Hallbury Summer – Episode Nineteen. Chameleons

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.

 

 

 

 

Nowhere Lane – Chapter Two. Patrick and Karen

Patrick

From a distance Radley Court might have seemed the same, but there would be no truth in it.  Green sandstone walls, high Georgian windows, tall chimneys jabbing accusingly towards the sky; all there, all unchanged.  To Patrick Hallcroft, turning from a road he knew into a drive he knew – into that long, long drive – the great sweep of lawn looked as it had always looked.  The ancient chestnut, its stately canopy a respite from the summer sun, and rhododendrons, almost trees themselves now, standing like lofty sentinels at the gates, a vibrant tunnel of pinks and reds, violets and blues.

Only as he drew closer did he see those once neatly manicured lawns reduced to turf, weeds nudging through the gravel forecourt, so many window panes cracked or broken.  When he braked to a halt before the house no Petra ran to him – no ecstatic barks of greeting, no kisses from a pink, excited tongue.  Not a bird to sing, not a rustle of wind among the trees; only silence.

The big front doors yielded before his touch.  Within, dampness and neglect assailed his senses, drawn curtains veiled his sight.  Across the great hall his footsteps were borne upon echoes, for the carpet that once clothed it was long gone:  only bare stones remained, with evidence of a roof’s neglect in every pool of water and a music of steady drips which kept them fed.

Patrick knew where his father would be.  The tall oak door of his study stood ajar, creaking as he pushed it wide. A threshold to a room always daunting, rich with memories: how many sins of his childhood had received the censure they deserved in here?  The hesitant knock, the nervous step, his father’s frown?  No more.  Now only daylight was forbidden -ragged drapes, velvet, once blue, garbed its windows such that he could barely make out those tiers of books that lined the panelled walls, or the desk; the polished desk that had once stood before a chair more noble than a throne.

Beneath its wide stone mantel, a small fire crackled gamely.

“You came then.”  Sure enough, his father was there, crouched before the guttering flames, stabbing and poking them into life.  His once rich Canadian drawl had dried with age to autumn leaves.  “I wasn’t sure you would.”

“Well, I had to think about it.”  Patrick admitted.  “Whether it was wise, I mean.  But you sent for me.”

“And you decided it was time.”  Jackson Hallcroft raised himself awkwardly to his feet, bearing the pain of afflicted limbs.  He was tall still, but gaunt.  His even features had hollowed around his bones as though some parasitic worm had plundered all his inner substance leaving only a wafer of flesh.  The tweed jacket and cords might have been the same ones he was wearing last time Patrick saw him, and that was a long time ago.  “I think so, too.  I remain in rude health, as you see.”  Then, as his son reached for the light switch:  “I wouldn’t touch that.”

“You haven’t had the electrics done, have you?  The place will go up in flames one day, Dad.”

“Yeah, and me with it, I suppose.”  Jackson’s face cracked a cynical smile.  “Like dry tinder.  Then all this will be yours.  A pile of ash.  It’s good to see you, Son – it’s been a while.  Did you have a pleasant journey?”

“Fine, my journey was fine.  I’ve been busy, Dad, and this house…”  Patrick shuddered.  “It doesn’t hold so many good memories, does it?”

“It did once.”  His father said.

“Yes, I suppose it did.”  Patrick looked about him, absorbing the heavy, dusty air and faded fabrics.  He might try to remember – there were, after all, some better times.  “Is this some kind of trap, do you think?”

“Sit down, Patsy:  over here by the fire if you can bear it.  The cold eats deep into these ancient bones.”

“When you’ve answered my question.”

Jackson Hallcroft sighed.  “Had a letter the other day.”  He said.  “Some guy called Price came by a week or so back and asked if I could show him around.  Well, I had nothing better to do.”  He shrugged.  “Then, next thing I know, a letter.  Seems like there’s this company; Wellfield Kaufmann, want to turn the old pile into a ‘Country House Hotel’.  Doesn’t that sound grand?  They’d pay a couple of million for the place.”

“Have you written back yet?”

“Nope.  Thought I’d talk it over with you first.  It’s part of your inheritance, after all.”

“You’ll do the right thing.  If you ever do think of moving, it would be good to have you closer, I suppose.”

“You were raised here.”

“I lived here while I was growing up.  You were too busy to notice that, much.”

The old man winced.  “No-one ever warned me that old age would be such a trial.  You have no idea how many cases I have tried to answer, Patsy.  I find myself guilty every goddamned time.”

“You haven’t answered my question.”

“About the trap thing?”  Jackson settled back into his leather wing chair, so Patrick had to join him by the hearth to see his face.  Although his skin was thin as paper, his grey eyes still retained their glint of steel.  They reflected the embers as he stared into the grate, answering his son with a question of his own.  “You might have placed yourself in a vulnerable position – by writing that damned book, I mean.  But that aside, isn’t it time to settle all this?”

Patrick felt the apprehension in his heart.  “Maybe.  Maybe not.  Maybe it was all settled a lot of years ago.”  There were things that had to be said.  “Dad, am I walking into a trap?”

Jackson sighed.  “Powerful people; lawyers?  Truth is, boy, even though your sister’s one of the breed and yes, I’d rather she was here; I don’t know.  I just don’t know.”

Karen.

Karen Eversley entered Patrick’s life in the early 1960s on an April morning, when spring snowfall was blowing against the window of his office in the Beaconshire County Planning Department.  Her long fingers tapped the glass panel of his door.

“Are you Patrick Hallcroft?”  The eyes which so openly explored his were a vivid blue.  They belonged in a perfectly oval face with a quite determined chin and a nose just too pronounced to be beautiful.  “You are, aren’t you?  You must be.”

“I’ll answer that in a minute,.”  Patrick said, rising from behind a stack of planning applications, “when I’ve finished ogling.  In the meantime, who are you?”

She smiled indulgently, as though the young man’s ham-fisted compliment somehow pleased her.  “I’m Karen:  Karen Eversley.”

“Well, Miss Eversley, you just lit up my day.  What can I do for you?”

“Didn’t Bob Stawkley tell you I was coming?”

Patrick’s jaw chose that moment to drop because the visitor his head of department told him to expect was from an investigating agency and the image that had become firmly planted in his mind was of a middle-aged ex-copper with warts and halitosis.  “You’re not…”

“I think I might be.”  She nodded.  “Eversley Investigations.  That’s me.”

Karen Eversley was definitely neither middle-aged nor warty. She was, as he judged, in her mid-twenties and tall, with a thatch of strawberry blonde hair.

“You’re the boss?”  He must have sounded as impressed as he felt.

“Oh, don’t make it sound too grand, Mr Hallcroft.  I am Eversley Investigations:  just me!  Bob did tell you I was coming, then.”  She proffered a hand,  “How do you do?”

Patrick would remember that hand.  Its fingers were ringless and a little fragile, its palm felt cool.  He had to gather his thoughts because she was gaining a hold on him, even then.  “Pat.  Please call me Pat.  Can I take your coat?”

“Thank you.  I don’t believe it, it’s really snowing out there.  I’m Karen.  Call me that.”

She shrugged her coat – silver grey and three-quarters length –  from her shoulders to reveal a pale lemon blouse and snug-fitting, charcoal skirt that finished an inch or so above her knees.  He thought they were the most perfect shoulders and knees he had ever seen.  He gulped – he hoped not audibly.

“What can I do for you, Karen?”

“You see, we’re on first-name terms already, Pat, aren’t we?”  She treated him to another of those smiles.  “I’m told you are custodian of the maps, is that right?”

“Custodian?  Wow!  The district maps?”  Patrick was groping blindly for a peg to hang Karen’s coat.  His eyes refused to leave her, drawn shamelessly to a small, very attractive beauty spot on her neck “I know where to find them if that’s what you mean.  And you are looking for..?”

“Specifically?  A village.  I think it goes under the name of Boulters Green.”  Laughing, she came to his rescue, reaching up to hang her coat safely on the coat-stand, which caused her blouse to stretch briefly across her breasts, and ignited a thousand small fires in Patrick.  Their faces came close, so he caught a hint of scent as the soft waft of her breath warmed his cheek.  Karen blushed, suddenly and prettily.  “I wonder,”  she murmured, “If you’ve stopped ogling yet?”

“Oh god, I’m sorry!  Yes; yes. Boulter’s Green.”  His mental archive was in cinders at that moment.  “Sorry.  I haven’t got a handle on that one immediately.  Any idea of area?”

She smiled.  Karen smiled.  She kept smiling!  His heart went into a sort of gymnastic floor routine inside his chest.

“Actually, none.”  She said.  “Don’t worry, no-one else has heard of it either.  Could it be in the Boult Valley somewhere, do you think?”

He frowned, or tried to.  “Sounds logical, but I’m sure I would have heard of it.  Let’s pop into the Conference Room.”

Was there mischief in the look she gave him?  She was not blind to the effect she was having on this mop-headed young man with his quick, intelligent eyes, and it pleased her.  “That’s not a euphemism, is it?”

“No, no!”  He defended hastily; “The Conference Room has a big table, that’s all.  The large-scale maps take up a lot of space.”

Karen made a face at him.  “Pat?”

“Yes?”

“I’m harmless, don’t worry.”

“Yes.  I mean no, of course not.  I’ll just show you to the…the Conference Room, and then I’ll grab a Boult Valley map and we’ll have a look.  Would you like coffee?”

“Never been known to refuse.  Sugarless and joyless, please.”

Leaving Karen comfortably ensconced at the Conference room’s substantial table, Patrick raided his department’s library with a speed and efficiency which surprised even him, then directed a similarly purposeful assault upon the staff kettle.  Within fifteen minutes he was able to produce the map she seemed to want, spreading it before her on the polished surface. “The River Boult from Bolborough to its lower reaches just above Bulmouth.  Nice and clean and white.”  Patrick fussed with placemats, fearing wrath from on high if their coffee mugs should leave a ring on the sacred table.  “I don’t think it gets used very often.  We call them bed sheets.”  He smoothed the acres of stiff paper down. “Sorry!”  He reddened.  “I mean – I didn’t…”

“I’m sure I’ve no idea what you mean,”  Karen said with mock severity.  “Is this one mine?”

“What?  The coffee?  Yes.  Best staff mugs.  You’ve got the coronation; of George –  the Fifth, I think that one is.  They all look alike, don’t they?”

“I’m honoured!  Can you see it?.”  She said, frowning down on the white paper.

“Boulters Green?”

“Yes.”

“If what you’re looking for exists in this area, it’s on here.”  He said.  “I take it you couldn’t find anything on the twenty-four-inch maps?”

She shook her head.  “I can’t see it on this, either.  How can you hide a whole village?”

“Maybe it’s somewhere else?”  He suggested.

“Maybe.”

Sometimes fine details could get overlooked.  The map, though superficially as dazzling as virgin snow, was host to better than a thousand words and symbols.  Finding something you wanted without a reference was like wandering blindfold through a maze because amidst so much profusion eyesight had little value.  But luck was on Patrick’s side.  “There!”

“It does exist!”  Karen said.  “You see?”

“It isn’t a village, though.”  Patrick’s finger had pointed to a trio of tiny rectangles, beside each of which was the word ‘ruin’, and over them, in slightly larger italics, ‘Boulters Green’.  A dotted line, symbolizing a track or bridleway, which must in bygone days have linked the ruins to a nearby minor road, stopped short about a half-mile from them.  “It might have been once, but it isn’t now.  I know this road.”  His finger traced the minor highway forming a ‘T’ with the bridleway.  “It goes to High Pegram – it’ll continue onto the next map.  I’ve driven along there a few times, but I can’t remember seeing a turning. What are you doing?”

He heard a click of a shutter before he saw the camera, which seemed to have appeared in Karen’s hand by magic.

“I’m photographing it,”  Karen said.

“Well, obviously.”

“Aren’t I supposed to?”

“Probably not.  But you have, haven’t you?  Do you think I should wrest the camera from you and rip out the film?”

He couldn’t quite decide if the look Karen gave him was amused or barbed.  “That might be fun.”  She said.  “What’s this area here?”

There was a large, faintly shaded zone marked out just to the north side of the ruins.  An imposing-looking complex of rectangles had been drawn in close to the edge of the area.  “That’s the  Driscombe estate.  There are thousands of acres of it, but that part is mainly wooded, as you can see.  The large structure is the great house, I believe;  Boult Wells.  Viscount Driscombe of Caleybridge’s place, you know?  His son’s our Member of Parliament?”

“Really?  Our Member of Parliament?”

“If you live at this end of the County, yes.”

“Yours and mine?”

“Yes.”

“Oooo!”

Whether by accident or design, Patrick found himself quite close to Karen Eversley; close enough to catch a hint of that citrus scent again.

“So that’s it.  Boulter’s Green isn’t much, is it?”  She said.

“Afraid not.”  He had to do it.  “Are you into The Dave Clark Five or The Beatles?”

She glanced at him, surprised.  “Dave Clark’s okay, I suppose.  It has to be The Beatles, though, doesn’t it?”

“Right.  Right, it does, I guess.  The Dave Clark Five are on in Baronchester this Saturday.”

Karen’s brow puckered.  “You’ve lost me Pat, what’s this got to do with anything?”

“Well, the thing is, the Five are supporting The Beatles.  It’s a gig they signed up for before they hit the big time.   Would you like to come?  I’ve got tickets.”

“But sir, I hardly know you.”

“True.  I might be dangerous.”

“Well, I hope you are, a little.  It’s going to be a very boring evening otherwise.”

“You’ll come then?”

“Of course I’ll come!  What, I should pass up an opportunity to see The Beatles live?”

#

So that was how Patrick Hallcroft first met Karen Eversley.  He must have realized he was on the edge of something important, though he little understood just how much his future was to be shaped by events set in train that weekend.  But first, we must join Karen on a very different evening outing, on the Thursday of that week, to the little Gaiety Theatre on Railway Street in her hometown of Caleybridge.  And of that, if you’ll forgive the cliché, more next week.

 

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

 

 

 

 

In the Park

I know that some of these stories are a little long and I thank you for your patience if you take the time to read them, but I am reluctant to edit too heavily because I feel I would sacrifice some of the essential pace that makes a story live. Please feel free to censure me if I am wrong… couple-294284_640 “I think you’re very beautiful.” Martin said.

Alana felt the hot scarlet of a blush as it crept up her graceful neck, the way it always did whenever she was surprised by a compliment, no matter how clumsily it was delivered or by whom. “Thank you. I wish I deserved that.” She said with a shy smile.

“I saw you and I thought…” Martin hesitated, gathering his strength; “I thought I must speak. I simply had to speak. I often walk Rufus in this park, but I don’t remember seeing you here before.”

“No. I don’t suppose you do. I’m new here, you see. We just moved in to the new apartments over there. Your dog is very clever.”

“Yes. You can pet him if you like. He’s extremely gentle.”

Alana crouched in front of the fair-haired Labrador, offering her delicate long fingers for Rufus to get her scent before she gently scratched his ear. “You’re a clever boy!” She praised him. “Without you I would have lost my diary. Thank you.” And Rufus pressed his head against her hand, wagging his tail furiously. She looked up at the young man. “I wish I had a treat for him.”

“Oh please don’t worry. He’s a natural retriever, you see. It isn’t a trick to Rufus; he just can’t help himself. He saw you’d left your book on the bench when you walked away and he went straight to it. It’s what he does.”

“Well, I’m very grateful.”

“I wonder…” the young man was tongue-tied again. “I wonder if someone as lovely as you would ever consider going out to dinner with someone like me?”

Alana smiled her demurest smile. He was very uncertain of himself, this young man, and some might have thought him a little creepy, but she recognized the loneliness in him and understood. He was good-looking, if you took away those heavy-rimmed glasses, made him trim those lank strands of black hair.

“I would love to.” She said.

They met at Sardi’s on the Quayside, where they feasted on lobster that had been landed that morning and drank white wine from Bourgogne. He learned that Alana lived with her mother and an elder brother and they had arrived in town only a week ago. She learned what she had first suspected: that Martin lived alone in a small bedsit overlooking the park.

He was lonely, she decided. “You don’t have any relatives?”

“Not here. They live up-country.”

“You don’t get to see them very often?”

“Scarcely at all. My father and I, we argue every time we meet.”

“So when did you last see him?”

“Oh – years.” Martin was a software engineer. “I’m sort of freelance. I don’t get much work these days…”

“I bet you’re very good…”

“Things move so fast – I don’t keep up so well.”

Alana smiled consolingly, placing her hand on his. “Martin, I can help you.”

Martin walked her home, and by the time they reached her door he was clinging to her hand as though his life depended upon it. He looked up to her windows to see there was a light shining there. “Your mum and your brother – I expect they’re home.” He said wistfully.

“I think they are.” She said.

“Will I see you again?”

“What about tomorrow evening, when you’re walking Rufus in the park? I’d love to join you then.”

He smiled, comforted by the knowledge she had not been bored by him, that his conversations surrounding the swift evolution of software had somehow entertained her. As if she were reading his mind, she said: “Thank you for a lovely dinner and your company Martin. It’s been fun.”

He waited, expecting her to turn, disappear through the door. She waited, filling his eyes with hers. Impulsive? No, he was never that. So she leaned towards him, and kissed him, almost chastely: almost, but not quite. He walked away before he had to admit he was crying.

The hours to the following evening passed very slowly for Martin. They were punctuated by impossible hopes and dreams which floated around the ethereal image of Alana. Alana in the blue dress she had worn last night, Alana in white wedding weeds, Alana in – he could only dare himself to peep – nothing at all. Guilt consumed him, anxiety possessed him, and fear (that she would not keep their assignation in the park) almost drove him to distraction.

He reached his habitual walk early, with Rufus in enthusiastic tow, but lingered. He positioned himself upon a bench with a view of the park gates while Rufus fidgeted at his feet, eager to be walked. From where he sat he could see Alana approach, watching her even, faun-like stride through the railings. The evening was warm enough for the short green skirt she wore and the street quiet enough for the click of her heels to be audible.

Martin spotted the man in the red bomber jacket almost before Alana did. The man was young, well built with a strong face and a bold, confident stride – everything Martin was not. He was walking towards Alana, he knew her. A thousand tiny needles of apprehension pricked at the back of Martin’s eyes as he watched them meet, as they performed a ritual of hand gestures in pursuit of their hum of conversation. HE was someone she would want to be with; the kind of man a girl like that deserved. HE would have a decent income, a regular job, property, a fast car…

Alana saw Martin as soon as she turned away from the man. She gave a quick glance over her shoulder to see if the man was watching before she waved cheerfully. “You’re early!” She said as she hurried towards him. “Come on, Martin, let’s walk!” He gave her one of his bleakest, most defeated smiles. But he did not ask her about the man. He dared not. Alana did not volunteer any information; instead she snuggled cozily into his side, her arm through his as though they were already lovers, while Rufus trotted faithfully behind.

For what seemed an hour neither would break the silence, each just happy to bathe in the other’s company as a red sun set slowly over the distant hill. At last, resting on the memorial benches by the lake, Martin summoned up all his courage. With shaking fingers he took her chin as gently as he could and turned her to him. Then, trying not to breathe, he kissed Alana on the lips.

She sighed, saying softly: “Not bad. Now let’s try that again.” And she returned his kiss. And she taught him how mouths could explore, and hands excite.

After a while, when his first lessons had been learned, Martin’s disbelief would no longer let him remain silent. He asked: “What is it?”

Alana rested her head upon his shoulder contentedly: “What is what?”

He hesitated because he knew it was a question he should not ask: “You know what I see in you. What is it – what can you possibly – see in me?

She turned her head to his, so close he could feel the warm waft of her breath on his cheek, hear the tremulous edge in her voice. “Perhaps I see much more than you do. There’s something about you – and Rufus. Don’t forget Rufus. Perhaps vulnerability turns me on.” She squeezed his hand. “Come on, my little man, I want to take you home.”

So they walked again, retracing the steps that had directed them to their tryst, consumed with laughter and promise. At the park gates, Martin found himself pausing to look up at Alana’s apartment windows. “They’re not in tonight.” She whispered. “It’s just you and me, Martin. Come on, let’s hurry!”

Rufus caught his human companions’ mood and pulled them heartily on his leash across the road and along the pavement on the further side, To his own amazement, Martin was no longer afraid of himself. He matched Alana’s pace as they hurried to her door, and almost skipped beside her on the wide stone stairs. Inside the lobby of her apartment he took her in his arms and made her laugh at his ineptitude as he rained kisses on her cheeks, her neck, her arms…

Rufus snuffled, Rufus whimpered, Rufus growled.

The room was dark inside – dark and warm. A faint, sweet scent filled the air.

“Don’t.” She whispered, very close. “Don’t turn on the lights.” It was Alana who shook now, whose hands were quaking in the grip of her desire, the certain knowledge of his need.

“You can touch me, Martin. Touch me darling – I won’t break. Come on now, don’t wait….don’t, don’t wait.”

It was surprising, in no subtle way, the lance of warmth that pierced his heart. It found its path with so little pain, so little resistance he scarcely knew it had happened. Alana was trembling in his arms and crying out her ecstasy. He was shaking in hers; but it was not joy that made him so. Making his final, desperate clutch at life his eyes took in the room, now lit; the table he was being thrust back upon, the long, thin knife in Alana’s hand. And he clattered down beside the saw, and died.

#

“Hi!” Alana said, pleased despite herself. “Isn’t it a little early to come calling?”

“You settling in OK?” Asked the young man in the red bomber jacket. “I’m kind of interested, being your upstairs neighbor and all.”

“Yes.” Alana leant against her doorpost. “I’m fine.”

“Got yourself a dog.” Rufus, a little scared of the young man, was hiding behind Alana’s legs. She felt, rather than saw or heard, his presence.

“Yes, got him yesterday. Nice dog. Listen, I don’t mean to be rude, but…”

“I’m from Glasgow.” Said the young man. “You can probably tell from my accent. Forgive me stopping you in the street like last night, but I couldn’t help thinking I knew you from somewhere. Then I remembered: you used to have red hair, right?”

“No, I think you have me mixed up with….”

“No, I don’t. I worked in Glasgow CID, you see, before I transferred down here, and we had a lot of photographs of you. Never did find your mother or your brother, never could hang anything on you. Always squeaky clean, always tidy. There was a lot of washing and tidying going on down here last night, wasn’t there?”

Alana was becoming annoyed: “Look, I don’t know who you have got me mixed up with, but you’re wrong. Now will you go away – please?”

“Fine dog, isn’t he? Good retriever.”

“They always are, this breed.” Rufus had come to sit at her heel. She reached down to pet his shoulder. “So what?”

“So he’s brought you a shoe.”

“Oh Rufus!” Alana scolded. “Whatever am I going to do with you?” She looked down. And she added in quite a different voice: “Put it back, Rufus.”

But Rufus trusted the young man and he wanted to give him the shoe as a gift. First, though, he had to adjust his grip, so he put the shoe down and, to achieve better balance, he picked it up again, holding it by the leg that was still wearing it…

© Frederick Anderson 2015. 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.

Melissa

This week, I am a man with a sore eye.

That isn’t to say I don’t have other defining characteristics; it’s just when you have conjunctivitis, you don’t think about them.  You just think about your sore eye.

So when Jorges tells me he’s hooked me up on a date, I don’t have many positive Melissa undressed carthings to contribute.  In fact, only one negative thing.  “No.”

“Oh, come on Jules!   Three months without it, man!  What’s the matter with you?”

I should explain my relationship with Jorges is not exactly deep – we aren’t lifelong friends, or anything.  ‘Car share’ about covers the extent of our friendship, and even that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t discovered him kicking his broken-down vehicle one evening in the works car park.

“Do you need a lift?”  I asked.  I was feeling charitable.

It all started there.

“Three months isn’t that long.”  I protest.  “Anyway, have you seen the state of my eye?  I look like the Phantom of the Opera.  No-one’s going to fancy me like this.”

“No, mate!   Mel isn’t like that.  She can see deeper than a few red veins.  Anyway, you two are made for each other!”

These are the consequences of offering a lift to a stranger.  You get into conversations, you confess things about your history; you let a little bit of the inside of you out; all because you can’t just sit in a traffic queue in silence for half an hour.  Sharing has to take place.

Time to stop sharing.  “No.”  I say.

You have to be resolute at times like these.  You have to draw a line in the…whatever it is.

Otherwise…

Otherwise you end up like me on Friday night, facing this totally dazzling, effervescent female across a table in Hogan’s Bar with a stupefied smile on your face because she is absolutely, totally a knockout.

“Jorges told me you broke up with your wife?”  Her words flow like liquid gold into the cast – ingots for my memory to cherish.  “That’s so sad!   Were you very much in love with her?”

She’s not afraid of the personal approach.  I make my red eye look as pensive as possible.  “I suppose I was – perhaps I still am, in a manner of speaking.”  I say, preferring dishonesty to ingratiation.  ‘I hate the bitch’.  That wouldn’t do at all.   “But I have to move on.”

She nods – she has this way of playing with her hair – her ash-blonde star-burst of hair that knows no rules but its own.  “Three months is a long time.”   She touches my hand with her fingertips.

What is this obsession with three months?

We have a nice evening, I won’t deny that – and I am given to understatement.  When it’s time to go home I am reluctant to leave it there, and I say so; and she smiles and kisses me chastely:   “Never on a first date?”

So I have to wait until the second date.  A whole twenty-four hours relying upon just my imagination.

On reflexion, I should have paid more attention to the bag.  A woman going out to dinner on a Saturday night doesn’t carry a bag of those ample proportions unless she has a sense of commitment – unless she is confident she will be spending a while away from home.  By breakfast time on Sunday morning that bag has already produced a nightdress we didn’t bother with, a change of clothing, a toothbrush and several necessary cosmetics.   After breakfast, when I suggest a walk in the park, it reveals one more surprise.   A support collar which Mel straps around her neck.

“I’m being watched.”  She tells me.  She doesn’t elaborate.

We’re sitting on a bench at the top of the hill near the old bandstand which was fenced off after last April when the Salvation Army Band fell through the floor, gazing out across the town, our eyes dewy with new love.

“You’re lucky you’ve got the house.”  She says.  “Your wife running off like that.”

Apparently I have let slip more detail than I thought whilst car sharing with Jorges.

“He’s got a small mansion, the new bloke.”  I say.  “She won’t want for anything.”

“So you haven’t lost too much?”

“No kids.  So, no, I don’t think so.  We’re still working things out.”

By this time I’m getting a bit bored with listening to the birds and I’m feeling passionate.  But it’s a bit awkward trying to snog a woman in a neck restraint:  there’s this sort of under-or-over thing going on and there’s no rotation, if you see what I mean.  In the end I give up.

“Let’s walk back.”  I say.

“Yes, let’s.”

Hand in hand, we stroll back through the park.   “So the house is all yours?”  She says.

“Unencumbered.”  Actually, there I am gilding a mite; there is a small mortgage, but it’s only two hundred K and I manage that without trouble as long as I get plenty of overtime.

“Still,, it’s insured?”  She says, and I think:  ‘What a curious question’. “And that terrible old car – that’s yours, too?”

“It is.  And what’s wrong with it?”  I bridle – a few nasty little greenfly crawl across the rose-tints.  I’m proud of my old banger.

“Jorges said it isn’t exactly comfortable.  I’m afraid I agree with him darling.  It is a bit rubbish, isn’t it?”

Darling!  She called me ‘darling’.  You can be sure a woman’s really into you when she uses a word like  that, especially when you have one red eye.  The ground gets all spongy beneath my feet and before I know it I’m walking on the soft stuff.

“Well, maybe.”  I admit.

“Not maybe; definitely.”  She affirms.  “Anyway, I ought to get back.  I’m due round my mother’s at two.  Drive me home?”

“Of course, If you don’t mind riding in my rubbish car.”  I say, giving her a peek at my bruised ego.

“Brilliant!”

So Melissa’s in my car, and her bag is on the back seat, and I’m wondering why she’s pulled the sun visor down, apparently to study herself in the vanity mirror on the back, because she’s still wearing the neck support and it doesn’t do anything for those porcelain good looks.  I don’t comment.

“Let’s drive around a bit!”

“I thought you had to get back?”

“I do, but it’s not urgent.  Mum, you know, she won’t mind if I’m a bit late?  It’s such a nice day.”

We have the window open, listening to the traffic as we drive through the city.   She smiles, touching my hand, playing with my fingers on the gear lever.  I feel renewed, as if I’ve shed a dozen years by just sitting beside her, and I’m a boy again with all the commitments and the malice of my spoiled past wiped away.   I’m proud to be in the company of this flaxen-haired beauty with her large, deep blue eyes and, yes, her big surgical collar about her neck.

We’re stopping at traffic lights.  A gleaming Aston Martin has been following us for a few blocks now, and it would normally spark feelings of envy but not today.  Today I have found love.

Melissa’s hand is on mine.  My hand is on the gear lever.  Suddenly, and with surprising strength, Melissa has shifted us into reverse.  Her foot kicks my leg firmly off the clutch.  In my surprise I press down on the accelerator with the other foot.  We shoot backwards.   Metal meets superior steel with a gut-wrenching crunch.  Melissa screams.   Melissa does not, will not stop screaming, which, with the window open, certainly impresses passersby.

A man’s elegantly dressed head and shoulders appear at my window.  “What on earth were you doing?”  The outraged driver of the Aston Martin demands.  Melissa gives me no chance to respond.

“What were we doing?  What were WE DOING?   You drove into us, you BASTARD!  Oh, god, my neck.  I’ve already bloody nearly broken it, now it’s worse.”  She’s in tears now, serious tears.  They’re making her collar all wet.  “My career, I’m going to miss another shoot.  Oh, Christ, what am I going to do? It’s all over.  ALL  OVER!”

At this last plaintive protest I believe I may hear a subdued ripple of applause.  We’re drawing quite a crowd.

Now I would like to make a contribution at this point, but I am given no chance.  Beauty is in distress and I have already become invisible.  While her sports car driving Sir Galahad is rushing around the car to be at her side, Melissa makes time between screams to glare at me.   “Hold your neck and look injured.  This one’s got to be worth ten grand!”

I could elaborate further, but I think you get the picture.  It appears that when she picked out the Aston Martin in her vanity mirror, Melissa chose astutely, because her screams, interspersed with the information that she was a top model who would lose thousands because of her injuries, and her repeated demands first for an ambulance, then the police, galvanised our new acquaintance (I won’t call him a friend) into becoming very attentive indeed.  So attentive that he insisted upon driving her to his preferred private clinic himself in his still-driveable car.  I could only look on helplessly as Melissa left my life, draped in the arms of her new white knight, who seemed oddly reluctant to show his face.  Then I ‘phoned the AA.

On Monday, Jorge turned up to drive me to work, which was fortunate, considering I now had no transport.

“I heard.”  He told me.

“Funny, I thought you would.”  I told him.  “You’ve seen Melissa then.  Poor girl must be in a mess.”

“Melissa?  Nah.  Fit as a fiddle, mate.  Don’t worry.  It’ll all work out – sports car man’s looking after her, and you too, if we’ve got it right.  You’ll get a better car out of it, at least.  I’m guessing you’ll be getting a call, so keep stum for a bit.  If you  have to claim on your insurance, be sure to mention the neck injury.  That’s worth a few thou.”

“But her modelling work…”

Jorge gave me an old fashioned look.  “Modelling work?  Melissa?  She pulled that one, did she?  No, she’s no model; though I get her the odd bit of glamour work on the side.”

“You ‘get her’ – what do you mean?”

“Didn’t I say?  I’m her agent, mate.  She’s a very clever girl, is Melissa.  Has a natural gift.  ‘Don’t worry, Jorgs’, she says to me.  See, that move she pulled on Sunday, that could so easily have gone wrong, couldn’t it?  But she has this knack of picking out the ones with something to hide.  We may never find out what it was, but Aston Martin guy had some reason to keep things quiet, and she knew it.  She could see it in his eyes, just by looking at him through a mirror.  Now, is that talent, or what?”

We are driving into the works car park.  Jorge says:  “Melissa was telling me about your house.  She reckons you’re struggling with the old mortgage a bit, doesn’t she?  Thought so, she’s usually right.  She’s booked until next month, but she reckons you might like to invite her to a fireworks party?  I know a place you can get some good Chinese rockets and stuff.”