Hallbury Summer – Episode 2. Inconvenient Angels

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Lying in his single bed, Joseph could see through his window reflected flashes of blue against the sky and he wondered in passing what they might represent; but he was used to the noise and constant siren song of London, so he paid them little heed.   His mind was too full.

Perhaps he had not anticipated the flood of memory that his return to Little Hallbury would generate: perhaps he had thought only of gaining rest and some space.  Yet everything, every turn of every corner, every whisper of breeze, every rustle of leaves was alive with the things of the past.  Even this bed:  how big and soft it had once seemed!  He closed his eyes and turned his head to the pillow, letting the images churn in his brain.  And there was her face, inches from his own – the soft waft of her breath, her deep, deep eyes staring into his with – what? – wonder?  Love?  Fear?

Sarah.

They had grown up together, in a way.  They first met at school, shared a class in those strange years between childhood and adolescence when all was new.  He, intimidated and shy, trying to explain to himself the curtain drawn so dramatically over his early years; she a targeted and thoroughly extrovert young female with an open smile.

“You don’t like girls much, do you, Joey Palliser?”

He had mumbled something, she had given him that bright flash of a grin and loped away – a graceful deer so aware of her beauty, a tower too high for him to even contemplate climbing.

Then she came back.

“Walk home with me – after school?”

Sarah.

Sarah who sang like an angel, and the first time he heard her sing he was bewitched, captured, a hostage forever.  Sarah whose whole life was music, and who would go on to local college and to the London Academy of Music, but who would find time for Joey Palliser on her way.

Sarah.  Heaven knew what she saw in him, or how it came to be they lay in his bed – this bed – with nothing but flesh between them that one night.

His aunt and uncle were visiting friends.

“Come over and stay?”  She came over, and she stayed.

It was not the first time they had lain naked like this, but it was the only time they had made love.  She had withdrawn from him before, frightened that his desperate desires with their dire consequences could threaten her future.  This night – this one glorious night – she had acceded to his entreaties, his insistence that it was “quite safe”.   Why?  He never found out why.  Shortly after, Sarah departed for London and college.  He never saw her again.

“The village is fairly rattling with speculation!”  Julia enthused at breakfast the next morning after she had imparted the news of the murder.  “Apparently Jack Parkin’s been taken in for questioning.”

Owen harrumphed.  “Much good may that do them!”

Recalling his childhood encounters with Violet Parkin, Joseph thought Jack Parkin an unlikely suspect.  Playing jungles with his brother Ian in the reeds by the duck pond one day, he remembered a vast bulk of humanity looming over him like a total eclipse.

“I’se got eggs in them there grass, young ‘uns.”  Violet bellowed.  “Be off, now!”

Then there was the day when, walking across the common past Violet’s house, he heard such an eruption of shouting and seafaring language that he thought some major disaster was taking place.  Drawing closer, hesitating, uncertain it was safe to proceed; he stayed just long enough to see Jack come hurtling from the door, emitting squealing noises not unlike a terrified pig.  He was near to sprinting (the fastest Joseph had ever seen him move) and Violet was hard on his heels flailing at his head with what looked very much like a wooden table leg.  She caught him several hideous cracks before he managed to outrun her, leaving her standing at the edge of the common growling like a Mastiff.

“How is Ian, Joe dear?”  Julia’s enquiry cut across his chain of thought.  “We hear from him so rarely these days.”

“Oh, very well, I suppose.”  He replied defensively.  “I haven’t seen him myself for about a month.”

“Really?  Good Lord!  Well, I suppose he must be very busy.”

Busy?  Well, yes, although Joseph would not attempt to explain to aunt Julia that his prosperous brother’s new and burgeoning quest for political glory might not include him –  quite the reverse.  Julia tended to think of London as a rather large village, where everyone must know one another and visit – at least on a weekly basis.

“The election…”  He tried an expressive shrug.

“Do you think he’ll win?”  Owen asked (a little too crisply, Joseph thought).

“The Party’s doing well in North London generally.  I don’t see why not.”

After breakfast Joseph hedged around Aunt Julia’s:  ‘Well, dear, what do you want to do today?’  with a few muttered generalities and escaped.  He was waiting for, and dreading, the inevitable offer of an ‘outing in the car’ with all it implied, for within that imprisoning tin box lay captivity and open exposure to Owen in cross-examination.  His aunt and uncle must know the truth, of course; he just wasn’t ready to tell them yet.

Joseph slipped quietly through their front door, aware of the beehive drone of conversation he left behind.  Beyond the front gate, he turned his back upon Church Hill and the substance of the village, taking instead a narrow lane which led to Wednesday Common.  He walked in the middle of the road and as he walked he felt the air returning to his lungs, the spring come back into his step.  An early dew fairly dripped from the hedges, nether-world creatures slipped unseen through the grass, so that for a brief moment he could almost believe that he had come home. How should he not?  In so many ways, this was home.  In so many ways, he could wish he had never left.

Here he had come one cold, dark evening in winter, huddled with Ian in the back seat of their uncle’s Vauxhall – too young, then, to understand.  His abject tears had brought a crowing torrent of ridicule from his brother and a sound telling-off from his uncle; thereby setting a tone to their relationship which had lasted even to this day.   Ian was always the favourite.  Ian was a real man – Ian always won.  Of itself this did not present Joseph with too much of a problem – it was, after all, the status quo: his mum and dad had favoured Ian just as obviously, protected Michael, his youngest brother from them both.  Joseph was used to being the lesser child, the not-so-clever child, subject to a different set of rules.

He still might not recognise how traumatised he was, that night, or how his, Ian’s, and his younger brother Michael’s future hung balanced upon a knife-edge.  After all, he was only nine.   When the news had come he was asleep.  Ian was asleep, though he claimed later to have heard the fervent discussion below stairs, to have seen the police car outside their drive.  Joseph had never questioned why his mum and dad had taken Michael with them on the drive to Bristol, and why they, the older brothers, had been left behind with their grandma.  The next morning they were told:  there had been a crash.  Mummy and Daddy were never coming back.   Michael was very ill – maybe they could go and see him in a while.

Time mercifully fogged the memory of those first weeks after the world changed.  The funeral, the black-clad people who loomed over him like tall trees, bending their mournful limbs in sympathy:  the long journey to Little Hallbury, eventual reunion with Michael.  To begin with, Joseph scarcely recognised his youngest brother, his face still puffed, the livid scars across his cheek, the eye that would never properly see again.  In time, he would learn there were other scars, less easy to see.

Deep in reminiscence, Joseph turned the corner of the hedge out onto Wednesday Common with no awareness of the horse and rider coming the opposite way.  It was a big roan horse, all of seventeen hands, and it was difficult to say who was the more shocked.  Both expressed their surprise by stepping back rapidly, though the horse’s reaction was more rapid and a lot more dramatic.

“Settle, you stupid bugger!”  It’s rider commanded in a tone which did not brook disobedience, reinforced by two sharp slaps from her crop.  Joseph found himself apologising to a young woman with slightly angry eyes.

“Yes, well try not to be so scary.”  She admonished, giving him a quirky smile.

It was the briefest of encounters.  The horse danced round Joseph before trying half-heartedly to bolt up the lane.  A further thrashing and some forthright language nipped this in the bud.  Joseph stood for a second or so watching horse and tightly-jodhpur-ed rider’s retreating backs, then made to resume his walk.  A man about his own age had witnessed this incident from a few paces down the track which led over the Common.

“She’m a right ‘andful, ‘er.  Mind, I wouldn’t object to bein’ that ‘orse.”  The man said; then, scrutinising Joseph more closely.  “My Lord!  Joe?  Joe Palliser?”

Joseph returned the scrutiny: meeting a pair of languid, pale blue eyes.  Tall, spare of build, slightly stooped perhaps, hair the colour of a summer beach, that parchment skin which always burned in spite of his outdoor life.

“Tom?”  Yes, this was Tom Peterkin – older, but indisputably.  “Damn!  Still here, then, Tom!”

“Ah, still here.”  Tom nodded sagely, staring down his big long nose with a look Joseph remembered so well.  “Though I’m f****d if I know why.  Mind, you’ve looked more healthy – what brings you back ‘ere?  You a masochist or summat?”

Joseph considered.  If he were to impart his truth to anyone, it should be this close companion of his teenage years.  But he hedged still.  “Oh, I wanted to see the old place, that’s all.  Just for a few days.”

“Ah.”  He felt Tom’s eyes boring into him.  “Come to see the annual pig-flying festival, ah?  I was just takin’ a gander at this howd’y’do.”  Tom nodded towards the far end of the common, where the Parkin house stood, surrounded with black, official looking cars.

“It’s a strange ‘un, this.”

“She was killed then?”  Joe asked.  “That’s the gossip.”

“Aye.  Found ‘er in the dairy, ‘pparently.  Some says a knifing; some says ‘er were strangled.  Can’t get any sense.  Can you imagine tryin’ to strangle Violet?”

“Maybe she’d grown frail with the years?”

“Nah.  You haven’t been here.  Built like a brick shithouse, moved like a tank.”  Tom shook his head.  “Jack didn’t kill ‘er, no way.  If she weren’t indoors I’d say the only way would be to run her over with a truck.

“Still, you aren’t ‘ere for that.  Unless you did it, did yer?  So, what you doin’ wi’ yourself now?  Come on, take a walk with me and give us all the news.”

Walk they did; the quarter-mile across the western corner of the common, past the Parkin house and its ant-horde of police, side by side as it had once been their habit to walk, deep in conversation along rhododendron-fringed Feather Lane towards the Kings Head.

“Old Ned won’t open ‘til twelve today.  He’s getting’ on a bit now, mind.  Come on over to mine – we’ll start early.  I lives in the old Martin House, up by ‘Church.  There’s a Missus Peterkin now.”

“Really?  Do I know her?”

Tom smirked at him and said darkly:  “Ah.  You do.  An’ I’ll tell you who ‘tis if you tell me what brings you back ‘ere.”

“I told you.”

“Ah.  You told me summat.”

The Martin house, whitewashed and prim in the middle of the terraced line generally known as Church Cottages had only been gas-lit, the last time Joseph was there.  He remembered an embarrassing hour as an aged Mrs Martin took him through a photo-album she insisted he should see.  One of those charitable endeavours to indulge the old which always end so badly.

“The old dear died three year ago.  Not ‘ere, in Mary Magdalene’s, thank God.”

St. Mary Magdalene’s was a nursing home in Abbots Friscombe.  The old lady’s house looked bright and renewed, with a fresh, lemon-painted front door opening onto the village street, new thatch and sparkling windows.

Tom opened his front door.  “Got ‘lectric in now.  ‘Tis a lot better.  Come and see what We’ve done to the place.”

Joseph stepped into a front room very different from the dingy and slightly odorous den where he had sat with Mrs Martin’s album of pictures.  White walls, a fitted carpet deeply red, soft, inviting furnishings.  Tom slumped into an easy chair.

“Come on, take the weight off.  Darlin’, get us two beers, will ‘e?”

“Get ‘em yourself!  I’m doin’ the ironin’!”  The voice that replied from the back of the house shot instantly into that place in Joseph’s head which he reserved for cringing.  Emma!

Tom saw his reaction.  “Oh, ‘tis all right lad!  We got over that ages ago!  Emma!  Come and see ‘oo I’ve found!”

And there she was; at first just a silhouette against the light which flooded in from her kitchen as she opened the door.  “Oh, my dear lord!  Joseph Palliser!  What the ‘ell are you  doin’ ere?”

Joseph reflected this was the third time he had been asked that question:  he was beginning to wonder himself.  He got to his feet awkwardly.  “Hello Emma.”

His unease seemed to cause Tom immense amusement.  Perhaps he did not entirely understand its cause.  Emma moved towards Joseph, and though it might have escaped Thomas Peterkin’s attention, Joseph saw his own discomfiture reflected in her eyes, too.  She hadn’t changed.  Urchin cut hair a coppery brown, not quite auburn, a round face which would split into a broad grin at the least provocation.  Nor had she lost one inch of her figure – she was as gently graceful as the girl he remembered.

“Come now, Joe.”  She gave him a perfunctory hug.  Her cheek was cool as a hay-loft breeze.  “You’m welcome here.”

It was as if the one room, this warm, welcoming room, had divided and become three.  Emma brought beers and sat in her box, Tom in his, Joseph sandwiched between them in a segment of his own so distinct from the other two that he was able to decorate its walls with pictures from his memories.  They formed divisions insurmountable by conversation.  You see, the instant Joe met Emma’s eye, he knew that there were pictures on her walls too.  Perhaps by the end of that morning Tom was beginning to know.  Perhaps his were walls he would prefer not to look at.

They went through the motions:  Tom explained that he worked for an agricultural mechanic’s in Abbots Friscombe.

“Remember when old Foskett down on Halls Wood Farm there bought he’s first combine?  He used to go round his fields with it and when the bits fell off he’d just throw ‘em in the hedge!  Well, I go round the hedge picking the bits up and screwing ‘em back on.  See, more and more of ‘em’s buying combines now.  Farm machinery gen’rally’s gettin’ more an’ more complicated.  They can’t jus’ twist ‘un back to life with a spanner and a kick no more. There’s good money in ut.”

Emma had a part-time job at the Co-op in Pettisham, three days a week, served her turn at the Women’s Institute, did an afternoon helping out old Mrs Dickenson, up on Hurst Hill.

“Poor dear, she can’t do hardly nothing’ for ‘erself now, bless her heart.  And she’m such a lovely lady too.”

They had a Ford Cortina, in the lock-ups on Feather Lane.

“Can’t trust to leave nothin’ on the street nowadays.”

They were all a young married couple should be, doing all a young married couple should do.

“Married St. Andrew’s three year gone.”  Tom said.  “You’d have been best man if I’d known where to find you, but Owen Masefield didn’t seem to ‘ave an address for you at the time.  Where’d you disappear to, you bugger?”

Joseph was defensive.  He’d moved around a lot lately, he said:  there were business reasons, personal reasons too.

“We heard you’d married.”  Emma’s look carried a measure of accusation.

“Really?”  Joseph hoped his tone of disbelief would carry the day, and to some extent it did seem to:  but as he and Tom finally departed for the Kings Head, after he had bid a brief, embarrassed farewell to Emma, and Tom was closing his front door (“We was lucky to get this ‘ouse.”)  Tom said:

“And did you?”

“Did I what, Tom?”

“Marry?”

“Yes.  Yes, I did.”

Joseph thought Tom might ask more, but their walk to the pub was oddly silent.  Tom’s mood was contemplative, as though the morning and their reunion had posed a troubling question or two.

The King’s Head was one of the less celebrated Public Houses in the district, a small nondescript building which had fallen into disrepair within the time of Joseph’s memory, and had fallen even further since.  Near to his retirement, Ned Barker the Inn-Keeper took little interest in the weathered inn-sign or the render flaking from the walls:  in fact, he took very little care of his business in any way, except in the care of his beer.  Sometimes, when the mood was upon him, the old brown double doors would remain resolute long after opening time; sometimes they did not open at all.  There were occasions, if the day was sunny, when the old man would be found sitting, pipe stoked to an inferno, upon the fallen tree which lay across the north edge of Farrier’s Meadow well into the afternoon.  Upon such days Ned was immovable.   If the pub were to open it would be because Dot, his wife of forty years, would open it:  and to be truthful she would be better as a host than Ned ever was.  But below the stairs, in the tiny, cobweb-veiled dungeon which was the cellar, Ned was master.  Here he mothered and cosseted his precious kegs of warm beer with the protective instincts of a brood hen; so that, when you could get it, there was no better pint to be had anywhere in the County.  Which was why, in spite of unreliable hours and uncertainty of satisfaction, there would always be a faithful little queue of disciples at those doors every day at eleven thirty, and twelve o’clock on Sundays;  even in depths of winter.

The bar was exactly as Joseph remembered it.  The swing of the inner door produced a familiar squeak, the cloud of smoke it released into the outer world had that same tobacco smell.  Entering, especially when the day outside was sunny, seemed like a plunge into a bronze twilight.  Screwing up his eyes against the gloom, he began to pick out vague figures, five in number, lining a bar of dark-stained wood which formed the left-hand side of the room.  Lime-washed walls browned by nicotine formed the other three sides, the right-hand of which contained a window:  a sash frame with brown glass covered by brown net curtains, heavy brown drapes.  Three tables filled this side of the bar; oaken, polished and liberally engraved.  Equally stalwart-looking chairs surrounded each, their worn cushions bearing little trace of once-lively patterns in red brocade.  None of the customers strayed so far from the bar as to sit at one of these tables.  They never would.   Only old Mrs Higgs, when she was of the inclination to enjoy an evening of milk stout, ever graced those seats.  She and her hapless daughter together contributed to the Pub’s latent odour in their own distinctive way, so providing the true reason, it was said, that everyone else drank standing up.

All conversation ceased the moment Joseph followed his friend through those doors.  In eerie silence Dot Barker rose from some activity below the bar like a surfacing whale.

“Oh, Love us!  Look what the cat dragged in!”

“Well now, You’re going to have to do summat about that cat, Dot.”  Charker Smith’s features had not yet clarified in Joseph’s vision, but his deep voice was unmistakeable.  It wasn’t a friendly voice.  “What you doin’ back ‘ere, boy?”

 

© Copyright 2019 Frederick Anderson

No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

This book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.

 

 

Hallbury Summer – Prologue and Chapter One

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Prologue

When I remember the summer days of my childhood I think of hot sun and warm rain.  I recall standing by a dairy door to gaze in wonder at rows of steaming bovine flanks as Alfa Laval milking machines hissed and sucked and a heavy lactose aroma hung on the air.  Or sitting on a field gate to watch elephantine combine harvesters clumber to and fro, or playing on Wednesday Common, making secret pathways through the bracken, dens among the blackthorn.  I remember wars and jealousies and fights, the sense of living – the light of morning.  And it seems to me the sun was younger then.

The village where I grew up was a placid beast, a mother protective of her young.  She made our lives a special thing – to come home to her from the battle of a day was to return to faces that smiled, sounds which comforted, food and rest.  It was a place that was mine, a box for all my memories:  a place of warmth, of peace, and of love.

How does the saying go?  We always hurt the ones we love?  I was neglectful, I know.  As I came to manhood her nurture bored me, my Hallbury, my mother of the Earth.  She hemmed me in, kept me by her isolation from meeting friends, going out, exploring the greater world; until I, like my father before me, would want to leap her fences – to venture into lands beyond.

This my father taught me – that only when I left her would I understand: only when I was miles away in time and space would I wish I could return.  There would be no going back, of course – I might travel the miles, walk up the village street, tap on the same doors – but never pick up the threads I lost, or find again those delicate flowers of friendship I plucked when I went away.  They would be gone, like the times, forever.

So here is the lesson I was given, by way of a tale told to me by my father once when we spoke of these things; when he heard me speak of leaving.   It is a tale of my village, and a story of innocence lost.  It is his account: the scene he describes, of Little Hallbury asleep in the heat of an afternoon, is a picture in my memory too:  but the mother of my memory is not the mother of his: and his story is very different to my own.

Chapter One.

Upon this day Little Hallbury slumbered beneath a solemn sun.  Wednesday Common robed in the bracken-green of summer was motionless and silent.  Around the old, cold stone of barnyard eaves martens twittered, while above them in azure-blue stillness rooks wheeled lazily, carking guttural orders.  A solitary dove warbled from St. Andrews’ steeple.  The service ‘bus’s slow drone as it wheezed and coughed up the hill from Abbots Friscombe stirred verges of frazzled grass to reluctant movement, sending the tiny secret creatures that live there scurrying into deeper shadow.

She would have, must have screamed.  Did she recognise the one who hurt her so, who drove spikes through her wrists – who hung her, like a great doll crucified – upon a wooden wall?  She was still living; still conscious when the prongs struck home: she knew and saw and felt the worst excess of death.  She must have screamed:  how she must have screamed!  But though the stone walls heard and the still air heard, no-one else in the sleeping heat of afternoon heard her. Her last entreaty to the world went unnoticed.

Joseph Palliser, my father, arriving at Braunston on the train from Waterloo had missed his connection, condemning him to an hour on a platform bench.  The little branch line tank engine which finally puffed to his rescue (and which had a certain brassy charm, it was true) struggled with a train lacking any form of charisma.  Its carriages were a sooty, no-corridor horror story – musty compartment after musty compartment of vandalised cushions, each with their own history of graffiti and stains. Joseph perched unwillingly for a jolting half-hour as they groaned and ground their way along the old single-track branch line to Abbots Friscombe.

When his bus grumbled past the military line of poplars on Gypsy Lane it was afternoon and my father had been travelling for nearly seven hours.  He had read “The Andromeda Strain” from cover to cover; he was tired, he was hot.  If ever he needed reminding of his reasons for re-visiting his childhood home so rarely he would recall this day, he told himself, and thereby absolve any guilt he might feel.

There were those evocative sounds, however.  On the station platform at Abbots Friscombe:  the steamy whistle of the little tank engine, the Station Master’s warning:  “Mind the doors now!” followed by clattering closure,  guard’s whistle and screech of heavy wheels, metal on metal.  Then the ‘bus, empty but for himself and a pair of pensioners sitting at the front:  “Af’noon young fella!”  whose low plainsong of conversation was punctuated by a kettle-drum rhythm from a sturdy engine: and now, alighting outside his one-time home in early evening sun, that characteristically noisy rural peace – sweet, pungent harmony of sound and scent – wood pigeon in the trees, raucous rooks, lap and slap of the little brook which ran between road and garden wall.  Melodies unforgettable – so poignant they threatened tears.

Joseph remained by the roadside for a little to collect himself, as the ‘bus struggled off in a black haze of exhaust up Church Hill, past the Andrews’ house where he had played as a young child; past the Walker farm, with all its rumours and romance.  There were so many things to recollect and he could not do justice to them all, so he told himself he was tired and over-emotional, which he quite possibly was, shrugged off the cloak of nostalgia and picked up his suitcase.

A peeling wooden gate, a garden full of the industry of summer:  buzzing among hollyhocks, throaty defending of nests, noisy squabbling over tiny trophies of food.   A front door still painted black, the same black it had been the day he left:  very possibly the same paint.

“Hello Aunt.”

“Good heavens, Joe, you are late!  Let me look at you.  You poor dear, you must have had a nightmare journey!”

Aunt Julia – with another of her infernal cats cradled lovingly in her arms – somehow smaller than his recollection of her, and a little more lined perhaps, but still Aunt Julia.  A smoky voice, large, frank eyes, blue cardigan as ancient as the door-paint.

“Say hello to Benjy.  What do you think of this dreadful election, Joe?  Are we going to get a decent government at last?  Your uncle’s in the kitchen.  Come and get settled in, we’re about to have tea.”

Poking his head into the kitchen, Joseph grunted a greeting.  The figure that was Uncle Owen grunted back.  He was bent over the kitchen table, painstakingly separating seeds with a razor blade.  Several small brown paper bags seemed to be intrinsic to this process.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake Oz, will you get that stuff off the table?  I want to lay it, dear!”

Uncle Owen glared over angry half-lenses.  An old man now, indisputably, his white hair thin, eyes clouded by life – not quite the formidable force of nature Joseph remembered.

Julia said:  “I’ve put you in your old room, Joe.  I thought you’d like that.  Can you find your way?”

Yes, the third stair still creaked.

And here it was, the room of his childhood, his youth, the greater share of a short past.  Like Aunt Julia, a little smaller than he remembered – did houses, like people shrink with age?  Plain green curtains in a sort of straw weave – they were different, but not the window they revealed; that was the same.  Cream paint, cream wallpaper much treated by drawing pin acupuncture:  Presley would have been there, above the oak chest of drawers, smouldering defiantly at Bill Haley’s amused disdain on the opposite wall.  The door to the wall cupboard which served as a wardrobe, where Little Richard’s dark menace once lurked – Johnny Mathis cow-eyed over a table laden with comic book imagination.

They were all gone now.  Or were they?

Joseph swung the cupboard door open.  An odd array of empty hangers on a wooden rail played host to a well-worn pair of gardening trousers he assumed must be his Uncle’s.  And there, behind them, on the cupboard’s rough plaster wall, was his montage – a winter’s day of artistic endeavour and glue when he was just twelve years old.  Presley again – always there – united by paste down the years with The Platters, Doris Day, Bobby Darin, Chuck Berry…..and…..

Faces he had already forgotten, names he could no longer place – once so important in his life that some had seemed more than life itself, all so easily erased.

Voices from below the stair:  Aunt Julia and his uncle arguing.  A somehow comforting sound because they had always argued, and it was good to know this at least had not changed.

It was half-past seven that night before Jack Parkin was told that his wife was dead.  Janice Regan, who cleaned the church, had walked into Violet Parkin’s kitchen the way she usually did at half past five.  Violet always spent her Friday morning washing “Vicar’s bloody surplices” and, given a good drying day, they would be ready for Janice to collect, so she could take them “Up St. Andrew’s” when she cleaned in the church the next morning.  Surprised to see the dry vestments still dangling idly from Violet’s washing line, she had called out:  first, she called up the stairs of the dilapidated cottage.  Receiving no reply from there, she went out into the yard that had once been the yard of the Parkin farm and called again.  Apart from an anxious clucking of hungry hens, Janice heard nothing:  and then she became concerned.  Violet had never “been out” – never in thirty years, and precious little in the twenty-five years before that – the years before she married Jack.  Oh, there was the Sunday trip to Church, and there were stories, of course, of other outings; but never on a Friday afternoon.  Across the sun-fissured mud of the yard, the broken door of the old dairy hung half-open: unsure why her fingers had started to tremble, Janice walked towards it.

Jack was in the little village of Fettsham, two miles away.  He was at his usual place at the bar of the Black Horse, with his usual pint of cider clamped in his earth-blackened fingers.

“Need to talk to ‘ee Jack.”  P.C. Hallett studied the labourer’s face closely.  It was never possible to tell if Jack was drunk, but the likelihood of his being sober was fairly remote.  Those who knew him well claimed he never was.

“Ha’ a pint Davy?”  Jack Parkin: man of few words, fewer expressions.  Those who wanted to be unkind said ‘man of few thoughts’.  Jack stared.

“Come an’ sit down over ‘ere.”  Davy Hallett coaxed.  He knew better than to insist.   “Give ‘un a shove?”  He requested the two companion bar-proppers at Jack’s side.  Persuasive hands guided Jack to a settle.  Aggravated grunts issued from Jack.  Someone thoughtfully provided a full glass.  Jack’s hand moved to embrace it.

“’Tis Violet, Jack: ‘tis Violet.”  Hallett saw the old man’s eyes had moved.  There was a rheumy depth to them, a pool of silted emotions.  “She’m been ‘urt, Jack.  She’m been ‘urt bad.”

“Violet?”  Hallett wasn’t sure if Jack had recognised the name.

“Violet your wife.  She’m been taken, Jack.  She’s died, old chap.”

“Violet.  Ah.”  Parkin’s hand lifted the pint glass to his fat lips.  “She’m what?”

#

“Passed on.”  Uncle Owen fiddled irritably with a piece of butter as it skittered before his knife.  “Gone to his Maker about five years ago, now.”  He pinned a slice of bread to his plate as though he feared it might also escape him, reached for a second slice.  The business of bringing bread and butter together so all edges and crusts exactly matched was an elaborate one, taking immense concentration.  “He was mad as a hatter for two years at least before that.  Used to wander around the village knocking on doors.  We’d know about that, wouldn’t we?”  He fixed Joseph with a stare.

“Poor old man must have called here a dozen times, Joe dear.”  Julia explained.  “Asking about war-time comrades, you know?  All dead, of course.”

“He wasn’t that old, that’s the thing; still completely ga-ga though.  Should have been in a home.”  Uncle Owen opined.  His battle with his bread and butter was entering its final phase, the invasion of the jam.

Joseph tried to balance this image with his own of Aleph Parkin:  of the handlebar moustachioed man in his waistcoat and cap whose permanence he had never doubted;  an amiable figure with two beloved terriers milling about his ankles who walked the village lanes on a never-ending journey, always ready to stop and talk, always with a tale to tell.  Aleph was gone!  Jack Parkin’s older brother, the pair of them as unlike as scrumpy and ale – Aleph who was never drunk and Jack who always was – yet Jack who was the worker: whereas Aleph, to the knowledge of those in the village with long enough memories, had never worked a day in his life.

“A war wound, young ‘un;” Aleph explained one day to a garrulous young Palliser with courage enough to ask:  “can’t work, see?  I was at Wipers, boy. Shrappel.”

But if Joseph tried to pin him down as to the exact nature of the injury from the battlefields of Ypres that had so afflicted his life, Aleph would be less specific.

“I has to sit down a lot, see?”

So Joseph sought the truth from Mrs Martin, a solitary old pensioner who lived in a stuffy little cottage by St. Andrew’s Church.  “Oh yes, dear,” She confirmed:  “it was a shrapnel wound.  I remember when Beth  Parkin got the letter. there was weepin’ and wailin’ and all sorts that day, my lord!  Beth,you see, she always favoured Aleph.  He was her first.  She never wanted a second son and when Jack came along a dozen year later he was a bit of a surprise, I can tell you!  And there was some of us wondered but that’s not for me to say.

“Anyways, she never set Aleph to work as a child, though she had Jack out working when he was ten summers old.  Then Aleph went to war at sixteen, and then there was the wound.  He comes home on crutches and Beth she has a hero’s welcome waitin’ for him – she made half the village turn out with flags and that.  He hasn’t worked since, and he didn’t work afore.  I suppose that’s why he and his brother doesn’t get on so well.  That and the other thing.”

Mrs Martin wouldn’t be drawn upon the subject of ‘the other thing’ but it was common knowledge the pair of brothers had little time for each other.  Joseph had seen at first hand how Jack might take a different road rather than pass his brother upon it.  If they should unavoidably meet they would pass with no more than a grunted acknowledgement, and Jack would take a swipe at one of Aleph’s dogs with his boot.

Leaning on the bar at the King’s Head in the days when he was still welcome there, Jack was also scathing concerning Aleph’s wound.

“War wound?  War wound be buggered!  He didn’t get no shrappel at Wipers.  When I finally got ‘un to ‘elp unload the hay-cart down our yard he dropped a bale on my head so I shoved a fork handle up his arse. In ‘thirty-six that was and he’s never forgotten ‘un. that’s the only wound he got!”

Joseph remembered the mouth organ Aunt Julia had given him for his thirteenth birthday – something then treasured, for somehow he had always believed he had a future in music.  Breathing idle chords upon it one afternoon on his way back from school he had come upon Aleph sitting on the wall outside Polkcombe Farm, his two Jack Russell terriers milling impatiently around his feet.

“Armonicky is ‘ut?”  Aleph said.  “Can I ‘ave a go, young ‘un?”

Joseph had lent his precious instrument reluctantly, then watched horrified as Aleph plucked a complete set of porcelain teeth from his mouth and placed them on the wall beside him.   The vaguely recognisable sea-shanty a toothless Aleph wheezed out was the last tune the instrument ever played.  When the old man had finished and Joseph politely retrieved it he put it in his pocket and walked away, not waiting to see the teeth replaced.  In his room that evening he put the mouth organ in his drawer, unable to countenance the thought of raising it to his own lips.  For all he knew, it was still there.

“Well!”  Julia folded her hands in her lap.  “I think we’ve accounted for the local population for now.  So what about you, Joe?  We didn’t expect you to come visiting.”

It was a rebuke, and Joseph knew it.  Somehow he had to explain how this place, which had been an irrelevance for so long, had suddenly become so important to him.  He had always insisted that to look back, to retreat into the past was wrong – a mistake.  What had changed?  He muttered an apology, said something about the business in London keeping him away.

“I just wanted to see you, I suppose; and to stay for a few days.  I hope it isn’t too inconvenient?”

“It’s bloody inconvenient!”  Uncle Owen spluttered, consuming his victory.  “Should have changed the locks.”

Julia smiled.  “Take no notice of your uncle, dear.  It’s his peculiar sense of humour.”

Joseph was not entirely certain his uncle was joking.  Much later, when he finally managed to extricate himself from his hosts’ gently persistent interrogation and retire to his old room, he pulled open that drawer.  The mouth organ was gone.

In the gathering evening, blue lights of police vehicles flickered from around Violet Parkin’s cottage with increasing brilliance, while rumours flickered around the village, building upon themselves.

Hettie Locke, Ben Locke’s wife was first to break the news.  “She was dead in the dairy, stuck up against the stall!  Janice ‘twas found ‘er!  Er ‘adn’t even ironed vicar’s surplices!”

“There were poor Violet’s blood ever’where!”  Abbey Walker’s eyes grew wider as she passed the story on.

“Pinned against the wall with pitchforks, she were, poor soul.”  Mary Gayle relayed the information to Paul over dinner; adding as an afterthought: “I ‘spect vicar ‘ll be askin’ me to do ‘is surplices now.”

“Nailed to thic wall with pitchforks!”  Paul Gayle told a rapt gathering at the King’s Head.  “Er were hangin’ upside down be all accounts!”

Word of Jack’s arrest followed.

“Jack?”  Cried Rob Pardin.  “’E’d never do that to ‘er, wouldn’t Jack!”

“Wouldn’t ‘urt a fly, wouldn’t Jack.”  Agreed Aaron Pace.  “But they got ‘un!”

 

© Copyright 2019 Frederick Anderson

No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

This book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.

 

‘Summer’ is here!

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I’ve been away for a while, so I’d better explain some stuff.

My ‘write as you go’ serial stories (two so far) have proved popular reading on this blog and I want to do more, but time management is a problem.  I want to prepare those finished titles;  ‘A Place that was Ours’ and ‘Nowhere Lane’ for publication as books, revamp my Kindle page and to start experimenting with a vlog – three projects which, against the background of other summer commitments, demand rather more hours than my day can provide.  So…

Up comes the serialised version of my book ‘Hallbury Summer’!

‘Summer’ is a thriller that has enjoyed very little exposure, yet it is one of my favourite pieces of work and deserving of more.  Here is the ‘blurb’:

Beneath the blistering sun a village sleeps, while unheard and 
in a dark place a woman is ritually murdered.
Hallbury will remember the day Joseph Palliser came home.
Emma who loved him when he left ten years ago would discard her marriage to be with him; the furiously independent Sophie could so easily fall victim to his feckless appetite. But Joseph has secrets neither can know, and he has only to turn over a stone or two to find the village has secrets too; secrets that are dangerous to learn.
Hallbury Summer is a tale of a serene English village, a village with a primal, lethal heart. 
It is a place where Joe Palliser perfectly belongs.

Beginning from tomorrow, an episode a week will be available to read here, completely free.   I will be serialising the whole book, so I hope you won’t think of this as a ploy to persuade you to buy the original, but there will be certain differences in the blog edition; I will not, for example, be able to follow the original book ( bit.ly/Hallbury ) chapter for chapter – the episodes will be adjusted so each provides a hook to the next.   There are also one or two semi-erotic passages that will have to be moderated a bit!

So, tomorrow, then!  Barring computer crashes or other natural disasters, ‘Summer’ will be here.   I do hope you’ll join me!

A Time for Change?

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A report by the Hansard Society, the UK’s leading source of independent research and advice on Parliament and parliamentary affairs, should give everyone pause.

Interviews conducted with a representative sample of 1000 British citizens found 63% agreed that “Britain’s system of government is rigged to the advantage of the rich and powerful” and in response to the statement “Britain needs a strong ruler willing to break the rules”, 54% agreed and just 23% said no.

Only 25% of the public had any confidence in MPs’ handling of Brexit,  (see my post ‘Let’s Discuss Nationalism’) Fifty-six per cent of respondents said they believed Britain was in decline, while  47% felt they had no influence at all over the national direction.   The public feels strongly that the system of governing favours the rich and powerful and that political parties don’t care about the average person.

People are not confident that politicians act in the public interest.

When, in 2016, it was suggested a referendum concerning severance from the EU should be held, 77% of the population surveyed were in favour.  The current figure in favour of referenda has slumped to 55%.

Although many have chosen to do so, it is unfair to blame the Brexit issue for ‘breaking Democracy’ when all it has really done is shine a spotlight upon flaws that were already there.  Democracy, inasmuch as it is a recipe for governing which ‘carries out the will of the majority while having regard for the needs of the minority’ probably never existed at all.  Our much-vaunted ‘world’s oldest democracy’ was a sham from the start – Members of Parliament only started receiving an income for their services in 1912.  Prior to that, right back to 1721, the time of Sir Robert Walpole, only those of significant means could afford the honour of representing a constituency, being bought and paid for by the local landowners.

Twentieth and twenty-first century political history has no place here, although I am happy to trade blows with anyone who would vie with my observation that the Conservative and Unionist Party, or a close imitation of it, holds and has held the Golden Ticket in the UK for the best part of the last hundred years, at least.  That is too long – at least, that is too long.

Does the freedom of information the internet provides spell the death of Democracy?  The lies no longer convince – the truth is harder to hide.  Understandably, there are many who will see the proposition “Britain needs a strong ruler willing to break the rules” supported by 54% of a representative sample as dangerous. They will hold up the spectre of intervention by right-wing extremists, Marxists, anarchists, and any other ‘ists’ you care to name.  They will warn of the breakdown of law and order – little realising, perhaps, that it is their law and order, no longer the law of the people.

A strong ruler.  Maybe it is time; maybe Democracy has failed to withstand the test of truth, and maybe even dictatorship is better?  Does Churchill’s quote ‘Democracy seems a very bad system until you examine the alternatives’ hold good in 2019?  Personally, I cannot see myself casting another vote until radical changes have been made.  We are already stabbing each other in the streets; if we take no action now, when does the shooting start?

Expectation

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It is on a morning when rain falls like a judgement, when the forest trees drip in syncopation and all wild things forebear.  It is upon the birthing of a day behind veils of mist that creep, seeking, and the ground would slip beneath your feet like a frightened thing.

I walk alone, remembering, and here in the high woods it is meet I should remember, for my mind and my heart I left here, long ago.  Here, you see, in this tiny glade beneath these solemn branches Jacob lies.  Here, in this dark loam, he rests.

How many years have drifted by since last I walked this path?  Why is it, after so long, the tangling vines seem to know me, so that they reach out to wrap themselves about my ankles?  The questions are intrusive.  I cannot concentrate.  Questions…questions…

“Two-three, eyes are opening…”

Where am I?  Not woods, not trees…

“Four-five, fully awake, now…”

A smiling face near to mine.  Jacob is fading.  “Jacob?”

His hand is on mine, reassuring me.  “No, Jacob isn’t here anymore.  I’m Simon, remember?  This is my consulting room.  You’re back.”

Back.   Back in a restful room with warm old paint, dark furniture, soft carpet.  I take a few minutes and Simon allows me the time, letting me adjust.

“Where did I go?”  I ask him at last.  I seem to have forgotten.

He smiles his brilliant smile.  “You talked about a village, and trees.  Who is Jacob?”

“I don’t know anyone called Jacob.”

“While you were under you returned to that name many times.  Jacob seems to have been someone who died.  You described a climb through a forest to visit his grave.  Would that mean anything to you?”

“I don’t think so.”  I have propped myself up on the couch and Simon sits before me in his chair, engaging me with his kind, gentle eyes.  I could lose myself in those blue oceans – so deep, so deep. He looks thoughtful.  “I explained, didn’t I?  I used a hypnotic technique we call age regression, which guides you back to a stage in your life where something happened – something your conscious mind buried because you couldn’t cope with it.  Hypnosis can free your subconscious to express what is troubling it, but it seems the technique did not work on you.  I’m unsure of the time or the place you just described to me.  Has your memory of it gone?”

“I don’t remember anything,”  I say.

“Well, it may be no more than your imagination, but then…”  My psychiatrist relaxes in his chair, his right hand on the arm, fingers stroking – yes, caressing – the brown leather.  He talks in his even, quiet voice,  almost to himself. “Maybe, just maybe?”

“Maybe what?”  I ask.

His penetrating gaze seems to seek out my soul – softly, but insistently, too; like a mist – like a mist in a forest.”

“No.  No, nothing.  We’re looking for some traumatising experience from your younger years, but you seem to have been describing a time long before you were even born; at a guess around one hundred and fifty  years ago.”  He says. “The way you spoke, the way you constructed your sentences was archaic.  Some of the words you used…”  My face must express my shock, for he raises his hand in a placatory gesture.  “This probably isn’t real, simply your imagination playing tricks.”

Simon gets to his feet, perches himself upon the edge of his desk so he is looking down on me, allowing me to dwell, as I have so many times, on the nobility in his face; so assured, so wise!

“You may or may not believe in reincarnation?”  He picks up an antique letter-opener from his desk and holds it delicately between his fingers.  It is a beautiful thing, and he is a man who, I know, has a love of beautiful things.  “I’m not sure I do, but now and again sessions like ours throw up little mysteries…

“You aren’t serious?”

“Maybe only half-serious,” He acknowledges.  “I’m reminded that a long time ago, in the 1950s, there was a book; ‘The Search for Bridey Murphy’, I think it was called.  It’ll be out of print now, but for what it’s worth if you can get hold of a copy it might help you to better grasp this subject. It concerned a woman who, when under hypnosis, described herself in a previous life.  The book was widely criticised and spawned a lot of lurid fiction, although the subject matter was never really disproved.”

“So I’m returning to a previous life?  How is that possible?”

“I certainly didn’t intentionally instigate it, but if there is such a thing as reincarnation then maybe, yes.  The way you talk about your clothes, for example, the freedom you feel, the way brambles catch and mud smears the hem of your dress, as though you are wearing something ankle-length.  Strange; very provocative.”  He sighs regretfully, replacing the letter-opener on his desk. “Not ideal wear for a woodland walk.  Anyway, that has to be all for this week.”

So it is time to part.  How can I express the desolation I feel? “Already?”

“We have had an hour.  We’ll pursue this further next week, I promise.  In the meantime, if you remember anything…”  Simon comes to me, takes my hand, supports me as I regain my feet and I am trembling – but not from any lingering state of trance unless you count the thousand sensations that rush through me at his touch.

Back on the street my car awaits me and I reassume the mantle of my work.  Although for much of my life I deal with fools I am a responsible woman with a job that demands my time, and in many ways it is this which carries me along, helps me to cope with the panic in my brain, the physical pain that assails me, without any medically explicable cause, for every waking hour.  The sessions with Simon, if they are not curative, are intellectually stimulating and a beacon in that busy life, an eagerly awaited entry in my diary each week.

Do I dream of him?  In the delicious richness of his voice I know we will find the reason for my pain.  Yes, I dream. Not a day passes when I do not think of him, long to be with him.  We have been seeing each other, a session a week, for some months now, and I know the feelings I have are not unshared.  That declaration will come.  It is merely a matter of time.

Another week.

I am woken again.  “We’re getting close,”  he says, “I have to admit, I’m fascinated.  I’ve seen brief snatches of a similar phenomenon before, but never with such clarity.  I don’t regress you at all now, you go back there by yourself!”

“I’ve discovered a new skill, then.”  I touch his hand affectionately, letting his electricity shoot through my veins.  “I haven’t been able to find the book,” I tell him.

“That doesn’t matter.  The circumstances of your case have very little in common with Bridey’s, as it turns out.”

Another week.

I am in the kitchen, cooking, when Jacob comes to me, pressing his body to me, urgent, wanting.  Though I may laugh and push him away he knows me well – he knows I will put the pan aside and he will not be waiting, or wanting, long.  When we are together we are not close, we are one; a sweetly moving, lithesome thing that seeks to spring new life in me, a life that I will treat with gladness when it comes.  Jacob is love and more than love.  Jacob is truth.  Jacob is my world.  For one, transcendent moment, Jacob is Adam, and Adam is Jacob.

“Four, five, fully awake…”  Adam laughs.  “At least we know who Jacob is,” he says;  “Although I’m not sure where it gets us.”

Another week is where it gets us.  The dreams are changing, now.  It is no longer Adam’s dark blue stare that obsesses me.

“The sun has nearly set,”   Susannah says, “Your Jacob isn’t home, then?”

“No.  He’s lampin’ up on the hill.  ‘Tis the best time, now, for rabbits and such.”

Susannah is my friend in the village.  She eyes me darkly.  “He’s been doin’ this for a month or so, now, leavin’ you alone.  Catches a lot o’ rabbits, does he?”

“Aye, off an’ on.  He doesn’ get lucky every night, but it helps.  He’s not poachin’, up there.”

“Still, you expectin’, an’ all…”

“I can look affer meself, Suze.  Don’ you worrit affer me.”

“D’you remember Merry Wilson, from down Four Cross?  Came over wi’ us on the Squire’s Christmas Party t’other year?  Strange thing, I hear she been disappearin’ on an evenin’ or two.  Her husban’ John, he’s right concerned.”

“Two, three, eyes opening…”

No!  No, not yet!

“Four, five, wider awake.”

Fight it!   Stay in the darkening cottage, in the village beneath the hill, looking up at the quiet green blanket of the forest!

“Six, seven, fully awake.  My, you were really deep this time!”  Adam is holding my hand so I can feel his pulse running through us both.  “Are you with me, now?”

“Did I give you what you wanted?”  Can I give you what I know you want?

“We’re getting really close,” he says.

Yes, we are, my darling.  I want you so much!  Next week I will tell you.  Next week, in your arms…

Another week.

Jacob isn’t home.  He came through the door for only a moment or so, barely touching his food.

“Goin’ lampin’.”

“Oh, aye?”  I responded.  And he was gone, gun in his hand, striding out towards the hill.

There is a part of me that does not want to know – the sun will soon be setting and I dare not know.  Yet the path is there, and I am bearing a child – his child.

I retreat to the kitchen, fall to butchering our share of the hog neighbour Aaron and Jacob slaughtered yesterday.  Cutting and jointing for the smokehouse will busy my hands, keep my thoughts from turning – or should.  But it does not; nothing does.  My head is filled with thoughts of Jacob up there on the hill, and how I must try to trust him, and not believe the rumours in the village, or the looks on people’s faces when they avoid my gaze.

I must find my husband:  my mind is made up – I must know the truth.  Abruptly, without further thought, I turn from my work, leave my house and tread swiftly up the trail towards the forest.  Only when I am amidst the trees and beguiled by their whispers can my doubts be answered.   Jacob is there; Jacob is lamping, as he said.  I almost run.

How quickly does the music of the woods placate me!  Birds, in soft evening chatter about their nests, fuss over their broods, settling down to roost.  Unseen creatures flit and rustle through the fallen leaves, boughs creak as trees interpret the breeze’s secrets, twigs and bracken crackle beneath my feet.  I listen for the crack of Jacob’s gun without too much expectation, for the productive hour of evening is not yet come, and meanwhile there are herbs to gather, mushrooms and toadstools in plenty!  I wander aimlessly, plucking the wild bounty to fill my apron.  Thus diverted, I do not hear the voices at first.

Then, as I round a bramble thicket they come clearly enough.  A woman’s laughter; a man’s voice, my Jacob’s voice filled with passion!  There, in the clearing before me they are lain together, Jacob with the woman from Four Cross, and I need no education to see what it is they do, but I will not be so betrayed – cannot!  In my fury, in my despair, I reach for Jacob’s gun where it rests against a stump, almost within my grasp.  I have fired it often, I know it well…

Everything is black, then grey, and I am waking.  I do not want to wake, no-one is guiding me, but I must turn away from that glade.  Yet in my retreat it seems I must turn from one desolate path onto another !

“Don’t!  Adam, you foolish man, she might hear us!”

“Don’t worry!  She’s a deep trance subject – she can only hear me when I speak a few inches from her ear!  I left her happily picking mushrooms.  She’ll be fine!  What are you giggling at?”

“Oh, nothing.  I just had this picture in my head of her, of all people, picking mushrooms.  Now look!  Stop it!  I’m sure what you’re doing with that hand is unprofessional.  I hope you don’t do that with her!”

“Her?  Good god, no.  I am the model of propriety.”

“Oh, so you do fancy her a bit, then!”

“A powerful woman, always a little bit intriguing.  No, I am yours, my darling.”

“I should think so.  I’m going to take myself home now and cook us something special – let you get on.  Sweetie, finish early if you can, all right?  Love you!”

“You have no idea how much I’m looking forward to that!  Love you back!”

She is leaving, the woman from Four Cross, closing the door, which is the way it should have been.  She should not have cried out her love for the man who was and is mine by right!   She should not have sobbed as we stood together over Jacob, and there should have been no second cartridge in the gun.

So here I am.

I have been sleeping, for how long I do not know. I was tired, I have slept.  My eyes will open on their own, I will sit up on the couch, I will see how the consulting room door stands open, and the silhouette of my chauffeur who has come to find me, anxious because I have not returned to my car at the appointed time.  If I blink once, I can even see the look of frozen horror on his face, but he does not return my look, for he is staring at the inert figure of Adam on the warm, thick carpet and the exquisite handle of the antique letter-opener which is buried to the hilt in my psychiatrist’s  back.

He looks up, at last, to see how Adam’s sticky red blood is already drying on my blouse, and his throat is dry as he forces out the words:

“Prime Minister?”

 

Photograph:  Andrew Neel on Unsplash

© 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

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s Discuss Nationalism.

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Particularly, let’s talk about Britain and its relationship, or its lack of a relationship, with the European Union.

Examine the validity of arguments for a United Europe, a ‘New World Order’ and its associated myths.  Internationalism is an ideology, not a possibility.  Discuss.

I am an English national who voted to leave the European Union.   This will not be a surprise, given my opening comments.  That I am an older voter is self-evident, that I am therefore by definition senile is a judgement I would hotly contest.

Am I nostalgic?   No.

Do I want to return to days of Empire and solitary glory?  No.

Before the Treaty of Maastricht and its love child, the Treaty of Amsterdam, I had hopes of becoming a ‘European’.  I declared myself as such – I gladly espoused the cause of world unity and I saw the promise of a slow, careful expansion of common interest as nations across the continent joined hands.

What happened?  A hijacking.  Overnight, the bureaucrats moved in; unelected, and with no mandate from the majority in the member states.  Overnight, almost, the original twelve member states became 27; rapidly and without planning.

I am a sentient human being who recognises that:

a:  political structures headed by bureaucrats do not work;  and

b:  A ponderous union of 27 countries many of whom have virulently hated each other’s guts for centuries, who share no common language, cannot be patched into a cohesive whole by anything short of a miracle, and miracles don’t happen.

I haven’t won the lottery yet, either.  The odds stack up about the same.

The dream died.  It died at Maastricht.

So…

Do I want to live in an independent, dynamic Britain, free to take its place in the world?  Yes.

Do I want to see the people of Britain determine the future of Britain?  Yes.

On a conspicuously memorable date in 2016 the government of the day, conscious of a steadily rising swell of discontent, decided to actually ask the voters – real people – if they wanted to leave this bloated, federalist EU.  They said yes.

It was an unexpected answer – it sent shock-waves through the pseudo-intellectual metropolitan elite and shook the putty from the windows of those who actually score from having no boundaries between nations, the big multi-national corporations, the financial institutions, the academic community, and the criminals.

So accustomed have our politicians become to manipulating public opinion, no-one in the ‘Westminster Bubble’ believed that an outbreak of common sense could happen.  Once they realised it had happened, they set in motion the biggest campaign of mud-slinging and deliberate scare tactics I think the British public has ever seen.

They galvanised a sympathetic media into action.  They compiled a small dictionary of gloom, utilising terms like ‘falling off a cliff’, ‘walking blindfolded into catastrophe’ and ‘the disaster of a no deal’ and fed it to the press pack.

A BBC reporter or presenter could no more omit a deleterious ‘Brexit’ reference from a news report or general interest item than they could appear in the month before Remembrance Day without sporting a poppy.

The Prime Minister managed to shelve the whole thing for nearly two years and then set in motion a sort of wheedling apology that masqueraded as a negotiating approach to the EU bureaucrats – a tactic meant to imply that the ‘leave’ voters were either deluded old fools or naughty children who hadn’t grown up.

The harsh truth I would wish you to consider is:

Those whose weeping and wailing is the loudest heard are those who represent the fatted calf of corporate capitalism, the big bonus guys, the golden parachute guys.  The industrialist who charges you thirty K for a car he made for 3.5 K, the multi-national producer of the incredibly shrinking candy bar, the purveyor of lorry-loads of sheep on three-days-long journeys from nation to nation in conditions that are conspicuously cruel and will only end in their slaughter.

The point I want to drive home is one for the little guys, because crushed beneath the thirty-stone arses of these corporate slobs is a fresh, vital queue of business wannabes who, given their chance to shine, can secure the future of this vibrant land three times over.   Britain has the ideas, the resources and the sheer talent to succeed far, far better on its own than as the member of an asset-stripping club like the EU.

We have so much to offer the world, and a world ready to listen to what we say.  We have the right to enact our own laws, to fish our own waters, to retain tax owed on British sales, and not have it leeched from our system by Luxembourg, or Dublin.

I beg you to think, as I have thought, about where your loyalties lie.  Sadly, all Europe ever wanted to do with our country was raid it for its natural advantages.   The truth of the European Federal State is that it is a leaking, institutionally corrupted hulk desperately in search of a sandbank to stop it from disappearing beneath the waves.

Leave them to it.  Become British and become proud of who you are.  Demand that those for whom you voted do your will.

Just leave.

 

 

The Lady in the Wood

From the horizon of my memory there was, had always been, a lady in the wood.

Walking or running among the fallen of an autumn morning when I was very young I met her there, picking wild herbs and toadstools from among the trees.  This was in the year my mother first sat me down before a piano.  The lady’s appearance was strange to my infant mind, so when I described her to my father I did not mean it unkindly when I likened her manner of dress to the piano keys.  Such was the picture I had of her, which would stay with me over time.

My father explained that the lady lived alone in the wood, and I must always be polite to her, so the ‘piano lady’ joined my list of those to whom I must always be polite, which in those days was just about everyone.   Was she an aunt, like the aunts who visited at Christmas?

“She is not one of your family, Dominic.  Sister Augusta is a recluse, a very religious lady.  In many ways, we are her guests.”

This seemed strange to me.  The wood was ours, a part of the ‘grounds’ surrounding our home.  Why was it acceptable for this oddly-clothed lady to live so freely among us, almost as though we were honoured by her presence?

“She’s a very holy lady.”

“Does she talk to God?”

“Quite possibly. I wouldn’t be qualified to judge.”

Further answers would trickle down to me gradually, with the years.  Long before I was born, my mother told me, Madders End was a priory.  The peaceful acre of green patrolled by our mower each summer once yielded to the feet of a dwindling order of nuns who tended vegetables in the walled garden where roses now grow or chattered noisily through echoing corridors where I ran, roller-bladed and played chase with a streak of white fur called Taffy.

For centuries Madders End novitiated a steady supply of fledgeling nuns, earnest women who craved the peace to be found within its doors.  But as centuries change fashions and devotions must alter too, and there came an age that brought no new brides to plight their troth to Christ.  One by one His ancient harem kept their appointments with Him in Paradise until so few remained they could no longer sustain their living at Madders End. The old house came up for sale.  My parents saw the place and loved what they saw.  They bought it, the house and all its grounds together – the stony beck which runs down to the River Madder past the orangery, the tranquil little garden alight with spring flowers where those who gave their love to God now rest, and the wood – the five-acre wood, with its one lonely tenant.

Sister Augusta, like the little garden, came as part of the deal, her right to remain enshrined as a condition of purchase.  Years before, hearing the priory had a ‘hermit’ in its midst, a benefactor had supplied Sister Augusta with a caravan which was pitched, at her request, within the five-acre wood.  When the Church moved the last two of her Sisters in Christ to a care home Sister Augusta remained, stubbornly self-sufficient and really quite charming, to become my constant companion throughout those special growing years.

Our relationship began with the simple, direct language of childhood.  “How old are you, Sister?”

She looked genuinely perplexed.  “Do you know, I’m not sure.  How old do you think I am?”

“A hundred and fifty.”

“Well, that must be about right.  How old are you?”

“I’m six and three-quarters.”

“You’re very brave, coming into the woods alone.”

It was neither a very large wood nor a very attractive one.  No tree was particularly tall, or statuesque.  There was a lot of ground cover, brambles and the like, over which an anaemic mob of silver birches and struggling oaks milled like hungry gulls.   Early conversations between Sister Augusta (“You must call me Gussy, it’s easier”) and I were conducted sitting on a fallen birch log she favoured as a place for contemplation.  When winter came I would visit her at ‘home’, bringing newspapers from our house and a casserole or two prepared by my mother.

Sister Gussy’s caravan, for some reason, possessed no wheels.  It rested on railway sleepers to one side of a clearing in the wood, glaring defiantly out from the undergrowth with its big windows at one end, buried deep in verdure at the other.  Inside it was as clean and austere as you might expect, its only furniture a bed, a table, two elderly leather chairs and a little cooker that hissed and hiccupped its way through a cylinder of gas tucked from sight beneath its skirts.

Skirts?   Yes, ‘skirts’ were a distinctive influence in Sister Gussy’s décor.  From the heavy velvet divide shielding the dormer end of her caravan to the odd pieces of cloth that draped from curtain wires over every cupboard, nook and cranny; wherever there might be doors there was a ‘skirt’ instead, and each ‘skirt’ had an identity of its own. If Gussy needed the pewter dish from which she ate I would find it ‘behind the rabbits’, a shelf covered by a fragment of child’s pyjamas with a rabbit print; so, too, for her religious artefacts (behind the pink stripes), her toiletries (the pandas), and so on.

“So much better than cupboard doors which are forever falling off, or swelling and becoming stuck when the weather’s wet, you see?”

She had very few cubby holes in that caravan and very few possessions.  With a child’s frankness, I pointed this out to her in one of our early overtures of conversation.

“I have all I need.”  Gussy told me.  “The Lord provides, but He is a bit naughty sometimes, because He lets me forget where He puts things.  He is particularly mischievous in the spectacles department!”

Gussy’s heavy, brown-framed National Health specs were a constant vexation to her.  “They persist in hiding from me the moment I turn my back.”

The only other structure in Gussy’s clearing was a small wooden hut discreetly tucked away in the overgrowth behind the caravan, which she referred to as ‘The Necessary’.  The remaining open ground was her garden, planted with neat rows of turnips, carrots, beans and every naturally rooted comestible you could think of.  There were clamps of potatoes, forcing pots of rhubarb, stakes for peas to climb and raised beds full of herbs, although the visual clinicity of this earthly paradise was rather ruined by an array of polythene cloches and netting.

“The birds are absolute terrors, you see?  They are convinced they need my food more than I,”  Gussy explained, musing, as an afterthought,  “Perhaps they do.”

A small bed of marigolds grew discreetly in one corner of the garden.  I remarked upon these being her only flowers.

“Flowers are rather sinful, aren’t they?  An indulgence.  The Lord said I can get away with marigolds because they are quite nice as a tea and good for the skin, but He knows the truth, you see.  I believe I pointed out that chrysanthemums are very tasty too, but He thought that was a step too far.”

Many were the enchanted hours I spent, child and later youth, talking and reading with the ascetic recluse of our woods, while my family shared in the bounty of her garden because, like all well-tended gardens, it unfailingly exceeded its carer’s needs.   Her protest:  “I shall never eat all these!” as she sent me home with a trug full of goodness became familiar to our kitchen.  She might have shamed us for our feckless treatment of grounds that had once fed an entire priory; now so devoted to lawns and vanity they produced not so much as a lettuce, but she never did.

If I have given the impression that we had our darling Sister entirely to ourselves I have misled you. The winding lane by which, at some distant time presumably, the caravan had made its way to Gussy’s clearing was frequented by others too.  Father Macalbee, our local priest, visited once a week to take her confession, and I remember an acutely shy old man in a black coat who I unwittingly interrupted one day, deep in discussion with her.  I was about to retreat but he spotted me and retreated sooner.  He had a car parked in the lane.  He drove away.

“That is Paul,”  Gussy told me,  “A dear friend!  I am obliged to him for the provision of this caravan, and I have known him since the days when our priory prospered.  Alas, we are not so young these days, but he has been most generous to our church and he does not forget me.  We often pray together.”

For whatever reason, it may have been a visit to the caravan of a supplicant with a media presence, or maybe even an initiative by The Church itself, Gussy’s reputation as a solitary all at once became ‘viral’, and spread far and wide.  As I grew to youth I saw more and more visitors make the pilgrimage up the muddy lane to her door; some who sought only her blessing or her company, others who wanted scraps from the plate of her wisdom, which encompassed much.

In a media-savvy generation the fame of such a good and truly honest person was inevitable, my father said, and it seemed he was right, for soon executives in big cars came creeping over the ruts in the lane, bearing offers from newspapers, radio, and television.  Gussy responded to them all with enthusiasm, never once showing impatience with those who trampled her garden or intruded upon her devotions.

“I have become rather a failure as a recluse,” She confessed when I light-heartedly accused her of straying from her mission; “I have to tell myself I am doing the Lord’s work, and I never take a step without asking Him.”   Her face split into a delighted smile; “If only I didn’t enjoy it so much!”

Our family watched Gussy’s first television appearance on a morning show, unsurprised by her calm, almost lyrical defence of her God but afraid for her then, and with reason.  Soon she was holding down a regular spot on national television, contributing short accounts of episodes in her life which exemplified triumphs of faith.  Those stories were compiled as a book that, if it did not exactly top the sales charts, at least made royalties she could pass on – as she passed on any fees – to her beloved Church.

Throughout these adventures the caravan remained Gussy’s retreat, her garden her consolation. As her travels made increasing demands on her I saw her less frequently, as much my fault as anyone’s because I was immersed in my studies, you see, with the Royal Academy beckoning.  I was committed, by this time, to my music.

Sitting at my bedroom window the other day I recalled the last conversation we shared before I departed for college.  I asked her if she felt there could be any chance she could return to her former life.

She pondered my question gravely for a moment.  “If God asked it of me, of course I would.  He makes the running, Dominic, not me.  If He tells me I am more useful spreading His word, I can’t refuse, any more than you can close the lid on your piano when the world means you to play.  I know you do not share in my belief, but I assure you He lives and moves in us both.”

“You must miss it; the peace, the turning of the seasons, all that?”

“Bless you, they still turn.  I am still here, much of the time.  I miss my few special friends.  You, I shall miss when you are away; Paul, I miss him, too.”

“He doesn’t visit you anymore?”

“No.  His years are a heavy burden, and Paul is a very private person – he rejoices in solitude, you might say, as much as I.  With all the dashing to and fro I have to do these days, he is put off, I think.  I haven’t seen him for almost a year now.  It is God’s will.”

I met Sister Augusta just once more, a year later, on the very day I returned from Academy for the winter break.  Previously, between terms I had called at the caravan,  finding it locked and the precious little garden neglected.  I knew she had many engagements; everyone, it seemed, wanted a share of her: ‘a piece of her’ to echo my father’s words.  I would hear news of her successes from all over the world, from the Americas, Australia, Europe – she even had an audience with the Pope. So when my father told me she had come home, that November, I was almost surprised until the look on his face told the rest of the story.

“A friend of hers, someone called Paul, died this summer, and it seemed to rip the heart out of her,  She’s very ill, Dom.  Too ill to live on her own anymore, so Father Macalbee has arranged for her to be cared for by the nuns over at Monckton Delaval.  She knows you’re home today, so Father Macalbee is bringing her here, because she especially asked to see you.  You should prepare yourself, my boy.  She’s extremely frail. Much has changed.”

In my young years I had yet to be close to one who was dying.  The Gussy who Father Macalbee helped from his car outside our door was not the bright star I had known, but a shrunken husk of a life no more than a step or two from eternity.   She brought a parcel wrapped in brown paper which the good Father carried for her and placed by her chair.

She spoke with difficulty, “It is a picture given to me by my blessed friend Paul, who has left us, so I thought it fitting it should come to you and your wonderful family.  It is a gift, a token of my gratitude, now my work here is done.

“The land is yours, now.  I have arranged for my caravan to be transported to Monckton Delaval: the good sisters there are taking me in, and that is my legacy for them.  God will always protect you, and I pray we shall both have some small memory of each other.”

Mercifully quickly, within a week, my dear Gussy was dead, and I was left to mourn, as we all mourned.  She asked, at the last, if she could be buried alongside her Sisters in the little garden where the spring flowers grow, and we gathered there to watch her take her place in earth I like to believe is made warmer by her presence.  That, we thought, closed the book upon our life with Sister Augusta.

The picture she gave us had a place of honour on our dining room wall.  It was old, an oil painting on board of a pleasant country scene featuring a stone monument beside a river.  My father thought it looked Dutch but of no special merit.  Its value was in the gift.  Gussy wanted us to remember her by it, and this we did.  Before long, though, it began generating memories of its own.

My father’s curiosity led him to some old catalogues.  What he found he laid before us all in the dining room.  What he suspected the internet seemed to confirm.  We deliberated for a long time before we telephoned the police.

An art expert from the Victoria and Albert Museum shared our suspicions, and a representative from a Boston art gallery seemed jubilant that Govert Flinck’s seventeenth-century ‘Landscape with Obelisk’, stolen from his gallery many years before, had been found.

The police acted quickly, and it was good that they did, because the sisters of Monckton Delaval were already stripping Gussy’s old caravan down when they arrived and declared it a crime scene.  Within a false inner wall they discovered three more stolen works of art and more than four hundred thousand pounds in used bank notes, a bequest their priory would never get to spend.

Gussy ’s shy friend Paul, later investigations discovered, as Paul Massingberd, international criminal, had every reason to be shy.  To his unwitting friend, he had given a generous ‘gift’ – a caravan large enough to conceal a portion of his ill-gotten gains, in case forced retirement curtailed his gangland income.  He died, though, before he had a chance to make any withdrawals.  No-one was ever charged.

I like to think that Gussy would have been greatly amused by this turn of events, and beyond the reach of mortal man she could quietly smile, as she saw a fresh aspect of her life’s story unfold.  After all, she had lived most of her life in poverty, sleeping within a few inches of a fortune.  She couldn’t have known, could she?

Photo credit:  Joshua Applegate on Unsplash. 

© 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Custodian

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Here was the beginning.  A scratch, no more.   An inch or so of ragged edge, a tiny rift.  Yet, scored across a patina of mahogany that had seen the passing of two hundred and twenty-five years, such a mark was a sacrilege, a venial sin.

How proud was Mrs Birdhoot of that table; how honoured she felt to be its custodian, how acute her distress when a carelessly rested piece of mechanical foolishness with its sharp metal edge had caused the hurt!

“We never own such art,” Berkley, her son by her first marriage had reminded her; “We merely share the honour of preserving it for another generation.”

Tegan Birdhoot had wept and worried about the scratch for days.  She felt she had betrayed the trust of Berkley, her darling Berkley, who had found the table for her at a fashionable London dealer.  “Mother, you will love this!”  And she did.

Her husband, Roydon Birdhoot, only shared her appreciation of the table for its value, but she forgave him because his money brought many treasures within her reach, to be snared by his ample chequebook.  His joy was in ownership.  He was no custodian.  In his mind the table was his; a shrewd investment to be exhibited to those whose admiration he sought..

.  Mr Birdhoot was usually severe in his censure of Tegan because she was his third wife and he could not overcome his mistrust of women.  All the more surprising, then, that he seemed only vaguely concerned by this sullying of his table’s lustre.  “Unfortunate, but a simple mark.  I’m sure you can find somebody to get it repaired, Tegan, my dear.”

Tegan readily assented, and sought the services of ‘Peterkin and Son, Restorers of Fine Furniture’ for the task…

Martin Peterkin came.  He spent an age, it seemed, with his nose almost touching the table top and his spectacles, free-roaming, equally close.  Now and then he would push the rebellious lenses back into place, and gradually, when they thought he was not paying attention, they would slip down his nose again.

Tegan was solicitous.  “Are you all right, Mister Peterkin?”  She feared he might have fallen asleep.

Martin looked up with a start, and his spectacles made a run for it. He jammed them irritably back into place.  “Yes!  Yes, Mrs Birdhoot.  Yes.”  He ran the flat of his hand over the table’s surface once, paused, then repeated the gesture, several times.

“Would you like a cup of tea?” Tegan asked.

“No.  No, thank you.  It’s a nice card table.”

“Do you think so?  My son found it for us; it’s Georgian, about 1790, Berkley says.  Berkley is so knowledgeable about these things.  I love Sheraton!”

“Do you?  Yes, yes; although this table is not actually Sheraton, of course.”

Tegan’s jaw fell the number of inches required for her mouth to accept a golf ball.  “I do not believe I heard you correctly, Mr Peterkin, did you say, ‘not Sheraton’?  It so obviously is.”

“A late nineteenth-century copy, often known as Sheraton Revival. The Victorians liked Sheraton too. The quality of the relief carving gives it away. I do hope you didn’t pay too much?”

“No; fortunately, it seems.”  Tegan silently wondered:  was the twelve thousand pounds she had persuaded her husband to pay for the table too much?  “Can you manage to take out the scratch?”

Martin raised himself above table level to inspect the mark defacing the table’s finely polished mahogany top.  “We should be able to take care of the scratch for you.”

There was a note of reserve in Martin’s voice that Tegan found disturbing, “Well, there’s nothing else wrong with it.”  Then, having paused for reflection:  “Is there?”

Martin saddened her with a look, before lowering his head to the level of the table-top once again.  “There is crazing to the finish, though no more than you would expect to find in a table of this age, but…”  He ran a reverent hand over the folded top of the table, two or three more times, as though each pass might reveal a hidden message in Sanskrit, or awaken songs of tree spirits long dead.  “Please, Mrs Birdhoot, you must feel this for yourself.”

Bewildered, Tegan came to the table, replicating his gesture with a trembling hand.

“There, you feel it?”  Martin asked, removing his spectacles and meeting her turquoise eyes with his own earnest blue stare.  “It’s like a very slight ripple, but indisputably there. The veneer, I’m afraid, is raised.”

Tegan might have demurred, were she not aware of her lack of sensitivity in the touching department.  Cats she stroked had a tendency to spit at her.  “What does that mean?”

“It’s quite common in furniture of this age.  In an original Sheraton the construction would have been solid mahogany; this cabinet maker elected to use veneer on a cheaper wood, which has become unglued. That is the culprit…”  Martin waved an accusing finger at a nearby radiator.

“The heat?”

“Also…also the dryness of the air, yes.  Victorian furniture was made of wood seasoned less thoroughly than the timber we use today, I fear.  Shrinkage can cause it to crack, or as in this case the glue to let go,”   Martin shook his head sorrowfully and drew himself erect; “Thickly sliced veneers, you see?”

“It’s only very slight.  Barely detectable,” Tegan muttered, reluctant to admit she could not feel the defect at all.

“Slight, but enough.  Mrs Birdhoot, I can patch up the scratch but I cannot repair your table.”  Martin gave his verdict in a dolorous tone, “When I prepare the surface there will be movement, you see?  The veneer will move.  There is no stability.  The only way is to strip off the old and replace the veneer, renew the boxwood stringing, everything.”

“Oh, my goodness!  At what cost, I wonder?”

“I would have to ask for more than a thousand pounds. And the result would be serviceable to look at, but any expert would detect new, thinner veneers.  The restoration would devalue it.  Whereas a Sheraton Revival table in good condition might command a figure of, say, six or seven hundred pounds, a restored example could not expect to fetch more than four.”

Six or seven hundred??”  Tegan face was pale with anguish.

“Just so.  Repair is quite impossible, you see?  Economically absurd.”  Then, thinking for a moment, Martin said:  “Second opinion.  Yes, you must certainly seek a second opinion.  I will leave you with that thought, shall I?  No, please; I do not charge for this kind of consultation, Mrs Birdhoot:  I’m sorry I could not bring you better news.”

The visit was suddenly over.  Martin Peterkin, restorer and cabinet maker with the most impeccable reputation, was leaving.  Mrs Birdhoot, whose husband had invited his friend Ellis Margrave to her dinner party this very evening in the expectation that the table would be on show, was panicking.

“Take it!”  Mrs Birdhoot blurted; “The table.  Take it with you!”

Peterkin’s head ratcheted carefully around.  He carefully replied:  “You want me to repair the table?”

“Yes.  No!  Oh, Mr Peterkin, I must be honest with you.  I shall pay you rent, of course, but I cannot have the table in the house tonight.  I have a dinner guest who is an expert in antiques and who, I am sure, will verify your findings.”

“Ah.  Your second opinion.”

“Yes, but when he informs my husband that on my son’s advice I have used his money to buy a fake, there will be consequences.”

“Madam, a Victorian reproduction hardly qualifies as a fake!  I take it your husband believes it to be a genuine Thomas Sheraton.  He will be displeased?”

“Litigious, I should think.”

“An expert in antiques, you say?”

“He has friends,” Mrs Birdhoot lowered her voice deferentially, “At Southerby’s.”

“Dear, dear!  I see your difficulty, Mrs Birdhoot; yes, I do.”  Martin gave repeated nods to emphasise his appreciation.  Eventually:  “Very well, I shall store this table for you.  Let me give you a receipt…”

“You won’t describe it as ‘Sheraton Revival?”

“I shall merely say ‘antique card table’.”

“Thank you.  I shall tell my husband the table has been taken for repair, and I shall think of another stratagem to avert the crisis.  Oh, Mr. Peterkin, I am so grateful!”

Roydon Birdhoot was satisfied with his wife’s explanation for the table’s absence and impressed by her choice of restorer.  “I have heard he does very fine work.”

Her dinner went as well as Tegan Birdhoot’s dinners were wont to go.  Her husband’s celebrated guest Ellis Margrave was wooed by her Coquille Saint Jacques then charmed into satiety by her Coq Au Vin.  He was wined and dined amply enough for Roydon Birdhoot to procure his promise to return for further therapy in a month’s time.

“My stepson’s birthday.  We would love to have you join in our celebration. The Sheraton should be back from the repairers by then; it’s a rather fine table, I should like your opinion on it.”

Mrs Birdhoot felt sure something inside her was dying.

The ensuing four weeks were to be a test of Tegan Birdhoot’s resilience, of Tegan Birdhoot’s sheer strength of will.  She decided her only course was to find a genuine table that could pass muster for the lame duck now residing in a corner of Mr Peterkin’s workshop.  It would take every last penny of her personal resources, but failure would mean her husband’s humiliation, with consequences for herself and her son Berkley too dire to contemplate.

From the morning moment when Roydon departed for his work to the hour of evening when he returned, she ran the ether up to white heat in her pursuit of a genuine mahogany Thomas Sheraton card table.  ‘Phone call after ‘phone call had the same result.  No, this dealer had nothing of her description in his stock, that dealer thought such a table very rare, the other dealer thought she was mad to even ask.

“Sheraton?  Original, not ‘style’?  I do get them from time to time, but they’re always pre-sold.  I can take your details…”

As the third week approached its zenith, Tegan was in a state very close to a breakdown; for not only had she failed to find a replacement table, but Martin Peterkin was becoming impatient.  “I am really not insured for storage of my customers’ furniture items, Mrs Birdhoot, I am afraid I will have to insist you take your table back.”

The dove of salvation arrived, as doves so often do, in the nick of time.  In this case, the white feathers adorned a certain M. Clement Theron, a Chelsea art and antique dealer.

“Ah!  I believe I may have the solution to your dilemma, Madame!  I think I may know of such a table.”

“Oh, M. Theron!  You have it in stock?”

“Ah, no, no, no, Madame.  One never has such a piece in stock, no, no.  I believe it may be available, although of course we must negotiate a price, oui?  I imagine fifteen thousand pounds will secure it for you.”

“Oh, my goodness!”  Tegan Birdhoot was grateful to be sitting down.

Over the ensuing few days, Tegan martialled all her available funds, stripped her credit cards and made a pile of any jewellery she thought her husband would not miss, with the single purpose of accumulating M. Clement’s price.  As a rich man’s wife she had only a very small nest egg of her own, and after every avenue had been explored she still fell short by five hundred pounds – every avenue but one.

“Dear Mr Peterkin, I cannot take the table back, so I propose, reluctantly, to sell it.  With your permission I would like to ask a Mr Hogg to view the table on your premises?  I will agree a price with him on the ‘phone.”

It was a massive gamble, one only a desperate wife and mother whose marriage was forfeit might take.  Fortunately, it turned out well.  Tegan, though destitute and in debt, was able to cook dinner for Berkley’s birthday celebration secure in the knowledge that a genuine Thomas Sheraton table nestled happily in her drawing room.   Ellis Margrave, their returning guest, could not fail to be impressed.

The table, she considered, was substantially the same: a little deeper in colour, perhaps, and of course without that guilty scratch, but its mahogany top was polished to a fine, deep bloom.  Her husband was convinced by it and pleased with the ‘repair’ she had commissioned.    All was well.

Dinner consumed and drinks poured, all gathered in the drawing room.  Ellis Margrave instantly picked out the table.

“Ah!  An original Sheraton!  See the quality of finish these Georgian furniture makers could achieve?  Exquisite!  How did you come upon this little beauty, Birdhoot?”

“Actually,” Berkley the birthday boy stepped forward, “I claim the credit for this spot.  I must say, mother, you’ve polished it up quite impressively.”

“Very impressively,” Mr Birdhoot conceded.

“Shall I tell you what attracted me to it especially?”  Berkley went on, emboldened by wine;  “The dealer showed me.  It has this little secret drawer which you simply will not find unless you know where to look…”

“Really?”  Tegan’s voice rose in protest, “Darling, I’m sure our guest doesn’t need to be shown every little detail…”

“Nonsense, Mother – it only takes a moment!  If you’ll allow me…”

But mother had placed herself determinedly between her son and the table.   “Berkley, dear, you are boring our guest!”

“No, no!”  Ellis Margrave assured her; “I’m intrigued!  I don’t think I’ve seen one of these with a secret compartment added.  Do show me, Berkley!”

Berkley’s enthusiasm was gathering momentum.  “It’s extremely rare, I believe.  What’s more, I remember there’s this charming little message written on the base of the drawer;.  ‘Here my heart waits.’

“Mother!”  Tegan’s hands seemed to have clamped themselves to the table, so firmly her knuckles were white.  “Please move, Mother!  I want Ellis to see the secret drawer.”

“Must you?”  Cried Tegan.

“Must I what?  Good Lord woman, you’re as white as a sheet!”  Berkley gently but firmly steered his mother aside, then bent to grip the edge of the table top,  lift slightly and pull.  “There!  You see?  And you can still make out the message.  I have often wondered for whom it was written?”

Ellis smiled indulgently,  “For some lover, perhaps.  Quite delightful!  A fine piece, Roydon, and in good condition for its age.  Only an old Jeremiah like me would be able to just discern a small scratch repair on the top.  Should you sit down, Tegan?  You don’t look very well.”

 

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

 

 

 

 

 

This Historic Property…

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Would you like to live in this charming little 12th Century Austrian town?   Do you see yourself retiring to a life in the foothills of the Alps, less than an hour from Salzburg (think Mozart, and ‘Sound of Music’) in the hometown of FranzXaver Gruber, the composer of the carol ‘Stille Nacht’(‘Silent Night’)?

Availability of property of any quality in Braunau am Inn in is rare, unfortunately.  When a fine example does come on the market it is invariably pricey.  You would expect it to be so.  For a roomy statement town house, this house, for example; Salzburger Vorstadt 15, with its parking spaces, its garaging and all mod con, 1.5 million euros (1.7 million dollars) would not seem unreasonable, would it?  That’s what its 68-year-old owner Gerlinde Pommer thinks, and fortunately a northern regional court in Austria has backed her valuation up.

So, how about making an offer?

Well, there is a small problem.  You would face competition from the Republic of Austria, that has been renting the house at 5000 euros per month for some years.  The national government desperately wants to buy the place itself – in fact, it offered Gerlinde 310, 000 euros for the freehold only two years ago.  That’s why she appealed to her regional court – she thought the offer was too low.

Well, alright; there are two small problems to get over if you want to buy this house.  The second problem concerns a former tenant who was born there in April, 1889, while Lois Hitler and his third wife rented an apartment on the top floor.   Little Adolph’s residency was brief because his family moved on in 1892, but Saltzburger Vorstadt 15’s mark upon history as Hitler’s birthplace is indelible.

There’s a stone monument erected before the house to remind all who pass by of the horrors of the Holocaust, but that still doesn’t prevent neo-Nazis and pro-Nazi sympathizers from meeting there, treating the house as a place of pilgrimage.  It is because of a fear that the property might become a shrine for the extreme right wing of Austro-German politics that the national government wanted initially to tear the place down, but in the face of persistent opposition they have promised instead to ‘alter it beyond recognition’.  It stands empty, having been used for some years as a facility for the disabled.

So ‘with vacant possession’ might be appropriate, might it not?  Tempted?  No?

Then let’s sit back and watch as the arguments about valuation and possession go on, right up to European Court level, I suspect, because the Austrian State Government doesn’t want to pay Gerlinde’s price.

We’ll wait until something less problematic becomes available.  I wonder if Saltzburger Vorstadt 14 will hit the market anytime soon?

Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!

 

Picture attribute: By Stadtamt Braunau am Inn – Stadtamt Braunau am Inn, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18971999