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