Animal heaven is where…

If it isn’t, this should be true! Thank you ‘Incarcerated Shadows’ = please do visit his site…

Incarcerated shadows

Animal heaven is where…
By AJ O’Brien.

Dogs ride little green bicycles
and take kittens for a ride,
where when the sun goes down
lions and deer, sleep side by side.

Where every Friday, foxes gather
along with hamsters and chickens,
upon a cloud of silken white
to discuss the works of Charles Dickens.

Where bats have super eyesight
and giraffes never have sore throats,
grizzly bears wear nose pegs
when dancing with smelly goats.

Where horses race snails
and snakes are never ever mean,
all frogs have a leg on each corner
and cows sing in fields of green.

Where all ants are named Eric
and ducks wear little blue hats,
dolphins sunbathe on the beach
and penguins are super acrobats.

Where tigers drink red wine
and spiders weave webs of gold,
fish swim and are never caught
and polar bears don’t know the word cold.

Animal Heaven is…

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Hallbury Summer – Writer’s Notes

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In the comments and questions surrounding the last few episodes of ‘Hallbury’, I mentioned that I had re-written the ending of the original book, which engendered the obvious question, I suppose – what were the changes and why?

The substance of change began with Joe Palliser stumbling across Charker Smith on Wedesday Common:  Jennifer Althorpe’s fate was the same, but in the original version Charker’s gun had two barrels.  He was about to fire the second barrel into Joe when Tom Peterkin fell across the gun, taking the full force of the shot.

Next, the book moved to a bedside interview between Joe and a police inspector to clear up the mysteries of the story. Joe gave his explanation of Violet’s antecedents, the contents of the folder, etc., after which the action cut to the night of Ian’s ‘count’, and a lengthier passage concerning his arrest for the murders.

In the afterword, a crippled Tom and Emma raised the child she conceived during her liaison with Joe.   Financially, they were reliant upon Joe, who never found an emotional constant of his own.  He had a distant half-marriage with Sophie: ‘It took three years before he and Sophie finally got together in a sort of marriage.  Even now it is a long-distance relationship, especially since Aunt Sophie’s father died’   and a continuing relationship with Michael, his mentally ill brother, whom he also supported.  For most of his life he was destined to drift, alone with his memories of Marian:

‘The last time I spoke to my father?  No, I am not afraid of the question – I telephoned him just the other day.  He was vague, as usual.

“Are you off to France?”  I asked.

“Yes, I suppose so.  Next week, I believe it will be.”

“Are you going on your own this time?”

“Why not?  Marian will be there.”  My father said.’ 

Other details?  A disabled Jennifer Althorpe became much closer to Sophie, while Charker opened his logging business in Canada, rather than Scotland.  And that’s it!

On the face of it, they seem quite minor, these changes, but they altered the complexion of the last chapter considerably.  Why?   Well, this is the boring stuff!

To shorten the book for serialisation I removed quite a lot.  That altered some practical details; Joe’s explanations to the detective in the original included research he had made into Parkin family history, but for serialisation his visit to the library was cut, so Joe had to catch up with that in the postscript.  Immediately after the fire he simply wouldn’t have the facts.

Charker setting up a logging business in Canada?  I can’t imagine Canada would be anxious to welcome an immigrant with attempted murder on his record – so for the serial I changed the location to Scotland.  Lucky Scotland!

Editing made a huge difference.  Making sex scenes more ‘acceptable’ to a blog audience (and agreeable to WordPress) I blue pencilled much of Joe’s epic last night with Emma, the original version of which was loaded with nuances and tensions.  Here’s one of the tamer bits:

And now he saw her need, saw how her whole body was quaking in its grip; and this was his need, too.  There were no more words of resistance, no more pitiful pleas against the inevitable.  Joe took Emma in his arms.  She struck out at him, ineffectual bird-like flaps not meant to hurt.  He parried them, pushed her back so the wall was behind her head and there was nowhere she might escape, and then he steadied her tear-damp quivering chin with his fingers and took her in a kiss.  It was their first kiss in twelve years, yet it might as well have been the umpteenth kiss and no time between, because Emma fell to drowning in it as gratefully and as openly as she had always done, and the time that had slipped away from them both was forgotten.

It speaks for itself, doesn’t it?  But it isn’t right.  Emma isn’t stupid.  She can differentiate between passion and love.  She knows this is the man who left her, claimed to marry someone else, never wrote to her or gave her much thought for a decade.  She knows that they see each other across a class divide, which means that however much Joe thinks of her, he can never belong to her.   No, she has a man she loves in Tom, and Tom is warm and generous, and kind.   Her heart is his, but her body craves the only thing outside Tom’s power to give her; the child she is convinced only she and Joe can create.

Would Tom forgive her?  Of course he would; we will always forgive the ones we love.  And his friendship with Joe is closely akin to love, close enough, once Emma can persuade him Joe is not a threat, to be rekindled.  I didn’t like a relationship in which a crippled and helpless Tom was reliant upon Joe.  Unfair.  So instead I only allowed Charker one shot, and kept Tom healthy.  He, Emma and Joe can agree, the three of them, to live openly with a truth acceptable to them all, for all it is not often articulated!

If Tom does not deserve to be injured, neither does Joe deserve loneliness.  From Marian he has inherited security, which is the kernel for much more.  The Joe of my ‘final reel’ is a changed character with a love of his own; so I gave him a chance meeting (for brevity’s sake – he would have tracked Sophie down in the end) and she approaches him for the desired result.  Yes, I think Joe and Sophie belong together, don’t you?  She has the true generosity of the upper class, and in their brief acquaintance, despite their differences she and Joe found bridges they could cross together.   Unanswered questions remain – would Sophie’s understanding be stretched to accept the ‘arrangement’ he has with Tom – would they, perhaps, have children of their own?  I think they will be happy.

In writing this book about village life, the elephant in the room was class.  Class in the UK has always been and still is the greatest limitation upon progress both materially and socially.  Upward mobility is stifled into virtual non-existence because of it, education reinforces it, birth right has greater worth than ability in any theatre, but none more so than the English village.   If there is a single thought to leave in the wake of this book, it is this: could Ian have murdered Violet Parkin if she was his equal in class, or would he have been forced to take a different road?

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

Hallbury Summer – Episode Twenty-Seven Alliance

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The story so far:

The drama on Wednesday Common reaches a climax when Joe Palliser, anxious to keep a folder he found in the Parkin house from the attention of the police, runs accidentally into a revengeful Charker; in the dark and the ensuing confusion Jennifer Althorpe is shot.  Tom Peterkin’s swift intervention saves Joe from a similar fate. 

After Charker’s arrest the scene has moved to London, to witness Ian Palliser’s encounter and arrest by the police as his result is about to be declared on election night.  Now, let the scene move on again:

There could be no finer testament to Tom Peterkin’s generosity of spirit than his action in saving Joe from Charker that fateful evening when the Parkin farm burned down, just as there could be no greater exhibition of trust than his acceptance that Joe’s indiscretion with his wife would not be repeated. Emma had given a pledge, hazarded her own future upon their one epic encounter, and an odd sort of truce therefore existed between them.  Joe kept to his word, and Emma to hers.

So the relationship between Tom and Joe gradually revived to a somewhat curious level of acceptance, one which was further tested and at the same time fortified on a fine, late summer evening three months after Ian Palliser’s arrest, The companions were sitting on a white–painted veranda that overlooked the garden of Joe’s new home – Tom, comfortable on a lounger with a pint of ale for company, Joe in a rocker, with a quiet contentment between them only broken by the serenade of an insistent blackbird.

“He want’s you to start diggin’, boy,”  Tom remarked, supping from his glass.  “You bein’ idle rich, likely you got to be a gardener now, an’ all?”

“I thought I’d ask Aaron to do it,” Joe replied.  “I caught him casting an eye on that Peace rose when he was helping with the move.  I might give him an excuse to sneak the odd cutting.”

They had been sitting in silence for a while when Tom said,  “Emma, she’m expectin’, you know?”

If Joe had to control a leap of his heart he did not show any sign.  He measured his words.  “That’s good news.  What will you do, Tom?”

“She allus wanted a child,”  Tom’s lips twitched towards a smile.  “We was tryin’ fer years.  Ironic, really.”

“So now she has one.  What will you do?”

“I think we both knows, don’t we?  I thought…I thought we might try and get back together.  Raise it, like.  She wants that, I think.  See?”

Joe nodded solemnly.  “I do see.  It would be wonderful for you both, if you could agree to that.”

“Ah.”  Tom said, and it sounded like an assent.

For minutes together neither man spoke, but sat listening to the strident blackbird and the garden sounds surrounding him.

Eventually, Tom spoke: “What were in that folder?  The one you tried so ‘ard to ‘ide from the rozzers?”

Joe grimaced, although he was relieved by the change of topic.  “Tried and failed.  Photographs, Tom.  Three photographs Aaron took seventeen years ago up at Slater’s Copse.  Violet Parkin, Hettie Locke, Janice Regan, Dot Barker, ”

“And your brother Ian.”

“Yes, Ian too.  It was some kind of twisted ritual: a fire going, and that child, Christian, stripped of his clothes, staked out on the ground.”

Tom shuddered.  “Makes my stomach churn just thinkin’ on un.  Strange, I’n’nut? Even kinky old bastards like Aaron do some benefit.”

“Oh, I don’t think he’s that bad.  He was obsessed with Violet, though, after he saw her with her clothes off.”

“He were allus followin’ ‘er about, that’s right enough.  ‘S’pose that’s how ‘e came to be up there, sneakin’ in the bushes, like.”

“And with a camera!  Something for his bedroom wall?  I don’t know.  They’d probably thrown so much gear on that fire they were too wasted to care.  One of the shots actually looks like they were posing for him.  They killed the little lad, and I don’t think any of them, except Violet, knew why.”

“But they must have found out about the pictures?”

“Oh yes.  The next day, maybe, when they’d come down, or possibly when Aaron went to Ned about his wife.  Ned developed them – Aaron couldn’t – it’s likely Ned was terrified he’d take the film to a chemist or something.  Violet and Ned were close, remember, so the rest of the coven would have got to learn about them pretty fast.”

“An’ they leaned on Aaron to keep quiet.  Not ‘ard, I s’pose, them bein’ he’s relatives an’ such.”  Tom frowned, “Then what?  Ned held on to they pictures?  He didn’t burn ‘em, or owt?”

“Rather the reverse, I suspect.  He may even have made copies, and they became a sort of secret currency, for a while.  When I visited my brother Michael, he told me there were ‘things he knew’ and he even imitated the cruciform attitude of Violet’s body when she was found.  At first I thought he must have been there, that somehow he was implicated in the murder.”

“He wasn’t.”

“No.  When I thought it through I realised; he was showing me how little Christian was pegged down, that afternoon in Slater’s Copse.  The inverted crucifix.”

“So Michael must have seen the photographs.”

“Exactly.  And who would have shown them too him?  Ian.  You see, Michael wanted to be a witch, but they rejected him.  He would have introduced Ian to The Craft, and Satanism was just another step.  So like Ian – they were as thick as thieves those two.  They must have kept me out of it, but I can imagine them giggling over the pictures, up in Ian’s bedroom.  It would have been around about the time Michael was struggling with his mental health – it can’t have helped.”

“Me an’ Emma never heard about un.”

“Nor did I.  I wasn’t part of Ian’s little ‘club’ in those days – he would have been more likely to share them with Rodney Smith than me:  that doesn’t mean he did, by the way.”  Joe glanced at Tom’s emptying glass.  “Another?”

“Don’t mind if I do, Joe.  Don’t mind if I do.  So what sparked ‘em off, these murders an’ all?”

“Ian stood for Parliament, I’m afraid to say,” Joe took Tom’s glass and retreated into his kitchen, calling out through the doorway, “He couldn’t afford any loose ends, could he?  And those pictures were the biggest loose end anyone could imagine.”

“He could of settled fer jus’ gettin’ ‘em back,” Tom raised his voice in response, but Joe was already at his shoulder, fresh drink in hand.

“He might have.  I know he tried.  He met Michael a couple of times in Marsden, away from the Care Home, to discuss any possible places he’d missed.  In the end he’d never be sure, though, would he?”

“Ta.”  Tom acknowledged.  “But if the ‘ole village knew…”

You didn’t see them – I didn’t see them.  If Ian had been confident enough the secret would be kept, he could have taken the chance the four women wouldn’t shop each other, I guess, although it would only take a tempting offer from a national newspaper to break the circle.  What a pity Miss Althorpe was so intent on pursuing me for copy to use against Ian, when the real story was right under her nose.  No, murder was safer – make the crime scene look like a black sacrifice to conceal the real motive…”

“Which was a black sacrifice!”  Tom chipped in.

Joe nodded.  “True, I suppose.”

“Why did he go after Violet first, d’ee think?”

“The other three, they styled themselves as witches.  Violet wasn’t a witch, she was a Satanist.  She led that twisted little ceremony; hers was probably the first cut on Christian’s body.  You put me onto this, Tom, when you told me about her father, Ben Wortsall, who was a harmless old witch.  Violet’s mother, though, Hannah Wailes; nobody talks about her.  Since the arrests I’ve collected a little background, and she was some woman, was Hannah; there seems to be no record of where she came from but during the twenty years she was living at that farm with Ben she was arrested several times for violence, lectured quite a lot for threatening behaviour, and most importantly there were three other unexplained child abductions in the County; all things that ceased with her death.  My guess is that room was hers before it was Violet’s, and more than one poor mite ended up in it, long before little Christian.”

“Like mother, like daughter, then!  The more you digs, the grimmer it gets.  That must ‘ave been a helluva ‘ousehold for Violet to grow up in, then, mus’n’t it?”  Tom allowed himself a sardonic smile.  “Still, it don’t explain how they photos ended up in that there room, boy.”

Joe pondered the question for a moment, before answering.  “I hope the trial will bring this out, but this is what I think.  Ian, or more likely one of his henchman – I met a guy called Alfred who would have qualified – came looking for those pictures, and I think everyone was ‘persuaded’ to give them up, or destroy them.  Not Violet.  Violet may have decided to hang on to hers, because she saw them as a source for blackmail, so she squirrelled  hers away in that little room where she had hidden Christian Matheson’s remains seventeen years before.”

“An’ that were ‘er death warrant, like.”

“Yes, it was.  Ned Barker was next, because he probably had the negatives, though they’ve never been found.  Michael tried to get me to warn Ned, and I might have found out the truth more quickly, if Ned hadn’t wandered off somewhere.”

“Bafflin’!”  Was Tom’s verdict, “I mean, why didn’t ‘e go fer the others?  Hettie, Janice and them?  Aaron, come to that.”

“He probably would have, given time.  The ritualistic window-dressing, the crows in the churchyard, and so on, would only stretch so far.  He tried very hard to make Ned’s death seem natural, because too many murders in his home village during the election would look suspicious, however they were dressed up.  In a way, the mutual guilt was his insurance: they were all implicated, weren’t they?   Even Janice’s husband: as soon as I put in a call to Ian mentioning I was going to search the Parkin house, Albert set the fire that burned it down; we saw him running away, remember? Ian must have called him.  Aaron who held the camera and each member of that group who played a part.”  Joe shuddered, “It’s my theory, anyway.  Those old women came after me, when they thought I was getting too close, and they were very skilled with hallucinogens.  Those little drugged talismans, hidden about the place for me to find….”

#

The court case began in December and dragged on for six months, during which Ian threw most of his personal fortune into legal fees and costs, no matter the inevitability of the result.  In Joe’s belief it was Ian’s interest in Satanism that helped him obtain personal wealth and backing for his remarkably rapid rise in The City, and by getting his case transferred to the Central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey he hoped to enlist aid from sympathetic ears.  That did not happen, maybe because those with judgement predicted his co-defendants would tie him to the murders, and they were right.  When Janice Regan and Dot Barker gave evidence on behalf of the prosecution, Ian’s fate was sealed.

For the murders of Violet and Ned Barker he was given life sentences to run concurrently.  His personal chauffeur, Alf (whose record was as long as the Bayeux Tapestry, by the way) was given twelve years.  As a juvenile at the time of Christian Matheson’s murder, Ian was given no additional sentence, but each of the three women at that ritual sacrifice received conspiracy sentences.  Aaron Pace gave evidence but was never charged.

Curiously?  Well, perhaps not curiously but fortuitously, Joe’s duty to support his brother at the trial, together with his decision to get an apartment in London so he could be near to his business interests, placed Joseph Palliser, plus a takeaway sandwich, on a park bench by the Artemis Fountain in Hyde Park one Tuesday in April.  Although the park was not at its best so early in the year, it was yet a welcome relief from the close air and the crowds of Newgate and the City, and as he intended to view an apartment in Lancaster Gate that afternoon, he could think of no better place to rest and take stock.

“I thought it was you.”  The comment was accompanied by two arms that leant over the back of his seat.  He had no need to turn; the voice was recognisable in an instant.  “How strange it seems to see you here, though not so strange, one supposes, considering your brother’s situation.  You’re a thoroughly bad lot, you Pallisers, aren’t you?”

“I’m afraid we are,” Joe conceded, as soon as his heart had regained a sinus rhythm.  “Sophie, how wonderful to hear your voice again.”   She moved around the bench so she could face him.  She was taller than he remembered, and her wild ashen hair was a little better tamed, but the smart charcoal of her suit exemplified the same willowy form and the same assurance.  “I hate to have to ask this,” he said, wincing, “but do you come here often?”

“Every day,” She said.  “Well, most days, for midday exercise, although I suppose I should change my route hereafter.  Are you in London to coach your miscreant sibling, or on a quest for greater things?”

“Yes to both.   Although we might have to query ‘coaching’; I rather think my brother should pay for all he has done.   I’m offering emotional support, no more than that.”

“Even so are the mighty…?

Joe shook his head sadly, “No, never mighty; misguided, and very foolish, like his brother.  Have you a minute to sit with me?”

“I might have…”

“Share a sandwich?”

Sophie sat, wrinkling her nose in distaste  “Do you mind if I decline?  I have no health issues at the moment, so I’d rather not tempt fate.”  She engaged Joe quizzically:  “Which brother?”

“This one.   How’s the art world treating you?”

“Oh, it exceeds my ability to describe!   I seem to float between negotiations for Turner drawings, two neglected Magrittes, the odd Williams Leader, and this week I am very close to an undiscovered Vermeer!”

“Unbelievable!”

“Yes, it is.  Truthfully, I have spent my last three weeks tracking down second-rate ‘inspirational artwork’ to adorn a conference venue for chest freezer salesmen.  Like so many dreams, the reality is unutterably boring.  Why do you consider yourself misguided and foolish, Joe?”

“I let someone go, someone desperately important to me.  I hurt her so badly, when I would never wish to hurt her.  And I’m sorry:  I’ll always be sorry I did that.”

Rather to Joe’s surprise, Sophie’s pale cheeks coloured instantly, and he believed he saw her eyes fill a little.  “If we are referring to the same person, I think that she should have been more forgiving.  I don’t know what made her so severe – history, possibly – possibly mistrust?”

“I’ve missed you, Sophie,” Joe said unsteadily, “I’ve missed you so much…”

Sophie turned her back to him, and he heard her say:  “Excellent!  Quite excellent!”  She came to herself, swinging to face him, “I’d just like to say, you’re the most disreputable person I ever made the mistake of going out with.  That’s merely to get it off my chest, you understand?  What are you doing this afternoon – back to court?”

“No, I’m going to view an apartment.”

“I seem to recall you boast a somewhat chequered history in the rental market.”

“Which is why on this occasion I shall be looking to buy.”

“Absolutely.  To protect your interests, and since I find myself completely free of engagements, I shall accompany  you!”

Afterword.

When I began this story, I told you it was not my tale, but that of my father’s return to Hallbury, and that is true.  If I have embellished it greatly it is for your entertainment, but the facts remain intact.  These things you deserve to know.

I am a Peterkin, and Tom will always be father to me.  I call him so, just as Emma is my mother, and I am their only child.  Of my other relations, those I call my aunts and uncles visit most often; Joe and Sophie, who have a house just up the hill for when they are in Hallbury, and Michael, who is unwell but bears his burdens with excessive cheerfulness.  He was my favourite as a child, telling me his tales of wild living, and how he scared my Uncle Joe once because he was covered in blood after killing a lamb for his supper.   My great aunt Julia lost her beloved Owen last year.  She is resolutely independent, however, and my mother has promised to keep an eye on her, which she does.

Beyond the hemisphere of my family, Margot Farrier is an old woman now, living alone in her house on the hill.  Uncle Joe calls her ‘The Priestess’ – he visits her, and I wave to her sometimes in her herb garden as I pass that way.   As for the other members of that vile ‘inner coven’, once they were released Hettie Locke and her husband moved away, Dot Barker sold The King’s Head (to a friendly Birmingham couple – I am a ‘regular’), so only the Regans remain.  They keep themselves to themselves, and mix very little in village society.

There are others for whom my Uncle Joe’s return did not bring happiness.  Jack Parkin, whose innocence he strove so hard to prove, was released back into a world that did not love him.  Homeless for a while, Jack slept rough in his own hay barn until his love of cider claimed him.  He had only five years to ‘enjoy’ his freedom, and though many tried, including my Uncle Joe, he could be neither befriended nor helped.

Now a final strand to put in place: Jennifer Althorpe did not die at Charker’s hands on Wednesday Common that night.  She is disabled and likely to remain so, living in London, where she has family to look after her.   Charker, therefore, was dealt with relatively lightly by the law, and after his release he moved to Scotland where he found the capital from somewhere to set up a logging business.  Latest reports suggest he has married now and does rather well.

So that completes my tale.  Uncle Ian will be out next Spring, but we won’t be there to greet him, because we are going to Uncle Joe’s house in Alsace for the summer.  Exponents of the black arts are a matter of history in Hallbury now, and the churchyard is once again a place of solace and peace.  Violet Parkin may rest there, but she does not disturb the grass.

The End

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode Twenty-Six The Tragedy of the Commons

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The Story so Far:   Emma Peterkin has separated from Joe’s best friend Tom, and she has slept with Joe.  Although found out by Tom, Joe is still able to enlist him in a final visit to the Parkins’ home, where they are just in time to see a fire-raiser put it to the torch.  Beating the flames, the pair discover a hidden room laden with pagan artifacts, and the decomposed body of a child.

Meanwhile, Charker Smith has been stirring himself into an alcohol-driven rage against Joe, inspired by the machinations of journalist Jennifer Althorpe, for whom the confrontation will make an excellent story.   Charker has a gun.

“Have you forgotten Charker?”  Tom asked, as the Parkin house blazed behind them..

Joe shrugged, shooting needles of agony through his burnt shoulders.  “I  can’t leave now.”  He said.

“Well, you better be ready for ‘un, ‘cause there he is.”  Tom indicated over his shoulder back along the bridle path that followed the northernmost margin of Wednesday Common.  Three figures, one of whom was entirely appropriate to the path because he was as large as a horse, were discernible in the reflection from the fire, standing some two hundred yards distant.  They too had seen Constable Hallett’s police car.  Joe guessed they would come no closer until Hallett had gone.

Dave Hallett, of course, would not go, not once the tiny wrapping that lay on the lane had been explained to him: and with every minute the villagers were gathering, drawn from their homes by that red flower in the sky.  Their vigil was conducted in awed murmurings and sober looks, a reverential congregation before a burning altar.  How many knew what kind of altar was burning there, Joe wondered?  Was the sinister life of Violet Parkin common knowledge or something shared only by a chosen few?

“This’d explain some things old Jack’s been ranting on about since we locked him up.”  Dave Hallett said, after Tom and Joe had told their tale:  “’The cursed house’ ‘e calls ut.  One thing for sure, we won’t get no more information out of there.”

The Parkin house flared and crashed through its last throes, each new collapse erupting a roman candle into the night sky, as efficient an incinerator as any guilty murderer could wish.  Who was the arsonist, Joe wonderd?  Who knew there was something in that house that must be eradicated completely?  He pressed the folder where he had concealed it beneath his shirt, anxious for the assurance it was still there, because maybe inside it, at last, he had the answers.

Far too late a fire-engine’s siren echoed up the valley.  P.C. Hallett looked beset, trying to control a curious audience of villagers who were drawn particularly towards the small covered mound lying on the lane, while conducting conversations over his radio.  Hallett had covered the child’s body with a sheet, at once disguising it and increasing its mystery.  What was it?  Everyone wanted to know.

Meanwhile, the ever-growing throng kept Joseph secure from harm.  Of Charker and his cronies, there was now no sign.

Joe drew Tom to one side:  “Can we get in the car?”  He asked, pulling a corner of the folder into view.  “I want to look at this.”

Tom nodded.  “I’ll stay here.  Sit in the passenger side, so Dave don’t think you’m tryin’ to drive off.  I’ll tell ‘un it’s alright if he gets panicky.”

So Joe effected a casual stroll towards the car – a pitiful effort at disguise:  his shoulders were hunched with pain, he stared at the ground.

Davy Hallett noticed.  “Joe Palliser!”

“Leave ‘un, Davy.”  Tom said.  “He’s shocked, see?  Needs to sit down for a bit:  be on his own.”

“All same…”  Davy grumbled.  But he made no move to stop Joe.

In Tom’s car, by candle-power from its interior light, Joseph opened the folder which did indeed supply all his answers. Close by, as Jack Parkin’s old home was engulfed, the fire engine engaged its audience anew – police cars were gathering, a van, an ambulance.  Briefly separate from the rapid re-establishment of a crime scene, Joe sat in a daze of disbelief.

Screens were being raised; Hallett was giving his account to a CID officer.  Busy shadows flitted around and Joe knew very soon faces would be turning his way.  His thoughts were in turmoil.  He sat, desperately looking this way and that, trying to make sense of the evidence in his hands.  He needed space –.

“So you saw the fire, Mr. Peterkin,” The young detective was briskly efficient.     “You entered the house to see if anyone was inside.  Did you find anyone?”

“No.  Only that.”

“Ah, the body.”  The detective cast about him.  “The PC first on the scene – is he here?”

Dave Hallett acknowledged the call.  The detective addressed Tom:  “This is an unexplained death so we need a full account of what happened here.  I’m going to ask you to stay nearby for the moment.  Constable, is everything as you found it when you arrived?”

“Yes Sarge.  Mr. Peterkin and Mr. Palliser were stood there, in the lane, with the remains on the ground.  I didn’t let nobody disturb nothing.”

“And where is Mr. Palliser now?”  The detective asked.

Dave Hallett glanced towards Tom’s car.  It was empty. He glared at Tom.  “Dunno Sarge.  I had my hands full, see, keeping the scene clear?”

“Mr. Peterkin?”

Tom glanced towards his car.  “Don’t see ‘im nowhere.”  He answered, truthfully.

“Constable;” Said the detective in a glacial tone; “Would you kindly find Mr. Palliser for me?  Now?”

In the intense activity surrounding the fire Joseph’s escape had gone unnoticed: by the time his absence had been discovered he was the better part of a hundred yards away, bent double as he ran like a dog through the bracken.  And Jennifer Althorpe was running after him.

Jennifer’s evening had been spent on licensed premises in Abbots Friscombe.  Here was the best place, since she had set a fuse in her interview with Mary Harkus, to keep tabs on Charker Smith, he whom she suspected would provide the spark.  Tonight she had watched with almost open-mouthed amazement as Charker and his peers consumed a prodigious volume of beer.  It was apparent the powder keg was about to blow, for Charker was declaring loudly that “Palliser’s number was up”  and he would “deal with ‘un tonight.”  When he left with two companions to fetch his gun, Jennifer followed them.  When they set off for Hallbury, she was not far behind.

The scene which greeted Charker as he spotted Joe Palliser at the Parkin House, greeted Jennifer too.  Although Charker then made himself scarce, she decided the place to be was with Joe Palliser and steered clear of the crowd, focussed upon Joe.  He would not disappoint her.  Cloaked by darkness, she saw him scramble out of Tom’s car.  She could see he clasped something in his hand, and she was close enough to follow.

Of course, watching Charker Smith’s prowess in a public house meant that she, Jennifer, had also been obliged to consume a quantity of alcohol, an area in which she lacked a journalist’s expertise.  Now, bent double in her pursuit of Joe at his rather faster pace, she was, euphemistically speaking, very uncomfortable.  Fortunately the pursuit was brief – unfortunately, its conclusion was other than she expected.

Joe planned to hide the folder and its epic message.  The police, he reasoned, would want a lot more from Tom and himself.  They were likely to be searched – Tom’s car was likely to be searched.  A nearby clump of fern seemed large enough to offer safe hiding for the folder until he was free to retrieve it the following morning.

He heard Jennifer’s clumsy progress at around the same time he discovered his chosen clump of undergrowth was larger than he had supposed: sufficient, in fact, to conceal the person of Charker Smith.  Although his two sidekicks had fled at the very thought of police, Charker’s greater resolve had induced him to remain, hidden at a distance, hoping to get his chance at Palliser.  Even so, he could hardly have wished for a better result, for if he had not risen to his feet Joe Palliser would have tripped over him!

For Joe the jarring impact was as though he were stopped by a wall.  He hit Charker in the belly, head-first.  Charker did not even exhale.

“Now then, Palliser!”   Joe felt himself lifted like a puppy by the grip of one vice-like hand on his collar – small and delicate Charker’s hands might have been, but they packed all the power of the arms that bore them.

“Charker!  Not now!”

“Oh, aye.  Now will do, boy.  You had this ‘ere comin’ a long time, didn’t you?”

With no time even to catch his wind, Joe might well have surrendered to his fate, had he not felt his captor’s shoulders tense, and become aware that Charker was no longer looking at him.

“Hello dearie!”  Charker’s softer voice, on top of so much alcohol, was almost comical.  “Now who the f**k are you?”

“I’m Jenny, Charker.”  Jennifer Althorpe thrashed her way out of the bracken and, discomfited though she was, did her best to sound seductive.  “Remember, in the pub?  You were watching me, weren’t you?  So glad we’ve got to meet at last.”

The big man’s mental capacity was insufficiently flexible to deal with such vicissitudes of fortune.  His simple mission was to throttle Joe (which he was already in the process of doing – to the point where Joe was choking for air) and this added presence was an interference he could not quite take in.

“Well, you met me.”  Charker said, lowering Joe slowly to terra firma.  “Now what?”

“Now?  What now? What do you think?”  Jennifer was advancing, moving in passable imitation of a tigress.  “Now I’ve tracked you down I want to spend some time with you, Charker darling.  Don’t waste your time on Mr Palliser, hmm?  I think he’s holding something we both might need.    I think you have something a girl like me might need too, don’t you?”

If late, her intention to draw the heat off Joe showed some sense of decency – or fear of untimely attention from the police; but she had miscalculated.  Charker in matters of sexual attraction was a breed bull, slow to respond and brief in execution of the act.  As such, he was impervious to flirtation.   In his cups Jennifer, bedraggled by her encounters with nature and her charms blunted by darkness was merely an unwelcome distraction from his single purpose.  Her reference to Joe’s folder was lost upon him: it had no existence for him – all that did exist was Palliser’s neck.

Jennifer, shaking the bracken from her feet, approached within touching distance,

“You stay right there now.”

“Oh, come on, Charker!  You’re a big healthy lad, aren’t you?  I’m sure you are!  Why don’t we have a little fun; just you and I?”  She nodded towards Joe, “Have a little fun with him, if you want?”  Showing utter faith in her abilities, she took the last fateful step.  Charker stood with his left fist clenched on Joe’s neck, his twelve-bore cocked ready for use in his right hand.  Did he see her as a threat, or was he simply confused, addled by drink?  .  The gun discharged upwards into Jennifer’s stomach – a shot she felt much more than she heard.  As fire-arrows shot through her, Jennifer, her breath taken from her, could only utter a rather foolish “Oh!” of surprise.  Then came a deeper blackness.  Far off, at the sound of the gun, the shouting began.

Difficult to know if Charker realised the horror of what he had done – difficult to know if he was cognisant of anything at all.   Away to his right, bodies, torches flickering, pounded through the bracken towards him:

“CHARKER!”  Tom’s voice bellowed.  Tom knew whose gun he had heard.

Charker Smith stood like a colossus, motionless as Jennifer’s body crumpled against him before dropping like a discarded doll onto the heath.  At the clamour of urgent voices he said nothing, did not even move, save to crunch his fingers ever deeper into Joe Palliser’s throat.  Still weak from the smoke of the Parkin fire and pinned by those vengeful eyes, Joe was once more on the cliff edge of a struggle.  Too long it was before the mob could reach them, before shouting, grabbing human forms barged Charker down:  three or four of them, it took.  Big hands trussing him with handcuffs.  Joe, released, falling into capable arms…Tom’s arms.

And then silence…..unearthly silence.

#

At three o’clock in the morning Finsborough Town Hall was normally deserted.  The chairs and tables which rattled and scraped so busily now would be stacked away; the bare board floor a night-time desert across which wayfaring mice might wander fearlessly, with the odd small bug or two for their only company.  Just once in every five years might the lights be burning like this so early in the morning, the floor so heavily burdened by the rush and bustle of a crowd buoyed up on a heady ambrosia of renewed hope – rarely at any time of day or night would the atmosphere be so electric, the hum of expectation so vibrant.

For all the years of their marriage Ian and Caroline Palliser had maintained a single-minded dedication to The Party.  They had been challenging years.  Tonight, they would remain close to one another, and occasionally the girl from the Shires who had reached for the highest apple might sneak a hand into her husband’s; a reassuring squeeze, a hint of encouragement.  And Ian might respond, a little; though mostly these days it seemed he did not see her, or feel her touch at all.  She had reconciled herself to this.  The frantic round of engagements, political discussions – high-minded theory, low-minded cunning – had left them both so exhausted that she had very few moments to stop, to ask herself where her future was going, whether or not she would have taken this road?  Only here, tonight, dutifully beside her husband in her entirely empty role as a prospective candidate’s wife, had she time to properly contemplate that future.  Did she like the things she saw?  In marriage, she had been told, once the years of passion were gone, the years of deepening friendship were there to look forward to.  Had there ever really been passion?  Was Ian her friend?  Was she anything at all to him, other than the right wife to have, from the right family, the proper background?  So maybe those little gestures of reassurance were necessary indeed.  Not for Ian, but for herself.

Ian was deep in conversation with Laurence Montague-Hearst, his agent.  The clerk touched his shoulder.

“They’re almost ready, Mr. Palliser. It would be best to make your way to the stage now.”  The clerk, in trying to maintain a pretence of confidentiality amid noisy cheering from certain sections of the throng, managed to achieve something best described as a subdued shout.  “After the Presiding Officer has announced the result, you make your acceptance speech, sir.  Can you keep it to five minutes, if you would?”

Ian raised a hand to show he had heard, though he did not move to follow the shorter, stumpy figure of the clerk as it made its way through the crowd.  No, he would take his time, be sure he was last, or nearly last, to join the gaggle of hopefuls who shifted nervously and noisily around those boards.  His political hackles were up; his nostrils filled with a scent of plot.  By midnight the trend in the count had been blatantly clear: it was Palliser by almost a landslide – so why was Trimby Harris, his principle opposition, looking so buoyant?  When their eyes had met, as occasionally they must in so small a space on so long a night, there had been an odd twinkle there, not the disposition of a man who expected to come second.

He gave the Clerk another couple of minutes, then moved purposefully towards Harris with an extended hand.  The old man responded instantly; his strong clasp at once a gesture of friendship and confidence.

“Looks like you’ve won the count, dear fellow!  Shall we face the music?”

‘Won the count’?  Why not just ‘won’?  Mind buzzing, Ian accepted the big, guiding hand on his shoulder as it steered him towards the dais.

So……

At what point did he realise?  When did he see the two men – those two odd, misfit figures in their cheap clothes standing between him and the stage, between him and that symbolic climb?  Did he notice the small push by which Harris compelled him forward?

“You are Mr. Ian Palliser?”  The taller of the two addressed him deferentially.  “I’m Detective Inspector Royston, sir.  I wonder if we might have a word with you?”

 

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

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode Twenty-five Purification

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The story so far:

Shaken badly by his discovery of his brother Michael, bloodied and in possession of a knife, then further upset by having to watch as Michael is taken into care, Joe Palliser arrives upon his erstwhile friend Tom’s doorstep, seeking help.  The door is opened, however, not by Tom but by his wife, Emma, and he learns Tom, aware of her love for Joe, has left her.   Passions flare and Joe makes love to Emma.

Joe does not return to his aunt and uncle’s house until late afternoon, in the lea of a storm.  He finds the pantry roof has leaked, and looking at the ruined food provides him with a spark of inspiration.

Joe clasped Julia’s shoulder so fiercely she squealed in alarm.  “Joe, dear!”

“Aunt – telephone the police.  Get Constable Hallett to meet me at the Parkin house as soon as he can.  Tell him it’s vital he comes quickly, yes?”

Gripped by an urgency he had neither time nor ability to explain, Joe barely acknowledged Julia’s dumb expression.  “Do it for me – please?”  He nearly collided with Owen as he ran from the door.

In the garage, he hurriedly assembled those tools that had accompanied him on his and Sophie’s raid the previous week.  The bag was where he had left it, most of the equipment easily to hand.  He rushed out into the lane, packing the bag into the back of his Wolsey, acting in such haste that it was not until he had turned the car and headed towards the road that he saw Tom’s Cortina parked at the end of the lane, blocking his path.

As he juddered to a halt, Emma’s husband swung from the driver’s seat, striding towards him.

“You bastard!”

Oh, god, not now!  His heart palpitating, Joe climbed from the Wolsey, stood in the lane – ready to face Tom, to take whatever he chose to hand out.

“No, it’s alright; I aren’t come to hit you, though f**k knows I should!”  Needles of torture were shooting through Tom’s face – agonies Joe could imagine, but never share.  “We was friends once, Palliser – that’s why I’m here.  You got to go!  You got to go now!”

Joe was speechless.

“Take Emma with yer.  I don’ want ‘er.  I told her.  She’s waitin’ for yer – I seen to that!  You got to leave now.”

“I can’t leave, Tom. There’s something I must do.”

Tom shook his head.  “No.  Nothin’ you must do, boy.  Charker Smith’s after yer.  Someone’s been stirrin’ ‘im up.  He’s been drinkin’ hard all af’noon, an’ ‘e’s sworn he’s goin’ to send yer to meet his brother tonight. He’s on his way from Friscombe now, and he’s got his twelve-bore with ‘un.  You got to be out of ‘ere, ‘fore it’s too late.”

What did Joe feel?  Fear, certainly: he had no wish for a showdown with Charker – especially now.  He searched frantically for inspiration.  “Then help me, Tom!  Oh, I’m so, so sorry about Emma and everything that’s happened between us, but Tom, I have to do this before I settle anything with Charker.  I must!”

Tom’s expression was one of complete disbelief:  “Settle with ‘im?  Boy, he’s goin’ to kill yer!  You don’t ‘settle’ with folks like Charker!  What’s the matter with the’?  See here:  Emma, she deserves to be ‘appy.  If she can’t be ‘appy with me, then it’s you she must have.  You aren’t no good to her in a bag, Joe!”

Overwhelmed by Tom’s generosity of spirit, Joe stumbled over his words, but his resolve was absolute.  “There’s been two deaths already in this village – have you forgotten that?  If I don’t act there’ll be at least one, maybe two more.  I think I know what’s been going on Tom and I have to finish it.  I have to get inside the Parkins’ house tonight – now!  The answer’s there, I’m sure of it.  Let me through, please?!”

It was more of a plea than anything else, but it seemed to weigh with Tom.  Those who had died, after all, had been his neighbours too.  Tom was ever a man of action.

“You mad?  All right, if you want to get yerself shot – I’m comin’ with yer, though.  We’ll take mine.”

“You don’t have to, Tom, you’re not part of this…”

“F**k you, Palliser, shut up boy!  Get in – this ‘un’s faster’n your’n!”

“Wait, then!”

Joe grabbed the tools from his own car, ran to join Tom in his.  They were in motion before he could even shut his door.

The Cortina flew.  It flew as though Tom had no desire to live, did not care whether he had a destination or none.  He aimed the vehicle at the bend which led their lane out into Wednesday Common, passing in a flicker the hedge where Joe and Emma had first kissed, where Joe and Sophie had said goodbye.

“See, Joe; I know‘t weren’t all you.  I knows that.  Emma and I, we aren’t been right fer a while.  ‘T would have been alright if we’d had kids, see.  ‘Twould have been alright then.”   He threw the car around the junction at The Point, tail-sliding past the telephone box and missing it by a whisker.  “Then you come’d back, you bastard, and I knew.  I knew.”

The Parkin house was ahead of them now, crouching beyond the bracken in the dusk like some maleficent insect.  Was there – did Joe see – a figure, just for an instant?  Someone half-walking, half-running, around the corner into Feather Lane?  They were there themselves seconds after, scraping to a halt beside the hay barn.

“Now let’s get on with this, whatever ‘tis, and get you both out of ‘ere!”  Tom urged him.

“There’s a window open round the back.”  Joe grabbed the bag of tools.

“No need.”  Tom rejoined.  “Front door’s open – look!”

Someone had been there!  Upon a sudden presentiment and with Tom close behind him, Joe set off for the house door at what amounted to a run.  The smell of smoke hit him immediately – behind it, just as pungent, another tell-tale scent.

“Petrol!  Somebody’s torched the place!”  He shouted.  “Come on, quickly!”

Inside the dim hallway a brown-paper crackle of burning timber added to their exigency.  Smoke crept along the ceiling like a black arachnid, reaching everywhere, probing for release.  Through the wide-flung living room door an orange muzzle of flame snapped and snarled, bubbling the dark varnish of the architrave.  “In there?”  Tom asked.

“No, this way.”  Joe thrust a shoulder against the kitchen door:  it dragged open.  “How do you know Charker’s intent on shooting me?”

The smoke followed them, filling the space above their heads.

“I’m drinkin’ down there now.  I was in the pub as he was workin’ hisself up to it.  He’s pissed silly.  He’d do anythin’ when he’s like that.”  Tom said, closing the door behind them as best he could.  “What the ‘ell are we lookin’ fer?”

“It didn’t strike me until today,” Joe replied,  “I broke in here a few nights ago, trying to find something I’ve known was here all along.  But I didn’t work it out, the first time.”  Behind them, the fire was growing, wood splitting and groaning in the heat.  “Look at the ceiling!”

“What of it?”

“It’s dry – well, almost.  There’s a room upstairs on this end of the house, where a lot of the roof’s gone.  Rain from there must soak through, but it hasn’t, not in here.  So behind this …” He grabbed at a high welsh dresser which dominated the far wall:  “Give me a hand, will you?”

Tom jumped forward, lending his weight.  Showered by a minor cascade of Violet’s best plates the pair slid the heavy wooden edifice aside and instantly a rush of stale, fetid air assailed their nostrils.

“…Is an extra room!”  Joe’s voice betrayed more trepidation than triumph.

The big cupboard had concealed a doorway.  In the day’s fading light there was little to illuminate the small room beyond it save for thin, vertical cracks permeating a rectangular area in the far wall, evidence of wooden screening over what once might have been a window.

“This here’s a hatch!”  Tom raised his voice above the growing roar behind them.  “Us’ll have to get out this way now, boy.  There’s no goin’ back through there!”  He shook his head in bewilderment.  “How come I never noticed this afore?  You must be able to see ‘un from outside!  ‘T would ‘ave been the buttery once, I reckon.  That bolt holds ‘un – you got a wreckin’ bar?”   Joe produced the gemmy he had previously used to force entry to the house, and Tom wasted no time in setting about the bolt, which was seized up by rust.  He worked methodically with a born mechanic’s hands, accustomed to stubborn fastenings in obscure places.

“There she goes!” Tom cried.

The hatch split into two wooden shutters which snapped back with a bang to admit what was left of the daylight.  Their surrender, though, also whipped the fire beyond the kitchen to a fury.  The door from the passage burst open, inducing a gale of heat and smoke from the body of the house, which was now well alight.

“Good glory!”  Tom’s choking gasp was spontaneous.  Joe, too, took a sharp breath, taking acrid smoke into his throat.  Whether he had expected it or not, the sight that greeted them was grim.

Even given its new source of illumination this little room, in size barely more than a cupboard, remained wreathed in gloom.  The threatening glow of the fire did more, highlighting features of the wall to the right of the hatch, against which there stood a small table embellished by two pewter candlesticks and an altar cloth fallen into shredded decay.  On the wall behind the table was a large and quite exquisitely carved crucifix, suspended upside down within a crudely painted pentangle.

The plaster-less walls, saturated by a constant intrusion from water,: were already steaming in the fire’s heat.  A live and very active fungal growth filled one corner, tendrils from it reaching squid-like right and left, its main shoot climbing upwards in delicate white steps.  Fungal stench intensified the oppressive atmosphere.

“Who’s there?”  Tom’s cry was instinctive, “There’s someone in ‘ere!”

Joe snatched a torch from his bag. There was no-one.  The beam, flashed about him at eye-level, discovered only Tom.  “It’s the humidity,” he tried to explain.  “The fire’s vaporizing the damp in here.  The place is wringing wet!”

But superstition was a part of Tom’s nature.  “I don’t like this ‘ere, boy!   Gives me the creeps, this!”

His disquiet was so palpable he seemed to have all but forgotten the rapidly encroaching peril of the fire.  Coughing smoke from his lungs, Joe martialled all his concentration, forcing himself to keep exploring this hellish little space.  Upon the floor, strewn everywhere, his torchlight revealed the bones of small creatures, animals and birds, to which fragments of feathers or pelt still clung.

“Sacrifices?”

“This aren’t witchcraft.  This ‘ere’s paganism.”  Tom voice wavered..

“Right now the distinction’s too fine to matter!”  Joe retorted, inhaling more smoke.

Snatching up one of the tiny skeletons, Tom pointed out a sliver of metal – a hat pin or a large needle, possibly, that had pierced its heart.  All were like this, small sacrifices to a very different god.

“See that?  Black arts, boy.  Devil worship!”

But Joe’s eyes were drawn elsewhere, for in the room’s left-hand corner, partly wrapped in shreds of blanket, and not at first easy to identify, was a larger sacrifice.

Tom saw it too.  “Oh, Jesus!”  He said.

Curled up, the body lay as it had probably died.  There was little more than a collection of bones, but as Tom’s and Joe’s eyes accustomed themselves to the light, neither could mistake the skull, or the pathetic human form it took:  a child, no more than five or six years old.  Tom’s expression asked:  who?  Why?  Joe could only shake his head as an answer, although the explanation was all too clear.   As the fire flowered and prospered behind them, there was no time to reply.

Guided by flickers of angry orange Joseph hastily gathered the remains, wrapped them in the rotted blanket, then carried all he could save carefully to the newly forced window.

“He’s here!”  Suddenly, inexplicably, Tom blurted out the words; “Stop ‘un!  Lord God, stop ‘un!”

Joe froze, the terror in his friend’s eyes turning him to stone.  Choking on smoke he tried to respond; “Who, Tom?  Who can you see?”   Tom’s expression was wild.  It became clear in the space of seconds that the sad collection of bones Joe cradled in his arms was somehow maddening him, but there was no time to discover why, for the fumes in his lungs prohibited further speech and the clothing on Tom’s back was smoking from the heat. Gesturing to him that he should climb out through the window, Joe shoulder-barged him enough to remove any element of choice.  Although a change in him was clearly taking place, Tom seemed to need no second bidding, and once he was through, he accepted the tiny burden Joe passed to him.

Joe made to follow, himself fighting an oppressive sense of fear and baseless anger, casting his torchlight one last time around that evil room.  He knew something must still be missing and he almost failed to see it, for the smoke was obscuring everything now, as though a cleansing spirit was intent upon obliterating a memory, removing a past.  The one last thing it may not have was there, on the table, hidden beneath that ragged altar cloth – an incongruously clean cardboard folder sealed with tape.  Grabbing it, Joe slipped it beneath his tee shirt, then, feeling his flesh sear in the coming inferno, he dived for the window and safety.

Strong hands thrust him back.

Tom, barring his way.  Tom, as though possessed, his features contorted with hate.  “You did it with ‘er, didn’t you, you bastard?  In my bed, was it?  Was it?

The smell of scorching – the realisation that his clothes were beginning to smoulder, ready to ignite.  “No Tom, not in your bed.”  Joe gulped in the fresh outside air  “What do you want me to do, apologise for loving her?  I can’t do that.”

Tom spat on the ground, his face convulsed.  “Love ‘er – you?  You, you fornicatin’ arsehole?”

Joe felt he could stand the assault of the flames no longer.  Smoke rushed past him, stifling him.  He could feel his flesh burning, his consciousness beginning to fade.

Words in his head: ‘Make his guilt his funeral pyre.’

Reality whirled about him; through it the women, those middle-aged respectable country women with their fingers jabbing an accusation:

“Mould him, bind him, make him BURN!”

“Burn he will, die, he shall…”

Summoning up a last ounce of strength Joe made a despairing attempt to get past Tom, to escape from the witchery, to dive for the window; only to have Tom’s big hand grip his throat, pinning him back.

“You?  You didn’t never love nobody, Palliser.  I loves ‘er, see?  An’ I can have her now can’t I?  ‘Cause you’re goin’ to bloody fry, boy!”

So shall it be.  In stillness and calm – in acceptance:  through the gateway of pain is a better place,  so shall it be.

Sarah, half-naked, lying on a grassy bank playing with a caterpillar on a leaf;  Marian between sheets of silk laughing at him gently, teaching him tenderly; two horses grazing in a summer glade; a cottage with empty rooms he would never fill, where someone so precious as to defy expression was waiting…

No!  No, not yet.  Not here, not now.  Too much to live for – for the first time in a long life, too much to live for!!  Joe gasped out the truth he had denied to himself.  “She loves you, Tom.  She was always yours.”

And then – from where – somewhere in his delusional mind, perhaps? –  the priestess came to Tom, a woman tall and strong in robes of fire-silver, as brilliant as the source of all light; and she laid her hand so softly on Tom’s shoulder he might scarcely have felt her touch; but Joe saw it.  For she had said to him:  “I shall try to smooth your path…..”  and she was true to her word.

Tom’s face creased.  “It’s not true.  ‘Tis not true!”  But his demon had left him.  Utter misery and despair etched every line; tears welled in pink runnels down his smoke-blackened cheeks.  His throttling grasp changed into a grip around Joe’s collar, his resistance into a pull.

“F**k it, Joe!”  Joe, only half-conscious with his clothes on fire, allowed himself to be hoisted bodily out into the cool air.

“Roll!”  Tom yelled at him, swore at him, kicked him.  “Roll, you bastard!”

#

Joe and Tom were standing in the lane beside the Parkin barn, watching P.C. Hallet’s blue panda car as it drove around the point at the end of the road.  Behind them, the Parkin house flared as though the devil himself had lit it, engulfed in flame, a red, sparking pyre of malevolence ascending to light the heavens.  Joe’s burnt jacket lay discarded; his ruined T-shirt soaked by the water Tom had thrown over him.  Between them on the stony ground lay a pathetic bundle of blanket with the bones of a child wrapped within.

“Have you forgotten Charker?”  Tom asked.

 

© 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.

 

 

 

I Don’t Normally Give Book Reviews, but…

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If I try to buy a Kindle book from Amazon.com (because I was linked to it there, or simply because I discovered it and liked the look of it) I am politely but firmly advised to make my purchase on the Amazon.UK platform.  Now I understand the probable necessity for this approach – it may have to do with taxation, or other legal restrictions – but it also occasionally means I cannot buy a book at all, because it is not listed in UK.  Most importantly, to me, I cannot give my feedback anywhere but the UK platform.  My review will not appear to buyers in US.

I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed ‘Cusp of Night’, the first of three books in the ‘Hodes Hill’ series by Mae Clair.  It inspired me to give a five-star review, which subsequently appeared on the UK site, but not in the United States.  Now this is a great book and essentially a very American book, so I would say its international appeal is an added testimony to its accomplishment:  opinions influence sales from wherever they may come.

‘Cusp of Night’ does not need my approbation; it has already deservedly attracted 39 excellent reviews from its homeland, but for the sake of transparency Mae Clair’s readers should also be aware of a further five five-star reviews of her book from my side of the pond.   Here, in case you are in danger of missing the book, is my review:

The Most Exciting Action Finish I have Read in Years  

It may not be entirely a coincidence that Maya Sinclair, after a motor accident that so nearly took her life, elects to move to Hodes Hill; nor may it be just a quirk of fortune that she decides to rent the old brownstone house at the corner of Chicory and River Road, close to the alley where Charlotte Hode’s young life was so tragically ended, a century ago.  The house has ‘history’ her neighbour tells her; a truth the house itself is swift to confirm when the clock hits 2.22am.- The Cusp of Night.

Mae Clair’s book is the story of a town unwilling to forget – her heroine comes to live here at the time of the annual Fiend Festival when townsfolk commemorate Charlotte Hode’s death by dressing up as the fiend that butchered her.  But it turns out the butchering is not entirely consigned to history, for in the course of the celebrations a very fiend-like attack takes the life of at least one reveller.

Before she has time to unpack in her new home, Maya becomes involved in the complex affairs of the Hode family and the tragic story of Lucy Strick, the beautiful Blue Lady.

Mae Clair weaves a skilful and extremely readable tale of mediums and mayhem in a very frightened town.  She attacks the familiar totems of money and power with relish and leaves me wanting…well, I guess you’ll know the feeling, when a book is so absorbing you can’t bear reaching the last page, because you want it to continue just a little longer?   Like that.

Which is why I am about to begin reading the second ‘Hodes Hill’ book…

The Rise and Rise of Gina Miller

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In England we are constantly told by ‘authority’ (a nebulous term covering everything from a Civil Service mandarin to a traffic warden) to respect the rule of law, a diktat predicated upon the separation of powers, which is given to include the judiciary.  Judges claim to exercise their authority on the basis of evidence only, without fear or favour.

So, there are those of us who might find it rather surprising that a ruling by the High Court in England that the recent prorogation (suspension) of Parliament for a defined period was lawful, should be overturned on appeal to the Supreme Court not by a majority decision among its eleven judges, but by a unanimous decision.  What happened?

What would influence eleven judges to make a decision so cleanly in a case without precedent which directly involved them in the political process, and from whence would that influence come, if not from political pressure?

No, please don’t insult me by suggesting I am not privy to the niceties of this decision – I am all too well aware that no matter how much sophistry and cant is plastered over the top of it the simple message on the wall remains the same: does the ‘Establishment’ accept the fundamental principle of democracy or does it not?

The case against the Queen’s consent to prorogation was brought by one Gina Miller, whose claims to financing the legal costs from her own resources may or may not be true.  Having ‘won’ this case she today threatened to seek litigation again if the Government acts in a way that is, in her opinion, outside the law.   Which could arguably constitute a coup, could it not?  Can it be the real power in this country now rests with Gina Miller?

Whether or not you agree with the verdict of the Supreme Court, or the manner in which the decision was reached, the outcome is a country without an effective government, needing an election that none of the Opposition parties will agree to call.  Power has been switched to the minority parties by a device which, know it or know it not, is regarded with horror by almost the entire electorate.

The Brexit issue is, of course, at the heart of this.  The authors of the confusion are a small group financiers riding the federal wagon in the sewers of Europe – however, this ‘model’ for overturning the elected wishes of the people is not unique to the UK, but spreads itself throughout the Western world.

It is no longer the job of the politician to reflect the wishes of those who voted for him – not if it conflicts with his private interests or those of his influential friends, or if he simply doesn’t like it.   Boris Johnson is lampooned and insulted personally on a daily basis, usually for his reputed ‘dishonesty’, which really refers to his journalistic efforts.  Yet he is the only person in the whole of the British ruling class with a true social conscience, and he is the only person prepared to lay his reputation on the line and actually get things done!

The comment ‘I have lived too long’ is frequently traded among those of similar vintage to myself.  I’m beginning to believe it.

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode Twenty-Four                        Thunderhead  

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The story so far:

‘Wiccan Priestess’ Margaret Farrier tells Joe his brother Michael was rejected by the Hallbury witches, who Margaret insists are harmless herbalists.  She denies knowledge of recent desecration in the village.   He shows her the package from Violet’s home which she identifies as a love charm. Ned Barker, deceased landlord of ‘The King’s Head’, is its subject.

Joe finally finds his brother Michael in the grip of a psychotic episode.  He placates him, and his elder brother arranges to have him taken into care.   Regardless of the hour, a traumatised Joe seeks support from Tom Peterkin, his best friend.  He knocks at his friend’s door, and it opens…

 

“Oh my Lord!”  Cried Emma.

This was not expected!  Joe tried to form words, “Emma, is Tom….?”

“Oh Joe!”  She took his arms, drew him inside; “Are you hurt?  What have you done?”

In the light of her living room, bleary eyes wide with astonishment Emma took in his dishevelled state.  “Damn it Joe….”  She guided him to an armchair.

“Is Tom awake?”  Joe repeated without thinking, because he was incapable of rational thought, right then.  Why had he not expected Emma to greet him at the door?

“I’ll get you something to drink.”  From the bar Tom had made for a corner of the room, Emma half-filled a whisky glass and brought it to Joe, shuffling in pale green slippers, her dressing gown tied carelessly about her, dropping to her knees to look at him more closely.  “This is blood!  You’m been in the wars properly, haven’t you?”

In the wars?  For hours that seemed like forever his head had been filled with Sophie’s rejection, the shock of his inheritance, Michael’s expressionless face, his emptiness, his despair.  And here was Emma, with her emerald eyes which, full of sleep though they were, could still hold him in thrall, her hair in a tangles, and the smokiness of night in her voice filling him with a warmth of reminiscence for long-ago mornings. To go back there – yes, those were his first rational thoughts for a while…

“Tom?”  He struggled to complete his mantra.  Only a summons to Tom would make this early morning intrusion excusable:  Tom’s presence would quell the surges of emotion which were bursting in his chest, make everything respectable – everything right.

“He’m not here, Joe.  I’m sorry.”

“Not here?”  He repeated her words, mechanically.  At this time of night?  “I must see him, Emm.  Where is he?”

“Tom’s gone, Joe.  He don’t live here no more.  Let’s not talk about it now, hmm? Seems like you’m got bigger things on your mind, boy.”

But no, this was exactly what he wanted to talk about.  “Gone?  Why, what’s happened, Emm?”  For all the scheming of his subconscious mind, that demonic genie that dogged every virtuous decision he attempted to make, it had never occurred to him that his return to Emma’s life might lead to a separation from Tom – or so he would exculpate himself.  But his genie would secretly smile.

She shook her head, seeking strength.  Her features puckered for a second as though she was about to cry.  “I was stupid.  I did something stupid.  Not that it mattered.  The village does the damage anyway, once the talking starts.  Don’t matter what you try and do – how hard you try.  I hurt him, Joe…I hurt him real bad…..”

Emma got to her feet quickly, turning so he should not see the chance escape of a tear.  “You stay comfor’ble there.  I’ll heat some water for ‘e so’s you can get a bath – some of Tom’s clothes…”  She hurried away, through the door into her kitchen.  He forced himself to his feet, following her in the grip of something too strong to be refused, finding her standing in the centre of the flagstone floor with her back to him.  Her shoulders were shaking.

“Emma, I’m so sorry!”

“Sorry?  Why?  Is it your fault?  I’m long past blaming you, Joe – for comin’ back, whatever.  It’s me!  It’s all me!”

His hand reached out.  She brushed it aside.  “Don’t!”

He reached out again.

“Stop!”  Emma told him.  “You don’t know what you’re doing.  You’re tired, you’re upset…”

His fingers touched her wet cheek, all of him shaking at the sense and feel of her.  “I should never have left you.”  He said.

“Joe, we’m married to other people – both of us.”  She turned, looked up into his face no longer careful of her tears.  “Think o’ the things we’d destroy.  Think o’ your poor wife, Joe.  I don’t know her, but….”

He pressed his finger to her lips.  “Come back and sit down.”  He said.

“But the water’s hot, look.  You needs to rest, whatever it is can save until tomorrow…”

He was insistent, guiding Emma to her living room couch where he sat down beside her, took her trembling hands and told her everything.  The words he used, though garbled by fatigue and tainted by the thunderhead of regret above his head, came from deep within him – some not his own, because in his confession it was many times easier to use the criticisms and descriptions of others; of Marian, of Ian, of those acquaintances who had passed by and paused for a while on the winding London road.  It was Marian, after all, who had told him he was weak, Ian who had described him as a leech, Owen who gave him the title of Gigolo.  Joe wanted Emma to see him in the light he turned upon himself.

“I know what I am.  I know who you let into your house tonight.”

When he came to speak of Marian’s death, however, he had no other words than those his own heart could speak.  He described her fondly, honoured her memory.

At the news Joe was not married, Emma caught her breath, raised tired eyes to the ceiling.  When he had finished, she withdrew her hands from his, so that for a moment he thought he had lost her, that she would turn away now she knew the truth. She got to her feet, looked down on him, then tenderly cradled his face in her hands.

“Not married then?”  She said.

“No.”

“Joe, Joe!  All they other things – I’ve known them since we met.  God knows you’m not perfect, and maybe some’d find you weak, or selfish?  But back in them days…”  She paused, reflecting; “Well, there was a seed I saw growing and p’haps you didn’t see it, or if you did you turned your back.  Together we were strong, Joe.  We would have been so strong!”

Here he would have spoken, but she stilled him.  “No, let me say what must be said.  I knew you didn’t really love me.  I would have settled for that.”  Again he made to protest, again she held him in check.  “No, you didn’t.  You didn’t then and you probably don’t now:  but I can see something tonight I didn’t see back then:  I can see why.  You don’t know how to love, Joey.  Maybe because you lost your mum and dad so young, lost your home and everything – maybe because of your upbringing with those two bloody awful brothers of yourn, or because of what happened to Rod Smith, I can’t tell.  But this is what’s left.  You can’t trust – not nobody. You can’t give yourself.  It isn’t in you.”

Joe wanted to dissemble, although in his heart he knew that everything Emma said to him was true.  So when she tugged his hand to make him stand up he meekly obeyed.  “Come on.  Whatever happened tonight, you’m exhausted, boy.  Get yourself a bath while I makes up the bed in the spare room.  When you’ve slept us’ll talk some more, if you want.”

And so it was.  He drew himself a bath among the dangling tights and bath-oil forests that were part of Emma’s separate life, and took on one of Tom’s old coats while she did her best with his mangled clothing.  Then he fed himself between sheets of cool linen and fell into a sleep deeper and more dreamless than he had known in years.  No condition, then, to hear the bedroom door quietly open, or the muted pad of Emma’s feet.

She stood for a long time, irresolute, torn between need and pride, content, as she believed, to watch the slumbering figure in the bed.   But the early hours of morning were cold, and there was a heat within her that would brook no denial at the last.  All the years of fruitless waiting seemed to point towards this moment, on this one night, and if there was a goddess of the Earth she stood commanded now.  So it was that like an act of worship to the first light of dawn Emma slipped the nightdress from her body and slid soundlessly into bed, draping herself behind Joe’s unwary form; making a promise to herself she knew she would not keep; that she would leave again before he woke.

Joseph’s eyes opened to daylight.  He could not tell whether or not the day was far advanced or how long he had slept,  Beyond the opened window no sound, other than the melodies of the birds.  Within, and close to him, the regular rhythm of Emma’s breathing, as fragrant and as gentle as the touch of a breeze; around him, the arms he had lived without for many, many years.

Hours had passed.  They had made love, conspired together with words that were for them alone, and drifted back into sleep.  Now, as Joseph woke it was to the touch of lips upon his cheek.    Smiling serenely Emma slipped a lazy arm across his shoulders

“Oh my lord!”  she murmured, “I’m in such trouble with you!”

“You are.”  He grinned, indicating the open window.  “You’re reputation’s gone, for sure.”

She was rueful.  “I was noisy, wasn’t I?”

“You were a bit.  I think the whole neighbourhood heard us.  In fact, I think I detected a round of applause.”

She slid a leg over the side of the bed.  “You can be sure they was listenin’ in.  Not that it matters.  They’d have guessed anyway, what with the car parked outside all night.  They curtains‘ll have been twitchin’ long afore now.”

“When you said – what you said last night; about my not loving you?”  Joe clutched her arm, seeking to detain her, “Maybe that was true, in a way.  Maybe you’re right, I can’t really love anyone.  But I want to be with you more than any of the things I am supposed to want from life – when you walk away from me it’s as though a part of me leaves with you; if there’s a way for me to love, that’s it.  I love you, Emm.”

Even while he was speaking, her bright green eyes were filled once more with tears.  She stretched out her fingers to stroke his cheek.

“There’s a pretty speech.”  She said.  “Thank you, Joe darling.  Dress now, and I’ll get us something to drink, yeah?”

He did not want the dismissal in her voice.  He did not want to leave her.

“No.”  Emma said more firmly.  “Go on now Joey.  It’s for the best.”

Joe nodded mutely, acceptance.  A moment that was past, a threshold he should never have crossed.  Outside; the seedling corn, clover, cornflower and meadowsweet, children to the burgeoning sun – inside, Emma with the Earth Mother’s blessing within her, primal and so, so powerful; To turn away was hard.

“It’s peaceful, isn’t it?”  Said Emma’s voice beside him.  “You belong here, Joe; you – not your brothers, just you.  You always did.”

They had dressed.  He, standing by the window again, looking out on the sun-drenched fields and the rain-clouds gathering over the hill; she, stripping the bed of its tell-tale linen, in practical mode.  His thoughts were whirling, confused – why had he believed, somewhere in his shrivelled and damaged soul that they could do what they had done and walk away?  It was, after all, so easy when he had done exactly that before.  Not this time.  He had cuckolded a friend, taken the thing that friend held most dear; coveted Emma, slept with her in his house. What was he?  What kind of amoral monster could do such a thing?

Emma came to him.

“Don’t ‘ee punish yourself Joe dear.” She told him gently, as though she could read his thoughts,:  “We’m both weak, selfish creatures.  You at least held back until I told you Tom had left.  I came to you, remember?  I’ve no excuses at all, except one.  I could have no more resisted the nearness of you last night than I could live without water. You’m my fate, Joe – you always were.”  She lapsed into silence, gazing out with him into the bright yellow of the corn, the indigo threat of the coming storms.

As they ate breakfast that was nearly lunch together, Emma expressed the opinion Tom might return to collect some of his possessions that evening, after he had finished his work.  Thus the full story of Tom’s separation from her was revealed.  She told Joe why she had been unable to remove her coat the last time they met, during her visit to the Masefield house, and how Tom had discovered her lying in that state of undress when she returned home afterwards.

“He knew, you see – where I’d been?  He knew as soon as you comed back, Joe.  I couldn’t hide it from him; he was too clever – he understands me too well.”

That evening they had rowed.  Tom had snatched a few belongings and left.  He was staying with a friend in Braunston, this much she knew.  Other than one telephone call, though, Emma had not heard from him since.  It was in that call, after Tom had stated his wish that they should separate, that he had suggested this night as an opportunity for their final meeting.

“I still loves him, Joe.  There’ll always be a space in my heart for Tom.”

Joe wanted to stay, to help her face it out with her husband; Emma wouldn’t hear of it.  “No, my love, this is my fight.  I’ll deal with it my way.”

He nodded his understanding.  “He was my friend too, but alright, if that’s what you want.  Now what about us, Emma?”

Emma pressed her finger to his lips.  “Don’t think about that – no plans, no promises Joe.”

At the door, as they paused to let a pair of village feet click past outside, she whispered:  “Besides, I’m a scarlet woman now, aren’t I?  Who else could I turn to?”

She kissed him goodbye with fervent passion, knowing this was the last time she would kiss him that way, hustled him gently onto the street, then watched his retreating back as he returned to the waiting Wolsey.   And in the sure and certain knowledge that most, if not all of her wishes had been achieved on this night of nights, she tried to imagine the little shoulders that would grow to be so broad, the tiny eager lips that would hunger for her breast, and the end to all the yearning years.

Feeling explicably guilty, Joe did not return to the Masefield house, for he could not face his elderly relations with a sober countenance and deny the electric change that had just taken place in his life.  Instead, as the first distant sounds of thunder muttered their warning, he drove himself by an old road that wound and climbed into the Maddock Hills until it emerged from between high hedges onto a bare hilltop, elevated sufficiently to overlook the coming storm.  Here, he allowed the sheer celebration in his heart to join with the theatre of the elements.  It would not be moved aside by thoughts of propriety; so when he tried to turn his brain to the Parkin murders, or to Michael’s distress, even Marian’s sweetly melancholy letter, it merely threw up another image of Emma, and his body would fill with the same heat, the same need.  Wondering about her, fearing for her lest Tom should fly into a rage, or she should give way to despair, or change her mind, or…. All the while the lightning ripped, the thunder volleyed, the rain fell with the intensity of a glass curtain, sweeping across the valley in fold upon fold.

Hours later, on his way back to the village, Joe called Ian from the telephone box on ‘The Point’.

“Michael’s fine.  He needed a little sedative, and a lot of rest, but he’s safe now.”

“That blood, Ian…he was covered in it!”

“I know.”  Ian said.  “Look, Joe, there’s no proof.  If we were wrong and he hadn’t done anybody any harm, think what we would be putting him through!”

“Is he speaking now?  Has anyone asked him where he’s been?  Ian, if he’s done something to somebody, then he’s dangerous.  There are people who need to know.”

“Do you think I don’t understand that?  No, he hasn’t said anything.  The doctors think he may be some time regaining his speech – a psychotic episode, is how they describe it. Samples of the blood’ll be sent away and tested.  We’ll know ourselves for sure in a couple of weeks.”

“And meanwhile there’s an election?”

Ian sighed.  “All right, yes:  there’s an election.  I’ve worked all my life for this, Joe.  Is it so wrong to want to keep the waters calm for a few days?  Give me a chance to succeed?”

“I will.  I’m sure the answer to all this is in that house – why would he come back here if it weren’t for that?”

“Which house?”

“The Parkin house.  I need to get in there, get some time to look around properly.”

“Joe!  Joe, let it lie, please.  Just let go for once, will you?”

#

Joseph discovered his Aunt Julia in her kitchen, mop in hand.  One glance told him that now was not a good time for glad tidings.

“That infernal storm.  The rain found its way into the scullery.  Everything’s ruined!”

“Where’s Owen?”

“He’s on the roof, trying to fix it.  Help him dear, will you?  I worry about him up there – it’s almost dark!”

“No need!”  Owen’s muffled voice consoled her from the heavens:  “I’ve done it, I think!  I’m coming down!”

Leaning through the scullery door, Joe could see the devastation that torrents of rain could wreak upon packets of flour, boxes of sugar, salt, soap powder, and other household commodities – his aunt and uncle’s supplies for a week, mostly reduced to salvage.

The ceiling had caved in, plaster littered the shelves.

And revelation was a slap in the face, a thousand curtains opening, a fanfare in trumpets of gold.

Of course! 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode Twenty-Three. Bonds of Blood

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The story so far:

Humbled and saddened by Sophie’s rejection, Joe learns the truth about his last day with Marian and the reason for her death.  His inherited wealth will mean he can provide for his brother Michael’s care, wresting control from their elder sibling, Ian, who wants to keep them both out of sight, in case they damage his political ambitions.  Michael has absconded, and while  Joe does not fully understand his elder brother’s anxiety about this, he is determined to find Michael for his own reasons.   Joe fears Michael may be involved in Violet Parkin’s killing.  If he is, will he return to the scene of his crime?

Remembering Emma Peterkin’s information that Michael had spent time with villager and reputed witch Margaret Farrier quite often in his growing years, Joe decides to pay Margaret a visit…. 

“I want to ask you about witchcraft.”  Joe said.

Margaret Farrier raised an eyebrow.  “You’re remarkably direct, I’ll concede that.  Is this the approach you used on poor Janice?  If so, I’m not surprised you frightened her.  Now she is someone who doesn’t like you.”

“She’s changed so much since Teddy died.”

Margaret nodded curtly:  “People do.  The altered state.  We are never prepared.”

Joe felt there was hidden meaning behind those words.  He paused, wondering whether to pursue that particular tack, but decided against it.   “Maybe.  Anyhow, I don’t know any other way to ask.  It seems such an obvious question.”

“Let me see.  You do not believe that Jack Parkin did away with Violet, is that right?”

“Yes.”

“I agree with you.  You do believe her death had something to do with pagan ritual?”  Joe nodded.  “Well, you see there I cannot agree with you.”

A lull.  Margaret Farrier offered no further amplification, though Joe waited expectantly for a number of seconds.  At length he asked:  “Why not?”

“An absence of any evidence, together with the ludicrous notion that this village is infected by the black arts.  The very idea! Absolute balderdash!”  She rose to her feet.  “I think the sun is over the mainmast.  Would you like something to drink?  Whisky, sherry?”

He accepted.  “Miss Farrier, I know Violet Parkin was involved in witchcraft – so why is it such a ridiculous presumption that her death may have been ritual?”

“You know?”  She withdrew a bottle from her sideboard for his whisky, poured her own from a decanter on the shelf, then brought the drinks to him. He stood up.

“Please sit down Joe – may I call you that?  I’m Margaret, by the way; or Margo, if you prefer.  Joe, the people of this village – no, I’ll go further than that – the lonely old women of this village (of which I, by the way, might be said to be one) indulge in the odd herbal remedy now and then;  the occasional spell, if you will.  It is a hand-me-down from generations of folk medicine, and it is a sort of hobby for us, no more than that.  The idea we would stake poor Violet out in a ritual sacrifice is – well – I already used the adjectives:  unthinkable!”  She stood close to Joe as she handed him his drink, challenging his eyes to meet her own.  “Do I look like a black witch to you?”

Joe grinned:  he was beginning to like Margaret Farrier.  “Possibly not.  But then, possibly I wouldn’t know a black witch if I did see one.  I’ve had several versions of the ‘poor harmless herbalists’ argument thrust at me, though, and I don’t entirely believe them.  Dancing naked at solstices, overturned gravestones, and dead animals nailed to people’s doors?  Three pagan rituals and not a hint of sorrel.”

She returned his smile.  “I am a Wiccan priestess, Joe.  There are certain areas of worship that require communion with nature: when it happens it is a joyful thing, but that is just one tiny part of what witchcraft is about, and it’s a long way from that sort of ritual to one entailing human sacrifice.  No such ceremony could be sanctioned by any form of The Craft.  As to the sacrilegious activity and your guardians’ unfortunate experience…”  Margaret shrugged, though her expression was sympathetic.  “Not us.”

“Oh, just as simple as that!  A single brush-stroke:  ‘not us’!”

“Joe, whenever the rumour mill finds a fresh breeze, its sails can be seen turning miles away.  Stories of how poor Violet was found germinate these excesses in every depraved soul who believes he knows how witches behave: and he uses them – to create mischief, to revive old grudges.  As I said:  not us.”

“Nonetheless you admit you do practice witchcraft?”

“I thought I just confirmed that,” She sipped her drink.  “But I’m not the issue, here, am I?”

“No.  I came to ask you about my brother.”

Margaret paused in mid-sip.  Then she said, as if she might have misheard:  “About…?”

“Michael, my brother.”

“Oh, of course!  I remember.  About what concerning your brother, specifically?”

“He joined you, didn’t he?”

“Michael sought initiation, once, it is true.  I gave some teaching, but…”  She paused, choosing her words.  “Michael was in a dark place, I quickly sensed it.  We could not admit him.”

“Margo, have you seen Michael recently?”

Joe was very careful to note the timing, as well as the phrasing, of Miss Farrier’s response.  It was perfect.  “Not for some years, I fear.  He had such burdens, your poor brother – such burdens.”

Still Joe was not fully convinced.  Michael must be nearby, and this house, he felt certain, was one of the first places he would visit.  He continued the conversation, asking questions about witchcraft in a general sense.  Margaret Farrier gave very frank, open answers.

Only when he tried to get her to name specific people or places did she demur with the sweetest but most uncompromising of smiles.

At last he was ready to leave.  As he rose from his chair, a thought occurred and he felt in his jeans pocket, producing the little package Sophie and he had discovered the previous week.

“Would you know what this is?”

It was clear Margaret did know, instantly.  But she delayed long enough to unwrap the parchment and to look upon the photograph within.

“Where did you get this?”

She had displayed perfect honesty: so did he.  “From Violet Parkin’s bedroom.”

Margaret nodded.  “So it was you.  I should have known your curiosity would get the better of you.”

“You know about…?”

“I get to learn, Joe.  I get to learn.  This…”  She waved the components of the package:  “Is very interesting – very interesting indeed.  Tell me, what do you think it is?”

“I thought maybe a love letter, but I couldn’t read the writing.  The man in the picture, is that a younger Jack?  It doesn’t look like my memory of him, but I could be wrong.”

“No – not the younger Jack.  It’s Ned Barker:  taken about twenty years ago, I’d say.  This is a binding spell, Joe.  The sort of spell a woman casts when she wants someone to love her.  The ‘writing’ is in runic symbols – I didn’t think Violet had an appreciation of those – and the spell is bound together with her hair.”  She dangled the thread with faint distaste between her thumb and forefinger.  “Not, you understand, hair from her head?”

As he was leaving, she said:  “I wonder, would you be susceptible to advice?  Be careful Joseph – be very, very careful.  Sometimes in seeking the truth of others we discover the most unwelcome things about ourselves.  I know you have trouble.  I shall try to smooth your path.”

Joe bade the woman goodbye.

In early evening, after tea was concluded and Owen and Julia had departed the kitchen, Joe raided their larder for bread and a little cold meat.  With these and a bottle of fresh water in a carrier bag he slipped from the house by means of the back door and quietly started his car.  He did not quite know why he had to leave so secretly, though maybe there were notions of protection for the old people, whose suffering was undeserved; yet there were others, too, whose attention he would prefer not to attract.  So when he reached the Parkin farm, when he turned into the lane, he cut the engine and free-wheeled the Wolsey as furtively as any thief through the open farmyard gate, only stopping when he reached the cover of the hay barn.  Had he made the journey unseen?  He had reason to hope; the farm was away from the deserted road, and the crime scene tape that until recently made it conspicuous had been withdrawn.

What did he expect to find there?   Joe’s reasoning would have been his need, now he had the means, to do something, anything, to help his brother; to remove him from Ian’s pernicious influence, yet that may not have been entirely truthful.  If he were honest, he might admit that he had to confirm his terrible suspicion that Michael would return to  Hallbury to revisit the scene of his crime.   If it were, where else but this farm should he come?  Joe quitted his car in favour of a stack of hay bales nearer the barn entrance which offered concealment while still commanding a view of the open yard.  Here, braving a constant meal-queue of hungry midges, he settled down to wait.

The hours passed.  An evening sun obscured from his sight set lower in the western sky, casting its rays in a roseate glow across Wednesday Common. He stayed, knees cramped and shivering, as darkness crept, as a pall of solemn sky gathered for rain.  He stayed for a long time.

Much, much later, after the moonless, overcast night had fallen and the cold had begun to etch itself into his bones, he began to admit to the possibility he was wrong.  Michael had not appeared, and glad he should have been!  Had he really doubted his brother’s innocence?  Had he honestly believed Michael would murder a lonely old woman in such bestial fashion?

Eventually, now in total darkness, Joe, resigned, rose to stretch himself.  The torch he had rested on his lap fell to the ground with a clatter.  Immediately, as if in answer, there was another sound.  Not from the open common but behind him, in the barn.  A stir of birds, or bats, in the rafters maybe?  No, this was different.  He cursed himself for omitting the most obvious check of all.  Someone was already there, hiding among the high-piled bales of hay.

“Michael?”

A flurry of raindrops on the roof, promising more.  No other sound.

“Michael, I brought you some food.”

Still nothing.  Joe edged back to his car and reached through the open window, switching on sidelights that would bathe the barn’s interior in a soothing glow.

“Mikey?”

A confusion of sound and shape half-slithered, half-fell from high in the stacks of hay, and even in that dim light Joe knew this was his brother.  Michael landed with no pretence at stealth, springing cat-like back to his feet and for an alarming moment Joe felt he might attack, but Michael, having corrected his balance, seemed to freeze.  They were face to face, the brothers, no more than a yard between them.  Michael’s eyes were wild, his mouth drooling blood and working at muttering, cursing sounds, crying sounds, sounds of distress.  Biting back fear Joe reached out, his fingers finding sodden clothing, exploring the contours of Michael’s arms, his shoulders, his face.   The flesh he touched was icy, the hair matted with mud.  Pity consumed him and he was moved to close his arms around his brother, until he felt the stickiness, saw the darkness on his fingers – smelled the blood.

“Oh, Mikey, where have you been, old son?  What the hell have you been doing?”

No answer came.  The sounds, the inner writhing, continued unabated.  Michael’s body was rigid; his arms pressed into his sides.   Trembling, Joe sought his hand, and found cramped fingers clasping cold steel.    His heart missed a beat.  He ran his fingers along it, the knife, at first as if he did not believe it; then, believing it, in sheer horror; for it was a long knife, a broad-bladed, heavy affair –  a machete, perhaps.  And Michael’s grip was clamped around its hilt with a furious strength.

“Mikey;” Joe said slowly, trying to control the terror in his voice:  “Give me the knife?”

“NO!”  Michael jumped back, raising the blade in a shaking hand, “No.”  Her repeated, and several times more:  “no, no, no, no…”

For once in his life Joe felt seriously scared of Michael.  But that was no answer:  he could not turn his back, not now.  “Mikey, you must give that up.  It’s a bad thing, old son.  Knives are bad.”

“No.”  Michael was focussed, stepping forward again, stabbing the machete at his brother.  Joe might have fled.  He might have done that, and been justified; for to all appearances Michael was beyond him, a lethal stranger only destined to do him harm.  But then what; the police, Joe supposed:  an armed confrontation in the night – Michael, disturbed, angry – scared?  What could happen then?  Courage came, as it always does, from somewhere when it is needed.  Purposefully Joe reached for his brother and gripped the bladed arm, steadying it.  “Mikey; for me, yeah?  Drop the knife.  It’ll be Okay, Mikey, honestly.  We’ll look after you.  Everything’s going to be alright.”

“Okay Mikey.”  They were the only other words Michael said.

#

“I’ve found him.  He’s with me, in the car.”  Joe banged his head against the glass of the ‘phone box.  “God knows why I’m handing him back to you.  I should have gone straight to the police.”

Ian’s reply was calm.  “Joe, you‘re doing the right thing – no police, alright?  He’s our brother, Joe.  We take care of our own.”

“You haven’t seen the state he’s in.  Ian, his clothes are soaked with blood, and it isn’t his.  There’s blood on his face, around his mouth, for Christ’s sake!  I dare not think….”

“Joe!  Joe, it’s alright.  I’m sure it’s alright.  Has he said anything?”

“Just three words.  He doesn’t seem able to talk.  He’s calm now, for the moment, and he’s hungry, but he won’t eat; been living rough for days by the smell of him.  ”

A brief silence at the other end of the line – Ian, thinking.  “Right.  This is what we do.  Take him to the lorry park at Calleston – the new one; do you know it?  It’s not well-known yet, so it won’t be too busy.  Find somewhere – a quiet corner; park up and wait.  Some really good people I have connections with will meet you there – they might be about half an hour after you arrive, but not long.  They’ll get him sorted out and he’ll be back in hospital before morning.  Look, Joe, don’t worry.  Michael’ll be fine – a warm bath and some clean clothes can do wonders, yes?  Now what model of car are you driving?”

“Ian!  He had a knife – a big one.  Have you any idea what he may have done?”

“Candidly?  Have you?  You clearly think he’s been up to something: what – murder?  Did you find him standing over a body?  He’s my brother, Joe, as he is yours; I don’t believe Mikey would hurt anybody, even if you do.  Get back to him and take care of him.  I’ll organise things at this end.  And no police – he’s clearly got enough to cope with without them.  So, what was the make of that car?”

Two hours later, Joseph found himself outside Church Cottages without any notion of how he had arrived there, or what instinct had driven him.  The better part of an hour had been spent waiting, with Michael sitting wordless and inert beside him, in a lorry park for the arrival of a very professionally equipped ambulance.  The two nurses who came to take charge of his brother were caring and gentle with Michael, who, his crisis apparently over, allowed himself to be led like an obedient dog.  The nurses were every bit as concerned for Joseph, aware that he was in the grip of delayed shock and worried that he should contemplate driving in so emotional a state.  There was little they could do, however, and upon Joe’s insistence that he would manage they departed.  Michael sat on the stretcher in the rear of the van, staring fixedly out into the night.   He made no response to Joe’s farewell.  As the ambulance took him away, Joe realised he had forgotten to ask where Michael was being taken.

Now he was here, in front of Tom Peterkin’s door, because Tom was his only friend, and there was nowhere else.  To go home in these bloodied clothes would mean running an impossible gauntlet of questions from Julia and Owen, questions which, in his exhausted state, he could not face.  The shock of this night, the horror of his brother, the sad beauty of Marian’s ghost and Sophie’s last words to him all rotated in his brain and he could not, dare not, spend the next few hours alone.  It was cold and the shivering had begun: someone had to listen; someone had to make sense of it all.  If he had not taken their friendship too far towards destruction, if Tom was still ready to understand, he would be that person:  if Tom was no longer his friend, Joe had no idea to whom he might turn.

His knock echoed in the empty street.  It went unanswered.  The blue front door stared blandly back at him.  He had no notion of how late it was; he had no thought of time.  He waited, knocked again.  At last a light, the shuffling of tired feet:  the sound of a key grating in the lock, a latch turning.

“Oh my Lord!”  Cried Emma.

 

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

Photo Credit:  Steve Halama on Unsplash

 

 

Mission Creep

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If I only learn one thing this year, it will be this:  in the mind of its author, a book is never perfect.

When I decided to serialize ‘Hallbury Summer’ in this blog through the Summer and Autumn, my plan was to break up the chapters of a book I had already written and published into shorter episodes. I anticipated a lighter workload than that which a completely new composition represented, enabling me to shift attention onto other things.

How wrong was I?

From the very first split of the very first chapter I was led by my compulsion to edit, altering tenses, swapping word order, re-jigging the paragraphs that, when I re-read them, no longer seemed smooth to me.  Minor things I thought would get better as the chopping down process progressed didn’t.  In fact, dear and tolerant readers, they got worse!

Now, as I spin Episode 23 into an MS Word document I find myself altering whole scenes.  I am weaving new material in and rejecting the old, to a point where I can no longer claim that the published version and the serialized version are the same book!  So when I promised at the beginning of this venture that you could take a shortcut if you wished by purchasing the Kindle book, I fear I may have (unintentionally) misled you.  There are changes; among other things, the ending will be different.

How different?  I don’t know yet!

And that’s the exciting thing, you see, because I’ve just seen the digital light.  Once upon a not-very-long-time-ago when your book went to print, that was all:  like the felled tree, the wood would no longer grow, only begin the business of dying.  The author would move on, leaving that small trail of forgotten titles rotting in his wake.

But now!  Ho, ho, now!   Now you can take it back almost at will, the book, you can return to it, breathe new life between its pages, and the story is the better for your being there, because you have brought it that much closer to perfection.  That’s what I’ve done with ‘Hallbury Summer’ – I’ve revitalised it:  in my mind at least I have raised it higher, and it is a better story thereby.

This is not to say the old book is bad – it’s not, or I don’t consider it so.  It’s different, reflecting a perspective of a few years ago, and redolent of my thinking then.  I will, however, replace its contents with the serialized version as soon as I have finished it here.

In the meantime, the original remains live on Kindle, linked here on your left if you wish to investgate!