The story so far:
Joseph has admitted to his relationship with Marian, the wealthy married businesswoman by whose patronage he managed to survive through most of his years in London. Yet, to his aunt and uncle, his explanation for leaving her seems unconvincing, and too much interrogation sends him on a walk through Wednesday Common, from where he can view the outside of the farm where Violet Parkin was murdered. He meets his former girlfriend Emma there. She warns him not to discuss their past relationship with her husband, Tom, once Joe’s best friend.
Joe is helping his uncle at home in his garden when his aunt announces that the police have arrived…
Owen Masefield could hardly have failed to notice his nephew’s reluctance as they joined the uniformed constable who stood in their front room, gazing out through the french windows at Julia’s summer garden. He was a young man with bright, eager eyes and a narrow, slightly pallid face. His domed helmet sat on the chaise longue like an obedient pet, waiting for him to sit beside it. He immediately picked up on Joseph’s misgivings, though Joseph had thought to disguise them.
“Am I keeping you from something, sir?” Joseph shook his head dumbly.
“Joe hasn’t been well,” Aunt Julia explained.
The constable studied Joseph for a moment before he went on; “We’re asking everyone in the village if they saw or heard something which might help us with our investigation into a suspicious death. This was on Friday. About four o’clock in the afternoon it would have been.”
No, Joe’s aunt and uncle declared, they hadn’t. And the other routine questions the young constable asked received similar negatives. He jotted down their answers in his notebook. It seemed, he admitted when he had completed his list, that no-one saw and no-one heard.
“Mrs Parkin must have struggled – she did struggle. There would have been some noise.” The constable’s eyes kept returning to Joseph. “You weren’t here, though, were you sir? You didn’t get into the village until when?”
“About five o’clock. I caught the four-forty-five bus from Friscombe.”
“An hour later. Come down from London?”
Joseph filled in the details for the constable, who dutifully recorded them all in his notebook. He thanked everybody for their co-operation, made complimentary remarks about Julia’s garden, and left, wandering down the front path towards the road. Joseph caught up with him.
“I wonder, officer, can you tell me? How did she actually die?”
The young man frowned. “Now why would we want to know that, sir?”
“There are wild rumours. I had a bit of respect for the old lady, and I know some of her relatives. It would be better to know the truth.”
The constable subjected Joseph to puzzled scrutiny. “Well, I can’t tell you everything, but I can say whoever killed her must have really wanted to hurt her.”
“He must have been strong, too.” Joseph prompted.
“He? How do you mean?”
“The thing with the pitchforks? It can’t be easy to drive one of those so deep into wood? Oh, come on, sergeant, it’s all over the village! Or is that just embroidery?”
Joseph could not tell whether his deliberate promotion of the policeman’s rank flattered him, or not. The young man certainly made no effort to correct him.
“No, it’s not embroidery. But it would be easier if the pitchforks were specially sharpened, wouldn’t it now?” The policeman shook his head. “I think I’ve said enough, if you don’t mind.”
He turned away. Joseph called after him, without knowing why: “If I can be any help?”
And the policeman replied, over his shoulder: “But Mrs Parkin passed away before you arrived, sir – didn’t she? Anyhow, I’m sure we’ll be in touch.”
The next morning Joseph confirmed his brother Michael’s whereabouts from Julia and announced his intention to pay him a visit. Michael spent his days in a care home a little less than thirty miles distant, near Maddockgate village, a tiny hamlet on the road to Marsden-on-Sea. The only drawback was rain, which began soon after Joseph alighted from his local ‘bus in Abbots Friscombe. With half an hour to kill before the ‘bus to the coast arrived, he sought shelter in a café on the village square. A short woman in a floral apron and flat shoes shuffled between her five deserted tables.
“What can I get you, dear? Got some nice tea-cakes.”
Joseph ordered coffee. The woman shuffled away.
Condensation ran down the window-glass. Outside, the rain was becoming heavier, inducing shouts of panic from passing perms, the clack of running feet. Traffic on the square splashed past, black and half-seen through runnels of moisture. The café door burst open.
“Oh my lord, Bella! It’s just pissin’ down out there!”
Bella was making Joseph’s coffee. “Manners now, Mary. We got comp’ny!”
“Oops, sorry!” The new arrival, a woman in early middle age, encompassed Joseph in an unseeing glance; then she looked again. “Good lord! Joey? Joey Palliser? What are you doin’ ‘ere?”
Joseph smiled bleakly: “Everyone asks me that.”
“It is a surprise, you’ll admit: ‘specially after…” Setting Bella about the task of brewing a pot of tea, Mary came to his table, resting a suggestive hand on the opposite chair to Joseph. “Mind?”
“No. No, of course not.”
“Well, we got to catch up, haven’t we? Why you come back? You reckon ‘tis all forgotten now, then?”
“Clearly not,” Joseph muttered. Mary Harkus certainly wouldn’t have forgotten. Tom Peterkin once referred to her, kindly, as ‘The Voice of the Community’. It was a title she fully justified. Her small grey eyes fixed steadily on his, rain dripping slowly from her blunt features onto the bare wooden table. “It’s been more than ten years, Mary.”
Bella brought their drinks.
“Folks don’t forget Joey,” Mary poured some milk from a small creamer into her cup, topped it up with tea. “No, they got long memories, dear.” She spooned three sugars. “What’s our Charker got to say? Have you met ‘un yet?”
“I’ve met him.”
“Ah, well….” This, laden with emphasis: “He don’t forget his brother. Often talks ‘bout him, he does.”
Joseph nodded curtly. “I’m sure he does.” There was no other recourse than to leave, his coffee untouched. He paid Bella, ignoring her sotto voce: “What did you expect?” and resigned himself to the rain. As he closed the café door, Mary Harkus called after him.
“You watch out for our Charker, mind, Joe Palliser. You watch out, now!”
True to the country tradition, the ‘bus was late and grew later with every mile as it picked its way north to Maddockgate. It was fairly well filled, in spite of the weather: optimistic trippers with hopeful smiles and determined expressions:
“It’ll clear up later.”
“Just a shower.”
Joseph settled into a corner, watching through the fog of spray and steam as the world went past. How foolish he had been to even consider returning here! Of course they would remember – he could never forget, how should they? And it was this road, and in a minute it would be the precise place…
Rodney Smith – as lean as his brother was fat, as clever as his brother was slow-witted, with a long, hooked nose, and Dickensian pomposity: imbued with a swift, sarcastic tongue. The Smith family took pride in his intelligence, his diligence, his certainty of success – but to Joey Rodney Smith was a relentless tormentor. To Rodney, Joe was a target for humiliation; a hapless, worthless adversary who seemed a little slow, a little shy.
“You, Joe Palliser? You won’t ever amount to anything!”
Whenever Joseph voiced an ambition that taunt sapped his confidence, drawing spikes of laughter from all about him and snapping shut like an iron maiden on the meagre flesh of his self-esteem. It followed him through school, this malignancy, and into adulthood. Wherever Joseph was, whoever he was with, Rodney would always be somewhere near. Talking with girls:
“Now there’s a surprise! Are you turning straight, Joey?”
Rodney excelled at sports. Not just one, but any sport. He scored goals, he ran like a cheetah, his tennis game was accurate and vicious. Whenever teams were selected, Rodney was always the first to be picked. Even then, the barb: “If I play for you, you have to promise not to pick Joe Palliser. I want us to win.”
Once, reduced very nearly to tears, Joseph grabbed Rodney’s hard-muscled arm. “Why do you keep doing this to me? What did I ever do to you?”
“Do to me? Whatever makes you think you could do anything to me? I just don’t like you, Palliser. You’re a worm. You belong in the soil where I can tread on you. I enjoy it!”
Joseph would have succumbed completely, were it not for Sarah. She nick-named Rodney Smith ‘Achilles’. It irritated him visibly, the more so because Sarah was as widely admired by the girls’ half of the school as he. Finally, he was driven to ask her:
“Too much muscle and too much pride – and because you’ve got a heel, mate. You’ve got a heel.”
Nobody knew what Sarah saw in Joseph Palliser, least of all Joseph himself. One morning when Rodney, who constantly attempted to add her to his list of trophies, put that question, she smiled at him kindly.
“He’s all the things you’re not, Achilles dear. One day you’ll find out.”
Sarah had departed for London and her new life long before that day came. Joseph had begun working for a firm of solicitors in Braunston, with the hope of eventually taking articles. His employer, an amiable old solicitor called Carnaby, bore his immaturity with resigned patience as he coaxed the best from this spotty-fleshed youth with his large, soft eyes and downcast look.
By then Tom Peterkin was Joseph’s closest friend. Tom was a mechanic by nature and birth, performing little tasks in his father’s garage from an age when Victorian pauper children would have been too young to climb chimneys, only happy if he was oily fingered and greasy-faced, attacking an obscure nut or a recalcitrant bearing. So when in the summer of fifty-nine Joseph bought an old Ford Pilot car, he provided a catalyst for them both.
Tom’s grin split from ear to ear. “Now then!” He said ecstatically: “What can’t we do with that?”
Thereafter, car modification filled their weekends: Tom’s Sunbeam in one corner of his father’s workshop, Joe’s Pilot in the other. Tom wanted a ‘rod’, a highly modified, brightly painted street car, while Joseph, typically for him, craved anonymity and disguise. As Tom’s car gradually mutated into a squat, barrel-tyred, garishly painted speed machine, Joseph’s underwent far more subtle changes. Under the senior Peterkin’s tutelage Joe transformed his Pilot’s eight cylinders, subtly widened its road wheels and replaced its suspension, all without any obvious alteration. He revelled in secret pleasure, enjoying the efficiency of the machine he created: an inward smirk, maybe – or another aspect of the tightly introverted person he had become?
All that changed one Saturday morning in February nineteen-sixty, when Joseph drove into the garage, to find Tom standing triumphantly amid a stack of boxes.
“All the way from America!” He proclaimed proudly. “Absolutely the fashion, this. We got Nitro, boy!”
Nitrous oxide; laughing gas: the dentists’ companion and the street racer’s fuel of choice. A sleeping giant, in the disguise of one small cylinder, a few fittings and valves, all concealed from general view. At the turn of a tap, a monstrous surge of raw power, which might turn the exhaust pipe into a cannon, overheat and destroy an engine in seconds if used unwisely – but what seconds! Joseph was not immune to a boy’s addiction to speed. Before a week had passed, his dignified old conveyance had developed a more sinister aspect.
Joseph was proud of his driving skills and his car was admired by the local girls, not for its undiscovered pace – it retained its innocent outward appearance – but for the sheer shiny care he lavished upon it. He enjoyed their attention. It was not for him to acknowledge that his popularity was for all the wrong reasons: he was, in so many ways, a child still. But he was no longer an outsider.
This did not escape the notice of Rodney Smith, whose new stamping ground was Braunston. Rodney was bound for Cambridge that autumn, so why he could not simply put the Palliser boy behind him and move on, no-one could understand: yet Joseph remained the object of his jibes, a butt for much of his humour. Palliser’s emergence, his seeds of success seemed to gall Rodney particularly; especially when one of his girlfriends enthused about the gleaming black Ford Pilot.
The ‘bus slowed down, dropping a grating gear for the winding descent towards Maddock’s Teirny. A bend to the left…..no, not here: not this one. Very near, now though…
Joe had been alone, driving his favourite route into the hills. He was so relaxed he did not see the sleek MG convertible that swept up the road behind him: with a blare of twin air-horns it thrashed past, a brief snapshot of Rodney’s grinning face and an obscene gesture as he cut in viciously, sending Joe’s Ford careering out of control into the verge.
For a few seconds Joseph’s precious machine teetered at the brink of a ditch which would surely have sent it to its grave before he managed to stabilise it. Receding into distance, Rodney Smith drove with his left arm resting across the top of his passenger seat, chuckling as his mirrors revealed the drama behind him.
Rodney drove fast, laughing as he rotated the joke in his head. That stupid Palliser! So pretentious, so impertinently neglectful of his station! The boy was working class, and utterly naive. It may have passed muster with the village tarts, but he, Rodney, was not convinced by a cheap old banger larded with polish.
At length the event ceased to amuse Rodney. He began planning his first date with Josephine, who he had promised to pick up from her Marsden home by half-past-ten. There was a champagne picnic – a new concept even for him – in the car boot. It promised to be a very special weekend indeed.
A raucous shout from a car-horn gave him a moment of alarm, which redoubled when he glanced in his mirror and saw the low bull nose of the Ford Pilot right behind him. Through its windscreen he could pick out Joseph Palliser’s face, set in a grim smile.
So he wanted to compete, did he? Good god, hadn’t the repeated humiliations, the thrashings at every game he played, the constant ridicule been enough? Very well then! With a calculated skill which typified everything he did, Rodney dropped a gear, put his foot to the floor. The MG answered him willingly, and he allowed himself a leer of triumph as the old Ford fell back. A right-hand bend at speed, a little tail-end drift, neatly controlled while the wind rushed through his chestnut hair – why didn’t he do this more often?
The Ford was still there. Now it was drawing closer, its headlights set on full beam, its horn repeating that demanding yell. All right, then, Joey Palliser – a bit more; is that what you want? Again, Rodney decked the pedal: pounding along the straight towards the summit of Tierney Hill, watching Joe’s car drop back. Then, a crackle like distant gunfire and all at once it became larger; very much larger. There was a hard-edged whine from the pursuing car’s engine, a throaty bellow from its exhaust.
No-one would know at what precise point Rodney’s perception of Joseph Palliser changed from one of sneering contempt to acknowledgement of imminent threat. Later, Joseph explained to the police how Rodney succeeded in negotiating the first three bends of the hill before the MG’s front tyres lost their grip.
“He was just going too fast – much too fast. The speed when he overtook me…well! Coming down the hill, I knew I was going to find he’d left the road somewhere…”
The bus slowed significantly now, sought out yet another gear. This was it – this next bend. Joseph could not resist scrubbing at his cloudy window as the bus heeled sharply left. Still there, the gap in the hedge, after all these years, closed by chestnut hurdles. Beyond it the field which dropped sharply away into the valley: the field where Rodney Smith’s glittering future ended.
Joseph could not wipe away those memories. Although there was nothing he could do, it was a high price to pay and the first time he had ever seen someone die.
The police did not even investigate Joe’s car. After all, as he explained, he was well away from the accident when it happened. There was no reason to believe he was anything other than a witness. The Ford looked like quite an ordinary vehicle, so they never sought out the cylinder of nitro in the boot, or checked it to find it was nearly empty.
Joseph was free from suspicion. He took care to remove all trace of gas injection from his car the same afternoon, replacing the old parts in the carburettors. But rumours began to spread in Abbots Friscombe, tales of how Joey Palliser had forced young Rodney Smith into a duel, and by some devious trick or another Rodney had lost. Some alleged Joe Palliser had run the innocent Rodney from the road; people who would have treated that suggestion with incredulity a week before, but such is the way of rumour: it makes heroes or villains wherever its appetite takes it.
Tom Peterkin gave him the warning: “The Smiths are after you, boy. Charker’s sworn to get even. I’d lie low if I was you.”
Tom, of course, knew more than anyone. But he was a true ally: he kept his peace.
But where, you might ask, did Joseph’s brother Ian feature in all this? How often was he called upon to leap to Joseph’s defence through those lonely, harassed years? Well, the answer is nowhere. Ian, you see, counted himself one of Rodney Smith’s best friends.
© Frederick Anderson 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.