he?  Probably much tougher than Patrick.  Tim was intelligent and kind?  Yes, but Tim’s was a policeman’s ponderous, deliberate strength, humourless and slow.  She had to try and sound enthusiastic, although to convince him she had first to convince herself.  “I miss you, too.”  She tried, but maybe failed – she thought she had.  She covered quickly:  “Anyway, you were ringing about next weekend, Mum said?”

“Yes.  I’m off duty all through from Friday to Monday so I can come down.  We can maybe spend some time together?”

“That sounds lovely.”

“I’ll drop in on Saturday morning.  Maybe we can go for lunch at the Mason’s Arms?”

“That sounds lovely.”

“Yes, well…”

All at once, without warning, the conversation was over.  There was nothing either of them could drop into that stony silence.  They faced each other, across the miles:  he in London, she in her provincial apartment, and they had nothing to say.

“I’ll see you on Saturday, then?”  Tim prompted.

“Yes, see you Saturday.”

“Okay.  Love you?”

It was a question.  “Of course.  Love you.”  Karen said, reminding herself there was a time when they would hang on the line, each waiting for the other to put down the receiver, each with a new promise of devotion.  Tonight she did not wait for Tim’s response.  She rang off.

Emptied, Karen dragged herself into her kitchen, found some bread and put together a sandwich of a Bolognese sauce she had made the previous night.  Then she ran a bath, filled it with an obscene amount of bubbles and slid inside their envelope of care, taking her lumpy old sponge from the rack, soaking it, and thrusting it into her face until the foam got in her nose, making her splutter pleasingly.  With warm water for her blanket, she settled back to let dilemma have its say.

Tim Birchinall.  At school, he was the fit one, the natural athlete who played in the school rugby team.  Karen dated him then; meetings after school, embarrassing each other with words, experimental kisses in dark corners, a couple of trips to Baronchester on the bus.  Tim was fun in those days and Karen liked him, but they were really never more than friends.  He was a trophy boyfriend who drew looks of envy from less fortunate girls.  They lost touch when school was over.  Karen went on to college, Tim found his niche with the police.

Some years later on a seaside visit to Harterport, a few months after her older sister Suzanne died in a motorbike accident, Karen was basking in hot July sun on a crowded beach and trying to eat an ice-cream faster than it melted.  In her new bikini she was shuffling self-consciously through dry sand towards the promenade steps when she was swept off her feet by three very large males in bathing trunks who were doing more charging than looking.  Prostrate in the sand and liberally embellished by ice-cream she was offered the assistance of a big, friendly hand.

“I’m terribly sorry!”  A resonant voice apologized; “That was really clumsy of me – are you hurt?”

Karen was about to unleash an appropriate reply when she realized she was being helped to her feet by an Olympian.  She choked back carefully chosen invective. “Only my pride.”  Her eyes took their time travelling up her assailant’s body, eventually reaching his face.  “Good god!  Tim Birchinall!”

A fully-grown, fully matured, fully swoon-inspiring Tim grinned at her.  “Karen Eversley!  Now fancy meeting you here!”

And so it began – slowly at first; because outside a sports ground Tim never did anything quickly, but by the winter of that year they were in a relationship of sorts.  The heat, the romantic heat, the passion – well, that was always there on Karen’s side but Tim seemed quite happy to maintain a little distance:  kissing goodnight, familiar touching, intimate whispers, no more than that.

The change came one night in January.  Tim, who was a member of the Beaconshire force then, played rugby for the County Police and whenever Karen’s work allowed she followed the team.  She was a devoted supporter, organising kit, arranging the half-time snacks, and cheering dutifully from the touchline.

It was a Saturday: the team was playing away and it snowed.  In terms of the match itself that meant little, apart from very cold feet and a few bruises on hard ground; but when it came to persuading the coach driver to take the team home it meant a great deal.

“Too risky in this.”  They had let him get near a pub and he was eyeing it longingly.  “The main road’s blocked anyway.  It was on the news.”

There was not enough accommodation.  Bea, another of the groupies, was philosophical:  “We’ll have to double up.”  She said, and she was almost laughing out loud as she said it.

“You and I?”  Karen suggested hopefully.

“You are kidding?”

“Look, mate,” Karen told Tim; “It’s me in the bed and you on the chair, right?”

“Of course!”  Tim reassured her.  “Karen, would I?”

And, of course (extremely drunk and with disastrous ineptitude) he did.

All of which was three and a half years since, years in which, for all the good intentions, nothing special grew.  Far from improving Tim’s positivity and initiative, the police force seemed to have sapped him of what little he possessed, and his sense of fun had disappeared.  After a couple of those years questions began to be asked which Karen answered defensively, but doubts could not help but form in her mind too.  In a way she was glad: the lot of a policeman’s wife was not always a happy one, after all, and as time passed her commitment to that vision of her future dwindled.

Then Tim had suddenly announced he was going to join the Metropolitan Police.  Karen saw his move to London as having far more than mere geographical significance.  London, with all it meant in terms of distance and lifestyle, was an opportunity to draw a natural line beneath their relationship.  He would meet others and she would be suitably sad to lose him.  They would naturally drift apart; go their separate ways.

But Tim kept coming back.

At twenty-five years old Karen was tethered to a man.  Not uncomfortably so:  although bedroom time was scarce to non-existent, she was always comfortable with Tim, always safe.  And she might easily spend a life on just those terms with him, if thoughts of London attracted her; yet the doubts were there – the questions.  There should not be a time when you have to try to love somebody; to recapture the emotions that drew you together, so long ago.  And she was having to dig more and more deeply to find those things which she should feel every time she heard his voice or saw his face.

And now?  Now there was Patrick; she would not investigate him in the way she might check someone out for a client; she couldn’t do that to him.  So he would remain someone about whom she knew little or nothing, except that his parents were wealthy enough to buy him an expensive car for his twenty-first.  Yet he was thoughtful, he was perceptive, and when her head rested on his shoulder there was a feeling of rightness about it that might remind her of early days with Tim.  He made her laugh in a way Tim could never do.  Patrick who said he wanted to know her, yet flattered to deceive.  And she was – for a while: flattered, that is.  Patrick who, she told herself, wanted her.  His deception was his ease of manner, belying his upper-class roots and giving an impression of being available to her, a bridge across that great class divide.  But these matters, even if she might overcome them, ultimately rested in the judgment of others.  Karen drew a picture in her mind of a cocktail party in the course of which her father would meet with Patrick’s, and despite herself she began to laugh.

The water had cooled.  She rose from it reluctantly, towelled off as she held onto a little fantasy of hands around her, drying her body; smooth strong hands which she took to bed with her too, still imagining.  The hands were not Tim’s.

That night the sky was full of shadows, strange fleeting shades across the moon that darkened her window.  She could not know who or what they were, those shades, but she fancied she could hear their cries.

Were there steps yet that she could not hear – striding feet upon the pavement beneath her apartment? Feet that struck the stones so harshly they spoke of hatred with every tread?  Were there eyes darker than the night that watched her windows, knowing now where she slept and where she bathed, and when she was sure to be alone?  She would sleep while those eyes stayed open, and by morning they would be gone.  For now – for a while yet…

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.  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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nowhere Lane – Chapter Three. Remembering Wenceslas

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The little auditorium of the Gaiety Theatre was hushed, expectant. The audience, held in thrall, focused, every eye upon the stage and the motionless figure of Daphne Scott-Halperton, slumped in a chair that had baronial pretensions.  Daphne suddenly stirred.  Her arms and fingers quivered.  “I feel,” she declared in a stentorian tone, “I am in the presence of spirits!”

“She certainly is!” Jack Eversley, seated in the seventh row, murmured audibly.  “At least half a bottle, I’d say.”

A red-hatted woman a row in front turned to glare at him.

Karen squeezed her father’s hand.  “Shut up, Dad.  Give her a chance – you’ll see how good she is.”

Brutally exposed by the scrutiny of a single spotlight Daphne, in a black-fringed red silk gown, did seem to have imbibed a quantity of something.  A woman of impressive stature, approaching six feet in the vertical when standing and five feet in circumference, she seemed more fitted to a career in heavyweight wrestling, perhaps, or grand opera.  There could be nothing frail about her; yet after that one initial spasm her head lolled to her left and her arms hung lifelessly over the chair’s ornately carved armrests.  She might have fainted or been asleep.  Knowing better, her pensive audience waited.  Daphne stirred, jerked and looked up, emitting a groan like a rusted gate.

“Are you there, May?”  She cried in a passable imitation of a male tenor.  “I can’t see you, May.  I can’t see you!”

“I’m here…I’m here.”  A voice bleated plaintively from the gloom at the back of the auditorium.  The owner of the voice hesitated, then emitted a further squeak.  “Is that Bert?”

“Bertram!”  Daphne’s alter-ego growled:  “How many times have I told you, May?  My name is Bertram!”

“But you said you didn’t like…”

“You were late again this week, May!”  ‘Bertram’ snapped.  “Why are you always late?”

“Oh, Bertram – Bert – I’m not always…”  May protested, only to have Daphne Scott-Halperton silence her with an imperious hand.

“I miss you, May.  I miss your singing about the house.  When you sing I can hear you.  It brings me close to you.”

“Does it?”  May’s voice from the darkness wavered with emotion.  “Oh, Bert, I miss you too, my dear…”

This confession of loss stimulated a muted chorus of ‘oooohs’ and ‘aaaahs’ from the audience, who leaned forward in their seats in case they should miss the next communication from beyond the grave.

Not Jack Eversley: Jack slumped back in his seat.  “Oh, bloody hell!”  He muttered.

“Dad!  Behave yourself!”

“I am always nearby, May my dearest.  You mustn’t worry about me.  I’m always there.”

“No he’s not, he’s dead!  It’s a bloody pantomime, this!”

“Father, be quiet!”

A wit from somewhere back in the dimmed auditorium took up Jack’s thread:  “He’s not dead.  He’s behind you!”

From somewhere else:  “Oh no he isn’t!”

May piped up again.  “Can I ask…”

Daphne, glaring balefully at Jack Eversley, who had by now also incurred the undying hatred of the red-hatted woman, cut May off again.  “He’s gone, I’m afraid.”  Her voice returned to its usual strident pitch, and said, in a tone designed to wither the bones of any heckler:  “He was called away.  The channel to the afterlife can be such a busy place, you know.”

“But I wanted to ask where he put the keys for the shed.  It’s been six months now and I can’t…”

“Have you noticed;” Jack Eversley said, none too quietly, “How nobody ever gets called July?  All the other summer months – April, May, June, even August.  Never July.”

He was heard on stage.  Daphne Scott-Halperton, who had lapsed back into a posture which contrived to be both angry and somnolent at the same time, opened one eye.  “Someone is trying to get through.”  She said flatly.  “Someone recently deceased is seeking a young woman or a girl here, and she is being blocked.  There is an unbeliever standing between us.”  She threw Jack a baleful look, then enunciated with great deliberation.  “She wants to speak to Kerry.”

Karen caught her breath.  “Sis?  Oh, Sis?  Dad!  It’s Suzanne!”

The hand Karen was squeezing went suddenly cold.

Daphne sat forward, squinting at somewhere far off.  “She can’t get through.  She’s being prevented.  However I can just hear her and she wants to tell you she’s sorry, Kerry.  The accident, that wasn’t her fault.  She tried very hard, but she couldn’t stay with you.  She wants you to know she’s out of her pain, she’s healed and she’s in a beautiful place.”

Karen had to force her words through her tears: “Is that true?  Is she really happy?”

“Could not be happier, my dear.  Oh, this is so much clearer!  Wait now!”  The medium reached before her as if she were parting curtains which clouded her sight.  “Yes!  Yes, there!  I see warm sun upon yellow corn.  I see a pretty, red-haired girl with a broad smile, and I see cottages with thatched roofs beside a little stream.  I can just feel it!”  She smiled benignly.  “I can feel the cool breeze on my face!”

“Can I – can I talk to her?”

Daphne Scott-Halperton sighed.  “It is such a distance, Kerry, and the way is so crowded.  But she waves – you see?  She waves as she walks away…what tiny steps she takes in those green shoes!”

That put paid to a few doubts, the elderly medium thought as she surveyed her audience.  Research; research was the key!  He might have been a sceptic when he came in, the middle-aged barracker in the blue coat, but his saucer eyes and white face told her he would be back.  As for his daughter, struggling to restrain her emotion?  She had always believed – been one of her regular attendees, usually at the front.  Probably she had anticipated her companion’s behaviour and wanted to bury him in the audience to keep him quiet.  This was the high point, the climax to an hour of predictions, communication with her ‘spirit guides’ and education in her version of the hereafter.  It was time to close.

Miss Scott-Halperton rose to her feet, her eyes widened, her lips apart.  For a moment she seemed to stagger, catching herself quickly to prevent a fall.  Slowly she raised her hands, palms open in supplication, and then, as if quailing from some unseen terror, she clenched them to her chest.

“There is wickedness here.”  Her voice was deep, her lips trembling.  “There are dark forces – vile creatures from a pit of demons, and they mean such harm – such harm!  Stay close, all you who hear the spirits, I beg you!  Stay close to one another tonight, for if there is one thing in the universe with the power to vanquish all evil, it is love!”

Daphne’s next words were to be a benediction.  Now she would spread her arms over her audience and give them her blessing; tell them how the good spirits with their ineffable love would watch over them and guide them safely to their homes.  These things she would have said, had she not raised her eyes – had she not seen.

The gallery of the little theatre should have been empty for Daphne never drew a crowd large enough to fill all two hundred of its seats.  So the upper tier remained in darkness.  Yet she saw the figure distinctly, in spite of the gloom.  Robed in the colours of night, a man with long, lank hair stared down from the gallery rail, his head cocked bird-like to one side, and his craven eyes set upon one person in her audience – one person alone.

Daphne collapsed into her chair, her benediction frozen in her throat.  Her customers, believing she had finished her closing words, gave a polite spatter of applause, then began to disperse.  When she gathered sufficient courage to look upward once more, the man had gone.

#

“It was rubbish!  A load of cheap parlour tricks!”  Jack Eversley complained.

“Oh, Dad, admit it!  She had you believing for a minute, didn’t she?”  Karen grabbed her father’s hand, hurrying him through the rain.  “It was Suzanne!  It really was.  Who else ever called me Kerry?  And the red hair – how would she know that?  Where could she possibly have got that sort of information?”

Jack Eversley doubted.  “I don’t believe it.  I don’t.  Just tricks.”

Karen hugged his arm.  She knew how deeply he felt her older sister’s loss, and though five years had passed since the road accident which took her life, how little he had forgotten. “I miss her so badly, too.”  She said.  “Suze was special to me, Dad.  Really she was.”

“Of course she was!”  Jack drew his daughter into the shelter of a shop doorway, taking her shoulders and turning her so she could look into his eyes.  Wet from the rain, his face shone, as though the polish that furbished the furniture he made had somehow glossed his skin.  “Karen love, you’re being deceived, can’t you see?  That woman can’t bring Suzanne back to us.  All the stuff about thatched cottages and yellow corn – Suzanne hated that sort of thing:  Chocolate Box England, she called it.  And in all her short life I never saw her wave – she made a few other signs, but never a wave.  If the old dear really got a picture of her she would have seen a girl on a motorbike, or wearing those daft glasses of hers.”

Karen sighed, then gave her father’s wet cheek a patronizing pat.  “Green shoes, Father?  How would she know about the green shoes?”

In the noise-filled silence only rain on a pavement can make, father and daughter half-walked, half-ran the empty streets.  Beyond that brief discussion, neither spoke.  Their memories of Suzanne still defied expression, despite the passing of time.  There were wounds too deep for mere years to heal.

Karen shared her father’s pain although perhaps for other reasons that were uniquely hers, for as much as she had loved her sister, close as they had been through their growing up Suzanne was always the great talent, the superior intellect, the Wenceslas to her page.  Suzanne was the junior clerk at chambers who would have been a barrister one day, and a brilliant one.  In sport, Suzanne always excelled – the runner who had represented her county, the motorcyclist who could ride as fast or faster than most men.  When the motorcycle brought her down at last, in their parents’ eyes Suzanne was still the great hope, and Karen, just twenty then, the lesser child who lived forever in her shadow.  It was rarely stated, and direct comparisons were never made:  ‘Suzie would have known what to do’ or ‘Suze was cleverer than that’.  No, but Karen was just a pen-pusher in those days, a worker at Balkins’ Food Mart; Karen would never take silk, or win at anything.  She remained the lesser child, existing in shoes she could not fill.

Green shoes; Suzanne’s favourite pair.  The shoes she bought in Bulmouth when they shopped there together, years ago.

It might have been those shoes, or something other:  a chance remark by her father, perhaps – he was always ready with the tart comment, the clumsy put-down – that had driven her to make the change.  One workday Monday, while a dozen trivial clerical problems from the clutter of her desk were buzzing in her head, she had turned a corner into a street on the north side of the town, and paused for a while outside a jaded shop front with empty windows and a large ‘To Let’ sign on the door.

“You’re bloody mad!”  Jack Eversley’s anger was unconstrained.  “You! – A what-do-you-call-it?  A Private Investigator?  You?  You’re just a kid.”

“I’m nearly twenty-five, dad.  I’ve got to do something with my life!”

“Find a nice fella.  Settle down.  That’s the best you can do with your life, lass.”

And so ‘Eversley Investigations’ had started.  With a shop-fronted office Karen redecorated herself, a cheap car she bought on the ‘never-never’, no clients and very little money.  In a profession that was frowned upon by almost everybody, not least the local police force, and a role which was generally considered ‘inappropriate’ for a woman.

“I don’t understand: why do you want to be a gumshoe?”  Bea asked.  Bea was Karen’s best friend.  They were lunching together.  Bea was paying.

“It must be something hereditary.”  Karen had wondered herself.  Was it a way of hiding behind her sister’s shadow?  “Anyway, it might not work.”

“Or be really dangerous.”

“Do you think so?  I did wonder.”

They were hard, the early days, and bestrewn with problems that somehow got missed in Phillip Marlowe novels, but not dangerous.  She quickly learned that her prospective clients disliked sitting and talking to her before the large display window of her rented ‘office’, although blinds were fitted, so she painted over the glass.  And because even that was not enough to entice the shyest customers, she had her telephone number added in large figures to her sign above the door, after which hoax calls came thick and fast.  There were other calls too, less savoury in character, from less savoury characters.  She learned when it was best to cut off the line, and when not…

Patrick picked Karen up for their drive to Baronchester with her weekday image in his mind and she surprised him, emerging from her parents’ house in a denim mini-skirt and jacket, with a cap on her head closely resembling one of his father’s.

Karen spied Patrick’s outfit:  “Oh, no!”

“It’s alright,”  Patrick assured her, wishing he had gone for something more formal than his own denim jacket and jeans.  “They’ll just think we’re twins, or something.”

“Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum!  I could change, but…”

“But we’d be late.  Stop worrying!”  Patrick threw his own cap into the back of his car.

“It’s the Beatles, isn’t it?”  Karen said.  “They make you want to dress down, don’t they?  Nice wheels – now I wish I’d worn my pearls!”  She snuggled into soft leather.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with clothes.”  He told her, trying to keep his eyes levelled on hers and ignore her long legs, which graced his car’s foot-well as if they belonged there.  “And if this is dressing down I want to be around when you dress up.”

“That sounds slightly pervy, I think.  Is it your dad’s motor?”

“No, mine.”  Then Patrick added, wanting to be absolutely truthful:  “My parents gave it to me for a twenty-first.”

He still took adolescent pride in his Daimler sports car; hubris he had exorcised that afternoon by manic buffing which ensured that his date would be transported in a silver bullet of impeccable radiance, even at the expense of polish-scented fingers.  He loved the machine, and he was already entering a hazard zone of besottedness with Karen Eversley.

If Patrick’s news that the Daimler was a birthday present inhibited Karen’s free-and-easy camaraderie for a while it did not last long.  She was soon asking him more about his relationship with Bob Stawkley.

“Everybody knows Bob.”  He told her.  “He’s a good old soul, and I guess he must be near retirement soon.  He has a few less kind nicknames, though, I’m afraid.”

“Do tell!”

“The way he walks – you know, that kind of bouncing gait?  ‘Roo’, they call him in School Meals.  Oh, and sometimes he’s ‘The Gerbil’.  But that’s not the most unkind…”

“Oh, go on!”

“I’m not sure I should, but blabbermouth that I am, I will.  ‘Scrotty’: around our department, he’s known as ‘Scrotty’.”

Karen caught on immediately.  “Because of his wrinkles?  Oh, fab!”

Looking back, Patrick would not remember much of those early conversations.  On reflection, though, perhaps Karen found his use of his father’s membership card to access the car park above the venue where the band was to play intimidating, or even offensive.  Nevertheless, he caught the slightly smug expression on her face when they descended together from carpark to foyer, by-passing the queue of hopefuls waiting for tickets outside.

These were the early days of the Beatles.  Amplifiers that failed them in the stadia of their first American tour were powerful enough to rock the rafters of Baronchester’s Capstan Hall, and enough to fill Karen with their message.  She held Patrick’s hand and bathed in outrageous sound for a long set amongst the screams of the devoted; then, when it was over and the streets were in darkness they climbed Capstan Hill to Rush’s Bar for chicken in a basket while the ringing faded from their ears.

“I’m glad you didn’t book a restaurant;”  Karen told him, as they walked back to the car together.

“Is that sarcasm?  I’m not really as tight as that.”

“No, I mean it.  It would have been too much.  Besides…” She let herself relax into Patrick’s side, matching her stride to his.  “This is so much nicer.  Informal, you know?”

The concert crowd had gone.  In the hall they had the lift to themselves: lifts travelled slowly in those days.  There was plenty of time to turn to each other and seal something with a brief, gentle kiss.  Walking the final few yards to Patrick’s car Karen leant against him, her head on his shoulder.

“Tired?”  He asked her, imagining her head and that hair tousled on a white pillow.

“Hmmm?  No, just checking.”

“Checking?”

“I wanted to see how it felt, that’s all.”

He was so close – so close.  The luxuriant floss of her hair between his fingers, her breast nestled against his side and the warmth of her filling him.  At the car door, he held her, unwilling even for an instant to put distance between them and certain she must share his feelings.  The darkness made darkness itself of her eyes, her fingers traced soft patterns on his cheek.  All he need do was allow his lips to find hers and touch, just brush them enough to tantalize, before uniting in another, much deeper kiss.

“Hey.”  She murmured quietly, after a while.

“Hey?”

“Take me home?”

They were miles covered in silence.  Patrick drove with Karen’s head resting against him once more and he drove slowly, drifting in his mind.  When he finally pulled up outside her door they kissed again; a familiar, goodbye kiss that held no promise or commitment, but simply said:  ‘I know you now’.

“Will I see you again?”  He asked.

“What if tonight is too hard to follow?” His face must have reflected his disappointment because she quickly reached for his hand: “Your offices are just down the road from The Hunters, aren’t they?  Shall we meet there – maybe Monday after work?”

“I’d like that.  You can tell me all about Boulters Green.”

“Ugh!  Shop!”  She leaned across to peck his cheek a final time.  “Thank you for tonight, Pat.  It was special.”

Inevitably Patrick and Karen had been seen together.  Nothing ever happens in a small, closely interwoven town like Caleybridge that is missed by its purveyors of gossip, and eager demands as to the success of Patrick’s date with Karen greeted him as soon as he entered the office on Monday morning.

“Karen Eversley!  Woo-hoo!  You’re aiming high, aren’t you, little man?”

Only Jacqui, dear, over-sensitive Jacqui Greenway, who worked in the office next to his and who helped him because she was better at his job than he, detected his serious look.  She brought coffee, leant against his office door scrutinizing him with her grey-green eyes as she sipped tea from an old Coronation mug.  Jacqui knew Karen – but then, Jacqui knew everyone.

“She’s a nice girl.  She should maybe get over her private investigations thing, but she is nice.  A little older than you perhaps…”

“Jacqui, stop it!”

“I made you a drink – there’s a price.  You do know, don’t you?”

“Oh, Jacqui!  I don’t have to know, because you’re going to tell me.  Come on, out with it!”

“Patrick, I’m serious.  If you aren’t aware of this you should be, before you get too deep.  She has a boyfriend, Pat.  They’ve been together for years.”

It was a blow:  a low punch.  It hit Patrick in the midriff so hard he almost lost his breath.  “Really?”  He said, with a nonchalance he did not feel.

“Yes; Tim, Tim Birchinall.  He’s a policeman, works in London with the Met.  Plays a lot of rugby.  Oh, and Karen, she does Ju-Jitsu.  She’s a blue belt, I think.”  Jacqui added with a meaningful look.  “Honestly, did you think a girl like that would be unattached?”

“That mug…”  Patrick affected nonchalance.  “George Fifth, isn’t it?”

Nevertheless, a little paper kite of dreams Patrick had been flying took a dip towards land. He hesitated before persuading himself to honour his Monday evening meeting with Karen Eversley, thinking maybe he should step back while there was time?  But he didn’t.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.  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

 

 

 

 

 

Nowhere Lane – Chapter Two. Patrick and Karen

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Patrick

From a distance Radley Court might have seemed the same, but there would be no truth in it.  Green sandstone walls, high Georgian windows, tall chimneys jabbing accusingly towards the sky; all there, all unchanged.  To Patrick Hallcroft, turning from a road he knew into a drive he knew – into that long, long drive – the great sweep of lawn looked as it had always looked.  The ancient chestnut, its stately canopy a respite from the summer sun, and rhododendrons, almost trees themselves now, standing like lofty sentinels at the gates, a vibrant tunnel of pinks and reds, violets and blues.

Only as he drew closer did he see those once neatly manicured lawns reduced to turf, weeds nudging through the gravel forecourt, so many window panes cracked or broken.  When he braked to a halt before the house no Petra ran to him – no ecstatic barks of greeting, no kisses from a pink, excited tongue.  Not a bird to sing, not a rustle of wind among the trees; only silence.

The big front doors yielded before his touch.  Within, dampness and neglect assailed his senses, drawn curtains veiled his sight.  Across the great hall his footsteps were borne upon echoes, for the carpet that once clothed it was long gone:  only bare stones remained, with evidence of a roof’s neglect in every pool of water and a music of steady drips which kept them fed.

Patrick knew where his father would be.  The tall oak door of his study stood ajar, creaking as he pushed it wide. A threshold to a room always daunting, rich with memories: how many sins of his childhood had received the censure they deserved in here?  The hesitant knock, the nervous step, his father’s frown?  No more.  Now only daylight was forbidden -ragged drapes, velvet, once blue, garbed its windows such that he could barely make out those tiers of books that lined the panelled walls, or the desk; the polished desk that had once stood before a chair more noble than a throne.

Beneath its wide stone mantel, a small fire crackled gamely.

“You came then.”  Sure enough, his father was there, crouched before the guttering flames, stabbing and poking them into life.  His once rich Canadian drawl had dried with age to autumn leaves.  “I wasn’t sure you would.”

“Well, I had to think about it.”  Patrick admitted.  “Whether it was wise, I mean.  But you sent for me.”

“And you decided it was time.”  Jackson Hallcroft raised himself awkwardly to his feet, bearing the pain of afflicted limbs.  He was tall still, but gaunt.  His even features had hollowed around his bones as though some parasitic worm had plundered all his inner substance leaving only a wafer of flesh.  The tweed jacket and cords might have been the same ones he was wearing last time Patrick saw him, and that was a long time ago.  “I think so, too.  I remain in rude health, as you see.”  Then, as his son reached for the light switch:  “I wouldn’t touch that.”

“You haven’t had the electrics done, have you?  The place will go up in flames one day, Dad.”

“Yeah, and me with it, I suppose.”  Jackson’s face cracked a cynical smile.  “Like dry tinder.  Then all this will be yours.  A pile of ash.  It’s good to see you, Son – it’s been a while.  Did you have a pleasant journey?”

“Fine, my journey was fine.  I’ve been busy, Dad, and this house…”  Patrick shuddered.  “It doesn’t hold so many good memories, does it?”

“It did once.”  His father said.

“Yes, I suppose it did.”  Patrick looked about him, absorbing the heavy, dusty air and faded fabrics.  He might try to remember – there were, after all, some better times.  “Is this some kind of trap, do you think?”

“Sit down, Patsy:  over here by the fire if you can bear it.  The cold eats deep into these ancient bones.”

“When you’ve answered my question.”

Jackson Hallcroft sighed.  “Had a letter the other day.”  He said.  “Some guy called Price came by a week or so back and asked if I could show him around.  Well, I had nothing better to do.”  He shrugged.  “Then, next thing I know, a letter.  Seems like there’s this company; Wellfield Kaufmann, want to turn the old pile into a ‘Country House Hotel’.  Doesn’t that sound grand?  They’d pay a couple of million for the place.”

“Have you written back yet?”

“Nope.  Thought I’d talk it over with you first.  It’s part of your inheritance, after all.”

“You’ll do the right thing.  If you ever do think of moving, it would be good to have you closer, I suppose.”

“You were raised here.”

“I lived here while I was growing up.  You were too busy to notice that, much.”

The old man winced.  “No-one ever warned me that old age would be such a trial.  You have no idea how many cases I have tried to answer, Patsy.  I find myself guilty every goddamned time.”

“You haven’t answered my question.”

“About the trap thing?”  Jackson settled back into his leather wing chair, so Patrick had to join him by the hearth to see his face.  Although his skin was thin as paper, his grey eyes still retained their glint of steel.  They reflected the embers as he stared into the grate, answering his son with a question of his own.  “You might have placed yourself in a vulnerable position – by writing that damned book, I mean.  But that aside, isn’t it time to settle all this?”

Patrick felt the apprehension in his heart.  “Maybe.  Maybe not.  Maybe it was all settled a lot of years ago.”  There were things that had to be said.  “Dad, am I walking into a trap?”

Jackson sighed.  “Powerful people; lawyers?  Truth is, boy, even though your sister’s one of the breed and yes, I’d rather she was here; I don’t know.  I just don’t know.”

Karen.

Karen Eversley entered Patrick’s life in the early 1960s on an April morning, when spring snowfall was blowing against the window of his office in the Beaconshire County Planning Department.  Her long fingers tapped the glass panel of his door.

“Are you Patrick Hallcroft?”  The eyes which so openly explored his were a vivid blue.  They belonged in a perfectly oval face with a quite determined chin and a nose just too pronounced to be beautiful.  “You are, aren’t you?  You must be.”

“I’ll answer that in a minute,.”  Patrick said, rising from behind a stack of planning applications, “when I’ve finished ogling.  In the meantime, who are you?”

She smiled indulgently, as though the young man’s ham-fisted compliment somehow pleased her.  “I’m Karen:  Karen Eversley.”

“Well, Miss Eversley, you just lit up my day.  What can I do for you?”

“Didn’t Bob Stawkley tell you I was coming?”

Patrick’s jaw chose that moment to drop because the visitor his head of department told him to expect was from an investigating agency and the image that had become firmly planted in his mind was of a middle-aged ex-copper with warts and halitosis.  “You’re not…”

“I think I might be.”  She nodded.  “Eversley Investigations.  That’s me.”

Karen Eversley was definitely neither middle-aged nor warty. She was, as he judged, in her mid-twenties and tall, with a thatch of strawberry blonde hair.

“You’re the boss?”  He must have sounded as impressed as he felt.

“Oh, don’t make it sound too grand, Mr Hallcroft.  I am Eversley Investigations:  just me!  Bob did tell you I was coming, then.”  She proffered a hand,  “How do you do?”

Patrick would remember that hand.  Its fingers were ringless and a little fragile, its palm felt cool.  He had to gather his thoughts because she was gaining a hold on him, even then.  “Pat.  Please call me Pat.  Can I take your coat?”

“Thank you.  I don’t believe it, it’s really snowing out there.  I’m Karen.  Call me that.”

She shrugged her coat – silver grey and three-quarters length –  from her shoulders to reveal a pale lemon blouse and snug-fitting, charcoal skirt that finished an inch or so above her knees.  He thought they were the most perfect shoulders and knees he had ever seen.  He gulped – he hoped not audibly.

“What can I do for you, Karen?”

“You see, we’re on first-name terms already, Pat, aren’t we?”  She treated him to another of those smiles.  “I’m told you are custodian of the maps, is that right?”

“Custodian?  Wow!  The district maps?”  Patrick was groping blindly for a peg to hang Karen’s coat.  His eyes refused to leave her, drawn shamelessly to a small, very attractive beauty spot on her neck “I know where to find them if that’s what you mean.  And you are looking for..?”

“Specifically?  A village.  I think it goes under the name of Boulters Green.”  Laughing, she came to his rescue, reaching up to hang her coat safely on the coat-stand, which caused her blouse to stretch briefly across her breasts, and ignited a thousand small fires in Patrick.  Their faces came close, so he caught a hint of scent as the soft waft of her breath warmed his cheek.  Karen blushed, suddenly and prettily.  “I wonder,”  she murmured, “If you’ve stopped ogling yet?”

“Oh god, I’m sorry!  Yes; yes. Boulter’s Green.”  His mental archive was in cinders at that moment.  “Sorry.  I haven’t got a handle on that one immediately.  Any idea of area?”

She smiled.  Karen smiled.  She kept smiling!  His heart went into a sort of gymnastic floor routine inside his chest.

“Actually, none.”  She said.  “Don’t worry, no-one else has heard of it either.  Could it be in the Boult Valley somewhere, do you think?”

He frowned, or tried to.  “Sounds logical, but I’m sure I would have heard of it.  Let’s pop into the Conference Room.”

Was there mischief in the look she gave him?  She was not blind to the effect she was having on this mop-headed young man with his quick, intelligent eyes, and it pleased her.  “That’s not a euphemism, is it?”

“No, no!”  He defended hastily; “The Conference Room has a big table, that’s all.  The large-scale maps take up a lot of space.”

Karen made a face at him.  “Pat?”

“Yes?”

“I’m harmless, don’t worry.”

“Yes.  I mean no, of course not.  I’ll just show you to the…the Conference Room, and then I’ll grab a Boult Valley map and we’ll have a look.  Would you like coffee?”

“Never been known to refuse.  Sugarless and joyless, please.”

Leaving Karen comfortably ensconced at the Conference room’s substantial table, Patrick raided his department’s library with a speed and efficiency which surprised even him, then directed a similarly purposeful assault upon the staff kettle.  Within fifteen minutes he was able to produce the map she seemed to want, spreading it before her on the polished surface. “The River Boult from Bolborough to its lower reaches just above Bulmouth.  Nice and clean and white.”  Patrick fussed with placemats, fearing wrath from on high if their coffee mugs should leave a ring on the sacred table.  “I don’t think it gets used very often.  We call them bed sheets.”  He smoothed the acres of stiff paper down. “Sorry!”  He reddened.  “I mean – I didn’t…”

“I’m sure I’ve no idea what you mean,”  Karen said with mock severity.  “Is this one mine?”

“What?  The coffee?  Yes.  Best staff mugs.  You’ve got the coronation; of George –  the Fifth, I think that one is.  They all look alike, don’t they?”

“I’m honoured!  Can you see it?.”  She said, frowning down on the white paper.

“Boulters Green?”

“Yes.”

“If what you’re looking for exists in this area, it’s on here.”  He said.  “I take it you couldn’t find anything on the twenty-four-inch maps?”

She shook her head.  “I can’t see it on this, either.  How can you hide a whole village?”

“Maybe it’s somewhere else?”  He suggested.

“Maybe.”

Sometimes fine details could get overlooked.  The map, though superficially as dazzling as virgin snow, was host to better than a thousand words and symbols.  Finding something you wanted without a reference was like wandering blindfold through a maze because amidst so much profusion eyesight had little value.  But luck was on Patrick’s side.  “There!”

“It does exist!”  Karen said.  “You see?”

“It isn’t a village, though.”  Patrick’s finger had pointed to a trio of tiny rectangles, beside each of which was the word ‘ruin’, and over them, in slightly larger italics, ‘Boulters Green’.  A dotted line, symbolizing a track or bridleway, which must in bygone days have linked the ruins to a nearby minor road, stopped short about a half-mile from them.  “It might have been once, but it isn’t now.  I know this road.”  His finger traced the minor highway forming a ‘T’ with the bridleway.  “It goes to High Pegram – it’ll continue onto the next map.  I’ve driven along there a few times, but I can’t remember seeing a turning. What are you doing?”

He heard a click of a shutter before he saw the camera, which seemed to have appeared in Karen’s hand by magic.

“I’m photographing it,”  Karen said.

“Well, obviously.”

“Aren’t I supposed to?”

“Probably not.  But you have, haven’t you?  Do you think I should wrest the camera from you and rip out the film?”

He couldn’t quite decide if the look Karen gave him was amused or barbed.  “That might be fun.”  She said.  “What’s this area here?”

There was a large, faintly shaded zone marked out just to the north side of the ruins.  An imposing-looking complex of rectangles had been drawn in close to the edge of the area.  “That’s the  Driscombe estate.  There are thousands of acres of it, but that part is mainly wooded, as you can see.  The large structure is the great house, I believe;  Boult Wells.  Viscount Driscombe of Caleybridge’s place, you know?  His son’s our Member of Parliament?”

“Really?  Our Member of Parliament?”

“If you live at this end of the County, yes.”

“Yours and mine?”

“Yes.”

“Oooo!”

Whether by accident or design, Patrick found himself quite close to Karen Eversley; close enough to catch a hint of that citrus scent again.

“So that’s it.  Boulter’s Green isn’t much, is it?”  She said.

“Afraid not.”  He had to do it.  “Are you into The Dave Clark Five or The Beatles?”

She glanced at him, surprised.  “Dave Clark’s okay, I suppose.  It has to be The Beatles, though, doesn’t it?”

“Right.  Right, it does, I guess.  The Dave Clark Five are on in Baronchester this Saturday.”

Karen’s brow puckered.  “You’ve lost me Pat, what’s this got to do with anything?”

“Well, the thing is, the Five are supporting The Beatles.  It’s a gig they signed up for before they hit the big time.   Would you like to come?  I’ve got tickets.”

“But sir, I hardly know you.”

“True.  I might be dangerous.”

“Well, I hope you are, a little.  It’s going to be a very boring evening otherwise.”

“You’ll come then?”

“Of course I’ll come!  What, I should pass up an opportunity to see The Beatles live?”

#

So that was how Patrick Hallcroft first met Karen Eversley.  He must have realized he was on the edge of something important, though he little understood just how much his future was to be shaped by events set in train that weekend.  But first, we must join Karen on a very different evening outing, on the Thursday of that week, to the little Gaiety Theatre on Railway Street in her hometown of Caleybridge.  And of that, if you’ll forgive the cliché, more next week.

 

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.  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

 

 

 

 

Nowhere Lane. Chapter One

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Preface

This is my apology for a proper author’s preface.  A few weeks ago I posted the final chapter of a short novel which was a writing experiment.  It proved to be quite popular, I think (thank you to all my new followers) but I hesitate to impose a new book on my long-suffering readers, so I rely on you to tell me honestly if a second serial is a good idea.

‘Nowhere Lane’ is somewhat of a contrast to my previous attempt, and it is different, too, in that a synopsis has lurked on my hard drive for a year or so.   There are elements, even whole passages here that are pre-planned, but the hard writing still has to be done, which will offer plenty of opportunities for trouble!

Oh, and one more thing.  The subject matter could best be described as ‘edgy’ and the work may contain parts that will be rather more explicit than you are accustomed to reading in this blog.  Please let me know your margins, and tell me if I offend.

So, here goes!

 

Chapter One.  To Begin at the Very Beginning…

The Honorable Mary Brocklehurst was a delicate child, with the pale beauty and graceful carriage of a swan.  Beneath her silkily groomed and bobbed sable hair was a fashionably long, arched neck, the consequence of elegant bone structure that could only be acquired by centuries of refinement.  Her eyes were a misted blue, her chin narrow but determined, her breasts small and her hips a gynaecologist’s nightmare, but in the terms of her time, she was desirable.  Coiffured and self-assured, the picture she presented to her mirror as her final wedding dress adjustments were made was one of classic perfection.  She was to be an autumn bride, a spectral wisp amongst leaves of amber and red, prepared like a white ghost to stand before the altar beside a peer of the realm who was to be her husband, with an earl to give her away.

The dress was her mother’s decision.  Lady Hortense Brocklehurst had steered her daughter through her debutante season.  She had impeccable taste.  The contemporary dropped-waist style suited Mary’s wand-like figure, but with a hemline that must be modest.  Although Mary was a determined flapper, and her groom no less dedicated to nineteen twenties society living, their union would be a dignified, stately affair befitting two titled families.  Money was marrying money; the dress must observe and reflect great British traditions.  Her father, Viscount Brocklehurst of Saul demanded it; a guest list of a thousand expected it, and the mother could be confident the daughter would deliver.

Mary was not vain.  Growing up in a large household with two brothers, educated in one of the country’s best boarding schools, finished in a prestigious college in Berne, she carried self-image as her due and did not dwell upon her own reflection once the women who were helping her had withdrawn.  She stripped the expensive silk from her body with practised ease, then throwing on a housecoat as she withdrew to her bedroom, she gave the tassel of the servants’ bell an impatient tug.

“Yes, Miss?”  Florence had taken almost ten minutes to appear.  Mary glared at her.

“I’m simply gasping for a drink.  Would you bring me a decanter of dry sherry, Flo?  Oh, and have you seen this month’s Cinemagazine?  I distinctly remember leaving it here, on the table?”

“No Miss.  Although…”  Florence bit her lip.

“Well?”

“I shouldn’t tell tales, Miss, but I think I saw your magazine in Master Clive’s room this morning.”  Florence gave her mistress a knowing look.  “I’ll bring your tray, Miss.”

For all the promise of her upcoming nuptials, Mary was in a sombre mood.  She often found herself tasked with filling long hours when no-one called upon her, and the sun stubbornly refused to set.  Her parents were dutiful rather than attentive.  Her husband-to-be visited in his Prince Henry motor perhaps twice a week, and there were always parties. For the stultifying social deprivation in between, although Mummy would not have approved, alcohol was one valuable adjunct.  Reading magazines was another.  This afternoon, thanks, she was sure, to her younger brother Clive’s kleptomania, she lacked the latter.  Not that there was a dearth of periodicals she could read, but the particular one she wanted to read was in Clive’s possession.

For an hour she wandered about her room with a sherry glass never far from her hand.  She rehearsed dance steps, hummed the tunes of evening to herself, sighed at the window and fussed with the pile of journals on her table; she flicked through pages, scanned sketches.  It was a lubricious hour, and the lubricant did nothing to mollify her temper:  she wanted her favourite journal; it was not here, where it should be.

At last, when the resources in the decanter were well reduced, her irritation with her brother reached heights that could be contained no more.  Clive might bring the magazine back, at his own convenience, but she wanted it now.  Riding upon the thundercloud of her anger and slightly aided by a breeze of imbibed alcohol, she floated along the length of carpeted landing that separated the family bedrooms to her brother’s door.  The carpet was to blame – her bare feet were to blame.  Clive did not hear her approach.  He did not even hear her as she gently opened the door.  And then it was too late.

“Oh, no!  Oh, my gracious heavens, what are you doing?”  Mary exclaimed.

Clive was lying on his bed, face down.  Mary’s magazine was propped open on his pillow at a page featuring a photo-print of a contemporary film star, Pola Negri.  Clive’s body was caught in rhythmical movement.  It froze.  Clive froze.  Clive emitted a squeal like a startled pig.

“Get out, Sis!”  He spluttered, reaching for modesty in the form of a bed sheet that was rucked at the bottom of his bed and exposing, in doing so, rather more of himself than he would have liked.

Mary chuckled.  “Oh, vile!  Just vile!  Whatever is that?”  In truth, the best all-girls’ school education had instilled a certain amount of worldliness in Mary.  As pure a virgin as she might have been, she knew very well what ‘that’ was, even if she had only seen artists’ impressions of a rampant example until now, but she was of a mood to play the outraged innocent.  “For goodness sake, worm, will you please stop rubbing yourself?”

“I’m not,”  Clive muttered.

“Yes you are!  It’s utterly disgusting!  Especially over pictures of that woman, you ghastly little monster.  She’s scarcely a model of propriety, is she?  And that’s my magazine!  How on earth can you get yourself so – so excited about that?”

“Well I think she’s awfully attractive, if you must make a thing out of it.  Don’t you have the manners to knock?  Leave me alone.”  Humiliated, Clive made a further attempt at reaching the bed sheet, turning the other way this time, so he presented his sister with a glimpse of his buttock cheeks to feast her eyes upon.  He did look surprisingly muscular for such a little wimp, Mary acknowledged to herself; that backside would probably appear quite wholesome to a less jaundiced eye.  The sheet retrieved and his respectability restored, Clive managed to muster up some bravado.  “We all do it, us chaps.  The dorm’s positively heaving some nights.”

A fit of giggling caused by Clive’s turn of phrase required determined suppression. “That is not an excuse!”

“It is mine.”

“Don’t be so silly!  Awful things happen to you if you do that …that sort of thing.”  Mary’s initial outrage gone, curiosity took its place.  For all the new freedoms the nineteen twenties bestowed upon women, a girl of her background was still presumed to be sexually naïve until after her marriage.  Yet she had certain feelings, and some qualms – her intended husband was neither gentle nor patient.  She dared not ask about such issues in the stilted drawing-room world her parents inhabited.  She was not immune – nor, apparently, was Clive.

“That’s utter rubbish, Mare, it really is!  Just because you haven’t…”

“Don’t you DARE!”  Mary interrupted him hotly.  A rush of beetroot red flew to her cheeks, an anger that made her head threaten to spin.  “I will not discuss my…my private affairs…with you!”

“You could always leave – now.  And if you’re so repulsed you could take your eyes off it, couldn’t you?  But you don’t want to, do you – leave, I mean?”

Mary began to wish she had taken breakfast that morning.  Suddenly unsafe on her feet, she sat heavily beside her brother on his bed.  She held out a demanding hand.  “Give me back my magazine and I’ll go.”

Clive closed the book and passed it to her.  “There!”

Yet she did not leave.  Why?  Did her dizziness prevent her?  Was it the alcohol that whispered in her ear, spoke to her of forbidden, unmentioned things?  She slurred:  “You don’t know what to do – with a girl, if you’re…you know…with them.  Do you?”

The Honorable Clive leered, yet it was not quite a leer.  It might even have been a confident smile.  “Suppose that I do know?”

“Don’t you practice your cheap seductive moves on me!  How could you know!  You’ve never done it, and don’t pretend…oh, gosh, not Janine Parker?  Did you do it with Janine Parker?”

“A chap should never tell, but since you ask, in her father’s hay barn; last month, when I came back from school.  You would have been busy waltzing around the Court of St. James’s at the time.”  Clive added, acidly.

“Oh, that must have been awful for her!”

“I think she rather enjoyed it, actually.  Frightfully amused!”

“What did you do?”

“How do you mean?”

“Did you put your hand on her knee or something?”

“Oh much, much more than that.”  Clive looked at his sister carefully.  “You don’t know anything about what happens, do you?  I think that must be really dreadful.  I mean, you getting married and all that…”

“I most certainly do! I don’t choose to speak of it, that’s all.”

“All right then.  What will you do together, you and your chap?  Tell me.”

“I choose not to.”  Mary knew her face was giving her the lie.  She was deeply confused, as she had always been, about what would ensue when the wedding was over and she was left alone with her bridegroom.  Worse, she was fairly sure he would be equally clueless.  He was clumsy, rather bumbling in the simplest tasks.  She had no expectation that a bed would make a difference.  The secrets and covert meanings, the knowing looks and sotto voce comments of her friends seemed to allude to some mystical act, but what the nature of ‘it’ finally was remained shrouded in innuendo.

At some stage her housecoat had slipped aside enough to expose some thigh.  To her horror she felt Clive’s hand there, stroking her skin.  She recoiled.

“Now Sis, don’t be such a prude!”  Clive rebuked her.  “You need to have a modicum of experience, don’t you?  If I do this” – he allowed his hand to slip a little higher; “Not me, of course, but imagine I’m a chap doing it.  Imagine I’m St. John, if you like – don’t you get a bit of a rush?  Sensations, you know?”

“Sinjon.”  Mary corrected him, aware she was shivering and unsure why.  “It’s pronounced ‘Sinjon’”

She felt a kind of eagerness that was new to her.  Was this what Clive described as a ‘bit of a rush’?  St. John’s hand had never strayed higher than her knee.

Clive’s voice was gently persuasive; his lips crept closer to her ear.  “And then if a chap – if St. John – should do a little bit of this, don’t that make you wonder what will happen next?”  His hand began exploring places nowhere near her knee.

“Oh golly!”  Mary said, with rather more of a gasp than she would have liked.  “Remove your hand, you little reptile!”

Clive neither answered nor obeyed,  She knew, of course, she should push the hand away, but alcohol had made her bold, and her brother seemed so very knowing, so very self-assured.  Instead…

“Well?”  She asked tentatively.

“Well what?”

“I suppose you’re going to insist upon showing me – what happens next, I mean?”

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.  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

 

 

 

Gone

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The man in the seat in front was picking his teeth with what looked like a straightened-out paper clip.  Head bent forward over the green canvas bag on his knees, he appeared to be engrossed in this exercise, even obsessed by it.

Randall tapped him on his shoulder, hesitantly.  The man turned, still picking, showing Randall a face much older than he first thought.   “Yeah mate?”

“I’m sorry if I…can you tell me, is Hall Park Gardens the next stop?”

The man frowned, examining the end of his improvised toothpick for a result, and finding none.  “Hall Park Gardens?  Nah, don’t know no Hall Park Gardens.  Wrong bus, mate.”

“Oh, no!”  Randall pushed himself back into his seat.  The bus banged into a pothole, jarring his spine.  He remembered why he hated buses; the immediacy of human contact, the hard cushions, the noise, the wasted hours and inexplicable diversions through endless residential streets.  Why had he allowed himself to be dissuaded from driving here?

“That’s a wicked place for parking, Take the train.  It’s ever so simple!  The Fifty-Nine bus stops right outside the station.  It goes more or less straight to St. Mary Magdalene.”

More or less.  More or less!  Randall stared out at a strange street, at kebab shops, emporia for shoes, for vegetables, for fashions:  a strange street in a strange city – strangers on the pavements, dashing or wandering, as lost as he.

“Smartly dressed.  Funeral I’d say.  I’m right, aren’t I?”  The man in the seat in front had turned to face him again.  Salt-and-pepper grey stubble on a sallow, smoke-dried face.

“Yes.  “Yes, that’s correct.”

“Thought so.  White shirt, black tie.  Thought so.  Family?”

“No, no.  A friend – an old friend.”

“Sad, very sad, that.  What church?”

“Sorry?”

“What church is the funeral at?  That’s where yer goin’ innit?”

“Oh.  Oh, yes.   St. Mary Magdalene.  Yes, the funeral’s there.”

“Bleedin’ ‘ell, were you ever on the wrong bus!  Lissen,”   the man leaned a beige jacket-clad arm on the back of his seat.  “Forget about Hall Park Gardens, dunno where that is, anyway.  Lissen, I’m gettin’ off next stop, but you stay on for two more stops, yeah?  Get off at The Broadway.  Take the Number Twelve goin’ east.  It’ll have ‘City Centre’ on the front.  St. Mary’s is either the fourth or the fifth stop on that route, alright mate?  Don’t take the Twelve B, that goes a diff’rent way, see?”  Randall’s tooth picker reached for the stop button on the pillar at the gangway end of his seat.  “Good luck, mate.”

Something about the man was familiar, reminded Randall of someone.  He looked up to ask, but the man had gone.

The Broadway proved to be a wide avenue of larger dwellings, its pavements lined with tall plane trees beneath which a number of past residents had, in return for a plaque dedicated to their memory, provided those seats more commonly associated with city parks.   Regaled by birdsong, Randall rested upon Allen Shopland’s memorial laths with peace of mind only faintly disturbed by the association in his memory between St. Mary Magdalene’s Church and Hall Park Gardens.  Somehow he was sure the one was to be found at the end of the other, although whence that memory came was a mystery to him.

A bus arrived, putting an end to his disquiet.  He flashed his travel card at the screen by the driver’s seat and contemplated asking its morose occupant to tell him when he had reached his stop, but the driver’s demeanour was less than communicative so he held his peace.  A church, after all, could scarcely be so inconspicuous as to be missed.

Wedging his knees behind yet another bus seat, Randall surrendered himself to the pitch and yaw of the different vehicle, trying to concentrate upon his memory of Michael; of their years serving together in the Middle East and the close bond between them that was broken by the end of their army careers.  What on earth had brought his dear friend to live in this vast urban sprawl?  What could possibly have possessed him to settle here?  Michael was dead:  after so few years it was inconceivable; was it illness, love for Belle who had strung him along so mercilessly, or was it this city that had killed him?  The memory of Michael’s face, shining with the smile that was so uniquely his, filled Randall’s eyes and his heart, bringing tears as it always did.  He was not so old he could not weep without shame.

“Close, were you dearie?”   There was a woman sitting next to him.  “Move over a bit, dear.”

Beyond the window, streets and houses flashed by.   How many stops was that?  He had lost count.

“We’re going too fast!”  He cried.

“This driver, dear.  He’s a bit of a psykiepath, if you asks me.  Is this your stop then?”

“I don’t know.  Is it St. Mary Magdalene?”

“Lord no!  You’re going in the wrong direction, dearie.  You wanted the one for the City Centre!”

Frantic now, Randall jabbed at the stop button, thrusting out into the gangway.  “Stop!  Stop!”  He half-stumbled forward, swinging gibbon-like from rail to rail.

“Stay behind the line!”  The psychopath commanded him, then checked in his interior mirror.  “Oh, gawd!”  The bus was drawn quickly to a halt, incurring a clamour of displeasure from nearby traffic, doors opening with a viperous hiss. “Go on, get off!”

Randall had no idea where he was.  He only knew Michael’s funeral was timed for two-thirty that afternoon, an appointment that he would now be pressed to make.   Why, oh why had he elected not to drive himself here?  Why, knowing he had not ridden on a bus for thirty years, hadn’t he ignored advice and taken a taxi from the station rank?  So many whys, so much self-reproach; hadn’t Michael always teased him for his inflexible nature?  It was the reason he had not risen in the army as his parents expected he would, the reason his marriage to Kate had stuttered and struggled for years before finally breaking down.

He must be calm.  He must take stock.

Buses, clearly, were not to be trusted.  He decided to walk.

This could become a military exercise; Michael would appreciate that.  Like those days of the advance, yomping across stony desert terrain with a full pack – a sort of half run, rhythmic and persistent, eating up the miles regardless of pain or blazing heat.

The military mind kicked in.  First, he needed to know his present location, and identify the route to St. Mary Magdalene.  The bus had dropped him off near a crossroads, on the corner of which stood a general store.

“Do you have a town map?”  Randall asked.    Then, when he had made the purchase, “Can you show me where we are now, and the whereabouts of St. Mary Magdalene?”

“You are wanting a church?” The shopkeeper seemed a little vague and took care to keep a separation between Randall and himself, but he supplied the answers he thought Randall wanted.

“Thank you!”  Said Randall.  Clarity at last!

Back on the pavement with his directions securely in his head, Randall set off at the peculiar dog-trot his army training had taught.   People stepped aside to allow him through and some passed comments but he neither noticed nor cared; he had a map in his hand and three miles to cover before he reached the church.   Street upon street, feet hurting, heart pounding, sweat pouring, set upon accomplishing his mission, just like the old days – the good days.  He would arrive there in time!

Yet the streets were sometimes roads, the roads lanes or alleys; none of which complied with his map.  So many roads were unnamed in these days, their signs never replaced when the walls that bore them changed, or stolen by enterprising kids with an eye to the car boot sales, or for their personal collections.  He struggled with the map – its print was so small, his eyes grown weaker with the years; nevertheless, on he went in his odd, stumbling run, stride unbroken, up streets and down roads none of which had meaning, with the old panic rising and rising in his heart and the old pain growing at the very centre of his being.

Then suddenly he knew where he was.  Without warning the road where his map had failed to lead him was there, stretched out before him, wide and straight!  The familiarity of the place burned into his eyes, every feature of it memorable and dazzlingly real.  At its distant end, the road terminated before a proud grey church around which the first mourners were gathering.  Randall, his heart uplifted, mustered the last of his energy and began his journey up that final road.  His appointment with Michael would be honoured, the love between them that had always remained unexpressed could be avowed before his friend, his dear, dear friend passed through the gates into eternity.

Why, suddenly, could he go no further?  How did it happen?  What was a road had become a lake, wide, probably deep, certainly beyond his ability to cross.  There was an island in the centre of the lake, standing high above the water, garlanded with layer upon layer of rhododendrons, pink and red.  The church stood at the water’s opposite shore, doors opened wide in invitation, its congregation gathered and elevated in song, yet there was no way to reach it, for the lake was all of a mile to either side of him and almost half as much across.

Defeated, Randall fell to his knees, compelled as he believed to make his last goodbyes from a distance, to utter a prayer unheard by the man he loved.  It was then the boat found him, it was then.

“Let’s go across, then, old man, shall we?  Let’s go and tell him what you’ve kept hidden all these years.”

Everything had changed.  He was sitting on an unyielding wooden seat, and Michael stood before him, wearing a dog collar that identified him as a priest.

“Michael?”

A feminine hand clasped his, and a warm familiar voice melted into his ear.  “Dad, it’s Rosie – I’m here now.  This is Father Clemence, Dad.  He’s not Michael.  I’m sorry Father; he sees people, you know?  From his past, and that.”

“I’m afraid he’s in a bit of a state,” Father Clemence said, “We lack facilities you see. The police wanted to take him to the Care Centre but Randall was so insistent upon coming here – something about a funeral?  He seemed to believe the police car was a boat, for some reason.  He kept talking about crossing a lake.  I wish I had a better understanding of these things.”

“His best friend was called Michael – he knew him from his army days.  Michael was drowned in a boating accident on Hall Park Garden Lake; in Torrenton, you know?”

Randall’s voice was unsteady.  “He keeps telling me Michael was drunk.  He never drank, never!”

“Don’t upset yourself, Dad.  Who keeps saying that?”

“The toothpick man.  Him!”  Randall stabbed at the priest with a wavering finger.  “That’s him!  He was on the bus!”

“This is Father Clemence.”  Rosie soothed.  “It was after they was demobbed, Father.  Michael couldn’t cope with civvy life, could he, Dad?   He was drinking really heavy the night he died.”

“Is that Rosie?  When is Michael’s funeral?  I was told two-thirty at St. Mary Magdalene’s; am I late?”

“Only by about twenty years, Dad.  Michael died a long time ago.  You were right about the date, though, and the time of the funeral; you always seem to manage that.  We’ve been worried sick about you, you know?  Come on, let’s get you home.”

“It’s a long way.  I came on the train.”

“No, Dad, it’s about twenty minutes.  I don’t know how you got here, but it wasn’t by train.”

“I loved Michael.”

“I know, Dad, I know.”

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tarpington’s Grass

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“Last night, at around half-past-three, the garden waste bin moved.”  Peregrine Rubeltopf sighed, closing the little book and passing it to Vicki, who opened it again, upside down.  “No details.  I mean, how did it move?  Where did it move?  For what reason did it move?”

“It was an event.  It didn’t need a reason.”  Stated Vicki Blomquist with finality, as though her explanation was beyond question.  She tried to find the page Peregrine had closed upon, unaware she was turning to the wrong end of the book.  “I presume that was his last entry?”

“Event, event!”  Marcus Batt cried impatiently.  “It can’t just be dismissed as ‘an event’.  Tarpington has disappeared – there must be more to it than that.  Why was he awake at half-past-three?  How could he see if the bin moved – in the darkness?”

“Perhaps he heard it?”  Peregrine craned his neck to see out through the kitchen window.  Three plastic wheelie bins, recycling, general waste and garden waste, were sitting beside the path in an orderly row.  “They don’t look as if they’ve moved at all.”  He said.   “What’s Chipperby doing out there?”

“Investigating probably,”  Marcus responded with an attempt at irony.  “Chipperby’s always investigating.”

Peregrine frowned.  “Isn’t that why we came?”

“No, it most certainly is not.”  Vicki had taken up a stance in the middle of Tarpington’s kitchen with her hands in a gesture of supplication, her eyes raised towards the ceiling.  “Oh Mighty Ones, hear us!  We await you!  Show us your beneficence we beg you, and allow us to extend to you our humble welcome!  Ah, each day brings you nearer,   I feel it; I feel it! Peregrine – can’t you feel it?”

“She’s gone off on one again,”  Marcus said.  “She’s beginning to twitch.”

“He could be on holiday?”  Peregrine suggested.  “No, scrub round that.  Tarpington never goes on holiday.”

Outside in the passage, Saul Chipperby was seeking clues to substantiate his friend Donald Tarpington’s cryptic final note.   A member of the ‘Lallybridge Alien Life Society’ or LALS for several years, he sometimes found their collective company a little overwhelming; but that was not to say he disbelieved in their mission; oh, no.  Lallybridge was a hub for alien activity, Saul was convinced of that.  Hadn’t he seen those mysterious silver discs in the eastern sky sunset after sunset, heard the strange hum that persisted behind the moan of a north wind, the creak of the trees in the birch wood on the night when the blue light shone from behind St. Wilfrid’s Hill?

Donald Tarpington had gone – abducted, without a doubt.  Like seventeen-year-old Shona Trott from the Post Office and Glen Tebbit, the butcher’s boy.  They had been returned, fortunately.  They were found together in Margate six months later with no memory of their miraculous experience.  And Shona was carrying what would inevitably be an alien child.  But Donald Tarpington, he was a member of LALS. His abduction could only mean the visitors were ready to make contact at last!

Saul wasn’t sure what evidence of Donald’s abduction there might be.  When the Society met on the first Tuesday of each month, signs of alien activity were freely discussed, and scorched circles generated by great heat from landing craft featured highly in those discussions, but when it came to specifics – size and so on – no-one had actually seen one.  Nevertheless, scorch marks on the concrete could not be discounted, in Saul’s opinion, any more than signs of a struggle, or a pungent alien type smell.  There was a pungent smell certainly, but it emanated from the three neatly aligned wheelie bins.  He approached them cautiously, opening them one by one; first the blue recycling bin, which was half-full, then the general waste bin which was black and very full, and then the green garden waste bin…

“Don’t tell them I’m here.”

The creature was a caterpillar, wasn’t it?  Except that it had limbs – or possibly tendrils, it was difficult to tell.  It was certainly very green, as a mallard drake’s head is green, and it spoke:  well, it sort of spoke, because its words entered Saul’s head by means other than his ears.

“I won’t,” said Saul, astonished at his lack of astonishment.  The creature’s eyes were large, dreamy and the clear blue crystal of a mountain lake.

“Can you get me food?  I’m hungry.”  The creature’s thoughts read.  “I simply love these little short things, but I seem to have eaten nearly all of them.  They taste delicious.  What are they?”

“Grass cuttings.”  Said Saul.

“What on earth is Chipperby doing?”  Peregrine demanded, watching his LALS colleague passing back and forth beyond the rear window of Tarpington’s lounge, into which room the quorum had adjourned and within which they were helping their absent host by downsizing his decanter of vintage port.

Peregrine opened the window, shouting, “What are you doing, Chipperby?”

“Mowing the lawn,”  Saul replied.

“Good lord, why?”

“It needed to be cut.”

“Did you check out the garden waste bin?”

“Where do you think I’m emptying the grass box?”  Snapped Saul.

Vicki Blomquist’s ‘Event Temple’ took a further half hour and two more generous measures of port to complete, during which time Marcus and Peregrine prowled around their erstwhile friend’s home, ostensibly looking for anything which might help them understand the method of his abduction, while allowing their focus to constantly stray into criticism of his choice of underwear or his loudly coloured ties.  Their efforts were curtailed by Vicki’s loud proclamation:  “Griselda’s been abducted too!”

The assembled company were jointly rendered aghast.  Griselda Burdock, a member of LALS like themselves, had been prevented from joining their investigations at Tarpington’s house by a need to visit Sainsbury’s supermarket. They were expecting to join her for a post-abduction session at the Skinner’s Arms later that evening.

“Her aunt’s texted me three times,” Vicki told them.  “Griselda returned from shopping, it seems, without ever re-entering the house.  “The bags of shopping were abandoned, their contents scattered on the path by the side gate.  That was three hours ago!”

“Did her garden waste bin move?”  Saul enquired, with what he hoped would sound like a thin veneer of sarcasm.

“I think we’d better go and check this out.”  Said Marcus, with gravity.  “It’s only three streets away.”

“Yes,”  Saul agreed.  “I’ll come back here later and clear up.”

“This must be reported,”  Peregrine said.  “It’s a major news story, at least!”

Saul, Vicki and Marcus greeted Peregrine’s enthusiasm with sad, downcast eyes.  The people at the local paper would, as usual, laugh and offer unkind suggestions as to the real reasons for their colleagues’ absence, and if they were lucky enough to avoid a charge of wasting police time, the reactions of the local constabulary would run along similar lines.  The LALS reputation for extravagant claims of alien invasion was well established in Lallybridge.

 

“Where are you going with that wheelie bin?”  Miles Purvis called across the road as Saul Chipperby rumbled past.  “It looks heavy!”

“I’m taking it up to the Tarpington place,”  Saul responded.  “It’s Griselda Burdock’s.  While she’s away I’m getting both bins emptied from Tarpington’s house. It’s easier!”

“I suppose,”  Miles said doubtfully, trying to follow Saul’s logic.  “By the way, has Chipperby Lawn Services got a slot free to cut my back garden this weekend?  Great idea for a company, that.”

“I’ll maybe have some space on Sunday.  I’ll give you a call.”

#

Saul was not unaccustomed to the odour of fermenting grass, although its smell was the more malodorous for being confined within the walls of Tarpington’s living room.  Wherever he looked there was grass – grass in bags, grass in boxes, grass in basins, grass in bottles.  He wondered what Tarpington would make of it if he returned unexpectedly from the holiday Saul still darkly suspected might be the cause of his absence.

“Circumstances dictate cases.  I wouldn’t object in the slightest.”  It was the familiarity of the voice in his head that made Saul jump.  He shot a glance at the two creatures, one dark green, the other dark blue but remarkably similar in every other respect, that lay entwined comfortably on Tarpington’s brown leather corner unit.  Two pairs of dreaming eyes returned his look.

“Donald?”  Saul frowned.  This didn’t make sense.

“Of course, dear chap.  Who else would I be?”  The dark green creature’s response filled his mind.

“And you can address me as Griselda,”  ‘Donald’s dark blue companion’s ‘voice’ was equally familiar.  “Although we aren’t, actually.”

“I don’t understand.  You bear no resemblance to Griselda – nor you to Donald.”  Saul said.   “You actually look more like, well, caterpillars, I suppose.  You do know that, don’t you?”

“Caterpillars.”  Blue Griselda exchanged glances with Green Donald.  “That could present a problem.”

“It would explain the appetite,” Green Donald agreed.  “Could I have another bag of cuttings, by the way?”

“By all means!”  Saul slid a box of cut grass across the floor in the creature’s direction.  “You haven’t explained who you really are, yet.  What has happened to Donald and Griselda – I mean, you’ve given me their names, but…”

“We’re placeholders.”  Blue Griselda jumped into his thoughts.  “You can think of us as exchange students, if you like.”

“We’re Zoggians,”  Green Donald continued.  “The Donald and  Griselda you speak of have been teleported to our Mothership for modification, and we’re keeping their place for them until their treatment is complete.”

“The difficulty with teleportation – it’s a new system for us – is displacement of matter.”  Blue Griselda explained.  “If we break a creature down into its constituent atoms and then remove them we leave a hole.  That can cause quite a commotion!”

“But nothing like the disturbance that will result when we try to put them back!”  Green Donald added.  “So we swop – two Earth people out, two Zoggians (that’s us) in.  We’re keeping a window open for their return, when they’ve been upgraded to Zoggian specification.”

Saul was incredulous.  “Donald and Griselda are being turned into Zoggians?”

“Obviously!  I mean, who wouldn’t want to be a Zoggian?  New, increased functionality, superb telepathic communication (including teleconferencing and augmented visuals) and full connectivity for our sensory navigation package – and that’s just to begin!”

“You can even download your own music on Zoggify!”  Blue Griselda chimed in enthusiastically.  “Although, this caterpillar thing does seem to be a bit of a problem.  We were supposed to appear identical to the earth creatures we are body-sitting for, but something seems to have become confused.”

“I found you in the garden waste bin,” Saul found himself explaining to Green Donald.  His long-held belief in alien abduction was helping him overcome the profound shock of seeing his convictions validated. “You could easily have got mixed up with a caterpillar or two in there.”

“And I sent up my transmission pattern for you to copy,” Green Donald mingled his thoughts with Blue Griselda; “So we are the same, effectively.”

“Which doesn’t solve our problem,” Blue Griselda reminded him.  “Am I the only one who feels a little stiff this morning?”

High summer approached and Saul’s Lawn Services business fell into decline, as an increasing weariness overtook him; so he was quite glad to arrive one Sunday at the Tarpington house to discover not a pair of voracious caterpillars but two extremely large dry chrysalids, one green, one blue, in their place.  Even then he forbore to inform the remaining membership of LALS (the Lallybridge Alien Life Society) what had passed.  Only when, upon a regular weekly visit, he thought he detected movement in one of the chrysalises, did he summon them to the Tarpington house, relating all that his larval companions had told him.  The members were not pleased.

“Why didn’t you inform us earlier?”  Marcus demanded.  “We might at least have averted the chrysalis crisis.”

“They asked me not to,”  Saul replied.  “I think they were afraid of publicity.”

“And now look what’s happened!”  Cried Peregrine.  “They’ve turned to bloody rock!  Vicki dear, what are you doing?”

Intoning the words of an unintelligible mantra, Vicki Blomquist was busily producing cards decorated with mystic symbols from her handbag and positioning them around the room, glancing frequently up to a point on the ceiling for reference.  “I’m generating the Event Temple, Peregrine.  One of us has to, or Donald and Griselda won’t find their way back, you see?”

“I think they will,”  Saul responded.  “The blue one’s splitting;  look!”

A tiny fissure had opened in the Blue Griselda chrysalis.  Marcus, ever thoughtful, brought a bath sheet from Tarpington’s linen cupboard and held it up, ready to preserve the hatching alien’s dignity as she returned to Earth.  “I don’t care whether she’s still one of us or not, she deserves a little respect,” he excused himself (somewhat lamely, Peregrine thought).

The assembled company would have to wait a further half-hour, regaled by Vicki’s chanting, before the head of Griselda Burdock finally appeared, her hair passably well styled, and looked around her. She registered no surprise at the presence of her welcoming committee as, giving a final heave she rose, thrusting the two halves of her chrysalis from her.  Marcus, about to bring her the towel, froze.  Griselda looked down at her large, bedraggled wings and her six legs.

“Bugger!”  She said.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  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.

 

 

 

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In Which Pooh and Piglet go Digital…

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Every now and again we ‘olds’ get a signal that we have lived for long enough.

There is a ‘trial’ (appropriate word) happening in Manchester, England which weighs children annually from the age of three, informing parents through a website if their little darlings are ‘obese’.

This fresh invasion of the Fit Police will use nurseries and schools as vehicles for its activities, so evidence of their victims’ frailties can be freely exchanged among classmates and friends.  These zealots happily admit that their desire is to encourage a spirit of competition between parents and the children as to who is fittest, tallest, etc..

I can stand the patronising arrogance of the Nanny State, I can even forgive the enormous amount spent on the wasted education of those who can only find direction by becoming a part of it, but the least I might ask some of these people to do is B****Y WELL THINK!

Every time you reward success in a child you generate a black cloud of despondency amongst the nine-tenths who cannot win – will never win, and for all sorts of reasons.  By creating a god you generate a continuous string of sacrifices.  Worse, you encourage children to hang labels on each other at an even younger age, and children are very free, and very cruel, with labels.  Worst of all, you spark in those children who do not conform to your quasi-Arian image a downward spiral of diminishing self-esteem that will lead to depression, anxiety, anorexia, and social alienation.

And we all know the damage social alienation, labelling, and bullying can do, don’t we?  Especially if it becomes entangled with a knife or a gun?

Too extreme?  No.  Too easy.  Easy to start with an infant on a set of scales and build an adolescent with a grudge.

A Place that was Ours.  Chapter Twenty – Exclusive:  The Hargreave Papers

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“And here we are!”  I make an expansive ‘here we are’ gesture.

Matthew Poultney frowns.  “I’m sorry.  Exactly where are we?  So Crabtree cuckolded your father nearly thirty years ago.  If that’s your final clue, your story doesn’t amount to much.  It certainly doesn’t render Crabtree unfit for power.  In fact, having a famous footballer as his bastard son rather adds to his image, don’t you think?  Where’s the story, Chas?”

I grin at him.  “Did I say that was the last clue?  It was not.”   I cross to the bar and press the intercom button.  “Can you come up please, sweetheart?”

The voice at the other end sing-songs, “Just a minute!”

“You didn’t tell me you had a partner!”  Poultney exclaims.

“Matthew, you’re the newspaperman, you’re supposed to know these things!  We’d best wait; she gets annoyed if she is left out of the loop.  Another drink?”

As I refill his glass I draw my guest back to the window, which gives him a view of the river at twilight, one of my own favorite moods.  “You’ll be selling all this, then?”  He says.

I answer him reflectively:  “No – as I said, I like it here, my partner does too.  We’ll be in the States a while, but I’m still under contract to Torley.   The official version of my status is ‘on loan’ while I’m in LA.  The directors at Torley have identified a number of opportunities over there – they see the Millennium year as one for new ventures – so I may not return for a season, but I will come back.”

“Is that your boat?   How strange!  I expected something more of a statement.”

“Acres of white fiberglass and decks ripe for partying?  We prefer a boat to sail in.  We’ve an ambition to take her down to the Mediterranean; maybe next year, if we get more time.”

“You and your partner?   Where is she, by the way?”

“Behind you,” Nel says.

Matthew turns, a spontaneous word of apology on his lips, but his eyes take in Nel’s condition and it changes to a startled “Oh!”  which he quickly recovers.  “I’m sorry, I didn’t realise…”

“Nothing to be sorry for!”  Nel absolves him blithely.  “We two are soon to be three.  It’s quite natural, you know.  It happens all the time.  I’m Nel, by the way; he always forgets to introduce me.  I’m sorry I couldn’t join you earlier; I had some work to catch up on.”

“I’m neglectful of my manners but very protective,”  I tell Matthew.  “Now you see why I am so insistent that what we are about to tell you doesn’t get traced straight back to us.  Nel’s going to be here alone for a few weeks clearing up her caseload before she follows me to LA.  I don’t want her to be troubled by anyone; your colleagues in the press – or Mack’s friends from the local boxing academy, come to that.   So this is yours exclusively; we give you all the clues, now, and you follow them up, will you?”

Matthew nods.  “Let’s see what you have.”

A file has been sitting neatly on one corner of the coffee table all this time.  Nel opens it, spreading the contents, a photograph or two, sheets of A4 covered with Nel’s spidery scrawl, and one rather scruffy little notebook.

“The book belonged to John Hargreave,”  I explain, bringing John’s memory freshly to my mind as it has, time and again, in these last few years.  “John was my friend and a friend of Susan, Crabtree’s daughter.  It was found on his body.”

“What happened to him?”  Matthew asks.

“He was found lying beneath the old viaduct bridge in Casterley.  He had multiple injuries.  I ended up with the book because he had expressly wished his father should give it to me if anything happened to him.  It was almost as if he had a premonition.”

“It’s a diary,” Nel chips in, passing the book to Matthew, “most of it is filled with mundane stuff, apart from the last couple of pages; they’re crammed with sequences of dates, numbers and letters.”  She aligns the sheets of A4 paper neatly across the table.   “There are a lot of sequences covering four specific dates, and we have worked on most of them, but I’ll just take this one example.”  She lays out the letters and figures she picked out on our first weekend together.  “The whole sequence reads LBEWHT1727MB1812WE HCL19.”

Matthew frowns:  “That sounds like a registration code – for an operating system, or something.”

“Doesn’t it?  It isn’t.”   Nel gives him her bleakest lawyer’s smile.  “It took me a while to decipher, but it finally came together on one of our regular weekends. We were sailing out of Bedeport, then, and a chance sighting of a boat called the ‘Lizabet’ moored on the East Wharf provided the spark.  The Harbormaster’s records did the rest.  The date fitted, and so did the time.  LB, or, in Harbormaster’s longhand, a boat called the ‘Lizabet’, is recorded as mooring on the EW, the East Wharf, at HT (High Tide) which was at 17:27, or 5:27 pm that day.   With me so far?”

“Only just.”  Matthew mutters,  “So this is a log for something?  ‘MB’, what’s that?”

“Or ‘who’ if you prefer.  Martin Berry.”  Nel interprets for him.

“Ah.  The ex-chairman of Casterley Football Club, no less.”

“No Less.  And the owner of a mysterious company that operates lots of little white vans – unmarked little white vans that beetle about all over the place.” Nel enriches the image by making her index and middle fingers ‘run’ back and forth across the table top.

“So you are saying one of those little white vans picked up something from this boat, the ‘Lizabet’, and took it to Martin Berry’s warehouse, where it arrived at 18:12.   Then what?”

“Then WE.  It was taken from there to Wesfane Electronics, before finally being moved on to HCL at 19.00 hours, or 7 o’clock.”

“HCL being High Cheviot Lodge, Mack Crabtree’s place.” I cut in.  “John was clearly tracking a package along its journey from the ‘Lizabet’ to Mack’s home.”

“That could be anything!”  Matthew protests; “Something he asked Berry to obtain for him – they’re close friends, aren’t they?”

Nel’s hands sweep the air in an animated gesture of frustration.  “No, no!  This is on an industrial scale!  The delivery we’re describing took place on 12th of August in that year.   It’s just an example.  There were eight similar movements tracked by John that day, another ten the day after.  Some were reverse sequences.  The ‘Lizabet’ appears to have loaded six parcels from Wesfane via Berry before she sailed on 14th.   All-in-all there were 48 movements across the four days when John was on vacation from Uni and was able to record them.”

“And these photographs?”  The journalist waves at two pictures resting amongst the other paraphernalia on the table.

“These are of the Lizabet when she was last moored at Bedeport.”  I tell him.  “Nel and I took them.”

“But that’s a private yacht.”

“Exactly.  So this isn’t all above board, is it?  This is a smuggling operation, Matthew, and a big one!  Drugs, we suspect.”

“Not what is regularly thought of as drugs;”  Nel explains.  “Not class A amphetamines, heroin, cocaine… these are very specialist drugs, often travelling with their own teams of advisors, medical professionals, highly qualified chemists?  Where, in the context of a major sports event, do you find a covert organization to administer an instant blood transfusion, or calculate your maximum EPO tolerance from your personal body mass and energy profile?”

If Matthew had been a rabbit, his ears would have twitched.  “Organised doping?”

“Come on!”  I  implore him,  “We all know it happens! The Athletics World Championships took place in Stuttgart, Germany, on 21st of that month, by which time it would not have been difficult for an inconspicuous German registered boat (the ‘Lizabet’) to have navigated through the Rhine and Neckar Rivers to a little town called Bad Wimpfen, which happens to be about sixty-five kilometers from Stuttgart’s back door.  Or for a little white van to make Manchester in time for the World Triathlon Championships, which were also held in that month.   We’ve been investigating the biggest sponsors of sport, and their employment of performance-enhancing techniques, for a while now.”

“Innovating continuously to keep ahead of testing regimes imposed by the world’s sports authorities  is big business.”  Nel takes up the thread.  “There are enormous sums of money involved, with each sponsor seeking market advantage, and a famine of sufficiently talented specialists ready to compromise their careers.”

“A small backwater like Casterley is an ideal situation for a laboratory,”  I add.  “It needs a front, of course.  Industrial coolers seem as good a cover as any.”

Matthew grins.  “Casterley at the hub of all sport’s doping problems?  That’s a little hard to take.”

Nel snaps back: “No, not at the hub of it, just one outpost of a peripatetic network thriving throughout the European market.  But if one of the hands on its helm should become UK Minister for Sport?  I wonder what a difference that would make?”

I continue: “We believe Crabtree’s and Berry’s organization exists on the wealth the larger sponsors are prepared to pay to ensure their competitors win.  That makes Crabtree the last man you’d want to be in control of future sports strategy for the whole of these islands.  There’s a greater cause, though.  Wherever there’s big money in sport there are doping problems, and it’s getting more sophisticated with every year.”

Nel reassembles the contents of the file, selecting a single sheet of paper which she places on the top.  “Chas and I have done a lot of work on this, and this is the first time we think we might have evidence that could fuel a criminal investigation if you want to play it that way.  Personally, I would rather see Mackenzie Crabtree’s face decorating the front pages for reasons other than self-aggrandizement.”

Matthew clicks his tongue:  “What about Berry’s part in it?”

I nod.  “Both of them – we owe it to John Hargreave.”

“His material was a catalyst, for us.”  Nel passes Matthew the A4 sheet she has singled out.  “His last diary entry: WE1225MB1403.  It is sketchy, rather hurried.  He was following a consignment from Wesfane, which arrived with Martin Berry at 12:25.  He picked up its trail again when it left Berry’s for the docks at 3 minutes after two o’clock – that would have been to make the tide, presumably, although John was never able to verify it…”

We explain our belief that John was discovered by Berry’s security men.  “He was not exactly a stranger to them.  They had come upon him pursuing a more innocent mission on Berry’s land some years before.”

Only this time, perhaps because of the sensitivity of the package he was tracking, John paid the ultimate penalty.  His father had confirmed to us that he had seemed preoccupied when he left the house after an early lunch that day.  When he didn’t return in the evening, Mr Hargreave telephoned the police.  John’s body wasn’t discovered until the following morning.  The notebook was found on him because, presumably, Berry’s ‘security’ didn’t bother to search him before they threw him off The Bridge in the early hours.

“You’ve no evidence he was murdered?  No.”  Matthew strokes his chin, then sits quietly for a moment, riffling through the notebook’s ragged pages and staring at Nel’s tidily organized stack of notes.  “And this – this book – is the only link to those consignments?”

Nel and I exchange glances.  “The book stays with us,” I tell him coolly.

Nel taps on the top of her file.  “I’m passing this to you if you’re interested.  There are photocopies of the relevant pages and transcripts of all our workings.  It’s all there, but this…”  She takes the book firmly from Matthew’s hand, “We’ll reserve for the police investigation.   We provincial solicitors, you know, we have such suspicious minds.”

“Rightly so.”  Matthew grins.  “It so happens there is somebody at our ‘paper working on the ‘drugs in sport’ story.  I’ll need to liaise with him, but I think we’ll all end up in agreement.  The regulatory authority for athletics, the IAAF, is heavily engaged in the same battle as yourselves.”

“Mack gets fried, then?”  I am looking for his confirmation.

“We’ll certainly look at that angle…”

“Oh, Matthew, you know that won’t do!  We can’t let that man get where he wants to go!”

“You really resent him, don’t you?”

“Shouldn’t I?  Looking at this, shouldn’t you?”

“Looking at this, I don’t know what his connection is.  Nor do you.!”

I glance in Nel’s direction and she returns my enquiring expression with a nod.  “Yes, let’s do it.”

“One more clue, then,”  I say.  “And a story, about the day we thought we would move our boat from Bedeport to its present mooring.   Nel has moved in with me here, it’s summer and the weather has been good, so we elected to do the transfer by sea.”

“This was recent?”

“This was last week.  We needed to replace some equipment, and I knew there was a chandlers’ in Bedeport.  I didn’t know (although apparently you did) that it was owned by Dave Crabtree.”

“Mack’s son.”

“I’m unsure which of us was more shocked at the sight of the other.  For my part, I wondered if I had inadvertently walked right into the centre of the very organization I was investigating; for his, the reasons were quite different.  We managed to complete my purchases with a minimum of communication then, as I was paying the account, he suddenly asked if I wanted to go for a drink?  I said yes.

“Well, we sat in the corner of the lounge bar at ‘The Shippe’ for about ten minutes cuddling our pints and avoiding looking at each other.  Then he suddenly said:  “You deserve the truth.”

“I asked him what he had on his mind and he didn’t seem to know what to say.  When I suggested whatever it was would be better out than in, he just stared into his drink like he wished he could dive in and drown.  Then he blurted it out.  ‘You haven’t forgotten her, have you?’ I asked if he meant his sister and he said, ‘She would want you to know’.

“He needed to unburden himself so badly, I could see that, yet he couldn’t bring himself to betray his family.  So I dug the story out of him, pint by pint and piece by piece.

“The night before my court case, he told me, Susan discovered the real reason her father had split us up.  Since our break-up, she had been sullen and angry with everybody, and especially resentful of her father’s insistence that she accept Dave as a sort of chaperone, but that night, to quote Dave’s words exactly, she ‘went completely mad’.   She was going to tell the world all she knew about her family’s business affairs, she was going to come to court the next day and show her father for the liar he was.  She didn’t believe anything her father told her.  Susan stormed out, went to her room, declaring her intention to pack her things and leave.  Mack pursued her. He was enraged.  The row went on in her room.

“At that point, I asked Dave if he thought something had happened to Susan.  I felt if I could frame the question correctly he might let the whole truth slip out because we’d consumed a powerful amount of beer by then.  The only reply I could get was that there had been ‘a terrible row’ that wasn’t only centered on Susan’s relationship with me, but because ‘she knew a lot’.

“Do you think she was murdered?”  Matthew asks.

“I think Dave meant she knew a lot too much, more than Mack could let her divulge in open court.  I remember Angie telling me once that Susan was ‘dead good’ at chemistry.  Assuming our suspicions about her dad’s activities are correct, she must have had some awareness of what was going on around her.   Dave claims he left the house because he ‘couldn’t take it anymore’.  When he returned, two days later, after my court case, Susan’s room had been cleared and he was ‘heavily advised’ by his father to say she had left home that night.”

“So Dave will say he doesn’t know what happened as a result of the row between Susan and her father.”

“He doesn’t; I’m fairly convinced of that, and nor can I say for sure.  Could anyone kill their own daughter?  She would have to be found, wouldn’t she, if we wanted to prove that after so long.

“The other day I was looking at a map of the Casterley area, with the idea of rounding the evidence off, you might say – checking out any loose ends.  I came upon this loose end quite by chance, as I was tracing the road that passes the front of High Cheviot Lodge, Mack’s place, the one I used when I went to visit him and the one I was accused of using as a way of stalking him – it’s known as the Leverton road.   I saw that another road ran parallel to it – I’ve since learned it’s actually called ‘Old Leverton Lane’, and in more prosperous times it was a second route to the town.  That’s all in the past now, though, and it lost its purpose when the main South Road cut across it.

“Anyway, ‘Old Leverton Lane’ passes the rear of High Cheviot Lodge.  I’ve used the road a few times without realizing and you can’t see the house from that side because there are a stream and a heavily wooded bank hiding it from view; woodland where Angie and I once walked before the property owner, Mackenzie Crabtree, recently fenced it off. I believe he did that so no-one else would discover a place of rest we stumbled upon quite accidentally, a place beside the steps that lead up through the wood where someone lays flowers still.  Where someone, at least, remembers.”

I stop talking then because I know if I continue my voice will break and the tears I feel filling my eyes will overbrim.  I don’t want to reveal how I still carry the rose of Susan Crabtree’s life, sister or friend, in my heart.

Matthew Poultney is saying something I am required to hear.  “You think his daughter is buried there?”

“I do.”  I will not disclose too much.  If everything and everybody in my life has been a carnival of shadows since one moment of consummation  on a riverbank; if the days, the weeks, the years, have counted nothing since, and every road in my soul leads back to my remembrance of Susan, I would not make it known to those who I try to love – who have tried so hard for me, and from each one of whom I have striven ceaselessly down the years to seek an essence I discovered once, and never will again.

I turn to find Nel’s eyes upon me.   She knows because she has always known; and perhaps, although I can’t be certain, she accepts.

“So that’s it,”  I tell Matthew.  “You have all the clues now, and unless we are wildly wrong, they will provide you with enough nails to crucify the old demon.  It’s a strange feeling, really, because in a number of ways he’s protected me almost as if he has feelings for me, but there are some crimes you cannot forgive.”

“You’re off to America.  Tonight?”

“Tomorrow, I think.  I’m doing a bit of a tour, taking in Paris, first.  John Hargreave’s absolute favorite aircraft was the Concorde, and since they’ll be scrapping it soon, I thought I’d hitch a ride on one to New York from Charles De Gaulle.  It’s almost impossible to get bookings, so I’m going to try my luck with a travel company who’ve commissioned a flight; they usually find themselves with a seat or two to spare.  I’ll sort out the New York to LA link when I get there.  I have one or two friends I want to look up – experience the Big Apple for twenty-four hours or so.”

Nel smiles at me, quietly, and I am able now to return her smile.  We fall into silence.  Matthew Poultney stands by the window.  The sun has set out there, beyond the glass, beyond the river, beyond the hills.

Nel puts her hand in mine.

THE END

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.  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

 

 

 

 

 

23rd July in the millennium year 2000

 

 

 

A Place that was Ours.  Chapter Nineteen – Moments From the Grown-up Years

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I recall the afternoon so well.  Angie and I were both at home, for once, when the telephone rang.  It was a call – no, it was the call I had been expecting.  I remember Angie’s face as she watched me answer it, set and serious, those intense eyes of hers giving her message of defiance at the news we both already knew must come.

The caller was my agent, Allen Ranton.  The conversation was brief.  When I replaced the receiver, Angie was coiled tightly, overwound.   “Well?”  She demanded, her voice unusually harsh.

“Ranton’s cut the deal,”  I said.  “Torley want me.”

Angie nodded.  We stared at each other, shaken by the arrival of a moment we had both dreaded.  “That’s it, then.”  She said.

“I can’t turn them down.”  It should have been a joyous occasion, the final gesture which announced my arrival on the big club scene; we should have been cavorting in a crazy circle, dancing for sheer delight.  Neither of us felt like dancing.  Angie began clearing our coffee mugs from the table, already with her back to me, already walking away.  “Ange, the money’s unbelievable!  You’d be able to have whatever you wanted…”

“It’s not about money.  Money doesn’t matter to me, Chas; ah thought you knew that…”

“Nor is it for me.  A big Premiership club, the chance to play in Europe, that’s what matters to me!  But Ange, we’d be able to try for a baby, properly, I mean…”

“Don’t do that to me!  Ah’m not goin’, man!  Ah dinna care what’s at the end of it, it’s two hunderd an’ fifty mile away.  Ah’ve a life here, an’ work, an’ friends, y’kna?”

“It’s my life, Ange.  It’s all I’ve ever dreamed of.”

She turned back to me, putting the mugs aside so she could wrap her arms around my shoulders and kiss me.  “I know, Chas.  I know.  But I have my life too.”

Upon the Sunday of the week following Ranton’s call, Angie and I set out to visit Malcolm and Debbie, Angie’s parents, in Casterley, because we would not keep our decision to split up a secret from them:  they were precious in Angie’s life and they had become very special friends in mine.

The diversion was Angie’s idea.  “D’you remember that little wood where we walked a few year ago, Chas?  Ah’d like to go back there again.”

“The Step Wood?”  I remembered it well.  Glad enough to delay what might prove an unpleasant interview with Angie’s Mum and Dad, I found the road that would lead us to the wood easily enough, and turned off our regular Casterley route.  From this, the Carlton end, the diversion would consume several miles, so I settled back to enjoy the drive while Angie called her parents on her new mobile ‘phone.  The length of our search matched the length of her conversation.

“It’s here somewhere; I can see the trees – and there’s the stone bridge!  Oh, Chas!”

I did slow down enough to be certain, but the high wire fence with its tethered warning signs against trespass left no room for doubt.  Behind it, the full-leafed flora of our Step Wood crowded up and thrust fingers through the wire, like a prisoner crying for escape.

Angie was genuinely moved.  “Why would someone do that?”

“I guess it’s private land.  It’s quite a new fence, so maybe they’re going to develop it.  Houses or something.”

We completed our drive in silence.

There are some who will talk about ending a relationship as if it were a habit, like drinking or smoking, that can simply be given up.  Others will speak of recriminations, of bitterness and fights, or again of their tugs-of-war over custody; and there are some, all be they relatively few, who will confess to ‘remaining friends’, whether genuinely or not.  One thing, though, is common to all of us who stand on the further shore; an extra line among the many on our brow that is deeper and reminiscent of a scar.  It is indelible – it will never be erased.

I cannot say that Angie and I were ever truly finished.   For a long time after I moved out of our Carlton apartment we continued visiting each other, spending some time together when we could; but although I longed for her we were never man and wife after the day I packed my last bag.  Were we friends or just two people in the grip of a habit we could not break?   I don’t know.

I was, and I am, proud of Angie; of all she has achieved, and the part I played in helping her to reach the goals she so richly deserved.  Her love of life is as infectious as ever, the light in her eyes as bright, but there is a place on her forehead she cannot disguise when she frowns – a furrow as deep and livid as a scar – as deep as my own.

The dawn of the Premiership was too much for Casterley Town’s delicately balanced finances.  They plunged into a cess-pool of health and safety demands, tottering ticket sales and years of unpaid debt, closing their turnstiles for the last time at the season’s end.   Within weeks the bulldozers had moved in, clearing the grey old stadium away to make room for a new manufacturing plant that a company called Wesfane Electronics claimed they needed for construction of their industrial coolers.  The story that Mack Crabtree had bought the stadium and its debts for a minuscule sum, then settled the debts and sold it on to Wesfane for a small fortune took time to leak out and was of little consequence to the local population, who mourned the loss of their football club only briefly before transferring their allegiances to Bedeport Rovers.

I watched Casterley Town’s departure with no sense of loss, only commenting to John Hargreave in one of our last telephone conversations that I thought the new industrial unit seemed very small to be in the business of assembling big industrial coolers.

John sounded cynical.  “Doesn’t really matter Chas, man.  Have you any idea how hard it is to get an industrial cooling unit off Wesfane?  I checked them out.  The trade’s barely heard of them, and they reckoned their order book’s stacked up for years ahead. Not taking any more orders, is what I was told.”

“Maybe that’s why they need the extra production?”  I suggested.

“Aye, maybe.”

I did no more than glance at the little book John Hargreave bequeathed to me for a few years.  I had no superstitious fear of reading it,  only a healthy dislike of anything to do with pen and paper which would have to be overcome by something startling, like the words ‘I AM ON FIRE’ in capital letters.  John’s book contained nothing so dramatic, being rather page upon page of close handwriting which I took to be diary entries, only relieved by some curious letters and figures on the last two pages that I decided on initial inspection to be not worth the pain of deciphering.   My boat was moored above the tidal lock at Bedeport until recently, and somehow the book ended up in a cupboard above the stateroom berths.   Somehow?  This is how…

Footballers and their families necessarily spend much of their time in each other’s’ laps.  Mostly, because there is no alternative, we do our best to make the social scene enjoyable, but there are times when my yen for solitude kicks in, and my best defense against the world is open water.  I enjoy sailing, so although the round trip from my southern home was more than five hundred miles if I had a break I would take off for Bedeport and spend a day or two days at sea.  Which is how I happened to be wandering the streets of that town one Friday night, trying to decide whether I wanted to eat ashore, or deplete provisions on the boat before I sailed.

I spotted her first, in a new Italian restaurant I had not tried.  She was sitting alone at a table laid for two, and judging by the dejected slope of her shoulders, laid bare by a black halter dress, she had been there for some time.  She looked up as I approached, probably hoping I was someone else.

“Chas!”

“Hello Nel.  Fancy meeting you here!”

“Dare I call it my local stomping ground?  No, probably better not to.  I’m on my third one of these.”  Nel gestured towards a nearly drained Martini.  She said ruefully:  “My companion for the evening’s a little late.”

“How late?”  I asked.

“I think it must be two hours – nearly.  Hell Chas, I’ve been stood up, haven’t I?”

“You’ve tried his ‘phone?”

“It’s on message.”

“Okay, that’s a yes, then.  You must be hungry, will you have dinner with me?”

“Why not?  I hope that didn’t sound too eager?”

“Not eager in the least,”  I told her, signalling to a hovering waiter that his landing pad was ready at last.  “What will you have?”

Until that night I had scarcely spoken to Nel on other than business affairs, yet we were friends.  Over the next two hours, though, we poured out our personal lives, assisted admirably by a bottle of wine and two further Martinis.  Business matters received not one mention.

“I don’t normally go on dates.”  Nel informed me as she polished off the last of our dessert, “Does it show?”

“Not obviously.   I can’t understand the mentality of anyone who could stand you up.”

“I’m not good at dates.  I don’t do relationships, you know, Chas.  I don’t even have a cat.”

“I didn’t know, although I sort of guessed you weren’t married.  I mean, no rings or anything.”

“Oh bloody ‘struth, no!  Marriage?  Stick marriage!   Mummy and Daddy taught me all I needed to learn about bloody marriage.  Did you know they decided to divorce right in the middle of my GCE ‘A’ Level Exams?  I’m upstairs studying while they’re downstairs screaming at each other!  No, no marriage for me, young man!  No!”

“It isn’t always hereditary.”  I looked up to meet her green eyes staring dreamily at me.

“You’re lovely, Chas!  You’re a beautiful, brilliant young man and if I could meet someone like you I’d marry them tomorrow; but don’t worry!”  She slapped the table for emphasis.  “You’re too young for me, dear boy.  Much, much too young!”

“I wish you’d stop treating me like I was still in short trousers,”  I told her.  “Anyway, you’re not my grandmother; what’s the difference between us?  A few years?”

“Ho – ho!  And a few more, sweetie. Are we done here?”

I scanned the empty plates.  “I guess so.”

“Good.   Not that I don’t mean – thank you for the meal, and stuff – because I do.  I do. I was ravenous, in fact.  Now I’ll just pop to the restrooms and then we’ll head for – oh, frig!”  Nel’s attempts to rise teetered for a moment at the edge of disaster.  “Chas, darling, I wonder if you would mind steadying my arm?  Just as far as the bathroom, darling – not inside, you understand?  Nothing so personal.”

So I helped her to her feet as decorously as possible, then steered her on her course towards the restroom, trying to disguise a smile as our anxious waiter snatched a chair from her path.  Nel drew herself up as she passed.  “I’m a lady of poise and elegance, you know.”  She informed him.  “You’re lucky to be enjoying my patronage.”

While Nel was indisposed I called a taxi, settled the bill and provided three autographs, because the maître had recognized me and spread the word.  I prayed none of them had called a photographer. For the ten minutes before Nel re-emerged I was a sitting duck.

Somehow we made it to the pavement.   The taxi made it shortly after.

“Can you drop me at the West Dock,”  I told the driver, “and take this lady on to Casterley, please?”

“No, man – no way!  Ah can tak’ yer down the docks, like, bur Ah’m not gan ter Casterley this time o’ neet.”

Nel blinked owlishly at me.  “What time of ‘neet’ is it, might one enquire?”

“Half past twelve.”  I told her.  I started waving money:  “Not even if I…”

“Nah, nor even if tha’ waves the Croon Jools.  Ah’m not poor, an’ ah’m finished fer the neet affer this.”

“North Docks it is then.”  I said.

“Chas!  What am I going to do?  You aren’t going to drive me home, sweetie; not after the drinks you’ve had.”

“We’ll spend the night on the boat.”

“There’s a boat?” As our taxi turned onto the quayside the North Docks Marina came into view.   I nodded in the appropriate direction.  “That one?  Is that yours?”  Nel sounded impressed.  “Driver, you may take us to our yacht.  I did not know you possessed a boat, Chas.”  Then, drawing nearer to our destination:  “Not that it matters; I couldn’t get down there if I was stone-cold sober, darling.   Aren’t there stairs, or something?”

We managed the transition from shore to jetty by means of a ladder which really wasn’t very testing, although it brought forth a variety of girlish noises from my companion.

“Oh my god, is that one yours?” She padded along the jetty behind me, letting me carry her heels, swaying dangerously as I released the cover that allowed access to the well deck.  Shore to ship would prove our greatest challenge, extracting a series of squeals and a frankly undignified jump which culminated in a tangled heap on the deck.   Face to face we appraised each other.

“Oh, Charles, you are naughty!”

“No I’m not!”  I replied, firmly.  She smelled of Coco Chanel with essence of distillery.  I helped her to her feet.  “Would you like some coffee?”

“God, no!”

“Well then, it’s bed for you.”  I unlocked the hatch to the after stateroom.

“There you go again!  Control yourself, Charles!  You’re behaving like a dreadful animal, you know.”  I turned up the light.  “Oh, my lord, is that all bed?”

“Most of it.  The head –sorry, the bathroom – is right there. I know it looks like a cupboard but it contains all the facilities you want – including a shower.  Have fun!   I’ll put some heat on for you, and I’ll be in the forward berth if you want me.”

Nel picked up a dog-eared little book that was lying on the coverlet.  “What’s this?”

“Nothing important. Something I brought up with me to have a look at this afternoon.  Just pop it in one of the overhead cupboards if it’s in your way.  I hope you sleep well.”

It was close to ten am when Nel’s head appeared in the hatch that separated the well deck from the saloon.  I was at the table with coffee in my hand.  “Hi!  Want some?  It’s in the pot.”

“Yes, please.”

“You didn’t want any last night,” I challenged her.

“Oh, Chas, I was dreadfully drunk!  I’m really sorry.”  She gestured down to her black dress, “I’m ready for my walk of shame!”

“Don’t go yet.  Do you want something to eat?”

“You must be kidding, right?”

“I am, actually, yeah.  But don’t go.  Come sailing!   Two days off the coast; its beautiful out there this morning and the weather forecast’s great!  We’ll have fun!”

“Your favourite expression.  But no, I can’t Chas.  I’ve got to feed my poor cat…”

“You haven’t got a cat.”  I accused her.  “You admitted as much, last night.”

“I did?  All right then, I want to look after my dress; this isn’t exactly sportswear.”

“Wear these.”  I picked up a neatly folded outfit of grey slacks and a fleece, and tossed them to her.  “I even have a pair of rope soles about your size, I think, and a storm jacket.  It’s alright, they’re all perfectly clean, they were only ever worn once.”

Nel sighed.  “I’ll try them on,” she said.  “You can really sail this boat alone?”

“Of course.  It’s not that large, and it’s a motorsailer; it practically sails itself.  The trickiest bit is getting out of the marina.  You can crew for me if you like.”

“Or I could submit to the demands of my tortured body by stretching out on the cabin roof and going to sleep?  I should have brought my cossy.”

“No,”  I told her.  “This is the North Sea.  You shouldn’t.  You’ll come, then?”

“Yes, Charles.  Thank you for inviting me.”

So, for the next day and a half we sailed, and once her initial frailty had passed, Nel was an enthusiastic, very competent crew, meaning we were able to keep the boat under sail for much longer.  We made our way up the coast as far as a little abandoned fishing harbor I knew that was set into the granite cliffs, and we moored there for the night.  Nel was aglow, her eyes shining as we ate together in the galley.  I had never seen her like this.  It occurred to me, therefore, that I had never seen her truly happy.

“This is a wonderful experience.”  She said.

“For those who take to it,” I agreed, “There’s nothing better.  Maybe we might do it again sometime?”

“Yes.  Oh yes! They were really seals!  I’ve never seen so many in one place!”

Snugly clad against the sunset wind, we climbed worn-down stairs cut into the rock that fish wives had once used to carry boxes of their catch up from the tiny harbor to their village at the cliff-top.  They were steep and narrow, those stairs; in bygone days glazed with fish juice to a treacherously slippery sheen, now tamed by the sure-footedness of our rope soles.

We sat together at the headland on a ruined wall for an hour or more, watching the sea’s darkening mood as the sun set behind high hills at our backs.  Nel had snuggled against my shoulder and I moved to kiss her because it seemed so natural.  Because I had never kissed Nel before, no matter how much I’d wanted to.  She blocked me, her hands against my chest.

“Woa!  No, Chas!”

I drew back a few inches, stroking her cheek.  “You don’t like me so much now you’re sober, huh?”

“You know it isn’t that.  But I meant what I said last night (what I can remember of it); I’m too old for you, darling.  It won’t work!”

“I’m not asking for a lifetime’s commitment, Nel.  Just so you know, the difference in our ages matters not one jot to me.  Never mind, I’ll keep my distance if that’s what you want.”

Nel smiled, running her fingers through my hair.  “It’s what I want.”

Back at the boat, our wind-scorched lungs pleaded for rest.  Nel seemed especially fatigued, so we made our way to our berths, and searched in the wave-lapping darkness for a sleep that never quite arrived.  Time eddied and drifted, so I had no idea what hour it was when I heard my cabin door click gently off its latch.

“I’m cold,”  Nel said.

“Really?  Shall I turn the heating up higher?”

“No.”

“Do you want to…”

“Yes, please.”

I tried to discern her form as she stood beside me in the darkness; “What on earth are you wearing?”  I asked.

“Unless there’s something I’ve forgotten, nothing at all.”

The next morning the sun woke us through the window of the forward cabin.  Nel, rebuffing my refreshed enthusiasm, slipped from the bed and struck a pose with her back to me in the doorway.

“Venus De Milo?  What do you think?”

“Please, she was built like a tank!”

“Aphrodite at the bath?”

“No bath.  Anyway, she was another one with a small head.”

“Speaking of small heads…”

When Nel returned some minutes later, she was holding that little book – John’s diary – in her hand.

“I couldn’t sleep last night, thinking of – things – so I took a look at this.”

“It’s a diary,”  I told her.  “John Hargreave, my best friend, kept it before he died.  He went down the Bridge, you know?”

“I remember that, yes. Most of the writing in here is just fantasy stuff.  Key sequences for games and such.  It’s just these last two pages that puzzle me.  Lists of letters and numbers…do they mean anything to you?”

“I’m clueless, I’m afraid.”

“I think they follow the diary dates; for instance, all these figures in this block apply to the 12th of the month.  See this? LBEWHT727MB1812WE HCL19. What can that mean?”

“I have no idea;” I replied honestly.  “Have you any thoughts?”

“Maybe.  Look at the last entry:  WE1225MB1403, scrawled very quickly, I’d say, almost as if he was in a hurry.  Chas, I love this sort of detective work; may I…?”

“Of course.  Go for your life.  But I should warn you, this is all history.  John, bless him, was dead and buried a few years ago, now.”

“It’s probably nothing, but old secrets fester, and people get careless with the years.  I’ll see what I can discover.”

“We ought to set sail, I said.

We ran before the wind most of the day, using the time gained to navigate close to the Farrin Islands, sending Nel into transports of delight as ever-curious seals swam almost within reach.   When we finally made landfall at Bedeport it was early evening, but Nel politely rebuffed my invitation to dinner.  We said our goodbyes, awkwardly, on the quayside.

“Are you going straight back to Torley?”  Nel asked.

“No, I’m going to take the boat to be refuelled first.  Where’s your car?”

“Up in the town.   Can I send these back to you?”  She gestured to the clothes she had borrowed, never knowing they had been last worn by Angie.

“I can get back up here next week.  Shall we…?”

“I don’t know.”

“But you said you loved the sailing….”

“I did, before we – before I – slept with you.  Now, I’m less certain.”

“I’m that bad in bed?”

“No – oh, no.  Quite reverse.  I’m a little scared, to be honest.  Look, I’ll ‘phone you, Chas.  Thank you for a lovely time!”

Nel gave me a kiss that was a peck and just a little more.  Then she turned her back, putting a skip in her step as she walked away.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.  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