The story so far:
While job-seeking in town Joe Palliser meets Emma, his best friend’s wife, and is reminded of his feelings for her. When she abjures him to return to London he lets slip that he cannot, which Emma takes to mean he has separated from his wife, just as he – in her view – abandoned her, years ago.
Meanwhile, Joe is melting opposition from his Uncle, who, whilst advising him on village politics suggests he might set up home in Hallbury. He is considering this when, on a walk past Violet Parkin’s farm, he is hailed by Davy, the local constable, who provides an insight into the complacency of the local force in pinning Violet’s husband Jack for her murder. Heading up the lane to his local pub, his progress is interrupted…
“Don’t like the police.” Growled a deep voice behind Joe; “You doesn’t want to be seen consortin’ with they, Palliser.”
Joe’s heart skipped several beats. The voice was Charker Smith’s. The presence was Charker’s. He suppressed a desire to run, which was the one thing he was pretty certain he could do faster than the big labourer.
“It’s just Davy Hallett.” He said as evenly as he could. “I’ve known him for years.”
“All same – bastards. You aren’t moved on, then?”
“Thinking of staying for a while, Charker.” Joseph said, determined not to be intimidated. “I grew up here, you know? It is sort of my home.”
“Ah. You and those brothers of your’n. I had a brother once, Palliser.”
“I know.” Joe responded solemnly. The more he looked at Charker’s massive slab of a body, his small, almost conical head which rose from a neck that would not have disgraced a Hereford bull, the more he marvelled that this man could have been engendered from the same seed that created Rodney. “I’m really sorry, Charker. I still remember that day very well. There was nothing I could have done – you must believe that.”
“So you said at the time. ‘Tweren’t like ‘im to drive too fast, see? He were a good driver, were Rod.”
Joe sighed. “Look, I know I can never convince you, but I wasn’t responsible for Rodney’s death. I happened to be the one who found him, that’s all.”
Charker was poised with his hands to his hips, legs astride. His breath came in regular gusts, like a steam engine at rest – vast and immovable. “You’re right. I aren’t convinced. ‘Tis daylight now, but it won’t allus be, so if I was you, I’d be movin’ on – you got that?”
There was no point in protest. “I got that.” Joe said.
Charker’s fierceness suddenly evaporated, though somehow the menace remained. “That’s right, boy. Now, you comin’ fer a drink?”
“In a minute, Charker. I’ll come in a minute.”
“Collect yerself, eh? Have a think about it.” Charker nodded approvingly The steam engine puffed into gear and rumbled on, rolling up the lane towards The King’s Head. Joe watched him, remarking that in spite of his size, Charker had hands that were quite small, with long, sensitive fingers.
He might have accepted the big man’s invitation, had he not caught a glimpse of a tall, slightly stooped figure making its way along the adjoining road. The sight of Tom Peterkin also bound for the King’s Head jolted his resolve: Joe tucked his chin into his chest and turned quickly, retracing his steps. Whereas he knew he could not ignore Tom, neither could he face him this night.
An official-looking envelope arrived for Joseph in the post the next morning. He drew it close to his chest as he read the contents before tucking it into his trouser pocket. “It’s from London.” He told his aunt and uncle by way of explanation. “Can I use the ‘phone later?”
As she cleared the breakfast table, Julia said to Owen: “That was a solicitor’s letter. He was worried. Did you see his face?”
Joe read the letter again in the privacy of his room. He read it three times. Then he went to the telephone.
“I have to go into Braunston tomorrow morning;” he announced at lunch. “Is there anything I can get for you?”
“No, darling.” Julia appeared content to let her curiosity take a back seat for now. “But there is something you can do for me this afternoon if you have time?”
Joe laughed at the gentle sarcasm. “Nothing but time. What was it you wanted, aunt?”
“Do you remember the Forbes-Pattinsons? “
“Up at the top of Church Lane? The ‘nobs on the hill’? Of course I do.”
“I have the minutes for the Parish Council meeting ready to be copied. Emily Forbes-Pattinson normally calls down for them, but she’s a bit tied up today, apparently. I would take them myself, but it’s such a struggle up that hill in this heat….”
“I’ll be happy to do it.”
“Oh, Joe, you’re such a dear!”
When they rose from lunch, Joseph accepted the package of Parish Council documents from his aunt without any hint that he had seen through her very transparent ploy.
“I’ll just change my shoes.” He said. And he climbed the stairs to his room where he made sure that the confidential letter would make his errand with him, secure in his pocket.
He set out up the lowert part of the hill, a road strewn with memories bitter and sweet. To his left after the Masterson farm was Staggers, the old house where the Honourable Mrs Palmerston once harangued him from her first-floor windows.
“Keep off my grass!”
“Don’t come in! The dogs will savage you!”
On the right was Hallows Cottage. How many times in childhood and youth had he knocked on that door, dragging Madge Peterkin from her comfortable chair?
“Can Tom come out?”
“’Tisn’t ‘Tom’, Joseph dear. It’s ‘Thomas’.”
She died before he left for London. Albert, her husband, found her when he returned from work, in the bath she had been taking when he left that morning. Albert still lived there, and Tom was a dutiful son.
House after house, memory upon memory: the Pollocks with their sad-eyed daughter –where was Stella now? The Ravenscourts who never emerged beyond their front door; and on, climbing past St. Andrew’s Church into Church Lane, narrow and steep.
There were three houses on Joe’s left, two close together, whitewashed thatched affairs with split front doors and tiny windows. Mary and Paul Gayle lived in one of these; he couldn’t remember who owned the other. Then Charlie Lamb’s home, the house Owen had suggested he might buy. Charlie had a young family when Joe left years before, and a sharp-nosed, vivacious wife with a penchant for the ridiculous. When Charlie played the dame in Abbots Friscombe’s pantomime his wife dressed him for the part, in a costume which kept the village talking for years. The cottage had a red sandstone facade, a good sound roof: there was a garden at the back (the front door opened directly onto the lane), and yes, that door invited him. He could see himself living there.
Thus preoccupied, Joe scarcely noticed the sun, though it beat down upon him remorselessly. Perspiration was beading on his brow by the time he finally arrived at the iron gates of ‘Highlands House’, residence of the Forbes-Pattinsons, which stood at the top of the lane.
Behind a high brick wall, ‘Highlands’ was hidden from the road. To those who applied a structure to village society, this was the ‘Squire’s Manor’, sufficient reason to open its gates with respectful care. Beyond the gates, a driveway plunged through a screen of laurel which parted after twenty paces or so, revealing ‘Highlands’ to be a large nineteen-thirties’ construction, faced delicately in faded brick. Everything about the place exuded permanence, from the mature oaks that bordered the acre of lawn to the Bentley Continental parked before its polished wooden front doors.
All this should have impacted profoundly upon Joseph, and would have, were there not a nearer view that was much more distracting. For stretched upon the grass in the sun was a girl, her slender form clad only in a pair of brief green bikini pants. She lay on her back with her head turned towards him, her face. framed by silken ash blonde hair and soothed by the perfect innocence of sleep, in which state she had rolled from her original position – leaving her unclipped top lying uselessly beside her and exposing a pair of small, invitingly white breasts.
It took Joseph a full five seconds to realise that his eyes were devouring the girl whose horse he had frightened the previous week, and to rebuke himself for staring. With exaggerated quietness he retraced his steps to the driveway gates which, whistling tunefully, he swung open and closed with an audible metallic clang. A cry of alarm emitted from beyond the laurels, and by the time he ambled back into view the girl had disappeared.
“Oh, thank you. So you must be Joe?” Mrs Forbes-Pattinson greeted him, accepting Julia’s package with a glint in her eyes which suggested she had not entirely missed the drama his approach had caused. She added with a touch of mischief: “Did you happen to run into my daughter Sophie on your way in?”
“Almost,” Joseph answered. Mrs Forbes-Pattinson in a lemon-coloured summer dress was every bit as stunning as her daughter. At times like these he could easily be persuaded that the very rich were, in truth, a race apart.
“You look awfully warm! Would you like to come in and have something to drink?”
“That’s very kind, but I must be getting back.” Joe stumbled over his reply, cursing his ineptitude.
He walked away, carrying with him in an entirely new compartment of his imagination a vivid picture of Emily Forbes-Pattinson and her lovely Sophie. He was quite sure he wanted to meet them again.
That evening, as Joseph was once more browsing the ‘Situations Vacant’ columns, Tom Peterkin called.
“Yer been avoiding me, lad?” He nodded towards the gate, beyond which a dark green Cortina saloon car stood waiting. “I brought the car down, ah? Thought we might go for one or two in Braunston?”
Joe threw on a coat.
“Nice!” He approved. “What did you do with your Sunbeam?”
“Sold it. Emma made me see sense. Family man, see?”
Joe was surprised and showed it.
“Oh, no; she’s not pregnant or nothing. But we got plans, ah? Been trying for a while, now. I asked ‘er to come with us, but she aren’t feeling so well, ‘pparently.” Tom grinned toothily. “Women, ah?”
Emma had evidently not managed to prevail upon her husband to drive slowly. The Cortina flew the back road to Abbots Friscombe in minutes. Once clear of the village, Tom patted the steering wheel enthusiastically. “Goes well, du’n ‘er? So how come you’re not driving these days, then?”
Joseph explained that he had driven very little since Rodney Smith’s accident.
“Can’t let it put yer off, Joe. Somethin’, mind, seein’ an accident like that. You and ‘e never did get along, though, did yer?” Tom asked. It was a rhetorical question, because the conviction with which he threw his car into the next bend put Joe beyond speech. The next time Joe trusted himself to open his mouth; the Cortina was drawing into a car park outside the Shire Tavern.
“As a matter of interest, Tom, why didn’t we just go to the King’s Head?”
“Ah, you might ‘ave problems at yon’. I was up there last night, and Charker Smith were getting hisself drunk, and he were swearin’ ‘bout ‘ow he’s goin’ ter get you for Rodney? I tried to calm ‘un, but you know what ‘eem like when ‘eem drunk? Steer clear, that’s my rec’mendation. Anyhow, didn’t I see you change yer mind ‘bout goin’ in there yourself, early on? Could of sweared that was you in the lane.”
At the centre of Braunston was a square dominated by a mediaeval shire hall, one-time host to the Town Council, and now containing meeting rooms, offices for an insurance company, and the Shire Tavern. Always crowded, ‘The Shire’ offered sufficient anonymity for self-conscious youth, and so had become a favourite watering place for Tom and Joseph in their teenage years.
The Wheelwright’s Bar on the first floor was unchanged from those days. Creaking narrow stairs were packed with chattering girls and grunting, recalcitrant young men whose fashions might have altered – no more the long jackets with velvet collars, the flounces and back-combed hair – and the fake beams and cart-wheel tables might have looked a little tired now, yet it retained enough familiarity to make Joe feel at home. He fought his way through smoke-haze to a crowded counter, emerging with pints of beer.
Tom said: “We got to get you a car, boy. There’s a nice Wolsey up Maybury’s – I’ll take yer to look at ‘un on Saturday if yer wants?”
This began an evening which, mainly spent in idle conversation, should have been pleasant and relaxed. Faces Joe remembered came and went, a few stopping to say hello, like small, dependable eddies in the current of humanity.
Tom did his best to distract. “That old Ford Pilot of yours? That’s up Pettisham way. Emma seen it there, t’other week. Still looks alright, ‘pparently.”
But just the mention of Emma’s name felt like a poniard in Joe’s heart. Although he disguised the pain he did not altogether deceive his friend. Tom had known him for too long.
“Good car, ah? Bet you wish you’d kept that ‘un. Would have served yer well in London.”
Joe changed the subject hurriedly: “Tom, do you know more about Violet Parkin than I do?”
“She’m dead, I know that.” Tom pursed his lips. “’Pends what you mean, I s’pose.”
“Well, the way I remember her, she never went anywhere much, did anything much. All I remember her for was the day I disturbed her bloody ducks.”
Tom laughed. “She were a queer bird ‘erself, mind. There were always stories. She were Ben Wortsall’s daughter, weren’t she?”
“Never heard of him.”
“What? Been in the village all they years and never heard of Ben Wortsall? You must ‘ave cloth in your ears, boy! Ben was a witch, that’s what!”
“You mean…pointy hat, and stuff?”
“No! No! I mean mad old bugger used to go round cursin’ anybody he took ‘ception to. Mind, folks swore by ‘e’s spells and potions. No-one went near no doctors when Ben was around. He died when I was still a nipper, but some say that Violet…..you ask Aaron Pace about Violet. He’ll tell yer some tales. Whether they’re true or not, though…”
There the conversation ended, for Tom was as obsessed with automobiles as ever. He would always return to the subject; whether in the context of his activities for the week -“Called out to one of those old single-pot Fordson’s. Wouldn’t start, no matter what. Told ‘un he’d have to get a new tractor. Seen them John Deeres?” – or in his assessment of people:“That maid over there? She’m a Mini owner – you can see that, can’t yer? Not much room for it in they, eh boy?”
Joseph was glad when eleven o’clock struck and the evening was forced to draw to a close. He had joined in the prattle, served his turn as he thought: but on the way home Tom disabused him.
“Sommat wrong, ain’t there, Joe? See, I thought if I took yer out, got a few pints past yer, you might loosen up a little, but no. You got more cards in that ‘and than you’m showin, ‘aven’t yer?”
They had passed through Abbots Friscombe, driving up the narrower back road for the final mile towards Hallbury. Wednesday Common lay dark and unfathomable on their left, laced with little trackways through the bracken that the farmers used to access the fields beyond. Tom drove off the road into one of these, switching off his car’s engine. The headlight beams probed into the darkness through a mass of tiny flying and floating things.
“Now, for sake of your conscience, boy, you’m goin’ to tell me what they are, see? But first, I got to get shot of some of this bloody beer.”
He got out of the car, unzipped his jeans and urinated copiously into the long grass. A car roared past on the road behind him and he waved to acknowledge the cheers of encouragement from its occupants. Joe waited apprehensively for his return, uncertain what to say, uncertain how much Tom knew. He, Joe, was certain of one thing he must not say: that he suspected Emma was still in love with him; and of something he must not even think – that maybe he was still in love with Emma.
When at last Tom returned, with a “Well then?” that brooked no refusal, Joe told him the London story; the full London story he had confided to Owen and Julia. He revealed all he could to his friend, aware even as the words spilled from his mouth that each one could be a word too many; that although Tom and he were once the closest of allies he had no right to expect that same loyalty again – that he might be arming an enemy.
After he had concluded all that he dared to say he felt at one with those tiny bits of life out there in the headlights; adrift on the wind, rudderless, and lost.
“Well!” Tom said, staring at his steering wheel. “There’s a tale!”
Joe nodded. That genie was with him again, its bottle shaking in its anger.
“So you aren’t married to this Marian, then?” Tom said.
Why did it slip out? Did he want it to?
“No. She was married to someone else.”
For a second or so he thought Tom had not heard him, or noticed. For a second, two, five, ten, Tom said nothing. Then:
The genie’s face became one enormous leer. “She’s dead.” Joe muttered. “Marian is dead.”
© 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.
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