Hallbury Summer – Episode Eighteen. Rhinemaiden

The story so far:

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

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

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

So why was he not more afraid?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m Joe Palliser.”

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

“Can I come in?”

After an interval:  “Who is it?”

“I’m Joe.”

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

“Yes.”  Joe agreed.

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

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

“How do you do, Terry?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did he go out the Friday before last?”

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

“And came back at about eight?”

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

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

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

“Who was with him, Mr Winter?”

“Well – I was, wasn’t I?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll tell the proper people, yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Has he been in here recently?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you describe him?”  Joe asked.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Photo Credit:  Brandon Molitwenik on Unsplash

 

 

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode Sixteen.   The Cuckoo’s Child

The story so far:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The receiver was replaced before Joe could protest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I suppose you had better bring those inside.”

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

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

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

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

“Ian, I wouldn’t ask, but…”

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

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

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

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

He had stayed for a month.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, please.  Scotch would be good.”

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

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

“Open and read.”

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

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

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

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

“And the catch is…?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Why, what have I done?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s gone.”

“What?”

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

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

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

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

“Twenty-four hours, huh?”

“More like eighteen.  Go home.  Pack.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Mr Chapman?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So that’s why I’m a problem?”

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

“Don’t use that word again!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How?”  Joe asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nor am I,”  Joe replied.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hallbury Summer – Prologue and Chapter One

Prologue

When I remember the summer days of my childhood I think of hot sun and warm rain.  I recall standing by a dairy door to gaze in wonder at rows of steaming bovine flanks as Alfa Laval milking machines hissed and sucked and a heavy lactose aroma hung on the air.  Or sitting on a field gate to watch elephantine combine harvesters clumber to and fro, or playing on Wednesday Common, making secret pathways through the bracken, dens among the blackthorn.  I remember wars and jealousies and fights, the sense of living – the light of morning.  And it seems to me the sun was younger then.

The village where I grew up was a placid beast, a mother protective of her young.  She made our lives a special thing – to come home to her from the battle of a day was to return to faces that smiled, sounds which comforted, food and rest.  It was a place that was mine, a box for all my memories:  a place of warmth, of peace, and of love.

How does the saying go?  We always hurt the ones we love?  I was neglectful, I know.  As I came to manhood her nurture bored me, my Hallbury, my mother of the Earth.  She hemmed me in, kept me by her isolation from meeting friends, going out, exploring the greater world; until I, like my father before me, would want to leap her fences – to venture into lands beyond.

This my father taught me – that only when I left her would I understand: only when I was miles away in time and space would I wish I could return.  There would be no going back, of course – I might travel the miles, walk up the village street, tap on the same doors – but never pick up the threads I lost, or find again those delicate flowers of friendship I plucked when I went away.  They would be gone, like the times, forever.

So here is the lesson I was given, by way of a tale told to me by my father once when we spoke of these things; when he heard me speak of leaving.   It is a tale of my village, and a story of innocence lost.  It is his account: the scene he describes, of Little Hallbury asleep in the heat of an afternoon, is a picture in my memory too:  but the mother of my memory is not the mother of his: and his story is very different to my own.

Chapter One.

Upon this day Little Hallbury slumbered beneath a solemn sun.  Wednesday Common robed in the bracken-green of summer was motionless and silent.  Around the old, cold stone of barnyard eaves martens twittered, while above them in azure-blue stillness rooks wheeled lazily, carking guttural orders.  A solitary dove warbled from St. Andrews’ steeple.  The service ‘bus’s slow drone as it wheezed and coughed up the hill from Abbots Friscombe stirred verges of frazzled grass to reluctant movement, sending the tiny secret creatures that live there scurrying into deeper shadow.

She would have, must have screamed.  Did she recognise the one who hurt her so, who drove spikes through her wrists – who hung her, like a great doll crucified – upon a wooden wall?  She was still living; still conscious when the prongs struck home: she knew and saw and felt the worst excess of death.  She must have screamed:  how she must have screamed!  But though the stone walls heard and the still air heard, no-one else in the sleeping heat of afternoon heard her. Her last entreaty to the world went unnoticed.

Joseph Palliser, my father, arriving at Braunston on the train from Waterloo had missed his connection, condemning him to an hour on a platform bench.  The little branch line tank engine which finally puffed to his rescue (and which had a certain brassy charm, it was true) struggled with a train lacking any form of charisma.  Its carriages were a sooty, no-corridor horror story – musty compartment after musty compartment of vandalised cushions, each with their own history of graffiti and stains. Joseph perched unwillingly for a jolting half-hour as they groaned and ground their way along the old single-track branch line to Abbots Friscombe.

When his bus grumbled past the military line of poplars on Gypsy Lane it was afternoon and my father had been travelling for nearly seven hours.  He had read “The Andromeda Strain” from cover to cover; he was tired, he was hot.  If ever he needed reminding of his reasons for re-visiting his childhood home so rarely he would recall this day, he told himself, and thereby absolve any guilt he might feel.

There were those evocative sounds, however.  On the station platform at Abbots Friscombe:  the steamy whistle of the little tank engine, the Station Master’s warning:  “Mind the doors now!” followed by clattering closure,  guard’s whistle and screech of heavy wheels, metal on metal.  Then the ‘bus, empty but for himself and a pair of pensioners sitting at the front:  “Af’noon young fella!”  whose low plainsong of conversation was punctuated by a kettle-drum rhythm from a sturdy engine: and now, alighting outside his one-time home in early evening sun, that characteristically noisy rural peace – sweet, pungent harmony of sound and scent – wood pigeon in the trees, raucous rooks, lap and slap of the little brook which ran between road and garden wall.  Melodies unforgettable – so poignant they threatened tears.

Joseph remained by the roadside for a little to collect himself, as the ‘bus struggled off in a black haze of exhaust up Church Hill, past the Andrews’ house where he had played as a young child; past the Walker farm, with all its rumours and romance.  There were so many things to recollect and he could not do justice to them all, so he told himself he was tired and over-emotional, which he quite possibly was, shrugged off the cloak of nostalgia and picked up his suitcase.

A peeling wooden gate, a garden full of the industry of summer:  buzzing among hollyhocks, throaty defending of nests, noisy squabbling over tiny trophies of food.   A front door still painted black, the same black it had been the day he left:  very possibly the same paint.

“Hello Aunt.”

“Good heavens, Joe, you are late!  Let me look at you.  You poor dear, you must have had a nightmare journey!”

Aunt Julia – with another of her infernal cats cradled lovingly in her arms – somehow smaller than his recollection of her, and a little more lined perhaps, but still Aunt Julia.  A smoky voice, large, frank eyes, blue cardigan as ancient as the door-paint.

“Say hello to Benjy.  What do you think of this dreadful election, Joe?  Are we going to get a decent government at last?  Your uncle’s in the kitchen.  Come and get settled in, we’re about to have tea.”

Poking his head into the kitchen, Joseph grunted a greeting.  The figure that was Uncle Owen grunted back.  He was bent over the kitchen table, painstakingly separating seeds with a razor blade.  Several small brown paper bags seemed to be intrinsic to this process.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake Oz, will you get that stuff off the table?  I want to lay it, dear!”

Uncle Owen glared over angry half-lenses.  An old man now, indisputably, his white hair thin, eyes clouded by life – not quite the formidable force of nature Joseph remembered.

Julia said:  “I’ve put you in your old room, Joe.  I thought you’d like that.  Can you find your way?”

Yes, the third stair still creaked.

And here it was, the room of his childhood, his youth, the greater share of a short past.  Like Aunt Julia, a little smaller than he remembered – did houses, like people shrink with age?  Plain green curtains in a sort of straw weave – they were different, but not the window they revealed; that was the same.  Cream paint, cream wallpaper much treated by drawing pin acupuncture:  Presley would have been there, above the oak chest of drawers, smouldering defiantly at Bill Haley’s amused disdain on the opposite wall.  The door to the wall cupboard which served as a wardrobe, where Little Richard’s dark menace once lurked – Johnny Mathis cow-eyed over a table laden with comic book imagination.

They were all gone now.  Or were they?

Joseph swung the cupboard door open.  An odd array of empty hangers on a wooden rail played host to a well-worn pair of gardening trousers he assumed must be his Uncle’s.  And there, behind them, on the cupboard’s rough plaster wall, was his montage – a winter’s day of artistic endeavour and glue when he was just twelve years old.  Presley again – always there – united by paste down the years with The Platters, Doris Day, Bobby Darin, Chuck Berry…..and…..

Faces he had already forgotten, names he could no longer place – once so important in his life that some had seemed more than life itself, all so easily erased.

Voices from below the stair:  Aunt Julia and his uncle arguing.  A somehow comforting sound because they had always argued, and it was good to know this at least had not changed.

It was half-past seven that night before Jack Parkin was told that his wife was dead.  Janice Regan, who cleaned the church, had walked into Violet Parkin’s kitchen the way she usually did at half past five.  Violet always spent her Friday morning washing “Vicar’s bloody surplices” and, given a good drying day, they would be ready for Janice to collect, so she could take them “Up St. Andrew’s” when she cleaned in the church the next morning.  Surprised to see the dry vestments still dangling idly from Violet’s washing line, she had called out:  first, she called up the stairs of the dilapidated cottage.  Receiving no reply from there, she went out into the yard that had once been the yard of the Parkin farm and called again.  Apart from an anxious clucking of hungry hens, Janice heard nothing:  and then she became concerned.  Violet had never “been out” – never in thirty years, and precious little in the twenty-five years before that – the years before she married Jack.  Oh, there was the Sunday trip to Church, and there were stories, of course, of other outings; but never on a Friday afternoon.  Across the sun-fissured mud of the yard, the broken door of the old dairy hung half-open: unsure why her fingers had started to tremble, Janice walked towards it.

Jack was in the little village of Fettsham, two miles away.  He was at his usual place at the bar of the Black Horse, with his usual pint of cider clamped in his earth-blackened fingers.

“Need to talk to ‘ee Jack.”  P.C. Hallett studied the labourer’s face closely.  It was never possible to tell if Jack was drunk, but the likelihood of his being sober was fairly remote.  Those who knew him well claimed he never was.

“Ha’ a pint Davy?”  Jack Parkin: man of few words, fewer expressions.  Those who wanted to be unkind said ‘man of few thoughts’.  Jack stared.

“Come an’ sit down over ‘ere.”  Davy Hallett coaxed.  He knew better than to insist.   “Give ‘un a shove?”  He requested the two companion bar-proppers at Jack’s side.  Persuasive hands guided Jack to a settle.  Aggravated grunts issued from Jack.  Someone thoughtfully provided a full glass.  Jack’s hand moved to embrace it.

“’Tis Violet, Jack: ‘tis Violet.”  Hallett saw the old man’s eyes had moved.  There was a rheumy depth to them, a pool of silted emotions.  “She’m been ‘urt, Jack.  She’m been ‘urt bad.”

“Violet?”  Hallett wasn’t sure if Jack had recognised the name.

“Violet your wife.  She’m been taken, Jack.  She’s died, old chap.”

“Violet.  Ah.”  Parkin’s hand lifted the pint glass to his fat lips.  “She’m what?”

#

“Passed on.”  Uncle Owen fiddled irritably with a piece of butter as it skittered before his knife.  “Gone to his Maker about five years ago, now.”  He pinned a slice of bread to his plate as though he feared it might also escape him, reached for a second slice.  The business of bringing bread and butter together so all edges and crusts exactly matched was an elaborate one, taking immense concentration.  “He was mad as a hatter for two years at least before that.  Used to wander around the village knocking on doors.  We’d know about that, wouldn’t we?”  He fixed Joseph with a stare.

“Poor old man must have called here a dozen times, Joe dear.”  Julia explained.  “Asking about war-time comrades, you know?  All dead, of course.”

“He wasn’t that old, that’s the thing; still completely ga-ga though.  Should have been in a home.”  Uncle Owen opined.  His battle with his bread and butter was entering its final phase, the invasion of the jam.

Joseph tried to balance this image with his own of Aleph Parkin:  of the handlebar moustachioed man in his waistcoat and cap whose permanence he had never doubted;  an amiable figure with two beloved terriers milling about his ankles who walked the village lanes on a never-ending journey, always ready to stop and talk, always with a tale to tell.  Aleph was gone!  Jack Parkin’s older brother, the pair of them as unlike as scrumpy and ale – Aleph who was never drunk and Jack who always was – yet Jack who was the worker: whereas Aleph, to the knowledge of those in the village with long enough memories, had never worked a day in his life.

“A war wound, young ‘un;” Aleph explained one day to a garrulous young Palliser with courage enough to ask:  “can’t work, see?  I was at Wipers, boy. Shrappel.”

But if Joseph tried to pin him down as to the exact nature of the injury from the battlefields of Ypres that had so afflicted his life, Aleph would be less specific.

“I has to sit down a lot, see?”

So Joseph sought the truth from Mrs Martin, a solitary old pensioner who lived in a stuffy little cottage by St. Andrew’s Church.  “Oh yes, dear,” She confirmed:  “it was a shrapnel wound.  I remember when Beth  Parkin got the letter. there was weepin’ and wailin’ and all sorts that day, my lord!  Beth,you see, she always favoured Aleph.  He was her first.  She never wanted a second son and when Jack came along a dozen year later he was a bit of a surprise, I can tell you!  And there was some of us wondered but that’s not for me to say.

“Anyways, she never set Aleph to work as a child, though she had Jack out working when he was ten summers old.  Then Aleph went to war at sixteen, and then there was the wound.  He comes home on crutches and Beth she has a hero’s welcome waitin’ for him – she made half the village turn out with flags and that.  He hasn’t worked since, and he didn’t work afore.  I suppose that’s why he and his brother doesn’t get on so well.  That and the other thing.”

Mrs Martin wouldn’t be drawn upon the subject of ‘the other thing’ but it was common knowledge the pair of brothers had little time for each other.  Joseph had seen at first hand how Jack might take a different road rather than pass his brother upon it.  If they should unavoidably meet they would pass with no more than a grunted acknowledgement, and Jack would take a swipe at one of Aleph’s dogs with his boot.

Leaning on the bar at the King’s Head in the days when he was still welcome there, Jack was also scathing concerning Aleph’s wound.

“War wound?  War wound be buggered!  He didn’t get no shrappel at Wipers.  When I finally got ‘un to ‘elp unload the hay-cart down our yard he dropped a bale on my head so I shoved a fork handle up his arse. In ‘thirty-six that was and he’s never forgotten ‘un. that’s the only wound he got!”

Joseph remembered the mouth organ Aunt Julia had given him for his thirteenth birthday – something then treasured, for somehow he had always believed he had a future in music.  Breathing idle chords upon it one afternoon on his way back from school he had come upon Aleph sitting on the wall outside Polkcombe Farm, his two Jack Russell terriers milling impatiently around his feet.

“Armonicky is ‘ut?”  Aleph said.  “Can I ‘ave a go, young ‘un?”

Joseph had lent his precious instrument reluctantly, then watched horrified as Aleph plucked a complete set of porcelain teeth from his mouth and placed them on the wall beside him.   The vaguely recognisable sea-shanty a toothless Aleph wheezed out was the last tune the instrument ever played.  When the old man had finished and Joseph politely retrieved it he put it in his pocket and walked away, not waiting to see the teeth replaced.  In his room that evening he put the mouth organ in his drawer, unable to countenance the thought of raising it to his own lips.  For all he knew, it was still there.

“Well!”  Julia folded her hands in her lap.  “I think we’ve accounted for the local population for now.  So what about you, Joe?  We didn’t expect you to come visiting.”

It was a rebuke, and Joseph knew it.  Somehow he had to explain how this place, which had been an irrelevance for so long, had suddenly become so important to him.  He had always insisted that to look back, to retreat into the past was wrong – a mistake.  What had changed?  He muttered an apology, said something about the business in London keeping him away.

“I just wanted to see you, I suppose; and to stay for a few days.  I hope it isn’t too inconvenient?”

“It’s bloody inconvenient!”  Uncle Owen spluttered, consuming his victory.  “Should have changed the locks.”

Julia smiled.  “Take no notice of your uncle, dear.  It’s his peculiar sense of humour.”

Joseph was not entirely certain his uncle was joking.  Much later, when he finally managed to extricate himself from his hosts’ gently persistent interrogation and retire to his old room, he pulled open that drawer.  The mouth organ was gone.

In the gathering evening, blue lights of police vehicles flickered from around Violet Parkin’s cottage with increasing brilliance, while rumours flickered around the village, building upon themselves.

Hettie Locke, Ben Locke’s wife was first to break the news.  “She was dead in the dairy, stuck up against the stall!  Janice ‘twas found ‘er!  Er ‘adn’t even ironed vicar’s surplices!”

“There were poor Violet’s blood ever’where!”  Abbey Walker’s eyes grew wider as she passed the story on.

“Pinned against the wall with pitchforks, she were, poor soul.”  Mary Gayle relayed the information to Paul over dinner; adding as an afterthought: “I ‘spect vicar ‘ll be askin’ me to do ‘is surplices now.”

“Nailed to thic wall with pitchforks!”  Paul Gayle told a rapt gathering at the King’s Head.  “Er were hangin’ upside down be all accounts!”

Word of Jack’s arrest followed.

“Jack?”  Cried Rob Pardin.  “’E’d never do that to ‘er, wouldn’t Jack!”

“Wouldn’t ‘urt a fly, wouldn’t Jack.”  Agreed Aaron Pace.  “But they got ‘un!”

 

© Copyright 2019 Frederick Anderson

No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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.

 

Nowhere Lane – Chapter Fourteen. A Cry in the Night

 

 The back door of Radley Court opened onto a cobblestone courtyard that was partly surrounded by the main house on two-and-a-half sides.  Opposite Karen and Gabrielle as they emerged from the kitchen stood a shortened two-storey wing, its smaller four-paned sash windows conveying none of the hauteur of their counterparts on the front of the house, but twice the mystery.  To the right of this stub of building and divided from it by a path, a fenced paddock was tenanted by a single, depressed-looking Shetland pony.

“Her name’s Bella,”  Gabrielle explained.  “She has problems, poor sweet.”

She led the way beside the kitchen wing, past a tack room to the final single storey portion of the wing, which consisted of loose boxes.   Here, against a muted background of culinary industry emanating from the kitchen, she allowed her enthusiasm to bubble over.  She was certainly passionate about her horses – all four of them, though she unashamedly favoured a bay with a white blaze.

“This is the absolutely best horse in the world!”  She planted a kiss on the horse’s nose.  “He’s called Chuffy and he’s utterly fab, aren’t you, darling?”

Chuffy reciprocated by tossing his head and showing off outrageously.

“Then this is Shiner,”  Shiner, a strawberry roan, surveyed his two visitors stoically for a moment, before sidling forward to be greeted.  “You’re Mummy’s horse, yes, sweetie?  You don’t do anything unless there’s a treat at the end, do you?  ‘What’s in it for me’, that’s Shiner’s philosophy.”

The last box was occupied by Percy, the Suffolk, huge and amiable.

“Mums bought him on a whim because nobody wanted him, and now we know why.  He has his breakfast delivered on a lorry!”

Karen, who had never ridden, learned more about horses in an hour that evening than she could possibly want to have learned, while her friendship with Gabby deepened to the most personal and conspiratorial level.

“Patsy gets awfully serious sometimes.  I expect you’ve noticed?  Oh, and have you caught him doing that thing with his tackle?  He seems to get dreadfully muddled up down there, bless him!  Gosh, I shouldn’t have asked that, should I?”

Within a space of a few precious hours Karen had discovered new friends, each of whom had some special quality she found endearing.  Gabby’s enthusiasm, Paul’s gentle, ambling sincerity, Jackson Hallcroft’s mesmeric charm, and Gwendoline, who disguised an incisive intelligence with the overt appearance of a hopelessly disorganized human being.  Patrick acquainted Karen with the truth.

“Didn’t I say?  Before she married Dad she was a solicitor.  She could have had quite a career, apparently. Don’t play chess with our mother, she’ll wipe the floor with you.  Oh, and she loves horses as much as Gabs, unfortunately.”

Dinner was augmented by lively conversation and a friendly interrogative process to which Karen submitted willingly enough, because it was right that the Hallcrofts should know all they wanted about her and she found herself actually wanting to tell them.

With night came rain, which stimulated a bustle of activities; Patrick braving the elements to cover his car before joining Gabrielle in her routine around the stables, Paul assisting Jackson in stowing away garden tools.

Karen joined Pat’s mother in the kitchen to ‘clear away’, a feeble contrivance which lost credibility the moment they switched on the lights because the working surfaces, cupboards and shelves were pristine and the washing up, left in the hands of Mrs Beatty, already done.  That good lady was in the process of finishing her day as they entered, donning her coat from a hook by the outside door.

“I’ve left the breakfast stuff in the fridge, tonight, Mrs Hallcroft.  Mrs B will sort that out in the morning.  Good night to you.  And to you, young lady.”   She gave Karen a smile that was uncomfortably close to a smirk.

Karen was taken aback and perhaps did not disguise it.  When she came to herself she realized Gwendoline was watching her.  “There’s another Mrs B?”  She asked, by way of a diversionary tactic.

“Mrs Buxham, she does mornings.  You have to be on your mettle, though.  She has a way of making your bed while you’re still in it.  Do you like espresso coffee, Karen?  I’m afraid I can’t get the machine to work.  Would you care to try?”

An espresso coffee maker glowered defiantly from one of the kitchen’s less cluttered corners.  Karen admired it.

“I have this aversion,” Gwendoline explained while Karen tinkered, “to kitchen machinery.  It utterly defeats me, I’m afraid.  You mustn’t mind Mrs Beatty.  She can be very – how shall I say – direct?”

Karen weighed her words carefully. “Thoughts once harboured are better expressed.”  She said.  “Where’s the coffee?”

“Third from the right, bottom shelf.  One might hesitate, sometimes, for fear of causing offence, don’t you think?”

“I think I’m not easily offended.”  The filter in the machine looked as if it had been there since it left the factory, so Karen scraped it into a bin.  “Have you any more of these, Mrs Hallcroft?”

“Gwendoline, please – or Gwen.  Do you know I’ve no idea?  Try the shelf above the plate rack.  Although when the subject is one’s own son, I suppose it might be necessary.”

Karen tracked down the filters in a lower cupboard.  “It should work!”  She said brightly.

“What do you think?  I ask, because I find this a peculiar reversal.  Isn’t it usually the father who seeks assurances from his daughter’s suitor?  And here I am…should it be making that gurgling noise?”

“It’s heating the water.”

“Ah!  That’s obviously where I have been going wrong.  We’re very fond of him, you know.”

“Of course you are.  And so am I.”  Karen replied, adding:  “In spite of myself.  Cups?”

“Oh, yes – I’ll get some.  That looks awfully interesting.  Is it working?”

“Absolutely!”  Karen exclaimed, borrowing Gabby’s favourite word.  “We simply have to intercept the outcome…”

The cups arrived just in time, and in the slightly panic-driven process of producing the miraculous beverage, the main thread of conversation was lost.  It would not remain buried, however.  As they sat at the table, tasting their success, Gwendoline said:  “In spite of yourself?”

“I think I anticipated this conversation.”

“And…”

“And I wasn’t sure how I would answer the charge.”

“He is very young, you see.”

“Yes.”  Karen acknowledged.  “I’m the older woman – not by much, but still enough to be frowned upon, especially where our differences in fortune are concerned.”

“Do you know, this coffee is quite delicious?  Well done, Karen!  He is very gullible at times.  He can be easily led.”

“I’m not the one who is leading, in that sense.”

“You’ve slept with him, of course.”

“Oh, now!”

“There is no better way to lead a man, is there, Karen?  Men think with their balls, dear.  Don’t tell me you are unaware of that.  In your bed they’ll promise you anything…”

“Please stop?”  Karen begged.  “You’re beginning to make me sound like a fortune-seeking harlot and I’m not.  Believe me I’m not!  You’re laying out all the reasons I’ve given myself for ending our relationship, not my scheme for tying him down.  The truth I face is that I’m very fond of Pat.  I wanted to walk away, I really did – still do, perhaps.  But…”

“It’s happening very fast, Karen!”

“I know; I know.  And I keep trying to hold back, but everything just seems to conspire to keep us together.  I don’t mind about money – if you cut him off and we had to live in a garret it would be alright.  It would be heaven.  Oh, god, what am I saying?  I thought it was uniquely your husband’s gift to inspire fits of verbal irresponsibility, but you’ve got it too…”

“Have I?”  Gwendoline laughed.  “I wonder though if we always find the truth.  How shall I phrase it – have you ‘found something special’ with Patrick?”

With all her self-erected barriers tumbling before her, Karen suddenly found she needed to admit it.  “Yes,” she murmured. “I believe I have.”

“And this has nothing to do with his protecting you, or shared danger, or good old-fashioned lust?”

“It may.  But it’s real, nonetheless.”

“Well then, we’ve finished our coffee, haven’t we?  Perhaps we should go and find out what your boyfriend is doing, and sort out some night things for you.”

Karen could barely hide her incredulity:  “Is that it?”

Gwendoline studied her fingers.  “A long time ago, when I was a junior in chambers, a large, very attractive man with a legal issue caught my attention.  We were married within a month of meeting one another.   That was twenty-six years and three children ago, and we’re still together.  Love?  Yes, I love him.  But love is always a frantic, emotionally turbulent thing to begin – it’s what is left when the embers start to cool that matters: whether friendship is there, after all the fury.  You have to wait at least ten years to find that out.

“So, what can I do as a mother?  If what you have is a week or two of passion, I will see it flare out.  If you are ‘meant’ to be together, I don’t want to be the one to stand in your way, either of you.  All I ask is if you have to break his heart, be gentle, will you?”

#

Neither parent was present when their children accompanied two bottles of wine to a small room at one corner of the house that they referred to as the den.

“Mother retires early with her books and Dad goes to his study in the evenings,”  Patrick explained.  “He’s working.  He’s always working.”

Either by neglect or intent, the den had no electric light.  Its rich, sand-coloured walls danced with candle shadows, choreographed by standing candelabra as old as the house itself.  In winter the room would be induced to warmth by the flickering of a small wood fire, but tonight the hearth only promised, its fire-basket of logs waiting to be lit.  Patrick lounged upon an old overstuffed couch against the window wall with Karen at his side.  Paul and Gabrielle sat on a similar couch across the room, leaving space between them on the seat which was quickly claimed by Petra.

“Pat.”  Karen decided to broach the subject that troubled her most.  “You believe you were attacked because you ignored that note…”

Pat blinked at her, owlish in the subdued light.  “Yeah, this note.”  He sat up,  foraging in his pocket and producing the piece of paper he had found on his car windscreen.  “It’s a bit smudged but you can read what it says.”  He passed it to Karen.  “I kept it specially.”

“Mr Nasty put this on your windscreen sometime in the afternoon of the stakeout?”

“Maybe.  It was wet when I found it,  Look.”

“So it would have been Mr Nasty who was responsible for what happened to you this morning.”

“It seems logical.  I can’t think of anyone else who would hate Jacqui or me that much. But I don’t think he did it himself.”

“It could have been him.”

“Possibly; I didn’t see anyone.  Here’s the thing, though.  Whoever attacked us had detailed inside knowledge:  no-one outside the offices would be familiar with our routine – we don’t exactly publicise it.”

“So who would know?  Who could know?”

“Someone studying us pretty closely – spy, rather than spymaster.  Get the facts, report them to someone, get paid, maybe…”

Karen winced.  “I’m beginning to feel completely paranoid!  When I think of it, the man knew I would be walking home, the night of the storm – which route I would take, what time I would be at the bridge…it would have to be that policeman told him that.  The police couldn’t be behind it all, surely?  I know they don’t like me, but…”

“No.  In on it, yes, instigating it, no.  Who first set you off on the Boulter’s Green goose chase?”

“Frank Purton, I suppose.  Oh and Wilson, who said Gasser was last seen near there.”

“We were talking about this, this afternoon in visiting hours, and remember that was before your last contretemps with your hide-bound friend.  It’s even more certain now, to me, at least.”

Paul said:  “Karen, I asked my olds about Boulter’s Green and it has quite a reputation among local psychics.  There have been, reputedly – nothing certain, never is with these things – ‘events’ associated with the place; visions of a ‘dark angel’, things that disappeared, and so on?  You seem to have stumbled on Ghost Metropolis.    Oh, and incidentally, the ruins aren’t cottages, they never were.”

“No?  So the address on the Turnbull letter…”

“A complete fabrication.  Originally, the meadow the ruins stand in was ‘Boulter’s Field’.  In mediaeval times it was part of the Driscombe estate, and there was one building upon it, their family chapel…”

“A church?”

Paul nodded.  “A small one, yes. Matthias Boulter A mining prospector,  bought the meadow from the Driscombes.   He must have given them a good price because they redefined their estate borders at the river and built a new chapel, which still stands at the North end of the house.  Boulter never mined the land – lead prices dipped, maybe, or it proved to be a false hope.  Anyway, the second ruin is the remains of an office or a shed for tools.  Now, am I good, or what?”

“Brilliant!”  Karen enthused  “The fact it was a chapel could explain those graves.  But we still haven’t made a connection with my stalker.”

“You’re supposed to be the detective.”  Patrick reminded her.

“I know, but I never said I was a good detective.  Indulge me.”

“Could it be that your Mr Nasty is being employed by these people to hurt you, or wreak revenge for something…?”

“…Or kill me, you mean.”

“Yes, alright.  I was trying not to say that.”  Patrick grimaced.  “Could you have done something to offend some high-up in the town – or could you maybe have information that might do damage if it got out?”

“Not that I know of.  But kill me?  Bad as they are, the police could never be implicated in something like that.”

“Rub you out, darling,” Gabby contributed. “They do that all the time.  I’ve seen it in the movies.”

“Thanks, Gabby!”

“Don’t mench.”

“Shut up, Gabby!”  Patrick growled.  “Unlikely as it seems…listen, Karen love, we think this whole Gasser thing is designed to push you in the direction of Boulter’s Green.  Not because it’s connected to anyone’s disappearance (Gasser’s probably just lying low somewhere, maybe even being paid to) but because it’s somewhere nice and quiet where their nefarious designs are unlikely to be disturbed.”

“Which, in the case of Mr Nasty…”  Karen shuddered.  “I can’t think of what he would do to me.  Oh, Pat?”

“I know, love.  We won’t let anything happen to you, honestly!”

“He’s not a hitman in the Charles Bronson mode, though, is he, my dark angel?  He’s no ghost, either.  He seems a tiny bit mad.”

“A contract in a small town?  Not likely to attract Bugsy Seigel,  is it?  I know you think I disbelieved you at Boulter’s Green when you told me about the skinny old man; I actually suspect he was there to help get you.  You were in the right place.  If I hadn’t reappeared things might have been very different.”

“He vanished, Pat.  I must have dreamed him…”

Pat shook his head somberly.  “I’m not so sure.  I don’t know how he managed it, but I think he was real all the same.  So that’s why you’re here with us, until we sort this out.”

“Sprog will be back tomorrow,”  Gabby, now stretched out with her head on her boyfriend’s lap, changed the subject.  “My grotty little sister,” she reminded Karen.  Paul and Patrick groaned in unison.

Conversation became drowsily relaxed, interspersed with comfortable silences.   Midnight passed, the candles guttered, sufficient wine had flowed.

“And now my head really aches.”  Patrick complained.  “I’ll let Petra out, and then it’s bed for me.”

Karen’s room was a large, comfortable space.  Hangings of middle-eastern origin adorned walls of eggshell blue; there was a fireplace that had been lamp-blacked until it shone, a kidney-shaped dressing table draped in chintzy peach with hairbrush and hand-mirror neatly arranged, and a large double bed that grunted amiably when she lay upon it.  Floor length dragon-print curtains added drama, concealing a high casement window which, when she raised its sash, admitted a hint of honeysuckle.

With one of Gabby’s thinnest, lightest nightdresses to clothe her, Karen settled on top of the bedcovers, happy to accept the warm breeze from her window and pleasantly ready for sleep.  In the corridor beyond her door sounds of the household gradually dwindled into silence.  Somewhere out in the darkness a nightingale sang.  Listening to its music, and thinking or dreaming of the day’s events she drifted happily, eyelids heavy, towards slumber.

The clatter was loud and startling:  the language that immediately followed could only be Patrick’s.  Her idyll shattered, Karen leapt from the bed, rushed to the door.  Patrick met her there.

“Pat, what on earth?”  She hissed in an open whisper.  “Are you all right?  What happened?”

“No, I’m not alright!”  Pat let himself into the room.  “And there’s no point in whispering.  I should think the whole house is awake now anyway.”

“What happened?”

“I kicked a bucket, that’s what happened.”  Patrick sat himself down on the edge of her bed, massaging a foot.  “Somebody left a bucket in the middle of the landing.”

“Oh, you poor darling.  Mrs Buxham?”

“You know about Mrs Buxham?  No, not Mrs Buxham; someone much younger, I’m fairly sure; someone with a particularly warped sense of humour.”

Karen caught his drift and, cruelly, began to laugh.  “Oh no, I don’t believe you!  It was probably just carelessness…”

“Yes, probably.  Like the piece of string stretched across the landing tethering it to the bannisters was probably accidental too.  I’ll kill her!”

“Never mind.”  She discovered his bare leg in the darkness and stroked it affectionately.  “It is rather sweet.  Were you coming for me?”

“I always pace the bloody ramparts about this time of night!  What do you think?”

“I think it would be nice if you stayed.  Especially since it seems everyone knows you’re here now.  It’ll help them to find you if they need you in the morning.”

“What about you?”

“Me?  Oh, I need you tonight.”

“My foot’s sore.”

“When I say I need you…”

“I know – you aren’t thinking specifically of my foot.  My head aches as well.”

“Oh, your poor head!  But I wasn’t thinking of your head, either.”

“All the same…”

“I promise I’ll be gentle.”

Later, much later, when their genial conversation with the big old bed had reached a hiatus and they had both dropped into exhausted sleep a vixen’s cry, long and agonized, rose from the outer darkness, wavering and weeping as it departed on the wind.  Its sound dragged Karen from her dreaming so suddenly she jumped and sat up.  And just as suddenly, the air froze about her shoulders as if icy fingers had clutched her heart.  Her dark angel was reaching for her; she heard the sound of Suzanne, her sister’s voice lifted in warning, her sister’s tears.

Patrick stirred, coaxed her back to him.  “Hey!  Don’t be alarmed, you old townie.  Haven’t you heard a fox before?”

“It isn’t the fox,”  She admitted.  “Oh Pat, darling, he’s out there, isn’t he?”

“He?  Mr Nasty, your dark angel?  No, no.  You’re safe from him here – you are, seriously.  He can’t harm you.”

“I can feel him.  I can feel his hands crawling over me!  Wherever I go, whatever I do, he’s going to find me, Pat, I can’t escape him.  He’s going to find me!”

 

© 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 Two. Patrick and Karen

Patrick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It did once.”  His father said.

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

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

“When you’ve answered my question.”

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

“Have you written back yet?”

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

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

“You were raised here.”

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

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

“You haven’t answered my question.”

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

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

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

Karen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What can I do for you, Karen?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karen made a face at him.  “Pat?”

“Yes?”

“I’m harmless, don’t worry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Boulters Green?”

“Yes.”

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

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

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

“Maybe.”

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

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

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

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

“I’m photographing it,”  Karen said.

“Well, obviously.”

“Aren’t I supposed to?”

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

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

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

“Really?  Our Member of Parliament?”

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

“Yours and mine?”

“Yes.”

“Oooo!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But sir, I hardly know you.”

“True.  I might be dangerous.”

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

“You’ll come then?”

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

#

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

A Place that was Ours. Chapter Twelve – Knights In Manilla 1989

 

I knew.  Oh, yes, I knew what I was doing.

My friend John Hargreave coined the phrase that perfectly described my situation.

“You’re painting yourself into a corner, Chas.”

He was right.  I was.

It all began well enough – Angie and I caught up in the novelty of living together, building a home at 15 The Avenue. In so many ways a home I never had, growing up; free of censorious neighbors, intrusive social workers, the frequent attention of the ‘chatties’ – the police.  I had moved from a street where such things were expected to a road where they would be deplored.  I had moved away from my mother and a whole web of emotional ties, into the bright sun of Angie’s unconditional love.

And that felt a lot like being free.

Angie waxed transcendent. She exulted in a circle of close friends and a large, devoted family.   Her conviviality drew aunts, uncles, parents, grandparents, and ‘just lads she knew’ like moths to a flame, all ready to sit around our living room bathing in the wash of her exuberant charm.   Among the host, I watched the ‘lads she knew’ with some amusement because they were drawn to her for ignoble reasons.  Be they visually pleasing, erudite, brash or diffident, their cause was hopeless; whoever Angie wanted Angie would choose, and for the moment, at least, that choice was me.

For myself, I trained harder and harder; spending long hours pounding pavements with my Walkman filling my ears.  My goal-scoring rate was consistent, but more importantly my message of confidence fed through to the rest of the team, and Casterley Town’s fortunes improved steadily.  As January gave way to February we were third in our league.

If you had joined me on one of my training runs, or spoken to my heart through the conversations of our socially brimming living room and suggested I was lonely, I would have laughed at you: lonely?  My life was full, I never stopped.  I was building my career, I was priming myself for success, wasn’t I?  But behind my dreams there were empty spaces; great caverns my thoughts dared not enter, for if they did they would find all of my past waiting for me there. And they would find Susan.

I was on our home pitch warming up for the first fixture of the month before I realised our perimeter boards were featuring ‘Crabtree Electrical Contractors’, and I did not play well that afternoon because wherever I turned I was faced with the Crabtree name.  Then, a week later, the club issued us with new shirts that featured a Crabtree logo, and suddenly I was wearing the totem of my most sworn enemy every time I ran onto the pitch.

Angie was philosophical.  “Well, ah thought you’d have been pleased to tak’ e’s money, like?  Divvent worry about it, Chas.  It’s not something you can change.”

Martin Berry, Casterly Town’s largest shareholder, sent for me the Monday after that.  He greeted me in his office.

“Well, now, if it isn’t Roy of the Rovers!  Sit down, lad.  D’you want a coffee or owt?”

I refused politely and we went through the motions – how was business, was Jackie (Jacqueline, his wife) well, was he pleased with his team’s progress?

“Pleased?  Aye, you could say I’m pleased.  I made a good choice when Jack Masters picked you out.  We were watching you from right before you left school, did you know that?  Jack said he had a real diamond and he wasn’t wrong, was he?  You’ve brought money into the club, Chas.”

“Money?  Are we talking about Mack Crabtree?”

“We are.”  Berry nodded.  “Sorry Chas, I know you and Mack don’t exactly get on, but you should realise he made you a condition of his investment.  He would only sign on the dotted line if you were in the side.  Does that make you think differently?”

“Not really.  If he was so interested, why wasn’t he present when you announced my signing?”

“Would you have signed if you saw him there?”  Berry chuckled.  “No, I thought not.  I asked him to stay away, and he didn’t take much persuading.  Anyway, I wanted to talk to you about that contract of yours.  You went to Ranton.  No blame!  Good move on your part, everyone needs representation.  But Ranton tied us to a one-year, one season period Chas, and that’s not enough for me.  I’m greedy, lad; I want you with us for two, three, four years.  You, me, yes, and Mack, we can do big things with Casterley Town.  For the first time since I can remember we’ve got three or four new local sponsors interested in us.  If we can get ourselves promoted this season, and it’s a real possibility, who knows where we can go from there, eh?

“Chas, there’s an envelope for you on Sandra’s desk.  Collect it on the way out.  I know you’ll have to go back to Ranton, but I want you to read the contents of that envelope first, and if there are any problems ‘phone me.  We can sort them out.   I might be wrong, y’see, but I think you’re happy here.  It’s your choice, Chas – don’t let anyone make your decision for you, alright?  Now, I’ll get one of the lads to drive you back.”

So Jack Masters, my erstwhile teacher and football coach, he who testified for me at Magistrate’s Court, had first brought me to Berry’s attention when I was in his class at school!   What was more, when it would have been easy for him to conspire with Berry and tie me into a cheap long-term deal he had provided the link to Allen Ranton, so I could be properly represented. The more I reflected on events, the more I saw how big a part Jack had played in getting me into the Casterley Town side, and how deserving he was of my thanks.

But then what should I make of Mack Crabtree’s involvement?  Surely his stipulation that I join the ‘Town’ as a condition of his sponsorship had been made on purely commercial grounds?  In his relentless drive for local recognition sponsorship of the football club could only help him if the club was successful.  No less than Martin Berry, he saw me as part of the key to that success; which would have been very flattering, if the sponsor had been anyone other than Mackenzie Crabtree.  Was it the full story, though?  My past dealings with Mackenzie were telling me he had other motives.

Angie was at work when I returned to our apartment on The Avenue.  I threw the large buff envelope Berry’s personal assistant had given me down on the coffee table and I looked at it for a half-an-hour before I tore it open.

Our telephone had been connected only two days before.

Ranton’s booming voice was on speaker.   “Chas!  Hello, lad!  So what’s he offering you?”

“How did you know there was an offer?”

“I’ve been expecting it.  Actually, he’s left it quite late.  How long does he want the contract to run?”

“Five years.”

Never!   He’s got some balls, you’ve got to give him that.  Feed me a few of the bottom lines, will you?  What does the money look like?”

I reeled off the figures that had taken my breath away just a few minutes before, and I relayed the substance of my conversation with Berry.   Ranton listened, quietly, until I was done.

“Well, aside from the five-year term, it’s not bad.  He certainly wants to keep you.  Thing is, Chas, you’ve got to consider if Casterley goes up to Third Division, how much more money this Crabtree character and Martin Berry are prepared to put in.”

“He says he’s got other sponsors interested.”

“I hope he has.  He’ll need ‘em.  That team wants renewing, lad, starting with the manager and working down.  You can’t do it all by yourself.  What if I told you Carlton Park have been watching you?”

“Carlton Park?  No!  They’re Second Division!”

“Not just Second Division – their new manager Merchison’s got a pedigree, Chas.  He’s a First Division man through and through and a good spotter; you can take my word, if he wants you he’s got a role for you, a good role in a good team.  He’s putting something really interesting together up there.

“There are some very big changes happening in football at the moment.  TV money’s feeding into the top of the game and the rich boys want a new, smaller First Division.  If it happens, the lower division clubs will get cut out of much of the action, and most of the money.  Likely you’ll know about Newport County, yes?  They won’t be the only Fourth Division or Conference side to go out of business, you mark my words.  Get on that ladder and start climbing, Chas; you’ve got the gifts.  For you it should be easy.

We wound up the conversation.  “It’s up to you.  I’ll negotiate a better Casterley contract for you if you want to stay.  I’ll get you better terms, and I’ll certainly make sure they don’t tie you up for more than two years, but it’ll be nothing like what Carlton’ll offer. If Carlton Park comes after you, you can pretty much treble those figures, and still be in the market for a sponsorship or two.

“No rush, lad.  In fact, stall.  I’ll come back to you when I’ve got something firmer from Merchison, then you can let me know what you decide.”

“Carlton Park Athletic!  Carlton’s like, an ‘undred mile away, man!”  Angie rarely protested with such vehemence.  “An’ it’s a big city!  It’s bigger than Bedeport!”

“More like sixty miles.”  I corrected her carefully,  “And it’s a town, not a city.  Look, hon, it hasn’t happened yet.  It might not happen, but if it does, we’ll find a way.”

“We?  AhI’d have to gi’ up my job, an’ everythin’.”

“I know.  I know.”  I hugged her.  “I also know you’re clever enough to recreate everything you’ve done here and more – but only if you wanted to.  It’d be up to you, love.””

She nodded solemnly.  “Ah’ll think about it.”  She said.

In the lea of that conversation I saw how presumptuous I had been.  It had never even occurred to me that if I moved on I might have to leave Angie behind!  Now, suddenly, the choices were not so clear. Angie’s strong connections with Casterley had to bear upon my decision.  The town was home to both of us, but her roots probed so much deeper than mine.  I can’t deny that her intimacy with her large family had come as a surprise to me, because when I troubled to count, I had just as many relatives in or around the place as she, yet most of mine were such strangers that if I passed them on the street I might not know them.   Was this merely because Angie was gregarious when I was not, or had my father’s reputation contributed to our household’s isolation in my growing years?

I could not doubt the soundness of Allen Ranton’s judgement.  Even I could see that Casterley Town’s football club was in a precarious state.  Petty feuding among the playing staff, a management (Martin Berry aside) either disinterested or inadequate, non-existent marketing – the list could go on and on.  Although the dressing room atmosphere had cleared somewhat from my early days, I had no sense that I was playing for a strong team.  Guy Harrison rarely got off the bench during matches now, so I could understand his reason for disliking me, but sniping from others in the side was continual, and it puzzled me sometimes.  Gary Webb, with whom I had struck up some sort of a playing relationship on the field which meant we both took a share of the goals, did not restrain his jibes:

“How’s yer Mam, Chas?  Still doin’ the taxis, like?”

“She still answers the ‘phones, yes.”

Typically, Herbie Volkes, goalkeeper, would join in.  “D’yer use them taxis then, Gary?”

“Na!  Too expensive fer what yer get, man.  Anyways, I got me own car at ‘ome, haven’t ah?”

These exchanges were liberally interspersed with sniggers from other occupants of the dressing room, and there was something definitely unpleasant about that laughter.  The truth was right in front of me, of course, if I had been wise enough to see.

A couple of teams in our league were so far away as to be unreachable in anything less than a day, so an away fixture with them, such as our first game in March, meant a hotel stay overnight.  It was Sunday afternoon before I was able to return to the apartment.   Angie was out.

A note on a scrap of paper by the telephone said:  ‘Gone to my Mums’.

With hours of claustrophobic ‘rest’ in a coach seat behind me, waiting in the apartment for my girlfriend’s return was an unattractive prospect so I decided to go out, which was how, a half-hour later, I found myself wandering with no particular destination in mind, through Casterley’s Victoria Park.  It was raining – nothing unusual because, of course, March in the north of England is necessarily a wet month.  I did not mind the rain.  Rain kept the pavements free of people, a rare blessing for someone whose work involved constant exposure to crowds.

The first buds of spring were all around me, birds anticipating summer had begun some diligent nest building, and the stately trees that lined the paths set up a solemn rhythm of drips as backbeat to a comfortable, noisy silence.

A silence stirred by a sound of distant footsteps.

I resisted turning around for quite some time. It developed into a game, one in which I turned from path to path, sometimes in circles, once even cutting across the wet grass; never looking back.  The tread was always behind me, neither closer nor further away, not menacing, not pressing, until at last my curiosity overcame me.  I swung on my heel.  My stalker was at the far end of the path I was about to leave.  He stopped as I stopped; quickly turning away as if afraid I might see his face.  Of course I couldn’t, over so great a distance.  I suppose I might have chased him down; after all, he had been following me, but he posed no threat, and I was in no mood for confrontation.  I reasoned he must have recognised me at some point, as I had become quite well-known in the town, and elected to follow me because, like me, he had nothing better to do with his Sunday afternoon.  Fans could behave oddly.  I continued my walk through the park, checking behind me a number of times, but I did not see him again.

Yet – and yet – what is the clever little knob the mind can turn that switches on a doubt, or amplifies a suspicion so indelibly that no conscious effort of will can switch it off again?  How could it happen, that every time I left our apartment after that I had to look over my shoulder to persuade myself my stalker in the park was not behind me still, tracking my every move?  Although he was nowhere to be seen I sensed his presence.  I found myself glancing back at every corner, listening for that same faint and far-off fall of foot that might betray him.

The month of March passed quickly, the busier because I expressed my gratitude to Jack Masters by helping him coach the Juniors.  Following our Carlton Park discussion Angie was more sparing of her time at home.  She became less frivolous, given less to the spontaneous laughter that endeared her to me.  There were changes in her, so subtle that only one who knew her as well as I might notice them, but notice I did, and I could feel her unhappiness.

It was on the last Friday afternoon in March.  I had just arrived home after training and Angie was still at work when the telephone rang.  Ranton sounded tired.

“There’s a nice big brown envelope in the post, Chas.  I sent it recorded delivery, lad, because if you want what Carlton are offering you have to act fast.  Windows like these don’t stay open long.  Read through it as soon as you can and get back to me.    See here, Chas, the choice is yours but frankly, lad, I think you’d be mad to turn this down.  You could be a First Division player in a couple of years!  Call me as soon as you can, right?

I said nothing to Angie, fearing the storm that was about to break and praying she wouldn’t be home when the letter came, so I could read it first, and think – think very hard about my future.  First Division!  I could be a First Division footballer!

We played at home on the Saturday, so on Sunday I took Angie to a gig in Bedeport to hear a new band she liked called the Happy Mondays.  We were on the late ‘bus home when a storm blew in from a different quarter.  There had been a tension in the air all evening, as if Angie was working herself up to say something that she knew I wouldn’t want to hear.  She picked the quiet top deck of the Casterley ‘bus to say it.

“Chas, you remember a couple o’ Sundays ago when ah went over me Mam’s?”

“Aye.  I went for a walk in the park and got soaked.”

“Well, there was something ah had to talk to somebody about, yeah?  Even though ah wasn’t sure ah should.  Ah wasn’t sure….”

“Right.”  I put an arm around her, immediately feeling her shoulders stiffen.  “What weren’t you sure about, hon?”

“See, you were away the Sat’day night, y’kna?  And Terry com’d over t’see us.  Terry – you know Terry?”

“Yes.” Terry was ‘just a lad she knew’ – one of her more determined suitors. I felt a lead weight dropping through my chest.  He would have known I had an away match and used my absence to make a move.  “I know Terry.”  I bit my lip.  “What happened, Angie?”

“He’d had a bevvy or two, ah think.  He started comin’ on to us, y’kna?  I had to slap ‘im down and ah was a bit mean, prob’ly.   Anyways, he turned nasty,   He said sommat.  He told me something ah should’ve known but ah didn’t.  He caught me out.  Oh, Chas!”

“You did right.”  I squeezed her shoulder.  “What was it he said?”

Angie turned her head away from me, staring miserably into the moving darkness beyond the window.

“You don’t have to tell me anything if you don’t want to.”  I said gently.

“No.  No, Ah want to tell you.  AhI know ah’ve gotta tell you.”  She still avoided my gaze.  “It’s jus’ so hard.  Thing is, ah told me Mam because ah had to share it wi’ someone an’ you weren’t there, y’kna?  An’ ah’m not sure ah should have told her because you might be mad; but Terry said ever’body knows, an’ it seems with me finding out you’re the only one who don’t.  Chas, love, it’s about yer Mam…

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Place That Was Ours

“History,”  Jonna once said to me,  “Is all about Christmases.”   

I might have raised an eyebrow at that, but he insisted.  “Think back on it, Chas.  Like, nineteen-eighty-one:  what do you remember about that year?””

“I got a bike.”

“Aye, and when did you get it?”

“Christmas.”

“There y’are then!”  Said Jonna, his case proven.

“I’ll tell you about hist’ry.  Nineteen eighty-three was the goal I scored against St. Luke’s!  That’s hist’ry!”

“Aye, but what got you started with the football?”

I had to admit it.  “I got a ball for Christmas.”

“See?   Last year was the exams, but no-one wants to remember them!   The computer under the tree on Christmas morning – that’s what they want to remember.   History!”

“You getting a computer this year then?”

“Aye, likely.”

It was lunchtime, so we slid down from the wall at the corner of Ox Terrace, plodding homeward up the grey street which wound like a discarded snake-skin through the houses on the hill.    Perhaps I might have raised objections to Jonna’s simplistic reasoning, but I was only thirteen, and I was hungry.   He had a point.   There were many reasons to remember Christmases in our family; many more than that pine needle quilted pile of presents beneath the tree on the day itself.

The lines for battle would be drawn long before November’s foggy end.   It would be at the breakfast bar when I might first burble something over my bowl of Coco-Pops, like:    “Can I have an Amstrad for Christmas, Ma?”   Although I raised the subject as a request it was not a question.

My mother’s face would darken, and had I paid more attention I would have seen the slight droop of her shoulders, the way she had of becoming smaller as each blow struck.  She was smaller with the years – there had been a lot of blows.  “I dunno, Chas, they’re too expensive for us, pet.”

Five or six years earlier I might have thrown a sullen fit, or bashed my cereal into volcanic eruption with my spoon;  nowadays I was  a lot more subtle:    “Jonna’s Ma’s getting him one.   He says they’re really cheap down Argos.”

Of course I knew how envious my mother was of Jonna Sutley’s family.

“Well, I’ll have a look.”

“I need a new bike an’ all.  Mine’s too small now.”

That was the beginning of a process as irreversible as Advent.   Over the weeks that followed, always at breakfast, I would open another small door:  the Manchester United shirt, the puzzle game, fishing rod, Tonka truck.

“Jonna’s Ma’s getting him one.”

The list grew; my mother shrank; and though I knew the pain I was causing I could never desist.    My Da’  only learned about it in the evening, after each new demand had a day to settle.   If I thought he was going to shout I’d be well away, playing with Jonna down the recreation, or over at the halls with Sue and the girls. I’d hear them shout at night, though, he and Ma, and I’d hear Ma crying sometimes.

On Christmas morning that heap of gaily wrapped boxes harboured more guilt and despair than anything in Isaiah’s most desperate moments.

“Aye, give him his presents.”  There would be a bitter edge in Da’s voice, even though he’d started on the beer an hour earlier.

I opened each gift with savagery, and the only element of surprise was in guessing which demand each packet would satisfy, and the overwhelming disappointment at those which remained unmet.

“The bike’ll have to wait another year, son.  We can’t afford it, we really can’t.”

“What’s a lad need a bloody computer for, anyways?”

No thanks, no shining faces; by Christmas dinner our sitting room was Hiroshima after the bomb:   by five o’clock all but maybe one or two of the gifts would be forgotten.  Amid the snores of evening I would plot my appearance on the street the next day.  Which of these should I take out with me – which could I claim proudly:  what presents had the others, Jonna and the lads, been given that would outmatch mine?

The gifts of Christmas were good for a week – the boxes they came in often hung around the place much longer.   It took three days for me to get Da’ to set up the computer, and I played with it almost obsessively for five.  Ten days into the New Year a brand new bike stood waiting in the back shed when I got home from my football.  Ma was watching from the kitchen when I discovered it, so she heard my crow of delight.  Nor did she miss the crisp punch at the air – my expression of victory.

“I borrowed off the Provvy.”  She said.  She was wringing her hands together in a way I had not seen before.  Did I thank her?  I don’t remember.

That was the way the fire curtain dropped on Christmas nineteen eighty five.   The repercussions would last all year.

Da’ lost his car in the spring.   A repo. van came for it when he was down the Waggoner’s.    It wasn’t a very good car, Da’ said; which was right, because it was always breaking down, but I saw his face when Ma told him it had gone.  From then on he had to start for work even earlier in the morning, getting a lift from Jamie Hicks down the South Side.

It was the beginning of my fourteenth year, a year when meanings began to change for me and new emotions needed explanation.   As Spring sun bathed our grey slate roofs I found myself more frequently in the company of Dave Crabtree and the girls, and especially deepening my friendship with Sue Crabtree.   Just as Dave was a little older than me, his sister was a little younger, a sprightly girl whose raven curls bounced across her pale face as she ran, so that she was forever brushing them back:  the hand movement was habitual:  once when we were talking I sat in front of her, mimicking each pass and she stared at me for a full minute before she understood.    One afternoon, sitting by the river, she asked me:

“Do you want to be my boyfriend, then?”

“Nah, no time for that!”  I said it dismissively, but it still didn’t come out right.  Sue was not deceived.

Words like ‘boyfriend’ and ‘lover’ had been common parlance between us for years – they were without interpretation – just things we said because they existed everywhere in the world around us; we had no idea of their significance.  Now the curtains were drawing back.   Sarah Coldbatch, a stubby, hearty girl of my own age, always wore dresses of gingham.  She possessed knickers in as many colours as my socks, and since her speciality was handstands we knew Sarah’s knickers almost as familiarly as I knew my own socks, and  it never worried any of us.  Then one day the handstands stopped.   Suddenly, for no apparent reason I could see, even a brief revelation of those gaily coloured undergarments would bring a flush of embarrassment to Sarah’s apple cheeks.

“You can stop starin’, John Hargreave!”

Jonna, not to be outfaced, would counter with:  “I would if you’d stop  flashin’ em at me.  Same pair as last week, I see.”

We spent a lot of time by the river that year.  There was a place that was ours, down the wooden steps behind the Rugby Club – a wide, stony stretch of placid water that rattled with shiny black pebbles and accompanied our games and songs and conversations with an orchestral murmur to rival any piped music.   Here was a bend in the river, where it gently nosed its way around Burdlehope Hill, beneath the old brewery walls which still clung to the slope, though roof and windows were long gone; and once, before they dammed them up in the hills, the waters here would have been much deeper.  A concrete jetty, chewed by neglectful years, pointed out across the stream, in memory of times when boats would navigate all the way from the sea.    It stood eight feet above stony scree:  the shoreline did not even reach it anymore.

Beyond the jetty a patch of level grass rich with buttercups was wide enough for play, hidden enough to pretend secrecy.   There, upon a sunny afternoon in May, Sue and I shared our first kiss.   It was an inelegant affair, a mixture of nervous peck and film star tonsillectomy that brought none of the thrilling sensations my television-based sexual education promised.

“Do you want to kiss me, then?”  Sue had stumbled as we clambered down from the jetty.  I had caught her and our faces were suddenly inches apart.   I was taken completely by surprise; such a thing had never occurred to me – but I was a man, wasn’t I?  So I tried.   I snapped turtle-like at her lips:  they were cold and thin – our teeth banged together.  She grabbed my head and moved her mouth around mine, convulsively grinding until my own lips felt as though they had been minced.   I prayed for it to end.   At last she stepped back.

“You’re not a very good kisser, are you Chas?”

For the rest of the afternoon she and her companions kept catching me with covert glances, giggling conspiratorially as though I had something stuck on the end of my nose.    I was far too naïve to understand the rules of the game:  I was plunged into fathomless humiliation, a perpetual blush which stayed with me through all the hours to sunset.  By the time the others had begun to drift homewards I had resolved to restore my tattered reputation, and when Sue made to leave I grabbed her wrist:

“Stay a bit?”

I had expected Sarah Coldbatch’s disparaging laugh; been afraid Sue would do the same:  she didn’t.

“Alright then, Chas.”

We sat watching for fish in the water, catching the subliminal rubies of red sunset in the ripples.  We talked; about what I don’t know, now, but I know they were adult things:  how I worried for my Ma now Da’ was away at work all the time, and how Sue wanted to move to another desk at school, because Jess Abbott was a distraction.  She wanted to work, she said, so when she left school she could go to university and become a nurse, or a teacher – she couldn’t decide which.  There were other things, but, as I say, I can’t remember what they were.

Nor can I remember exactly when I put my arm around her shoulders, or when I drew her to me.  But her lips were warm, their touch soft.  I know we got it right that time, both of us, obeying rules neither of us understood.  We were learning though.  From then on, everything was changed.

It would have been the end of June:  rain had been falling for days; cold rain that got under my collar so that I ran home from school to be away from it – rain that kept me in my room after tea, wiling away the hours with comic books or my Amstrad.   It was a Wednesday.

The front door was open, yawning an invitation to the street.  Seeing this from several doors away, I thought I would find Ma and Mrs. Potter or someone inside out of the weather, wrapped in one of those conversations neighbours seem to have about nothing in particular; but the house was silent.

I took off my shoes as I always did, adding them to the scruffy little pile of footwear behind the door.   Then – I don’t know why because I was never this careful – I closed the street door behind me.  The doormat was soaking wet.    Maybe something – some quiet voice – was reminding me that this was my home and it was precious to me:  that same quiet voice told me something was different, something was wrong.

I went through to the kitchen.   We had blue plastic worktops in there that Da’ had bought from the Auctioneers one week when he was flush.  I helped him put them in:  I held his tools, I even drove in some of the screws, turning them so hard my hands were red raw and my fingers hurt for days afterwards.  Looking back, those tops were crudely assembled and probably not very strong, but at the time I was proud of them:  I had helped to make them – they were partly my own work.  So seeing how one of them had collapsed, breaking the spindly leg supporting it and tipping the toaster, a pot of the raspberry jam I liked and the last of a loaf of bread onto the lino floor affected me more profoundly than it should.  There were other things scattered about, too.  A saucepan from the stove by the door to the back yard, my Da’s weekend jacket ripped from its peg with a big tear in the sleeve, some recipes Ma had cut from her magazines in a heap at the end of the surviving worktop.

“Ma?”  I called out.  I was seriously worried now and half-way to tears.   “Ma?”

My Da’ should have been there then.  He should have led the way up the stairs to search each room and make things right.  But he worked away these days – he wouldn’t return until Friday night, or sometimes even Saturday.  There was only me:  I had to climb those narrow twilight stairs one by one, listening to my own breath as it followed me.   I wanted to go straight to my room; to hide there, to wait for whatever was baleful and angry in this cold place to leave; but I could not.  At the head of the stairs I turned the knob on the big bedroom door.

“Mam?”

She was lying on the bed.  At first I could barely recognise her because I was seeing another person in my mother’s body and her head was turned away from me towards the window.   I had seen her in a slip before, though never this slip:  never this lilac thing with purple lace.  Bras and knickers were not new to me either, they were the stuff of sniggers when she came down half-dressed to make breakfast, sometimes inadvertently letting the coat she wore as a dressing gown peep open to reveal the forbidden things beneath.  But they were never carelessly uncovered; never displayed  as openly to my sight as these.    She lay very still.

“Mam, wake up, please?”

For an age she didn’t move.  Then, so, so slowly my mother turned her head to me. A clown face of thick make-up and cheap mascara smeared by weeping said, in a stranger’s voice:

“What do you want?”

When I could find no words to answer her she repeated it in a shout:  “What do you want?”

Closing the door on her, I went to my bedroom and sat on my bed, staring at my wall with the picture of Mick Jagger on it, as if he might provide a solution.  I stared for an hour before I heard the light switch on the landing and her footsteps on the stair.  I cringed inside as her feet approached my door, shrank back as the latch turned.  And there she was, standing in front of me with a different, alien smell about her; her open dressing gown exposing that lilac slip, and a plate in her hand.

“Your bike’s gone.  I sold it. You’ll have to have this.  There’s no tea.”

She closed the door.  A moment after, I heard the door of her own room close.

I ate the bread and jam she had slapped together in a sandwich for me, carefully picking off the bits of dirt from the kitchen floor.   A shard of glass in the jam cut my gum.   It hurt for days.

This piece feels as if it should be the start of a book.  Maybe I’ll work on more episodes to feed into the blog, if anyone wants them.  It’s an idea to explore, anyway.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2017.  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.