Hallbury Summer – Episode Seventeen.   A Deeper Darkness

Alex Chernenko

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 Seven    Ship of Ghosts

The story so far:

After an uncomfortable encounter with the police, Joseph Palliser decides to visit Michael, his younger brother, who is resident in a nursing home; but the ‘bus trip which takes him there evokes harsh memories of his bullied childhood, and his involvement in the car accident  which killed his tormentor, Rodney Smith (Charker Smith’s brother).  He is reminded of this, and the subsequent rumours which drove him into leaving Hallbury all those years ago, as the ‘bus passes the place where the accident happened.

Joe remembers his first car and the modifications he made which led to his implication in Rodney’s end.  If he were to try to forget there are others in Rodney’s home village of Abbots Frsicombe ready to remind him, like village busybody Mary Harkus,.  She warns Joe to beware of Charker…

By the time the bus reached Maddockgate, its holidaymaking passengers’ faith had been repaid.  The rain had stopped.  Over hills which rose steeply across the southern horizon a watery sun elbowed its way through the clouds, endowing wet-leaved hedges with a welcome sparkle.  Joseph quitted the bus here at a request stop on the corner of Manor Lane beside a telephone box.  A discreet white signpost declared that Maddockgate Manor Nursing Home was a half-mile away, so he set off up the lane with a spring in his step.

‘The Gate’ was a large Victorian manor house of red sandstone standing upon a rise in five acres of its own grounds.    Despite its grim age it was far from the worst place to be sheltered if you were one of those who society deemed insane.  The dayroom Joseph was shown into had freshly painted walls and large bay windows through which what sun there was shone a welcome.  The leather chairs looked comfortable and there was a studious, subdued air about its five inmates who, distributed about the room, were each engrossed in something, though precisely what might have been hard to define.

“Michael,” The nurse called.  “Look who’s come to see you!”

He rose from an oxblood red winged chair at the end of the room; a tall, gaunt figure with scant, wispy brown hair and a patch over one eye, upon whose face flesh was tensioned like canvas on a stretcher.  It was an old canvas, that face, painted by a master perhaps: lined and faded with wide mouth slashed darkly across it as though opened by a knife.  His check shirt, covered in turn by a yellow V-neck pullover drooped about a thin neck and long, bent body.  Baggy grey trousers went the rest of the way to the floor, revealing the toes of tartan slippers peeking furtively from beneath their turn-ups.

Joseph barely recognised that wasted figure:  he had to try hard to remember that Michael was younger than him.  Yet, for all his physical impoverishment, Michael had a certain nobility about him, the bearing of a gentleman not favoured by fortune.  He waved Joseph regally to a chair on his right.

“Welcome, stranger!  Come and sit before me.”

It was clear that Michael did not know who he was, Joseph thought.  And why should he?  Drawing closer, he could see his scars had faded considerably from childhood days, although the long one which had all but taken out one eye was still obvious.  It vanished behind the eye patch to re-emerge below it, a savage weald he guessed would never go.

“Do you bring news from the east?”  Michael enquired anxiously:  “Come, tell me at once.  Are our armies lost?”

“Michael, I didn’t come from the east.  Well, not today, anyway.”

“Damn!  So they have us!    I’ll have to break it to the men.”  Michael sat back in his chair, this time crossing his legs as though they were upon a large cushion and saying, in a thick Arabian accent:  “Sit with me.  You honour my tent.”  Then, with startling clarity:  “What brings you here, then, Joseph?”

Joe’s face must have shown his relief.  Michael gave a slow chuckle.  “Well, you expect it, don’t you?  Coming in here, I mean?  Got to give my public what they want to see.  Jesus, Joey,  how many years has it been?  I barely recognised you.”

Joseph returned his brother’s smile.  “Too many,” he said; “too many.   How do they treat you here?  Are you well?”

“I’ve been ill from time to time, who isn’t?  Medication, Joey; that’s the answer for everything here.  Avoiding medication is the secret of happiness, I’ve found.  They teach you that.”

“How do you mean?”

“Tell me, dearest brother; what do you think of this place?  Pleasant – airy?  It is, of course, if you pass through here for a day.  You might even stay for a week and find it educational, at the very least: soft bed, a radio in your room.  But if you stay here for a year, five years, seventeen years….”  Michael leaned forward, speaking confidentially.  His breath had a slight menthol smell.  “You count the blemishes in the paint on the walls.  You know intimately every leaf on every bush in that garden, you know everything about everybody who cries in the middle of the night and it’s a bloody prison, then.”  He sat back.  “But you don’t protest.  You don’t raise your voice.  If you do, you’re ill, so you must have medication.  Medication messes with your head, it twists up your nerves and makes you wild inside but you can’t do anything.  Illness is a crime in here, and medication is the punishment:  a sort of perverse Christian Science, if you like.  You met the matron on your way in, I expect?  Frau Forster?  I call her Mary Baker Eddie – got away with it to her face for years, until she looked it up one day.  I was medicated for a week.

Michael’s face split in a thin smile.  “But things aren’t so bad now.  I don’t get ill very often, and I’m allowed out, you know.  I have friends in Marsden where I can go and stay for a few days if I want.  And from time to time I can take myself on days out if I’m good.  So, you – where have you been all this time?  What have you been doing with yourself?”

Joseph knew the question was coming, of course.  He re-told the story he had given to Julia and Owen, leaving nothing out.

When he had finished, Michael nodded sagely.  “Children of demons.”

The remark took Joseph aback:  “What?”

“Demon-spawn:  they feed on us, Joey.  They’re everywhere.”

It was the first serious intimation Michael had given that he was still unwell.  Joseph disguised his reaction to it as best he might by managing a bleak smile.  “True.”  He said.  He was beginning to wonder why he had come.

Together the brothers opened the scrapbook of their respective memories, sharing recollections of the past, speaking a little of the present, but never of the future.  Because, Joe would have to acknowledge, Michael did not have a future he would want to discuss.  There was no further mention of predatory demons.

Something interested Joseph.  “You haven’t asked about Ian.”  He said.

Michael returned him a blank, almost glazed look.  “No.”

“Why not?  He’s doing very well for himself, he’s….”

Michael cut him short.  “There are some things in here; things close to you, you have to forget.  Memories are bad for you, Joey.”  It was as though he had slammed a door.  There was obviously no room for further talk about their elder brother.

“Oh, I have some hot local news!”  Joseph tried to restore some lost ground:  “You remember Violet Parkin, the big woman who used to do all that stuff for the church?  She’s been murdered, Mikey!  What do you think of that?”

Whatever reaction he had anticipated, it was not the reaction he was given.

“Ah.”  Michael said.  His head began to nod in affirmation; not quite naturally.  It was an exaggerated, almost stylised movement.  “That I do know.”

“Really?”  Joseph said, very carefully:  “Who told you?”

Michael’s eyes met his own with a look in them that was remote, as if he were staring at something inside himself.  “There are things I know.  You must accept that.”  He spread his arms, slowly raising them above his shoulders, hands limp and drooping, as if in crucifixion.  With horror Joseph realised he was imitating the position in which Violet Parkin’s body was discovered.

“How do you….”

Michael dropped his arms, raised a hand in a quieting gesture:  “There are things I know.”

“I see.”  Joseph chose his words.  “So do you know why she had to die?  Because that’s what puzzles me, Mikey – what could a woman like that have done to get herself killed?”

“Who have you spoken to about this?  It’s vitally important!”

“Oh, most of the village, I suppose.  Everyone wants to discuss it.  Why, Mikey?  I barely knew the woman.  And why is it vital?  And how the hell do you ‘know’?”

“I just do.”  Michael’s thin features were almost lupine; had Joseph noticed that before?  Or was his face changing?  His hands had begun to twitch, stretching their long, skeletal fingers and curling.  He had begun that strange smoothing gesture he had shown to Aunt Julia once, at a breakfast table, a long time ago.

“Look, Michael, I don’t want to distress you.  Let’s change the subject, yes?”

“I’m not distressed, brother – not for me.  I’m distressed for you; for all you once knew and you’ve now forgotten; for the Earth-Lore that was yours to take and is lost now.  You left the pack, didn’t you?  You should have stayed.  In the pack you learn.  It teaches you your place in the order of things, who is first to the kill; who takes the first bite.  Oh, the glory in that first bite, Joe!  I know because they’ve tried to keep me away – tried for years.  They try, Joey!  They don’t know the pack is inside me.  They can’t know!”

A quiet voice spoke at Joseph’s shoulder.  “Mr Palliser?  I think we ought to let Michael rest for a while if you don’t mind?”

Joseph nodded.  “I’m going now, Mikey.  I’ll be back soon, though, Okay?”

There was no other description to fit it:  Michael bared his teeth.  “Talk to Ned Barker.”  He growled.  “Talk to him, Joey.  Do it before it’s too late!”

The nurse, a pretty, petite girl in a neat blue uniform, led Joseph from the room.  She gave a meaningful nod to a male nurse who encountered them at the door.

“We’ll take good care of your brother, Mr Palliser; don’t worry.  He gets excited like this sometimes.  It soon passes.”

“Is there a doctor around – anyone who can explain his symptoms?”

“I’m not allowed to discuss the patients.  I’ll see if Doctor  Bernowski’s available, if you’d like to wait?”

Bernowski was a man of challenged stature, with piercing eyes behind rimless spectacles.  “You are fortunate to catch me, Mr Palliser.  I have much to do, you see?”

“Thank you for sparing me the time.  What is wrong with Michael?”

Bernowski shrugged.  “Essentially he is brain-damaged – his malady is a legacy of the accident in his childhood, and the trauma associated with it:  as to its manifestation, in these cases it is so difficult to say.  Often we work for years and years and never find a cause.  I thought at first schizophrenia, but now I think more likely a personality disorder.  It is not harmful anyway, and he has a good life here.”

“He told me he’s allowed out.  Is that true?”

“Not strictly.  We have – how you call them – sheltered accommodation in some places, where they can go for a few days.  They are always supervised.”

“In Marsden on Sea?”

“Yes.  This I believe.”

“And was he there last week?”

“He was due a visit, I think.  You must ask the Matron that.  She will tell you.”

Joseph waited a further ten minutes for Mrs Forster, who was a friendly, tall woman with a frank, professional smile.  Yes, Michael had been on a ‘visit’ last week.  He had stayed in Marsden but, no, she was sorry, they did not give out the address.

“The people who perform the service for us have no visiting arrangements, you see.  But it is one of the advantages we offer our patients here.”

“I’m impressed.  The National Health Service never ceases to surprise me.”

Mrs Forster treated Joseph to a bemused glance.  “Mr Palliser, we are not a National Health Service hospital.  Maddockgate Manor is a private concern.”

By the time Joseph returned to Little Hallbury it was early evening, a weak sun had yielded once more to heavy cloud, and there was a far-away drum-beat of thunder.  He had questions to ask.

“Aunt Julia; who pays for Michael to stay there?  It’s quite expensive, isn’t it?”

Julia looked puzzled.  “I thought you knew that, dear.”

“Until I asked yesterday I didn’t even know where he was. “

His aunt shifted her gaze uncomfortably.  “Well then, I suppose you are owed an explanation.  Your parents left money in trust for whoever looked after you.  We became your guardians, so their will left us free to dispose of that part of their estate as we saw fit.  Michael’s care was the obvious solution.”

“So we should have had some money coming to us, Ian and I?”

“Any residue would have been passed on to you at the age of twenty-one: but with Michael the way he is, dear….”  Julia left the sentence open.  “Owen discussed all this with Ian and yourself years ago.  You must have forgotten.  Now, what would you like for your tea?”

Nothing simple:  the answers, if they were there, begged questions and those questions spawned more questions still.  Joseph went to his bed that night with questions spiralling through his brain.  Somehow Julia’s answer did not satisfy him:  his father, or so he had always been told, was a civil servant:  assiduous in his career, yes:  frugal in his habits no doubt; but able to finance the fees of Maddockgate Manor for the whole of Michael’s lifetime?  No.

That night, Joseph drifted like a ship of ghosts into a crewless, aimless sleep.  Without any obvious reason, Violet Parkin’s death had become important to him.  She had died in a manner wholly inappropriate for a god-fearing woman – with no explanation – none at all.  Yet Michael knew something – thirty miles away and never without someone to keep watch over him – he seemed to be convinced of a dangerous secret pertaining to that grisly event for which Ned Barker, the landlord of The King’s Head could provide an answer.

The next morning the police came again.  This time the young constable was accompanied by an older man:

“Detective Sergeant Stonebridge, Mr Palliser.  Can we have a word?”

While the young constable dithered by the French windows,  DS Stonebridge perched on the arm of a chair, reminiscent, Joseph thought, of detectives he had seen on television.

“You haven’t been quite honest with us, Mr Palliser.”

Joseph suppressed an inner tremor:  “What do you mean?”

“You told my assistant here you arrived at Braunston on the…what was it?…”  He consulted a notebook; a ragged-edged affair produced from his trouser pocket:  “Ten-o-five am train from Paddington.  Correct?”

“Yes.”

“And you got to Abbots Friscombe at about four thirty.  Is that right?”

“Yes.  It should have been four-twenty-five, but the train was late.  The train usually is late.”

“Then you took the four forty-five bus from the station?”

“Didn’t I already say that too?”

“Well yes, Mr Palliser, yes you did.  Trouble is, though, it doesn’t quite square.  Like, for example, if the ten-o-five out of Paddington got to Braunston in time, which it did, more or less, why wasn’t you on the earlier train out of Braunston?  Then you’d have arrived in Abbots Friscombe in time to catch the three-thirty ‘bus.  That would have got you here at three forty-five, Mr Palliser.”

“True.  But I didn’t.  I missed it.  My London train was a little late arriving, and I don’t like to use the lavatories on trains.  When I got to Braunston I needed to…well, to freshen up, shall we say?  And I missed the two fifty-five for Friscombe.”

The detective sergeant nodded.  “I see.  So you’re saying….”

“I’m saying I was on the four o’clock train from Braunston.  I got to Abbots Friscombe at four thirty, in time for the four forty-five ‘bus.”

“And you want to stand by that statement, Mr Palliser, do you?”

Joseph gritted his teeth.  “Can you tell me the problem here?”

The detective shifted in his chair.  “The problem:  all right, Mr Palliser, I’ll tell you the problem.  No-one can remember you, either on the four o’clock train from Braunston, or on the four forty-five ‘bus.  There are two elderly passengers who do think they remember you, however:  but they tell me they were on the three thirty ‘bus.”  He leaned forward.  “If that were true, it would put you in Little Hallbury well before four pm, which was when Mrs Parkin died:  now, Mr Palliser – you tell me the problem?”

 

© 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:  Annie Spratt on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

Nowhere Lane – Chapter Twenty-Four. A Guttering Candle.

“I don’t know who you are!”  Daphne Scott-Halperton sounded defensive.  Whilst she could sense nothing threatening about the mop-haired young man looking up at her from the auditorium, he had stayed behind after the rest of her devotees had left, which was to say the least unusual.  “If you want to guidance from someone on the other side you’ve missed your opportunity.  I can’t work without the atmosphere of an audience, you see.  So that’s that, I’m afraid.  Next month?”   Daphne regarded her monthly appearances at the Gaiety very much as a sideline and their duration as strictly limited.  She was on overtime.

“Please, Miss Scott-Halperton, I don’t want a reading, just information.”

No deputations from the Choir Eternal, Patrick wanted to say: no guiding spirit of Emeline Pankhurst or voice of Elizabeth Fry, suddenly anxious to communicate from beyond the grave.  He had already endured two hours of those, unable to offer any satisfactory explanation why the almost inarticulate spirit of Boudica should be so well informed concerning Great Uncle Harry, who, despite being dead, was still enjoying his pigeons.

Miss Scott-Halperton was eyed him suspiciously.  “Information about what?”

“Someone who comes here every month – I suppose you might consider her one of your ‘regulars’?”  This evoked no response from the stage, so Patrick continued; “I thought she might have turned up tonight, it was sort of a last hope.  She’s vanished:  been abducted, we think.”

He gave his best description of Karen, to which Daphne, who was a large and quite forbidding force, appeared to listen politely, “She never misses your sessions, I’m told.  Tonight, though – I waited for her outside and she didn’t come.  I wondered…”

“Yes, yes,” Daphne interrupted him.  “I know who you mean.”  Her mind went back to her previous performance, just as it had when she opened the front door of her cottage a few days since to find Karen standing in her porch, her clothes dripping from the rain.  “One moment, young man.  I’ll be down.”

There were steps at the end of the apron stage.  Daphne descended with the careful progress incumbent upon one of her dimensions and possibly, Patrick thought unkindly, her capacity for gin. “She obtained my address from the library. I must warn you that is a loophole I have since closed.  I give private consultations but I am very careful to reserve my personal details to whomsoever I choose.”

“She went to your home?”

“Indeed she did, young man.  Some days ago.  She was a troubled soul, beset by many demons, you understand; one of which had broken free of the underworld to pursue her, poor child.  Such people carry the Devil’s mark, I’m afraid.  One wishes the best for them, yet acknowledges there is little that can be done.”

Patrick tried to clear his brain.  Miss Scott-Halperton seemed to inhabit a separate universe he was not equipped to understand, but somehow he had to build a bridge between them.  Dipsomaniac or not, eccentric or not, the medium must now be considered the last person to see Karen.  She was free then, might she still be free?”

“You want me to help you to find her?  I may not be able to do that, young man.”

“I’ll take the crumbs from anyone’s table.  Right now, I’ve nowhere to turn.”

Daphne alighted majestically three seats away from Patrick, then contrived to look learned by placing her fingertips together and nodding sagely.  “I see your pain and I shall try.”

“So she probably came to you the day she disappeared.  Do you know where she intended to go after she left you?”

“Into battle, I imagine.  She was intent upon outfacing her tormentor.  A sad mistake.  I advised her against anything so impetuous, They are not of this world, you see.”

“I hoped she might have given you some clue.”

“I witnessed the demon that beset her, young man.  At my last session its malevolence took possession of the gallery just above where you are sitting, a loathsome sight.  It was looking down upon her, filling this hall with the evil of its intention!”

“Some idea where she went?”

“Why, to the field of battle, I imagine.”

“Which would be where?  Geographically, I mean?”

“Or influentially.”

“I’m sorry, Miss Scott-Halperton, you’ve got me with that one.”

“Demons, child, are drawn to people of greatness.  Megalomania, lascivious vice and greed are their oxygen, you see.  You will find no demons in a poor man’s cabin, but in the stately corridors of men of power, they are legion. There do they hold their dominion!”

“Are we talking about any specific men of power here?”  Patrick felt he was riding a chariot behind an increasingly unpredictable horse.  “I mean, names?”

“I can tell you no more.  They are there to be found.  Seek them amidst the fire – beware the inferno, young man!”  Daphne’s head was sinking slowly into her ample chest, and her eyes were closing.  Patrick, who had passed the previous two hours watching her use a similar device to introduce the visitation of a spirit guide waited, half-expecting something similar with some concrete information within it, but after a few minutes the psychically gifted matron began to snore.

It was a disappointingly anti-climactic end to the interview.  Patrick retreated quietly.

“Golly, how utterly, utterly bizarre!”  Gabrielle enthused when he had finished his narrative.  “I do wish I’d been there!”

Her brother shook his head.  “You wouldn’t have enjoyed it.  It was a long evening, and knowing my sister as I do, she would have been giggling the whole time.”  He leant with arms upon his chair back, gazing moodily through the window of the snug, as if his eyes might find answers in the moonless darkness,  “What I don’t get – I mean, seriously don’t get – is what Karen got out of stuff like that.  It isn’t her, Gabs, not any part of her.  At least, not the Karen I knew.  Oh, god, I said it, didn’t I?  The past tense – I ‘knew’.  Am I giving up, in spite of myself?”

“No, Sweetie, not you; you’re a terrier.  You’ll dig up the whole garden if you can’t find a bone. Although, and don’t take this the wrong way, are you so sure of your image of Karen?  The girl I met was very insecure and vulnerable, not the tough female detective type at all.  I think she hated what she was, I do!  I also think she was haunted by the ghost of her sister, and in desperate need of your protection and love.”  Gabrielle gave a nervous little laugh, “Gosh, sorry!  That just slipped out!”

That night, sleepless, Patrick lamented the waste of days – the fruitless telephoning of newspapers with no interest in running the story, and even his doorstepping of a local organisation dedicated to tracing ‘the lost ones’.  Their answers were kind and, for the most part, patient, but no better than the verdict previously delivered by DC Ames: ‘She’s an adult, she’s expressed her choice clearly, there’s no evidence of any harm having come to her’.  There were endless hours frittered away in Caleybridge Library. ploughing column inch by column inch through back numbers of the County Herald, searching vainly for copy on either Emma Bartlett or Rachel Priest, those past disappearances cited by Constable Flynn.

And now, to cap it all, an evening spent at a spiritualist gathering led by a half-inebriated medium.  Were these the despairing measures of one with nowhere left to turn?  Yes, it had been wasted time, because in his heart he knew the last straws of hope were sinking.  So why did his thoughts keep re-running the old woman’s final sentences concerning ‘men of power’ – ‘they are there to be found’ – did those words allude to some clue he had missed?

In the morning he caught up with his mother before she embarked on her newly extended school run with his little sister Amanda.   “The other night you mentioned that Lord Lieutenant bod – Sir Clive something?  Do you know where he lives?”

“Sir Clive Webster; yes dear.  I also have his ‘phone number somewhere.  Would it be a good idea to call him first?”

“I would, but at some point in the conversation I would have to tell him my reason for wanting to see him, and I’m not sure I could answer that.”

“So beard the lion, you thought.”

“And see what develops.  I don’t suppose you could…?”

“Oh, Patsy, you’re such a wimp sometimes!  What makes you think I could give an answer that was any better than yours?”

“Because you know him, and because you have a way of…”

“I tell you what.  I will offer you a trade.  If I agree to try and bring the two of you together on some pretext, will you take our darling youngest to school tomorrow and bring her back?  How’s that?”

“Tomorrow’s Saturday!”

“It is.  I have succeeded in placing the dear little bugger in her third school this year, which is twenty-five miles away.  And apparently I have landed upon the one bloody school in the County, in Elverton,  that gives lessons on Saturday mornings – from nine until twelve, to be precise. It isn’t worth taking her, coming back, then going to fetch her, so – you catch my drift?”

Patrick sighed.  “Okay, I agree.  A morning kicking my heels in glorious Elverton.  But are we sure we want her back?”

“No promises, Patsy, I’ll try my best.  In the meantime, try not to be horrible to your wonderful little sister, darling.  That’s my prerogative.  Just a suggestion, while she passes her hours of learning you could poodle down the road to Harterport?  Take your swimmies.  It isn’t far.”

The one attribute Patrick’s Daimler lacked was stealth.  Its distinctive exhaust note drew attention, whether or not attention was wished.  Turning into the car park of the King’s Arms, even on a Friday lunchtime when it was fairly busy, it turned the heads of two people for whom Patrick would rather have retained an element of surprise.  Mark Potts was one, standing beside a very new-looking Sunbeam Alpine.  The other, a much older, quite wasted figure, was equally familiar to Patrick, but seeing him in Mark’s company surprised him nonetheless.

Patrick parked up, then accosted the pair.   “Nice car, Mark.  Have you had a pay rise?”

Potts seemed less than glad to see him.  “What are you doin’ here, Hallcroft?”

“Beer’s good.  Why not?”  Patrick nodded to Potts’s companion.  “’Good morning.  Last time we met, you didn’t stop to introduce yourself.”  He turned back to Potts, “Did you know your mate here spends his nights spying on the parked cars up on Monument Hill?”

“We haven’t got nothin’ to say to each other, have we?”  Potts was unfazed.  “If you don’t mind, Hallcroft, we were in the middle of a conversation.”

“Really?  It wasn’t anything remotely to do with Karen Eversley’s departure, I suppose?”

Potts leered.  “Moved away, has she?  Nosey bitch.  Couldn’t stand you once she found out you was a pervert, eh?  Good riddance, I say.”

“No, Mark.  Disappeared – like Gasser, who suddenly isn’t around anymore…”

“Or that sexy little prossy girlfriend of ‘is?  No surprise there, either.  Stuck his nose where it didn’t concern him, maybe, Maybe a bit like you, Hallcroft – stickin’ your nose in.  You want to be careful, you do…”  intending to add detail to his threat, Potts was brought up short by a heavy nudge from the older man, who had so far made no contribution to the exchange.

“Aren’t we missing some drinking time?”  He said, in a dry, cracked voice.

Patrick ignored the interruption.  “What happened to Gasser, Mark? Where did you really leave him that night?”

Potts dropped his voice, attempting to sound dangerous.  “Everythin’ happened just like I told it to your bitch girlfriend, see?  Nothin’ no different.  You want to watch it, chap, or …”

“Careful, Mark!”  Patrick cut in.  “Saying things like that, you’re worrying your silent friend, here.  Was this the other bloke in your old car; you know, the night you beat Gasser up?”

“You don’t know what you’re talkin’ about!  You’re getting’ it all wrong, Hallcroft.  I ain’t sayin’ no more.  Oh, yeah, an’ if you were thinking of harassing Perry don’t bother.  He’s on holiday.  Three weeks!  Go and have a drink, peaceful-like, and stop provokin’ folks.”

Patrick shook his head.  “No thanks, I’m fussy who I drink with.  Anyway, you should be flattered; I only came to find you.  I was hoping you had something more for me, like maybe you knew a bit about Karen’s disappearance.”

“Well you was wrong, then, wasn’t you?”

“I dunno. Maybe if I’d found you without the present company…Never mind, in a way I think you’ve given me more than I expected.  I’ll think about that.” He turned on his heel and began walking back to his car, leaving Mark Potts to glare at his back.  When he reached the Daimler there were choices because it was often his custom to vault over the door and straight into the driving seat, but today, lacking the required level of exuberance, he opted for a proper use of the door.  It was, in a sense, his undoing.

As he gripped the door handle an iron hand clamped over his so fiercely he could not move it.  The face of the cadaverous man, the almost silent man who had witnessed his encounter with Potts was suddenly just inches from his own, growling fiercely:  “You’ve been told, boy.  You won’t be told again, so listen.  She’s gone, understand?  You won’t see her again, so give this up before you and your family get hurt.   Stop now, you got me?”

Shocked into silence for a few seconds, Patrick could only nod, dumbly.  It was enough. Before he could make a more suitable response the man was striding away purposefully and rapidly, a repeat of their last encounter when he had woken to see that face outside his car window.  His eyes followed the tough little man’s retreating back, his ears heard Mark Potts’ derisive laughter.

With utter deliberation Patrick climbed into his car, turned the key, pressed the starter.  Then he selected first gear, decked the accelerator and almost jumped the clutch.  The distance across the car park amounted to nothing, three seconds or less.  He fixed his eyes on Mark Potts, watched the smirk on his face turn to horror, heard a scream from a bystander, saw the alarm on the small man’s face as he turned to see the danger, almost too late.  He dived out of the car’s path just as Patrick swung the wheel and turned the Daimler’s high, blunt bonnet aside.  As he drove out of the Public House car park he glanced in his mirror, gratified to see a row of shocked faces watching his departure, and his snarling aggressor being helped to his feet by Potts.  Neither of them was smiling.

Patrick needed several minutes to calm himself in the lea of that encounter, and several hours of self-examination when he recognised how close he had come to intentionally harming the man.  He had never seen himself as violent, or even lacking in temper; but the past few days had aroused emotions new to him, not all of which he welcomed.

An air of tension pervaded Caleybridge Hospital.   It had primed itself for a warm late spring weekend, with the spate of injuries that was likely to bring.  It was busy, too, forcing Patrick to thread his way through the visiting hoards on his way to Jacqui’s ward.

“You’re lucky to catch me!  I’m only waiting for a free seat in an ambulance.”  Jacqui informed him with a grin.  “They’re throwing me out this afternoon.  No rigging, see?”

Her ‘halo’ brace had been removed together with most of the heavy bandages, so only a few light dressings remained.  “You’ve no idea the relief!  I actually felt like I was carrying a water jar on my head, or something, Now, I can move freely, look!”  She waggled her head in demonstration,  “Ouch!  Well maybe not that much!”

“Would you like me to run you home?”

“Oh, you are a love!  Would you mind?”

Jacqui’s apartment was across town.  As he drove, Patrick was constantly forced to avoid small fleets of motor scooters, Lambrettas and Vespas, that were buzzing up and down the main roads, bare-headed riders flaunting their machines for the benefit of small groups of motorcyclists, who languished in side alleys or beside kerbs, watching and waiting.

“It’s going to be a hot weekend,” Jacqui commented.  “There’ll be trouble, I’m thinking.”

Her apartment occupied the ground floor of a detached house set well back from the road within a high walled garden accessed by a black painted wooden door.  The house itself, a lofty Victorian structure in red brick had a faintly disdainful air, its tiers of bay windows like an upturned nose sniffing at matters it would prefer to avoid.   To approach the front door meant negotiating a short flight of stone steps.  As he ascended these, Patrick’s attention was drawn to a pathway that led, he assumed, to the back of the house.  Set into it was a padlocked wooden hatch.  He remarked upon it.

“What is that for, Jacqui?”

“Oh, nothing.  Nothing interesting, at least.”

“No, tell me?”

“Most of these old houses had basements.  For storage, usually – somewhere cold, before fridges, you know?”

“Like wine?”

“Yes, absolutely like wine.  Most people have them filled in these days, and most people have the hatches filled in at the same time.  Not my dear Daddy.”

“Then there’s still a basement down there?”

“I couldn’t tell you, Pat.  If there is, I’ve never found any other way in, and I don’t relish opening that great heavy thing.  So I remain blissfully ignorant – although I swear I can smell the damp sometimes.  It’s probably flooded.”

“Shall I explore?”

“No!  I mean, no thank you; I’d rather you didn’t.”

At her door, Jacqui tempted Patrick with tea and he accepted, wanting to be sure she had food to last her until she could shop for herself.  And although she insisted she could manage:  “I’ve some stuff in the chest freezer, I’ll be alright;” he made an errand to a corner shop for basic supplies.

Her apartment seemed ascetic and soulless.   Perhaps Patrick had envisioned it would be so.  Her furniture was wooden, plain and relentlessly practical, her carpets well-trodden, the walls bare.  It was also something of a time capsule, exactly as she had rushed from it on her workday morning more than a week ago.

“Sorry about the bathroom.  My bedroom’s through there – don’t look, I can’t remember if I made the bed or not,”   For verification, she opened the closed door just sufficiently to peep through.  “Not.”

In retrospect, Patrick thought as he drove back across the town, it was a home that existed as Jacqui herself lived; in limbo.  He had known for some months of her indecision – whether she should stay in Caleybridge or follow her nearest kin the other side of the world.  Her apartment reflected that: she might share the house now, letting the upstairs to tenants, but she had no enduring interest in it – no motive to remodel or change any of the furnishings, even the colours, her parents had left behind.

Such upheaval as would be necessary for Jacqui to migrate to a distant foreign land was alien to her careful nature; she had only a few close friends, but many acquaintances.  Her life in Caleybridge was a fabric not easily torn apart, yet that did not seem to be the true root of her vacillation.  Something bound her to this small, backwoods borough that was not entirely rational, the nature of which Patrick had no notion.

In the town the gangs of motor scootering youths who called themselves ‘Mods’ were gathering, no longer cruising around but parked in huddles, as many as twenty chrome-rich bikes in one place, their riders quaffing beer while they engaged in mawkish displays of machismo.  Around them the streets were almost silent; pedestrians and other motorists alike intimidated by the waxing sense of threat.   It was hot for so late an hour.  The air was heavy.  Conflict seemed destined to follow.

 

© 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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nowhere Lane – Chapter Nineteen. A worm

The night had been merciful to Patrick.  Ravaged by all the tensions of the day and his imaginings (what danger might Karen be in, or the unthinkable – was it already too late?)  he had wanted to keep going; to keep up his search for her.  Even after he abandoned his vigil in Nowhere Lane his desperation drove him on, standing shaking and soaked to his skin before the night desk at Caleybridge Police Station, where the desk sergeant was made to listen to his account of events before, not unkindly, telling him to go home. Midnight was close before he drew the Daimler to a shuddering halt in the drive of Radley Court and his family were able to step in and advise – no, insist – he rest.

“Bath and bed for you, young man!”  Gwendoline instructed him in a tone she normally reserved for Amanda.

“It makes sense, Patsy dear,” Gabrielle soothed.  “There’s nothing to be achieved now, and you wouldn’t be a lot of use to Karen in this state.  Get some sleep.”

“You’re making a fool of yourself, boy,”  Jackson told him; though his tone was less censorious than before.  As he watched his son labouring up the big stairway there were etch-lines of concern on his normally placid features.

So Patrick acquiesced, and of course sleep came, the moment he laid his head on the pillow.  Sleep; dreamless, deep, and long.  It was near ten the next morning when he woke.

“Let me get this straight.”  The detective constable looked up from his report pad.  “You’re trying to tell me this Miss Eversley has been abducted – is that what you’re saying?”

Patrick nodded emphatically.  He had waited at the police station for nearly an hour to gain an interview with a member of CID.  He wasn’t about to see it wasted.  “How many times do I have to repeat myself?  She was following up an investigation.  The investigation took her to the old ruins at Boulter’s Green.  I followed her there.  She walked from her car to the ruins, and she did not walk back.  I waited for hours but she didn’t return.”

“You’re certain of this, are you?  Did you see anyone – anyone at all – during the time you spent there; any other persons acting suspiciously, any activity of any kind?”

“No, I didn’t.  I stayed until long after dark.”  Patrick paused, “No, wait – that isn’t quite true.  When I was down by the river there was someone, a woman, looking out of one of the windows of the Driscombe place.  Anyone in that house would have a clear view of Boulter’s Green, wouldn’t they?  Couldn’t we ask them?”

The detective frowned.  “I’m afraid we won’t be disturbing Lord Driscombe unless we have a lot more to go on, young man.  He is a Peer of the Realm, I’d advise you not to forget that.  Now, this was yesterday afternoon, after your father reported the theft of a vehicle.  You found that vehicle, didn’t you?”

“Yes; yes I did.”  Patrick felt that his concerns were being somehow turned against him.  “But yesterday morning we told your officer – my Dad told him – Karen had been abducted.  It wasn’t a theft.”

“’Karen’ would be Miss Eversley, yes?   You recovered your father’s car from outside her apartment.  Let me see, what were your words last night?”  The policeman studied the report in front of him.  “Ah, yes.  ‘She was being chased.  He was after her’.  Any idea who was after her?”

“No, I don’t know his name.  But he was large enough and strong enough to frighten her.  I had to defend her from him once; I reported it, and he’s been stalking her ever since, so I know the threat was real.”

“You certainly made a report, Mr Hallcroft.  We investigated that.  We found no evidence of an assault having taken place, or any witnesses who could describe this person.  A tall man with long hair and a leather overcoat – isn’t that your description?  A little theatrical, don’t you think?”

“Don’t believe me, if you choose not to. My sister and her boyfriend had to deal with him, they’ll tell you.  Karen also reported to you she was being followed, after he assaulted her.”

“True, true.  You might say in the few days of your acquaintanceship with Miss Eversley the pair of you drew quite a bit of police attention.”

“That’s so unfair!  I’ve known Karen longer than ‘a few days’.”  Patrick wished he had brought his mother to this interview.  “Look, it’s obvious Karen had no intention of stealing anything: my father’s car was parked on the street.  She’d left it there and swapped to her own car, once she’d got away.”

“Got away?  So she wasn’t abducted, was she?  In fact, there’s no evidence she didn’t simply ‘borrow’ your father’s vehicle to get back to town.   You see, Mr. er..”  The detective constable glanced up at Patrick with pedagogic disdain:  “Mr Woodcroft, Miss Eversley wasn’t exactly short of enemies, was she?  In her line of work, it’s entirely possible a disgruntled client might threaten violence against her, but they wouldn’t be interested in abducting her. If someone broke into your house, as appears to be the case and they were chasing her, she certainly got away; as to where she went after that, well, following your reasoning, somewhere out of reach, don’t you think?”

Patrick firmly refuted the policeman’s explanation.  “No constable, I’m reporting her missing.  I believe she may be in danger.  I’m asking you to follow that up.”

“You’re sure she’s not at home, or her place of business?”

“Certain.  I checked both.  Why?”

The constable studied his pad for a moment or two.  He pursed his lips.  “Well, we might as well get this out of the way.  You see, Mr Hallcroft, I’m having a little bit of trouble with this story of yours.”

Patrick stared.  “Why?”

“Last night you came in here unloading all this and you seemed, if the night-duty officer’s account is anything to go by, a little bit off-balance.  Nevertheless, we did send a car out to this lane you spoke of, and our constable investigated it thoroughly.  He walked the route you described to the ruins and he looked around as well as he could by torchlight.  He saw nothing unusual.”

“No, nor did I; that’s the point!  But her car is parked there…”

“That’s the thing Mr Hallcroft.  It isn’t.”

“What?”

“There was no sign of a car.  Nothing.”

Patrick regarded the detective constable blankly.  “It was there, and it was locked.  I don’t believe you.”

“To be honest, it’s immaterial whether you believe me or not.  We haven’t found the vehicle.  So as far as we’re concerned, if Miss Eversley is missing at all, the most likely explanation is that she has simply gone away for a few days.  She is an adult, and no-one from her family has reported her missing.  We might pursue her for theft and any part she played in the damage to your father’s property, but otherwise the police can’t be involved.  I’m sorry.”

 

Ah, we are only human, are we not?  Patrick’s conviction was total:  Karen already held an unassailable place in his heart.  She was his chosen; the one he would spend a lifetime beside if he could.  And only those who have loved and lost could ever understand his agony of fear for her.  Yet it would be wrong to assume that other counsels could not plant a tiny worm where such pure flowers grew.  Driving through the town after his visit to Caleybridge Police Station the detective’s explanation of the previous day’s events picked at the locks of his devotion.  He was not a fool.  In his imagination, he extrapolated upon their interview.

“Tell me, sir, how long have you known Miss Eversley?”

“A few weeks.”

“Really?  As long as that.  Were you intimate with her?”

“Well, yes.”

“Well yes.  And what do you know about Miss Eversley’s past?”

“She had a sister.”

Slowly, as if writing this down:  “She – had – a – sister.  What was her sister’s name?”

“I don’t know.”

“Where did Miss Eversley go to school?”

“I don’t know.”

“Has she any close friends?”

“I don’t know.”

 I don’t know.  I don’t know.

Now, when it counted, he was discovering how little he did know about the woman who had entered his life.  He had to believe what the policeman had told him.  The car had been removed.  After he left could Karen have returned in the night and driven away from that muddied lane?  If so, where?  Where would Karen, feeling afraid, seek shelter?  And if she had found refuge, why had she not called to tell him she was safe?  There was, of course, an alternative answer he did not want to contemplate; that she had winged her little car up the A38, so by now she could be with Tim Birchinall in London.  Birchinall, his rival!  He baulked at the thought, not really believing she could do that to him so coldly, but knowing she was in fear of her big, aggressive Mr Nasty, and that might be enough to make a renewed relationship with a rugby playing policeman a temptation she couldn’t resist.

Only Karen’s mother was at home when he pressed the doorbell that afternoon.  A matronly figure whose apron was wrapped about her by her personality, she greeted him effusively.

“So you’d be the young man our Karen’s been seeing?  Come in, dearie, come in!  You’ll catch your death out there!”

If Patrick had sought to raise concern in Bridget Eversley, though, he was to be disappointed.  She sympathized with his agony, but not the reasons for his concern.  When he told her how worried he was for her daughter, Bridget thought he was over-reacting.

“A dark man?  No, she hasn’t told me about any dark men, dearie.  You shouldn’t worry about Karen, you know, she’s strong-willed and she’s wily, that one; gets it from her sister Suzanne.  She knows how to look after herself.  She’s probably gone off on one of those Spiritualist retreats – she does, from time to time.”

Patrick was puzzled.  “Spiritualist?”

“Oh yes, dearie, she’s very much took up with that.  You didn’t know?  There’s monthly meetings she goes to; some woman at the Gaiety, can’t think of her name.  She took her dad last time.  Kept him quiet for a few days after, I can tell you.  Then again, if business has been a bit slow lately she might have gone to one of her friends, I suppose.  She does that sometimes, too.”

Patrick pressed her; did she know where he might find any of Karen’s friends?

“There’s one, Bea I think her name is, but I can’t say where she lives. I met her once, it was at the County Show.  Nice girl; dark, sort of flashy, but nice.”

When they put their heads together, Patrick and Bridget, they discovered their knowledge of Karen’s life and habits amounted to surprisingly little.  “She’s an independent minx.  If she’s lit off for a while, I shouldn’t be surprised, nor should you.  She’ll be back when she’s missing her Sunday dinner.”

#

The circumstances were not ideal for a first meeting with one of Karen’s parents, Patrick told himself, but at least he had learned something more about their enigmatic daughter,   Spiritualism!   He found the very thought of Karen attending a spiritualist meeting disturbing; it was inconsistent with the image he had built of her: it did not fit.  Nor would her mother’s description of Karen – ‘She’s strong-willed and she’s wily, that one’ – comply with his; the woman in his heart was gently loyal, grounded and dependable, the woman in his head was subtly altered now.  He could not avoid thinking about that.

Exhausted by small doubts Patrick was glad enough to break from his search for a brief while, and Jacqui, still abed at the hospital, was at least as glad of his visit.  She smiled delightedly when he walked in.

“You’re a sight for sore eyes!”  She crowed.  “Where did you go yesterday?””

Despite the turban of bandages around Jacqui’s head and the brace that kept her from moving her neck, her facial features had regained their refinement, so her obvious pleasure at seeing Pat made her look radiant.

“Doesn’t anyone else visit you?”  He asked.

Jacqui pouted.  “I told you once, but you probably didn’t listen properly.  My mum and dad live in Australia now, and when they went they took my brother Ade with them.  Not that Ade would have been a dutiful relative when it came to things like visiting.  He used to have trouble remembering where the door was, most of the time.  Still, our loss of a drug addict is Australia’s gain.  Aunt Vi came to see me this morning.  She thinks I’m too thin.  Do you think I’m too thin?”

Patrick said he thought she was just perfect, and they chatted on happily for a while; touching upon subjects like hospital food, beds, and matrons.

“The night matron on this ward’s a killer!  I swear she creeps around the beds in the early hours administering lethal doses to anyone who dares demand a bedpan.  They clear out the bodies in the morning.  Anyway, you haven’t told me yet.”

“Told you what?”

“Where you went yesterday.  How’s your little Miss Marlowe?”

So Patrick told her – about the large man who had been stalking Karen, about the connection between two dilapidated buildings on a regional map and a case she had been working on, and about her disappearance.

“My god, Pat, this is horrible!  Poor Karen!  Where can she have gone, I wonder?”

“I’m worried out of my wits.  I wonder if she might have gone back to Tim, you know?  London’s a good distance away, and he’s a copper, after all.”

Jacqui placed a comforting hand on Patrick’s arm.  “Scared you might lose her?  What, gone back to the rugby-playing lump, after having tasted you?  Don’t be silly!  I met – what was his name – Tim, once.  Dull as ditchwater, darling!  No contest!  You think they’re after you, too, don’t you?”

“I was warned off,”  Patrick said.  “Maybe I should have taken notice, and you wouldn’t be in here.”

“Really now?  You think my attacker mistook me for you?  Pat – do you?”

“Maybe: just maybe.”

“Wonderful!”  Jacqui groaned.  “Dear old Jacqui, getting in the line of fire, as usual.”

“Don’t say that.  I had no idea…”

“I know, Pat, I know.  Let me see, if she’s gone to ground somewhere, where could that be?  You’ve tried everything – parents, friends…?”

“That’s the thing.  She seems to have had only one best friend.  Someone called Bea?  I have to trace her.”

“Bea Ferguson?  Oh, I might be able to help you there.  See if you can find me a piece of paper and a pen and I’ll write the address down for you.  She had loads of friends, though, Pat:  loads!”

The rain had ceased before Patrick left the hospital, prompting him to lower the top on his car and driver faster than he should, relishing the fresh wind in his face as if it might blow any trace of mistrust from his heart.  It was no distance to Caleforth, the village where the young Fergusons had made their home.  Theirs was a small red door in a street of little cottages clustered together in terraced solidarity.

“Who are you looking for, dear?”  The next door was white and open.  An elderly head was peeping through it.  “They’re both at work.  They’ll be back about six o’clock, I expect.  Shall I tell them you called?”

#

At first, she had thought the colours flashing through her head would never clear, the pain of the blow would never ease:  which was why, perhaps, she kept her eyes closed against the world.  That was why?  No, fear was why.

Behind closed eyes she was safe:  the tall man would be unsure of her condition, giving her some time to assess.  She had no clue where she was, other than the detail of her immediate surroundings, a bare white room with the bed she lay upon, an upright chair and a stout wooden door.  There were no windows: the only illumination came from a strip light on the stale white ceiling.  All this she had seen before the big man’s hand sent her back into her nightmare.

He had gone, she was fairly certain.  Her screaming seemed to concern him; had he been afraid someone would hear?  She believed she was alone and the door was closed.  If she could be sure, absolutely sure of that, she might chance opening her eyes, but lacked the courage to put it to the test.  Better to feign unconsciousness or sleep.

She had slept, at some time.  She was stretched out upon the bed, and before she was hit she had been sitting up.  Gabrielle’s marl sweater and Lee Cooper jeans had been stripped from her body: In their stead, she seemed to be dressed in some form of shift.  Someone – she could only assume it to have been that tall grey vulture of a man – had undressed her, and this induced a shudder of loathing she could not suppress.

“You’re awake then.”  The voice was dull, toneless.  Not the voice of the grey man.

Reluctantly, because her head was still buzzing, she blinked her eyes open.  He was sitting on the upright chair, watching her.  She remembered.  “You’re Joshua.”  She said.  Her jaw was bruised, her mouth difficult to move.

“You can call me that if you like.  It’s of no consequence.”

She attempted an embittered smile as she recollected the phrase.  “Was it you put me in these clothes?”

“Yes.  It’s how he wants.  Oh, and don’t worry yourself.  I left your underclothes alone – and I’m a nurse, by the way.  I’m qualified.”

“Should that console me?  I seem to remember you pretending embarrassment at the sight of my legs, not long ago.  But here you are, in the end, just another dirty little pervert.”

Joshua grinned.  “Ah’m a good actor, aren’t I, lass?”

Her mouth wouldn’t cooperate because her lips were swollen.  She was drooling, and the drool was blood.  “And who is ‘he’?  The lunatic who hit me – who’s that, Joshua?  Are you his keeper?  He belongs in a zoo, doesn’t he?”

“His name is Edgar.  I’d worry about Edgar, if I were in your place.  He’s gone to a great deal of trouble to get you, and he’s not likely to waste his opportunities now he’s succeeded.”

She pulled herself erect, sending a thunderflash of pain rocketing through her neck and head.  When the red mist cleared she could look down at herself.  “A white shift.  Very clinical.”

“He likes white, does Edgar.”

Though every move brought a new flush of pain, she could certainly move.  Nothing was wrenched, or broken.  “What does Edgar want with me?”  It was a foolish question really.  The answer, though, was unexpected.

“He’s in love with you.”

What?

“Alright, he’s obsessed with you, if you like.  Whatever you want to call it, he thinks of it as love.  He believes, for the minute, that he loves you.  A bit like a child loves a toy, you know?  Until he gets tired of it and breaks it.”

“Jesus God!”  Ignoring the warning pain in her head Karen leapt to her feet, made the two strides to the door.  She had the advantage of surprise and she used it, throwing the door open, launching herself through it into she knew not what, only hoping there was some magic path leading back to the light.  But beyond the door was a corridor, a bare, dim space, lit by another fluorescent strip screwed to another low ceiling.  There were steps leading upward not more than a few paces away.  She raced for them, only to find they ended in a hatch that was secured by heavy bolts.  When she swung back again Joshua was standing in the middle of the corridor, smiling benignly.

“There’s no way out, I’m afraid.  No way at all.”

 

© 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

 

 

Nowhere Lane – Chapter Four.   A Game of Hearts.

 

Karen Eversley kept her word.  Patrick discovered her occupying a window seat in the lounge bar of The Hunters, staring moodily into a glass of something short.  When she saw him, her features tightened in a slow smile that her eyes failed to imitate.

“I thought you weren’t coming.”  She chided him lightly.

Patrick apologised. “I’ll get us some drinks.  Another of those?”

She watched him as he returned from the bar, idly wondering what lay in the eaves beneath that tousled mop of hair that so attracted her.  As he carefully set their glasses on the small table beside them she picked out the little shards of reserve at the corners of his green eyes.  “You were thinking about standing me up, weren’t you?”  She accused him.

“No.”  He hesitated.  “Well yes, maybe. I’ve been doing some hard thinking.”

“Why?”

Patrick stared into his beer-glass,  “Doubts.”  He said.

“About, is this a good idea?  Did we get carried away, the concert and everything?”  Karen asked, adding cynically, “or maybe I just don’t look so good in this light.”

“You look – you look incredible!  It’s because…”  He stuttered into silence.

“Ah!”  Karen’s smile was thin-lipped, “The bush telegraph’s been at work, hasn’t it?  The Chinese whispers, the Caleybridge underground?  What have you been told?”

“Alright, perhaps I have – heard something!”  Patrick acknowledged.  “Oh, how do I say this?  Karen, I like you, a lot.  But is there anyone who might be concerned, our meeting like this?”

“You mean is there a jealous boyfriend-stroke-husband-stroke-girlfriend?”

“It did cross my mind:  would you?”

“Would I what?”

“Stroke a girlfriend?”

Her eyes brightened.  “I might.  Then again, I might return the question, mightn’t I?”

“I think you already have the answer to that.”

“Whereas?”  She asked.  She was looking at him in that certain way, and he might have reached for her hand, or at any rate close the heavy curtain of distance he felt was hanging between them.  The easy familiarity of their Saturday date whirled like corn-chaff on an awkward breeze.  “Whereas I wouldn’t want to destroy anything.”  He said.

The clouds crossed her eyes once again.  “Don’t worry, you aren’t.”  She volunteered nothing more.

Patrick could not read her expression.  Was she angry or simply uneasy because he had learned something she would have preferred to keep secret?

“Boulters Green,”  Karen said, after they had sipped their drinks in silence for a while.

“Three ruins.”  Patrick replied.  “do not a village make.”

“Not in our eyes, certainly.  But Frank Purton thinks it is a village.  And Mr Purton is paying my fees; so help me?”  Her handbag was open beside her on the seat and she produced a piece of paper from it, tossing it onto the table so he might see.  It was a letter.  Patrick did not reach for it at once.

“Frank Purton.  Isn’t he something in the County Clerks’ Department?  He does legals, doesn’t he?  What’s it about?”

“Questions, questions! Please, Pat; read the letter?”

The letter was coarsely hand-written, barely readable in the half-light of the bar.

Dear Councillor Burnett,

Now my son Casper is of an age for schooling I would wish him to attend a local preparatory school.  I cannot find such a school or how it is for him to get there, as I have no transportation at all.

Please write for me to say what I am to do.

Yours respectfully

Joshua Turnbull.  Number Three, Smith’s Lane, Boulters Green.  He is aged five.

“Joshua Turnbull, he thinks it’s a real village,”  Karen said.  “And Councillor Burnett, he’s worried because he’s chairman of the Education Committee and they’ve already had to ride out one scandal this year.”

“You mean the Beauchamp case?  Yes, I remember.”  Patrick replied half-absently, reading.  The scrawl was heavy and rich in ink, as though scratched by a crude instrument; perhaps a quill.

Karen watched him.  “I investigated the Beauchamp case for the County.  Frank Purton instructed me on that one, and now he’s asked me to follow this through.”

“It was you who caught the demon teacher?  Wow!  I am profoundly impressed.”

“The work’s important to me, Pat; I need it.  I need to do well too so I could use your thoughts.  What does that letter say to you?”

Patrick gave his impressions of the letter, and she frowned.  “Those were my conclusions.  It isn’t any older than a couple of weeks.  It was delivered last Monday, stamped and everything, with a Caleybridge postmark.”

“Not a Boulter’s Green postmark?” Patrick suggested flippantly. “I suppose he posted it while he was in town, him not having any transportation and all.”

“You think it’s a hoax, don’t you?  So do I.  But why?”

“I can’t explain it any other way.  It’s the ‘why’ that troubles me, too.  What is there to be gained from it?”

“Some political points, maybe.”  Karen sighed.  “Anyway, it seems to have run out of mileage.  I’ve checked all around the County departments and nobody’s heard of Boulter’s Green.  I’ve even been into the census records and looked for birth certificates.  Nothing!  The only lead I had was those three ruins.”

“So, is that why you agreed to meet me tonight?  Your last hope of keeping the case open?”

Karen’s fingers played with the stem of her glass and she did not speak for a while, because the thoughts in her mind ran too deep for speech.  Then she murmured:  “No.  No it wasn’t.”  And she glanced up at Patrick, giving him the feeling that there was an added note behind her voice.  “Walk home with me, Pat.  No strings, no promises.  Just that.”

They strolled along the riverside path that followed the Caley’s meandering journey through the town’s Albert Park, watching as children cast bread upon the waters, and listening to the waterfowls’ eager demands.  Sometimes they were arm-in-arm, sometimes Karen would break away, turning to lean upon a railing, or just to create space between them.  They spoke very little.

Leaving the riverside after the bridge that took it beneath a main thoroughfare, to Patrick’s surprise Karen guided their steps, not in the direction of her parents’ house and the place of their weekend meeting, but up a network of roads on one of the sharp, steep hills which bordered the river, arriving at a small block of purpose-built apartments.

“I live here.  I have the top apartment.  It isn’t very grand or expensive or anything, but its home.  Sometimes I go back to stay at Mum and Dad’s for weekends.”  Karen had stopped in the shelter of the street door, turning to lean against the brick recess as she sought her keys.  “Thank you for walking with me, Pat.”

“This is goodnight, then?”

“Yes.”

He wanted to kiss her, but somehow he knew it would expose him to a gentle rejection,  “Will I see you again?”

“Possibly.”

“That’s it?  I have to make do with ‘possibly’?”

She gave a faint smile and looked away.  “Possibly.”

Impulsively he took her chin and turned her face to him, so she couldn’t hide the clouds in those cool blue eyes.  “Karen…”

“No!”  She said sharply.  “Look, Pat, it isn’t as simple as you think.  I’m not good at hurting people, you know?  There are loyalties…”

“Then the bush telegraph was right.  There is a Tim.”  He said grimly.  “That’s alright.  I understand.”

“Do you?”

“Well, honestly, no I don’t.  You’re sad.  You’re unhappy about something and I want to help, Karen.

“Could be because I gave up smoking last week?”  She volunteered another weak smile:  “Jumpy!”  She twitched her fingers a few times as a demonstration.

Patrick shook his head.  “I’m not wrong about us.  We may have only just met, but…”

“Stop!  Just stop!  You found out about Tim.  I suppose I expected that you would, but you’re going too fast and I’m not sure I’m ready for that.  Okay?  Goodnight, Pat.  Look, just…goodnight!”

The key was in the lock, the latch was turning.  Then she was inside and gone, and he was left with a blank, unfeeling door closed to him, and a half-curious look from a man passing on the street.

“I know about the martial arts, too.”  He said to the door.

Patrick began the long walk back to his car as the last of the daylight faded, a red sun slipping beneath the far horizon like a weary traveller, pulling the distant hills like blankets over its head.  Its final efforts bathed Karen’s little apartment building in a soft vermillion glow, making mirrors of its windows to hide the sorrow inside.  His mind was a whirl of thoughts and pictures.  He could envisage her tiny hallway as she entered, her quick steps into her private world and in his fantasy he thought that she might be secretly weeping.  He could see her cheeks wet with tears, hear those quiet, lonely sobs in an empty room.  If he had doubted before or if he had wanted to keep a distance between them, he was certain now.  His heart was hers.

Standing back from her window Karen watched him walk away, filling the void of sound with her own imagining so she might hear his firm tread on the pavement, feel his purpose rush through her like a howl of need.  He was so strong, with such confidence in his stride, such power!  And her heart was full of wishing, but her head would not let her call out foolishly, or run after him, or catch him in her arms.  She stayed to see the sunset, looking down over the town and bound by the enchantment of flickering streetlights as they caught fire, red embers into yellow flames.  But there was a conscience within her that would not be ignored.  Karen went to her ‘phone, picked it up and dialled.

“Karen?  Hello, love, where’ve you been?  I called three times.”  Tim’s voice contained a hint of petulance.

“I know, you called home:  Mum told me.  I was out.  You sound tired.”

“Yes, I am.  Busy day!”

“Beginning to wish you’d stayed in Caleybridge?”

“What?  Oh, no.  No, I did the right thing, Kerry.  I miss you, darling, of course, but it’s my career, you know?”

Karen knew; Tim repeated it often enough.  Tim was strong, wasn’t he?  Probably much tougher than Patrick.  Tim was intelligent and kind?  Yes, but Tim’s was a policeman’s ponderous, deliberate strength, humourless and slow.  She had to try and sound enthusiastic, although to convince him she had first to convince herself.  “I miss you, too.”  She tried, but maybe failed – she thought she had.  She covered quickly:  “Anyway, you were ringing about next weekend, Mum said?”

“Yes.  I’m off duty all through from Friday to Monday so I can come down.  We can maybe spend some time together?”

“That sounds lovely.”

“I’ll drop in on Saturday morning.  Maybe we can go for lunch at the Mason’s Arms?”

“That sounds lovely.”

“Yes, well…”

All at once, without warning, the conversation was over.  There was nothing either of them could drop into that stony silence.  They faced each other, across the miles:  he in London, she in her provincial apartment, and they had nothing to say.

“I’ll see you on Saturday, then?”  Tim prompted.

“Yes, see you Saturday.”

“Okay.  Love you?”

It was a question.  “Of course.  Love you.”  Karen said, reminding herself there was a time when they would hang on the line, each waiting for the other to put down the receiver, each with a new promise of devotion.  Tonight she did not wait for Tim’s response.  She rang off.

Emptied, Karen dragged herself into her kitchen, found some bread and put together a sandwich of a Bolognese sauce she had made the previous night.  Then she ran a bath, filled it with an obscene amount of bubbles and slid inside their envelope of care, taking her lumpy old sponge from the rack, soaking it, and thrusting it into her face until the foam got in her nose, making her splutter pleasingly.  With warm water for her blanket, she settled back to let dilemma have its say.

Tim Birchinall.  At school, he was the fit one, the natural athlete who played in the school rugby team.  Karen dated him then; meetings after school, embarrassing each other with words, experimental kisses in dark corners, a couple of trips to Baronchester on the bus.  Tim was fun in those days and Karen liked him, but they were really never more than friends.  He was a trophy boyfriend who drew looks of envy from less fortunate girls.  They lost touch when school was over.  Karen went on to college, Tim found his niche with the police.

Some years later on a seaside visit to Harterport, a few months after her older sister Suzanne died in a motorbike accident, Karen was basking in hot July sun on a crowded beach and trying to eat an ice-cream faster than it melted.  In her new bikini she was shuffling self-consciously through dry sand towards the promenade steps when she was swept off her feet by three very large males in bathing trunks who were doing more charging than looking.  Prostrate in the sand and liberally embellished by ice-cream she was offered the assistance of a big, friendly hand.

“I’m terribly sorry!”  A resonant voice apologized; “That was really clumsy of me – are you hurt?”

Karen was about to unleash an appropriate reply when she realized she was being helped to her feet by an Olympian.  She choked back carefully chosen invective. “Only my pride.”  Her eyes took their time travelling up her assailant’s body, eventually reaching his face.  “Good god!  Tim Birchinall!”

A fully-grown, fully matured, fully swoon-inspiring Tim grinned at her.  “Karen Eversley!  Now fancy meeting you here!”

And so it began – slowly at first; because outside a sports ground Tim never did anything quickly, but by the winter of that year they were in a relationship of sorts.  The heat, the romantic heat, the passion – well, that was always there on Karen’s side but Tim seemed quite happy to maintain a little distance:  kissing goodnight, familiar touching, intimate whispers, no more than that.

The change came one night in January.  Tim, who was a member of the Beaconshire force then, played rugby for the County Police and whenever Karen’s work allowed she followed the team.  She was a devoted supporter, organising kit, arranging the half-time snacks, and cheering dutifully from the touchline.

It was a Saturday: the team was playing away and it snowed.  In terms of the match itself that meant little, apart from very cold feet and a few bruises on hard ground; but when it came to persuading the coach driver to take the team home it meant a great deal.

“Too risky in this.”  They had let him get near a pub and he was eyeing it longingly.  “The main road’s blocked anyway.  It was on the news.”

There was not enough accommodation.  Bea, another of the groupies, was philosophical:  “We’ll have to double up.”  She said, and she was almost laughing out loud as she said it.

“You and I?”  Karen suggested hopefully.

“You are kidding?”

“Look, mate,” Karen told Tim; “It’s me in the bed and you on the chair, right?”

“Of course!”  Tim reassured her.  “Karen, would I?”

And, of course (extremely drunk and with disastrous ineptitude) he did.

All of which was three and a half years since, years in which, for all the good intentions, nothing special grew.  Far from improving Tim’s positivity and initiative, the police force seemed to have sapped him of what little he possessed, and his sense of fun had disappeared.  After a couple of those years questions began to be asked which Karen answered defensively, but doubts could not help but form in her mind too.  In a way she was glad: the lot of a policeman’s wife was not always a happy one, after all, and as time passed her commitment to that vision of her future dwindled.

Then Tim had suddenly announced he was going to join the Metropolitan Police.  Karen saw his move to London as having far more than mere geographical significance.  London, with all it meant in terms of distance and lifestyle, was an opportunity to draw a natural line beneath their relationship.  He would meet others and she would be suitably sad to lose him.  They would naturally drift apart; go their separate ways.

But Tim kept coming back.

At twenty-five years old Karen was tethered to a man.  Not uncomfortably so:  although bedroom time was scarce to non-existent, she was always comfortable with Tim, always safe.  And she might easily spend a life on just those terms with him, if thoughts of London attracted her; yet the doubts were there – the questions.  There should not be a time when you have to try to love somebody; to recapture the emotions that drew you together, so long ago.  And she was having to dig more and more deeply to find those things which she should feel every time she heard his voice or saw his face.

And now?  Now there was Patrick; she would not investigate him in the way she might check someone out for a client; she couldn’t do that to him.  So he would remain someone about whom she knew little or nothing, except that his parents were wealthy enough to buy him an expensive car for his twenty-first.  Yet he was thoughtful, he was perceptive, and when her head rested on his shoulder there was a feeling of rightness about it that might remind her of early days with Tim.  He made her laugh in a way Tim could never do.  Patrick who said he wanted to know her, yet flattered to deceive.  And she was – for a while: flattered, that is.  Patrick who, she told herself, wanted her.  His deception was his ease of manner, belying his upper-class roots and giving an impression of being available to her, a bridge across that great class divide.  But these matters, even if she might overcome them, ultimately rested in the judgment of others.  Karen drew a picture in her mind of a cocktail party in the course of which her father would meet with Patrick’s, and despite herself she began to laugh.

The water had cooled.  She rose from it reluctantly, towelled off as she held onto a little fantasy of hands around her, drying her body; smooth strong hands which she took to bed with her too, still imagining.  The hands were not Tim’s.

That night the sky was full of shadows, strange fleeting shades across the moon that darkened her window.  She could not know who or what they were, those shades, but she fancied she could hear their cries.

Were there steps yet that she could not hear – striding feet upon the pavement beneath her apartment? Feet that struck the stones so harshly they spoke of hatred with every tread?  Were there eyes darker than the night that watched her windows, knowing now where she slept and where she bathed, and when she was sure to be alone?  She would sleep while those eyes stayed open, and by morning they would be gone.  For now – for a while yet…

 

© 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