Hallbury Summer – Episode Twenty-Two A Letter

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The story so far: 

In Abbot’s Friscombe, the nearby home village of the Smith family, Jennifer Althorpe, a journalist for a major national newspaper devoted to sabotaging Joe’s brother Ian Palliser’s political career is at work, trying to stir up a scandal story by rekindling anger over Joe’s reputed involvement in Rodney Smith’s fatal motoring accident, some years before.

Meanwhile, unaware the net is closing, Joe accepts Sophie’s invitation to go horse riding together – a lyrical day out culminating in an act of love which Joe unwittingly destroys by blurting out the name of Marian, his deceased lover.

For the whole of that night Joe lay uneasily in his bed, applying the salves of drink and deductive reasoning to his wounded conscience.  But the more he explored his thoughts and feelings, the more he had to accept there was no logic to be found.  Sophie was as perfect a companion, perhaps even a partner, as he could ever wish for; he was attracted to her and yet he had used her.  Brilliantly though Sophie’s star shone, at one spontaneous, disastrous moment it was Marian who had filled his heart.  Just as once, in another unforgettable instant, Emma Blanchland had worn Sarah Halsey’s mask; Emma Blanchland who was now Emma Peterkin and lost to him forever.  Why?  What part of him insisted he should not move on, but always cling to the impossible, to the memory, to the romantic dream?  He was fairly certain he could fall in love with Sophie – if it were not too late.

In the afternoon when Joe returned Julia had a letter for him from Carnaby, his solicitor, suggesting they appoint to meet, so he had telephoned:  the old man seemed to think there was a matter of some importance to resolve, and Joe had promised to visit him at eleven the next morning.  Before he left for the town, he called Sophie, counting himself fortunate that it was the daughter, not her mother, who picked up the ‘phone.

“Mr. Palliser; how considerate of you to call.”  If words were knives their cut could have been no deeper.

“Please, Sophie, don’t be angry with me!”

“No?  You have other expectations?”

“I know I messed up, and right now it must seem unforgiveable, but Sophie…”

Seem unforgivable?”

“Alright; alright.  Completely unforgiveable.  And I wish I could explain it, I really do.  You can’t imagine how wretched I feel!”

“Oh, I believe I can!  About as wretched as you made me feel, and a little worse, I hope!”  Sophie sighed, letting her anger dissipate, then said, in a more subdued tone:  “It was a mistake, Joe – an awful misjudgement.”

“Something terrible possessed me.  I can’t explain how, but there’s so much that’s  good between us, so much that feels right, and I… ”

Sophie cut in:  “You might as well know, I’m driving up to London with Daddy this evening. He thinks it’s time I made use of my Two-One in Art History, as do I.  He knows the owner of a gallery who will offer me some work.”

“When will you be back?”

“I don’t believe I will.  The Bayswater flat is big enough for us both and I shall live there.  Daddy will continue to come back at weekends, of course, but I rather think I will stay in town, at least for a while.  It’s time I built an existence of my own.”

“So that’s it?   One stupid mention of a name, and it’s all over?”

“I think it’s for the best.  On a personal note, Joe, there are things you need to sort out.  When you’ve found that brother of yours, see if you can find yourself.”  Her voice was chill.  “Until you have, I believe I should keep well clear; for my own sake, do you see?”

Before he could make any riposte, the line went dead.

Had he means to see, to hear, Sophie after she replaced her receiver, Joe might have bitten back the helpless frustration he felt.  For the Sophie that her mother saw, across the hallway of their home was pale, with eyes dark-shaded where she had not slept.

“He matters, doesn’t he, darling?” Emily Forbes-Pattinson said.

Sophie nodded in silent reply.  “Do you know the one thing he didn’t say, Mummy?  Not once.  He didn’t say he was sorry.”

 

Joseph set off for his meeting with Carnaby in Braunston with Sophie’s words still churning in his thoughts, and only the urgent compulsion to find Michael driving him on.  He could harbour no illusions – his solicitor’s urgency must mean the result of Marian’s autopsy had arrived, and he was giving way to some form of panic, beginning to feel the need to put physical distance between this place, these emotions, and himself.  Perhaps Emma’s advice and Ian’s offer would not have been such bad choices after all.  With this conclusion refusing to take a sensible form he parked up outside Carnaby and Pollack.  Carnaby was in reception when he arrived and greeted him cordially.

“Joe, Joe!  Come in; do.  Take a seat.”  Carnaby waved a bunch of papers in one hand as he sat behind his desk, stirring up a small flurry of dust from the tooled leather.  “Here!”  He said triumphantly, as though he had just discovered the papers:  “These!  Are you sitting comfortably, my dear boy?”  Joe nodded, waiting.  A pause, then, with sudden gravity:  “Are you ready for a shock?”

Joe did not answer – could not.

Shock!  Marian, dead in his arms, filled with the drugs he had bought her – the moments of that night he could not remember, no matter how hard he tried.   Second autopsy, police investigation:  oh, god, what had he done?  A surge of sheer fright rose in his chest:  he could hear his genie’s insane laughter, see the mist rising.

“Dear chap!  You look quite ill!”  Carnaby pressed his intercom, summoning aid.  Struggling to breathe, Joseph recovered sufficient consciousness to discover he was accepting a glass of water from an attentive secretary.  The elderly solicitor was bending over him, his face a mirror of concern.  Joe drank deeply.

“I really did not mean to alarm you, dear chap; I am so, so sorry!”  Carnaby fussed.  “Do you feel better now?”

The secretary was called Naomi and she was, Joe thought, quite pretty.  Her large dark eyes were anxious. “Should I call the doctor, do you suppose?”  She asked.

Joe raised a hand.  “No, it’s all right.  I get this sometimes, I’m not ill.  Did I pass out?”

“Very nearly, I think.”  Carnaby told him.  “Have you had this looked into, Joseph?”

Joe said that he had, that the doctors had told him it was all to do with stress.

“Well, I have good news then.”

Joe was incredulous, and must have looked it.  “Good news?”

The solicitor nodded to Naomi, who retreated, closing the door behind her.  “Yesterday I received these…”  He waved the papers again.  “The full copy of Marian Brubaeker’s Last Will and Testament.  The terms of the will make it clear you are Mrs Brubaeker’s principle beneficiary.  There are some details to be worked out, of course, but you may rest assured.  You are heir to virtually her entire fortune.”

Joe was still trying to clear the buzzing in his head.  He blinked at Carnaby:  “But I thought her husband…”

“No longer.  Mr Brubaeker won’t contest it.  That’s final.”

“Weren’t the police involved?”  The journalist – Lynd – had he been lying?

Carnaby shook his head.  “Brubaeker was asking for a second autopsy at one stage, but of course with the information now at our disposal, he won’t want to proceed.  No point, dear boy, is there?”

“Information?”  Joe repeated stupidly.

“There!  You see?   You haven’t had the letter!  Third party in this matter is so inefficient!  I’ve never dealt with such a slipshod firm! (Carnaby’s opinion of a no doubt beleaguered Mr Gooch had obviously altered in the course of their dealings – such reversals in Alistair Carnaby’s estimation were not uncommon)  You should have been told, Joe, because you obviously didn’t know.  Marian Brubaeker had congenital heart disease – she would have been aware of it, especially because, it seems, in her case corrective surgery didn’t work.  I obtained a full diagnosis from the record of her medical history, which, if anyone else had bothered to examine it in detail, would have saved us all a lot of trouble.  My take on this is that Mr Brubaeker was well aware of his wife’s condition, but completely unaware of you until her will was read to him.  The second autopsy threat was nothing more than that – a threat.  He hoped to see you scurry away at the proposition of a police investigation.  Bless her, she could have popped off at any moment.”

“So she died of a heart attack?”

“Heart failure,” Carnaby nodded.  “Hastened possibly because she was in the habit of taking stimulants, but there was no doubt as to the cause of death.  The day before she died she had seen her consultant:  he foresaw an event and tried to persuade her to stay in hospital, but she wanted to die in her own home.  So that was that – dreadful affair, absolutely tragic.  Poor woman!

“But if I may be so indelicate this makes you a rich man, Joseph.  Because Mrs Brubaeker had been examined by a highly qualified consultant close to her time of death we have the best possible testimony that she was of sound mind, therefore her husband – they were virtually estranged, by the way, did you know that? – has no grounds to contest the will!”  He slapped the papers down on his desk then performed a small act of contrition, tidying the sheets into a neat stack.   “I will proceed with the details at this end, if in the meantime you seek some advice as to the disposition of funds.  I can help you with that, too, if you so wish.  Take time to consider, Joseph; that’s my recommendation.  Oh, and one more thing…”  Carnaby pulled a sealed envelope from his desk drawer:  “Amongst Mrs Brubaeker’s effects we found this – it’s addressed to you.

“Of course, the assurance of this money will grease the axles of your house purchase considerably, unless your plans will now change?  I imagine you could afford something rather larger.  I’ll send you the paperwork.  Now, do you want me to order a car for you?  I don’t believe you should drive yourself, at least not for a while.”

Around the corner of the street there was a café Joe had used occasionally in the days when he was Carnaby’s clerk.  Still somewhat disorientated, he sat heavily at a table, ordering coffee and sandwiches from a fragile-looking waitress.   Then, with some apprehension, he opened the envelope Marian had addressed with the simple word ‘Joseph’, and unfolded the letter it contained.

“My dearest, dearest Joe,

Oh, how should I begin this letter?  The very fact that you are reading it means that now you know a truth I could never bring myself to tell you.  You see, I have the mark of The Reaper upon me as surely as you have the mark of Cain upon you.  We both know our destinies, don’t we?

I told you once, Joe, that although you have many gifts, earning your own living does not feature among them.  So I have made certain you will never have to, my dear.  I don’t expect you to run my businesses if you don’t want to, in fact I wonder really if you should. Janessa Marchant, whom you know, would make a very able Managing Director if you wish them to continue.  I took the small liberty of offering her an interim contract until you decide what to do.   My solicitors are arranging valuations, so you will be able to sell them for quite a handsome sum if you elect to do so.

  Darling boy, you have given me a life; something no amount of money can ever repay.  Our years together have been such a wonder to me, more precious than words can express.  Thank you for each minute of each hour of each day we spent together, for your patience with my silly tantrums, your understanding of my moods and needs.

Don’t mourn me, please.  Don’t feel grateful: the gratitude is all mine.  If you keep the Alsace house, as I hope you will, when you visit there in one of those glorious summers spare a moment to remember me?  I cannot imagine anyone else but you inside those walls, my darling.  We were so happy there, weren’t we?

Take very special care of yourself.  Live, love someone who understands you, be happy, my sweet Joe.

In my last sleep, with my last breath, I will think of you.

My deepest love,

Your Marian.”

“You alright, mister?”  The waitress asked him.

 

There was nothing that Joe could do with the rest of that day, or most of the day that followed.  So profoundly affected was he that thoughts of Sophie, or Michael, or the Parkin murder and everything that arose from that were pushed to the back of his mind for a while.   Instead, he was filled with the recollection of his last night with Marian;  with his new understanding of her behaviour in those few final hours, which shamed him now because of the tawdry manner in which he had attempted to cover up his involvement in her death.  Although he could only consign that dreadful morning to the past, he resolved to accord her memory the respect he denied to her body in death.  He would walk with her forever in his thoughts.  Without regret or apology, Marian would always have a place in his heart.

On the evening following his appointment with Carnaby, Joseph told his aunt and uncle of his inheritance.  How should he not, when its consequences would affect all their lives so profoundly?  To his surprise, Owen’s was the gentler, intuitive reaction:  “I suspected there was something more to tell, Joseph.  You know old chap, for such a secretive person you’re deplorably bad at keeping secrets.”

Julia was infuriated.  “How dare you not tell us, Joe?  How could you keep something like that from us?  That poor woman!”

But it was a tempest that soon blew itself out.  They were happy for him because they shared Marian’s assessment of Joe’s character, and they could be content now, knowing that at least he would be comfortably off.

Although Marian had forbade him to mourn, Joe grieved for her in ways he could not share with his aunt and uncle, for Marian was no more than a name to them.  Instead, he ‘phoned someone who had known her well.  “Is that Janessa?  I thought it only fair you should hear this from me.  I’d like you to stay on as Managing Director, if you would.  Yes, I will be keeping the companies on, but I’ll be only distantly involved.  Marian had great faith in you.”

“I’m so glad,”  Janessa rejoined;  “I’ll get on with the Winter collection.  It’s good that something she achieved will survive in her memory.  We all loved her, you know.”

“As did I,”  Joe said.

For an hour, or very nearly, he and Janessa shared words that expressed their remembrance of Marian, opening gates that perhaps had been closed to them both.  And if it is not remembered who wept and who did not, at least this mutual expression of grief was a way for them both to rise above depths of woe; which in Joe’s case allowed him to begin thinking rationally again – thinking, that is, of Michael.

 

“Ah, I was expecting you.”  It was something less than a welcome.  Margaret Farrier surveyed Joseph from the shelter of her doorway.  “You’d better come in, I suppose.”

Hatton House was a smart, double fronted stone building towards the west end of Cross Street, the road which ran from Church Lane by St. Andrew’s Church to Feather Lane at the corner where stood the now-closed King’s Head pub.  Margaret’s Georgian front windows overlooked most of Hallbury to the Common beyond; then beyond again to the grey backcloth of the Calbeck Hills.

Margaret Farrier was something of an enigma as far as the village was concerned; very tall, almost six feet in height, with a pride of bearing which spoke of a distinguished family whose history in the Parish traced back a number of generations, Her appearance was that of a woman twelve years younger than her true age; her skin still moist and youthful, her eyes lively, her mouth firm.  The hair on her head was almost jet black, tied back so it shone.  She was in all ways an impressive lady, with an indomitable disposition.

Her associations also served to impress.   The meadow across the street from her house was Farrier’s Meadow, named after her great grandfather:  a roadside bench on Church Hill bore the family name; a steep rise behind the house was Farrier Hill.  Even the old wrecked thresher that lay crumbling in Flodder Field was known as the Farrier machine.  Then there was a scholarship to the local High School, a prize for the Shire’s most promising artist.  Yet distinguished as she was Margaret was in her forties now and unmarried.  Her only close relationship, as far as was known, was with her brother.  Patrick did not live in the same house (he rented a room with the Pardin’s on Feather Lane) but would, for example, always accompany her to church, or take her to Braunston, if she had need.  General opinion agreed that neither of them would ever marry, and it was almost certain that with their departure, the Farrier family line would die, too.

Margaret led Joe briskly to her drawing room, motioning to a chair.

“I’m not to your liking.”  Joe said, as he sat down.

She stared.  “What makes you say that?”

“I make ripples?”

“You are given to cause disruption, yes, that is true.  However, that is not always such a bad thing, young man.  You should be careful with your relationships, perhaps.  You have the village fairly buzzing with rumours.”  She sat opposite him, folding her knee-length skirt carefully across her legs.  “Now, what do you want of me?”

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

 

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

Photo Credit:  Debbie Hudson on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

 

 

This ‘Ere Eupo

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Now, my Darlin’s, ‘tis like this.

Other year we had a vote, see?  ‘Twas like ever’body got to ‘ave a say about how us felt about the immigrants an’ our sovinty an’ that, an’ we all turned out and we told ‘em, no uncertain fashion, like, what us thought we ought to do.  Leave that there European Onion thing from the Brussels!   Yes!   An’ it turns out we didn’t want nothin’ more to do wi’ no onions, and ‘ow we wanted to go out by ourselves.  Aye!

Well, turns out we were wrong, see?   ‘Cause all these ‘ere thinkin’ people says we should stay in, an’ ‘ow we faces certain ruin if we don’t.   An’ we says to ‘em, see, it was a Democratic Decishun, but they say that don’t count, ‘cause apparently they won’t get so much money if us makes ‘em leave, and they won’t be able to live in they there nice London apartments no more, or travel around this ‘ere Eurpoe to get better jobs, and stuff like that.   They says we bin lied ter, an’ un-screw-pew-lus people, they led us up the garden path, an’ that.  We jus’ voted ‘cause of the immigration, an’that.

So they goin’ to change wha’ we want to what they want, and that’s on’y fair, ‘cause we’m jus’ ord’nary people, ands not great and good like they is – are.

So, seems to me that all these ‘ere clever people, they on’y peddle that there Democracy to us when they want us to see things their way; and if we don’t, then they got to twist it about until we do.  Lawyers, and Ac’demics, and that, they knows what’s good for us, don’ they?  An’ learned people, they thinks we’re too thick to unnerstand ‘bout Eurpoe.

See, I voted ‘cause I didn’t think that there Onion was goin’ anywhere.  I thought that my country is what serves me a livin’ an’ not none of the Brussels.   They’m got strange money that they keeps printin’ with no vaalue behind un, they keeps poorer countries strugglin’ for a livin’ an’ it’s not long afore we becomes one of those, if we stays in, like.   They’m sittin’ there with smirks of their faces, takin’  our money and givin’ us less back than what they takes; they makes rules we can’t keep up with, and my sheep dip’s more ‘ficient at keepin’ out the nasties than their imm’gration pol’cy.  They destroyed our fishin’ ind’stry, they put the cost of livin’ up for all of us an’ they make us tax things we shouldn’t, don’t they?  And we can’t take so many people!    Now, that’s not racist, nor nothin’, but us as dooty to house and keep the people we already got.  It makes sense, see?  If my neighbour, he don’t put no fence up,  his sheep gets all mixed up wi’ mine an’ they overstocks my land.  Seems simple sense to me.

But there.  I don’t know nothin’.   I’m jus’ the peasant who’s ‘pinions you thinks you can ignore – I’ll jus’ tug my forelock as I passes you by and you can try to forget it’s me who does all the work, who keeps your nicely feathered beds stuffed an’ makes the country run.

Let’s drop the accent now…

So, overturn the will of the people with your contrived arguments and Machiavellian tactics.   Buy your politicians and your expensive lawyers to find a case for you to make.  But if you do, and you succeed in controverting the will of the people you will finally write the obituary to democracy, and prove the lie you have been trying to disguise for so many years.

And I, at least, will stand against you, tooth and claw.  And if you succeed I will never bother to mark a ballot paper again.  I wonder if anyone will?

Hallbury Summer – Episode Twenty- One (2)        A Persistence of Memory

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For most of a mile Tumbler and Moppy tracked the yarrow-skirted hedges of coppiced beech which stood between the Williamson fields.  Watchful yellowhammers and alarmed larks gave warning as they Sophie guided their descent towards a line of elms and mature beech which clustered to either side of Wednesday Beck, a later manifestation of the stream that ran beside Church Lane.  Here, though, some two miles further upon its journey to the River Staun the beck was a much more ebullient creature, burbling and tumbling over rocks and stones among the tree-roots in sun-sparkled jewels of vitality.  At a certain point, where the red sandstone bedrock formed a sill, Wednesday Beck dropped in a waterfall amidst a copse of chestnut, sycamore, lime and walnut.  The floor of this little wood, though strewn for an age by leaf and branch, had obviously once been moulded by a less natural hand.  Where the stream fell into its palm, stone walling and carved steps cupped its waters into a still pool, there to rest a while before release by means of a little weir at its further side.  In so rural a setting this sudden intrusion of parkland architecture was more than a surprise, and Joe remarked upon it.

“Shade for the horses, and for us,  Welcome to my childhood hideaway, Joe.” Sophie dismounted, coaxing Tumbler to drink.  “This was part of the gardens of Great Hallbury Manor, once. The house was just up there.” She waved an airy hand towards the far bank.  “The foundations are still visible in places.  Don’t let her take on too much.”  Moppy was intent upon emptying the pool on her own, if possible.

Joe recalled what little he knew about the history of Great Hallbury Manor and its fate.  There was a gambling Duke – wasn’t there always?  A youngest son who was killed at Rourke’s Drift, a rampant Duchess and a scandal.  They were an odd lot, the landed gentry.

“It burned down, didn’t it?”  He asked.

Sophie nodded, “In the nineteen-hundred-and-somethings.  There were unkind rumours that it was one of the first great insurance fires.  The family was bankrupt and the place was falling to bits.  Quite ghastly, really: a whole village – Great Hallbury – just dwindled into ruins.  Once the Manor and the family were gone, the workers weren’t wanted anymore, so they just moved away.  Nothing is permanent, I’ve learned.”  She pulled saddlebags from Tumbler’s back.  “I brought a few things to make us comfortable.  Are you hungry? This might be a good place for lunch, don’t you think?

From a saddlebag she produced bread, some cooked meat, cheese and red wine.  “No glasses, I’m afraid.  I hope you won’t mind sharing a bottle with me, Joe?”

There was the gentle dappling of the sun through leaves, and the patient stirring of the tethered horses as they searched for their own kind of bounty.  Once and again, an iridescent blue flash of kingfisher.  Behind it all, the waterfall added another music.

Joe delved into a pocket for the little package they had discovered among Violet Parkin’s belongings; a square of old parchment folded over from each corner, bound with a thong of what appeared to be platted hair – human hair?  He carefully worked the binding to one side then removed its immaculate wrapping, passing it to Sophie.  Inside, little bigger than his thumb, was a photograph of a middle-aged man in Sunday clothes.  A man whose flat cap was jammed over his brow.  Joe shook his head.  Although the person depicted was vaguely familiar, there was nothing on the back, no other clue as to who he was.

“Anything?”  He asked Sophie.  She was studying the parchment.

“There’s some sort of writing, but I can’t decipher it.  It’s not a letter as far as I can see.  Rather an anti-climax, really.”

“No pirate gold, then?”  Joe said. “I feel like I should know who this is.”  He showed the picture to Sophie, who frowned over it, then shook her head.

“I’m sorry.  No help, I’m afraid.”

“Maybe something will come to me,” Joe said.  He returned the photo, with its ‘envelope’ and its curious string, to his pocket.

Even in the dappled shade of the trees the sun was hot. They sat at the edge of the pool dangling bare feet in the cold water, breaking bread together in the manner of friends, sampling the wine and floating between soft lily-pads of conversation.  As is the way with drink, it mellowed them, drew their eyes and thoughts, moulded their intentions.  So that when it seemed appropriate to kiss, they did, and the intimacy of their last evening together was renewed.

“Does anyone come here?”  He asked.

“No.” Sophie murmured back to him.  “The nearest track is half a mile away.  We’re quite alone.”

He kissed her neck:  “No bites!”  She warned him – but her eyes were closed and her breath had become less steady.

He drew back.  She recovered herself, shot him an arch look; an unspoken question.

“The ‘ageing lothario’ thing.  I don’t want to be accused of being ‘professional’.”  He said, smiling gently.  Already his care was wrapping itself around her and he would deny himself if that was her wish.

Sophie chuckled:  “Darling, you can’t help it.  But I’ll tell you what – let’s substitute the word ‘expert’, shall we?”  She kissed his chin, his nose, with fondness:  “Will that do?”

“No teasing?”

“Oh!  And exactly who would be teasing whom?”  She reached to her waist, hooked her thumbs beneath the hem of her top and shrugged it easily over her head, shaking her hair back to order and stretching her arms so her freed breasts would move in perfect sympathy.  It was a movement as sensual as it was unstudied and all the more alluring because no sooner had she done it than she drew her arms across as though to cover herself, alarmed that she should be so bold .

“Don’t stare at me.”  She abjured him. “Your turn – if you like.”

Strange that he should be so hesitant?  Joe removed his t-shirt, awkwardly.  Sophie giggled, helping him to pull it over his head when it got stuck.  She sought his mouth and her kiss this time was unmistakeable in its intent.  He made to release the stud at the front of her jeans but she stayed his hand,  “Not yet.”

Joe chuckled.  “Now where have I heard that before?”

“Go slowly, Joey – please?”

So he did.  He kissed her throat first, then persuaded her arms to let him venture further – tongue-tip and lips over soft flesh, coaxing her to arousal with brief, light kisses.  Despite her words of caution Sophie found her inhibitions scattering about her, and after a few first maidenly moments she could do no other than allow herself to sink back into the grass, drawing him with her – drawing him to her and he followed willingly, taking her in his lips with an infant insistence that brought a silent cry of pain and wanting.  This would be the time to pause, to consider: would he be the one to stop, to hold back?  Should he be?  Her body was too tempting now, her heat too fierce.

They played at tongues while his fingers found that fastening to her jeans once more and this time she did not resist, but somewhere between kiss and nip she helped him.   By sleight of hand and arm in some intimate magic she suddenly wore nothing, and he the same.

“My god, I’m such a wanton!”  She wrapped her tongue around the confession, relishing it.

He needed no further encouragement.  With great deliberation and all the care that life had taught him, Joseph Palliser took possession of Sophie Forbes-Pattinson.

A kiss here, here a touch:  a brush of the tongue, a whisper of lips:  finding each small place in her fantasies, opening every box of secrets, lighting each candle, sending each moth flying to the moon.  And she responding, hands clasped over his back or stroking his neck, reaching once in a while to plant those so busy lips with a soft, sweet kiss.  More and more the inventions were her own; caressing, stroking, bringing forth tiny cries of pleasure, extorting sharp, retentive breaths.  Was this sex?  Where had it been in her life before?  Where, in the history of her short, wrestled encounters and sweaty grunting culminations had this a place?  Was this what she had been missing?  This?

When it came, the ending, it was because she would not be denied it; because she had been brought close, to within a breath, time and time again and she could wait no longer, but bore upon him so he may not move unless she moved, may not leave her until he had fulfilled their one transcendent promise.  And from that great height he shouted a name in his ecstasy three times; but the name was not hers.

In the silence that followed, when she should have fallen, sated and exhausted, on his chest – sure that she could never let him go: in that time the world was spinning, for nothing could stop that, but the vortex was deep and dark, and in all the world there could have been no more lonely a place.

“Well, Joe Palliser;”  Sophie said coldly:  “That was certainly expert.  I take it Marian was your woman in London??”

The ruins of their picnic, the finished wine, the crumbs of bread, stood upon the stone ruins of the Manor’s once resplendent garden.  Together, they gathered them up.  Unspeaking, they took them home.

How could she explain the despair she felt?  Although the act of love she had made was consummate, nothing could deny the utterance of that dreadful name.  While Joseph was taking his fill from her, he was making love to a ghost.

Joe’s own confusion was the greater because he could not explain why this beautiful young woman who had been so much in his thoughts had become another at so precious a moment:  greater still because he had found heights he might search for a lifetime and never find again.  For all the torment of his affair with Marian, and apart from one terrible night, sex between them had never been more than a salve for her solitude.  So what demon had intruded – was it guilt?  Was the woman with such strain in her eyes riding wordlessly beside him a vessel for Marian’s revenge?

At the corner of Wednesday Common he pulled an unwilling Moppy to a halt and dismounted, exhorting Sophie to do the same.  Standing between the horses they faced each other, read each other’s thoughts.  As kindly as he might, Joe ran his fingers through his lover’s hair, drawing her to him in a kiss.  As firmly as she could, she pressed her hands against his chest so the touch of lips would be momentary – no more than that.

“Joey…”

“I know.”  The only way would be to explain: once again he was faced with a time when his only road to salvation was through truth, yet when the truth was so brutal how could he?  How could he make her understand what he did not understand himself?

“You don’t like girls, do you Joey Palliser?”  Sarah had said.  Maybe she was right.

“Today was incredible.”  He said.  “Please don’t think…”

The unfinished sentences, the eyes that could not meet because someone stood between them – someone neither could touch and only one of them could see:  Emma, twelve years since; the same mistake, the same aborted dreams.  There, by a hedge not twenty yards away, he had first asked Emma for a kiss.  The significance was not lost upon Joseph.

Sophie’s face was sad, but resolute.  “It was new for me, too, Mr Joe.  But I’m not sure I should go there again.  I’m not sure I could.”

Feeling there was nothing more he could do, Joe kissed Sophie’s forehead.  Then Moppy’s head nuzzled between them, impatient to be home, and made them laugh a little.

Before the gate to his uncle’s house Sophie watched Joe as he dismounted and said goodbye to Moppy.  When he came to speak to her she remained mounted on Tumbler, so avoiding any public expression of affection; and if she were a little pale, she gave nothing away.  An empty promise – he would ring her tomorrow:  okay, she would be in.  She rode away, leading an insensitively skittish Moppy, and no-one in that curious, gossip-addicted lane could read a trace of her violation in her face.  Only her mother would see.  For by the time she had stabled the horses, seen them fed, and walked disconsolately into her kitchen, Sophie was in tears.

 

© 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-One (1)         The Message of The Stones

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To my long-suffering readers, an apology.  When I decided to make a serial of ‘Hallbury Summer’, a book I had already written, I foresaw problems with dividing it into episodes of acceptable size.   I thought I had done quite well, until I finally came to a point where I couldn’t conveniently break into the story.  This is it.

So this week two posts that together make one satisfactory episode.  At least if they’re broken down I’ve spared you a reading marathon – or so I hope!The story so far:  we left Joe after his date with Sophie Forbes-Pattinson, in which the pair broke into murdered Violet Parkin’s house, seeking clues to her mysterious involvement with a local witches’ coven.  The only item they found was a small package.  Meanwhile, in Abbot’s Friscombe…

Jennifer Althorpe studied the house for some minutes before opening its green wooden gate.  Grimly functional, this house, a squat dwelling roofed with grey slate, a belching chimney despite so hot a summer’s day, and walls of hard, red engineering brick part-blackened by smoke – smoke which lingered over the whole neighbourhood in a choking blanket – listless windows returned her gaze.

Although there was so much to repulse the house did nothing to repel Jennifer, yet equally it could not invite, for there was no greeting to be found in those bland walls, no welcome on the frayed coconut of the mat which kept damp station on a concrete step.  Jennifer walked the path, the concrete path.  She squelched into the sodden mat, she pressed the weathered bell.  And she waited.

A woman’s moon face, blotched skin, tiny suspicious eyes, peered out.  “Yes?”

“Mrs Harkus?”  Jennifer asked.

“Might be.  What of it?”

Bella at the local café had been extremely helpful; almost worth the mediocre coffee and the limpid toast Jennifer had endured.

“Ask Mary Harkus.  She’ll tell you all about young Joe Palliser.”  Bella had advised her.

Jennifer asked.

“Come in.”  Said Mary Harkus, inclining her blunt head.

The wall of heat would remain in Jennifer’s memory for some time.  Before the troubles, Mummy and Daddy had been posted briefly to Aden.  One school holiday she had flown out to visit them, and would never forget the sudden blast of desert air as she stepped from the plane in that furnace of a place.  Mary Harkus’s living room was as close as she could ever come to revisiting the experience.  The fire in the grate was every bit as fierce as an Arabian sun, and the warmth it generated brought an instant bloom of perspiration to Jennifer’s delicate brow.

“Havin’ a bath.”  Mary said, as though that would suffice as an explanation.

“Do you grow orchids, or something?”  Jennifer asked ingenuously.

“Why no, bless you!”  Mary Harkus laughed:  her voice had a flinty edge, as though she would rather curse than bless.  She seemed impervious to the heat.  “’Tis these houses, dear.  They only got immersion heaters, see, and the ‘lectric costs a fortune?  So us do use the  back-boiler, see?  Anthracite’s cheaper.  The fire heats the water, see.”

“And everyone knows when you’re having a bath.”    Mary Harkus’s little eyes squinted enquiringly, so Jennifer directed her gaze pointedly to the chimney breast.  “Smoke signals?”

“Ah.”

“Is there a photograph of Rodney?”

She had in fact already seen one.  Selwyn Penny had been very helpful, though his newspaperman’s sensibilities had needed to be observed.  Jennifer already knew the story of Rodney’s fatal accident as the newspapers had related it: she was about to explore the local angle and Mary Harkus was about to give it to her.

This would be forgivable:  after all, she was a journalist in search of a story.  Mary Harkus was her best lead to an incident which, though it was deeply embedded in the past, shed light upon the man her quarry, Joe Palliser, was today.  This would be forgivable:  the ploy with which Jennifer Althorpe concluded the interview was not.

When she had eked out every detail of Rodney’s fatal accident from Mary Harkus’s account and though every fibre of her being just wanted to quit that duchess’s kitchen of a house, she remained seated somewhat damply on Mary’s couch, saying nothing as she affected to check through her notes.

“I’m surprised.”  She said at last (timing was vital).

Mary, whose patience was being tried (she had none) raised a quizzical eyebrow.  “Why?”

“Well…..I’ve covered lots of cases like this; read about a lot more.  And frankly, Mary (I can call you that, can’t I?) although the really guilty ones may escape the law, they rarely escape entirely, if you see what I mean?”

“I don’t.”  Said Mary Harkus.

“Well, I mean, I often think the police turn a blind eye because no-one ever gets arrested, or anything, but usually the guilty party ends up in a ditch somewhere.  Someone – shall we say an interested party – someone makes up for the inadequacy of the law, don’t they, and that doesn’t seem to have happened here.  No loyal relation or close friend to redress the natural balance, I suppose.  Joseph Palliser’s still walking about out there, isn’t he?  I mean, please don’t think I wish the man any harm, or anything, but really – has no-one even tried?  I’m just curious.”

Jennifer did not receive an answer:  she did not want one.  She left gladly, secure in the knowledge that a seed had been sown.  As she gulped in the fresh outdoor air she was sure Mary Harkus’s abiding sense of outrage would be compelling her to lift up her telephone.  Douglas Lynd had been right – Ian Palliser’s brothers were his Achilles’ heel.  Tomorrow, or the next day, or very soon, Joe Palliser would provide her with fresh copy, one way or another.  All she had to do was wait.

For the next few days Joe would be forced to put thoughts of Sophie to one side. Mr Carnaby had accepted his instructions for the purchase of the Lamb house, and his bank had to be seen so he could make arrangements for payment.  The Wolsey needed to be returned to the clutches of oily Mr Maybury for some corrective surgery, condemning him to a day of bus and rail travel once more, and then there was the day he used to journey to Branchester, the cathedral city where St. Andrew’s parish registers stored, to research Violet Parkin’s family line.  Throughout all this he kept Violet Parkin’s strange little packet unopened in a drawer in his room, promising himself he would return to it later.

Sophie rang on the Wednesday morning.

“It’s super today: I’m going to take Tumbler for a ride, would you like to come?”

Joe did his best to sound enthusiastic.  “I’m not exactly an expert.  Anyway, I don’t have a horse.”

“Transport provided!”  Sophie chimed.  “See you in an hour!”

Joe had come down to breakfast to find a local newspaper open on the kitchen table, trumpeting the headline:  “Hallbury Publican’s Suspicious Death.”

“Ned Barker.”  Owen said without looking up from his seed catalogue.  “It appears that the police are involved in that one, now.”

Julia had a plate of bacon and tomato warming for him under the grill:  “It’s all too awful! What on earth is going on, Joe?”

Joe scanned the article, which described how Ned had been found by his wife Dorothy the morning after the desecration of St. Andrews’ churchyard.  Ned was thought to have died of a heart attack during the night, but, as was the law in the case of any unexplained sudden death, an autopsy had been performed.

Selwyn Penny’s article was unspecific.  It merely quoted the police as saying they were treating the death as ‘suspicious’ and were ‘pursuing their enquiries’.  They refused to reveal whether they were looking for any third party in connection with the death, or to consider a link to the murder of Mrs Violet Parkin the previous week.  Inspector Porcott of the Two Counties Constabulary pointed out that Mr John Parkin had already been charged with the first murder, and was being held in custody while he awaited trail at the quarter sessions.

“I wish I knew.”  Joe said in reply to Julia’s question.

Julia was right to ask.  He looked up at the two elderly people who had given him shelter and he saw the intense concern, the fear, almost, in their faces.  Without really considering, he had assumed they did not know Michael had absconded, just as they knew nothing about Michael’s involvement with the village witches.  Perhaps they did.  Or perhaps their disquiet was that of many middle-class people whose homes, but not whose hearts, are in country communities, when they discover the rural idyll is not what it seems.  For all of his wisdom concerning the construct of small village society, Owen might well be at the limit of his depth.  And Julia, though she gave the impression of someone who skated across the surface of life, would know inside herself that the ice had become perilously thin.  He was in so many ways their child, their product:  yet the village he inhabited, for all it was the same geographical place, was very different to theirs.  He had brought his village to their door, invited it inside.  They simply had no idea how to deal with that.

The hour had struck eleven by the time Sophie arrived, clopping down Church Lane on Tumbler, the big roan Joe had placated in the Parkin farm’s barn on their earlier meeting.  If he had expected Sophie’s strapping horsewoman image with jodhpurs and riding helmet he was to be disappointed.  Today’s Sophie had at last ‘dressed down’, although the combination of red halter top and designer jeans with trainers was scarcely less alluring than her denim mini-skirt.  She was leading a rather compact bay mare with a submissive look and placid eye, which she introduced as “Moppy.”

“She’s a complete darling.  She really won’t give you any trouble.”

Moppy greeted Joe with a bemused expression befitting any adult animal facing life with a name like ‘Moppy’, and exhibited exemplary forbearance while he set her stirrups as long as he dared, then took three attempts to mount her.  He had ridden before; a long, long time before, with Sarah Halsey for company.  Sarah, of course, was as accomplished at horse-riding as she was at everything else.

“I’m most dreadfully sorry I didn’t call you sooner, Joe,”  Sophie apologised.  “I’ve been away:  to Daddy’s in London, you know?”

Joe smiled.  “No need to apologise.”  He met her eyes, which said that she was fibbing – that she had been waiting with a vague notion he might call her first.

“I missed you.”  She allowed herself to say, as they set off.  Then quickly added:  “A bit.”

After a brief pause for negotiation, Moppy agreed to a walk on the Common; probably, Joe suspected, because her big friend Tumbler was being directed to go there, and she had no inclination to be left by herself with the obvious incompetent who slouched upon her back.

Sophie was bright and genial; “How is the Witch-Finder General today?” the sun grew stronger and it promised to be a perfect morning.

Abbey Walker was tending her front garden.  She straightened to greet them courteously as they clattered past, but with a reserve in her voice that told Joe she was part of Janice Regan’s gossip circle; so small a thing, yet enough to darken his particular skies a little.  The net was closing.   He had not heard from Tom Peterkin for all of that week, even though he had sought his old friend in his usual haunts, nor had he caught sight of Emma.   Yes, he had wondered if Tom knew the true state of Emma’s tormented mind; believed that he very probably would have guessed, and the awkwardness of this shared but unspoken knowledge was evidence of guilt in itself.  Neither had the nerve to contact the other, and as the interval grew so the hurdle became higher.

Sophie caught Joe’s absent expression.  “Did you open that little envelope from Mrs Parkin’s picture album?”

He confessed:  “No, I haven’t thought about it.  Something I must do.”

“A mystery!”  Sophie enthused.  “Do make sure I’m there when you do.  I’m simply dying to know what it is!”

“So if I told you I have it in my pocket…”

“Excellent!   Then I shall have an opportunity to exercise my sleuthing skills, Joe.  The perfect prelude to lunch.”

“Lunch?”

They followed that narrow lane which bisected the upper part of Wednesday Common, passing on their way a little copse of trees where Joe had hidden the car on what Sophie had begun to refer to as their ‘burglary night’ and walking on briskly for the first half mile until they reached ‘The Point’; a junction marked by a telephone box where roads from Abbots Friscombe, Little Hallbury, and Fettsham met.  The greater part of the common land lay before them, to the west of the Abbots Friscombe to Fettsham road.  For the most part this was laid down to bracken, interspersed with small clumps of blackthorn and mature broom.  From ‘The Point’ one very specific bridle path skirted the lower common like a perimeter track.  Too narrow for motor traffic, it owed its existence to horse riders who frequented it, or to adventurous youngsters, like Michael, Ian and Joe.

This trail would circumnavigate the wild land for two miles or more before it returned to the Abbots Friscombe road.  Much of it was pleasant, level ground ideal for a casual ride, until it reached its furthest point from the road where it began undulating sharply, the ditches often boggy even in the height of summer.  On the high, open areas exposed grey slabs of rock offered basking space for lizards, slow-worms and sometimes grass snakes: tales of adders abounded, although Joe had never seen one.

Here, about a mile from ‘The Point’ Joe motioned his intention to Sophie then left the trail to strike out across the turf, guiding a suspicious Moppy towards a stand of  trees and scrub some hundred yards distant.  He dismounted, tethering Moppy’s rein to a branch of hawthorn.  Exposed in open ground, these stunted thorns were ageless, undefined by time, and like everything associated with childhood, of course, they had diminished in Joe’s perception; yet walking among them, stooping to avoid their stoical resistance, they were a-brim with memories.  There, to his right, the grassy hollow where he had lain with Sarah; then, deeper into the wood, the little pool of turgid water surrounded by a clearing where he and his brothers had made their ‘den’ – their secret place, protected by solemn vows of silence.

Here, still, was the little circle of stones where Ian had burned his fingers on stolen matches as they attempted to build camp fires, the tree where Michael’s initials, distinguishable yet, were carved by his first penknife in the bark.  Saddened by the changing of the times Joe wondered how he and his brothers could each have grown so differently.  He did not know why, specifically, he had wanted to revisit the clearing in this little wood, just that he did.  Lost in reminiscence, he failed to notice that Sophie had joined him.  Her hand touched his shoulder.

“This is a sad place?”

He managed a weak grin, “Is that how it seems to you?”

“No.  To me it’s just a poky little child hideaway, I suppose.  It wasn’t my hideaway, though.  I rather gather it was yours, Joe.  I can sense the melancholy in you.  Unhappy memories?”

“Not really.  Maybe.”  Bearing the weight of years, Joe turned away.  Only then did he pick up an odour – just the faintest, barely present trace of wood smoke, or more probably fresh ash, in the breathless air; sufficient inducement to stoop and place a hand on one of the rough hearth stones.  Was it – could it be?  Was there a latent warmth that had persisted through the summer night?  There were ash traces surrounding it that were fresh and a whitish grey, and now he looked he could see how the stones had been rebuilt.  Someone had been there; and recently, too; maybe this morning, certainly last night.   That was why some subconscious urge had drawn him this way!  “Michael!” He breathed the name.  Now he was sure – like a homing pigeon given his freedom Michael had come back to Hallbury. But why?   If not to return to the scene of a crime, then why?

Sophie was looking at him quizzically.  “Who is Michael?”

“My younger brother.  I told you about him, remember?”

Sophie asked if he meant the one who was ill, and he was in a ‘home’ wasn’t he?  And Joe had to explain how Michael came to be missing, and even as he told her he could see her concentration straying.  He did not blame her.  That was the reaction of most people when he mentioned he had a brother who was mentally ill.

“So you think he might have been here?”

“Someone lit a fire: last night, I should think.”

“Gosh.”  Sophie responded – then:  “Could just be a tramp, I suppose?”

They remounted to make a contemplative journey back to the bridle path where, beneath the shade of a row of stately elms Sophie dismounted again to open a gate. They urged their horses across a ditch into open farmland.

“We use Williamson land for hunting.  Barry Williamson was made Master of Foxhounds this year.  He doesn’t mind our riding across his fields, as long as we’re careful.  I often come this way.  Do you know Barry at all?”

Joe had to confess that he didn’t.  Barry Williamson was chalked down as yet another acquaintance they didn’t share.

With Wednesday Common behind them, a dune-like landscape of ripening green or fallow brown fields swelled and flowed uninterrupted for several miles – westward to the River Staun, and northward with the valley as far as their eyes could see.  Interspersed among this arable patchwork were occasional rectangular islands of poppy-flecked meadow, and odd reefs of dark trees which conjoined to southward as forest, at the foot of the Calbeck Hills.  In the heat of a high summer sun this fertile valley would bleach in its final weeks to haymaking, its brave tall grasses burning to a gentle gold.  Away from the canopy of trees Joe felt his flesh toast beneath that same unremitting glare.  There was the merest trace of breeze, no more, to ruffle the hare-bells, nothing to disperse a shimmering heat haze.  Before Joe, for they rode in file, Sophie’s long back moved with supple ease, while his own thighs were already stiffening and beginning to hurt.  Under the thin cotton of his t-shirt he felt the tickle of sweat.

 

© 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. Night Moves

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The story so far: 

After failing in his attempts to discover the whereabouts of his brother Michael, Joe Palliser has to deal with an aggressive journalist, and we learn that Jennifer Allthorpe, the journalist’s associate is to remain in the locality dig up some further dirt on Joe.

Meanwhile, Joe honours his commitment to Sophie Forbes-Pattinson, and takes her to a small café in a little harbour town for an evening meal.  The date gives them the opportunity to learn more about each other, and provides evidence, if any were needed, that they share a mutual attraction…

By the time Sophie and Joseph began their drive back to Hallbury the hour was late and the roads almost free of traffic:  on their way Joseph asked Sophie how much she knew of the Violet Parkin story.

“Only what I’ve read in the local ‘paper.  Village gossip tends to get filtered out before it reaches us.”

And Joe said that was good because he needed to confide in someone who could weigh the facts impartially.

“I am she!”  Sophie volunteered brightly.  “Prattle on!”

So he told her the story – about the murder and how Violet’s body was found, how evidence had placed Jack Parkin near the scene sometime on the fatal afternoon.  Then he retold Aaron’s account of the coven, and his concerns about Michael.  He resurrected little Christian Matheson, together with the stories that surrounded his disappearance; concluding with the slaughtered crows and the sad demise of Benjy the cat.

“All rather grisly, Joe.  I heard about the graves – that happened the other day, didn’t it?  Before Mrs. Parkin was buried?”

Joseph had half-expected Sophie to suggest he was falling victim to parochial superstition; even to ask why he really cared anyway.  But she didn’t.  She fell silent for a while, as the final miles passed.

“It all ties together, doesn’t it,” She said at last, “but witchcraft, Joe?  I’ve read about so-called witches who were just herbalists, or odd-looking octogenarians who managed to offend the wrong people.  There were a few bad apples, I suppose; who cursed people for a fee, brewed up nasty poisons, tried to invoke the devil, that sort of stuff.  Mostly rubbish, I should have thought, though the thing that strikes me is the probability that Mrs. Parkin counted herself as a witch.   Would one witch really murder another – black against white, maybe?”

Joe replied, grinning, that if Annie Parkin was a witch of any colour it would be black.  He was secretly pleased by Sophie’s interest.

Their last mile was covered and they were driving the lane through the centre of Wednesday Common when Joe slowed the car, bumping off the metalled road onto a grassy track.  After a hundred yards or so, where a clump of small trees offered concealment, he stopped, cutting the engine.

The inflection in Sophie’s tone was unmistakeable.  “Now I wonder why we’ve stopped here, Joe?”

He chuckled:  “It’s my surprise.  Time for adventure.  Come on!”

After opening the passenger door to let Sophie out, Joe extracted a canvas bag from the car boot.  Then, taking her hand for reassurance he led her, not back along the track towards the road, but further into the depths of the Common.  Sophie kept pace, refraining from complaint, though bracken scratched her legs and she could barely see in the darkness.  “Where are we going?”

“For a walk.”

“Oh, absolutely!  For a walk with a bag that clanks.”  Sophie’s voice shook a little.  “What have you got in there; tools to cut me up with?”

She seemed so capable and confident; it hadn’t occurred to Joe that he might frighten her, that he was still a comparative stranger who she might not completely trust.  “I’m sorry,” he said.  Emboldened, he found her in the darkness, gently taking her shoulders. She was breathing quickly. “I could never do you harm, Sophie.”

“It’s Okay,” She whispered:  “I didn’t really think you would….”And she turned into him, pressing her cheek to his.  “You’re sort of scary.”  She said; “And that’s sort of nice.”

He asked:  “You enjoy being scared?”

“Mmmm, sort of.  I enjoy being scared by you.”

Her cheek was cool, very soft. Joe knew he must kiss her then and he did, though it was not in his plan; and the taste of Sophie, her warmth against him gave him an unfamiliar sense of self-worth, of companionship.  It was a long kiss, sweetly comforting, that invited more.

“Down to business!”  He exclaimed, breaking away with difficulty and the feeling that, if fate should provide him with a dragon now, he would be able to slay it easily.  “Not far!”

The lights of the village were clear.  House windows, an occasional street lamp offered sanctuary, but Joe seemed intent upon avoiding them.

Sophie restrained him.  “No, we don’t.  Not until you tell me where we’re going, Joe Palliser.”

“Why, Sophie!  We’re going housebreaking!”

“Oh!”  Sophie cried, a world of doubt lifted from her shoulders.  “Excellent!  Why didn’t you say?”

The Parkin farm was in darkness when they stole through the gate, keeping in the shadow of the wall as they worked their way around to the back of the house.

“I want you to know;” Sophie whispered:  “I rather liked kissing you.”

“I liked it too.”

“If we’re arrested, do you think they’d let us share a cell?”

“I doubt it.  Please stop, this is very bad for my concentration!”  Joe begged.  Now hidden from view behind the farmhouse, he ferreted as quietly as he could in the bag of tools he had borrowed from Owen’s garage that afternoon (without Owen’s permission, of course); they rattled disturbingly in the silence.

“What’s that?”  Sophie asked, as he produced something metallic and heavy from the bag.

“I think housebreakers would call it a gemmy.”

A kitchen window, half-rotten, yielded to Joe’s assault with little resistance.  He pulled it wide open.

“You first.”  He joked.

“Certainly not!  You’ll get a perfect view of my bum. After you, Raffles!”

“I told you to wear jeans.”

It was an easy climb.  Joe made his way in, to find himself standing in what he assumed to be the kitchen sink.  Sophie passed him the bag of tools then focused upon retaining her dignity as she managed her short skirt through the window.

“Don’t stare!” She chided.

“It’s too dark!”  He complained.

“Such gallantry!”

What had Joe expected?  The smell of fungal damp was oppressive, but otherwise the limited light of his carefully-shielded torch flicked around a typical farmhouse kitchen; picking out an immaculately blacked range in a wide chimney breast, cupboards and a sideboard of polished wood, a scrubbed table, a couple of functional wooden chairs.  The red flagstone floor seemed to be clean; a mat (over which he almost tripped) protected an area around the sink.  It was a frozen moment:  there were two plates on the table, remnants of food on one from which Jack had probably eaten when he returned for his tea: had he thought his wife was out somewhere, possibly visiting in the village?  A cup with dregs on the sideboard – tea, probably; probably Violet’s:  Joe could not imagine Jack Parkin drinking tea.

Producing an extra torch from his bag, Joe passed it to Sophie so she might scan the room for herself.  “My Goodness!”  She exclaimed under her breath:  “Didn’t they bother to search this place at all?”

There was certainly no sign of disturbance:  everything was neatly arranged – too neatly, was Joe’s immediate thought.  He cringed at the creak of the kitchen door, casting his light back and forth along the narrow passage which sufficed for a hall. A besom was propped by the front door.  Sophie gestured meaningfully.

“Probably just to sweep the step?”

A panelled door on the opposite side of the hallway revealed a living room so pungent with the aroma of dry rot it almost choked them.  Joe’s torch hurriedly scanned shelves of bric-a-brac lining one wall: an armchair, its colourless upholstery worn into holes, a settee in such an advanced state of dilapidation it looked as if it might swallow its next unwary visitor, a rocker that quivered eerily as he stepped across the sagging floor.  Sophie held both torches while he searched through drawers and cupboards for anything that might reveal a clue to what happened the afternoon Violet died.  All he found, though, was the paraphernalia of everyday living.  A damp-damaged photo of Jack Parkin peered from a wooden frame on the mantelshelf; otherwise there seemed to be no personal effects at all.  What was he looking for?

“What are we looking for?”  Asked Sophie. “An edition of ‘Witches Weekly, or something?”

“I don’t know.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful!  So good to have a plan!””

They inched their way up threateningly unsteady stairs to a small landing that became a passage running the length of the house.  Two doors admitted them to rooms ostensibly above the kitchen, the furthest a tiny space at the end of the house crammed with enamel bowls, wooden chests, stacks of newspapers, what looked like a trouser press, a folding frame from a chair, even a Union Jack.  There was also an almost uninterrupted view of the stars where roof tiles were missing and the ceiling had collapsed.   Nothing that anyone prized could be concealed in this space.

The nearer door was a bedroom – or was it?   More the scrape of a wild hare than a room:  a single iron bed, its springs sagging, made up with a rag-bag of blankets, sheets and an old bolster pillow.  There were men’s unwashed clothes strewn neglectfully on the floor.  Cider bottles were everywhere:  some filled, some refilled and corked, mostly empty.

Joe heard Sophie trying to restrain a retching in her throat.  He felt for her.  It was unlikely she had ever seen squalor like this.  “Is this what he comes back to if he’s freed?  He’s better off in jail!”

Across the landing the other bedroom, over that damp lounge, was larger: here there were feminine touches.  There was a hint of boudoir, conflicting somewhat with Joseph’s recollection of Violet and her masculine stamp.  As they searched amidst the frills and favors they found more and more of Violet Parkin in this room.

“Photographs?”  Sophie pulled an album from a drawer in the bedside table.  She flicked through old sepia pictures titled in neat handwriting, depicting a younger if not much slighter Violet in her teenage years.  There were family groups in Edwardian dress with Violet the little girl in the company of a plumply optimistic woman and a wiry dry stick of a man not half her size.

“That must be Ben Wortsall,” Joe commented.  “He doesn’t look exactly fearsome, does he?”

A charabanc-load of posing faces followed (outing to Marsden, summer 1924), and some seaside snaps.  As Sophie neared the back of the book a small flat package, tied with some coarse thread fell from between pages and dropped to the floor.  It was just large enough to fill the palm of her hand.

“Oh, how tiny!”  She tried to undo the knot securing the wrapping.  “I believe it must have been sealed with something:  I might break it.”

“We’ll look at it later,” Joes said, slipping it into his pocket.

They left nothing unturned – took such clothes as there were from Violet’s ancient wardrobe, turned the bedclothes and the mattress from the bed.  They even looked beneath the carpet, but found nothing untoward.  No clue that would unlock the mystery of Violet’s death, certainly; in fact, apart from a few photographs, very little about Violet at all.

Defeated, Joe gave Sophie’s arm the gentle tug that indicated they should leave.  “I’m sorry,” he said,  “it’s been a wasted evening.”

“Not entirely wasted, Joe darling.”  Sophie gave his hand a squeeze.  “Although it would help if you told me what the bloody hell you hoped to find!”

“Something.  I can’t explain, Sophie, but I know it’s here.  Whatever it is that made Violet into a real person; that made her the way she was.  This house has a secret, I’m sure of that.”

They were descending the creaking stairway, careful in the torch’s limited light, when they heard the scrape of a key in the front door.

“Oh god!  Someone’s coming in!”  Sophie hissed.  “What now, Raffles?”

“Now?”  Joe whispered.  “Run!”

He grabbed her hand.  Throwing caution to the winds, they stumbled down the remaining stairs, bolting for the kitchen.  Their flight must have been heard, for the turning of the door-key paused.

“Who’s there?”  A man’s voice demanded.  “Who’s that?”

Now the front door was opening with some urgency – a heavy shoulder crashed against it to force it to yield, and swift footsteps advanced into the hall.

In the kitchen, Joe collided with the table, shooting a javelin of pain into his groin.  Cursing incoherently, he jammed the table against the door then, in the few precious moments thus gained he limped to help Sophie, who was struggling through the window, lifting her quickly by her hips. She scrambled, squealing her indignation, before disappearing into the darkness outside. As Joe grabbed his bag of tools the table shot out into the room and the kitchen door burst wide   His feet followed him in a headfirst dive through the window and he landed shoulder first on the cobbles.

“This way!”  He was back on his feet in an instant, grabbing Sophie’s hand as together they ran for the back of the yard – for the field gate that hung, half-open there; and the shielding darkness of the meadow beyond.

“Don’t look back!”  He warned.  “Don’t let him see your face!”

Sophie hopping to remove her heels, Joe wincing at the latent ache in his groin; both ran, and sheltered finally under a cloak of night, they chanced a peek behind them to see a man’s head in the window they had forced, silhouetted by the light of a hurricane lamp.  It was difficult to identify the figure, although something about him seemed familiar.

Crouched low, tool bag tucked beneath Joe’s arm to silence it, and with Sophie laughing so hysterically as to make any attempt at stealth futile, the pair struck out across the grass.  Joe deliberately avoided the most obvious route, allowing his memory to direct him to a gap in the hedgerow which he knew would lead out onto Church Lane.

“Through there?”  Sophie complained; “I hope you’re going to recompense me for this hair-do, Joey Palliser.”

From the lane they doubled back, eventually arriving undetected – or so they believed – at Joseph’s parked car.  Guided by what he hoped was inbuilt radar, supplemented by large helpings of luck, Joe manoeuvred the unlit Wolsey back to the road.  He drove the best part of half a mile before he felt confident enough to switch on the lights.

Although confident they were not followed, still Joe did not want his car’s headlights to be seen, or give away either his or Sophie’s connection with the village.  So he drove, not back into Hallbury, but towards Walcotter Bridge, the next large village.  He sought out a lay-by shielded from the road and pulled over; slumping back into his seat.

“That was close.”

Sophie had said nothing throughout this journey.  She was engaged in meticulous preening, pulling large amounts of green stuff from her fine, long hair and collecting it, thoughtfully, in the car’s ashtray.  Now she accorded him a cool look.

“Well, it was interesting.”  She said dryly.  “See the state I’ve got myself into?  I’m an absolute scarecrow!”

“A very beautiful one.  I’m really sorry.  Shall I take you home?”

“No.”  She shook her head, staring down at herself, “Although I suppose we will have to soon.  I’m all scratched!”  She raised her right leg, placing her bare foot on the car dashboard so Joey could verify in the dim interior light that her pale flesh was indeed a mass of minor scratches.

“How am I going to explain this away?  How?  Look!”

She laid the abraded leg across Joe’s lap.  He took her foot gently in his hand and she giggled girlishly at his touch.  Very tenderly, he stroked the wounded skin of her calf.  He was of a mood to explore further.

She flexed sinuously, “Oh, you are good!  You really are!  But it is awfully late.”  She disengaged herself gently, sinking back into her seat.  “I can’t quite make you out, Joe Palliser – are you someone really special, or just the sad old Lothario they say you are?  I saw someone different tonight – I see someone different every time we meet.”

“I thought you were supposed to be the chameleon?”

“True.  But I think perhaps I pale to insignificance beside you.  My camouflage might not be able to keep up, you see.  If I weren’t careful, I should become prey.  That much vulnerability isn’t something I’m used to.”

“No, I guess not.”  Together, they stared out into the night.  Finally, he said:  “I don’t think I like being a chameleon:  disguise isn’t me, Sophie; it really isn’t.  It’s nice to be vulnerable sometimes…take it from someone who’s vulnerable all the time.  Anyway, who are ‘they’?”

Sophie was lost in thought.  “They?”

“The ‘they’ who say I’m – what was it – an ‘ageing Lothario’?”

“Jennifer Allthorpe, for one; she seemed very interested in you.  Knew you were staying in the village, knew about your brother.  She told me quite a lot about you, Joe, quite a lot.”

Joseph asked, in a dead voice:  “So you heard about my life in London?”

“Some.  I don’t know how much there is to tell.”

“Yet you still wanted to come out with me?”

She nodded;  “Of course!”  Then:  “Because you’re interesting, Joe!  Because the world is full of two-dimensional men and you’re certainly not one of them!  Tonight’s been fun – different, but fun!”

“It lived up to expectations, then?”

Sophie reached for his hand and grasped it.  “I’ve enjoyed it, I really have.  Thank you.”

He slipped the Wolsey into gear. “Then we can do this again?”

She laughed: “Breaking and entering, you mean?” She studied him carefully.  “I don’t know; should I?”

Highlands House was in darkness when the Wolsey crunched up to its doors.  Sophie turned Joe’s head to her for a goodbye kiss which lingered, just a little, before she broke away.  “I’ll call you.”  She said, “Promise!”  And she was gone.  Joe watched her pause in the porch to tidy herself, then returned her wave.

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

Photo Credit:  Brandon Morgan on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode Nineteen. Chameleons

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The story so far:

Still vying with his conscience Joe has made an offer to buy the Lamb house in Hallbury.  He traces his brother Michael’s steps on the day of Violet Parkin’s murder by visiting the Marsden-on-Sea house that was his regular haunt when the care home allowed, and he finds that Michael managed to escape supervision and was missing for several hours on that day.  He also learns of a mysterious smartly dressed man who met with him at a café he frequented in the town.  Meanwhile, Joe’s every move is being followed…

 

Joe returned to his Aunt and Uncle’s house to find they had gone out for the evening.  A note on the hall table advised him that his offer for the Lamb house had been accepted so he tried the estate agent’s business number; there was no reply.  Resigning himself to yet another visit to Braunston the next morning, he raided Julia’s cupboards for cold beef and threw together a sandwich before retiring to his room, plate of food in one hand and large Bacardi in the other.  There, called by the temptation of a warm bed and lulled by the steady lash of rain against his window, he slept.

The penalty for sleep was harsh:  sleep brought dreams; dreams brought the past, vivid and real, back to life.  The lips which smothered his face in kisses this time were Marian’s; kisses that were fierce, urgent, the teeth behind the lips teasing, nipping, demanding him.  They had made love so many times yet still it seemed she needed more.    What was it?  What was so wrong about that night?  After months when he had thought he was losing her, when she had seemed uninterested in sex or even just bored, there she was, an animal in his bed, so desperately wanting he thought her almost insane.

Then the words she had never said, suddenly spoken, sweetly – so sweetly; “I love you, Joey.  I love you.”

Dreams do not reason: they do not ask why.  Questions are reserved for waking.  Yet one terrifying moment returned; repeated itself night upon night:  Marian, cold with the chill of death.  Marian, draped naked over him like a blanket or a pall and he trapped beneath – as though she were a slab that covered his tomb, while he, still living, struggled to rise.  Had he replied?  Had he told her that he, in his way, had loved her too?  At this, a hideous peal of laughter, his genie above him where her poor body had been, leering in his face.

“Love?”  Sneered the genie:  “What is love to you?”

Then a renewal – a hand, small and cool to his touch, clasping his, pulling him back to wakefulness.

The house was dark; there was no sound but the wind and the rain.  This day Violet Parkin had been laid to rest: laid deep beneath the sodden mud, but she would not mind the damp or the rain. She was waiting.  Jack was soon to come to her, and only he, Joseph, the guiltiest of three guilty brothers, would stand in his way.  Should he?  Sometimes death for the wronged could be a merciful sister, no matter whose hand clasped the axe.

When Joe parted his curtains next morning to see the Austin Princess parked in the road he thought Jennifer’s was the strident fist knocking at the door.   He got to answer it before Julia and Owen were disturbed:  he had heard their late return, listened to their muted conversation as they settled for bed and bed was where they were still, having an uncharacteristic lie-in.

“Palliser.”  This was not Jennifer.  The man on the porch cut a greying figure, dressed against the morning chill in a navy overcoat and deerstalker hat.  He had a full, quite distinctive face, cool, glittering eyes and an immaculately trimmed goatee beard.  “Come on, inside.”

No invitation was sought:  permitting Joe no  time to dissent, this was a hand-on-arm hustle with the authority of a schoolmaster, or a policeman.  “This your drawing room?  Sit down.  You’re extremely lucky, Palliser.  I think we’ll be in time.”

“Who the hell are you?”  Joe demanded, recovering himself.

“That you’ll get to know in the next few minutes.  First, I want everything you’ve found out so far.  Everything – leave nothing out.”

“About what?”  The stranger’s attitude was far too nettlesome for eight o’clock in the morning.

“You’ve been a bad boy, haven’t you?  They’re all on your track, Joe, you have to understand that.  You should be grateful I got here first.”  He matched Joe’s angry stare with disturbing intensity.  “Now it’s time to stump up.  Where is Michael?  We have to find him urgently. Is he in Marsden?”

“Not that I know of.”  Joe repeated more emphatically.  “Who are you?”

“How did Marian die, Joe?”  The quick-fire switch of subject was clearly meant to catch Joe off balance, but it merely infuriated him further.

“Either identify yourself or get out!”

“I’m someone who’s on your side, man.  Be sensible! You know Marian’s old man will never let you get your hands on her money.  The police are involved.  Are they looking for you?  You’re in deep, deep trouble, my friend.  I’m your only hope, you see?”

Initially Joe might have been caught off guard, but now he recognised the newspaper man Ian had warned him about, and remembered Ian’s advice:  ‘Give them nothing they can use as a confirmation – they’ll pretend to know a lot more than they do, and they’ll try to catch you.’

Joe took the offensive.  “Which ‘paper?  ‘Courier’? ‘Today’?  ‘Chronicle’?  Since you refuse to introduce yourself, I’ll give you a name.  Let me see – Eddie?  Which muck rag, Eddie?”

“That’s a very good guess.  My middle name is Edward, actually.  Douglas Lynd – that’s my by-line, Joe.  The ‘Courier’.”  Discovered, Eddie tried another tack:  “Now, tell me about Marian, Joe.”

“Tell you what?”  Ian’s second piece of advice: ‘Never throw them out; they’ll just print what they like, then.  Only give answers they’ll have to disprove if they want to publish.’  “That she was my landlady?  That she used the flat upstairs when she was in town?”

“You were sleeping with her.”

Contriving to return Lynd’s smirk with a steady glare, Joe said:  “I deny that.”  After all, it would not be the first time he had lied in Ian’s cause.

“Oh come on!”  Lynd scoffed.  “You had a relationship with her which lasted for years!  You travelled with her on her business trips:  she called you her ‘secretary’.  You can’t even bloody type!”

‘The office has managed to cover all but a couple of your trips,’ Ian had said.  ‘The two you made to the Scottish Trade Exhibitions in ’63 and ‘64.  Too many connections to track down, I’m afraid.’

“Untrue.”  Joe snapped.  “I was out of a job in ’63 and needed work. Mrs Brubaeker hired me for one trip. I was useful, so when the same trip came up the following year she took me with her again.  That’s all.  Separate rooms booked on each occasion, nothing untoward.  Your information is wrong.”

Lynd’s lip curled:  “Really?  Is that the best you can come up with?  If this relationship was platonic, how do you explain the will, Joe?  All that money?”

“Ah,” Joe nodded.  “Something someone like you wouldn’t understand Lynd.  Marian Brubaeker was a nice, very charitable person:  she led a separate life from the rest of her family, and as my solicitor explains it, she didn’t think her husband should have her fortune.  He has considerable wealth of his own, doesn’t he?”

“So she hauled you out like a present from a bran tub?”

“I don’t think she had anyone else to give her money to.  I think she was a lonely woman.”

“She was keeping you, wasn’t she?”

“No.”

“How else did you earn a living for what – ten years?”

“A job here, a job there: none of them lasted very long.  Some work for my brother.  I can live very cheaply.”

“A job here, a job where, exactly?”

“Why should I help you with details I can’t remember myself?”

Sighing, Lynd looked down at his feet, and the brown brogues which shod them.  “So that’s your story, is it?  Would it surprise you to know we have evidence you and Mrs Brubaeker were living together for a decade?”

“It would be a calumny, and therefore also libellous.  Mrs Brubaeker and I did not cohabit in any sense.  I had the flat downstairs, she was my landlady; no more than that.  Say otherwise and I’ll sue you for a figure with more noughts on the end than you can count.”

“You killed her, didn’t you?”

Had Joe half-expected the question?  Expected or no, he had to swallow before he answered:  “That’s disgusting!  No, of course I didn’t!”

“A tacky little fortune-hunter like you, twisting a lonely older woman around your finger to get her to leave you her money – of course you killed her!  Just as soon as she changed that will you had your grubby hands around her throat!  The cops will find out, Joe; it’s just a matter of time, son.  I’d start thinking about running, if I were you.”

He had to remain calm!  “That’s completely untrue.”

“We’ll see.  The investigation’s nearly complete, I’m told.  Michael’s mad, isn’t he?  You keep him restrained in a home.”

“I don’t keep Michael anywhere.”  Joe kept pace with the change.  “And he’s not restrained, as far as I know.  He’s my brother – wasn’t there some quote or other – ‘I am not my brother’s keeper’?”

“Here we go again.”  The newspaper man sighed.

“No,” was Joe’s rejoinder.  “No, we don’t.  It’s time you left, Mr Lynd.  Now!”

At the front door, Douglas Lynd asked, over his shoulder:  “Which mental home is Michael in, Palliser?”

“Michael is not in any ‘home’,” Joe responded.  “He’s free to come and go as he pleases.  Get out!”

Lynd nodded:  “This story is worth a lot of money, Joe.  My ‘paper pays well.  If you change your mind…”  He pulled a card from his pocket.  For some reason, Joe took it and placed it in a pocket of his own.

Watching the journalist drive away, Joe wondered at himself and his ability to lie.  From their earliest days, he and Ian had covered for one another, in their half-remembered infancy when their parents were alive, then through youth because Owen and Julia were strangers, the substitute parents who must be kept away from the secrets of the brothers’ world.

Jennifer was in the hotel bar, studying the day’s ‘Courier’ in one hand, picking at a cold chicken salad with the other.

Lynd nodded at the newspaper:  “Anything?”

“Not for us.”  Jennifer said.  “Did you get anything?”

“No, nothing worthwhile.  He’ll have briefed his people by now, so there’s no sense wasting time on him.  When the Party closes ranks…..”  He sipped thoughtfully from his whisky.  “You got plans?”

“Nothing that won’t wait.  Why?”

“There’s a loose end.  For some reason, he seems excessively interested in the Parkin case.”  Jennifer cast him a quizzical look.  “Local murder: look it up if you like.  See, I don’t know why a bloke like him would take the trouble, unless…”

“Unless what?”

“Well, unless there’s some personal connection.  And why did he bugger off to the seaside yesterday, questioning the people who looked after his brother?  Put the ends together, see what you get.  You can get closer to the bloke than I can.”

Jennifer pursed her lips.  “I’ll try.  Get closer to him? I don’t know.  He’s a strange one.”

Lynd made a face.  “He’s not…?”

“A confirmed bachelor?  No, I’d have seen that straight away.  I’ll work on it.  There might be a love interest for you.”

“Now that,” said Douglas Edward Lynd, “Would definitely help!”

 

That afternoon, the Masefields’ telephone rang.  Joe answered it.

“What are we doing tonight?”  Sophie’s telephone voice was bright, companionable:  “Don’t say you’ve forgotten!”

“Of course not.  I can’t tell you.”   Joe had not forgotten.

“Why?”

“You wouldn’t come.”

Silence for a moment at the other end – then, cautiously:  “How do I know what to wear?”

“Oh.  Dress down – right down.  Old jeans or something.”

“Absolutely.  A girl has to look her best…”

Joseph drove up to the imposing front doors of Highlands House that evening as confidently as any fugitive, sensible that his mere presence could lower the property’s rateable value.  This was hardly a novel feeling:  in London, whether he was behind the curtains watching Marian’s husband leave, or accompanying her on one of her sorties into the north, or to France, or Italy;  when everyone knew, though it was not discussed, exactly what role he fulfilled, the same burden applied.  Guilt was endemic to his nature now.  Wherever he was, he retained the uncomfortable feeling that he had no right to be there.

Sophie bounced from the opened door with a young horsewoman’s determination; an oddly gauche contrast to the languid, self-assured squire’s daughter who had flirted with him in the hay barn.  Was she nervous?  A burgundy coat folded over one arm, tote bag in the other hand, she was certainly not ‘dressed down’: an angora sweater in light sky blue, a denim mini-skirt which emphasised the length of her elegant legs and heeled red sandals  with toenails painted to compliment them.  She slipped into the seat beside him, tugging her skirt into modesty without giving him time to climb out and hold the door for her.

“Super car!”

“It’s old.”

“I so prefer the old ones.  The latest models are cheap and plasticky, don’t you think?  This has style, Joe.”

“You look very nice.”  He stopped short of the word ‘ravishing’, although that was exactly what he thought.

“Why, thank you, kind sir!”  Sophie gave him a smile which told him she knew exactly the word he was thinking of.

“That is not a pair of old jeans.”

“It’s denim.  It’s last year’s at least, and this old thing…”  She pulled at the sweater disparagingly.  “I wear this all the time.  Where are we going?”

“To the seaside.”

“Super.”

The drive to the coast was filled mostly with small talk, question and answer, seeking common ground.  Did Joe know Kellie-so-and-so, who would have been at Braunston School at such a time?  Did Sophie remember Jimmy-what-was-his-name, the boy who left the village around the time when..?  These discussions bore no satisfactory fruit, except perhaps to prove they had no friends in common, and few memories to share.  Yes, she had played with the village children sometimes, but mostly her friends were from Braunston, or further off.

“I know you have a brother in politics.”

“I know your father’s a distinguished consultant surgeon.”

“Daddy works awfully hard.”

“Ian pretends to.  Sometimes he almost brings it off.”

Then Joseph said:  “I met one of your friends the other day; she’d just been to see you, apparently – someone called Jennifer?”

Sophie pulled a face.  “Jennifer Althorpe you mean?  I was at school with her, but I wouldn’t really call her a friend.  She looked me up, though, that’s true.  Careful, Joe – Jenny’s a bit of a man-eater.  She’s also a journalist; quite dangerous all round, really.”

 

Their road served a succession of fishing villages strewn along the Channel’s stony shore.  Most sported no more than a few inshore smacks drawn up on the beach, and the odd lobster pot or two.  One little harbour town however – or village, because three or four shops in themselves make no more than the sum of their parts – had a humble charm all its own.  One street led in and led out in the space of a precipitous half-mile between sandstone headlands, past stone cottages, dark romantic alleys, a cobbled quay where a couple of coastal trawlers and a sorry-looking pleasure craft oscillated and bumped against the tide.  The evening sun low over the western cliff turned its opposite from blushing pink to glowering vermillion, casting black shadowed mystery after mystery – a cave perhaps, a depthless fissure, or hidden wreck?

One small café, unimaginatively named ‘The Lobster Pot’ stood on the quayside.  Upon first acquaintance it promised nothing very much:  a hand-written menu in the window, oil-cloth on the tables, a Martini bottle with a candle jammed into its neck as a centre-piece for each.

“You said you didn’t do dinners.”  Joe reminded Sophie, reading the dismay in her face.  “But if you can ignore the peeling paint and the slightly less than wonderful washrooms, the seafood is to die for.”

“Or to die of.”  Sophie said gravely.  “Aren’t we a little new for this degree of trust?”

“Nonetheless, trust me.”  He replied.

So they ordered crab, and Joe paid corkage on a bottle of wine he had carefully chosen from a Braunston vintner that afternoon, and they sat on bentwood chairs by a window that overlooked the quayside, while the sun worked its evening magic.  The food was all Joe had promised, for the crab had no journey to make in reaching here; it was delicately sweet and as fresh as the sea which yielded it.

When the sun had long set and their meal was over, Sophie sat back to look at Joe as though she was assessing him for some high purpose.  “You know, Joseph Palliser, there are depths to you I didn’t expect.”

He stared into his wine.  “You’re a little different, too.”

“Oh, Sophie Forbes-Pattinson, the squire’s daughter?  I can’t keep that up all the time.”  She said reflectively.  “I hope I don’t disappoint you. I’m a bit of a chameleon, actually, Joe.  Different faces, different requirements.  Like the horsewoman, eh?”  She slapped herself on the thigh.  “Good seat, what?”

“Like Eve White?”

“The film?  Sort of, I suppose.  She was a professional, though:  I do it for a hobby.”

“So long as the real Sophie’s in there somewhere.”  He said.

The hour was already late.  While Sophie braved the facilities Joe paid for their meal and wandered out onto the waterfront.  Somewhere beyond his eyes surf beat out a lazy rhythm.  The boats at their moorings grunted and murmured, deep in secretive conversation.   Sophie found him standing by his car.  She waited this time while he opened the door for her, briefly clasping his hand.

“Thank you Joe, that was nice.”  Her voice was soft.  She was very near.

“Now for the cabaret!”  Joe said.

 

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

 

 

 

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode Eighteen. Rhinemaiden

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The story so far:

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

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

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

So why was he not more afraid?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m Joe Palliser.”

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

“Can I come in?”

After an interval:  “Who is it?”

“I’m Joe.”

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

“Yes.”  Joe agreed.

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

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

“How do you do, Terry?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did he go out the Friday before last?”

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

“And came back at about eight?”

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

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

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

“Who was with him, Mr Winter?”

“Well – I was, wasn’t I?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll tell the proper people, yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Has he been in here recently?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you describe him?”  Joe asked.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Photo Credit:  Brandon Molitwenik on Unsplash

 

 

 

Tomchik’s Ornithology

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

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

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

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

“Is it biodegradable?”

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

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

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

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

“How long have you lived here, Tomchik?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bird droppings, yes?”

“Yes,”

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t understand Jane…”  I begin.

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

“Have you asked her about it?”

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode Seventeen.   A Deeper Darkness

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The story so far:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tabloid stuff, though?”  Joseph suggested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julia:  “Michael, stop it!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Golly, thanks!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s Joe.”

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

“Nearby.”

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

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

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

“He’s my brother.”

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

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

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

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

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

He didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode Sixteen.   The Cuckoo’s Child

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The story so far:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The receiver was replaced before Joe could protest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I suppose you had better bring those inside.”

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

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

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

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

“Ian, I wouldn’t ask, but…”

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

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

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

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

He had stayed for a month.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, please.  Scotch would be good.”

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

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

“Open and read.”

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

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

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

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

“And the catch is…?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Why, what have I done?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s gone.”

“What?”

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

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

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

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

“Twenty-four hours, huh?”

“More like eighteen.  Go home.  Pack.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Mr Chapman?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So that’s why I’m a problem?”

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

“Don’t use that word again!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How?”  Joe asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nor am I,”  Joe replied.

 

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