Hallbury Summer – Episode Eighteen. Rhinemaiden

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The story so far:

Joe Palliser, though torn between his moral responsibility to his friend Tom and his feelings for Emma, Tom’s wife, is nonetheless drawn towards buying a house in Hallbury. Meanwhile, he approaches a journalist from his local newspaper to learn more about the disappearance of Christian Matheson, a child abducted in Hallbury many years  before.  The fear is growing that his younger brother, Michael, may be implicated in Violet Parkin’s murder and even in the disappearance of the child.

Alone with his thoughts, he is asked for assistance by Jennifer, an attractive motorist apparently in distress.  He takes her to her hotel in his car and is briefly compromised by her advances, which he manages to resist.  However, the encounter has been observed, and photographed.  Jennifer is considerably more than she seems…

Wednesday dawned in shades of grey and in a while that grey became rain, and the rain became a sustained downpour.  Joseph drove into Braunston where, after no small amount of deliberation, he lodged an offer of three thousand nine hundred pounds with the agent handling the Lamb house.  There was no denying the conflict churning in his head:  Emma’s presence alone should have been enough to turn him away, to leave Tom, his friend, in married contentment.  Janice Regan’s vituperation was a voice not just her own, but of others who would count themselves the elders of the village.  Charker Smith, that excellently honed tool of destruction, waited only to get drunk enough before he came to avenge his brother; and when he came….Oh, Joseph!

So why was he not more afraid?

Well, a part of him certainly was – a part of him was terrified, but that part of his mind also saw the Lamb property as an excellent opportunity and of course, should he elect not to stay in Hallbury he could always find a tenant.  But there was another part that seemed to almost defy explanation, something more powerful, something real:  Hallbury was his home.  And that filled him with a courage and resolve that was extraordinary.  He could ride out as many troubles as there were in his desire to stay there, because there, the place – not a house, or a woman, or the sweet breath of country air – was where he belonged.   He had run from it once, when he had lacked experience in life to understand the importance of belonging:  he would not make that mistake again.

The morning was far from over when Joe entered the gravel drive of Maddockgate Manor.  Mrs Forster, the matron, admitted him when he pressed the visitors’ bell.

“Mr Palliser, isn’t it?  Didn’t we explain that Michael has been moved?”

Yes, Joseph acknowledged; but perhaps Mrs Forster didn’t know that Michael had absconded.  His family were naturally very anxious about him – did she have any idea if he had friends who would take him in?   No, Mrs Forster said after consideration, she didn’t.

“He used to visit a supervised house in Marsden, didn’t he?”  Joe suggested:  “Could he have gone there?”

“I shouldn’t have thought so. It would be like turning himself in, so to speak.  The owner is a qualified psychiatric nurse, who I’m sure would call us if Michael appeared without an escort.  He would call us, very probably.”

Joseph repeated Michael’s assertion that he was allowed from time to time to go out on his own.  This drew a surprised look from Mrs Forster, for whom even the thought of such liberty was clearly shocking.  Michael was delusional, she responded – he might have been convinced in his own mind that he enjoyed such privileges, but that did not necessarily make them real.  Nevertheless Joe had inadvertently struck a nerve.  He pressed home his advantage.  Suppose, for whatever reason, they were real?  Suppose Michael had been trusted, say, to run short errands on his own, suppose he had been able to sneak away?

He needed to talk to the nurse in charge in Marsden: see if there are connections the family knew nothing about.

The matron considered this.  “Would you wait here for a moment?”

She kept Joe waiting, in fact, for about ten minutes, while she disappeared into her office.  At length she returned.  Unsmiling, she placed a piece of paper in Joe’s hand.

“Mr Winter, the charge nurse, is in until about two o’clock.  I called him to say you were on your way:  I didn’t explain why.”

Joe embarked upon the road to Marsden-on-Sea, pondering the matron’s exact meaning.  Why had she elected not to tell this person the reason for his visit?  In spite of her defence of the nurse, did she suspect that Mr Winter’s care was not all it might be?

A buffeting onshore wind wrenched irritably at the Wolsey and hurled spray at it as he drove along Marsden’s courageous little esplanade.  Flashing neon bravely proclaimed ‘Non-Stop Bingo’, ‘Live Arcade’, ‘Fish and Chip Heaven’ to a scattering of the foolhardy and the half-drowned who ran from one venue to another, plastic macs gathered transparently against the elements.  A motley line of desperate Edwardian hotels displayed signs offering ‘Special Bank Holiday Rates’ – timely warning of the forthcoming holiday weekend.

But it was the sea, the battle-front between land and water, that drew Joseph here.  It was many years since he had seen the Channel in full spate, and there was a perverse veneration owed to power such as this.  White caps charging forth upon  the shore, chasing along quoins, leaping the sea wall.  Winging gulls, masters of their element, riding the storm like ethereal surfers:  these were things he loved.  Joe had been to Marsden many times and often on days like these, once with Emma, happy to walk beside him by the shore, the gale screaming through her bright hair, laughing at the whip of salt rain on her face – kisses on cold, wet lips, arms warm with love.

How could he ever have forgotten her?  How could he have put her, all this, aside so easily?  However could he turn away again?  As he drew up to the neatly-written address which lay on the passenger seat at his side it was not the surf still stinging in his eyes, but mourning for opportunities missed, for lost love.

Rosebank Crescent was ‘on the hill’; one of many streets lined by similar detached villas, all of which were in a state best described as ‘mature’. Number seventeen’s red roof-tiles were greyed by lichen, its rendered walls a spider-web of cracks.  There was putty missing from the window frames, and paint missing where putty was not.

Joe wielded a big brass knocker which projected from the front door like a grotesque nose.  The letter box drew up a flappy lip:

“Who’s that?”  A voice empty of any form of artifice.

“I’m Joe Palliser.”

“Hello Joe!”  The wind thrashed, the rain lashed.  The door remained closed.

“Can I come in?”

After an interval:  “Who is it?”

“I’m Joe.”

Suddenly the door was flung open to reveal a very tall, very wide young man whose ample features creased into a beatific smile:  “Hello Joe.  It’s windy!”

“Yes.”  Joe agreed.

“Shut that bloody door!”  Snarled a voice from the rear of the house.

“Come on.”  Said the large young man.  He ambled backwards into an entrance hall.  “I’m Terry.”  He held out a big hand which Joe shook warmly.  “How do you do, Joe?”

“How do you do, Terry?”

As if ignited by a fuse, Terry turned and walked rapidly away towards a door at the rear of the hall, his denims taut around stubby legs, faded carpet slippers shuffling on the parquet.  “I’ll get him.”  He said over his shoulder.

The hallway of the house was furnished unpretentiously, a barometer on the wall, a small hall table, a couple of upright chairs.  Its walls were papered with woodchip and painted in mint green, a pendant light hung from a textured ceiling.  The wind’s surreptitious intrusion rattled its doors.  It was a house, but it was not a home.

Terry had been gone no more than ninety seconds when a much sparer specimen of masculinity, clad in a thin black polo-neck sweater and checked flares appeared.

“Can I help you?”  his voice was a high tenor.  “I’m Morris Winter.”

Joe saw why Mrs Forster had registered some disquiet at his suggestion that he might visit here:  the professional title of ‘charge nurse’ did not hang easily upon Mr Winter, whose careless appearance, flabby, unshaven face and defensive look spoke of one expecting arrest rather than an expert carer.  Winter ran his fingers through fair, greasy locks which fell nearly to his shoulders.

“Joseph Palliser.  I believe Mrs Forster told you I was coming?”

“Yeah, she did.”  Winter frowned suspiciously; “You from the gov’ment?”

“No,  I’m Michael Palliser’s brother?  You remember Michael?  He comes to stay here from time to time.”

Winter’s expression brightened.  “Mikey!  Ah yes, Mikey!  Of course! Look, you better come in; have a cup of tea.  Terry – make this nice man some tea.”  He grinned a gappy grin:  “He’s a good kid, Terry.  He likes to make tea.”

Terry had reappeared and stood in the doorway behind Winter.  He nodded happily.  “Good tea!”

“No thank you Mr Winter, I’m not staying.”  Joe said hurriedly.  “I just wanted to ask a couple of quick questions, that’s all.”

“Well, fire away, then.  Yes, fire away!  Sure you won’t have some tea?”

“No, no thanks. I’m trying to trace anyone who knows Michael.  He’s allowed out, isn’t he – do you know if he sees any friends in the town?”

Winter’s brow furrowed but he made no attempt at denial.  “He always has money of his own, has Mikey – not like some of them.  I tell him; if you get thirsty or hungry, there’s cafes who’ll welcome us.  We know which ones, see?  And he treats us sometimes, don’t he, Terry?”

Terry nodded a happy affirmative.  “Mikey’s rich.”

“So he does go out – for how long, an hour, a day?  Does he ever stay out overnight?”

“Oh no, no more than a few hours!”  Winter shook his head.  “I tell him: ‘we got to be back by eight o’clock, Mikey’.  He always is.  I wouldn’t let him stay out overnight.”

“Did he go out the Friday before last?”

“Last time he was down here?  Might of, yes, I think he did.”

“And came back at about eight?”

“Yeah.”  Winter reflected.  “Got himself in a bit of a state, he did.  Does that from time to time, Mikey.  Had to give him a pill, that night.”

“Was he out longer that day – was he ever unsupervised?”

A flicker of concern crossed Winter’s face.  “No.  Did I say that?  No.”

“Who was with him, Mr Winter?”

“Well – I was, wasn’t I?”

At this, Terry’s moon-faced smile suddenly changed.  He raised an anxious finger, as if he had something to say if he were given permission.  Joseph picked up on the gesture:  “Can you help, Terry?”

Terry said to Mr Winter:  “You were with me.”

Winter glanced over his shoulder, saying quite sharply:  “No, you didn’t come with us, Terry – not that time.  It wasn’t your week.”

“You and me played draughts.”  Terry reminded him.

“No, you got it muddled up, Terry,”  Winter corrected.  “This was last week.  You weren’t down here last week.”

Terry’s brow creased in concern.  “Can’t play draughts when Mikey’s here.  He calls it ‘devil game’ and he hits the board.  We only play when…”

“Terry!”  Winter’s voice took on a dangerous edge:  “You weren’t here, mate.”

Terry was not to be repressed:  “Mikey went out so we played draughts.”

Winter smiled, a thin, unconvincing smile:  “He gets confused.”  He said.

Terry’s face displayed anything but confusion.  Joe, worried that Terry might be at risk if he persisted, took up the thread hurriedly:  “Supposing Michael should get out – slip away – on his own, is there anyone in the town or nearby he might confide in, or who he might call a friend – apart from here?”

“No, not that I can think.  Not that it could happen.”  Mr Winter’s rictus smile was becoming irritating.  “I’m sorry I can’t help you clear up your little mystery, whatever it is.”

In the background, Terry had begun to rock on the balls of his feet.  This display of agitation, though silent, was not lost on Winter:  Joe could see his eyes shifting, his jaw starting to work:  “If there’s nothing else?”

“Thank you for your help.”  Said Joe, turning to leave.  “If you think of anything…”

“I’ll tell the proper people, yes.”

Suddenly Terry’s voice rang out:  “Mikey went out.  Him, he was worried, ‘cause Mikey didn’t come back, not ‘til very late!  Very, very late!  We played….”

Winter’s voice sliced through the outburst as finely as a razor:“Terry!  No cake!”

Whatever the threat could mean, it silenced Terry.  His face fell, his body collapsed as though he had been punctured.  The prolonged “Ooooh” he uttered had an undertone of fear.

Winter’s visage was contorted by desperation:  “See here, Mr Palliser:  outsiders, they don’t know what its like, this job.  It don’t pay well, there’s never a moment when you can…alright, maybe Mikey does get out from time to time.  He’s usually OK, yeah?  He’s fine.  Just goes out in the town, has a little walk along the front, drops into a café or two.  He never does no harm to anyone, never gets in anyone’s way; only the other week – I don’t know – something must have gone wrong:  somebody had a go at him, or something.  See?”

Joe found himself nodding, almost sympathising with this tired and probably inadequate man who was expressing sentiments he had experienced himself so many times.

“Don’t worry;” he heard himself saying; “I’ve no reason to persecute you. I needed to know, that’s all.”

At the door, Winter took him by the arm.  “You won’t say nothing?”  Joe shook his head.

“The Shilling Café,”  Winter said.  “On Duke Street, just off the Esplanade.  He goes there.”

Outside on the street, the wind had increased in fury.  A tidal surge was carrying full waves over the seawall, thrusting angrily into ornamental garden plots, thrashing across the esplanade, deserted now, the whole seafront empty except for a few brave walkers who tempted and teased at nature, staring her in her raging eye as she lunged for them with boiling cascades.

The Shilling Café proclaimed its raison d’etre on a hand-written sheet of paper taped to its window:  ‘Meal for a Shilling!’   The facia celebrated its cheapness:  within, two naked strip lights threw a soulless glow over cream walls, bentwood chairs and bare tables; nearly all of which were empty.  Behind the counter amid an array of stainless steel and china, a small woman in a floral apron welcomed Joseph expansively.

“Well now!  Here’s someone with a taste for adventure! I was just thinking about closing, dear.  But seeing as its you…”

Joe ordered a cup of tea and a ham roll and while he waited for them to appear, he asked questions;  “Do you know someone called Michael, or Mikey, who comes in here?”

“Oh, Mikey!  He’s one of Morris Winter’s guests.  Yes, I know him, don’t I?”

“Has he been in here recently?”

“Mikey?  Why he’s in and out all the time, dear – whenever he’s down here.  He’s a bit mad, mind. He calls me his Flossy Hilda – told me once I reminded him of a Rhinemaiden – I ask you!”

“Really?”  Joe felt he ought to keep the conversation to essentials – who knew where Mikey’s mind might have taken him next?  “Was he in here on his own, the Friday before last?”

“I can tell you he wasn’t,” said the woman, “’cause it was his week and I laid in a lasagne for him specially.  He likes lasagne.”  She shook her head.  “Then he didn’t come.  Set your clock by him, normally.”

“I don’t suppose he’s been in since?  In the last couple of days, for instance?”

“Well no.  But he wouldn’t be, dear.  It’s not his week.  Are you looking for him then?”

“I’m his brother.  We seem to have lost touch, that’s all.”  Joe explained.  “Did he ever have company?”

“His Brother?  Well, I’ll never be!  Mind, I can see the likeness there.  Morry Winter must have brought him in the first time, ages back, but no-one since.  Oh, wait, now, there was that well-dressed fella – a couple of times, him.  Not long ago, either.”

“Can you describe him?”  Joe asked.

“Well-dressed, dear, like I said.  A nice suit:  not John Colliers, if you see what I mean?  Sort of thirties, medium height – dark hair, I think.  Proper nice looking wasn’t he?”

“What sort of nice looking?”  Joe persisted:  “What colour eyes – large nose, small nose?”

“Well, sort of average, I think.  Here’s your roll, dear.”

Try as he would, Joe could not elicit further detail concerning this mystery man, so he quaffed his tea and an amply buttered ham roll with a taste memory that would stay with him for the rest of the afternoon.  As he left, the little woman in the apron asked: “You’ll know, won’cha?  These Rhinemaidens – what do they do, exactly?”

Fleeing the gale, Joe hunched into his collar, making for the sanctuary of his car so quickly he failed to notice an Austin Princess that was parked across the street.  He knew for certain now – Michael had been away from his carers and alone on the day Violet Parkin died.  Hallbury was not so far away – had he also been there?  Had he, with the extraordinary strength of madness, wielded the pitchfork that had dispatched the old lady so cruelly?  How else could he know the precise manner of her death? As Joe made his way back to Hallbury, counting off the miles, his mind was intrigued by a new mystery:who was the man in the suit; the good looking man who was so completely unmemorable?  Whoever he was, Michael had clearly known him, and their meetings, or at least one of them, would have had to be by arrangement; unless, of course, this man was following Michael…

 

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

Photo Credit:  Brandon Molitwenik on Unsplash

 

 

 

Tomchik’s Ornithology

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Tomchik reaches for his bag, which sits between us on the bench.

“I like it here,” he says.  He produces a thermos flask from within the bag’s khaki canvas depths, and proffers it.

I refuse.  I am meant to refuse, he is hoping I will refuse, “Me, too.”  I acknowledge, as he pours himself a shiny metal cup of tea.  “You’ve gone environmental, then?”

“This metal thing?”  He glances at the thermos, shrugs his shoulders; “Is alright, I guess.”

“Is it biodegradable?”

Tomchik turns his grey eyes on me in that analytical manner of his.  “I don’t know,”  He replies.  “I am.”

The wind sweeps down upon our backs, riffling through the heather and chattering my teeth on its way to more important business in the valley below.  “Sooner rather than later if you stay here,” I tell him.  “Or am I the only one who’s freezing to death?”

“Sometimes it is worth a little bit coldness to enjoy,” He waves expansively over the view before us.  “You see whole village from here.  Is worth it, no?”

I have to admit our situation is ideal.  We are sitting beside a path which cuts along the side of Carter Fell above the churchyard.  We have an unobstructed view of the squat grey roofs clustered three hundred feet below, of the winding snake of water that needs a few rushing miles yet to become the River Wenly, and the narrow road that follows it.  I can identify my home among the roofs, and I can see Tomchik’s too.  We are neighbours, he and I.  In a small village, everyone is a neighbour.

“How long have you lived here, Tomchik?”

“Why you ask me?  I am immigrant, yes?”  He takes a paper package from his bag and unwraps it thoughtfully, exposing sandwiches.  “Cheeses and pickles; you like?”  Again he makes a token offer and I respond with a token refusal.  “Many years.”  He nods, selecting a sandwich and dunking a corner of it in his tea.  “You think I shouldn’t be here, yes?”

The question surprises me.  I have known him for all of those years.  “No, of course I don’t think that.  Are you sensitive about it?  If we have to look at it like that, you’re one very good reason I approve of immigration!”

“Ah.” Tomchik munches solemnly.  There is silence.

I say:  “I can’t imagine the village without you.”

Tomchik points.   “You see the Harry Tulliver’s house?”

“Plainly.”   The cottage where Harry and Jane Tulliver eke out their fairly meagre existence is easy to identify.  “It’s sad to see the weeds, though.  Harry used to be such a gardener!  He doesn’t seem to do much now; I guess he is getting too old.”

“No, no.  Not too old,” Tomchik corrects me.  “You are right to say sad.  I am right to say tired.  Harry is tired man,   That is why he is sad.”

Sometimes Tomchik’s crooked logic leaves me behind.  “Alright then; why tired?”

He allows himself a tolerant sigh, “Tired two ways.  The bay tree is still prospering, you agree?”

I agree.  The tree in Harry’s garden is his pride and joy.

“One way tired.  The goldfinches, they used to nest in this fine bay tree – now is gone.   Two way tired.  Tell me another way you recognise house of Mr and Mrs Tulliver?”

I do not understand him at first.   Of course I recognise the house!  What is Tomchik driving at?  I decide to stoke things up with a little amusement.  “Well, their roof is a slightly different colour.  White polka dots!”

“Bird droppings, yes?”

“Yes,”

“So!  Two ways!  Sparrows!    Sparrows squabbling, mess all over windows, all over back path.  Sparrow fledglings in a row on the fence, squeaking to be fed.  Sparrows nesting – six nests in the bay tree already.”

“So, why the feeders?”  I wave a hand to indicate the three feeders filled with seed that are distributed about Harry’s blessed plot.  “They wouldn’t come if the spoils weren’t so readily available.”

“Exactly!  Mrs Jane, she tells Harry, put them out!  So Harry puts them out, and sparrows come.  Starlings, they come, seagulls, they come.  They eat everything – seed, Harry’s peas, raspberries, strawberries, everything he plant, they eat.  Every time those feeders empty, his wife she puts out more seed.  Those goldfinches, they leave, the bluetits, the chaffinches, the wagtails…”  Tomchik shakes his head,  “all birds Mrs Jane like, are gone.  She thinks she can feed them all, but she just get more sparrows.  Just sparrows.”

“Harry should tell her.  Harry should put his foot down!”

“This I say to him.  I say to him, Harry, you must take back your garden.  He say no, if he tell her she say without her food all sparrows will starve.  She is responsible, she say.  More and more money she spend on food for the birds.  Tullivers, they are not rich.  Harry’s vegetables he grew were food for them.  Now…”  Tomchik shrugs fatalistically, “No vegetables!  Nothing!”

“I don’t understand Jane…”  I begin.

“No-one!”  Tomchik cuts in,  “No-one understand Jane!”

“Have you asked her about it?”

“I do.  I ask her.  You know what she think?  She think without her these birds, they are dead birds.  She likes the pretty birds.”

Tomchik grasps my arm to gain my full attention.  He stares at me.  “You like the pretty Tomchik?  Chirp, chirp!”

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode Seventeen.   A Deeper Darkness

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The story so far:

No sooner has Joe Palliser discovered sick younger brother Michael has been removed from Maddockgate care home, than his elder brother Ian summons him to a meeting.  Ian, who is on the verge of election to parliament, tells Joe the press are pursuing him, and offers to pay him to move out of reach, but Joe refuses.  He also learns that Ian has tried to move Michael, and Michael has vanished.

Shortly afterwards, Joe receives the news that Ned Barker, landlord of ‘The King’s Head’ has died.  With time in hand before he takes the ‘bus to collect his new car, Joe keeps an appointment to view a house, and is captivated by it.

For a distance no more than a dozen crow-flown miles, Wilton Bishop by service ‘bus involved three changes, so the hands of Joseph’s body-clock had crept to lunchtime before he could collect the Wolsey car that awaited him on Maybury Motors forecourt, polished to an imperious shine.  He steeled himself to climb into a driving seat for the first time in many years, ashamed of how he trembled at even the thought of driving, yet eager for freedom regained.  Wallace Maybury found him there as he rolled and paddled his panting body up the hill from the village, bearing an unfurled newspaper where lurked his lunch of fish and chips.

“Little beauty, isn’t she?” Enthused the salesman, his lustful fingers embellishing Joseph’s cheque with patches of cooking fat. “Any trouble with her, you don’t hesitate to call me!”

Joseph gritted his teeth, turned the key and pulled the starter.  There was little hint of femininity in the protest from the gearbox at his unaccustomed touch, but after a second attempt at a start the Wolsey swept him regally away. From a layby a hundred yards away a younger Austin slipped into more elegant motion.  As inconspicuously as possible, it tagged along behind.

At the first service station Joe added fuel to the pint or so of Maybury’s contribution and replenished his own tank with coke and a soggy cheese sandwich, before making his way to the county town, where he intended to seek out the office for a local newspaper, the County Despatch.   He discovered it lodged in a tall narrow building of four storeys, sandwiched between ‘Godfrey’s Shoes’ and a store devoted to ‘Surgical Requisites’ on the lower main street,

Selwyn Penny, a reporter of some vintage, seemed eager to help.“Matheson – I remember that one.  Poor child!  A man walking his dog found the clothing, as I recall.   I saw the chap who was sent down for it. Toby Bridall was presiding at Quarter Sessions that winter.  He reduced the sentence to life because there was no body, you see; the victim was never found.     What was the accused’s name now – Robertson?  Robinson?  You’ll find it in the archive somewhere.  He was always going to be in trouble because he had a record of minor crimes against children – molestation and so forth – but killing wasn’t in his nature:  you could see that. I’ve never been entirely satisfied with that one.”

“Tabloid stuff, though?”  Joseph suggested.

Selwyn nodded.  “Yes, I sent in some copy.  Strange, sometimes, how you think the things that should galvanise the ‘nationals’ don’t even get space on page fourteen.  It wasn’t used – borderline, I’d say.  There were a lot of other things going on at the time; political scandals, and so forth.”

Joe thanked Mr Penny.  Outside, heavy rain was setting in, compelling him to make a dash for the refuge of his car, parked some distance up the street.   There, as a storm gathered, he sat listening to the raindrops’ steady hammer on the roof, mentally brushing dust from the archives in his brain and letting his mind go to dangerous places.

“There are things I know,” Michael had said.   And he had spread his arms in a cruciform imitation of Violet’s execution.   Only one means existed by which he could have known how she had been displayed.  He had to have been there.

There were things which now, perhaps, Joe thought it might be better not to know, for the coven dancing in his head was no longer a circle of credulous village women –it was something demonic, and he could picture Michael in it, clasped hand in hand with Violet Parkin, with Dot Barker, Janice Regan, Hettie Locke…and who else? What was the secret Michael was so certain Ned Barker had known, that could make that evil cabal turn upon one of its own?

He could not help but wonder now if, as his aunt had implied, those women were somehow implicated in Christian Matheson’s disappearance, too.  The little boy’s scattered clothing had been found near Slater’s Copse – the hill where Aaron Pace had once seen the witches dancing.  Michael would have been thirteen years old and already very disturbed, when the Matheson child was taken: so impressionable, so young – surely too young to be accepted by those women?  But who knew what they were capable of:  the headless crows, Benjy the cat’s mutilated carcass impaled upon his aunt and uncle’s front door?  These were evidence of something very dark indeed.

Joseph’s memory of that time burned bright: Michael was hurting – so badly hurting!  Joe?  All Joe could do was hide in his room, afraid of the shouting, the rows from the floor below.

Michael’s tremulous crescendo:  “I call you, I call you!  You are commanded to come!”

Julia:  “Michael, stop it!”

“Come before the council and be tried!  Stand before us and be tried!”

“Oh, Michael!  For goodness sake, please!”

It would go on, and on.  Michael raving his distress, Julia torn between pity and fear; for there was no doubting the terror Michael inspired in his aunt.  Were he one of her own and not the child of her dead sister, maybe it would have been different; but he was a surrogate child, and now, a changeling.  A stranger; a violent, dangerous stranger.

“Honestly Oz, sometimes I think he’s about to kill me!”

If Joe’s brother in his illness might have done some terrible, some dreadful things, then what satisfactory reason had he to pursue Jack Parkin’s cause?  Michael was out there, somewhere, and though he hated the phrase he must use it:  ‘on the loose’.  Was he, Joseph, not the only Palliser in Hallbury that hot afternoon when Violet Parkin died?  Was his thirst for justice enough, if it promised to bring down the roof on one of his own  family?

In celebration of the new freedom which came with having transport of his own, Joe spent two hours just driving aimlessly before he returned to Hallbury, and even then he did not return immediately to his aunt and uncle’s house, but parked up on Wednesday Common, near to a place where he and Emma had once spent time together, hiding from the lights as teenagers in love will hide; for now his lost loves were very much on his mind – Marian and Emma; the one gone forever, the other a living temptation whose cries from among the rocks bade him sail ever closer to ruin.

Marian had rescued him, hadn’t she?  Plucked him from the street and given him self-worth when he needed it most.  So was it love or gratitude that filled his memory of her?  He might doubt the integrity of his feelings, even at the time when her love for him began to cool – was it his heart or his insecurity that had most troubled him then?  And now, as he thoughtof her – as she immersed his mind with her memory – did he think of her for love lost, or in fear of a truth he did not want to face:  that loving her, he had killed her?

Now there was Emma, who had saved him, too, in her way.  When his adolescent passion for Sarah had left him languishing in a pool of despondency, it was she who taught him love could be fun.  Emma had helped the scarred boy become something of a man, or as much of a man as he thought he could ever become.  And Emma was married to someone else, forced to accept a lesser kind of love because he had deserted her, and made no attempt to retrieve what he had lost.

The wheel of fortune had turned, had it not?  He was faced with a moral dilemma:  should he quit the field and leave the love he betrayed behind once more, or take her as he surely could from the arms of his best friend?  Although all his sense of rectitude and all its probable consequences militated against the latter choice, yet he was consciously driving himself towards it:  buying a house in Hallbury was probably the worst life decision he could make – which was probably why he was making it.

The tap on the car window made him jump so hard he almost hit his head on the roof.

“Excuse me!”  A feminine voice – the window had steamed in a renewal of the rain, so Joe could not see.  He wound it down to reveal its owner – a pretty dark-haired woman in a white blouse and short skirt.  The neck of the blouse gaped open sufficiently to reveal a generous cleavage.  “I hope you don’t mind, but I saw you were parked here.  I wonder – could I be awfully cheeky and ask you for a lift?  My car’s gone phut you see, and I really have to get back to…I believe it’s Brenton, isn’t it?.”

“Braunston,”  Joe corrected her, “Sure, get in.”  A damsel in distress:  what else would he do?

“Golly, thanks!”

She tottered on heels to the passenger side and slipped expertly in beside him, demurely pulling at the hem of her skirt.  “I’m so sorry to be a bother.  The blessed thing just stopped working – aren’t cars awful?”

Joe smiled, thinking that cars weren’t awful at all.  “You’re soaked!”  he said.  Her wet blouse clung to her enough to reveal evidence of a low-cut lacy bra.

She looked down at herself.  “Oh, golly!”  She folded her arms across her chest, giggling at her own embarrassment, her tiny nose wrinkling as she laughed.  She really was, Joe thought, extremely alluring.

He retrieved his jacket from the back seat, “Here, you’ll be cold.”

“Oh, you are kind.”  She snuggled down into the seat. “This is so cosy!”

Joe started the car, wiped away as much condensation as he could, and U-turned, wheels slipping enough to give a moment’s concern.  “Of course, I could be stuck myself.”  He admitted.  “Where in Braunston  did you want to go?”

The Wolsey bounced back onto tarmac, swerving to avoid a stricken-looking Austin Princess which stood dripping and inert beside the road.

“I’ll get the AA man to look at it for me.”

She was down from London visiting friends, it transpired; her name was Jennifer, and she was staying at a Braunston hotel.  “But if you wouldn’t mind just getting me to civilisation?”

Joe wouldn’t hear of it.  No, he would not turn her out into this rain, her hotel was not far.

“Oh, you are kind!”  Jennifer enthused.  “My saviour!  You haven’t told me your name…”

“It’s Joe.”

“Honest Joe!”  Her laugh was music.  “Do you live here, Joe?”

“Nearby.”

“Really?  I was visiting a chum in Little Hallbury – you might know her, Joe.  Sophie Forbes-Pattinson?  Do we have a mutual friend?”

Joe said yes, indeed he did, and yes, Sophie might have mentioned him and his second name, since she asked, was Palliser.

“Wow, what an inspiring name!  Don’t I know it from somewhere?  Oh, my god!  I don’t suppose….you couldn’t be any relation to Ian Palliser, could you?  You look so alike!”

“He’s my brother.”

“Really?  Golly!”  Exclaimed Jennifer, wide-eyed.  “Isn’t the world just absolutely tiny?  You must be so proud of him!  He’s going to be most amazingly famous, you know.  Daddy’s a member of the Party Selection Committee thing, and he’s terribly enthusiastic because they don’t pick just sort of anybody and members from our constituency usually end up being in the cabinet for something or other.  What’s it like to have a famous brother, Joe?”

A bit of a problem, Joe said.  The miles passed unnoticed as Jennifer’s words tumbled over one another in an enthusiastic cantilena to life and living.  He joked, she laughed; her eyes sparkled.  More than once he glanced sidelong at her to see her approving him.  And the conversation turned.

“Well I hope Sophie’s making good use of you.  You’re rather a nice chap, Joe.”

“Thank you.”  He said.  They were nearing Braunston.  As if upon a whim, Jennifer suddenly moved across her seat so her head could rest on his shoulder.

“My god I’m cold!”  She said.  “You’re so warm and comfy, do you mind?”

He didn’t.

Jennifer was staying at one of the smaller hotels:  “Travelling’s so expensive, isn’t it?  Daddy’s awfully careful like that.”

Joe parked at the roadside close to the hotel’s front doors and remarked foolishly that the rain had stopped, which of course was obvious, but he felt so confused by the mesmerising presence at his side he couldn’t think of anything more profound to say.  Jennifer did not move.

“Gosh, you really are a super bloke, Joe.”  Her eyes shone; her lips slightly parted to reveal white teeth; her hands, clasped around one knee, tightening her shoulders so the valley between her breasts was dark and deep.  With difficulty, he tore his eyes away, knowing otherwise he must suffer obvious humiliation.  Jennifer seemed delighted with her effect upon him.  “Well, I suppose that’s it?”  She asked.  It was a genuine question.

Hurriedly, lest humiliation should visit him anyway – his thoughts were running faster than his self-discipline could follow – Joe alighted, walking around to her door and opening it.  Jennifer’s long legs swung out, riding up her short, short skirt for a moment:  a glimpse of pink satin – “Oops!” – before she tugged it to respectability.  Then, in a movement bordering on the miraculous, she slid herself upright so that every part of her body pressed to every part of Joe’s body; and before he could stop her she was kissing him on the mouth.

She had surprised him in every sense, so much so that he could not react.  Before he could respond she moved her head so they were cheek to cheek as she whispered, with an inference that was plain:  “Come in with me?”

What made him draw back, alarm, instinct maybe?  Where did she spring from, this divinity, this gift from God?  Why had she, on so brief an acquaintance, taken to him so much that she wanted to share herself?  Maybe that; or maybe some instinct, a fear even, that this was not all it seemed.  Anyway, step away he did, and however reluctantly he gave his refusal.  She looked mildly taken aback.

“What a pity.  You’ll never know what you missed, now, will you?”  Jennifer reverted to the formal.  “Well, thank you for the ride, Sir Joe.  I’m sure we’ll meet again sometime.”  And she clacked away on those impossible heels, leaving Joseph admiring and helpless in her wake.

He did not drive away immediately.  He sat in his car, simultaneously castigating himself for turning down the opportunity of a lifetime and wondering whether it had all been some kind of self-delusion – a dream.  There was no reconciliation to be found, however, so at last he started the Wolsey to begin his drive home.

Joseph would have been interested in a meeting which took place in the lobby of the hotel, five minutes after his car had turned the corner at the end of the road.  Jennifer, who had not gone straight to her room to change from her wet clothing, was sitting in one of the leather armchairs when a conservatively dressed middle-aged man with greying hair and a goatee beard sat down on the sofa opposite her.

“Did you get anything?”  Jennifer asked the man.

“Not much chance – one of the kiss, I think, though it won’t be very clear.  The light’s bad, too.  How many times do I have to tell you?  Stand the other side of the car door, Jen.”

“I must be losing my touch.”  Jennifer said.

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

 

 

 

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode Sixteen.   The Cuckoo’s Child

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The story so far:

Joe’s experience at the hands of the ‘witches’ and the vandalism of the village church convince him that his brother Michael is involved.  When he tries to see Michael he is told he has been removed from Maddockgate hospital.  His aunt and uncle admit that Ian, his eldest brother, has been financing Michael’s care.

Emma visits Joe and it is clear that she is tormented by her feelings for him.  It shocks her to learn how openly he has been questioning the village matrons and she urges him once more to move away from Hallbury. 

After Emma’s departure Joe could not drive her from his thoughts.  He saw her face, heard her voice, even imagined he still held  the hand that had taken his.  It needed the telephone’s blare to bring him into focus.

“Joseph?”  His brother Ian’s voice was formal, “I need to talk to you.”

“And I to you.”  Joe said. “So who goes first?”

“Neither of us, right now.  Pay attention.  I’m staying at The Bull in Braunston.   There’s a car coming for you in half an hour.  Be ready.”

The receiver was replaced before Joe could protest.

Precisely thirty minutes later a black Bentley drew up to the Masefield’s’ front gate.  Alfred, Ian’s personal chauffeur, greeted Joe amiably and held the door for him to climb into the back, then wheezed himself into the driving seat.  As the limousine glided into silent motion, Joe treated neighbour Bess Andrews to a regal wave.    She made no attempt to disguise her curiosity.

“Is this supposed to be low profile, by any chance?”  He asked Alf; “Because if it is, it’s failing dismally.”

Watching the miles slip by, Joe recounted to himself all he knew of Ian’s meteoric rise to prominence, concerning which there were many unanswered questions.  How, for example, did Ian the graduate become successful in so short a time – little more than five years after leaving Oxford he was managing director of his own importing company, with a six-figure turnover and connections in the City.  Ian maintained a story which left certain very fundamental details out.  There were always questions about him, only ever answers to a select few.  Of all the things Joe had learned about London he knew the City did not like ‘upstarts’; it was inherently suspicious of anyone who rose quickly in the system.  Why was Ian so readily accepted?  Yes, he had the gift; everything about him made you want to trust him, to invest in him, to buy from him:  but Joe knew better.  The Ian he had grown up with was far from trustworthy, and he could not believe that those whose perspicuity had brought them wealth would have the wool pulled so easily over their eyes.

One aspect of Ian’s nature could not be questioned – especially now Joseph had learned how generously he financed Michael’s care.  Ian was supportive that night when Joe, suitcases in hand and with the memory of Marian’s dead body in his arms, had knocked upon his regal Hampstead door.

Caroline had answered.  “Joseph.  What do you want?”  (As if that was not obvious).

Caroline was tall – a reed of womanhood who had come to Ian’s bed by a process of very careful selection.  She was of good Home Counties stock, intelligent, and with the sort of fragile looks that transcend any social finesse.  She was also as hard as nails, and, when she chose, devastatingly rude.  That night, dressed carelessly in jeans and sloppy sweater, she still contrived to appear as though she had just completed a fashion shoot.  She looked disparagingly at Joe’s suitcases.

“I suppose you had better bring those inside.”

Ian’s house was a nineteen twenty’s villa in the ‘Deco’ style, its central hallway surrounded by doors to living and dining rooms, a study, games room and kitchen.  Stairs wound up to a mezzanine and bedrooms, then a further flight to a solarium, gymnasium, and roof.

Joe stood on the polished parquet, wondering if he was visibly shaking.   “I’m sorry, I know I’m not observing the proprieties….”

Caroline cut him short. “Joseph, where proprieties are concerned, I don’t think you have a clue.”  She opened the door of the study:  “Ian, that disgusting brother of yours is here.  What do you want to do with him?”

Ian had emerged, dark hair tightly brushed and looking as he always did – irritated.  He saw the suitcases.  “No.”  He said abruptly.

“Ian, I wouldn’t ask, but…”

“You’ve been evicted again.  Joe, I can’t just keep putting you up at a moment’s notice whenever you decide to stop paying your rent.”

“No, Ian, I haven’t been evicted.  But there are reasons I’ve nowhere to stay tonight…”

Ian glared.  “Oh, all right.”  Caroline gasped as if wounded.  “You can sleep in the solarium.  But tomorrow….”

“I’ll look for somewhere else.  I promise.” Joe said.

He had stayed for a month.

When his brother revealed he had reserved a room in The Bull, Joseph had been mildly surprised.  The Mansion House Hotel was Braunston’s finest, and he might have expected the status-conscious Ian to have put up there.  The Bull was a little old-fashioned, advertised as ‘homely and unpretentious’.  Caroline would have been more scathing.

Alf conducted him directly to Ian’s room on the second floor.

In sampling from the Palliser gene pool Ian, it was often said, had taken more than his fair share of his mother’s genes and very few of his father’s.  In looks, in manners, even in intellect, he was arguably superior to either of his siblings.  This is not to say that he was perfect, far from it; he was prone to petty dishonesty, was certainly inclined towards arrogance, and from the age of thirteen had done all he could to disassociate himself from what he perceived to be the dysfunctional Palliser clan.

The Ian Joe expected to greet him was the Ian whose hospitality he had abused just a few weeks before, but there were subtle differences.  He was as irascible as ever, yes – Ian had always been, in Joseph’s recollection, short-tempered; but he was tired, too; fractious, rather than strident.

“Drink?”  He was seated at a desk overloaded with documents.  He waved perfunctorily at the mini-bar.

“Yes, please.  Scotch would be good.”

“Help yourself,”  Ian grunted.  He slapped his pen down onto the desk – he had been writing something as Joseph entered the room, “This is for you, Joe.”

He spun a cheque-book across the room so that as Joe sat on the edge of the bed it almost landed in his lap.  Joe caught it before it fell to the floor.  “Throwing your money around, Ian?  That’s not like you.”

“Open and read.”

Joe did.  The freshly-written scrawl stared up at him from the page:  ‘Pay to the Order of Joseph Palliser the sum of Five Thousand Pounds’:  “What’s this?”

“It is part of a package.  A fairly minor part, actually:  other elements include a first-class ticket on Brittany Ferries to France, a little villa near Dinan (you’ll like it there), and a hire car for as long as you want.”

Had Joe’s jaw dropped open?  “My god, Ian, I know I deserve a holiday, but…..”

Ian gave a passable imitation of a smile:  “Brittany in summer: very beautiful, I assure you.”

“And the catch is…?”

“No catch.  Just remain silent.  Telephone no-one; write to no-one for a couple of months.   Then you can spill your heart out and you can come home, though I’d much prefer if you stayed away from London, for Caroline’s sake.”

In truth the penny had dropped two conversational exchanges ago, but Joe had wanted to run with it, see where it led.  He got to his feet, crossing to a window which overlooked the hotel courtyard, which was just busying up for the evening trade.

This made Ian edgy:  “Could you keep back from the window?”

“Someone’s onto you, aren’t they?  Found out about those depraved orgies in Pimlico?  You want me out of the way until the election is over.”

His brother sighed indulgently.  “There are no orgies, Joe; of course you know that, don’t you?  You always like to provoke me.  But you are right in one respect: I do want you somewhere you can’t readily be found.”

“Why, what have I done?”

“What you always do, Joe.  You stir up trouble:  you are trouble!  I seem to spend an inordinate proportion of my life covering your mistakes; first London and that nymphomaniac sugar-mummy of yours, and now a crusade to obstruct investigations around a murder at home.  I don’t need a Poirot in the family right now, or a gigolo.”

Joseph winced at having this sobriquet attributed to him a second time.  “Or a madman?”  He suggested.

“Yes, well:  I assume you refer to Michael, and that’s another issue.”

“It’s the issue I wanted to talk to you about.  I take it you’ve spirited him away for similar reasons?  We’re just closet skeletons to you, aren’t we?”  He had stopped beside the desk, standing over his brother.

Ian chose his words.  “If you hear from Michael, you’re to let me know as soon as you can.  Okay?”

“So he’s not completely incommunicado, then?  He can smuggle messages out through the bars?”

“He’s gone.”

“What?”

Ian shifted uncomfortably.  “I made arrangements for him to transfer to a very nice, comfortable home in South Wales where he could be, shall we say, closely supervised?  He never arrived.”

“Oh, my Lord!”  Joe unwittingly borrowed Emma’s favourite exclamation.  “Whatever will you do now, Ian?  An election imminent and an insane brother on the loose, ready to tell all!  I should say I’m the least of your troubles!”

Ian sighed.  “I knew this wouldn’t be pleasant.  See here, Joe; all I want is an easy ride into Parliament.  This country is about to get itself a new leader, I think a great leader, and he’s specially requesting that I be by his side.  He wants me for a very important job, Joe, and I want to do it!

“Now, Michael is something I will take care of:  please, just take that cheque – your tickets are waiting at the ferry port, Alfred will give you an envelope with the other details on the way home.  The boat sails tomorrow at ten.”

“Twenty-four hours, huh?”

“More like eighteen.  Go home.  Pack.”

Joe stared at the cheque.  It was tempting: he could leave the torture of Emma, the suspicions of the village, and the dread result of that autopsy behind for a while.  He could renew acquaintance with his beloved France.  But was he simply running away again; failing to confront his problems?  What would happen to Jack Parkin, if no-one was there to champion his cause?

A knock at the door of Ian’s room interrupted his thoughts.

“Mr Chapman?”  Enquired a voice from outside; “There’s a message for you, sir. from your London office.”

Ian hustled to the door, opening it a crack, and the porter passed an envelope through.  Ian glanced briefly at the note it contained.

“I must get back.”  He said.  Joe was regarding him with some amusement.  “What is it, Joe?”

“Mr Chapman?”

“Yes, an assumed name; something I often do.  What of it?”

“Five thousand pounds!  So much money, just to put your brother out of the way for a few weeks!”  Joe tossed the cheque book back onto the desk.  “No.”

Ian’s shoulders slumped. He sat down on the edge of his bed with a world-weary sigh:  “Why ever not?”

“Because I’m your brother, Ian.  Oh, I’m feeling guilty because you’ve been kind to me:  you gave me shelter – if a little grudgingly – and I’m unable to repay you.  But there’s a higher moral lesson here, because although you might be able to buy your way out of all kinds of problems, you should never try to buy off your own family!  Sorry.”

Joe slumped too.  He had just turned down a small fortune, something he did not know he was capable of doing.

Ian nodded, said at last:  “Very well.  I see that.  I’ll get Alfred to drive you home.”

Perplexed, Joe said, “A couple of days?  Let me think about it?”

“Afraid not.  It has to be now, or…”  Ian shrugged fatalistically.  “All right, the truth.  You’ll have to know, anyway.  You were correct; someone is ‘onto me’.  So far, the damage is limited to one reporter for one tabloid newspaper; unfortunately the one with the biggest circulation.  Head office is very good at detecting this kind of thing, and to a limited extent they can deal with any problems, but Michael?  I had to move him very quickly somewhere he couldn’t be found; otherwise who knows what he might have come up with?  He’s still as mad as a hatter, isn’t he?”

“He’s unwell,” Joe had to agree.  “And me?”  He asked.

“You.”  Ian got up, moving to the window, concealing himself by means of the curtain.  “Apparently, Joe, the same newshound has been chasing you all over London.”

“So that’s why I’m a problem?”

“I should say so.  Abysmal failure to make your own living, other than as a gi…”

“Don’t use that word again!”

“Alright, but how else do I describe someone who has spent the last several years being kept by a rich married woman?  A woman who dies, incidentally, in what her husband is claiming are suspicious circumstances. In other words, he thinks you murdered her.  You didn’t tell me about that, Joe, when you came asking for shelter that night.”

“I was desperate, Ian.  If I had you wouldn’t have let me in.  This reporter; why hasn’t he found me yet?  It isn’t as if I’ve been hiding.”

“Oh, he will,”  Ian assured him.  “You moved from London, so you dropped off his radar for a few days.  But he’s got your scent now, apparently.  I’m told he’s in this area.  Tomorrow, or the latest Wednesday, I should think.”  He turned back to his desk.  “He’s tied you to me, of course; hence the interest.”

“Hence twenty-four hours?  Sorry, eighteen.  So I’m escaping!  But did you seriously think a little old ditch like the English Channel would put him off?  Try Brazil!”

Joseph could not help but feel sympathy for his brother.  Ian’s air of resignation was foreign to his nature; a precursor, perhaps, of greater burdens to come.  This was a world-weary figure, tried by circumstances.  There was a haunted – no, a hunted look in his eyes and he, Joseph, was its miscreant cause.

“Let’s get our stories straight…”  He said.

Throughout his homeward journey Joseph had nothing to do but stare at Alf’s massive shoulders and dwell upon the matter of Michael’s whereabouts.   Somewhere out there was Ian’s real loose cannon, someone with the firepower to sink them all. Over these last few days and against his will Joe’s suspicions had been forming.  And the question that must follow was ‘Why?’

The day was not yet over.  One more shot remained to be fired.   At supper with his aunt and uncle he discovered why Dot Barker had not been among those gathered outside the church that morning.  Her husband Ned Barker, landlord of The King’s Head, had died the preceding night.

“How?”  Joe asked.

Owen raised an eyebrow:  “No idea, I’m afraid.  He was getting on a bit, wasn’t he?”

The King’s Head was closed until further notice.  The village’s social hub and the axis of its rumour mill was stilled.  Whatever secret Michael was so insistent Joe should elicit from Ned would go with the old publican to his grave.

On the following morning Joe kept an appointment to view the Lamb house.

He was unprepared for that house. Was it because he never had a roof of his own, but was always the cuckoo’s child, living where fortune next abandoned him, forever at risk from the night and the rain?  As he wandered through those empty rooms he felt as though he were turning handles to unopened doors in his life.  There was gladness, a warmth which reached out to embrace him.  In each bare room he already saw furniture placed as he would have it, carpets, colours of his choosing.  He saw a fire in the hearth and giving his fantasy wings, two people sitting before it.  He saw a bedroom he imagined she would like, a familiar smile of greeting, a dog stretched before the hearth.  It was a tour which might have stopped in the hallway, for in just that short acquaintance Joe knew he was born to be there.  All his reservations, all the petty hostilities and fears were cast aside.

“How much?”  He asked the agent.  The specification sheet quoted a price of four thousand pounds.

“As you see it.  Rather expensive, I’m afraid.  However, it is in a superior state of repair – really just ready to move into and I do believe the owner is looking for a quick sale, so…”

“So I’ll let you have an offer by tomorrow.”

At a ‘bus stand by St. Andrews’ desecrated church, Joe awaited the ‘bus that would take him, by a series of changes, to Wilton Bishop and his recently acquired car.  Aaron Pace was engrossed in the work of repairing the churchyard.

“Mind, I got some work to do ‘ere.”  He called over,  “Tidy this bugger up by tomorrow!  What do ‘ee think o’ that?”

Joe made sympathetic noises:  “Why tomorrow, Aaron?”

“Poor Violet!  We’m puttin’ ‘er under at last.  A’topsy, see?”

Joe wondered how appropriate it would be to lay Violet to rest in a Christian churchyard.  He concluded that Owen was right; that neither she nor her companion witches took their heathenism too seriously.  After all, hadn’t Violet customarily laundered ‘Vicar’s bliddy surplices’?

“Be you lookin’ at the Lamb’s ‘ouse?”  Aaron asked, drawing a cynical smile from Joe.  This village missed mothing.  Aaron stared down at his spade.  “See, you could be a brave man, or you could be a fool.  Not sure which.”

“Nor am I,”  Joe replied.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

FortuneTeller

This is reblogged from https://thefeatheredsleepcom.wordpress.com/ Sometimes a poetic soul speaks so evocatively you cannot help but hear…

TheFeatheredSleep

People didn’t care

Just like with the Nightingale

The dead bird outside Starbucks

Didn’t warrant consideration

His feathers mottled by hot pavement

I felt

Bad I hadn’t noticed at first

But I’d been watching you walk

And recalling the depth of your coffee eyes

Whom of us lovers, has time

For dead birds

Finally a man thinks he’s brave to kick

Feathered corpse off to the side

Indicative of these times

I thought of the Happy Prince

Giving away his gold and jewel eyes

Enlisting a little bird to pluck

His riches to give to the poor

How I read that in school sitting

Elbow to elbow with sloe eyed kids who

Scratched their dry elbows raw

And the very same week we came across a dead bird

Its grave still beneath the weeping willow

Fastened by a Palm Sunday cross we’d kept unbroken in a book

Where children learn…

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Hallbury Summer – Episode Fifteen. Different Trains

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 The story so far:

In a dream-state Joseph finds himself at the mercy of Hallbury’s ‘witches’ who condemn him to burn if he does not leave Hallbuury.  The following morning his aunt’s cat is impaled on her front door, and the church graveyard is desecrated.  Joe’s aunt and uncle regale him with the story of little Christian Matheson, a child abducted from the village many years before, citing this as a reason to believe darker forces are at work.

 Thinking his brother Michael must have something to do with these events, Joe decides to pay him a visit, but his telephone call to Michael’s erstwhile care home informs him that his brother has been removed from its care, and no information is available concerning his whereabouts…

Julia was in her kitchen with her back to the door, cleaning some brassware that hung on the wall by the range.  Joe noticed the tension in her shoulders as he entered and surmised that she must have overheard much of his call.

“Aunt Julia – did you know that Michael has been moved?”

She did not turn or look at him.  “Has he, dear?”

“From Maddockgate Manor.  Why, please?  I don’t understand.”

Julia started out:  “Well, I suppose we….”  The words wavered and drifted away.  “Oz!”  She called out.  “Come in here for a minute, will you?”

Joe’s Uncle Owen arrived bearing the armful of wood he had been collecting from the store in their yard.  “Oz, tell Joe why Michael has been moved to a different home, will you?”  She was looking directly at her husband in a desperate attempt at communication, but Joe was watching them both intently, and he did not miss the flicker of surprise on Owen’s face.  Furthermore, Owen was not quick enough on his feet:  he stammered at the beginnings of a reply, which Joseph cut across:

“You didn’t know, did you?”

Julia turned to look at him helplessly.  “All right Joe.  I think you’ve rather found us out.  No, we didn’t know.”  Then she said to Owen in what sounded like genuine mystification:  “And I can’t for the life of me think why…?”

“Nor I.”  Owen muttered.  “All seems a bit strange to me.”

Julia explained.  “I’m afraid I’ve been guilty of deception, Joe.  When Michael’s illness demanded full-time care and he was taken into the County Hospital your uncle and I looked around for some way of making life more agreeable for him.  Maddockgate Manor seemed pleasant and fairly inexpensive at the time, so we used all that remained of your parents’ estate to lodge him there.  I suppose we hoped he would get better, or that we would be able to muddle through, but although the fees kept getting higher poor Michael showed no signs of recovery.  Our retirement would mean we had little enough money of our own and your parents’ legacy was long gone.”  As Joseph opened his mouth to interrupt she lifted a placatory hand.  “Yes.  Yes, I know.  I led you to believe there was a large bequest, didn’t I?  Money left in trust for you, and so on.  There wasn’t, Joe.  Your parents left almost nothing:  just enough to raise you boys with, no more.”

Owen took up Julia’s thread.  “It was seven – maybe eight years ago?  The fees went up again, and we knew we had not the ability to pay.  We wanted to get in touch with you and tell you what would have to happen – Michael would have to go back into ‘County’, but we couldn’t find you at the time.  So we discussed it with Ian.”

“He was wonderful, Joe,”  Julia said.  “He didn’t hesitate.  He stepped in to pay the outstanding fees and absolutely demanded that all accounts were made over to him.  He’s been paying for Michael’s care ever since.  However, he insisted that no-one else should be told of the arrangement; including you, dear.  I’m sorry.”

What could he say or do?  Joseph felt unreasonably annoyed – cheated, although he could not have explained why he should react that way.  Ian’s long hand slipping unobtrusively out of the fog, quietly adjusting, subtly altering the things that he loved and valued.  Yet he was taking care of Michael, wasn’t he?  And wasn’t that altogether a commendable, brotherly act?  To do it secretly, to avoid attention to himself, was entirely laudable – or would be if it were not Ian’s hand on the tiller, Ian’s name on the cheque.  The word which kept creeping back into Joe’s mind was stealth.  Stealthy was a word that typically described his brother Ian.

Wanting time to himself to assimilate these new bullets of information Joseph retired to his room with some tea and a book he had no intention to read.  It did not take much deduction to see why Michael had been ‘moved’ – Ian was on the threshold of an election and did not want to have a mad brother within easy reach – but instructing those responsible to conceal his whereabouts from his own relatives suggested something more than mere political expediency:  it hinted at fear.  So was Ian privy to some of Joseph’s own thoughts, own concerns about Michael?

At two o’clock Julia and Owen went shopping.  The Monday Braunston trip was a regular expedition, influenced mainly by a pensioners’ discount day at the Savers’ Market, so the spectacle of Owen’s stuttering old Standard Vanguard scraping its way out of the lane was a well-established one, said to be as reliable as any clock.  Julia, ever the anxious passenger, sat on the back seat, hunched forward with her shopping bag on her knees, from whence she would acknowledge others abroad in the village with regal waves.  Owen slouched in the driver’s seat holding the wheel in one hand, his pipe in the other; a posture which only changed when the old car needed to negotiate a corner.  Then he became intensely active, jamming his pipe into his mouth and exerting his weight upon the steering wheel with Herculean effort.  On sharp curves he would throw everything at the necessary side of the road, often disappearing below the high windscreen altogether.

Joseph had several mundane matters to attend to: having telephoned Ian’s London home number and obtained no answer, he tried his constituency office with a similar result.  Then he telephoned the Agent responsible for selling the Lamb house and arranged a viewing.  Events of the last twenty-four hours had shaken his initial resolve to take up residence in Hallbury, but he reasoned that there would be no harm in viewing the property:  he had to move somewhere out of London after all, and it would help him to gauge a likely cost.

The knock on the front door was so soft and feminine he barely heard it, so he opened the door only half-believing he would find anyone outside.  He found Emma Peterkin.

“Joe, can I talk to you?”  She looked small and unhappy, with her pretty chin tucked down into the collar of her charcoal coat as she stared at some point low on the chipped paint of the doorjamb.  Her slender feet fidgeted uneasily and Joseph did not think he imagined that her hands, though plunged deep into her pockets, were trembling.  He remembered the first time she had called unexpectedly at this door, looking equally discomforted, though perhaps for different reasons.  His heart surged – not entirely with pity.

“Come in.”  He said quickly.

In the hall they stood facing one another;  two willow wands that might be stirred at the merest quiver of a breeze, inclining by a timid fraction together then shrinking back, never daring to meet each other’s eyes.

“Oh, Joe!”  She murmured.

There was such sadness, such repressed longing in her voice that every instinct within him wanted to reach out to her, to take her in his arms.  He felt as helpless in the intoxication of her beauty as a wood mouse caught in the eye of a snake.

“Owen and Julia are out.”  He said.  “I know we’re not kids, but is this wise?”

“Probably not.”  Still she would not look at him.  “I shouldn’t be here.  I won’t stay.”

“But now you are here…”  If he could just place one hand on her flushed cheek, cross that narrow gulf – so close now – so close he could catch the scent of musk on her breath; see the moistness of her lips, the yearning in her eyes.  “I miss you,” it was little more than a whisper; “I can’t help it.  Every minute I’m not with you.”

“Don’t do this, Emma.”  An immense effort of will was all that could rescue him from the primacy of that moment.  “There are – things – I want as much as you, if it weren’t for Tom.  We can’t betray him.”

“Do you think I don’t know that?  I came to talk, Joe, that’s all. Honour for your friend, all that. ‘T’is only right, I s’pose.  But you got two friends, Joe.  You was supposed to love one of them and you let her down.  Don’t you owe her something too?”

“Even if one of my friends is married to the other?”

“Fine talk of marriage!  You with a wife you’re not intending to see again!  You’re good at leaving, aren’t you Joe?”  So Tom had kept one secret, at least; and of course he would, because if Emma knew Joe was without ties he would present even more of a threat.

“See here,”  She said, and he felt the cool touch of her fingers on his hand “I’m not proud of how I’m sounding, and lord knows I’m ashamed of what I’m thinking, but here we are; different platforms, different trains.”

“It’s hard for me, too.”  He told her.

“Yeah?  Maybe you don’t feel like I feel.  Maybe it’s easier for a man.  Tom’s a good husband – he’s a decent man, if he don’t kill ‘imself in that car of his.   He wants a child – he wants a family.  I want that, too; we’ve tried, and there’s nothing wrong, nothing medical, I mean.”

“Then I’m sure it will happen,” he said.

The caress of her fingers became a grip.  “It won’t.  It won’t, Joe, because it isn’t natural, not to me.   You were the only man whose child I wanted…”

“Don’t talk like that!…”

“Why shouldn’t I?  We’re not in a public park, now.  Look at me!  I’ve got no pride – I’m between a wish and a hope, Joe.  What’s between us, it’s that deep, that strong.  I thought I had it all in hand, I did, really.  Then you walked into my house…”

He stopped her,  “Emma!”

“If we…” The clasp of her hand conveyed the words she could not bring herself to say; “Tom, he would never know. He doesn’t know…”

“I think he would; I think he does.  And you would always know.”

Quite suddenly her face crumpled and she dropped her head onto his shoulder.  He felt her nod of acceptance.  She spoke through her tears.  “You’re right, of course you are, I shouldn’t say nothing like that.  Oh lord, what’s the matter with me, Joe?  I’m making such a fool of myself!”

“You aren’t,”  He placated her.  “Come into the kitchen.  I’ll make us some coffee.”

“Oh, yes.  Very civilised!”  Emma managed a watery smile.  “No, thank you.  I’d better leave, I think.  You’ll be leaving too, then; moving on?   Now, or in a couple of days?”

“Yes, perhaps.”

“You should, Joe.  People are starting to talk…it doesn’t take much to spark off a rumour around here, you know that.  Most of ‘em can remember us when we were together.  Now you’ve come back…That  isn’t fair on Tom, neither.”

“Who’s been doing the talking?”

“Most of ‘em is, or will be soon.  Hettie Locke.”  Emma saw his quizzical look.  “She’s the biggest scandal-monger ever, our Hettie.  She’s putting it all over the village that Tom better watch his wife, and how I’m the reason you returned.  But that isn’t true, Joe, is it?   I’m not the reason.”

So, Tom had told her something.  Again, Joe could expect no less.  His friend would use any weapon to defend his marriage – friendship must always come second to that.  How much had he told her?  As for Emma’s question, he had returned.  Could she have been the reason?

“Hettie and Janice must have got their heads together.  Janice Regan is frightened.”  He said.   “I went to see her to find out more about Violet’s death.  I also wanted to find out about Violet’s dalliances with witchcraft.  I know about her father, you see?”

“Oh my lord!”  Exclaimed Emma.  “’Spose you know Janice is one of they, too – and Hettie?”

“I told Janice I knew.”

“You told ‘er – to ‘er face?  Joe, you don’t do that!  You just don’t do that!  No wonder they got it in for you – in for me, comes to it. It’s one of the village’s deepest secrets, the witch thing.”

“It’s a cartload of superstitious rubbish!”  Joe opined, mentally turning his back on his experience of the previous night.

“Mebbe’s, but they takes it serious.  Aaron caught them at it once, and look at the stories they spread around about him!”

“You mean all the ‘peeping tom’ stuff?  That wasn’t true, then?  From what I know of Aaron…”

“No, it wasn’t true.  Well, it might have been, I suppose.  I think I’d have been too young to be told.

“The day after he saw they women up there on the hill, doing…..what they were doing, Aaron was in the pub tellin’ the whole village about it.  He didn’t leave nothing out.  Two days after that, he had the accident: did you know how he got that limp?  He was loading hay on a lift and somehow his trouser leg got caught in the conveyor.  He was lucky to keep his leg at all, they say.  The rumours about him started around that time.”

“And so everybody believed the accident was caused by witchcraft…”  Joe deduced.

“And the rumours about him were true.”  Emma finished his thought neatly; as neatly as she had so often done in their time together.  The profundity of this did not escape either of them.

Emma brushed at her sleeve, said hurriedly,  “Anyhow, that’s the way things are.  The witch thing is a sort of secret ever’one knows about, but no-one speaks of.  Of course your Michael was something to do with it once, wasn’t he?” Joe’s expression must have given him away:  “I thought you knew?”

Joe shook his head.  “No, not for sure.  Although I might have – should have – guessed, I suppose.  Did he go to their meetings?”

“I’ve no idea.  He got very friendly with Margo Farrier though.  Mind, she always did have a way with young men.”

“Margaret Farrier – really?”  Joseph tried to paste his mental image of the woman into the role Emma seemed to be painting for her; an imposing, rather severe woman – it didn’t seem to fit.  The thought of Margaret Farrier as a sultry temptress made him want to laugh.  Emma read his mind effortlessly.

“Oh, Margo’d amaze you once she’s got a few gins inside her.  Besides, there’s not many Sirens on a bunch of rocks like these, are there?  Young Michael spent a bit of time round at Hatton Cottage – a whole afternoon once, I know for sure.  See, all this was before you and I…”  She checked herself, as though afraid.  “Look, I’d better leave now, yeah?”

Pulling her coat tightly about herself, Emma said:  “But you think carefully about what I’ve told you, you hear?  Charker, he’s still after you; Hettie and her lot, they’ll turn the whole village against you.  And Joe…”  She turned to face him, striving for sincerity within the moist emeralds of her eyes:  “Please, just go, lover, okay?  Go and don’t come back.”

He reached for her arm.  She flinched away.  “Better not.”

And she was gone, through the door, down the path half-running, her grey charcoal coat wrapped about her, and along the lane towards her home.

It was Abbey Walker she passed on that hasty retreat:  Abbey who looked into her tearful eyes and saw all she needed to see, all she needed to tell.  And Joseph’s story became that much more closely intertwined with Emma’s in spite of anything they could do to stop it.  For the village machine, as Owen so aptly described it, was inexorable.  No-one escaped its scrutiny.

Slamming her front door upon the world, Emma ran blindly for the stairs and the refuge of her bedroom.  Here and only here, in this safe cocoon, she could let the tears come as they would; in choking, hysterical sobs of her pain.  In this fury of hurt she ripped her coat from her shoulders to be thrown onto the floor, then, in the little red set of lingerie that was all she had on beneath it, she threw herself upon the bed.

“Stupid!”  She cried out to the unhearing walls.  “Stupid!  Stupid!  Stupid!”

Sadly though, for Emma, there was one who did hear – one who did see.  In the blindness of her passion she had not heard Tom in the kitchen.  He had come home early, and he stood now, leaning for support against the jamb of the bedroom door, watching as his wife of just a scattering of years wept herself into sleep.  When she had quietened he retreated to the solace of his living room chair, there to do some weeping of his own.

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

Photo credit: Eddie Howell on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode Fourteen.      Encounter at Slater’s Copse

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The story so far:

On the tail of an eventful weekend Joe returns from a difficult interview with Janice Regan, one of the ‘coven’ of women so interested in observing him after church.  Needing shelter from a thunderstorm he shares the cover of Jack and Violet Parkins’ barn with Sophie Forbes-Pattinson, whose rebellious horse he helps to control.  This exigency helps to break down some of the hostility Joe feels for Sophie, and she agrees to go on a date with him.  In the meantime, he has found something both sinister and familiar concealed amidst the hay in the barn…

Sophie rode away on Tumbler. Joseph followed her as far as the farmyard gate, watching as she broke the horse into a trot across The Common.   She did not look back.

Perhaps he expected she would.

He retrieved the talisman he had found between the hay-bales from his pocket, seeing how, when he had clenched his fist around it, its crudely-carved edges had broken the skin of his palm.

His thoughts tumbled over themselves, making images from memories: Rodney Smith’s dying face, his brother’s quiet threat; Violet Parkin crucified, Janice Regan’s hate, Ben Wortsall’s muttered spells, two ancient pensioners on a ‘bus, Emma’s cry of distress, Marian’s poor, lifeless form in his arms.   He had cradled Rodney’s head for those final moments – would he ever, ever tell anyone that?  Would he admit to his outburst, his flood of pity for someone he had loathed and feared for so many years?

Of this much Joseph was certain:  the little human effigy clasped in his hand must have been placed amongst those bales recently, for the hay was fresh.  Was it Michael’s work?  Had his brother come back to Hallbury within the last few months?

Something in Joe prompted him to walk the mile which would lead him to Slater’s Copse.  Later, he would remember, or seem to remember, retracing his steps along Heather Lane, seeing Janice Regan’s stern eyes upon him from her cottage door, passing the King’s Head with the feeling Dot Barker was behind an upstairs curtain;  meeting Hettie Locke on the hill and reeling as she brushed past him.

He would never know with any certainty the point at which reality ceased, and the dream began – for how long had he been walking before the road was no road anymore, but the roughest track.  Trees hooding the way, dark avenues dripping a gauntlet from the passing storm, the slip of mud beneath his feet, rime of green moss wherever his hands might reach or touch; a way strewn with rocks and stones, a running stream fed by the rain.  This was like another country, another time when no birds sang – there were no sounds at all, and one scent alone, so intense it was almost overpowering, a stench of wild garlic.

And then he was no longer alone.

She stood in a clearing that was suddenly free of all but her figure – she was tall, majestic almost, garbed in some diaphanous thing that might be there or might not:  for if he chose to see her without clothes or robed he might, and he knew that he was dreaming now.  Around her, upon her, there was light.  He stared at her from darkness, heard her yet did not, for the words she gently spoke were in no language he knew.  Around her there were gathered other voices, quietly murmuring accusation, pointing at him with long fingers.  Their voices in unison, slow like the creak of an ancient door, declared their sentence.

“Fashion his likeness, bind his darkness, clean his blackened soul with fire.”  Then, with aspirate vehemence:  “Mould him, bind him, burn him, make his guilt his funeral pyre!”

Finding its rhythm, their mantra gathered in volume, priestess at its centre, arms outspread. The light upon her strong, growing stronger until it glared, dazzled, forced him to shield his eyes.

“Mould him, bind him, make him BURN!”

An eruption, burgeoning, growing in seconds.  His hand ripped away and the woman’s face in his, full of fury, and the words:  words he would understand and remember – incised like an inscription into his brain:

“Burn, he will – be it so!  Die he will!”

“Be it so.”

And the voices all repeating, “Be it so.”

“Be it so.”  Fading, like consciousness before the grey mist.

Before the peace.

#

A shaking, convulsive chill demanded he wake. In sodden clothes, he was lying in wet grass and many hours must have passed, for his befogged vision perceived a sky full of stars.  Cold clamped itself around him so acutely he felt that, far from burning, if he did not find warmth somewhere exposure would claim him – he would not survive.  Gradually he came to himself, seeing as his vision cleared he was not alone; a shadow, just distinguishable from a lighter sky –loomed over him.

“He’m movin’ now.”  He knew the voice.

“How long he been ‘ere?”  There was a second figure in the background, and this time a voice he knew very well.  Janice Regan was there, somewhere outside his vision.

“’Oo knows, my dear?  Could ha’ been hours, I’d say.  Look at ‘un!”  Hettie Locke, this was.  He recognised her now.

“He’m wet, right enough.”

Struggling, Joe managed to get to his knees.  Where was he?   He had thought himself on Wednesday Common, yet there was no bracken here.  The grass was long, lank – an icy wind flayed his skin.  He was somewhere high up.

“Lucky you found ‘un, Hettie.  All that rain – fit to drown a man, ‘tis.  ‘Ear that, mister?  Lucky, that’s what you are.”

“Exposure, they calls it.”  Hettie said.  “Can be deadly, that.”

Joe, still fazed, floundered for a minute, then managed to stand.

“Left ‘ere ‘til morning, ‘oo knows?”  Said Janice sagely.  “There’s them as ‘as died of it, all right.”

Below, somewhere, dim specks of light.  Behind him trees, rustling and groaning in the wind.  Staggering, striving to keep his balance…

Hettie:  “You alright, then, mister Joe Palliser?”

Out of nowhere, from beyond his sight or his thought she came at him, the third figure.  He had time, but only just time, to see Dot Barker’s coarse features creased in a snarl, smell her foul breath gusting in his face –

“Best be gone, Joe Palliser.  It ain’t lucky here, for thee!”

And darkness, dangerous darkness, embraced him once more.

The next Joe knew, there were sheets beneath him, a pillow for his head.  A weight of blankets covered his body, and he was in his own bed, dry and warm.  He took hold upon that consciousness and laid awake then, for he did not know how long, afraid to sleep until he was assured the nightmare and his fear; yes, fear, would not return.  Then and only then would he permit himself to sleep once more, certain that he was back in the world, and eventually dawn must come.

But fear was merely resting, waiting for the dawn.

Aunt Julia’s scream raised Joseph from his bed.  It was a deep, primal sound, so stark that at first he thought she must be in pain, and he rushed down the stairs.  He found his aunt standing by her open front door, staring at the dead thing impaled upon it, at the black stream of venal blood which issued from it; at the mess of red that dripped slowly to the floor of the porch.

Joe grabbed her shoulders, pulled her away.   Owen appeared at that moment to support his wife, who sobbed almost hysterically as he guided her back into their kitchen.  The dead creature was Benjy, Julia’s beloved cat.  Somehow, in the silence of night he had been executed, nailed to the door so his head pointed downward and his front legs spread in imitation of an inverted cross.  Then his throat had been slit so his blood would empty down the door into a pool upon the step.

For minutes together Joe could do nothing.  He stared at the poor creature’s mutilated remains, struggling with revulsion and unreasonable anger.  Then he turned his back on the sight and joined his former guardians in their kitchen.

Owen was incandescent. “How the hell did they do it without waking us?  Who in god’s name would do this?”

“Who indeed?  This is a completely new experience for me.”  Julia gulped back her sobs,   “Joe; is this something you are involved with?  Is this something you have brought back with you?  I don’t understand, Joe – tell us, for god’s sake!  Because I do not understand!”

“I’m afraid it might be.”  Joe admitted:  “I think Violet Parkin’s death was something to do with her beliefs.  This might be a message.”

“Witchcraft!”  Julia spat out the word.  “That’s what this is about, isn’t it?  These absurd people with their stupid superstitions…”

Seeing Joe’s perplexed expression, Owen explained.  “There’ve been incidents like this before.  Broken gravestones in the churchyard, a dead squirrel nailed in that same upside-down cross position on the door of the church:  that sort of thing.”

“Against you personally?”  Joe asked.

“Never!”  Julia said flatly.

“Then this is a warning directed at me,” Joe said.  “I’m treading where I shouldn’t tread.  Yesterday afternoon I thought I was getting near to something:  maybe this confirms it.”

“You stirred a pot,”  agreed Owen,  “But these people aren’t killers:  for the most part, they wouldn’t hurt a fly!  They might play at stuff like paganism, but I can’t think they would ever murder somebody over it, especially one of their own.  The furthest they ever get is a bit of communal muttering over a few harmless herbs, isn’t it?”

“And crows,”  Julia said quietly.

“Aunt Julia?”  Joe felt his aunt might be suffering from shock.

“No, I’m alright.  I have always wondered if there was some more sinister activity going on.  Perhaps you won’t remember, Joe – you were still quite young at the time – the Mattheson child?”

Joe looked blank and Owen shook his head vehemently.  “No.  No dear.”

“I know you don’t agree, Oz.  Joe, a little boy from Fettsham (Christian, I think his name was) came to Petra Sharp’s birthday party in the days when they lived at Church Cottages.  The day was fine, so the children all played in the back garden in the afternoon.  At some time, no-one could be sure when, Christian disappeared.  In broad daylight!  Someone snatched him, took him by way of the field at the back of the houses.   Anyway, he was never seen again.  His clothing was found up on Hallbury Rise a few days after – near Slater’s Copse, you know?”

“The only abduction we ever had around here.”  Owen acknowledged, adding:  “They arrested a chap from Friscombe, some sort of serial pervert – it had nothing to do with witches, Julia dear.”

Julia did not appear to have heard him.  She stared ahead, into the darker corner of the room.

“Aunt:  you said ‘crows’?”  Joe prompted.

“Yes, yes I did, didn’t I?”  Julia came to herself.  “The day after the child’s clothing was found, Rob Pardin cut the grass in the churchyard as usual.  Ben Wortsall’s grave was covered; completely covered, with headless dead crows.  Fifty or more, Rob Pardin said.”

Joseph shot a look at his Uncle.

“All right,” Owen conceded; “Even given Rob’s capacity for exaggeration, I didn’t say the two things were completely unrelated; but I don’t believe the grisly soul who put the crows there had anything to do with the child’s disappearance.  It was just some misguided person’s reaction to the whole sorry affair.  That was all of seventeen years ago.  Whoever did it must be either too old or too far away by now to have any implication in this business.”

Julia shrugged fatalistically.  It was time to round off the discussion.  “Joseph, kindly be careful, will you?  I’m told that someone out there is looking for a chance to even old scores with you.  Don’t, please, bring any more of this to our door?  Things might get very unpleasant, you see.”

“Would you  be happier if I left, Aunt Julia?”

Joe’s aunt considered this.  “No.  It’s up to you, of course, Joe dear, but I’m sure our delightful neighbours, having committed their little outrage, will rest content, now.  Just as I am sure you’ll keep your quarrel with the Smith brother contained.  However, perhaps it would be wiser to let well alone, where poor Violet is concerned.”

Owen pulled his pipe from his jacket.  “You may recall what I said concerning enemies, Joe.  Up to a point, having a few can be an advantage, but don’t make too many:  these are simple people.  They tend to tar whole families with the same brush.  We respect your concern for Jack Parkin, but not at a cost to ourselves:  you do see that?”

Joseph thanked him and said that he did.  “I’ll clean up,”  he volunteered, gathering bucket and mop from the kitchen cupboard.

He removed Benjy’s remains and worked methodically, shutting his mind to all the questions that queued up, waiting to be asked.     Owen joined him.  “Young man, I might not have succeeded as a father to you, but I hope I taught you courage to stand up for those who need your support.  Don’t shrink from this.”

“But Aunt Julia…”

“Your aunt is stronger than she looks.  When she gets over the loss of her blessed cat she will say the same.  Those old harridans out there, they’re a trifle on the ghoulish side, but they’d stop short of burning us down.  You’ve got a roof here for as long as you need.”   He wrapped the carcass in his Financial Times.  “I’d better bury this.” Then, changing the subject abruptly; “Where were you last night, Joe?”

Joseph stared at him.

“You didn’t come home – at least until after midnight, because that was when we went to bed. There were towels on the floor in the bathroom this morning; wet towels with mud on them.  Where were you?”

“I met some friends; we went into Braunston, had a few drinks.”  It was a white lie, Joe tod himself; he had given his relatives trouble enough for one day; he would not disturb them with tales of his dreams, if dreams they were:  “Got back late, cut across the Common, and you know what the weather was like.  I got soaked.  Sorry if I was untidy, I’m afraid I may have been a little drunk.  Oh, and there was no sign of Benjy when I came in – I wasn’t as drunk as that!”

Joe dressed to go out, needing air, space to satisfy some of those questions, and something tangible to justify his relatives’ faith in him.  Before all else, he had to understand what had happened to him in the night, and with that in mind, he decided to take a fresh look at Slater’s Copse.

His way would take him past the church.  He did not have the lane to himself.  Abbey Walker and Bess Andrews, the Masefield’s’ immediate neighbours, bustled ahead of him, engrossed in earnest discourse.  At St. Andrews’ Church, these two ladies joined a small, intense group of respectable village matrons who whispered and huddled at the junction of the roads beside the churchyard wall.     It was not hard to distinguish the focus of their attention.

In all, the village churchyard covered a little more than a third of an acre, falling gently away from the Church itself towards trees bordering Manor Farm on its western side.  For all the conspiratorial overtones Joe had detected on the previous day it was a placid, peaceful place, dedicated as it was to the contemplation of final rest.

That rest had been brutally disturbed.  Much of the quiet meadow of graves had been desecrated:  several headstones laid flat, several others broken:  one grave actually looked as if it had been opened, with the slab cast aside and jammed, corner first, into the adjacent earth.  The church door hung open.  On the flagstones before it, and upon the timbers of the door, pentangles, the five-pointed star symbol of the Wicca had been painted – in a fluid that appeared to be blood.

Immediately, Joe recalled his aunt’s description; saw her horror reflected on the faces of the assembled women, their suspicion, anger too, perhaps.  Few met his eye; those who did looked away quickly, defensively, as though afraid.

Did he need further evidence for the veracity of his experience the previous night?  Abandoning his intent to visit Slater’s Copse, Joseph turned away:  after all, there was nothing he could do.  As he walked back down the lane PC Hallet was arriving in his panda car, the little blue light on the top flashing gamely, though its siren was turned off.  Later, much later that day he would learn why Dot Barker was not among those who had gathered to witness the satanic chaos, but for now Joe had other plans.  He decided it was time to pay his brother Michael another visit.

“Who is calling, please?”  The voice at the other end of the ‘phone was dispassionate, distant.

“Michael Palliser’s brother Joseph.”  Joe could not understand why his initial enquiry had evoked a hasty ‘hold on, please’ followed by a lengthy wait.  “Look, I only want to confirm that Michael will be there this afternoon.  I want to come and see him.”

“What is the purpose of your visit, Mr Palliser?”

“Purpose?  Does there have to be a purpose?  I’m family.”

There was a pause; then a different voice, a calm, authoritative voice.  “I’m sorry Mr Palliser that will not be possible.”

Beginning to experience the frustration of one who knows he is being stonewalled, Joseph asked coldly:  “Why?”

“Michael is no longer with us.  He has been removed.”

“Removed?  When?  Where to, for god’s sake?”

“Michael left us this morning.  I’m sorry Mr Palliser, I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to disclose any further information.”

“On whose authority, then?”

“Same answer, I can’t disclose that information.”

The line went dead.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode Thirteen. Treasure in the Rain

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The story so far:

Joe Palliser’s mind should focus on the Parkin murder, but instead his dreams remind him of his last drug-intoxicated night with Marian, and the mystery obscuring her death.

He encounters Sophie Forbes-Pattinson for a third time, finding her snobbish and detached.  Later, recalling Tom Peterkin’s suggestion that Violet Parkin’s father was a witch, Joe ‘phones Ian to ask if their brother Michael could have had any association with the occult, but Ian discounts Michael’s ravings on the subject to be a symptom of his illness.

On Sunday Joe goes to church, hoping to see more evidence of a darker side to the villagers and is rewarded by the attention of a group of local women, one of whom is Janice Regan…

After church Joseph ate a light, appetite-less lunch, then defied the heat to go for a walk.

Albert Regan was in his garden.  He waved over his shoulder at an open side door.  “She’s in the kitchen,”  He said. “You’d better go on in.”

The Regans lived on the west side of Hallbury, in a ‘tied cottage’ which could only be their home for such time as Albert kept his job. The house was not in a good state of repair. Once-white paint around its sash windows had peeled, the grey render cladding its random-rubble walls cracked in several places, while the gable-end wall was split down its centre by a fissure like a scar that Albert had stuffed with mortar to keep weatherproof.  But it was a home, tidy and clean, with oil-cloth on the kitchen table and a fire burning forcefully in the range.

Janice Regan was busy.  “Oh ‘tis you, Joe Palliser.”   It was scarcely a greeting.  “What brings you to my door?”

Albert’s wife, a pinched-looking woman whose iron-grey hair clung to her head like sculpted plaster, had prominent veins at her temples, throbbing through barely enough opaque flesh to stretch over the razor-sharp bones beneath:  she had a fever-bright look of starvation about her, even though their garden suggested that she and her husband ate very well.

There was a time, Joe could recollect, when he would have been more welcome.  Janice had been a smiling, fulsome woman once, with flashing humour and a ready greeting for the rather shy child who called each Saturday to ask if “Teddy could come out?”

The Regans had tried for many years before Edward Regan came into their world, and there is no child so treasured as a child born to parents in their middle age.  Teddy was the delight of their lives and they lavished their love upon him with ice-cream, chocolate, fish and chips, and his favourite spaghetti hoops.  So Teddy, though spoilt, of course, ample in girth, naturally, was nonetheless a popular playmate for the village boys; because when Teddy “came out” good things to eat came out with him; treats he would share among his friends.  A tractor rolled on Teddy, crushing the life from him, when he was just twelve years old.

Thereafter Janice Regan, changed.  She never mentioned Teddy: if anyone broached the subject of Teddy, she would walk away.  She began to withdraw from people, became dour, humourless – a narrow, unlovely woman whom life had dealt a shallow hand, and who had more than a single reason to resent Joe’s appearance at her door.

“Tea?”  She asked.  It was a formality, scarcely an invitation.

“No thank you Mrs Regan.  I won’t stay.”  Joseph felt awkward, out of place.  “I wanted to ask you about Violet.”

This earned a glance of arrows from Janice.  She had been washing something in the kitchen sink:  now she stopped, drying long, spidery hands on her apron.  “Oh aye.  What about ‘un?”

“You were the one who found her, Mrs Regan.  There’s been a lot of rumours and I just wanted the truth, if it isn’t too painful for you.  I was going to ask you how she died?”

Janice Regan’s laugh was harsh.  “Rumours!  Yes, there’s rumours!  There’s one rumour says you’m already party to a lot of the truth, Joseph.”  She stood opposite him, glaring across the table:  “So what you want to know for, eh?”

“I didn’t have anything do with it, Mrs Regan.  Why should I want Violet Parkin dead?  I don’t think Jack did, either.  I’m trying to find out what actually happened, that’s all.”

Janice thrust out a wrist.  “See that?”  She pointed with one tendril-like digit.  “Through there!  Through each wrist, driven straight through and into the bliddy timber behind her, they was – pitchforks!  Like that!”  She spread her arms outwards:  “Like she been cruesy-fied, or sommat!  And then….and then they went to work on ‘er.  Oh aye, they knowed how to make ‘er suffer, Joe Palliser!”

“They?”

“Can’t have been just one:  can’t have been.  Violet, she were a large woman and she’d have fought ‘em.  Too big for thee, Joseph.  That’s why I don’t believe that rumour, meself.  ‘Less you had help, that is.”

“Janice,”  Joseph collected himself.  “Was it a ritual killing?”

Janice Regan stared at him.  What was behind those eyes – anger?  Fear?

“What you sayin’?  What you trying to say?”

“Violet was a witch, Janice, wasn’t she?”

The expression he got back was blank, windowless.   “What?”

“A witch, like her father.  You know, spells and potions, the old religion, that stuff?  You were one of her closest friends, weren’t you?  I have to know, Janice.”

Janice rounded on him.  “There ain’t no bliddy rumour out there like that, and don’t you bliddy start one!  Violet weren’t no ‘arm to no-one.  There’s those didn’t get along with ‘er, but she never had a bad word to say about no-one, and don’t you!”  Her voice was rising.  “Violet weren’t no ‘arm to anyone, and to see her like that, all open and with her insides all over, and her poor blood soakin’ ever’thing…Violet weren’t no ‘arm!  She didn’t have to die like that!”

Albert’s large form filled the open doorway:  “Now, then, Janice!”

But Janice was fierce – her eyes were anything but expressionless now.  “Had to be a madman done that!  Had to be!  Alright I don’t think you done it, Joe Palliser, but I don’t think you’m so innocent, neither!  ‘Twas a bad day you come here, you Pallisers!  A bad day.”

Joe felt Albert’s hand on his shoulder.  “She’s upset.”  He said quietly.  “You better go now.”

Nodding, Joe turned to walk out of the door.  “I’m sorry to cause you pain, Janice.  I just had to know what you saw.”

“Yes, well, now you do.  Take my advice, Joseph and go back to Lon’on where you belongs!  We don’t want you ‘ere!”

Joe would have replied, but Albert stilled him.  “Just go.”  He said.

In the lane outside, Joseph let his true wretchedness overcome him for a minute – for long enough to let a tear roll down his cheek in sympathy for a woman he had never really known; for Violet Parkin’s undignified and ignominious end, about which he could do nothing, other than to prove somehow that it was not her husband, the man who in some fashion had been her lifetime companion, who had brought it upon her.

His aimless feet took him down Feather Lane with Janice Regan’s ‘We don’t want you ‘ere!’ ringing in his ears, towards the solitude of the Common and the places of his childhood – those he could recall without pain.  But it was pain, really.  Always the outsider, always playing to other people’s rules and getting nothing in return, and nothing had changed or would change.  Janice was right:  he should not have come back to Hallbury.

As if the heavens were attuned to his moods, as he turned the corner by the Parkin farm it began to rain:  not just in a light, balmy shower, but with vigour.  Thunder banged from nowhere; a hustling wind raked the fern, and drops like saucers spattered onto the tarmac road.  Facing the prospect of adding a drenching to his blackened circumstances, Joseph sought shelter, and the only place which offered was the hay-barn at the end of the Parkin’s yard.  He took a quick decision.

Although police tape surrounded the yard and its main buildings were locked, the open end of the hay barn could not be so secured.  Joseph simply lifted the tape and ducked beneath, wincing at multiple blows of rain on his t-shirted back.

In the protection of the barn roof he stripped off the wet shirt, spreading it across a hay-bale to dry.  Blinking in the half-light he could see the old place looked much as he remembered it; sweetly scented bales of hay six or seven deep, stacked high into rafters.   His head instantly filled with far-off childhood sounds – Ian’s irrepressible giggling, Michael’s shouts of command as he and his brothers clambered among the bales, which their imaginations arranged into dens and forts to attack or defend.

Lost in the tympanic din of rain, Joseph might scarcely have noticed a clatter of hooves from outside, but he could not possibly escape what followed;  a confusion of hoof beats punctuated by torrents of feminine abuse, then a rear view of an unseated rider as she stumbled backwards into the barn in her riding boots;  Sophie Forbes-Pattinson, clutching frantically at the reins of her big roan horse, the same horse that had shied upon meeting Joseph by the common some days before. The beast was white-eyed with fright, rearing and turning so quickly Sophie, helpless in its path, was thrown to the floor.   It was right above her, ready to pound her into the flagstones with its hooves, yet she would not release the reins: instead, uttering a further string of invective, she clung to the leather as though it was her last straw before drowning.  Without thinking Joe rushed to lend his own weight to the rein, trying to swing the animal’s head away from its erstwhile rider, making every steadying noise he could think of.

“What’s his name?  What’s his name?”  And when Sophie managed to gasp the name out he repeated it:  “Tumbler!  Steady, Tumbler!  There boy!”

For a few extremely anxious seconds Joe felt as though he were trying to placate a Brahma bull.  But then, as suddenly as his peace had been disturbed, reason prevailed.  Wooed, possibly, by the fragrance of hay the horse calmed, began to accept his reassurance. Blowing hard and shaking still, he allowed Joe to restrain his head as he stroked and patted, talking as much nonsense in a low voice as occurred to him until finally Tumbler consented to have a tangle of police tape removed from his legs.  Joe tethered him to one of the stanchions that reinforced the barn walls, and broke open a bale for him to eat.

A mortally embarrassed Sophie struggled to her feet, brushing dust and rain from herself as though she were under attack by angry wasps.  “Thank you.”  She avoided his eyes.  Her china-white skin was wet from the rain and pleasingly flushed.  Limping slightly, she walked across to the horse, petting him affectionately.  “He’s always been scared of storms, you see, and the lightning struck quite near to us.  I had to try and get him indoors.  I hope you aren’t hurt?”

“I’m fine.”  Said Joseph.  Lightning flared, illuminating the whole barn.  The horse snickered.  “I’m not so sure about him, though.”

“Oh, he’ll be alright now.”  Sophie assured him.  “No more rain on his back, some nice fodder.  I suppose it belongs to someone.  Who should I reimburse, do you think?”

“I’ve no idea.  You, are you hurt?”  Joe wondered at the concern his voice betrayed.

She caught his tone instantly and sought refuge in her strange little smile.  “Only my dignity.  You seem to have a penchant for catching me at a disadvantage.”

Joe raised an eyebrow.

“Mummy told me – when you brought some papers up for her the other day.  I have to be more careful, was how she put it.  You caught me sunbathing, didn’t you?”

Joe didn’t answer.  “You’re very wet.”  He pointed out.  “You’d better get that jacket off, I think.”

Thunder banged.  Sophie said:  “Anyway, I think you’re quite the knight in shining armour, Mr Palliser.  Thank you.”

“Joe, please.  Call me Joe?”

Sophie shrugged her hacking jacket from her shoulders.  The rain had penetrated it easily, soaking both shoulders of the white blouse she wore beneath.  It clung to her skin, informing Joe’s experienced eye.  She caught his glance with amusement.  “Too hot for excess clothing.”

“I’m sure.”  Joe was uneasy at being so quickly found out.

“Oh come on!  You must let me score some points!”  She spread the jacket over a bale.  “You’re a bit of an intrigue, Joe.  You didn’t tell me you had a home here already.”

“I’m staying with my aunt and uncle, I don’t really belong in the village.  Although I was thinking of buying a house here, I admit.  I would have acquainted you with more detail last time we met, but you didn’t allow me much opportunity.”

He seated himself on a hay-bale.  Sophie hesitated for a moment, then sat beside him.  Both stared out at the storm.  “Well!”  She said at last.  “Where do we go from here?”

“More small talk?”  Joe offered.

Sophie shook her head.  “Not my thing, really.  Mummy’s good at that.  She’s very smitten with you, you know.”

He laughed: she insisted.  “She is!  She was absolutely full of you after you left the other day.  Foolish me, I didn’t make the connection when I met you outside the Lamb House.  And why shouldn’t she?  You’re a very attractive man, Mr Palliser.”

Again, Joseph laughed. The malaise that overcame him at the Regan’s was lifting.   Sophie’s ice-cool frankness, so clinical at their last meeting, had an artless way with flattery.  Her eyes sparkled and in spite of himself, he was pleased.

“You have a gift with horses, and Tumbler’s an awfully good judge of character,” She went on.  “Nice face.  I think you could be kind.  Tall; a good, strong body….”

“What does your father do?”  He asked quickly.

“Daddy?  He’s a consultant surgeon.  He spends his week in London, so poor mummy gets most terribly lonely up there at the house.  What do you do, Joe?”

“Nothing at the moment.  If I do come to live back here, I shall have to find a job.  No skills, no prospects – future extremely uncertain.”

“Oh dear!”

“You needn’t sympathise.”

“I’m not.  ‘Oh dear, we’re making small talk’.”

“No,” said Joe, getting to his feet.  “We weren’t.”

On an impulse, he dug his fingers into the hay, hoisting himself up towards the top of the bale stack.  It was not vertical, so there were ledges, places to get a foothold.  “When my brothers and I were young;” he said as he climbed; “We used to play here.  We used to build ourselves hidey-holes and have battles and secret meetings and stuff.”

Sophie stood up.  “Would you give me a hand?”

Joe reached down for her, took her hand in his.  Together they scrambled to the top of the haystack, crawling between the bales and the rafters of the barn.

“Hope you don’t mind spiders.”  He offered, teasingly.

“Spiders completely fascinate me.”  She rejoined.

Joe was moving bales, stacking them to one side to create a hollow.  “You can go down two or three layers – with a child’s imagination, they can make anything you like.”

Sophie slipped into the space he had made.  Her riding boots made climbing difficult.

“Anything?”

“Yes.”  He moved a few more bales.  “A fort to defend – seats, you see? “  His words tailed off apologetically, “Alright, I know it seems feeble, but we were only kids.”

“A bed?”

She was behind him.  He looked around, to see her stretched out over the soft hay, looking up at him with mischief in her eyes.  “Mmm.”  Her appraisal was almost drowned by the sound of the rain.  “What should a poor damsel do if her noble rescuer insists upon his reward?  Such a quandary!”

“Perhaps,”  Joe replied, attuned to her thought and not a little surprised.  “But a rescuer of true nobility really could not insist.”

“Ah, Sir!  Imagine the damsel’s relief!”  Sophie chuckled.   “Oh my goodness!  Quite, quite excellent!”

Relaxing into the warm fragrance of the haystack, Joe allowed himself to stare – and Sophie luxuriated in his gaze; moving softly beneath her clothes, tantalising him gently.  But the moment the look in his eyes altered, she saw.

“What is it?”

His fingers, idly probing between the bales had discovered something pressed into the tight-packed hay.  He withdrew the object cautiously.

“Oh my!”  Sophie sat up.  “Whatever is that?”

“I’m not sure.”  Joe said.  “Somebody’s been doing a little whittling I expect.”

He turned the object over in his hand.  A crudely-carved effigy made from wood, with long arms and a stubby, short body; an effigy exactly like one concealed in his aunt and uncles’ garden wall.  As its significance dawned upon him he stiffened, clamping it in a grip so fierce it gave him pain. 

There are things I know.  Michael had said.  There are things I know.

Conscious he was shielding the effigy, for some reason, from Sophie’s gaze, Joe slipped it into his trousers pocket.  And seeing the gravity of its effect upon him, she did not inquire further.

Above their heads, the drum of rain ceased as suddenly as it had begun.  Unspeaking, they made their descent, Sophie falling the last four feet with a somewhat unconvincing girlish squeal, Joe catching her neatly around the waist to break her fall.  Their faces were only inches apart.

Sophie’s eyes brightened with challenge:  “You wouldn’t take advantage of me, would you, Joe?”

“The thought occurred,”  Joe said.  “Look, I suppose….would you like to go out sometime?”

“You mean, like a date?”  Sophie asked.

“I guess so, yes.”

“I’m sorry, Joe…..”

“Oh, no.  I’m the one who should apologise.”  He stumbled.  “Sorry I asked.”

She turned on her heel with a playful buck of her hips.  “I don’t steal my mother’s boyfriends.”

Her placated steed was waiting patiently.  He watched as she dried the saddle with her jacket and mounted.

“However, if you’re not doing anything on Thursday night?.”

“No, I’m not doing anything.”

“Seven o’clock, then.  No dressy dinners or anything like that, though.  I don’t do those.”

“I’ll think of something.”  He said

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

 

 

 

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode Twelve         A Very Private Gathering

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The Story so far:

Joe Palliser has taken a letter from Marian Brubaeker’s legal representatives to his old employer, local solicitor Alistair Carnaby.  By this means he learns that he is the principal benefactor in his deceased lover’s will.  However, Marian’s husband is challenging the will and demanding an enquiry into the manner of his wife’s death, to which end he has requested her body be exhumed for autopsy.

In the King’s Head pub that night Joe catches up with the landlord and questions him concerning Violet Parkin’s murder.  At the bar, Aaron Pace lets slip that Violet was a member of a local coven of villagers he believes to be witches.

After his evening at the King’s Head, with Ned Barker’s beer and his interrogation of Aaron Pace to regale him, Joseph Palliser should have had plenty to dream about when he retired for the night.  But other influences of the day, the conversation with Mr Carnaby and the dreaded word ‘autopsy’, proved too heavy a weight.  When he closed his eyes he found Marian waiting and he knew he would be forced to replay his memories of their final night together.

#

“I’d like you to find somewhere else to live.”  Marian had her back to him.  “I’ll give you money for a decent deposit.  You’d better start looking right away.”

That was what he had heard: that was what he thought she had said.  “I don’t understand!”  He protested. “Is it something I’ve done?”

She rounded on him, eyes set in a hard, professional stare:  “Look, Joe, don’t make this difficult.   I told you at the beginning this wasn’t going to be forever – remember?”

But that was then.  That was before he had learned to love her.

“Have you found somebody else?”  Joe tried to keep his tone calm, matter-of-fact, but he could not suppress the break in his voice.  “Is there someone else?”

“What if there were?  You have no claim on me.  I told you, Joe!”

“Yes, you told me.  A long time ago, you told me.”

Then he had lied to her, taken the money she gave him as a bond for a new apartment, told her he had found himself somewhere in North London.  “Finchley, as a matter of fact.”  The money languished in his account.  He could not bear to contemplate moving anywhere new.   Instead, he had struggled on, trying to please her, hoping to recover all he was about to lose.  He tried different things, new things:  as a lover she had always been experimental – willing to explore, ready to learn; but in bed now she was withdrawn, her look was somewhere far off.  Try though he might, he could not find a way back to her.  In her mind she was already elsewhere.

Then came that morning when, for whatever reason, he dared believe he might have a chance.

She had gone to work as normal.  She had not mentioned his departure for some days and he was going through the agony of wondering if she had changed her mind, so when she returned to their flat briefly, at lunchtime, he dared to hope.

Marian’s dark eyes were red, as though she had been crying.  How often had he seen her like this?  Work was frequently painful for her, the process of success was not something she enjoyed.  They were talking, just making small talk.  He wanted to make her laugh like he used to, he was trying – so very hard.  She suddenly grabbed him, turned him into her arms and kissed him with a depth of passion they had not shared for some time.

“Joey darling, stop torturing yourself.  Get on with your life, my love.  Move on!”

She was close, so close for a moment.  She pressed a small parcel into his hand.   “Get us some dope, and put these on before I get home, sweetie, will you?  Promise?”

Around four-thirty he returned from a meeting with a friend whose gear he trusted in  Fulham Market, and prepared dinner in their small kitchen:  Chicken Marengo, a Caesar salad; things he knew she liked.  Then he opened the parcel, and with a quiet chuckle to himself went into the bedroom to slip on the dark red posing pants he had found inside.  He donned a pair of blue slacks over the top and went back to his preparation of the meal.

This night she was early.  She came in at around six, looking pale and tired.

“Give me the stuff, Joe.”  She said.

“Do you want to eat first?”

“No.  I want the stuff,”  suddenly angry.  “Give me the fucking stuff!”

He gave it to her, watched her go into the bathroom to inject.  Minutes later she was back.

“You too.”  She said.

Half an hour, it took.  He was in the kitchen putting food onto plates, she was in the lounge.  The first he knew of her presence was the touch of her hand on his back.

Joseph faced her, seeing her wearing a long silk robe she favoured in her more passionate moods, a blue robe embroidered with red Chinese dragons.

“Don’t want me yet, Joe.  Not yet!”

The robe slithered from her shoulders: she came closer, teasing him, giggling girlishly; he was her pet, her dog.  If he reached out for her she stepped away, allowing him to see what she would not have him touch, wagging her finger in reproof.  “Mustn’t.  Bad boy! Naughty!”

With steely determination he tried to obey, to be the dispassionate spectator to her little game.  But this night was too special.  It promised their first act of love for so long, and he needed its reassurance too much.  His hands rebelled, clasping her shoulders, snatching her to him, and her expression altered instantly to one of fury.  Her eyes blazed.

“My neck, Joe Palliser!  My neck!”

So it was, on the night when everything changed.

#

Tom Peterkin turned up early in his Cortina car to drive Joe to Wilton Bishop, where a dealer who traded in the name of Maybury eked out a tenuous existence.  They flew through the lanes, the car’s wing brushing at the overgrown hedges, its wheels scrabbling for grip on the tight corners.

“Came up ‘ere the other day;”  Tom said.  “Met a Fergie pullin’ a wain.  Bugger did I ‘ave to stop!”

Joe found himself praying their path would be free of hay wains.  More than once they came face to face with other cars, Tom diving into the hedge like a bolting rabbit, somehow always emerging unscathed on the other side, leaving a shocked motorist staring back at them as they receded into the distance.  There were no tractors, however, and Tom’s beloved machine remained intact as they plummeted down the hill into Wilton Bishop.

Beneath Wilton Crown, a high ridge lined with conifers that loomed over the Turlbury road ‘Maybury’s Car Mart’ was a dejected line of ageing merchandise looking undeniably shady: Mr Maybury slid up to them, shadier still.  “Joe old lad!”  He had kept the Wolsey ‘out the back’, he said.  “Super little motor!”

They followed Maybury’s wobbling bottom through his oil-slick workshop to some rough ground where he ‘reserved’ cars for his special clients.  A grey Wolsey stood by the far fence.

“Beautiful, isn’t she?”  Enthused Maybury.  “Jowett designed they were, you  know?    Lovely leathers – come and see!”

They came and saw.  The old car glowered at them silently as they probed and prodded its more private parts.   They started it, they revved the engine, they put Maybury’s price through the mangle, and Joe bought it.

“I’ll have it ready for you in a few days,” Maybury assured them.

On the journey back, Tom said.  “You’re a tough bugger to deal with these days!  I remember when you wouldn’t say boo to a bloody goose, boy!”

Joe nodded.  Times had changed, he said.

#

The telephone rang for a long time before Caroline answered.

“Ian isn’t here.” She informed Joe icily.  As Ian’s wife, she was accustomed to defending him from Joe’s constant sallies.

“When’s he coming back?”

“For you to talk to?  Never.”

“Oh, come on, Caroline!  You can’t do that, he’s my brother for god’s sake!  Tell him to call me, will you?”

“He’s not your brother by any law that has to do with God!”  She clipped.  “Very well, I’ll tell him.”  And she replaced the receiver.

Joseph cooked himself a lunch, waited an hour.  When he was convinced that Ian wasn’t going to call back that afternoon, he slipped quietly out of the door so as not to excite Julia’s curiosity, and wandered up Church Lane in the direction of Charlie Lamb’s house with a vague idea in his head that he might make some enquiries concerning Charlie’s plans to sell.  In the event he did not need to do this, because a large ‘For Sale’ sign flapped before it in the breeze.  He fumbled in his pockets for a pen.

“Are you interested?”

The girl had come upon him quietly; so quietly he had not heard her. She was tall, almost as tall as he. A cascade of ash-blonde hair dropped to her shoulders, through which the sun danced, casting the clear flesh of her cheeks into deep shade so Joe could barely see how her eyes looked at him, or the pert perfection of her nose, or the delicate pout of her lips.  She wore a loose blouse over a long skirt of cream straw cloth, that draped over soft curves to small, elegant ankles and slippered feet.  She spoke confidently in a cultured yet not unmelodic tone and he should have recognised her at once.

“In the house?  I only ask, you see, because were you to purchase this property we would be neighbours.”  She waved airily towards the summit of the hill.  “Sophie Forbes-Pattinson.  How do you do?”

Joe realised immediately.  Of course!  He had met Sophie Forbes Pattinson just twice.  The first time that hair was tucked beneath a riding helmet; the second, he would have to admit, he had not been concentrating on her face.

“Joe Palliser,” He responded evenly.  “How do you do, Sophie?”

“There!  You see, Joe, we’re on first name terms already.  How neighbourly can one get?”  Sophie Forbes-Pattinson walked around him, keeping a small distance between them as she looked him up and down.  Joe imagined that if she were carrying her riding crop by now it would be tucking up under his chin.  “You look awfully frightened to me, Joe Palliser.  Why would that be?”

Joe smiled.  Now she was facing the sun he could see her face.  She had eyes of pale blue that squinted against the light.  Her mouth was on the small side, but a natural pout to her lips made them full enough to be inviting;  though if he had to describe her then, ‘inviting’ would not be a term he would use.  “I prefer ‘wary’,”  He said.  “Would you like to examine my teeth?”

Sophie scowled. “Are you trying to make fun of me, Joe?”

Joe didn’t answer.  She stood watching him for a moment, shifting lightly from foot to foot, a finger raised to her little chin and a thoughtful look in her eyes.

“Well, I must go now.  No doubt we shall meet again, if you do decide to buy this house.  I hope you will come and visit us.  We hold a garden party for the villagers every year.”

Joseph watched her as she walked away.  She drifted, as though she were not carried by human feet at all, but washed along by some invisible current.  When she was almost at the top of the road, she turned to look back at him and raised a dainty hand in a wave.

‘Very good!’  Joseph thought to himself.  ‘You knew I’d still be watching you.’  His next thought was less complimentary.

Sunday dawned hot and sultry.  At ten-thirty the telephone finally rang.

“What do you want, Joe?”  Ian’s voice carried that undertone of barely restrained impatience he specially reserved for his brother.

“How are you, Ian?  Caroline wasn’t exactly forthcoming.”

“Get on with it.”

“Did you know that Violet Parkin had died?”

There was a pause.  Eventually Ian said:  “How on earth would I know that?  It hasn’t made the ‘nationals’ as far as I’m aware.  Anyway, I hardly remember the woman.  Is that all you called me for?”

“I’m sorry, Ian – I’m sure you must be very busy.”

“I have a church service to attend in twenty minutes, so is that all?”

“She was murdered, Ian.”

“Really?  So?”

“I didn’t know it but apparently she was a witch – at least, what they would call a witch around these parts – do you remember when Michael was into witchcraft and mysticism?”

Ian’s voice had calmed.  “Mikey was into a lot of things, as I recall.  Once he believed root vegetables were a means of communicating with a subterranean race.  Some of them lived under the house, he told me.  I spent hours in the garden with him while he tried to get an intelligent answer from a parsnip.  Why are you so interested, Joe?”

“Connections – I’m pretty certain Violet was ritually killed.  I wondered if Mikey ever tried to get into her circle – her coven, so to speak?  I thought you’d be the one to know; he was closest to you, after all.”

“No, nothing here, I’m afraid.”  Ian’s tone was resuming its peremptory edge:  “Try asking around the village.”

“I am, but they are closing up like clams.”

“I imagine they would.  Look, Joe….”

“Yes, I know, you’re busy.  Keep well, Ian.”

That morning, for the first time in many years, Joseph emulated his brother and went to church.

Summoned by a single steeple-bell, a trickle of humanity converged upon St. Andrews, the little sandstone church which was symbolic of God to all who came to Hallbury.  They brought, fermenting beneath the sheaths of their ‘Sunday Best’, all the prejudices, quirks and crimes they kept within their breasts, clotted into alliances, woven and spun into family groups.  At the lych-gate they dispersed in solemn file, passing by ones and twos along the margin of the graveyard where their sins lay buried and into the cool embrace of the West Door.

They were all there; Tom and Emma, Emma avoiding Joe’s gaze, Tom smiling awkwardly, sweating into a shirt collar around which he wore his tie like a noose.   Emily and Sophie Forbes-Pattinson, mother and daughter in their Sunday dresses in the company of a harassed-looking man Joe took to be Emily’s husband.  The Forbes-Pattinsons were fulfilling their role as feudal chiefs; despite, Joseph thought with amusement, Emily’s obviously more egalitarian nature.  She was not, by instinct, a baroness.  Others were equally ungainly – Dot Barker, Hettie Locke and Ben, Janice Regan and her son, Mary and Paul Gayle with their two children, Margaret and Patrick Farrier, the Pardins; the list went on.  Aaron Pace, limping up the road in a suit that had seen better decades.

Each found their way to time-allotted pews.  They sat in family huddles, islands of consanguinity with empty oaken seas between.

Joe sat with Owen and Julia.  In his childhood, the Pallisers had come to this place infrequently; Owen, who declared himself an agnostic and Michael, Joe’s younger brother were averse to any notion of religion.  Towards his last days in the village, Michael began cursing and ‘speaking in tongues’ whenever he went near St. Andrews, so if Joseph attended church at all, he would wander there in Julia’s and Ian’s company.  Owen remained at home to restrain Michael, who was always ready to address the congregation with sermons of his own.

Ah, but how the years had mellowed the Masefields!  As their own appointments with God drew nearer, so their desire to appease Him increased.  With quiet amusement Joseph watched them while the vicar breezed through his service, joining in the prayers, bellowing out the hymns.  Yet the days when Joe would sneer at such shallow devotion were gone.  Religion was a personal commitment, a private affair.  He would leave it to those who possessed it, even if he did not himself believe.

A strange hour.  Scrooping chairs, wailing children, a cracked old organ beaten into submission by Mrs Higgs’ less than expressive hands.  At one point, mercifully the last hymn, Joe was certain she began to play ‘Knees up Mother Brown’ for a few bars before coming to herself; but the strains were lost beneath another agony of discordant singing. Almost before he knew it, the whole painful ordeal was over.

After the service Joe wandered away on pretence of studying some of the more readable gravestones.  From the churchyard he was free to survey the emerging congregation, and reaped his reward, for although most drifted away there were some who stayed – Dot Barker, Hettie Locke, Janice Regan and Margaret Farrier: it was a strange, very private gathering.  While the Forbes-Pattinsons monopolised attention, this four, like Joseph, stood to one side among the gravestones at the far side of the churchyard; and an earnest conversation was going on.

“There’ll be some wicked spells cast tonight then!”  Tom Peterkin took Joseph by surprise.  “What are you doin’ lurkin’ out here, then, you pervert – spyin.’ on young Sophie, are you?”

Joe smiled,  “I wouldn’t mind the body, Tom, if it supported a different head.  What do you mean, ‘spells’ – are they witches, those four?”

Tom grinned,  “I’d say ‘tis likely.  What do you reckon to our Sophie, then?  D’you think she looks lost without ‘er ‘orse?”

“I met her yesterday.  She has a clear understanding of her place in the world.  How old is she?”

Tom pondered this:  “Must be twenty-three or twenty-four now.”

“She’s grown.”

“Everyone has, Joe.  Trouble bein’ in her case, she’m grown into a snobbish little bitch.  Ah, I’d say so.  But then, she could be fun, playin’ the bit of rough for a while.  Do you fancy a go, then?”

Joe knew whatever response he made would be reported to Emma.  There was an edge of desperation in Tom’s voice:  he was looking for crumbs, anything that might divert the friends from the collision course they were on.

“Perhaps not.” He said carefully. “I think life is complicated enough.”

Tom nodded.  “I must catch Emma up – she’m gone ahead.”

Joe chose to forget the Peterkins lived just three houses away from the Church.  He knew why Emma had ‘gone ahead’.  He, too, was ready to leave, deliberately passing close to the quartet of secretive females as he went.  They stopped talking as he drew near, and their eyes followed him all the way to the lych-gate.

 

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

 

Photo Credit:  Ovidiu Creaga on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode Eleven                     Grounds for Suspicion

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The story so far:

Joseph Palliser has taken his friend Tom Peterkin into his confidence, so at last we know the strange circumstances and the drug-induced state affecting Marian Brubaeker at the time of her death.  In his turn, Tom hints at his suspicion that his wife Emma (née Blanchland) still has feelings for Joe.

Joe remembers his first date with Emma Blanchland a decade before, recalling how the demise of her dog Rollo provided the occasion that deepened their relationship into love.   

At the time Joe and Emma started dating, Tom Peterkin was so immersed in his love of cars and mechanics he had no space for a female relationship of his own.  Perhaps he did not even suspect the cause of Joe’s burgeoning happiness.  Devoid of jealousy, he was glad that his friend had a friend.

They had only a brief while in the sun, Emma and Joe, because no more than a couple of months later Joseph found himself involved in that final duel with Rodney Smith.  By then Rollo lay in the Blanchland’s garden beneath a freshly-planted rose and a new puppy pranced and yapped above his sleeping head.  Tender and soulful by nature, Emma had become more and more devoted to her quiet, introspective boyfriend, whose complications of mind she never suspected – or maybe chose to ignore, believing that her selfless love could overcome the reticence he sometimes failed to disguise; for deep in Joseph’s heart Sarah Halsey kept lit the tiniest glowing ember; and it was in his nature to dream that one day, somehow, her flame might re-ignite.   The more his memory of the real Sarah dwindled, the more a romantic illusion took its place.  He was no longer in love with Sarah the person, but an idealised Sarah – Sarah the angel.  She soared above him: unattainable, yet never far from his thoughts.

This is not to say Joseph was anything less than a dutiful, attentive partner.  Emma brought so much to his table:  she was spiritual, a life force.  She challenged him, probed at the roots of his ideas, his aims.  She illuminated him, and if he learned nothing else in those selfish, oafish days, he learned that love could be fun.

Then Rodney died.  When Emma saw Joseph’s distraught expression on the evening after the crash she knew the one thing she feared was destined to happen.  By then there was no news to break.  Her friend Pip had called just an hour after the Smith boy was pronounced dead.  Thereafter snippets of information bombarded her throughout the day:  the rumours began – they had always been enemies, hadn’t they?  And because Rodney was always the socially acceptable one, the one destined for success, it was not hard to predict which way those rumours would turn.  Joseph had hounded Rodney, he had run him off the road, he had deliberately this, coldly that…..rumours without foundation, but enough to hang Joe as far as the village was concerned.

Emma understood.  Joe was hanging himself from the inside.  He had seen death, and it was not just mourning he felt, or guilt, or even triumph. He was someone else; someone changed.

“Charker Smith’s looking for you.”  She repeated the news she had heard.  She might have reached out for him, comforted him, but she could not. A gulf existed:  something she could not cross.  “You’d best go away for a while, Joe.”

He had been thinking of it anyway, he said.  There wasn’t any future for him here.

“I could come with…”  her voice tailed away.

“I’ll get set up first, find somewhere to live.  Then I’ll write….”

It was their last conversation together – unfinished sentences; unspoken thoughts; the gentle click of closing doors.  She did not say the things she felt.  They did not touch, or meet each other’s eyes.  By morning Joe had gone.

#

 “Joseph, dear chap!” A hand withered by years extended towards Joe, “Whatever have you been doing with yourself?”

Joe, who had been mildly surprised to find that Carnaby and Pollack were still in business, was even more surprised to find that though a much younger Desmond Pollack had long since shuffled off his earthly brief, old Mr Carnaby was still at the helm, looking and talking exactly as Joe remembered him when he served his notice to the kindly solicitor ten years before.

Age, though it had not been merciful to Alistair Carnaby, seemed to have rested content with a single devastating attack.  Time could not diminish his stature because he was already small, or add lines to his countenance because there was simply no space.  His hair could not become scarcer because he had none.  He might have been older by as much as a decade, yet his bent little form was still as spry and agile as Joe remembered it, and his bright eyes still pierced the soul each time Joe met them.

“Come in, sit down!”

The office was the same, too.  The same groaning oak shelves stuffed with books, the partner’s desk stacked high with papers, those two brown leather upholstered chairs, into one of which  Joe sank, thoughtfully running his finger along the underside of the rail as he did so, and yes, it was still there:  hard and immovable as a limpet, the little wad of chewing gum he had surreptitiously transferred from his mouth when he had been summoned by his employer unexpectedly, all those years before.

“Well now:  I’ve managed to get a quick look at this:” Carnaby slapped a hand onto a sheaf of notes on the leather inlay before him.  You know the substance, I suppose?”

Joseph replied in the negative.  “I know very little.  I got a letter from a Mr Gooch.”  He reached into his jacket pocket, retrieving the letter he had concealed from Julia’s curious eyes, and passed it across the desk.  “It simply says that he represents Marian Brubaeker, and advises me to appoint a solicitor.  I thought of you, of course.”

“Kind of you, Joseph.  Kind of you.”   Carnaby murmured absently, glancing at the letter before placing it on top of the other notes on his desk where, for the rest of their conversation, he played with a corner of the paper, folding and unfolding it between his thumb and forefinger.   “Since you telephoned me, I have contacted Mr Gooch, who I must say is very helpful and cooperative.  He has advised me that Mrs Brubaeker is recently deceased, and you are heir to almost her entire estate.”

Joseph choked:  “Sorry – what?”

“Yes, dear boy.  At a stroke you could say that you may become one of my most valuable clients!  My information is sketchy at present, but I can assure you the assets of the estate are considerable.  A portfolio of property, a business which before Mrs Brubaeker’s death was on the verge of going public, and quite a few other things. There’s a villa in Alsace, for instance.  I expect you know about that.  What was the quote he gave me?  Ah yes.  ‘The villa where we stayed in the summer of ’62’.”

“Her entire estate?”

“Almost.  There are some leased flats in Earls Court, the property of her husband, so they will revert.  In all, in a realistic valuation, Mr Gooch estimates that you stand to inherit in the region of nine-and-a-half million pounds.   Dear boy!”  Carnaby cried, as the pallor drained from Joe’s face.  “Would you like some water; or something stronger, perhaps?”

Joe managed to breathe.  “No, I’ll be fine.  Mr Carnaby…”

“Alistair, please!  However,” Carnaby waved a finger in the air.  “There is a fly in this particular honeypot, I fear, Joseph:  Mr Brubaeker, Marian’s husband, is contesting the will.”

Morris Wayland Brubaeker.  Joseph had seen the man rarely and then only in peeks from behind a window curtain, watching him arrive outside the Earls Court building in his silver and maroon Rolls-Royce.  He had not been encouraged by what he saw – a rather fleshy dark, hair-creamed man in a mohair suit whose irritable frown made him look as if the whole world annoyed him.

“Apparently Mrs Brubaeker changed her will only days before she died, so you see why her husband might be displeased,” Carnaby continued.  “I haven’t seen a copy of the actual will yet, nevertheless I understand it is all properly signed and witnessed, so he has few reasonable grounds to contest his wife’s wishes.” The old man shrugged.  “I’ll be honest with you, estates of this size rarely pass without some form of challenge or other…”

Joseph nodded, striving to grasp the facts Carnaby had set before him.  “What would be ‘reasonable grounds’?”

“Well now.  Fulfilling a role as husband for fifteen years counts for very little, I’m afraid, and financial embarrassment resulting from the will won’t normally cut any ice either, especially as Mr Brubaeker possesses considerable wealth of his own: no, unless it can be proved that Mrs Brubaeker was of unsound mind when she wrote her will, or that she was under duress, he would seem to have little hope of succeeding.  However, Mr Brubaeker is very determined, I’m told.”  Alistair Carnaby glanced up at Joe, pinning him with one of his most incisive looks.  “I take it you weren’t with Mrs Brubaeker when she died?”

“No, why?” Joe responded too quickly, his blood rising, because suddenly half a generation had melted away and he was that office boy again, squirming beneath the examination of those keen eyes.

Carnaby pursed his lips.  “He has requested that the circumstances of Mrs Brubaeker’s death should be subject to a criminal investigation.  Very odd, but there you are.  The man has even asked for his wife’s body to be exhumed for an autopsy!  What do you think of that?”  Alistair Carnaby watched Joe minutely because Joe’s reaction would betray exactly what he thought of that.  “What you have, at least by implication, is a cheated husband who believes you may be responsible for his wife’s death.  You’ll have to forgive me for being so blunt, Joseph, but can he have any reason for such a suspicion?”

“No.  No certainly not.  I told you, I wasn’t with her when she died.”

Carnaby nodded.  “He believes a police investigation is warranted.  If you knew about this will you would undoubtedly have a motive, but still, personally, I think it’s despicable.”

‘Autopsy’.  The word rattled around in Joseph’s brain.  He was aware that the remainder of an interview was going ahead, that he was asking Alistair Carnaby to represent him, and that he would hear more in the next few days.  The business concluded, as he rose to leave, Joseph asked:  “Do we know what Mrs Brubaeker’s post mortem gave as the cause of death?”

“We don’t at this stage,”  Alistair replied.  “Would you like me to find out?”

After Joseph had left, Carnaby returned to his desk, taking from its right-hand top drawer a blackened hickory pipe that was almost as old and as chewed as he.   Packing tobacco into its charred bowl, he leaned back in his chair, staring up at a brown patch on the faded white of the ceiling which testified to over thirty years of this habit.

“Well now, Carnaby;” He said aloud to himself:  “I wonder where this may lead us?”

It took Joseph a while to collect his thoughts.  The news that his relationship with Marian might have brought him wealth dwindled in significance beside his recollections of Marian’s death. That menacing word ‘autopsy’ chipped continually at his mind.

He wandered, meantime, through streets he had walked often in his youth.  Succumbing finally to demands of appetite and courtesy of the Castle Snack Bar he regaled himself with a tasteless roast beef sandwich, forced down by milky fluid which hung somewhere in the hinterland between coffee and tea.   Then back onto the street, restless, afraid to stop and let his conscience catch up with him.  Time weighed heavily, so he was glad when the hour came for him to catch his ‘bus back to Hallbury.  Happy to sit back in his seat, he was settling for the journey when the ‘bus, in the very act of pulling away from the ‘bus stand, jerked to a halt.  The driver opened the doors.

They wheezed, they puffed, they levered themselves up the three steps onto the passenger deck.  The driver knew them.

“Come on, Martin!  Nearly missed ‘un this week!”

“’Tis ‘er!”  The old man accused.  “I can’t get her away from they penny bargain stalls no-how.”

.  “He’m too slow, that’s ‘is trouble,”  His elderly companion scoffed,  “We had plenty o’ time, silly old fool!”

They ferreted for change, they paid their fares, they struggled down the aisle to their usual seats while the driver waited kindly.  As they turned they saw Joe sitting five rows further back and the old woman’s eyes clouded.  Joe heard them mutter between themselves.   He knew them too, of course, just as he knew that on this day, exactly a week ago, Violet Parkin had died.  Just as he knew this ‘bus would arrive at Abbots Friscombe railway station at three-thirty, and just as he knew these two old people were the only other passengers on the ‘bus he had caught there the previous week.

Ned Barker looked up as the doors swung open.  He squinted into the light.  “They told me you’d comed back, Joe Palliser.”

In the early evening, anxious to evade questions from his aunt and uncle, Joseph had made his way to the King’s Arms.  He had told no-one of his good fortune, for fear the autopsy would bring reversal.  He had calculated that, this being Friday night,  Charker Smith and his cronies would be drinking elsewhere, probably in Braunston.

“How’re you, Ned.  Good fishing?”  He ordered a pint.  The bar was deserted apart from Aaron Pace, propped up in the corner and apparently oblivious to his presence.  “Pint, Aaron?”

Aaron grunted and pushed his pot a few inches down the bar top.  “Ah.”  He said.

Questions were brimming in Joseph’s head, but he knew better than to hurry.  He leaned on the bar rail as he shared a desultory discussion about fish.  The Ned Barker he remembered was the definitive landlord, a sounding board for complaint and a repository for local gossip – but tonight?  Did a guarded reserve add an edge to his deep country brogue?

He had been there half an hour, and a second pint was waiting for him.  It was time.

“Quiet tonight, Ned?”

Ned looked at him.  “Ah.  They all goes to town Fridays, see?”

Joe nodded thoughtfully.  “I saw Michael the other day.”

Ned Barker strained his eyes at the ceiling, as though he were trying to recollect the name.  Why, Joseph wondered?  The old publican must remember Michael well.  The onset of his illness had affected the whole village profoundly at the time.  Wasn’t it Ned’s cousin who had been on the end of the billhook incident which led to Michael being committed?

“Your brother, isn’it?”  Ned replied.

“We were talking about poor Violet, Ned.  Michael said I should come and see you.  Urgent, he said it was.”

Joseph was trying out Carnaby’s trick – watching Ned’s eyes fixedly:  not something that would endear him to the old man, but he wanted an answer, and he got it.

“Well, the poor lad ain’t quite ‘isself, is he?”  Ned murmured.  “Sorry Joe, but I can’t help you.  ‘Tis a shame, though, ‘bout Violet.  That old bastard never was ‘owt but trouble.”  Ned turned to Aaron, shifting the conversation.

“Good for the cricket this weekend, Aaron?”

They were still the only two in the bar, Aaron and Joe.  Aaron, who had suggested that things around Violet were not as straightforward as they seemed;  yet Joe was prepared to bide his time, so he drank slowly and solidly, making occasional conversation, waiting for a moment when he might get Aaron on his own.  To have followed him out to the toilet would have been too obvious in this quiet atmosphere, and anyway, Aaron’s iron bladder showed no sign of relenting.  Ned, however, was becoming restless.

Joe kept stoking the fire.

“One yourself, Ned?”  He offered as his next round was delivered.

Eventually nature took its course.  Ned disappeared through the communicating door which led back into the house.  Joe knew he would have little time for subtlety.  “Violet was a witch, wasn’t she, Aaron?”

Aaron grinned back at him:  a row of blackened pegs.  “Now I knowed you was dyin’ to ask me that.”  He slurred.

“You know about it, though, don’t you?”  Joe persisted, casting an anxious eye at the communicating door.  “Did she tell you?”

“’Er didn’t have to tell me!”  Aaron rejoined.  “I seen ‘er!   She were up there in Slater’s Copse, ‘er and ‘er covenses, an’ they was parncin’ around naked as you please!”  He shook his head, chuckling richly into his pot of ale.  “She were a big woman, that Violet, mind!  That were a sight and no mistake:  titties jigglin’ up and down!  Bugger me!”

“Who else is in the coven, then?”

Aaron leered at him.  “Wouldn’t you like to know, eh?  There’s folks round here I could tell on, see?  But I won’t, even though some of ‘em are arseholes as says they’m men an’ aren’t big enough to be.  An’ some of ‘em as got titties, too.  I likes they, mind!”

Approaching footsteps warned Joseph to pursue the subject no further.  Ned Barker had hastened back to his trade so fast two of his fly-buttons were still open.  His glance switched from Aaron to Joe, then back to Aaron again, so rapidly Joe feared he might detach a retina, but Aaron just grinned at him and Joe fixedly studied the wisps of sediment in his beer.

Shortly afterwards Mrs Higgs wandered through the door with her daughter in tow.  Joe drank up the remainder of his final pint.

“Beer’s good as ever, Ned.”  And he set himself to wander home.

 

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