The Story so far:
Joseph Palliser returns to his home village on the day a respected villager, Violet Parkin is murdered. Whilst Jack, Violet’s husband, is arrested for her murder Joe also attracts attention from the police. In the decade of Joe’s absence his ex-girlfriend, Emma, has married Tom Peterkin, who was his friend throughout his youth. When they meet Joe discovers that Emma still has feelings for him.
Joe visits his mentally unwell brother Michael, who, despite his confinement in a nursing home, inexplicably knows about Violet Parkin’s murder. He discovers his brother’s expensive residential care is being paid for, but no-one will disclose the source of the funds. Back in Hallbury he is confronted by a police detective who raises doubts about his movements on the day Violet was killed…
The Detective was clearly waiting for an answer. Joseph took a deep breath: “This is relying on the word of two elderly people who probably don’t remember which ‘bus they were on. As to the Abbots Friscombe train, I’m not surprised if no-one remembers me: there was no-one in my compartment.” He decided upon attack: “Anyhow, does it matter? Are you suggesting I leapt from the ‘bus, ran down to the other end of the common, stabbed Violet Parkin to death and then came back here to greet my uncle and aunt? Ask them what time I arrived. And what possible reason would I have to attack Violet Parkin?”
The young constable was staring fixedly out into the garden. His superior gave Joseph a piercing look. “The time of Mrs Parkin’s death was approximate, sir; so maybe you wouldn’t have had to rush.” He leant forward a little: “How did you know Mrs Parkin was stabbed, Mr Palliser?”
“Shall we say I have inside knowledge?” Joe asked, glancing meaningfully at the young constable and gratified to see his shoulders stiffen. “Detective, do I honestly strike you as someone who sharpens pitchforks?”
The detective sergeant sighed. “Pitchforks, now? No sir. No, you don’t. But you do strike me as someone who knows a lot too much about Mrs Parkin’s death.”
“I’ve been away for several years, Sergeant. I didn’t even know Violet Parkin was still alive.”
“True, but you have associations with this village, don’t you? I wonder if you arrived earlier than you claim, and if you did, you might have seen something, or done something you would prefer not to talk about here. Please think carefully; if you remember anything new and you want to talk to me….”
They left then, the one middle-aged, bearing the weary cynicism of someone accustomed to lies, the other a fresh young puppy-dog with waggy tail, pleased to have discovered something of value to his master. The word they left behind, the one that dwelt with Joseph for a long time that evening, was ‘associations’: did he still have those? And if so, who in the village would have given that information to the police?
In spite of Michael’s plea for urgency, some days would elapse before Joseph could catch up with Ned Barker, the landlord of the King’s Head.
Dot explained. “He’m gone fishin’, lover.”
In village parlance she might have meant he was camping out by a stream somewhere, although he was more likely to be on some other mission entirely. It was no-one’s business but Ned’s, and Joe lacked the persistence to enquire further.
He filled his time by taking the train to Braunston for a visit to the Labour Exchange. The day was warm and sunny so he bought a local newspaper and sat on a bench in the park to browse through the ‘vacancies’ column. Employers seemed to be so discriminating; the qualifications they demanded followed more and more precise lines – ‘Qualified Administrator: HNC or higher’; or maybe ‘Trained Supervisory Assistant – must have at least five year’s experience’. At thirty-one Joseph was, he had to admit to himself, qualified for precisely nothing.
Despondent, he turned to the front page, where the Parkin murder was splashed in giant headlines. Their ‘Suspicious Death Shocks Hallbury’ was less than inspirational, and the report lacked substance, but it brought Joseph face to face with Violet Parkin, for the ‘paper had managed to obtain a photograph of her. A head and broad shoulders glaring awkwardly at the camera, she frowned directly at him, as though she had never forgiven him for disturbing her ducks.
If asked, he would be unable to say how long he had been there when he heard the brush of clothing as someone settled on the bench beside him. He did not look round, or acknowledge the newcomer: his mind was too busy.
“I keep running into you, don’t I?” Said Emma Peterkin.
She sat primly with coppery hair riffling gently in the wind, hands clasped on a small brown handbag in her lap, staring before her; a young married woman in her ‘town best’ – her pale green blouse loosely tucked into the waistband of a hounds-tooth checked skirt which finished just above her knees. Sheer tights or stockings over legs too well-proportioned to go unnoticed, white heels on narrow feet. Undeniably respectable, entrancingly pretty, Joe thought; and utterly miserable.
She turned her face towards him. It was so close to being the perfect face; it was, still, so close to being Sarah’s face: wide set, soulful eyes, a strong nose, broad, sensuous mouth; those two little pink patches on her upper cheeks which flushed furiously whenever she was embarrassed or aroused. Small wonder then, that he had found his way to her when Sarah had gone – small wonder that she still tugged at his heartstrings dangerously, despite the passing of the years.
“I should have just walked past. I’m sorry,” She said. “But I couldn’t. You looked so….” Her voice tailed away.
“Emma.” Joe began.
“How are you, Joe?” She had determined upon a greeting; a normal conversation. They were friends, reunited after a long absence. They had much to share. “I come to town each Tuesday to shop, when it’s quiet. I works the other days of the week and Tom never likes it if I break into our Saturday together. People say the shops should start opening on Sundays and I don’t know if I don’t agree with them – what do you think?”
“I really don’t have an opinion.”
“Really? Really, you don’t?” Emma’s eyes sought about her frantically: “Well, I think it would be a blessing, I do. I…I can’t sleep, Joe! For thinking about you, I can’t…”
“Emma, please?” He reached out for her, covered her hand with his; and simple gesture of compassion as that was, her flesh trembled at his touch.
“Not since you come back! Why the fuck did you come back?”
The word was never more startling in its impact than when it came from Emma. It passed through Joseph like an electric shock – a surge of anger, and pain, and – yes, a stab of intense longing too.
“No! No, you tell me! Not a word from you, Joe Palliser; though I waited. Yes, I did. Because you promised, didn’t you? I’ll write you soon as I get settled, Emma? Remember?” She clasped her hands about her knees, leaning forward, half-hunched, eyes filling with tears. “So why are you here? So you can…” Emma spat out the word… “use me again, to forget your precious bloody Sarah? Because that’s what you did, Joe. That’s what you did!”
“Stop it!” He went to her then, because he was unable to bear her fury; because she was hurting too much. He put his arm about her shoulders and stilled her, took her hand in his and held it there. “Stop, Emma, please?”
“Oh, god!” It was a suppressed wail. “Why’d you have to come back?”
“Emm, you know why I left?”
“Yes, I know. Because Charker was after you. I got news for you, boy. He’m still after you. Charker don’t forget.”
“If it hadn’t been for that…”
Emma glared at him. “Don’t give me ‘ifs’!” Her face was too close to his. Realising, she quickly turned her head aside.
He said: “All this was a lot of years ago. It was more than just Charker, it was Owen and Julia, it was my brothers; the whole thing. But it wasn’t you. All right, perhaps at first I might have been getting over Sarah, I admit it; but all that changed. Believe me, I didn’t just use you. It was far more than that.”
“Oh, the lies we want to hear!”
“No, not lies.” Joe sighed, unashamed that his own breath should give him away: she would sense it, he knew.
“Why didn’t you call me?” Her voice was calmer.
“Emm, I made a mess of London. If I’d managed to find a job I could keep or a home that was more than a bedroom, I would have called, but it wasn’t like that. It wasn’t the answer for me. I did a lot of things I can’t talk about. In the end, this was the only place to come.”
“Oh! Oh, enough of an answer to find yourself a wife, Joe!” Emma snapped back. “Where does she come into all of this? Or are you just goin’ to drop her as well? What must she be thinkin’?”
“She understands. I needed to get away – she knows that.” Why did he choose to be evasive? Did he think the symbolic defence of a wedding ring would be sufficient to deny the temptation sitting beside him?
Emma made no reply. For a long time, nothing was said. People walking by, idling in the sun, would make up their own versions of the story of a man and an unhappy woman huddled together on a park bench.
At length, Joe said: “Look, I’d better go.”
“What are you going to do now? You going back to London, or what?” She muttered.
“No, that’s all over. Wherever I go, I can’t go there.”
“Over?” Emma turned to look at him, red-eyed. The pink spots on her cheeks were afire, her lips were slack. “Then you are droppin’ her! You be careful, Joe. Soon the world’s going to be full of places you can’t go.”
“I thought I’d stay: try and do something with my life.” He could not deny the need to kiss her or, despite her misgivings, how much she wanted that too. Her thigh was pressed to his, sending him arrows of its warmth, and there were so many words that needed to be said – so many things that could never be said.
I want you, Joe! I’m so ready for you, right now. You could take me, here, in front of everybody and I wouldn’t care!
“It’s a good job this is a public park.” She said.
“This is wrong, Emma.” He said.
“I know it.” She shook her head sadly. “And if you stay, we’re going to meet time after time like this, and just pass each other by, I suppose. Oh, I can’t, Joe! I can’t!”
She got up then, thinking she might begin to cry again, and brushed her hand down the back of her skirt.
“Oh, Lord!” She said, and walked away.
Joseph watched her go. It was pointless to deny the way he felt for her, although it surprised him by its intensity: there had been times, after all, when months had gone by without his sparing her a second thought. But then, there had been not just months, but years of denial, of truths unacknowledged. Doing what he had to do – surviving as he had to survive.
Now, seeing her again, hearing the soft invitation in her voice, being close to the heat of her – he shook himself physically. Emma was married: what was more, she was married to the only person in Hallbury he had ever been able to call a true friend. And life was complicated enough.
For a few days Joseph stayed at home, helping Owen with his beloved garden as he gradually melted the old man’s distaste for his ‘gigolo’ ward. In his turn he gained new respect for Owen, an always distant figure in his past. This stern, disinterested father substitute seemed more comfortable with Joseph the man than with the child he and his wife had so selflessly agreed to raise. Once he had learnt to adjust to Owen’s slow, exacting logic, Joseph found depths he had not believed could exist.
There were also moments of startling acuity.
Half-way up the garden Owen had grown two rows of tomato plants. It promised to be a good year, and abundant trusses were already set. Any new shoots had to be picked out, and the pair were engaged in this chore when the older man observed: “You’re behaving like someone who wants to return to the village.”
Joseph grinned: “Really?”
“Is it true?”
“I don’t know.” Joe straightened himself to ease his back for a moment. “I think there may be too many issues, Uncle; I’m not sure Little Hallbury would exactly clasp me to its bosom right now.”
“I won’t deny you’ve got some problems. Funny thing, acceptance.” Ferreting in the depths of his gardening corduroys, Owen retrieved his pipe; pulling a half-used pack of fragrant Amsterdamer tobacco from the same source. He tapped out the pipe on a stone.
“Outsiders see our community as being inbred, insular, positively hostile. It isn’t true, of course – Hallbury is really a well-oiled social machine. It has perfect balance; it consumes and produces on a steady plane, settles its own feuds and petty crime, and so on.”
He turned away from the breeze, cupping his hands around his pipe to light it , then he resumed, speaking between puffs as he coaxed the smouldering bowl into life.
“If you’re born into it, you’re a member. If you aren’t there’s nothing you can do. You won’t know, for instance, because no-one will openly speak of it, that old Josiah Regan, Janice’s grandfather, went completely mad and got caught trying to eat one of Hal Turker’s ducks raw back in ‘46 – you won’t be acquainted with an unfortunate habit of Aaron Pace in his younger years: there’s scarcely a bedroom window in the village he hasn’t peeked through.
“You see, the rural idyll is nothing of the sort. This place has more secrets, more closeted skeletons, more social crime than you can possibly imagine. It seethes below the surface. Unless you’re a part of it the true natives will never be that comfortable with you. You’ll never ‘belong’ in that way.”
Owen wagged a finger. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing. For instance, you can leave your door unlocked without fear that someone will just walk in for a cup of tea and a conversation. And it doesn’t mean that the village will ostracize you. They just won’t treat you as a part of their machine.
“You’re closer to acceptance than most incomers would get. You came to Hallbury as a child, your best friend lives here, and you’ve made enemies as well, so you’re interesting. You could do worse than settle here. I believe the Lamb family’s cottage on Church Hill might be up for sale soon. Charley Lamb works in Hurley Walter now and I know he’s looking to move.”
Joseph shook his head. “You know, Uncle, you are surprising me. I always thought you wanted me as far away from you as possible.”
The old man ruminated upon this for a moment. “I’ve never been confident around children. Julia and I agreed a long time ago not to have any of our own, so taking on the three of you was a big demand on us. I don’t want you living in this house forever, but I admit I like you better now you’re full-sized.”
“Even though I’m a gigolo?” Joseph reminded him.
“Nobody’s perfect.” Owen allowed himself a secret smile: “There was a time in Cairo, during the war…”
On Thursday the weather broke. The garden being unworkable, Joe retired to his room to work on his curriculum vitae. Only after tea did the rain ease enough to allow him to venture out.
He set off for the King’s Head by the route around Wednesday Common which would take him past the Parkin farm. He strode ahead, enjoying the steady rhythm of drips from waterlogged hedges, dodging larger showers stirred from trees by a freshening wind. Violet Parkin’s house festooned with police tape. Nearly a week had passed and Jack Parkin languished in a cell somewhere, accused, a Timothy Evans figure too confused to plead his cause.
A police car squatted next to the front gate.
“Evening!” PC Hallett clambered stiff-limbed from the driver’s seat. “Is that Joey Palliser, by any chance?”
“It is, Davy,” Joe replied, recalling this avuncular figure from his youth. “How are you these days?”
“Oh, much the same. I have to watch the place, case somebody tries to get in, see?”
Joe acknowledged it was a bad business.
“Oh, ‘twas, ‘twas.” Davy Hallett looked Joseph up and down. “Now you’ve growed, lad. Went to London, didn’t you? You just visitin’ us, then?”
Joe summarised his less detailed version of his London story, “Did you know Violet well, Davy?”
“No, not many did. Although,”” PC Hallett added darkly, “there were a few as knew her very well. Very well indeed.”
“Strange. Somebody said something similar to me the other day. I didn’t know what he meant by it, though. Am I going to get you to tell me?”
Davy shook his head. “No lad. These are police matters, see? Not that they’re going to do much. They reckon they got it all sewed up.”
“Really? Do you think they’re right?” Joe asked.
“Murders, see? We don’t get many, and there’s the truth. When we do, they’d usually be acts of drunken rage.” The policeman was studying him. “How come you’re so interested, Joe? Like you said, you didn’t exactly know her, did you?”
“I just don’t want to see Jack go down for something he didn’t do, that’s all. I don’t think he did it, Davy. I don’t think you do, either.”
Jack Parkin; the police were content to consign him to a gallows; the village seemed to have turned its back. Jack was not the easiest of people to like.
Davy Hallett shook his head. “I don’t know. Jack’s drinkin’s got a lot worse, of late years. Some might say he’s a little bit mad.”
With a few brief words of parting, Joseph left the constable easing his ample proportions back into the relative comfort of his little car, and lost in thought, wandered up Feather Lane towards the King’s Head. It was going to be difficult to verify even the simplest details concerning Violet’s last moments, he told himself: but that made his task all the more challenging.
“Don’t like the police.” Growled a deep voice behind him; “You doesn’t want to be seen consortin’ with they, Palliser.”
© 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: Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
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