Continuum – Episode Twelve Thresholds

The story so far:

Alanee has met Hasuga, the man-child so revered by the High Council f the City, and been warned by Ellar the Mediant never to divulge what passes between them.   Sala discovers Alanee in the wake of that meeting, sitting out in the snow, and angry rather than afraid of what has passed.

Meanwhile Dag Swenner and his rescuer Ripero struggle to find their way back to civilization after the devastation caused by the mysterious ‘wall’ of cold fire.  Out on the scorched earth of the plains they see a bunch of survivors heading towards them, only to have their hopes dashed as a flight of aerotrans savagely gun the survivors down…

With unsteady hands, Dag turns his new friend away from the dreadful scene and edges him down into a crevasse where he hopes they will both escape notice, if the aerotrans have not already sought them out.  As they press their bodies into the rock the only word Ripero can manage is:  “Why?”

Dag shakes his head.  “I can’t tell you.  I wish I knew.”

In his heart the grief is deeper, because in all his life he has never seen violent death.  Yes, he has known it happen:  in the meaningless, motiveless, so futile wars that drop from a capricious heaven once and again, wars that cripple, and kill, and pass for no reason.  Thousands, he knows, have died.  But now he has seen it.  Now he knows how it looks, how it feels to see a life extinguished.  He knows the next life must be his, because there will be no rescue, and the future in this one is a void.

#

Sala’s summoner chimes as she is making breakfast.  It is Alanee.

“Sala-ba, I want to go to the river.”

“What, in this?” Beyond her window a gentle snow still falls.

“I want to see the City from the outside.  I want to breathe real air.”

“Aye, well!”  Sala sighs resignedly.  “We’d better go, then.  I shall bring you boots and furs, lots of furs!”

After her previous day’s ordeal, Alanee had been too exhausted to want for anything but a bath and sleep.  Eventually she had accepted Sala’s vehement protestations that she had no part in her abduction.  Seil’s actions had been as much a shock to her as to Alanee herself.  Alanee wanted to believe Sala, how she had struggled with Seil in trying to follow Alanee through that impossible door.  So, conditionally forgiven, Sala had tempted her to a drink at Toccata’s.

Back in her apartment, having wished her friend goodnight, Alanee – she did not know why- had checked her summoner to see if Celeris had called her (and been piqued to discover he had not) before running herself the hottest, deepest bath and sleeping in it until it was cold enough to wake her, at which time she had crawled into her bed and slept again.  There her alarm found her in the morning.

“Your wrists!”  Sala exclaims, as she assists Alanee into a fur coat which is large and generous enough to make her apprehensive, lest she find the animal still inside:  “Who could damage you so brutally?”

Sala has not asked what happened to Alanee after she was pushed by Seil through that door, though she berated Seil afterwards:  “She’s on my unspeak list.  I never did like the woman.” – and Alanee is thankful, for she does not want her friend to be subject to Ellar’s threats.

“Come on!” She urges:  “Show me the way out of here!”

“Very unwillingly!  My skin will be ruined!”

Sala continues this gentle complaint along the length of two corridors.  At the end of the second she stops before a silver hemispherical door, a feature Alanee has seen and wondered at on her previous adventures.  “You press here, see?”

The door slides upwards, revealing a spherical pod with seats around its inner sides.  Straps hang from a rail above their heads.

“Sit down, hang on!”

“Wheeeee!”

In a single operation the sphere closes and turns through ninety degrees, then descends, not with the slow grace of an open elevator, but with the speed and fervour of a racing aerotran.  Alanee feels herself physically lifted from her seat by the rush.   Almost as soon as it has started it is over.   With a hiss of compressed air they are slowed, the doors slide open.

“There!  Five hundred feet in sixteen seconds!  Impressive, huh?”  Sala laughs at Alanee’s open-mouthed expression.  “Oh Alanee!  You aren’t going to be sick, I hope?”

It is not the rapid descent that has stupefied Alanee.  It is the view before her.   She has expected a hall of some kind, a foyer:  instead she is gazing out at the unfettered world beyond the City walls.  They have only to take a few steps to be walking in snow.  And such snow!  It drifts about them, soft, caressing flakes that idle in an irresolute breeze.  It crunches underfoot: it loads the trees that flank them as they walk; it clothes the entire world in bridal white.  A child of the Hakaani Plains has never seen this transformation, this sheer weight of nature.

Alanee is moved to skip:  Sala giggles fluffily from behind the concealment of her furs.  She takes Alanee’s first snowball in good part, her second as a call to battle.  Soon they are so smothered with the stuff they look like a pair of burst pillows and helpless with laughter, and Sala, hands clutched to her sides, begs for a truce.  Arm in arm the pair walk down terraces, using paths kept open by the drabs:  and drabs are the only life they meet:  two solemn men in habitual flannel grey, seemingly impervious to the cold, pushing snow-boards mechanically, repeatedly.  Neither young or old, happy or sad.

As she passes, Alanee sighs to see them so.  “Don’t they have something warmer to wear?  They must be frozen stiff!”

Sala shakes her head:  “Theirs is a punishment detail:  they will have done something wrong, like creating a blasphemy, or slacking in their normal work.  A punishment for them, and a punishment for me, Alanee, haven’t you had enough air yet?”

“You can’t be cold under all those furs!  I want to see the river.”

“The river?  Habmenach, that’s miles!”

It is perhaps half a mile.  As they walk, they speak of general things, of Sala’s life in the City, how she came to be a mediator for the High Council.

“I have always been here.  I am a city child.  I was educated at the Porstron, learned the classics – picked for higher office when I was sixteen.  Then university, some time as a probationer, and…”  Sala spreads her arms.  “Here I am!”

“So your parents – they live here, in the City?”

“No.  I’m a seminal.”

“A what?”

“When the elders want to fill a position in the City, they pick the best from the whole of the land; in the case of mediators, for example, they want good social skills, intelligence, beauty…”  She rattles off the attributes like a list, without conceit.  “So they select from all the population.  I was brought in from Oceana Levels, a Mansuvine child from some village or other, I don’t know which, when I was three or four years old.  I have no memory of my parents.”

“Oh my!  Doesn’t that make you sad?”

“No.  But your sympathy is sweet.  You have parents of course.”

Alanee tries to remember her parents; to recall a time so long ago now, and so far away.

“I had parents once.”  She turns so she may see the Consensual City from the outside for the first time.  Not for nothing does it stand upon a mighty spear of rock, high walls tinted by the pink of a weak winter sun:  they do not a prison make, yet now she knows it is a prison:  sumptuous, luxurious, well-padded, but a prison nonetheless.

Something she has wanted to ask for some days now.  She has wondered – where, in this vast place, are the children?  Sala provides her answer:

“In the Children’s Village.  There is a suburb to the north of the city where the children are taken.  I grew up in the Academy there, The Porstron for gifted ones.”

“We never see them; the children, I mean?”

“Oh, of course!  They are brought to us for socialisation.  It is quite an event, once every fourth cycle.  I think they are adorable, the little ones.”

“You’re talking about them as though they were separate from you, though:  almost as if you never mixed with them.”

Sala’s brow furrows:  “That’s true, we (the seminals) were always kept apart.  I suppose because we had to learn faster than they – we never questioned it.”

Alanee thinks to herself it might be time to ask a lot more questions, but she sees that Sala does not have all the answers.  She changes tack.

“Now, Sala ba, do you never wish that you had….?”

“Oh, Habbach!  Had a child of my own?  No, never!  Habbach!”

“You have never made a couple with anyone?  Never wanted to?”

Through these dribbles of conversation they stroll, kicking through the snow until  they reach the Balna River.  Here they lean upon a rail, gazing out over the wide, ice-locked water, listening to the silence.

“I have wanted to.”  Sala says:  “Yes, I have that.  Don’t please believe of me that I do not get on with men.  But it is not consistent with my work to couple.  My career, you see?”  She snaps a twig from a frozen branch and throws it so it slithers across the ice.  “Please, Alanee, can we go back now?  I think my toes are dropping off!”

Sala’s face is hidden, smothered by her furs:  Alanee cannot see, yet she can hear the break in Sala’s voice, as if somewhere beneath that sophisticated front a tear is waiting.

With a sigh, for she is happy here, in the freedom of this sharp air, Alanee turns away from the wide black water and the mystery of its further side, trying to imagine how life will spring from those frozen banks when spring comes.  She links arms with Sala, and together they begin the climb back to the immensity of the City.

#

It is early afternoon.  Alanee and Sala have lunched together at one of Sala’s favourite haunts, then walked and talked amid the flowers and trees of the indoor Grand Park.  Since they returned from the Balna their conversation has been stilted, bitty, conspicuous in the subjects it has avoided, rather than those it has embraced.  When at last they are ready to rest weary feet Sala invites Alanee to her apartment.  This is the first time.  Alanee has never seen Sala’s home.

Sala lives on the east side of the City, in a small two-roomed flat with outside windows that overlook the bend in the valley where the Balna stretches down to Farland Bridge, and the way to the river is rocky and steep.  This gives the view an added loftiness, a cliff-edge feeling Alanee imagines she could find uncomfortable, if she were reminded of it every morning.

Sala’s taste in décor is as close to perfect as Alanee could have expected, although there are touches of quirkiness, like the Arbaal tribal masks that adorn her bedroom wall.  There are deep, comfortable cushions everywhere, so many that a visitor might feel they could fall in any direction and always land softly:  colours are dark and warm.  There is a delicate scent of spice.

They lounge together in the declining winter light from the window – they take Absient, savour its peppery taste on their tongues, let its hot blessing warm their throats.  They say little.

In the long minutes between droplets of conversation Alanee wonders at their friendship.  She still knows so little, really, of Sala’s past and that she does know only confirms how different they are.

“What was it like, being one of a couple?”  Sala asks.

The question drops suddenly into the still pool, so that Alanee barely hears it until the ripples start to spread.

“Fine.  I mean, more than fine: wonderful, I suppose.”  From understatement to overstatement;  what does she really mean?  The question crosses the lines of difference, breeches Sala’s defence; she is unready for it, the subtle note of envy.  An image of the man from her library shelf of closed memories falls open: who was he, in fact, that person who came into her life for so short a time, who left so unexpectedly?  And what can she say that will possibly encompass such a space?

“He was moody once in a while.  He had a way of making life seem pointless sometimes, then other times he was the only thing that made it worth living.  He was funny, he was loud, he was…”  She tails off; she sees the futility of what she is trying to say.  It isn’t working: it isn’t a description.  Nothing could be, really.  “Then he died.  He just died.”

They stare through the window, watching long shadows as they creep across the valley.  Soon there will be only darkness beyond the glass.

Alanee asks:  “Have you ever….been with a man?”  Then she says quickly:  “Oh, I know; that’s a foolish question – I mean, with your job you must, I mean, sometimes…”  She would stumble on, but Sala’s touch on her arm stops her.

“Yes.  Not just because of my work, either:  sometimes through companionship, once even, I believe, because of love.”  Sala sighs. “Ah, the best stories are never told.”

“What happened to him?”

“He’s still here, in the City.  It wasn’t possible, you see?  Not possible.”

“And you still see him.  Are you friends?”

“We try to avoid each other when we can, but we are bound to meet sometimes.  This is not a large community.”

Sala’s fingers stroke Alanee’s arm and Alanee takes them between her own so they interlock.  Sala turns her hand to draw their arms together, flesh on flesh.

“Am I?”  Alanee says.

“What, ba?  Are you what?”

“Part of your work?”

She turns so she may look at Sala, her free hand brushing long hair back from her face.  Sala’s eyes are far off, gripped by something, and she is shaking, gently shaking.  She says in a tremulous voice, barely more than a whisper:

“No, Alanee my ba.  Oh, no.  When we first met, perhaps, but no longer.  No.”

Alanee tilts her friend’s head to see the real tears there, and kisses each one.  Then she takes her lips and kisses them too, in a joining that is deep and long.

The friends linger together at a threshold; in a stillness of time, touching and touching – cheeks, foreheads, fingers, lips.  Neither wants to make the step, but Sala must.  When she pushes back Alanee’s robe Alanee does not resist, and holds her hungry eyes until the moment Sala bends to take her nipple in her mouth.  She cradles Sala’s dark head against her breast as though she were a suckling child, feeling her own hunger rising in spite of herself, and at this moment is ready to accept the hand that slips so softly down:  but though she waits, and though she tries, there is no wild awakening, there in the twilight.  No fire, no insanity of need.  She reaches for her own desire and finds none.  Yet she would help her friend, ritualise a feeling she does not share, if Sala should wish it.  But Sala knows the truth.

After a while of futility, when the heat has subdued and they sit side by side once more, Alanee simply says:  “I’m sorry, ba.”

And Sala sighs with a fathomless sadness:  “It’s all right, my dear.  It’s all right.”

#

Any night in any city there will be those who cannot sleep:  those whose thoughts are troubled, who cannot fill the hours until morning.  Alanee, who has parted with Sala, wanders home with heavy heart.  The hours will be long before she rests.

Sala, meticulously tidying her little apartment, struggles to find the equilibrium she lost not an hour since. 

Sire Cassix, in the watchtower, gazes at the further sky, alone until Lady Ellar comes to interrupt his peace with her concerns

“He wants more screens; more screens all the time.”

Cassix would be taciturn.  “Then he must have them.”

Ellar demurs.  “The Nursery Apartments are full of them – screens on the walls, on the tables; there’s even one…”  She adds emphasis; “In the bedroom over his bed.  He’s obsessed.”

Cassix shakes his head:  “Twenty-four hours does not make an obsession.  This is normal; to be expected.”

“Normal ?  Well possibly, but desirable?  Can you imagine the sort of auto-suggestion that would have been transmitted today if we had not filtered it?  Can you countenance the behaviour of the populace if his emanations get too strong for us to contain?  Incidentally, he has tried to link with our young lady; tried quite hard, and I don’t believe she as much as noticed.  It is incredible.”  Ellar pauses.  “You look ill.  You must take more rest, Sire.”

Cassix’s features are drawn and pale.  His voice has lost a little of its edge.  He shrugs. “It will pass.  Ellar, Hasuga is monitoring his body’s changes far better than you or I could do.  It is just curiosity.  Again, though, let me remind you who is arbiter of what is considered normal?”

“Originally we weren’t going to let him have screens of her.”

“He would have demanded them.  The crux of the matter is whether we should have spied on her at all.  If Portis had not insisted… But I still think you are over-reacting.  We are seeing a passing phase, nothing more.”

Ellar’s shrug seems to say:  ‘Very well.  If you cannot see the dangers I see…’  But then, Cassix is the Seer – she should accept his analysis; and would, if he was not so impossibly benign at times.

“Can I at least address the issue of Mother’s concerns?  She is frantic.”

“I imagine she is.”  Cassix has turned his head and his mind back to the skies.  He knows there is something he should understand; that the upheaval in the heavens is telling him something, but he cannot grasp what it is.

Ellar follows his eyes, although she cannot see anything tonight.  Her skies are dark and unremarkable.  She sighs; murmurs: “I begin to sympathise with our honoured Domo’s distaste for this.  I do not have your gifts, Cassix, but with my untutored eye I foresee chaos.”

Cassix does not answer for a long time.  Perhaps his thoughts lie out among the stars.   At last he says, equally quietly:  “Deal with it, Ellar.  In our deliberations you are very much a part of the equation – the balance.  We stand often in your capable shadow.  But in dealing with it remember if you can:  maybe chaos is part of the equation too.”

   Mother, awake at the habbarn as her baby sleeps, exhausted at last.  Above his head the flickering mayhem of a screen, upon it Alanee’s prostrate figure, gazing down on him.  Any night in the Consensual City:  or anywhere – in any world.

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Hallbury Summer – Episode Twenty-Four                        Thunderhead  

The story so far:

‘Wiccan Priestess’ Margaret Farrier tells Joe his brother Michael was rejected by the Hallbury witches, who Margaret insists are harmless herbalists.  She denies knowledge of recent desecration in the village.   He shows her the package from Violet’s home which she identifies as a love charm. Ned Barker, deceased landlord of ‘The King’s Head’, is its subject.

Joe finally finds his brother Michael in the grip of a psychotic episode.  He placates him, and his elder brother arranges to have him taken into care.   Regardless of the hour, a traumatised Joe seeks support from Tom Peterkin, his best friend.  He knocks at his friend’s door, and it opens…

 

“Oh my Lord!”  Cried Emma.

This was not expected!  Joe tried to form words, “Emma, is Tom….?”

“Oh Joe!”  She took his arms, drew him inside; “Are you hurt?  What have you done?”

In the light of her living room, bleary eyes wide with astonishment Emma took in his dishevelled state.  “Damn it Joe….”  She guided him to an armchair.

“Is Tom awake?”  Joe repeated without thinking, because he was incapable of rational thought, right then.  Why had he not expected Emma to greet him at the door?

“I’ll get you something to drink.”  From the bar Tom had made for a corner of the room, Emma half-filled a whisky glass and brought it to Joe, shuffling in pale green slippers, her dressing gown tied carelessly about her, dropping to her knees to look at him more closely.  “This is blood!  You’m been in the wars properly, haven’t you?”

In the wars?  For hours that seemed like forever his head had been filled with Sophie’s rejection, the shock of his inheritance, Michael’s expressionless face, his emptiness, his despair.  And here was Emma, with her emerald eyes which, full of sleep though they were, could still hold him in thrall, her hair in a tangles, and the smokiness of night in her voice filling him with a warmth of reminiscence for long-ago mornings. To go back there – yes, those were his first rational thoughts for a while…

“Tom?”  He struggled to complete his mantra.  Only a summons to Tom would make this early morning intrusion excusable:  Tom’s presence would quell the surges of emotion which were bursting in his chest, make everything respectable – everything right.

“He’m not here, Joe.  I’m sorry.”

“Not here?”  He repeated her words, mechanically.  At this time of night?  “I must see him, Emm.  Where is he?”

“Tom’s gone, Joe.  He don’t live here no more.  Let’s not talk about it now, hmm? Seems like you’m got bigger things on your mind, boy.”

But no, this was exactly what he wanted to talk about.  “Gone?  Why, what’s happened, Emm?”  For all the scheming of his subconscious mind, that demonic genie that dogged every virtuous decision he attempted to make, it had never occurred to him that his return to Emma’s life might lead to a separation from Tom – or so he would exculpate himself.  But his genie would secretly smile.

She shook her head, seeking strength.  Her features puckered for a second as though she was about to cry.  “I was stupid.  I did something stupid.  Not that it mattered.  The village does the damage anyway, once the talking starts.  Don’t matter what you try and do – how hard you try.  I hurt him, Joe…I hurt him real bad…..”

Emma got to her feet quickly, turning so he should not see the chance escape of a tear.  “You stay comfor’ble there.  I’ll heat some water for ‘e so’s you can get a bath – some of Tom’s clothes…”  She hurried away, through the door into her kitchen.  He forced himself to his feet, following her in the grip of something too strong to be refused, finding her standing in the centre of the flagstone floor with her back to him.  Her shoulders were shaking.

“Emma, I’m so sorry!”

“Sorry?  Why?  Is it your fault?  I’m long past blaming you, Joe – for comin’ back, whatever.  It’s me!  It’s all me!”

His hand reached out.  She brushed it aside.  “Don’t!”

He reached out again.

“Stop!”  Emma told him.  “You don’t know what you’re doing.  You’re tired, you’re upset…”

His fingers touched her wet cheek, all of him shaking at the sense and feel of her.  “I should never have left you.”  He said.

“Joe, we’m married to other people – both of us.”  She turned, looked up into his face no longer careful of her tears.  “Think o’ the things we’d destroy.  Think o’ your poor wife, Joe.  I don’t know her, but….”

He pressed his finger to her lips.  “Come back and sit down.”  He said.

“But the water’s hot, look.  You needs to rest, whatever it is can save until tomorrow…”

He was insistent, guiding Emma to her living room couch where he sat down beside her, took her trembling hands and told her everything.  The words he used, though garbled by fatigue and tainted by the thunderhead of regret above his head, came from deep within him – some not his own, because in his confession it was many times easier to use the criticisms and descriptions of others; of Marian, of Ian, of those acquaintances who had passed by and paused for a while on the winding London road.  It was Marian, after all, who had told him he was weak, Ian who had described him as a leech, Owen who gave him the title of Gigolo.  Joe wanted Emma to see him in the light he turned upon himself.

“I know what I am.  I know who you let into your house tonight.”

When he came to speak of Marian’s death, however, he had no other words than those his own heart could speak.  He described her fondly, honoured her memory.

At the news Joe was not married, Emma caught her breath, raised tired eyes to the ceiling.  When he had finished, she withdrew her hands from his, so that for a moment he thought he had lost her, that she would turn away now she knew the truth. She got to her feet, looked down on him, then tenderly cradled his face in her hands.

“Not married then?”  She said.

“No.”

“Joe, Joe!  All they other things – I’ve known them since we met.  God knows you’m not perfect, and maybe some’d find you weak, or selfish?  But back in them days…”  She paused, reflecting; “Well, there was a seed I saw growing and p’haps you didn’t see it, or if you did you turned your back.  Together we were strong, Joe.  We would have been so strong!”

Here he would have spoken, but she stilled him.  “No, let me say what must be said.  I knew you didn’t really love me.  I would have settled for that.”  Again he made to protest, again she held him in check.  “No, you didn’t.  You didn’t then and you probably don’t now:  but I can see something tonight I didn’t see back then:  I can see why.  You don’t know how to love, Joey.  Maybe because you lost your mum and dad so young, lost your home and everything – maybe because of your upbringing with those two bloody awful brothers of yourn, or because of what happened to Rod Smith, I can’t tell.  But this is what’s left.  You can’t trust – not nobody. You can’t give yourself.  It isn’t in you.”

Joe wanted to dissemble, although in his heart he knew that everything Emma said to him was true.  So when she tugged his hand to make him stand up he meekly obeyed.  “Come on.  Whatever happened tonight, you’m exhausted, boy.  Get yourself a bath while I makes up the bed in the spare room.  When you’ve slept us’ll talk some more, if you want.”

And so it was.  He drew himself a bath among the dangling tights and bath-oil forests that were part of Emma’s separate life, and took on one of Tom’s old coats while she did her best with his mangled clothing.  Then he fed himself between sheets of cool linen and fell into a sleep deeper and more dreamless than he had known in years.  No condition, then, to hear the bedroom door quietly open, or the muted pad of Emma’s feet.

She stood for a long time, irresolute, torn between need and pride, content, as she believed, to watch the slumbering figure in the bed.   But the early hours of morning were cold, and there was a heat within her that would brook no denial at the last.  All the years of fruitless waiting seemed to point towards this moment, on this one night, and if there was a goddess of the Earth she stood commanded now.  So it was that like an act of worship to the first light of dawn Emma slipped the nightdress from her body and slid soundlessly into bed, draping herself behind Joe’s unwary form; making a promise to herself she knew she would not keep; that she would leave again before he woke.

Joseph’s eyes opened to daylight.  He could not tell whether or not the day was far advanced or how long he had slept,  Beyond the opened window no sound, other than the melodies of the birds.  Within, and close to him, the regular rhythm of Emma’s breathing, as fragrant and as gentle as the touch of a breeze; around him, the arms he had lived without for many, many years.

Hours had passed.  They had made love, conspired together with words that were for them alone, and drifted back into sleep.  Now, as Joseph woke it was to the touch of lips upon his cheek.    Smiling serenely Emma slipped a lazy arm across his shoulders

“Oh my lord!”  she murmured, “I’m in such trouble with you!”

“You are.”  He grinned, indicating the open window.  “You’re reputation’s gone, for sure.”

She was rueful.  “I was noisy, wasn’t I?”

“You were a bit.  I think the whole neighbourhood heard us.  In fact, I think I detected a round of applause.”

She slid a leg over the side of the bed.  “You can be sure they was listenin’ in.  Not that it matters.  They’d have guessed anyway, what with the car parked outside all night.  They curtains‘ll have been twitchin’ long afore now.”

“When you said – what you said last night; about my not loving you?”  Joe clutched her arm, seeking to detain her, “Maybe that was true, in a way.  Maybe you’re right, I can’t really love anyone.  But I want to be with you more than any of the things I am supposed to want from life – when you walk away from me it’s as though a part of me leaves with you; if there’s a way for me to love, that’s it.  I love you, Emm.”

Even while he was speaking, her bright green eyes were filled once more with tears.  She stretched out her fingers to stroke his cheek.

“There’s a pretty speech.”  She said.  “Thank you, Joe darling.  Dress now, and I’ll get us something to drink, yeah?”

He did not want the dismissal in her voice.  He did not want to leave her.

“No.”  Emma said more firmly.  “Go on now Joey.  It’s for the best.”

Joe nodded mutely, acceptance.  A moment that was past, a threshold he should never have crossed.  Outside; the seedling corn, clover, cornflower and meadowsweet, children to the burgeoning sun – inside, Emma with the Earth Mother’s blessing within her, primal and so, so powerful; To turn away was hard.

“It’s peaceful, isn’t it?”  Said Emma’s voice beside him.  “You belong here, Joe; you – not your brothers, just you.  You always did.”

They had dressed.  He, standing by the window again, looking out on the sun-drenched fields and the rain-clouds gathering over the hill; she, stripping the bed of its tell-tale linen, in practical mode.  His thoughts were whirling, confused – why had he believed, somewhere in his shrivelled and damaged soul that they could do what they had done and walk away?  It was, after all, so easy when he had done exactly that before.  Not this time.  He had cuckolded a friend, taken the thing that friend held most dear; coveted Emma, slept with her in his house. What was he?  What kind of amoral monster could do such a thing?

Emma came to him.

“Don’t ‘ee punish yourself Joe dear.” She told him gently, as though she could read his thoughts,:  “We’m both weak, selfish creatures.  You at least held back until I told you Tom had left.  I came to you, remember?  I’ve no excuses at all, except one.  I could have no more resisted the nearness of you last night than I could live without water. You’m my fate, Joe – you always were.”  She lapsed into silence, gazing out with him into the bright yellow of the corn, the indigo threat of the coming storms.

As they ate breakfast that was nearly lunch together, Emma expressed the opinion Tom might return to collect some of his possessions that evening, after he had finished his work.  Thus the full story of Tom’s separation from her was revealed.  She told Joe why she had been unable to remove her coat the last time they met, during her visit to the Masefield house, and how Tom had discovered her lying in that state of undress when she returned home afterwards.

“He knew, you see – where I’d been?  He knew as soon as you comed back, Joe.  I couldn’t hide it from him; he was too clever – he understands me too well.”

That evening they had rowed.  Tom had snatched a few belongings and left.  He was staying with a friend in Braunston, this much she knew.  Other than one telephone call, though, Emma had not heard from him since.  It was in that call, after Tom had stated his wish that they should separate, that he had suggested this night as an opportunity for their final meeting.

“I still loves him, Joe.  There’ll always be a space in my heart for Tom.”

Joe wanted to stay, to help her face it out with her husband; Emma wouldn’t hear of it.  “No, my love, this is my fight.  I’ll deal with it my way.”

He nodded his understanding.  “He was my friend too, but alright, if that’s what you want.  Now what about us, Emma?”

Emma pressed her finger to his lips.  “Don’t think about that – no plans, no promises Joe.”

At the door, as they paused to let a pair of village feet click past outside, she whispered:  “Besides, I’m a scarlet woman now, aren’t I?  Who else could I turn to?”

She kissed him goodbye with fervent passion, knowing this was the last time she would kiss him that way, hustled him gently onto the street, then watched his retreating back as he returned to the waiting Wolsey.   And in the sure and certain knowledge that most, if not all of her wishes had been achieved on this night of nights, she tried to imagine the little shoulders that would grow to be so broad, the tiny eager lips that would hunger for her breast, and the end to all the yearning years.

Feeling explicably guilty, Joe did not return to the Masefield house, for he could not face his elderly relations with a sober countenance and deny the electric change that had just taken place in his life.  Instead, as the first distant sounds of thunder muttered their warning, he drove himself by an old road that wound and climbed into the Maddock Hills until it emerged from between high hedges onto a bare hilltop, elevated sufficiently to overlook the coming storm.  Here, he allowed the sheer celebration in his heart to join with the theatre of the elements.  It would not be moved aside by thoughts of propriety; so when he tried to turn his brain to the Parkin murders, or to Michael’s distress, even Marian’s sweetly melancholy letter, it merely threw up another image of Emma, and his body would fill with the same heat, the same need.  Wondering about her, fearing for her lest Tom should fly into a rage, or she should give way to despair, or change her mind, or…. All the while the lightning ripped, the thunder volleyed, the rain fell with the intensity of a glass curtain, sweeping across the valley in fold upon fold.

Hours later, on his way back to the village, Joe called Ian from the telephone box on ‘The Point’.

“Michael’s fine.  He needed a little sedative, and a lot of rest, but he’s safe now.”

“That blood, Ian…he was covered in it!”

“I know.”  Ian said.  “Look, Joe, there’s no proof.  If we were wrong and he hadn’t done anybody any harm, think what we would be putting him through!”

“Is he speaking now?  Has anyone asked him where he’s been?  Ian, if he’s done something to somebody, then he’s dangerous.  There are people who need to know.”

“Do you think I don’t understand that?  No, he hasn’t said anything.  The doctors think he may be some time regaining his speech – a psychotic episode, is how they describe it. Samples of the blood’ll be sent away and tested.  We’ll know ourselves for sure in a couple of weeks.”

“And meanwhile there’s an election?”

Ian sighed.  “All right, yes:  there’s an election.  I’ve worked all my life for this, Joe.  Is it so wrong to want to keep the waters calm for a few days?  Give me a chance to succeed?”

“I will.  I’m sure the answer to all this is in that house – why would he come back here if it weren’t for that?”

“Which house?”

“The Parkin house.  I need to get in there, get some time to look around properly.”

“Joe!  Joe, let it lie, please.  Just let go for once, will you?”

#

Joseph discovered his Aunt Julia in her kitchen, mop in hand.  One glance told him that now was not a good time for glad tidings.

“That infernal storm.  The rain found its way into the scullery.  Everything’s ruined!”

“Where’s Owen?”

“He’s on the roof, trying to fix it.  Help him dear, will you?  I worry about him up there – it’s almost dark!”

“No need!”  Owen’s muffled voice consoled her from the heavens:  “I’ve done it, I think!  I’m coming down!”

Leaning through the scullery door, Joe could see the devastation that torrents of rain could wreak upon packets of flour, boxes of sugar, salt, soap powder, and other household commodities – his aunt and uncle’s supplies for a week, mostly reduced to salvage.

The ceiling had caved in, plaster littered the shelves.

And revelation was a slap in the face, a thousand curtains opening, a fanfare in trumpets of gold.

Of course! 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode 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 Fifteen. Different Trains

 

 The story so far:

In a dream-state Joseph finds himself at the mercy of Hallbury’s ‘witches’ who condemn him to burn if he does not leave Hallbuury.  The following morning his aunt’s cat is impaled on her front door, and the church graveyard is desecrated.  Joe’s aunt and uncle regale him with the story of little Christian Matheson, a child abducted from the village many years before, citing this as a reason to believe darker forces are at work.

 Thinking his brother Michael must have something to do with these events, Joe decides to pay him a visit, but his telephone call to Michael’s erstwhile care home informs him that his brother has been removed from its care, and no information is available concerning his whereabouts…

Julia was in her kitchen with her back to the door, cleaning some brassware that hung on the wall by the range.  Joe noticed the tension in her shoulders as he entered and surmised that she must have overheard much of his call.

“Aunt Julia – did you know that Michael has been moved?”

She did not turn or look at him.  “Has he, dear?”

“From Maddockgate Manor.  Why, please?  I don’t understand.”

Julia started out:  “Well, I suppose we….”  The words wavered and drifted away.  “Oz!”  She called out.  “Come in here for a minute, will you?”

Joe’s Uncle Owen arrived bearing the armful of wood he had been collecting from the store in their yard.  “Oz, tell Joe why Michael has been moved to a different home, will you?”  She was looking directly at her husband in a desperate attempt at communication, but Joe was watching them both intently, and he did not miss the flicker of surprise on Owen’s face.  Furthermore, Owen was not quick enough on his feet:  he stammered at the beginnings of a reply, which Joseph cut across:

“You didn’t know, did you?”

Julia turned to look at him helplessly.  “All right Joe.  I think you’ve rather found us out.  No, we didn’t know.”  Then she said to Owen in what sounded like genuine mystification:  “And I can’t for the life of me think why…?”

“Nor I.”  Owen muttered.  “All seems a bit strange to me.”

Julia explained.  “I’m afraid I’ve been guilty of deception, Joe.  When Michael’s illness demanded full-time care and he was taken into the County Hospital your uncle and I looked around for some way of making life more agreeable for him.  Maddockgate Manor seemed pleasant and fairly inexpensive at the time, so we used all that remained of your parents’ estate to lodge him there.  I suppose we hoped he would get better, or that we would be able to muddle through, but although the fees kept getting higher poor Michael showed no signs of recovery.  Our retirement would mean we had little enough money of our own and your parents’ legacy was long gone.”  As Joseph opened his mouth to interrupt she lifted a placatory hand.  “Yes.  Yes, I know.  I led you to believe there was a large bequest, didn’t I?  Money left in trust for you, and so on.  There wasn’t, Joe.  Your parents left almost nothing:  just enough to raise you boys with, no more.”

Owen took up Julia’s thread.  “It was seven – maybe eight years ago?  The fees went up again, and we knew we had not the ability to pay.  We wanted to get in touch with you and tell you what would have to happen – Michael would have to go back into ‘County’, but we couldn’t find you at the time.  So we discussed it with Ian.”

“He was wonderful, Joe,”  Julia said.  “He didn’t hesitate.  He stepped in to pay the outstanding fees and absolutely demanded that all accounts were made over to him.  He’s been paying for Michael’s care ever since.  However, he insisted that no-one else should be told of the arrangement; including you, dear.  I’m sorry.”

What could he say or do?  Joseph felt unreasonably annoyed – cheated, although he could not have explained why he should react that way.  Ian’s long hand slipping unobtrusively out of the fog, quietly adjusting, subtly altering the things that he loved and valued.  Yet he was taking care of Michael, wasn’t he?  And wasn’t that altogether a commendable, brotherly act?  To do it secretly, to avoid attention to himself, was entirely laudable – or would be if it were not Ian’s hand on the tiller, Ian’s name on the cheque.  The word which kept creeping back into Joe’s mind was stealth.  Stealthy was a word that typically described his brother Ian.

Wanting time to himself to assimilate these new bullets of information Joseph retired to his room with some tea and a book he had no intention to read.  It did not take much deduction to see why Michael had been ‘moved’ – Ian was on the threshold of an election and did not want to have a mad brother within easy reach – but instructing those responsible to conceal his whereabouts from his own relatives suggested something more than mere political expediency:  it hinted at fear.  So was Ian privy to some of Joseph’s own thoughts, own concerns about Michael?

At two o’clock Julia and Owen went shopping.  The Monday Braunston trip was a regular expedition, influenced mainly by a pensioners’ discount day at the Savers’ Market, so the spectacle of Owen’s stuttering old Standard Vanguard scraping its way out of the lane was a well-established one, said to be as reliable as any clock.  Julia, ever the anxious passenger, sat on the back seat, hunched forward with her shopping bag on her knees, from whence she would acknowledge others abroad in the village with regal waves.  Owen slouched in the driver’s seat holding the wheel in one hand, his pipe in the other; a posture which only changed when the old car needed to negotiate a corner.  Then he became intensely active, jamming his pipe into his mouth and exerting his weight upon the steering wheel with Herculean effort.  On sharp curves he would throw everything at the necessary side of the road, often disappearing below the high windscreen altogether.

Joseph had several mundane matters to attend to: having telephoned Ian’s London home number and obtained no answer, he tried his constituency office with a similar result.  Then he telephoned the Agent responsible for selling the Lamb house and arranged a viewing.  Events of the last twenty-four hours had shaken his initial resolve to take up residence in Hallbury, but he reasoned that there would be no harm in viewing the property:  he had to move somewhere out of London after all, and it would help him to gauge a likely cost.

The knock on the front door was so soft and feminine he barely heard it, so he opened the door only half-believing he would find anyone outside.  He found Emma Peterkin.

“Joe, can I talk to you?”  She looked small and unhappy, with her pretty chin tucked down into the collar of her charcoal coat as she stared at some point low on the chipped paint of the doorjamb.  Her slender feet fidgeted uneasily and Joseph did not think he imagined that her hands, though plunged deep into her pockets, were trembling.  He remembered the first time she had called unexpectedly at this door, looking equally discomforted, though perhaps for different reasons.  His heart surged – not entirely with pity.

“Come in.”  He said quickly.

In the hall they stood facing one another;  two willow wands that might be stirred at the merest quiver of a breeze, inclining by a timid fraction together then shrinking back, never daring to meet each other’s eyes.

“Oh, Joe!”  She murmured.

There was such sadness, such repressed longing in her voice that every instinct within him wanted to reach out to her, to take her in his arms.  He felt as helpless in the intoxication of her beauty as a wood mouse caught in the eye of a snake.

“Owen and Julia are out.”  He said.  “I know we’re not kids, but is this wise?”

“Probably not.”  Still she would not look at him.  “I shouldn’t be here.  I won’t stay.”

“But now you are here…”  If he could just place one hand on her flushed cheek, cross that narrow gulf – so close now – so close he could catch the scent of musk on her breath; see the moistness of her lips, the yearning in her eyes.  “I miss you,” it was little more than a whisper; “I can’t help it.  Every minute I’m not with you.”

“Don’t do this, Emma.”  An immense effort of will was all that could rescue him from the primacy of that moment.  “There are – things – I want as much as you, if it weren’t for Tom.  We can’t betray him.”

“Do you think I don’t know that?  I came to talk, Joe, that’s all. Honour for your friend, all that. ‘T’is only right, I s’pose.  But you got two friends, Joe.  You was supposed to love one of them and you let her down.  Don’t you owe her something too?”

“Even if one of my friends is married to the other?”

“Fine talk of marriage!  You with a wife you’re not intending to see again!  You’re good at leaving, aren’t you Joe?”  So Tom had kept one secret, at least; and of course he would, because if Emma knew Joe was without ties he would present even more of a threat.

“See here,”  She said, and he felt the cool touch of her fingers on his hand “I’m not proud of how I’m sounding, and lord knows I’m ashamed of what I’m thinking, but here we are; different platforms, different trains.”

“It’s hard for me, too.”  He told her.

“Yeah?  Maybe you don’t feel like I feel.  Maybe it’s easier for a man.  Tom’s a good husband – he’s a decent man, if he don’t kill ‘imself in that car of his.   He wants a child – he wants a family.  I want that, too; we’ve tried, and there’s nothing wrong, nothing medical, I mean.”

“Then I’m sure it will happen,” he said.

The caress of her fingers became a grip.  “It won’t.  It won’t, Joe, because it isn’t natural, not to me.   You were the only man whose child I wanted…”

“Don’t talk like that!…”

“Why shouldn’t I?  We’re not in a public park, now.  Look at me!  I’ve got no pride – I’m between a wish and a hope, Joe.  What’s between us, it’s that deep, that strong.  I thought I had it all in hand, I did, really.  Then you walked into my house…”

He stopped her,  “Emma!”

“If we…” The clasp of her hand conveyed the words she could not bring herself to say; “Tom, he would never know. He doesn’t know…”

“I think he would; I think he does.  And you would always know.”

Quite suddenly her face crumpled and she dropped her head onto his shoulder.  He felt her nod of acceptance.  She spoke through her tears.  “You’re right, of course you are, I shouldn’t say nothing like that.  Oh lord, what’s the matter with me, Joe?  I’m making such a fool of myself!”

“You aren’t,”  He placated her.  “Come into the kitchen.  I’ll make us some coffee.”

“Oh, yes.  Very civilised!”  Emma managed a watery smile.  “No, thank you.  I’d better leave, I think.  You’ll be leaving too, then; moving on?   Now, or in a couple of days?”

“Yes, perhaps.”

“You should, Joe.  People are starting to talk…it doesn’t take much to spark off a rumour around here, you know that.  Most of ‘em can remember us when we were together.  Now you’ve come back…That  isn’t fair on Tom, neither.”

“Who’s been doing the talking?”

“Most of ‘em is, or will be soon.  Hettie Locke.”  Emma saw his quizzical look.  “She’s the biggest scandal-monger ever, our Hettie.  She’s putting it all over the village that Tom better watch his wife, and how I’m the reason you returned.  But that isn’t true, Joe, is it?   I’m not the reason.”

So, Tom had told her something.  Again, Joe could expect no less.  His friend would use any weapon to defend his marriage – friendship must always come second to that.  How much had he told her?  As for Emma’s question, he had returned.  Could she have been the reason?

“Hettie and Janice must have got their heads together.  Janice Regan is frightened.”  He said.   “I went to see her to find out more about Violet’s death.  I also wanted to find out about Violet’s dalliances with witchcraft.  I know about her father, you see?”

“Oh my lord!”  Exclaimed Emma.  “’Spose you know Janice is one of they, too – and Hettie?”

“I told Janice I knew.”

“You told ‘er – to ‘er face?  Joe, you don’t do that!  You just don’t do that!  No wonder they got it in for you – in for me, comes to it. It’s one of the village’s deepest secrets, the witch thing.”

“It’s a cartload of superstitious rubbish!”  Joe opined, mentally turning his back on his experience of the previous night.

“Mebbe’s, but they takes it serious.  Aaron caught them at it once, and look at the stories they spread around about him!”

“You mean all the ‘peeping tom’ stuff?  That wasn’t true, then?  From what I know of Aaron…”

“No, it wasn’t true.  Well, it might have been, I suppose.  I think I’d have been too young to be told.

“The day after he saw they women up there on the hill, doing…..what they were doing, Aaron was in the pub tellin’ the whole village about it.  He didn’t leave nothing out.  Two days after that, he had the accident: did you know how he got that limp?  He was loading hay on a lift and somehow his trouser leg got caught in the conveyor.  He was lucky to keep his leg at all, they say.  The rumours about him started around that time.”

“And so everybody believed the accident was caused by witchcraft…”  Joe deduced.

“And the rumours about him were true.”  Emma finished his thought neatly; as neatly as she had so often done in their time together.  The profundity of this did not escape either of them.

Emma brushed at her sleeve, said hurriedly,  “Anyhow, that’s the way things are.  The witch thing is a sort of secret ever’one knows about, but no-one speaks of.  Of course your Michael was something to do with it once, wasn’t he?” Joe’s expression must have given him away:  “I thought you knew?”

Joe shook his head.  “No, not for sure.  Although I might have – should have – guessed, I suppose.  Did he go to their meetings?”

“I’ve no idea.  He got very friendly with Margo Farrier though.  Mind, she always did have a way with young men.”

“Margaret Farrier – really?”  Joseph tried to paste his mental image of the woman into the role Emma seemed to be painting for her; an imposing, rather severe woman – it didn’t seem to fit.  The thought of Margaret Farrier as a sultry temptress made him want to laugh.  Emma read his mind effortlessly.

“Oh, Margo’d amaze you once she’s got a few gins inside her.  Besides, there’s not many Sirens on a bunch of rocks like these, are there?  Young Michael spent a bit of time round at Hatton Cottage – a whole afternoon once, I know for sure.  See, all this was before you and I…”  She checked herself, as though afraid.  “Look, I’d better leave now, yeah?”

Pulling her coat tightly about herself, Emma said:  “But you think carefully about what I’ve told you, you hear?  Charker, he’s still after you; Hettie and her lot, they’ll turn the whole village against you.  And Joe…”  She turned to face him, striving for sincerity within the moist emeralds of her eyes:  “Please, just go, lover, okay?  Go and don’t come back.”

He reached for her arm.  She flinched away.  “Better not.”

And she was gone, through the door, down the path half-running, her grey charcoal coat wrapped about her, and along the lane towards her home.

It was Abbey Walker she passed on that hasty retreat:  Abbey who looked into her tearful eyes and saw all she needed to see, all she needed to tell.  And Joseph’s story became that much more closely intertwined with Emma’s in spite of anything they could do to stop it.  For the village machine, as Owen so aptly described it, was inexorable.  No-one escaped its scrutiny.

Slamming her front door upon the world, Emma ran blindly for the stairs and the refuge of her bedroom.  Here and only here, in this safe cocoon, she could let the tears come as they would; in choking, hysterical sobs of her pain.  In this fury of hurt she ripped her coat from her shoulders to be thrown onto the floor, then, in the little red set of lingerie that was all she had on beneath it, she threw herself upon the bed.

“Stupid!”  She cried out to the unhearing walls.  “Stupid!  Stupid!  Stupid!”

Sadly though, for Emma, there was one who did hear – one who did see.  In the blindness of her passion she had not heard Tom in the kitchen.  He had come home early, and he stood now, leaning for support against the jamb of the bedroom door, watching as his wife of just a scattering of years wept herself into sleep.  When she had quietened he retreated to the solace of his living room chair, there to do some weeping of his own.

© 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: Eddie Howell on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode Twelve         A Very Private Gathering

The Story so far:

Joe Palliser has taken a letter from Marian Brubaeker’s legal representatives to his old employer, local solicitor Alistair Carnaby.  By this means he learns that he is the principal benefactor in his deceased lover’s will.  However, Marian’s husband is challenging the will and demanding an enquiry into the manner of his wife’s death, to which end he has requested her body be exhumed for autopsy.

In the King’s Head pub that night Joe catches up with the landlord and questions him concerning Violet Parkin’s murder.  At the bar, Aaron Pace lets slip that Violet was a member of a local coven of villagers he believes to be witches.

After his evening at the King’s Head, with Ned Barker’s beer and his interrogation of Aaron Pace to regale him, Joseph Palliser should have had plenty to dream about when he retired for the night.  But other influences of the day, the conversation with Mr Carnaby and the dreaded word ‘autopsy’, proved too heavy a weight.  When he closed his eyes he found Marian waiting and he knew he would be forced to replay his memories of their final night together.

#

“I’d like you to find somewhere else to live.”  Marian had her back to him.  “I’ll give you money for a decent deposit.  You’d better start looking right away.”

That was what he had heard: that was what he thought she had said.  “I don’t understand!”  He protested. “Is it something I’ve done?”

She rounded on him, eyes set in a hard, professional stare:  “Look, Joe, don’t make this difficult.   I told you at the beginning this wasn’t going to be forever – remember?”

But that was then.  That was before he had learned to love her.

“Have you found somebody else?”  Joe tried to keep his tone calm, matter-of-fact, but he could not suppress the break in his voice.  “Is there someone else?”

“What if there were?  You have no claim on me.  I told you, Joe!”

“Yes, you told me.  A long time ago, you told me.”

Then he had lied to her, taken the money she gave him as a bond for a new apartment, told her he had found himself somewhere in North London.  “Finchley, as a matter of fact.”  The money languished in his account.  He could not bear to contemplate moving anywhere new.   Instead, he had struggled on, trying to please her, hoping to recover all he was about to lose.  He tried different things, new things:  as a lover she had always been experimental – willing to explore, ready to learn; but in bed now she was withdrawn, her look was somewhere far off.  Try though he might, he could not find a way back to her.  In her mind she was already elsewhere.

Then came that morning when, for whatever reason, he dared believe he might have a chance.

She had gone to work as normal.  She had not mentioned his departure for some days and he was going through the agony of wondering if she had changed her mind, so when she returned to their flat briefly, at lunchtime, he dared to hope.

Marian’s dark eyes were red, as though she had been crying.  How often had he seen her like this?  Work was frequently painful for her, the process of success was not something she enjoyed.  They were talking, just making small talk.  He wanted to make her laugh like he used to, he was trying – so very hard.  She suddenly grabbed him, turned him into her arms and kissed him with a depth of passion they had not shared for some time.

“Joey darling, stop torturing yourself.  Get on with your life, my love.  Move on!”

She was close, so close for a moment.  She pressed a small parcel into his hand.   “Get us some dope, and put these on before I get home, sweetie, will you?  Promise?”

Around four-thirty he returned from a meeting with a friend whose gear he trusted in  Fulham Market, and prepared dinner in their small kitchen:  Chicken Marengo, a Caesar salad; things he knew she liked.  Then he opened the parcel, and with a quiet chuckle to himself went into the bedroom to slip on the dark red posing pants he had found inside.  He donned a pair of blue slacks over the top and went back to his preparation of the meal.

This night she was early.  She came in at around six, looking pale and tired.

“Give me the stuff, Joe.”  She said.

“Do you want to eat first?”

“No.  I want the stuff,”  suddenly angry.  “Give me the fucking stuff!”

He gave it to her, watched her go into the bathroom to inject.  Minutes later she was back.

“You too.”  She said.

Half an hour, it took.  He was in the kitchen putting food onto plates, she was in the lounge.  The first he knew of her presence was the touch of her hand on his back.

Joseph faced her, seeing her wearing a long silk robe she favoured in her more passionate moods, a blue robe embroidered with red Chinese dragons.

“Don’t want me yet, Joe.  Not yet!”

The robe slithered from her shoulders: she came closer, teasing him, giggling girlishly; he was her pet, her dog.  If he reached out for her she stepped away, allowing him to see what she would not have him touch, wagging her finger in reproof.  “Mustn’t.  Bad boy! Naughty!”

With steely determination he tried to obey, to be the dispassionate spectator to her little game.  But this night was too special.  It promised their first act of love for so long, and he needed its reassurance too much.  His hands rebelled, clasping her shoulders, snatching her to him, and her expression altered instantly to one of fury.  Her eyes blazed.

“My neck, Joe Palliser!  My neck!”

So it was, on the night when everything changed.

#

Tom Peterkin turned up early in his Cortina car to drive Joe to Wilton Bishop, where a dealer who traded in the name of Maybury eked out a tenuous existence.  They flew through the lanes, the car’s wing brushing at the overgrown hedges, its wheels scrabbling for grip on the tight corners.

“Came up ‘ere the other day;”  Tom said.  “Met a Fergie pullin’ a wain.  Bugger did I ‘ave to stop!”

Joe found himself praying their path would be free of hay wains.  More than once they came face to face with other cars, Tom diving into the hedge like a bolting rabbit, somehow always emerging unscathed on the other side, leaving a shocked motorist staring back at them as they receded into the distance.  There were no tractors, however, and Tom’s beloved machine remained intact as they plummeted down the hill into Wilton Bishop.

Beneath Wilton Crown, a high ridge lined with conifers that loomed over the Turlbury road ‘Maybury’s Car Mart’ was a dejected line of ageing merchandise looking undeniably shady: Mr Maybury slid up to them, shadier still.  “Joe old lad!”  He had kept the Wolsey ‘out the back’, he said.  “Super little motor!”

They followed Maybury’s wobbling bottom through his oil-slick workshop to some rough ground where he ‘reserved’ cars for his special clients.  A grey Wolsey stood by the far fence.

“Beautiful, isn’t she?”  Enthused Maybury.  “Jowett designed they were, you  know?    Lovely leathers – come and see!”

They came and saw.  The old car glowered at them silently as they probed and prodded its more private parts.   They started it, they revved the engine, they put Maybury’s price through the mangle, and Joe bought it.

“I’ll have it ready for you in a few days,” Maybury assured them.

On the journey back, Tom said.  “You’re a tough bugger to deal with these days!  I remember when you wouldn’t say boo to a bloody goose, boy!”

Joe nodded.  Times had changed, he said.

#

The telephone rang for a long time before Caroline answered.

“Ian isn’t here.” She informed Joe icily.  As Ian’s wife, she was accustomed to defending him from Joe’s constant sallies.

“When’s he coming back?”

“For you to talk to?  Never.”

“Oh, come on, Caroline!  You can’t do that, he’s my brother for god’s sake!  Tell him to call me, will you?”

“He’s not your brother by any law that has to do with God!”  She clipped.  “Very well, I’ll tell him.”  And she replaced the receiver.

Joseph cooked himself a lunch, waited an hour.  When he was convinced that Ian wasn’t going to call back that afternoon, he slipped quietly out of the door so as not to excite Julia’s curiosity, and wandered up Church Lane in the direction of Charlie Lamb’s house with a vague idea in his head that he might make some enquiries concerning Charlie’s plans to sell.  In the event he did not need to do this, because a large ‘For Sale’ sign flapped before it in the breeze.  He fumbled in his pockets for a pen.

“Are you interested?”

The girl had come upon him quietly; so quietly he had not heard her. She was tall, almost as tall as he. A cascade of ash-blonde hair dropped to her shoulders, through which the sun danced, casting the clear flesh of her cheeks into deep shade so Joe could barely see how her eyes looked at him, or the pert perfection of her nose, or the delicate pout of her lips.  She wore a loose blouse over a long skirt of cream straw cloth, that draped over soft curves to small, elegant ankles and slippered feet.  She spoke confidently in a cultured yet not unmelodic tone and he should have recognised her at once.

“In the house?  I only ask, you see, because were you to purchase this property we would be neighbours.”  She waved airily towards the summit of the hill.  “Sophie Forbes-Pattinson.  How do you do?”

Joe realised immediately.  Of course!  He had met Sophie Forbes Pattinson just twice.  The first time that hair was tucked beneath a riding helmet; the second, he would have to admit, he had not been concentrating on her face.

“Joe Palliser,” He responded evenly.  “How do you do, Sophie?”

“There!  You see, Joe, we’re on first name terms already.  How neighbourly can one get?”  Sophie Forbes-Pattinson walked around him, keeping a small distance between them as she looked him up and down.  Joe imagined that if she were carrying her riding crop by now it would be tucking up under his chin.  “You look awfully frightened to me, Joe Palliser.  Why would that be?”

Joe smiled.  Now she was facing the sun he could see her face.  She had eyes of pale blue that squinted against the light.  Her mouth was on the small side, but a natural pout to her lips made them full enough to be inviting;  though if he had to describe her then, ‘inviting’ would not be a term he would use.  “I prefer ‘wary’,”  He said.  “Would you like to examine my teeth?”

Sophie scowled. “Are you trying to make fun of me, Joe?”

Joe didn’t answer.  She stood watching him for a moment, shifting lightly from foot to foot, a finger raised to her little chin and a thoughtful look in her eyes.

“Well, I must go now.  No doubt we shall meet again, if you do decide to buy this house.  I hope you will come and visit us.  We hold a garden party for the villagers every year.”

Joseph watched her as she walked away.  She drifted, as though she were not carried by human feet at all, but washed along by some invisible current.  When she was almost at the top of the road, she turned to look back at him and raised a dainty hand in a wave.

‘Very good!’  Joseph thought to himself.  ‘You knew I’d still be watching you.’  His next thought was less complimentary.

Sunday dawned hot and sultry.  At ten-thirty the telephone finally rang.

“What do you want, Joe?”  Ian’s voice carried that undertone of barely restrained impatience he specially reserved for his brother.

“How are you, Ian?  Caroline wasn’t exactly forthcoming.”

“Get on with it.”

“Did you know that Violet Parkin had died?”

There was a pause.  Eventually Ian said:  “How on earth would I know that?  It hasn’t made the ‘nationals’ as far as I’m aware.  Anyway, I hardly remember the woman.  Is that all you called me for?”

“I’m sorry, Ian – I’m sure you must be very busy.”

“I have a church service to attend in twenty minutes, so is that all?”

“She was murdered, Ian.”

“Really?  So?”

“I didn’t know it but apparently she was a witch – at least, what they would call a witch around these parts – do you remember when Michael was into witchcraft and mysticism?”

Ian’s voice had calmed.  “Mikey was into a lot of things, as I recall.  Once he believed root vegetables were a means of communicating with a subterranean race.  Some of them lived under the house, he told me.  I spent hours in the garden with him while he tried to get an intelligent answer from a parsnip.  Why are you so interested, Joe?”

“Connections – I’m pretty certain Violet was ritually killed.  I wondered if Mikey ever tried to get into her circle – her coven, so to speak?  I thought you’d be the one to know; he was closest to you, after all.”

“No, nothing here, I’m afraid.”  Ian’s tone was resuming its peremptory edge:  “Try asking around the village.”

“I am, but they are closing up like clams.”

“I imagine they would.  Look, Joe….”

“Yes, I know, you’re busy.  Keep well, Ian.”

That morning, for the first time in many years, Joseph emulated his brother and went to church.

Summoned by a single steeple-bell, a trickle of humanity converged upon St. Andrews, the little sandstone church which was symbolic of God to all who came to Hallbury.  They brought, fermenting beneath the sheaths of their ‘Sunday Best’, all the prejudices, quirks and crimes they kept within their breasts, clotted into alliances, woven and spun into family groups.  At the lych-gate they dispersed in solemn file, passing by ones and twos along the margin of the graveyard where their sins lay buried and into the cool embrace of the West Door.

They were all there; Tom and Emma, Emma avoiding Joe’s gaze, Tom smiling awkwardly, sweating into a shirt collar around which he wore his tie like a noose.   Emily and Sophie Forbes-Pattinson, mother and daughter in their Sunday dresses in the company of a harassed-looking man Joe took to be Emily’s husband.  The Forbes-Pattinsons were fulfilling their role as feudal chiefs; despite, Joseph thought with amusement, Emily’s obviously more egalitarian nature.  She was not, by instinct, a baroness.  Others were equally ungainly – Dot Barker, Hettie Locke and Ben, Janice Regan and her son, Mary and Paul Gayle with their two children, Margaret and Patrick Farrier, the Pardins; the list went on.  Aaron Pace, limping up the road in a suit that had seen better decades.

Each found their way to time-allotted pews.  They sat in family huddles, islands of consanguinity with empty oaken seas between.

Joe sat with Owen and Julia.  In his childhood, the Pallisers had come to this place infrequently; Owen, who declared himself an agnostic and Michael, Joe’s younger brother were averse to any notion of religion.  Towards his last days in the village, Michael began cursing and ‘speaking in tongues’ whenever he went near St. Andrews, so if Joseph attended church at all, he would wander there in Julia’s and Ian’s company.  Owen remained at home to restrain Michael, who was always ready to address the congregation with sermons of his own.

Ah, but how the years had mellowed the Masefields!  As their own appointments with God drew nearer, so their desire to appease Him increased.  With quiet amusement Joseph watched them while the vicar breezed through his service, joining in the prayers, bellowing out the hymns.  Yet the days when Joe would sneer at such shallow devotion were gone.  Religion was a personal commitment, a private affair.  He would leave it to those who possessed it, even if he did not himself believe.

A strange hour.  Scrooping chairs, wailing children, a cracked old organ beaten into submission by Mrs Higgs’ less than expressive hands.  At one point, mercifully the last hymn, Joe was certain she began to play ‘Knees up Mother Brown’ for a few bars before coming to herself; but the strains were lost beneath another agony of discordant singing. Almost before he knew it, the whole painful ordeal was over.

After the service Joe wandered away on pretence of studying some of the more readable gravestones.  From the churchyard he was free to survey the emerging congregation, and reaped his reward, for although most drifted away there were some who stayed – Dot Barker, Hettie Locke, Janice Regan and Margaret Farrier: it was a strange, very private gathering.  While the Forbes-Pattinsons monopolised attention, this four, like Joseph, stood to one side among the gravestones at the far side of the churchyard; and an earnest conversation was going on.

“There’ll be some wicked spells cast tonight then!”  Tom Peterkin took Joseph by surprise.  “What are you doin’ lurkin’ out here, then, you pervert – spyin.’ on young Sophie, are you?”

Joe smiled,  “I wouldn’t mind the body, Tom, if it supported a different head.  What do you mean, ‘spells’ – are they witches, those four?”

Tom grinned,  “I’d say ‘tis likely.  What do you reckon to our Sophie, then?  D’you think she looks lost without ‘er ‘orse?”

“I met her yesterday.  She has a clear understanding of her place in the world.  How old is she?”

Tom pondered this:  “Must be twenty-three or twenty-four now.”

“She’s grown.”

“Everyone has, Joe.  Trouble bein’ in her case, she’m grown into a snobbish little bitch.  Ah, I’d say so.  But then, she could be fun, playin’ the bit of rough for a while.  Do you fancy a go, then?”

Joe knew whatever response he made would be reported to Emma.  There was an edge of desperation in Tom’s voice:  he was looking for crumbs, anything that might divert the friends from the collision course they were on.

“Perhaps not.” He said carefully. “I think life is complicated enough.”

Tom nodded.  “I must catch Emma up – she’m gone ahead.”

Joe chose to forget the Peterkins lived just three houses away from the Church.  He knew why Emma had ‘gone ahead’.  He, too, was ready to leave, deliberately passing close to the quartet of secretive females as he went.  They stopped talking as he drew near, and their eyes followed him all the way to the lych-gate.

 

© 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:  Ovidiu Creaga on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

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 Thirteen. Radley Court

The Day Room in Caleybridge Hospital was a twilight affair of clinical leather and faded colours, which Karen, still shaken after her most recent encounter with the malevolent dark man, would scarcely notice.  She had allowed herself to be driven here by Paul Wheeler, whose girlfriend Gabrielle, Patrick’s sister, had explained the events of the morning.  Now, when the ward door opened and Patrick entered the room she had to restrain an urge to rush into his arms and beg forgiveness for all her negative thoughts.  He limped towards her gamely, the very image of walking wounded; his head bandaged and his left cheek yellowed by a developing bruise.

“Why the limp.  Have they amputated?”  She asked him kindly, feeling so glad to see him she wanted to laugh her delight.

“Oh, twisted it slightly, apparently.  It’s nothing – not important.  I’m sorry I couldn’t make our lunch date – they wouldn’t let me out, and the ‘phones in here are hopeless.  Do you hate me?”

“Only a little.  I thought you’d ditched me. Gabby told me someone else was hurt; is she…”

“Jacqui; she’s a colleague.  It’s quite serious, I’m afraid.  Fractured skull – they had to operate straight away to relieve pressure on her brain.  I’ve just been up to try to see her, but she hasn’t regained consciousness yet.  Whoever they were, they were aiming for me, not her.  I’m the one who normally enters the Conference Room first.”

“I’m so sorry!”

“Why?  It isn’t your fault.  Paul and Gabby came in to see me – nearest relatives, and stuff – so I asked them to tell you what happened.   And now you’ve come, so that’s one better!”

“They brought me – actually, they rescued me.  They’re waiting downstairs in the lobby.  Gabby seems to think we need a conference:  are you up to it?”

“Up to it?  Foolish woman, of course I’m up to it.  What do you mean, ‘rescued you’?”

As they walked – in Patrick’s case quite gingerly – to join Gabby and Paul, Karen related her adventure of the previous hour.  Patrick was grave.  “You were lucky, the way things turned out.  If those two had been ten minutes later…”

“I would have had to deal with him myself!”  Karen told him brightly.  “He’s only a sad old perv, you know!”

“Yeah,”  Patrick acknowledged.  “I’ve met him, remember?  Old pervs seem to be quite large and lively these days. Paul and I were talking about things this afternoon.  You have to think of something to discuss in visiting hours, or the silence can become deafening.”

They had negotiated an elevator and reached the end of a corridor which opened out into the hospital lobby where, true to their word, Paul and Gabrielle were waiting.

“Talking about what, Pat?”  Karen asked.  “Explain?”

“You haven’t told her yet!”  Gabrielle accused.

“I was about to.  Karen, it’s time you met our parents.  We want you to come and stay with us for a few days.”

Even the thought filled Karen with alarm.  “No, Pat!  Your parents don’t know me!  I’ve got nothing..”

Pat grinned.  “Nothing to wear?  Yes, Karen, you’re coming.   Gabby’s already cleared it with the olds and they agree.  Come as you are.  You look a damned sight better than I do at the moment, anyway.”

“That isn’t the point!  Don’t I have a say in this?  What if I choose not to turn my back on my entire case load…”

“Look, love, whoever’s after you, they mean business.  It’s dangerous for you here!  You must see that – especially after today’s attacks.”

“Attacks?  Are you connecting my stalker with what happened to you?  Why?”

“He won’t tell you,” Paul cut in,  “But you need to know.  He was warned to stay away from you.”

“Thanks a bunch, Paul!” Patrick said heavily.  “I wasn’t going to tell her that.” He explained to Karen,  “Someone left a note on my car the night you dropped me off at the office car park?”

“The night of the storm – the night Mr. Nasty attacked me.  You think the note was his?”

Patrick grinned, a lopsided grin that refused to spread to his bruised cheek.  “Is that what we’re calling him now?  He was around, I suppose,”  He glanced significantly at Paul.  “But we think there’s more than one person involved in this.”

Karen was distraught:  “Oh, Pat, if I accept your invitation he – or they – might come after me. I can’t put your family in danger!”

Patrick shook his head.  “You’ll be out of town and there’s no reason anyone should find out where you’ve gone.  You’ll have us around you, and we’ll have space to get this sorted out.  I mentioned Mum was a solicitor, didn’t I?  Well, she wants to get her teeth into this, and she’s longing to meet you. Accept it, love, it’s a fait accompli, really it is.  We leave here, we get my car, we drive.”

To say Karen harbored doubts would be complete understatement.  Apart from her natural tendency to rebel when anybody tried to organize her life, she was genuinely more afraid, at that point, of encountering Pat’s mother and father than of anything the sinister leather-clad man might do to her.  Now, though, she had Pat’s safety to consider as well as her own. It would be nice, at least, to find a place where she could sleep peacefully, and Pat was clearly disinclined to accept no for an answer. “Are you supposed to drive, after what you’ve been through?”  She asked, lamely.  “No concussion, no after-effects?”

“I’m fine.”

“They wanted him to stay in overnight,” Gabrielle confided.  “He’s colossally stubborn.”

“I’m fine!  This place is full of mods and rockers – seems like it was a fine weekend for a punch-up in Harterport. ”

“I’ll have to go back to the apartment, get a few things.”

“I don’t believe that would be wise.”

“Seriously?  Pat…”

“Karen, I’ve never been more serious about anything in my life.  We should get you out of town, and it needs to be now.  Gabby’ll stump up with anything you lack.  Her resources are endless.”

“Absolutely!”  Gabrielle agreed.  “Bulgy wardrobes-full of stuff!”

 

#

The right turn from the Halminster Road led into a lane lined by tall trees; parkland beeches, oak and plane interspersed with the occasional heraldic spear of larch, all garbed in their bright, optimistic green of burgeoning summer and stirred regally by a light westerly breeze.  There was still a month before maturity would add the first blues to the palette; a month more of darker glory before September winds breathed among those aldermanic boughs, inducing them to creak in conversation among themselves, hold a council and decide upon the onset of winter.

For now, though, the evening sun was warm and the air in Karen’s face was a blessing.  Patrick’s hand, playing dangerously with her leg, kept her from too obvious a display of nerves if only because he needed constant reminders to pay attention to his driving.  Without these distractions she would have resembled a jelly, for this was the encounter she dreaded:  she was visiting the Hallcrofts at home.

The Hallcroft-Smythes.  She couldn’t erase the hyphen from her mind.  Or the ‘y’.

Each time she glanced across at Patrick her head filled afresh with those nagging doubts: somehow he had slipped into her not-so-well-ordered life with quiet ease; and comfortable as she might allow herself to be, dreaming along in such style, she had to prove to herself that she could face Pat’s perceived danger alone, that for all there was something very  compelling in the way he was taking charge of her, she could not become his cipher.  Whatever the risk, she must be ready to face it, and if necessary, face it alone.

“I’m stronger than I look, Pat.”  She shouted above the wind.

“Yes, Karen, you are.  What brought that on?”

“I need to prove it, I think.  How’s that head?”

“Still attached.  Am I going to pass out while I’m driving, do you mean?  No.  Do you want to drive?”

“Drive your pride and joy – your other woman?  Heavens no!  I do kind of like you in a bandage.  You look very buccaneering.”

“I lack both eye-patch and parrot, I’m afraid.”

And then she saw it: Radley Court.  Only a glimpse at first, of grey-green stone among trees: “Oh, Patrick.  That isn’t it!  Please tell me that isn’t it?”

The Daimler’s nose swung between banks of flossy rhododendron bushes and through a pair of high wrought iron gates.  Acres of manicured lawn spread itself before her; amid which sprawled a two-storey Georgian pile, its high windows frowning down upon her beneath their pediments as if intrusion from riff-raff such as herself was unforgiveable.  Wheels crunched on pea beach gravel luxurious as a carpet; a carpet for cars, she thought, beginning to wish she had worn jewellery.  The engine echoed back to her from those walls, the porticoed entrance doors loomed like some dark temptation of the Bunyan mind.

“I can’t go in there!”

“Why not?”

“I’m in jeans!  I should have worn something more suitable.  What on earth are they going to think of me?”

“’They’ will think you look perfect in jeans!”  Patrick squeezed her hand.  “Come on, darling, Mum and Dad aren’t that terrifying, honestly!”

As if something within the soul of the old house had heard Karen’s cries, the sombre mood was shattered by a fusillade of excited yelping.  A large Golden Labrador dog came bursting from the front doors like a badly-aimed torpedo and flew across the driveway towards them.

“Oh hell!”  Patrick exclaimed.  “I hope you like dogs!”

She just had time to say “You know I do” before this dog launched herself at the car and, in a feat she had clearly practiced often, landed with fuss and noise upon the tonneau cover.  Thereafter speech was almost impossible, because a very long tongue was enthusiastically washing Karen’s face.

“She answers to Petra – sometimes.”  Patrick said, by way of introduction.

Scarcely had Patrick driven the car into a parking position before Paul and Gabrielle, in Paul’s car, crunched onto the forecourt behind them.   A tall, greying man in a frayed maroon pullover and ancient cord trousers appeared atop the flight of steps that led up to those grand front doors, his face broken by a broad smile.

“That’s Dad.  He’s been gardening.”

Karen cast an eye over the wide expanse of manicured lawn, the elegantly planted flowerbeds.  “He’s been busy.”

“Oh, we have gardeners.  Dad just likes to mess around.”

Karen suppressed  another inner groan.  She was beginning to feel quite light-headed.

Petra had changed allegiances with a single bound and now sat at Gabrielle’s side as if she had always been there.  “Karen, darling!  You look awfully pale.  Are you ailing, or has Patrick’s driving finally cracked your nerve?”

The tall man descended the steps in slow, steady strides.  “Hello.  You must be Karen.  I’ve heard a lot about you, lately, young lady.”

“Dad, Karen.  Karen, my Dad.”  Patrick said over his shoulder as he ferreted for his briefcase in the back of his car.  “It’s alright, Karen, you can ignore him if you like.”

Mild blue lagoons of eyes met Karen’s embarrassed look and drew her deep.  Perhaps her impression of this man, drawn so far from Patrick’s affectionately disparaging description, had led her to expect a super-salesman;  a smooth talker who had risen in his chosen industry by his gift of the gab – a success pedlar; a showman.  The real Jackson Hallcroft was as far from that.  Behind the hypnosis of those eyes was several fathoms of intellect, a warm sea of wisdom that flowed gently to its shore – never intrusive, never loud, yet utterly absorbing.  She saw in the father all she adored in the son, and her legs went from under her.  She fumbled.  “Hello Mr. Hallcroft;” She blurted hopelessly; “I hope you  don’t mind my staying here..I mean, because Patrick’s very special to me, and I…that is, thank you for taking me in.”

What made her say that?  All too aware of Gabrielle’s stifled giggle, she rushed to cover herself:  “Patrick didn’t tell me you were American.”

Patrick was behind  her.  “He isn’t.  He’s Canadian.  Didn’t I say?  I should have.”

But Jackson Hallcroft merely smiled:  “You’re welcome, Karen.  I sincerely hope you’re going to take this young man off our hands.  I was beginning to despair.”

“We all were!”  Gabrielle chipped in.  “Come on inside, you two.  Paul wants to challenge Patsy on the Scalextric.”

Your mother’s anchored to a queen’s pudding in the kitchen.”  Jackson said informatively.  “Gabby, maybe you and Karen here might attempt a rescue?”

“Oh super, yes!”  Gabrielle took her cue, “ You simply must be introduced, sweetie.”  She squeezed Karen’s arm and added, in a much lower voice:  “And you can tell me about your wedding plans.”

Mortified, Karen shielded a scarlet blush behind her hands.  “Whatever have I said? ”

“Nothing!  You’ve been through a lot, you’re exhausted.  The rest is something Daddy does, darling.  It’s a gift – he does it to everyone, so don’t worry!  Anyway,” Gabby grinned; “it was rather sweet!  I should warn you, though; I think Patsy heard.”

Within the double main doors,  Radley Court’s baronial hall asserted its cool authority, a long central chamber richly carpeted in green which ran from the front to the rear of the house.  Oak panelled walls lined either side, drawing Karen’s eyes to a wide staircase which dominated the further end.  Lit by tall stained glass windows, this ascended to a mezzanine at first floor level.  Above, if she could crane her neck so far without falling over, a severe, ornately plastered ceiling presided.

For all its initial impression of austerity and patronage – so oppressive it brought a whimper to Karen’s throat – Radley Court had a character which made it very much a home.  Petra’s toys:  a rubber ring, a squiggly thing of interlaced rubber, a bright yellow plastic bone and other miscellaneous pieces of flotsam were scattered about an expensive green carpet, which also hosted a black loop of Scalextric track at which Paul already knelt in an attitude of prayer.

He waved informally.  “Excuse my rudeness, I was just getting the hang of this thing before Patsy got himself bludgeoned!  No!  No, Petra!”

Anxious to join in, Petra had neatly plucked Paul’s slot car from a speedy corner and brought it helpfully, tail wagging, to Karen.  Paul grinned apologetically.  “Come on, Pat, I’ll take advantage of your condition and thrash you this time.  Sorry Karen – going to borrow him for a minute.  Oh, and please Miss, can I have my car back?”

In the brief time Karen knew him, she would learn to like Paul Wheeler immensely.  He was perhaps a year or so older than Gabrielle and taller too with a head that seemed so large and heavy it gave him a stoop.  When he was seated he would often support that head, as though his neck was not up to the task unaided.  She would remember the firm clasp of his handshake, the earnest intensity in those searching grey eyes and the curious femininity of his long, curled eyelashes.  He spoke with a regional drawl that lilted pleasingly.  It was easy to see how Gabrielle might love him, and it was very evident that she did.

“This is going to end in tears.”  Gabrielle commented, as Pat grabbed a hand control and stiffly joined Paul in sitting on the floor.  “Come and meet Mum.”

At the right-hand corner of the hall, shaded by the stairs, was an imposing oak door.  “Kitchen.”  Gabrielle said informatively, grabbing the brass handle and swinging the door back.

The room thus revealed was, of course, roughly the size of Karen’s entire apartment.  She had expected no less.  Neither was she surprised by the large centre table, the long reaches of beech worktop or the imposing Aga range in a cavernous fireplace at the further end.  She was confronted by walls painted raging red, and mildly taken aback at the chaos: scattered plates, scattered food, spilt flour, errant pools of liquid, a faint but unmistakable burnt smell, the hapless waving of an open Aga door.  The one absent ingredient was Gabrielle’s mother, who, in Karen’s opinion, had justifiably abandoned ship.  Not so.

“Oh f***!  Bloody f***ing f*** and bugger!  Gabs, is that you?”  The voice, in a falsetto of panic, came from behind the table.

“Yes, Mumsy.”

“Thank christ!  Come and help me, would you?”  The figure of a woman, disarranged in every way, rose into view.  Wild-eyes took in Karen, and said profoundly:  “Oh, bollocks.  Is this…?”

“Mother dear, this is Karen.”  Gabrielle gave Karen’s arm a quick squeeze, then rushed to her mother’s aid.  “Oh, Mumsy, I told you not to attempt it!”

In a moment of some poignancy, mother and daughter stood side by side, staring down.  Mother smiled bravely.  “I could slide something underneath, don’t you think?”

She came to greet Karen, wiping hands rich in ingredients.  “Hello, Karen.  How nice to meet you!  You must forgive my language, but as you see, I’m cooking.”

Gwendoline Hallcroft, Karen would quickly learn, was the sort of woman who threw herself body and soul into every undertaking.   Brown hair, just on the edge of auburn, flecked with flour and possibly several specks of egg yolk, fell in disorder to her shoulders.  Framing a facethat was probably beautiful, with awestruck eyes set beneath thin, arching eyebrows so fine they seemed almost white.  A refined nose twitched with her smile; the big, all-consuming smile of a mouth that was wide and sensual.  Her pinafore, which in better days had advertised Paignton Zoo, disguised a combination of green sweater and jeans.  She was large, inelegant in stature, a big boned woman; but she exuded honesty and Karen took to her at once.

“Christ, what must you think of me?  I cuss like a bloody sailor, I’m afraid.  Do make yourself at home, Karen dear, while I prepare dinner.  Gabs, take Karen to see the horses.”

“Well, there.  You’ve experienced all of us now, Karen.”  Gabrielle said as she led the way out of the back door of the kitchen on their way to the stables.  “Except Sprog, of course.”

“Sprog?”

“Yes.  Didn’t Patsy tell you?  Sprog – our little sister Amanda – is pajama-partying with a school friend.”  Gabrielle wrinkled her nose in mock distaste.  “She won’t be missed.”

“Shouldn’t I help out in the kitchen?  Your mum seemed a little…”

Gabrielle laughed.  “Overwhelmed?  Yes, she is, totally.  It’s alright, though.  Mrs. Beatty will be in soon.”

“Mrs. Beatty?”

“Of course.  You didn’t think we looked after this ghastly heap all by ourselves, did you?  We have the two ‘B’s.  Mrs. Beatty and Mrs. Buxham keep us in order – and sane.  Mrs. Beatty does the cooking.  She’ll clear all that up and have a meal ready within the hour.  Marvellous woman – I don’t know how she does it!  Oh lord, do you realise I only met you three hours ago?  I feel as though I’ve known you all my life!  I do hope we’ll be friends, Karen, I really do!”

 

© 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