To my long-suffering readers, an apology. When I decided to make a serial of ‘Hallbury Summer’, a book I had already written, I foresaw problems with dividing it into episodes of acceptable size. I thought I had done quite well, until I finally came to a point where I couldn’t conveniently break into the story. This is it.
So this week two posts that together make one satisfactory episode. At least if they’re broken down I’ve spared you a reading marathon – or so I hope!The story so far: we left Joe after his date with Sophie Forbes-Pattinson, in which the pair broke into murdered Violet Parkin’s house, seeking clues to her mysterious involvement with a local witches’ coven. The only item they found was a small package. Meanwhile, in Abbot’s Friscombe…
Jennifer Althorpe studied the house for some minutes before opening its green wooden gate. Grimly functional, this house, a squat dwelling roofed with grey slate, a belching chimney despite so hot a summer’s day, and walls of hard, red engineering brick part-blackened by smoke – smoke which lingered over the whole neighbourhood in a choking blanket – listless windows returned her gaze.
Although there was so much to repulse the house did nothing to repel Jennifer, yet equally it could not invite, for there was no greeting to be found in those bland walls, no welcome on the frayed coconut of the mat which kept damp station on a concrete step. Jennifer walked the path, the concrete path. She squelched into the sodden mat, she pressed the weathered bell. And she waited.
A woman’s moon face, blotched skin, tiny suspicious eyes, peered out. “Yes?”
“Mrs Harkus?” Jennifer asked.
“Might be. What of it?”
Bella at the local café had been extremely helpful; almost worth the mediocre coffee and the limpid toast Jennifer had endured.
“Ask Mary Harkus. She’ll tell you all about young Joe Palliser.” Bella had advised her.
“Come in.” Said Mary Harkus, inclining her blunt head.
The wall of heat would remain in Jennifer’s memory for some time. Before the troubles, Mummy and Daddy had been posted briefly to Aden. One school holiday she had flown out to visit them, and would never forget the sudden blast of desert air as she stepped from the plane in that furnace of a place. Mary Harkus’s living room was as close as she could ever come to revisiting the experience. The fire in the grate was every bit as fierce as an Arabian sun, and the warmth it generated brought an instant bloom of perspiration to Jennifer’s delicate brow.
“Havin’ a bath.” Mary said, as though that would suffice as an explanation.
“Do you grow orchids, or something?” Jennifer asked ingenuously.
“Why no, bless you!” Mary Harkus laughed: her voice had a flinty edge, as though she would rather curse than bless. She seemed impervious to the heat. “’Tis these houses, dear. They only got immersion heaters, see, and the ‘lectric costs a fortune? So us do use the back-boiler, see? Anthracite’s cheaper. The fire heats the water, see.”
“And everyone knows when you’re having a bath.” Mary Harkus’s little eyes squinted enquiringly, so Jennifer directed her gaze pointedly to the chimney breast. “Smoke signals?”
“Is there a photograph of Rodney?”
She had in fact already seen one. Selwyn Penny had been very helpful, though his newspaperman’s sensibilities had needed to be observed. Jennifer already knew the story of Rodney’s fatal accident as the newspapers had related it: she was about to explore the local angle and Mary Harkus was about to give it to her.
This would be forgivable: after all, she was a journalist in search of a story. Mary Harkus was her best lead to an incident which, though it was deeply embedded in the past, shed light upon the man her quarry, Joe Palliser, was today. This would be forgivable: the ploy with which Jennifer Althorpe concluded the interview was not.
When she had eked out every detail of Rodney’s fatal accident from Mary Harkus’s account and though every fibre of her being just wanted to quit that duchess’s kitchen of a house, she remained seated somewhat damply on Mary’s couch, saying nothing as she affected to check through her notes.
“I’m surprised.” She said at last (timing was vital).
Mary, whose patience was being tried (she had none) raised a quizzical eyebrow. “Why?”
“Well…..I’ve covered lots of cases like this; read about a lot more. And frankly, Mary (I can call you that, can’t I?) although the really guilty ones may escape the law, they rarely escape entirely, if you see what I mean?”
“I don’t.” Said Mary Harkus.
“Well, I mean, I often think the police turn a blind eye because no-one ever gets arrested, or anything, but usually the guilty party ends up in a ditch somewhere. Someone – shall we say an interested party – someone makes up for the inadequacy of the law, don’t they, and that doesn’t seem to have happened here. No loyal relation or close friend to redress the natural balance, I suppose. Joseph Palliser’s still walking about out there, isn’t he? I mean, please don’t think I wish the man any harm, or anything, but really – has no-one even tried? I’m just curious.”
Jennifer did not receive an answer: she did not want one. She left gladly, secure in the knowledge that a seed had been sown. As she gulped in the fresh outdoor air she was sure Mary Harkus’s abiding sense of outrage would be compelling her to lift up her telephone. Douglas Lynd had been right – Ian Palliser’s brothers were his Achilles’ heel. Tomorrow, or the next day, or very soon, Joe Palliser would provide her with fresh copy, one way or another. All she had to do was wait.
For the next few days Joe would be forced to put thoughts of Sophie to one side. Mr Carnaby had accepted his instructions for the purchase of the Lamb house, and his bank had to be seen so he could make arrangements for payment. The Wolsey needed to be returned to the clutches of oily Mr Maybury for some corrective surgery, condemning him to a day of bus and rail travel once more, and then there was the day he used to journey to Branchester, the cathedral city where St. Andrew’s parish registers stored, to research Violet Parkin’s family line. Throughout all this he kept Violet Parkin’s strange little packet unopened in a drawer in his room, promising himself he would return to it later.
Sophie rang on the Wednesday morning.
“It’s super today: I’m going to take Tumbler for a ride, would you like to come?”
Joe did his best to sound enthusiastic. “I’m not exactly an expert. Anyway, I don’t have a horse.”
“Transport provided!” Sophie chimed. “See you in an hour!”
Joe had come down to breakfast to find a local newspaper open on the kitchen table, trumpeting the headline: “Hallbury Publican’s Suspicious Death.”
“Ned Barker.” Owen said without looking up from his seed catalogue. “It appears that the police are involved in that one, now.”
Julia had a plate of bacon and tomato warming for him under the grill: “It’s all too awful! What on earth is going on, Joe?”
Joe scanned the article, which described how Ned had been found by his wife Dorothy the morning after the desecration of St. Andrews’ churchyard. Ned was thought to have died of a heart attack during the night, but, as was the law in the case of any unexplained sudden death, an autopsy had been performed.
Selwyn Penny’s article was unspecific. It merely quoted the police as saying they were treating the death as ‘suspicious’ and were ‘pursuing their enquiries’. They refused to reveal whether they were looking for any third party in connection with the death, or to consider a link to the murder of Mrs Violet Parkin the previous week. Inspector Porcott of the Two Counties Constabulary pointed out that Mr John Parkin had already been charged with the first murder, and was being held in custody while he awaited trail at the quarter sessions.
“I wish I knew.” Joe said in reply to Julia’s question.
Julia was right to ask. He looked up at the two elderly people who had given him shelter and he saw the intense concern, the fear, almost, in their faces. Without really considering, he had assumed they did not know Michael had absconded, just as they knew nothing about Michael’s involvement with the village witches. Perhaps they did. Or perhaps their disquiet was that of many middle-class people whose homes, but not whose hearts, are in country communities, when they discover the rural idyll is not what it seems. For all of his wisdom concerning the construct of small village society, Owen might well be at the limit of his depth. And Julia, though she gave the impression of someone who skated across the surface of life, would know inside herself that the ice had become perilously thin. He was in so many ways their child, their product: yet the village he inhabited, for all it was the same geographical place, was very different to theirs. He had brought his village to their door, invited it inside. They simply had no idea how to deal with that.
The hour had struck eleven by the time Sophie arrived, clopping down Church Lane on Tumbler, the big roan Joe had placated in the Parkin farm’s barn on their earlier meeting. If he had expected Sophie’s strapping horsewoman image with jodhpurs and riding helmet he was to be disappointed. Today’s Sophie had at last ‘dressed down’, although the combination of red halter top and designer jeans with trainers was scarcely less alluring than her denim mini-skirt. She was leading a rather compact bay mare with a submissive look and placid eye, which she introduced as “Moppy.”
“She’s a complete darling. She really won’t give you any trouble.”
Moppy greeted Joe with a bemused expression befitting any adult animal facing life with a name like ‘Moppy’, and exhibited exemplary forbearance while he set her stirrups as long as he dared, then took three attempts to mount her. He had ridden before; a long, long time before, with Sarah Halsey for company. Sarah, of course, was as accomplished at horse-riding as she was at everything else.
“I’m most dreadfully sorry I didn’t call you sooner, Joe,” Sophie apologised. “I’ve been away: to Daddy’s in London, you know?”
Joe smiled. “No need to apologise.” He met her eyes, which said that she was fibbing – that she had been waiting with a vague notion he might call her first.
“I missed you.” She allowed herself to say, as they set off. Then quickly added: “A bit.”
After a brief pause for negotiation, Moppy agreed to a walk on the Common; probably, Joe suspected, because her big friend Tumbler was being directed to go there, and she had no inclination to be left by herself with the obvious incompetent who slouched upon her back.
Sophie was bright and genial; “How is the Witch-Finder General today?” the sun grew stronger and it promised to be a perfect morning.
Abbey Walker was tending her front garden. She straightened to greet them courteously as they clattered past, but with a reserve in her voice that told Joe she was part of Janice Regan’s gossip circle; so small a thing, yet enough to darken his particular skies a little. The net was closing. He had not heard from Tom Peterkin for all of that week, even though he had sought his old friend in his usual haunts, nor had he caught sight of Emma. Yes, he had wondered if Tom knew the true state of Emma’s tormented mind; believed that he very probably would have guessed, and the awkwardness of this shared but unspoken knowledge was evidence of guilt in itself. Neither had the nerve to contact the other, and as the interval grew so the hurdle became higher.
Sophie caught Joe’s absent expression. “Did you open that little envelope from Mrs Parkin’s picture album?”
He confessed: “No, I haven’t thought about it. Something I must do.”
“A mystery!” Sophie enthused. “Do make sure I’m there when you do. I’m simply dying to know what it is!”
“So if I told you I have it in my pocket…”
“Excellent! Then I shall have an opportunity to exercise my sleuthing skills, Joe. The perfect prelude to lunch.”
They followed that narrow lane which bisected the upper part of Wednesday Common, passing on their way a little copse of trees where Joe had hidden the car on what Sophie had begun to refer to as their ‘burglary night’ and walking on briskly for the first half mile until they reached ‘The Point’; a junction marked by a telephone box where roads from Abbots Friscombe, Little Hallbury, and Fettsham met. The greater part of the common land lay before them, to the west of the Abbots Friscombe to Fettsham road. For the most part this was laid down to bracken, interspersed with small clumps of blackthorn and mature broom. From ‘The Point’ one very specific bridle path skirted the lower common like a perimeter track. Too narrow for motor traffic, it owed its existence to horse riders who frequented it, or to adventurous youngsters, like Michael, Ian and Joe.
This trail would circumnavigate the wild land for two miles or more before it returned to the Abbots Friscombe road. Much of it was pleasant, level ground ideal for a casual ride, until it reached its furthest point from the road where it began undulating sharply, the ditches often boggy even in the height of summer. On the high, open areas exposed grey slabs of rock offered basking space for lizards, slow-worms and sometimes grass snakes: tales of adders abounded, although Joe had never seen one.
Here, about a mile from ‘The Point’ Joe motioned his intention to Sophie then left the trail to strike out across the turf, guiding a suspicious Moppy towards a stand of trees and scrub some hundred yards distant. He dismounted, tethering Moppy’s rein to a branch of hawthorn. Exposed in open ground, these stunted thorns were ageless, undefined by time, and like everything associated with childhood, of course, they had diminished in Joe’s perception; yet walking among them, stooping to avoid their stoical resistance, they were a-brim with memories. There, to his right, the grassy hollow where he had lain with Sarah; then, deeper into the wood, the little pool of turgid water surrounded by a clearing where he and his brothers had made their ‘den’ – their secret place, protected by solemn vows of silence.
Here, still, was the little circle of stones where Ian had burned his fingers on stolen matches as they attempted to build camp fires, the tree where Michael’s initials, distinguishable yet, were carved by his first penknife in the bark. Saddened by the changing of the times Joe wondered how he and his brothers could each have grown so differently. He did not know why, specifically, he had wanted to revisit the clearing in this little wood, just that he did. Lost in reminiscence, he failed to notice that Sophie had joined him. Her hand touched his shoulder.
“This is a sad place?”
He managed a weak grin, “Is that how it seems to you?”
“No. To me it’s just a poky little child hideaway, I suppose. It wasn’t my hideaway, though. I rather gather it was yours, Joe. I can sense the melancholy in you. Unhappy memories?”
“Not really. Maybe.” Bearing the weight of years, Joe turned away. Only then did he pick up an odour – just the faintest, barely present trace of wood smoke, or more probably fresh ash, in the breathless air; sufficient inducement to stoop and place a hand on one of the rough hearth stones. Was it – could it be? Was there a latent warmth that had persisted through the summer night? There were ash traces surrounding it that were fresh and a whitish grey, and now he looked he could see how the stones had been rebuilt. Someone had been there; and recently, too; maybe this morning, certainly last night. That was why some subconscious urge had drawn him this way! “Michael!” He breathed the name. Now he was sure – like a homing pigeon given his freedom Michael had come back to Hallbury. But why? If not to return to the scene of a crime, then why?
Sophie was looking at him quizzically. “Who is Michael?”
“My younger brother. I told you about him, remember?”
Sophie asked if he meant the one who was ill, and he was in a ‘home’ wasn’t he? And Joe had to explain how Michael came to be missing, and even as he told her he could see her concentration straying. He did not blame her. That was the reaction of most people when he mentioned he had a brother who was mentally ill.
“So you think he might have been here?”
“Someone lit a fire: last night, I should think.”
“Gosh.” Sophie responded – then: “Could just be a tramp, I suppose?”
They remounted to make a contemplative journey back to the bridle path where, beneath the shade of a row of stately elms Sophie dismounted again to open a gate. They urged their horses across a ditch into open farmland.
“We use Williamson land for hunting. Barry Williamson was made Master of Foxhounds this year. He doesn’t mind our riding across his fields, as long as we’re careful. I often come this way. Do you know Barry at all?”
Joe had to confess that he didn’t. Barry Williamson was chalked down as yet another acquaintance they didn’t share.
With Wednesday Common behind them, a dune-like landscape of ripening green or fallow brown fields swelled and flowed uninterrupted for several miles – westward to the River Staun, and northward with the valley as far as their eyes could see. Interspersed among this arable patchwork were occasional rectangular islands of poppy-flecked meadow, and odd reefs of dark trees which conjoined to southward as forest, at the foot of the Calbeck Hills. In the heat of a high summer sun this fertile valley would bleach in its final weeks to haymaking, its brave tall grasses burning to a gentle gold. Away from the canopy of trees Joe felt his flesh toast beneath that same unremitting glare. There was the merest trace of breeze, no more, to ruffle the hare-bells, nothing to disperse a shimmering heat haze. Before Joe, for they rode in file, Sophie’s long back moved with supple ease, while his own thighs were already stiffening and beginning to hurt. Under the thin cotton of his t-shirt he felt the tickle of sweat.
© 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.