A Quiet English Village with a Lethal Heart

Hi!

Today, a brief note from the knarled old beast behind these keys.

A fulfilment of a promise.

The serialized book I have been running this year, ‘Hallbury Summer’ is now available as a complete eBook on Kindle.   I said I would do it, and I did it!  Just click on the cover to your left and you will be whisked magically away to Amazon’s glorious domain!    I am still working on the hardcover 2019 version.   That will be up for purchase soon.

Hallbury Summer is the third book I have serialized through this blog, and it has been the most popular, though ‘A Place that was Ours’ runs it a close second.  I aim to produce that as an eBook too.  I’m working as fast as I can!  (not fast, I know – doddering, in fact)

Meanwhile, and coming very soon, a new serialized novel.   Science Fiction, this time, but with a difference; several differences, in fact.  I’m looking forward to introducing you to Alanee.  I think you will like her.

Hallbury Summer – Episode Twenty. Night Moves

The story so far: 

After failing in his attempts to discover the whereabouts of his brother Michael, Joe Palliser has to deal with an aggressive journalist, and we learn that Jennifer Allthorpe, the journalist’s associate is to remain in the locality dig up some further dirt on Joe.

Meanwhile, Joe honours his commitment to Sophie Forbes-Pattinson, and takes her to a small café in a little harbour town for an evening meal.  The date gives them the opportunity to learn more about each other, and provides evidence, if any were needed, that they share a mutual attraction…

By the time Sophie and Joseph began their drive back to Hallbury the hour was late and the roads almost free of traffic:  on their way Joseph asked Sophie how much she knew of the Violet Parkin story.

“Only what I’ve read in the local ‘paper.  Village gossip tends to get filtered out before it reaches us.”

And Joe said that was good because he needed to confide in someone who could weigh the facts impartially.

“I am she!”  Sophie volunteered brightly.  “Prattle on!”

So he told her the story – about the murder and how Violet’s body was found, how evidence had placed Jack Parkin near the scene sometime on the fatal afternoon.  Then he retold Aaron’s account of the coven, and his concerns about Michael.  He resurrected little Christian Matheson, together with the stories that surrounded his disappearance; concluding with the slaughtered crows and the sad demise of Benjy the cat.

“All rather grisly, Joe.  I heard about the graves – that happened the other day, didn’t it?  Before Mrs. Parkin was buried?”

Joseph had half-expected Sophie to suggest he was falling victim to parochial superstition; even to ask why he really cared anyway.  But she didn’t.  She fell silent for a while, as the final miles passed.

“It all ties together, doesn’t it,” She said at last, “but witchcraft, Joe?  I’ve read about so-called witches who were just herbalists, or odd-looking octogenarians who managed to offend the wrong people.  There were a few bad apples, I suppose; who cursed people for a fee, brewed up nasty poisons, tried to invoke the devil, that sort of stuff.  Mostly rubbish, I should have thought, though the thing that strikes me is the probability that Mrs. Parkin counted herself as a witch.   Would one witch really murder another – black against white, maybe?”

Joe replied, grinning, that if Annie Parkin was a witch of any colour it would be black.  He was secretly pleased by Sophie’s interest.

Their last mile was covered and they were driving the lane through the centre of Wednesday Common when Joe slowed the car, bumping off the metalled road onto a grassy track.  After a hundred yards or so, where a clump of small trees offered concealment, he stopped, cutting the engine.

The inflection in Sophie’s tone was unmistakeable.  “Now I wonder why we’ve stopped here, Joe?”

He chuckled:  “It’s my surprise.  Time for adventure.  Come on!”

After opening the passenger door to let Sophie out, Joe extracted a canvas bag from the car boot.  Then, taking her hand for reassurance he led her, not back along the track towards the road, but further into the depths of the Common.  Sophie kept pace, refraining from complaint, though bracken scratched her legs and she could barely see in the darkness.  “Where are we going?”

“For a walk.”

“Oh, absolutely!  For a walk with a bag that clanks.”  Sophie’s voice shook a little.  “What have you got in there; tools to cut me up with?”

She seemed so capable and confident; it hadn’t occurred to Joe that he might frighten her, that he was still a comparative stranger who she might not completely trust.  “I’m sorry,” he said.  Emboldened, he found her in the darkness, gently taking her shoulders. She was breathing quickly. “I could never do you harm, Sophie.”

“It’s Okay,” She whispered:  “I didn’t really think you would….”And she turned into him, pressing her cheek to his.  “You’re sort of scary.”  She said; “And that’s sort of nice.”

He asked:  “You enjoy being scared?”

“Mmmm, sort of.  I enjoy being scared by you.”

Her cheek was cool, very soft. Joe knew he must kiss her then and he did, though it was not in his plan; and the taste of Sophie, her warmth against him gave him an unfamiliar sense of self-worth, of companionship.  It was a long kiss, sweetly comforting, that invited more.

“Down to business!”  He exclaimed, breaking away with difficulty and the feeling that, if fate should provide him with a dragon now, he would be able to slay it easily.  “Not far!”

The lights of the village were clear.  House windows, an occasional street lamp offered sanctuary, but Joe seemed intent upon avoiding them.

Sophie restrained him.  “No, we don’t.  Not until you tell me where we’re going, Joe Palliser.”

“Why, Sophie!  We’re going housebreaking!”

“Oh!”  Sophie cried, a world of doubt lifted from her shoulders.  “Excellent!  Why didn’t you say?”

The Parkin farm was in darkness when they stole through the gate, keeping in the shadow of the wall as they worked their way around to the back of the house.

“I want you to know;” Sophie whispered:  “I rather liked kissing you.”

“I liked it too.”

“If we’re arrested, do you think they’d let us share a cell?”

“I doubt it.  Please stop, this is very bad for my concentration!”  Joe begged.  Now hidden from view behind the farmhouse, he ferreted as quietly as he could in the bag of tools he had borrowed from Owen’s garage that afternoon (without Owen’s permission, of course); they rattled disturbingly in the silence.

“What’s that?”  Sophie asked, as he produced something metallic and heavy from the bag.

“I think housebreakers would call it a gemmy.”

A kitchen window, half-rotten, yielded to Joe’s assault with little resistance.  He pulled it wide open.

“You first.”  He joked.

“Certainly not!  You’ll get a perfect view of my bum. After you, Raffles!”

“I told you to wear jeans.”

It was an easy climb.  Joe made his way in, to find himself standing in what he assumed to be the kitchen sink.  Sophie passed him the bag of tools then focused upon retaining her dignity as she managed her short skirt through the window.

“Don’t stare!” She chided.

“It’s too dark!”  He complained.

“Such gallantry!”

What had Joe expected?  The smell of fungal damp was oppressive, but otherwise the limited light of his carefully-shielded torch flicked around a typical farmhouse kitchen; picking out an immaculately blacked range in a wide chimney breast, cupboards and a sideboard of polished wood, a scrubbed table, a couple of functional wooden chairs.  The red flagstone floor seemed to be clean; a mat (over which he almost tripped) protected an area around the sink.  It was a frozen moment:  there were two plates on the table, remnants of food on one from which Jack had probably eaten when he returned for his tea: had he thought his wife was out somewhere, possibly visiting in the village?  A cup with dregs on the sideboard – tea, probably; probably Violet’s:  Joe could not imagine Jack Parkin drinking tea.

Producing an extra torch from his bag, Joe passed it to Sophie so she might scan the room for herself.  “My Goodness!”  She exclaimed under her breath:  “Didn’t they bother to search this place at all?”

There was certainly no sign of disturbance:  everything was neatly arranged – too neatly, was Joe’s immediate thought.  He cringed at the creak of the kitchen door, casting his light back and forth along the narrow passage which sufficed for a hall. A besom was propped by the front door.  Sophie gestured meaningfully.

“Probably just to sweep the step?”

A panelled door on the opposite side of the hallway revealed a living room so pungent with the aroma of dry rot it almost choked them.  Joe’s torch hurriedly scanned shelves of bric-a-brac lining one wall: an armchair, its colourless upholstery worn into holes, a settee in such an advanced state of dilapidation it looked as if it might swallow its next unwary visitor, a rocker that quivered eerily as he stepped across the sagging floor.  Sophie held both torches while he searched through drawers and cupboards for anything that might reveal a clue to what happened the afternoon Violet died.  All he found, though, was the paraphernalia of everyday living.  A damp-damaged photo of Jack Parkin peered from a wooden frame on the mantelshelf; otherwise there seemed to be no personal effects at all.  What was he looking for?

“What are we looking for?”  Asked Sophie. “An edition of ‘Witches Weekly, or something?”

“I don’t know.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful!  So good to have a plan!””

They inched their way up threateningly unsteady stairs to a small landing that became a passage running the length of the house.  Two doors admitted them to rooms ostensibly above the kitchen, the furthest a tiny space at the end of the house crammed with enamel bowls, wooden chests, stacks of newspapers, what looked like a trouser press, a folding frame from a chair, even a Union Jack.  There was also an almost uninterrupted view of the stars where roof tiles were missing and the ceiling had collapsed.   Nothing that anyone prized could be concealed in this space.

The nearer door was a bedroom – or was it?   More the scrape of a wild hare than a room:  a single iron bed, its springs sagging, made up with a rag-bag of blankets, sheets and an old bolster pillow.  There were men’s unwashed clothes strewn neglectfully on the floor.  Cider bottles were everywhere:  some filled, some refilled and corked, mostly empty.

Joe heard Sophie trying to restrain a retching in her throat.  He felt for her.  It was unlikely she had ever seen squalor like this.  “Is this what he comes back to if he’s freed?  He’s better off in jail!”

Across the landing the other bedroom, over that damp lounge, was larger: here there were feminine touches.  There was a hint of boudoir, conflicting somewhat with Joseph’s recollection of Violet and her masculine stamp.  As they searched amidst the frills and favors they found more and more of Violet Parkin in this room.

“Photographs?”  Sophie pulled an album from a drawer in the bedside table.  She flicked through old sepia pictures titled in neat handwriting, depicting a younger if not much slighter Violet in her teenage years.  There were family groups in Edwardian dress with Violet the little girl in the company of a plumply optimistic woman and a wiry dry stick of a man not half her size.

“That must be Ben Wortsall,” Joe commented.  “He doesn’t look exactly fearsome, does he?”

A charabanc-load of posing faces followed (outing to Marsden, summer 1924), and some seaside snaps.  As Sophie neared the back of the book a small flat package, tied with some coarse thread fell from between pages and dropped to the floor.  It was just large enough to fill the palm of her hand.

“Oh, how tiny!”  She tried to undo the knot securing the wrapping.  “I believe it must have been sealed with something:  I might break it.”

“We’ll look at it later,” Joes said, slipping it into his pocket.

They left nothing unturned – took such clothes as there were from Violet’s ancient wardrobe, turned the bedclothes and the mattress from the bed.  They even looked beneath the carpet, but found nothing untoward.  No clue that would unlock the mystery of Violet’s death, certainly; in fact, apart from a few photographs, very little about Violet at all.

Defeated, Joe gave Sophie’s arm the gentle tug that indicated they should leave.  “I’m sorry,” he said,  “it’s been a wasted evening.”

“Not entirely wasted, Joe darling.”  Sophie gave his hand a squeeze.  “Although it would help if you told me what the bloody hell you hoped to find!”

“Something.  I can’t explain, Sophie, but I know it’s here.  Whatever it is that made Violet into a real person; that made her the way she was.  This house has a secret, I’m sure of that.”

They were descending the creaking stairway, careful in the torch’s limited light, when they heard the scrape of a key in the front door.

“Oh god!  Someone’s coming in!”  Sophie hissed.  “What now, Raffles?”

“Now?”  Joe whispered.  “Run!”

He grabbed her hand.  Throwing caution to the winds, they stumbled down the remaining stairs, bolting for the kitchen.  Their flight must have been heard, for the turning of the door-key paused.

“Who’s there?”  A man’s voice demanded.  “Who’s that?”

Now the front door was opening with some urgency – a heavy shoulder crashed against it to force it to yield, and swift footsteps advanced into the hall.

In the kitchen, Joe collided with the table, shooting a javelin of pain into his groin.  Cursing incoherently, he jammed the table against the door then, in the few precious moments thus gained he limped to help Sophie, who was struggling through the window, lifting her quickly by her hips. She scrambled, squealing her indignation, before disappearing into the darkness outside. As Joe grabbed his bag of tools the table shot out into the room and the kitchen door burst wide   His feet followed him in a headfirst dive through the window and he landed shoulder first on the cobbles.

“This way!”  He was back on his feet in an instant, grabbing Sophie’s hand as together they ran for the back of the yard – for the field gate that hung, half-open there; and the shielding darkness of the meadow beyond.

“Don’t look back!”  He warned.  “Don’t let him see your face!”

Sophie hopping to remove her heels, Joe wincing at the latent ache in his groin; both ran, and sheltered finally under a cloak of night, they chanced a peek behind them to see a man’s head in the window they had forced, silhouetted by the light of a hurricane lamp.  It was difficult to identify the figure, although something about him seemed familiar.

Crouched low, tool bag tucked beneath Joe’s arm to silence it, and with Sophie laughing so hysterically as to make any attempt at stealth futile, the pair struck out across the grass.  Joe deliberately avoided the most obvious route, allowing his memory to direct him to a gap in the hedgerow which he knew would lead out onto Church Lane.

“Through there?”  Sophie complained; “I hope you’re going to recompense me for this hair-do, Joey Palliser.”

From the lane they doubled back, eventually arriving undetected – or so they believed – at Joseph’s parked car.  Guided by what he hoped was inbuilt radar, supplemented by large helpings of luck, Joe manoeuvred the unlit Wolsey back to the road.  He drove the best part of half a mile before he felt confident enough to switch on the lights.

Although confident they were not followed, still Joe did not want his car’s headlights to be seen, or give away either his or Sophie’s connection with the village.  So he drove, not back into Hallbury, but towards Walcotter Bridge, the next large village.  He sought out a lay-by shielded from the road and pulled over; slumping back into his seat.

“That was close.”

Sophie had said nothing throughout this journey.  She was engaged in meticulous preening, pulling large amounts of green stuff from her fine, long hair and collecting it, thoughtfully, in the car’s ashtray.  Now she accorded him a cool look.

“Well, it was interesting.”  She said dryly.  “See the state I’ve got myself into?  I’m an absolute scarecrow!”

“A very beautiful one.  I’m really sorry.  Shall I take you home?”

“No.”  She shook her head, staring down at herself, “Although I suppose we will have to soon.  I’m all scratched!”  She raised her right leg, placing her bare foot on the car dashboard so Joey could verify in the dim interior light that her pale flesh was indeed a mass of minor scratches.

“How am I going to explain this away?  How?  Look!”

She laid the abraded leg across Joe’s lap.  He took her foot gently in his hand and she giggled girlishly at his touch.  Very tenderly, he stroked the wounded skin of her calf.  He was of a mood to explore further.

She flexed sinuously, “Oh, you are good!  You really are!  But it is awfully late.”  She disengaged herself gently, sinking back into her seat.  “I can’t quite make you out, Joe Palliser – are you someone really special, or just the sad old Lothario they say you are?  I saw someone different tonight – I see someone different every time we meet.”

“I thought you were supposed to be the chameleon?”

“True.  But I think perhaps I pale to insignificance beside you.  My camouflage might not be able to keep up, you see.  If I weren’t careful, I should become prey.  That much vulnerability isn’t something I’m used to.”

“No, I guess not.”  Together, they stared out into the night.  Finally, he said:  “I don’t think I like being a chameleon:  disguise isn’t me, Sophie; it really isn’t.  It’s nice to be vulnerable sometimes…take it from someone who’s vulnerable all the time.  Anyway, who are ‘they’?”

Sophie was lost in thought.  “They?”

“The ‘they’ who say I’m – what was it – an ‘ageing Lothario’?”

“Jennifer Allthorpe, for one; she seemed very interested in you.  Knew you were staying in the village, knew about your brother.  She told me quite a lot about you, Joe, quite a lot.”

Joseph asked, in a dead voice:  “So you heard about my life in London?”

“Some.  I don’t know how much there is to tell.”

“Yet you still wanted to come out with me?”

She nodded;  “Of course!”  Then:  “Because you’re interesting, Joe!  Because the world is full of two-dimensional men and you’re certainly not one of them!  Tonight’s been fun – different, but fun!”

“It lived up to expectations, then?”

Sophie reached for his hand and grasped it.  “I’ve enjoyed it, I really have.  Thank you.”

He slipped the Wolsey into gear. “Then we can do this again?”

She laughed: “Breaking and entering, you mean?” She studied him carefully.  “I don’t know; should I?”

Highlands House was in darkness when the Wolsey crunched up to its doors.  Sophie turned Joe’s head to her for a goodbye kiss which lingered, just a little, before she broke away.  “I’ll call you.”  She said, “Promise!”  And she was gone.  Joe watched her pause in the porch to tidy herself, then returned her wave.

© 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 Morgan on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode Nineteen. Chameleons

The story so far:

Still vying with his conscience Joe has made an offer to buy the Lamb house in Hallbury.  He traces his brother Michael’s steps on the day of Violet Parkin’s murder by visiting the Marsden-on-Sea house that was his regular haunt when the care home allowed, and he finds that Michael managed to escape supervision and was missing for several hours on that day.  He also learns of a mysterious smartly dressed man who met with him at a café he frequented in the town.  Meanwhile, Joe’s every move is being followed…

 

Joe returned to his Aunt and Uncle’s house to find they had gone out for the evening.  A note on the hall table advised him that his offer for the Lamb house had been accepted so he tried the estate agent’s business number; there was no reply.  Resigning himself to yet another visit to Braunston the next morning, he raided Julia’s cupboards for cold beef and threw together a sandwich before retiring to his room, plate of food in one hand and large Bacardi in the other.  There, called by the temptation of a warm bed and lulled by the steady lash of rain against his window, he slept.

The penalty for sleep was harsh:  sleep brought dreams; dreams brought the past, vivid and real, back to life.  The lips which smothered his face in kisses this time were Marian’s; kisses that were fierce, urgent, the teeth behind the lips teasing, nipping, demanding him.  They had made love so many times yet still it seemed she needed more.    What was it?  What was so wrong about that night?  After months when he had thought he was losing her, when she had seemed uninterested in sex or even just bored, there she was, an animal in his bed, so desperately wanting he thought her almost insane.

Then the words she had never said, suddenly spoken, sweetly – so sweetly; “I love you, Joey.  I love you.”

Dreams do not reason: they do not ask why.  Questions are reserved for waking.  Yet one terrifying moment returned; repeated itself night upon night:  Marian, cold with the chill of death.  Marian, draped naked over him like a blanket or a pall and he trapped beneath – as though she were a slab that covered his tomb, while he, still living, struggled to rise.  Had he replied?  Had he told her that he, in his way, had loved her too?  At this, a hideous peal of laughter, his genie above him where her poor body had been, leering in his face.

“Love?”  Sneered the genie:  “What is love to you?”

Then a renewal – a hand, small and cool to his touch, clasping his, pulling him back to wakefulness.

The house was dark; there was no sound but the wind and the rain.  This day Violet Parkin had been laid to rest: laid deep beneath the sodden mud, but she would not mind the damp or the rain. She was waiting.  Jack was soon to come to her, and only he, Joseph, the guiltiest of three guilty brothers, would stand in his way.  Should he?  Sometimes death for the wronged could be a merciful sister, no matter whose hand clasped the axe.

When Joe parted his curtains next morning to see the Austin Princess parked in the road he thought Jennifer’s was the strident fist knocking at the door.   He got to answer it before Julia and Owen were disturbed:  he had heard their late return, listened to their muted conversation as they settled for bed and bed was where they were still, having an uncharacteristic lie-in.

“Palliser.”  This was not Jennifer.  The man on the porch cut a greying figure, dressed against the morning chill in a navy overcoat and deerstalker hat.  He had a full, quite distinctive face, cool, glittering eyes and an immaculately trimmed goatee beard.  “Come on, inside.”

No invitation was sought:  permitting Joe no  time to dissent, this was a hand-on-arm hustle with the authority of a schoolmaster, or a policeman.  “This your drawing room?  Sit down.  You’re extremely lucky, Palliser.  I think we’ll be in time.”

“Who the hell are you?”  Joe demanded, recovering himself.

“That you’ll get to know in the next few minutes.  First, I want everything you’ve found out so far.  Everything – leave nothing out.”

“About what?”  The stranger’s attitude was far too nettlesome for eight o’clock in the morning.

“You’ve been a bad boy, haven’t you?  They’re all on your track, Joe, you have to understand that.  You should be grateful I got here first.”  He matched Joe’s angry stare with disturbing intensity.  “Now it’s time to stump up.  Where is Michael?  We have to find him urgently. Is he in Marsden?”

“Not that I know of.”  Joe repeated more emphatically.  “Who are you?”

“How did Marian die, Joe?”  The quick-fire switch of subject was clearly meant to catch Joe off balance, but it merely infuriated him further.

“Either identify yourself or get out!”

“I’m someone who’s on your side, man.  Be sensible! You know Marian’s old man will never let you get your hands on her money.  The police are involved.  Are they looking for you?  You’re in deep, deep trouble, my friend.  I’m your only hope, you see?”

Initially Joe might have been caught off guard, but now he recognised the newspaper man Ian had warned him about, and remembered Ian’s advice:  ‘Give them nothing they can use as a confirmation – they’ll pretend to know a lot more than they do, and they’ll try to catch you.’

Joe took the offensive.  “Which ‘paper?  ‘Courier’? ‘Today’?  ‘Chronicle’?  Since you refuse to introduce yourself, I’ll give you a name.  Let me see – Eddie?  Which muck rag, Eddie?”

“That’s a very good guess.  My middle name is Edward, actually.  Douglas Lynd – that’s my by-line, Joe.  The ‘Courier’.”  Discovered, Eddie tried another tack:  “Now, tell me about Marian, Joe.”

“Tell you what?”  Ian’s second piece of advice: ‘Never throw them out; they’ll just print what they like, then.  Only give answers they’ll have to disprove if they want to publish.’  “That she was my landlady?  That she used the flat upstairs when she was in town?”

“You were sleeping with her.”

Contriving to return Lynd’s smirk with a steady glare, Joe said:  “I deny that.”  After all, it would not be the first time he had lied in Ian’s cause.

“Oh come on!”  Lynd scoffed.  “You had a relationship with her which lasted for years!  You travelled with her on her business trips:  she called you her ‘secretary’.  You can’t even bloody type!”

‘The office has managed to cover all but a couple of your trips,’ Ian had said.  ‘The two you made to the Scottish Trade Exhibitions in ’63 and ‘64.  Too many connections to track down, I’m afraid.’

“Untrue.”  Joe snapped.  “I was out of a job in ’63 and needed work. Mrs Brubaeker hired me for one trip. I was useful, so when the same trip came up the following year she took me with her again.  That’s all.  Separate rooms booked on each occasion, nothing untoward.  Your information is wrong.”

Lynd’s lip curled:  “Really?  Is that the best you can come up with?  If this relationship was platonic, how do you explain the will, Joe?  All that money?”

“Ah,” Joe nodded.  “Something someone like you wouldn’t understand Lynd.  Marian Brubaeker was a nice, very charitable person:  she led a separate life from the rest of her family, and as my solicitor explains it, she didn’t think her husband should have her fortune.  He has considerable wealth of his own, doesn’t he?”

“So she hauled you out like a present from a bran tub?”

“I don’t think she had anyone else to give her money to.  I think she was a lonely woman.”

“She was keeping you, wasn’t she?”

“No.”

“How else did you earn a living for what – ten years?”

“A job here, a job there: none of them lasted very long.  Some work for my brother.  I can live very cheaply.”

“A job here, a job where, exactly?”

“Why should I help you with details I can’t remember myself?”

Sighing, Lynd looked down at his feet, and the brown brogues which shod them.  “So that’s your story, is it?  Would it surprise you to know we have evidence you and Mrs Brubaeker were living together for a decade?”

“It would be a calumny, and therefore also libellous.  Mrs Brubaeker and I did not cohabit in any sense.  I had the flat downstairs, she was my landlady; no more than that.  Say otherwise and I’ll sue you for a figure with more noughts on the end than you can count.”

“You killed her, didn’t you?”

Had Joe half-expected the question?  Expected or no, he had to swallow before he answered:  “That’s disgusting!  No, of course I didn’t!”

“A tacky little fortune-hunter like you, twisting a lonely older woman around your finger to get her to leave you her money – of course you killed her!  Just as soon as she changed that will you had your grubby hands around her throat!  The cops will find out, Joe; it’s just a matter of time, son.  I’d start thinking about running, if I were you.”

He had to remain calm!  “That’s completely untrue.”

“We’ll see.  The investigation’s nearly complete, I’m told.  Michael’s mad, isn’t he?  You keep him restrained in a home.”

“I don’t keep Michael anywhere.”  Joe kept pace with the change.  “And he’s not restrained, as far as I know.  He’s my brother – wasn’t there some quote or other – ‘I am not my brother’s keeper’?”

“Here we go again.”  The newspaper man sighed.

“No,” was Joe’s rejoinder.  “No, we don’t.  It’s time you left, Mr Lynd.  Now!”

At the front door, Douglas Lynd asked, over his shoulder:  “Which mental home is Michael in, Palliser?”

“Michael is not in any ‘home’,” Joe responded.  “He’s free to come and go as he pleases.  Get out!”

Lynd nodded:  “This story is worth a lot of money, Joe.  My ‘paper pays well.  If you change your mind…”  He pulled a card from his pocket.  For some reason, Joe took it and placed it in a pocket of his own.

Watching the journalist drive away, Joe wondered at himself and his ability to lie.  From their earliest days, he and Ian had covered for one another, in their half-remembered infancy when their parents were alive, then through youth because Owen and Julia were strangers, the substitute parents who must be kept away from the secrets of the brothers’ world.

Jennifer was in the hotel bar, studying the day’s ‘Courier’ in one hand, picking at a cold chicken salad with the other.

Lynd nodded at the newspaper:  “Anything?”

“Not for us.”  Jennifer said.  “Did you get anything?”

“No, nothing worthwhile.  He’ll have briefed his people by now, so there’s no sense wasting time on him.  When the Party closes ranks…..”  He sipped thoughtfully from his whisky.  “You got plans?”

“Nothing that won’t wait.  Why?”

“There’s a loose end.  For some reason, he seems excessively interested in the Parkin case.”  Jennifer cast him a quizzical look.  “Local murder: look it up if you like.  See, I don’t know why a bloke like him would take the trouble, unless…”

“Unless what?”

“Well, unless there’s some personal connection.  And why did he bugger off to the seaside yesterday, questioning the people who looked after his brother?  Put the ends together, see what you get.  You can get closer to the bloke than I can.”

Jennifer pursed her lips.  “I’ll try.  Get closer to him? I don’t know.  He’s a strange one.”

Lynd made a face.  “He’s not…?”

“A confirmed bachelor?  No, I’d have seen that straight away.  I’ll work on it.  There might be a love interest for you.”

“Now that,” said Douglas Edward Lynd, “Would definitely help!”

 

That afternoon, the Masefields’ telephone rang.  Joe answered it.

“What are we doing tonight?”  Sophie’s telephone voice was bright, companionable:  “Don’t say you’ve forgotten!”

“Of course not.  I can’t tell you.”   Joe had not forgotten.

“Why?”

“You wouldn’t come.”

Silence for a moment at the other end – then, cautiously:  “How do I know what to wear?”

“Oh.  Dress down – right down.  Old jeans or something.”

“Absolutely.  A girl has to look her best…”

Joseph drove up to the imposing front doors of Highlands House that evening as confidently as any fugitive, sensible that his mere presence could lower the property’s rateable value.  This was hardly a novel feeling:  in London, whether he was behind the curtains watching Marian’s husband leave, or accompanying her on one of her sorties into the north, or to France, or Italy;  when everyone knew, though it was not discussed, exactly what role he fulfilled, the same burden applied.  Guilt was endemic to his nature now.  Wherever he was, he retained the uncomfortable feeling that he had no right to be there.

Sophie bounced from the opened door with a young horsewoman’s determination; an oddly gauche contrast to the languid, self-assured squire’s daughter who had flirted with him in the hay barn.  Was she nervous?  A burgundy coat folded over one arm, tote bag in the other hand, she was certainly not ‘dressed down’: an angora sweater in light sky blue, a denim mini-skirt which emphasised the length of her elegant legs and heeled red sandals  with toenails painted to compliment them.  She slipped into the seat beside him, tugging her skirt into modesty without giving him time to climb out and hold the door for her.

“Super car!”

“It’s old.”

“I so prefer the old ones.  The latest models are cheap and plasticky, don’t you think?  This has style, Joe.”

“You look very nice.”  He stopped short of the word ‘ravishing’, although that was exactly what he thought.

“Why, thank you, kind sir!”  Sophie gave him a smile which told him she knew exactly the word he was thinking of.

“That is not a pair of old jeans.”

“It’s denim.  It’s last year’s at least, and this old thing…”  She pulled at the sweater disparagingly.  “I wear this all the time.  Where are we going?”

“To the seaside.”

“Super.”

The drive to the coast was filled mostly with small talk, question and answer, seeking common ground.  Did Joe know Kellie-so-and-so, who would have been at Braunston School at such a time?  Did Sophie remember Jimmy-what-was-his-name, the boy who left the village around the time when..?  These discussions bore no satisfactory fruit, except perhaps to prove they had no friends in common, and few memories to share.  Yes, she had played with the village children sometimes, but mostly her friends were from Braunston, or further off.

“I know you have a brother in politics.”

“I know your father’s a distinguished consultant surgeon.”

“Daddy works awfully hard.”

“Ian pretends to.  Sometimes he almost brings it off.”

Then Joseph said:  “I met one of your friends the other day; she’d just been to see you, apparently – someone called Jennifer?”

Sophie pulled a face.  “Jennifer Althorpe you mean?  I was at school with her, but I wouldn’t really call her a friend.  She looked me up, though, that’s true.  Careful, Joe – Jenny’s a bit of a man-eater.  She’s also a journalist; quite dangerous all round, really.”

 

Their road served a succession of fishing villages strewn along the Channel’s stony shore.  Most sported no more than a few inshore smacks drawn up on the beach, and the odd lobster pot or two.  One little harbour town however – or village, because three or four shops in themselves make no more than the sum of their parts – had a humble charm all its own.  One street led in and led out in the space of a precipitous half-mile between sandstone headlands, past stone cottages, dark romantic alleys, a cobbled quay where a couple of coastal trawlers and a sorry-looking pleasure craft oscillated and bumped against the tide.  The evening sun low over the western cliff turned its opposite from blushing pink to glowering vermillion, casting black shadowed mystery after mystery – a cave perhaps, a depthless fissure, or hidden wreck?

One small café, unimaginatively named ‘The Lobster Pot’ stood on the quayside.  Upon first acquaintance it promised nothing very much:  a hand-written menu in the window, oil-cloth on the tables, a Martini bottle with a candle jammed into its neck as a centre-piece for each.

“You said you didn’t do dinners.”  Joe reminded Sophie, reading the dismay in her face.  “But if you can ignore the peeling paint and the slightly less than wonderful washrooms, the seafood is to die for.”

“Or to die of.”  Sophie said gravely.  “Aren’t we a little new for this degree of trust?”

“Nonetheless, trust me.”  He replied.

So they ordered crab, and Joe paid corkage on a bottle of wine he had carefully chosen from a Braunston vintner that afternoon, and they sat on bentwood chairs by a window that overlooked the quayside, while the sun worked its evening magic.  The food was all Joe had promised, for the crab had no journey to make in reaching here; it was delicately sweet and as fresh as the sea which yielded it.

When the sun had long set and their meal was over, Sophie sat back to look at Joe as though she was assessing him for some high purpose.  “You know, Joseph Palliser, there are depths to you I didn’t expect.”

He stared into his wine.  “You’re a little different, too.”

“Oh, Sophie Forbes-Pattinson, the squire’s daughter?  I can’t keep that up all the time.”  She said reflectively.  “I hope I don’t disappoint you. I’m a bit of a chameleon, actually, Joe.  Different faces, different requirements.  Like the horsewoman, eh?”  She slapped herself on the thigh.  “Good seat, what?”

“Like Eve White?”

“The film?  Sort of, I suppose.  She was a professional, though:  I do it for a hobby.”

“So long as the real Sophie’s in there somewhere.”  He said.

The hour was already late.  While Sophie braved the facilities Joe paid for their meal and wandered out onto the waterfront.  Somewhere beyond his eyes surf beat out a lazy rhythm.  The boats at their moorings grunted and murmured, deep in secretive conversation.   Sophie found him standing by his car.  She waited this time while he opened the door for her, briefly clasping his hand.

“Thank you Joe, that was nice.”  Her voice was soft.  She was very near.

“Now for the cabaret!”  Joe said.

 

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

 

 

 

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode Eight   A Question of Belonging

 

The Story so far:

 

Joseph Palliser returns to his home village on the day a respected villager, Violet Parkin is murdered.  Whilst Jack, Violet’s husband, is arrested for her murder Joe also attracts attention from the police.  In the decade of Joe’s absence his ex-girlfriend, Emma, has married Tom Peterkin, who was his friend throughout his youth.  When they meet Joe discovers that Emma still has feelings for him.

Joe visits his mentally unwell brother Michael, who, despite his confinement in a nursing home, inexplicably knows about Violet Parkin’s murder.  He discovers his brother’s expensive residential care is being paid for, but no-one will disclose the source of the funds.  Back in Hallbury he is confronted by a police detective who raises doubts about his movements on the day Violet was killed…

The Detective was clearly waiting for an answer.  Joseph took a deep breath:  “This is relying on the word of two elderly people who probably don’t remember which ‘bus they were on.  As to the Abbots Friscombe train, I’m not surprised if no-one remembers me: there was no-one in my compartment.”  He decided upon attack:  “Anyhow, does it matter?  Are you suggesting I leapt from the ‘bus, ran down to the other end of the common, stabbed Violet Parkin to death and then came back here to greet my uncle and aunt?  Ask them what time I arrived.  And what possible reason would I have to attack Violet Parkin?”

The young constable was staring fixedly out into the garden.  His superior gave Joseph a piercing look.  “The time of Mrs Parkin’s death was approximate, sir; so maybe you wouldn’t have had to rush.”  He leant forward a little:  “How did you know Mrs Parkin was stabbed, Mr Palliser?”

“Shall we say I have inside knowledge?”  Joe asked, glancing meaningfully at the young constable and gratified to see his shoulders stiffen.  “Detective, do I honestly strike you as someone who sharpens pitchforks?”

The detective sergeant sighed.  “Pitchforks, now?  No sir.  No, you don’t.  But you do strike me as someone who knows a lot too much about Mrs Parkin’s death.”

“I’ve been away for several years, Sergeant.  I didn’t even know Violet Parkin was still alive.”

“True, but you have associations with this village, don’t you?  I wonder if you arrived earlier than you claim, and if you did, you might have seen something, or done something you would prefer not to talk about here.  Please think carefully; if you remember anything new and you want to talk to me….”

They left then, the one middle-aged, bearing the weary cynicism of someone accustomed to lies, the other a fresh young puppy-dog with waggy tail, pleased to have discovered something of value to his master.  The word they left behind, the one that dwelt with Joseph for a long time that evening, was ‘associations’:  did he still have those?  And if so, who in the village would have given that information to the police?

In spite of Michael’s plea for urgency, some days would elapse before Joseph could catch up with Ned Barker, the landlord of the King’s Head.

Dot explained.  “He’m gone fishin’, lover.”

In village parlance she might have meant he was camping out by a stream somewhere, although he was more likely to be on some other mission entirely.  It was no-one’s business but Ned’s, and Joe lacked the persistence to enquire further.

He filled his time by taking the train to Braunston for a visit to the Labour Exchange.  The day was warm and sunny so he bought a local newspaper and sat on a bench in the park to browse through the ‘vacancies’ column.  Employers seemed to be so discriminating; the qualifications they demanded followed more and more precise lines –  ‘Qualified Administrator:  HNC or higher’; or maybe ‘Trained Supervisory Assistant – must have at least five year’s experience’.  At thirty-one Joseph was, he had to admit to himself, qualified for precisely nothing.

Despondent, he turned to the front page, where the Parkin murder was splashed in giant headlines.  Their ‘Suspicious Death Shocks Hallbury’ was less than inspirational, and the report lacked substance, but it brought Joseph face to face with Violet Parkin, for the ‘paper had managed to obtain a photograph of her.  A head and broad shoulders glaring awkwardly at the camera, she frowned directly at him, as though she had never forgiven him for disturbing her ducks.

If asked, he would be unable to say how long he had been there when he heard the brush of clothing as someone settled on the bench beside him.  He did not look round, or acknowledge the newcomer:  his mind was too busy.

“I keep running into you, don’t I?”  Said Emma Peterkin.

She sat primly with coppery hair riffling gently in the wind, hands clasped on a small brown handbag in her lap, staring before her; a young married woman in her ‘town best’ – her pale green blouse loosely tucked into the waistband of a hounds-tooth checked skirt which finished just above her knees.  Sheer tights or stockings over legs too well-proportioned to go unnoticed, white heels on narrow feet.  Undeniably respectable, entrancingly pretty, Joe thought; and utterly miserable.

She turned her face towards him.  It was so close to being the perfect face; it was, still, so close to being Sarah’s face: wide set, soulful eyes, a strong nose, broad, sensuous mouth;  those two little pink patches on her upper cheeks which flushed furiously whenever she was embarrassed or aroused.  Small wonder then, that he had found his way to her when Sarah had gone – small wonder that she still tugged at his heartstrings dangerously, despite the passing of the years.

“I should have just walked past.  I’m sorry,” She said.  “But I couldn’t.  You looked so….”  Her voice tailed away.

“Emma.”  Joe began.

“How are you, Joe?”  She had determined upon a greeting; a normal conversation.  They were friends, reunited after a long absence.  They had much to share.  “I come to town each Tuesday to shop, when it’s quiet.  I works the other days of the week and Tom never likes it if I break into our Saturday together.  People say the shops should start opening on Sundays and I don’t know if I don’t agree with them – what do you think?”

“I really don’t have an opinion.”

“Really?  Really, you don’t?”  Emma’s eyes sought about her frantically:  “Well, I think it would be a blessing, I do.  I…I can’t sleep, Joe!  For thinking about you, I can’t…”

“Emma, please?”  He reached out for her, covered her hand with his; and simple gesture of compassion as that was, her flesh trembled at his touch.

“Not since you come back!  Why the fuck did you come back?”

The word was never more startling in its impact than when it came from Emma.  It passed through Joseph like an electric shock – a surge of anger, and pain, and – yes, a stab of intense longing too.

“Emma, I…”

“No!  No, you tell me!  Not a word from you, Joe Palliser; though I waited.  Yes, I did.  Because you promised, didn’t you?  I’ll write you soon as I get settled, Emma?  Remember?”  She clasped her hands about her knees, leaning forward, half-hunched, eyes filling with tears.  “So why are you here?  So you can…”  Emma spat out the word…  “use me again, to forget your precious bloody Sarah?  Because that’s what you did, Joe.  That’s what you did!”

“Stop it!”  He went to her then, because he was unable to bear her fury; because she was hurting too much.  He put his arm about her shoulders and stilled her, took her hand in his and held it there.  “Stop, Emma, please?”

“Oh, god!”  It was a suppressed wail.  “Why’d you have to come back?”

“Emm, you know why I left?”

“Yes, I know.  Because Charker was after you.  I got news for you, boy.  He’m still after you.  Charker don’t forget.”

“If it hadn’t been for that…”

Emma glared at him.  “Don’t give me ‘ifs’!”  Her face was too close to his.  Realising, she quickly turned her head aside.

He said:  “All this was a lot of years ago.  It was more than just Charker, it was Owen and Julia, it was my brothers; the whole thing.  But it wasn’t you.  All right, perhaps at first I might have been getting over Sarah, I admit it; but all that changed.  Believe me, I didn’t just use you.  It was far more than that.”

“Oh, the lies we want to hear!”

“No, not lies.”  Joe sighed, unashamed that his own breath should give him away:  she would sense it, he knew.

“Why didn’t you call me?” Her voice was calmer.

“Emm, I made a mess of London.  If I’d managed to find a job I could keep or a home that was more than a bedroom, I would have called, but it wasn’t like that.  It wasn’t the answer for me.  I did a lot of things I can’t talk about. In the end, this was the only place to come.”

“Oh!  Oh, enough of an answer to find yourself a wife, Joe!”  Emma snapped back. “Where does she come into all of this?  Or are you just goin’ to drop her as well?  What must she be thinkin’?”

“She understands.  I needed to get away – she knows that.”   Why did he choose to be evasive?  Did he think the symbolic defence of a wedding ring would be sufficient to deny the temptation sitting beside him?

Emma made no reply.  For a long time, nothing was said.  People walking by, idling in the sun, would make up their own versions of the story of a man and an unhappy woman huddled together on a park bench.

At length, Joe said:  “Look, I’d better go.”

“What are you going to do now?  You going back to London, or what?”  She muttered.

“No, that’s all over.  Wherever I go, I can’t go there.”

“Over?”  Emma turned to look at him, red-eyed.  The pink spots on her cheeks were afire, her lips were slack.  “Then you are droppin’ her! You be careful, Joe.  Soon the world’s going to be full of places you can’t go.”

“I thought I’d stay:  try and do something with my life.”  He could not deny the need to kiss her or, despite her misgivings, how much she wanted that too.  Her thigh was pressed to his, sending him arrows of its warmth, and there were so many words that needed to be said – so many things that could never be said.

I want you, Joe!  I’m so ready for you, right now.  You could take me, here, in front of everybody and I wouldn’t care!

“It’s a good job this is a public park.”  She said.

“This is wrong, Emma.”  He said.

“I know it.”  She shook her head sadly.  “And if you stay, we’re going to meet time after time like this, and just pass each other by, I suppose.   Oh, I can’t, Joe!  I can’t!”

She got up then, thinking she might begin to cry again, and brushed her hand down the back of her skirt.

“Oh, Lord!”  She said, and walked away.

Joseph watched her go.  It was pointless to deny the way he felt for her, although it surprised him by its intensity:  there had been times, after all, when months had gone by without his sparing her a second thought.  But then, there had been not just months, but years of denial, of truths unacknowledged.  Doing what he had to do – surviving as he had to survive.

Now, seeing her again, hearing the soft invitation in her voice, being close to the heat of her – he shook himself physically.  Emma was married:  what was more, she was married to the only person in Hallbury he had ever been able to call a true friend.  And life was complicated enough.

For a few days Joseph stayed at home, helping Owen with his beloved garden as he gradually melted the old man’s distaste for his ‘gigolo’ ward.  In his turn he gained new respect for Owen, an always distant figure in his past.  This stern, disinterested father substitute seemed more comfortable with Joseph the man than with the child he and his wife had so selflessly agreed to raise.  Once he had learnt to adjust to Owen’s slow, exacting logic, Joseph found depths he had not believed could exist.

There were also moments of startling acuity.

Half-way up the garden Owen had grown two rows of tomato plants.  It promised to be a good year, and abundant trusses were already set.  Any new shoots had to be picked out, and the pair were engaged in this chore when the older man observed:  “You’re behaving like someone who wants to return to the village.”

Joseph grinned:  “Really?”

“Is it true?”

“I don’t know.”  Joe straightened himself to ease his back for a moment.  “I think there may be too many issues, Uncle; I’m not sure Little Hallbury would exactly clasp me to its bosom right now.”

“I won’t deny you’ve got some problems.  Funny thing, acceptance.”  Ferreting in the depths of his gardening corduroys, Owen retrieved his pipe; pulling a half-used pack of fragrant Amsterdamer tobacco from the same source.  He tapped out the pipe on a stone.

“Outsiders see our community as being inbred, insular, positively hostile.  It isn’t true, of course – Hallbury is really a well-oiled social machine.  It has perfect balance; it consumes and produces on a steady plane, settles its own feuds and petty crime, and so on.”

He turned away from the breeze, cupping his hands around his pipe to light it ,  then he resumed, speaking between puffs as he coaxed the smouldering bowl into life.

“If you’re born into it, you’re a member.  If you aren’t there’s nothing you can do.  You won’t know, for instance, because no-one will openly speak of it, that old Josiah Regan, Janice’s grandfather, went completely mad and got caught trying to eat one of Hal Turker’s ducks raw back in ‘46 – you won’t be acquainted with an unfortunate habit of Aaron Pace in his younger years:  there’s scarcely a bedroom window in the village he hasn’t peeked through.

“You see, the rural idyll is nothing of the sort.  This place has more secrets, more closeted skeletons, more social crime than you can possibly imagine.  It seethes below the surface.  Unless you’re a part of it the true natives will never be that comfortable with you.  You’ll never ‘belong’ in that way.”

Owen wagged a finger.  “That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  For instance, you can leave your door unlocked without fear that someone will just walk in for a cup of tea and a conversation.  And it doesn’t mean that the village will ostracize you.  They just won’t treat you as a part of their machine.

“You’re closer to acceptance than most incomers would get.  You came to Hallbury as a child, your best friend lives here, and you’ve made enemies as well, so you’re interesting.  You could do worse than settle here.  I believe the Lamb family’s cottage on Church Hill might be up for sale soon.  Charley Lamb works in Hurley Walter now and I know he’s looking to move.”

Joseph shook his head.  “You know, Uncle, you are surprising me.  I always thought you wanted me as far away from you as possible.”

The old man ruminated upon this for a moment.  “I’ve never been confident around children.  Julia and I agreed a long time ago not to have any of our own, so taking on the three of you was a big demand on us.  I don’t want you living in this house forever, but I admit I like you better now you’re full-sized.”

“Even though I’m a gigolo?”  Joseph reminded him.

“Nobody’s perfect.”  Owen allowed himself a secret smile:  “There was a time in Cairo, during the war…”

On Thursday the weather broke. The garden being unworkable, Joe retired to his room to work on his curriculum vitae.  Only after tea did the rain ease enough to allow him to venture out.

He set off for the King’s Head by the route around Wednesday Common which would take him past the Parkin farm.  He strode ahead, enjoying the steady rhythm of drips from waterlogged hedges, dodging larger showers stirred from trees by a freshening wind.  Violet Parkin’s house festooned with police tape.  Nearly a week had passed and Jack Parkin languished in a cell somewhere, accused, a Timothy Evans figure too confused to plead his cause.

A police car squatted next to the front gate.

“Evening!”  PC Hallett clambered stiff-limbed from the driver’s seat.  “Is that Joey Palliser, by any chance?”

“It is, Davy,”  Joe replied, recalling this avuncular figure from his youth.  “How are you these days?”

“Oh, much the same.  I have to watch the place, case somebody tries to get in, see?”

Joe acknowledged it was a bad business.

“Oh, ‘twas, ‘twas.”  Davy Hallett looked Joseph up and down.  “Now you’ve growed, lad.  Went to London, didn’t you?  You just visitin’ us, then?”

Joe summarised his less detailed version of his London story, “Did you know Violet well, Davy?”

“No, not many did.  Although,””  PC Hallett added darkly, “there were a few as knew her very well.  Very well indeed.”

“Strange.  Somebody said something similar to me the other day.  I didn’t know what he meant by it, though.  Am I going to get you to tell me?”

Davy shook his head.  “No lad.  These are police matters, see?  Not that they’re going to do much. They reckon they got it all sewed up.”

“Really?  Do you think they’re right?”  Joe asked.

“Murders, see?  We don’t get many, and there’s the truth.  When we do, they’d usually be acts of drunken rage.”  The policeman was studying him.  “How come you’re so interested, Joe?  Like you said, you didn’t exactly know her, did you?”

“I just don’t want to see Jack go down for something he didn’t do, that’s all.  I don’t think he did it, Davy.  I don’t think you do, either.”

Jack Parkin; the police were content to consign him to a gallows; the village seemed to have turned its back.  Jack was not the easiest of people to like.

Davy Hallett shook his head.  “I don’t know.  Jack’s drinkin’s got a lot worse, of late years.  Some might say he’s a little bit mad.”

With a few brief words of parting, Joseph left the constable easing his ample proportions back into the relative comfort of his little car, and lost in thought, wandered up Feather Lane towards the King’s Head.  It was going to be difficult to verify even the simplest details concerning Violet’s last moments, he told himself: but that made his task all the more challenging.

“Don’t like the police.”  Growled a deep voice behind him; “You doesn’t want to be seen consortin’ with they, Palliser.”

© 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:  Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hallbury Summer –Episode Six                     The Road to Maddock Gate  

The story so far:

 

Joseph has admitted to his relationship with Marian, the wealthy married businesswoman by whose patronage he managed to survive through most of his years in London.  Yet, to his aunt and uncle, his explanation for leaving her seems unconvincing, and too much interrogation sends him on a walk through Wednesday Common, from where he can view the outside of the farm where Violet Parkin was murdered.  He meets his former girlfriend Emma there.  She warns him not to discuss their past relationship with her husband, Tom, once Joe’s best friend.

Joe is helping his uncle at home in his garden when his aunt announces that the police have arrived…

Owen Masefield could hardly have failed to notice his nephew’s reluctance as they joined the uniformed constable who stood in their front room, gazing out through the french windows at Julia’s summer garden.  He was a young man with bright, eager eyes and a narrow, slightly pallid face.  His domed helmet sat on the chaise longue like an obedient pet, waiting for him to sit beside it.  He immediately picked up on Joseph’s misgivings, though Joseph had thought to disguise them.

“Am I keeping you from something, sir?”  Joseph shook his head dumbly.

“Joe hasn’t been well,” Aunt Julia explained.

The constable studied Joseph for a moment before he went on; “We’re asking everyone in the village if they saw or heard something which might help us with our investigation into a suspicious death.  This was on Friday.  About four o’clock in the afternoon it would have been.”

No, Joe’s aunt and uncle declared, they hadn’t.  And the other routine questions the young constable asked received similar negatives.  He jotted down their answers in his notebook.  It seemed, he admitted when he had completed his list, that no-one saw and no-one heard.

“Mrs Parkin must have struggled – she did struggle.  There would have been some noise.”  The constable’s eyes kept returning to Joseph.  “You weren’t here, though, were you sir?   You didn’t get into the village until when?”

“About five o’clock.  I caught the four-forty-five bus from Friscombe.”

“An hour later.  Come down from London?”

“Yes.”

“What train?”

Joseph filled in the details for the constable, who dutifully recorded them all in his notebook.  He thanked everybody for their co-operation, made complimentary remarks about Julia’s garden, and left, wandering down the front path towards the road.  Joseph caught up with him.

“I wonder, officer, can you tell me?  How did she actually die?”

The young man frowned.  “Now why would we want to know that, sir?”

“There are wild rumours.  I had a bit of respect for the old lady, and I know some of her relatives.  It would be better to know the truth.”

The constable subjected Joseph to puzzled scrutiny.  “Well, I can’t tell you everything, but I can say whoever killed her must have really wanted to hurt her.”

“He must have been strong, too.”  Joseph prompted.

“He?  How do you mean?”

“The thing with the pitchforks?  It can’t be easy to drive one of those so deep into wood?  Oh, come on, sergeant, it’s all over the village!  Or is that just embroidery?”

Joseph could not tell whether his deliberate promotion of the policeman’s rank flattered him, or not.  The young man certainly made no effort to correct him.

“No, it’s not embroidery.  But it would be easier if the pitchforks were specially sharpened, wouldn’t it now?”  The policeman shook his head.  “I think I’ve said enough, if you don’t mind.”

He turned away.  Joseph called after him, without knowing why:  “If I can be any help?”

And the policeman replied, over his shoulder:  “But Mrs Parkin passed away before you arrived, sir – didn’t she?  Anyhow, I’m sure we’ll be in touch.”

The next morning Joseph confirmed his brother Michael’s whereabouts from Julia and announced his intention to pay him a visit.  Michael spent his days in a care home a little less than thirty miles distant, near Maddockgate village, a tiny hamlet on the road to Marsden-on-Sea.  The only drawback was rain, which began soon after Joseph alighted from his local ‘bus in Abbots Friscombe.  With half an hour to kill before the ‘bus to the coast arrived, he sought shelter in a café on the village square.  A short woman in a floral apron and flat shoes shuffled between her five deserted tables.

“What can I get you, dear?  Got some nice tea-cakes.”

Joseph ordered coffee.  The woman shuffled away.

Condensation ran down the window-glass.  Outside, the rain was becoming heavier, inducing shouts of panic from passing perms, the clack of running feet.  Traffic on the square splashed past, black and half-seen through runnels of moisture.  The café door burst open.

“Oh my lord, Bella!  It’s just pissin’ down out there!”

Bella was making Joseph’s coffee.  “Manners now, Mary.  We got comp’ny!”

“Oops, sorry!”  The new arrival, a woman in early middle age, encompassed Joseph in an unseeing glance; then she looked again.  “Good lord!  Joey?  Joey Palliser?  What are you doin’ ‘ere?”

Joseph smiled bleakly:  “Everyone asks me that.”

“It is a surprise, you’ll admit: ‘specially after…”  Setting Bella about the task of brewing a pot of tea, Mary came to his table, resting a suggestive hand on the opposite chair to Joseph.  “Mind?”

“No.  No, of course not.”

“Well, we got to catch up, haven’t we?  Why you come back?  You reckon ‘tis all forgotten now, then?”

“Clearly not,”  Joseph muttered.  Mary Harkus certainly wouldn’t have forgotten.  Tom Peterkin once referred to her, kindly, as ‘The Voice of the Community’.  It was a title she fully justified.  Her small grey eyes fixed steadily on his, rain dripping slowly from her blunt features onto the bare wooden table.  “It’s been more than ten years, Mary.”

Bella brought their drinks.

“Folks don’t forget Joey,”  Mary poured some milk from a small creamer into her cup, topped it up with tea.  “No, they got long memories, dear.”  She spooned three sugars.  “What’s our Charker got to say?  Have you met ‘un yet?”

“I’ve met him.”

“Ah, well….”  This, laden with emphasis:  “He don’t forget his brother.  Often talks ‘bout him, he does.”

Joseph nodded curtly.  “I’m sure he does.”  There was no other recourse than to leave, his coffee untouched.  He paid Bella, ignoring her sotto voce:  “What did you expect?” and resigned himself to the rain.  As he closed the café door, Mary Harkus called after him.

“You watch out for our Charker, mind, Joe Palliser.  You watch out, now!”

 

True to the country tradition, the ‘bus was late and grew later with every mile as it picked its way north to Maddockgate.  It was fairly well filled, in spite of the weather: optimistic trippers with hopeful smiles and determined expressions:

“It’ll clear up later.”

“Just a shower.”

Joseph settled into a corner, watching through the fog of spray and steam as the world went past.  How foolish he had been to even consider returning here!   Of course they would remember – he could never forget, how should they?  And it was this road, and in a minute it would be the precise place…

Rodney Smith – as lean as his brother was fat, as clever as his brother was slow-witted, with a long, hooked nose, and Dickensian pomposity:  imbued with a swift, sarcastic tongue.  The Smith family took pride in his intelligence, his diligence, his certainty of success – but to Joey Rodney Smith was a relentless tormentor.  To Rodney, Joe was a target for humiliation; a hapless, worthless adversary who seemed a little slow, a little shy.

“You, Joe Palliser?  You won’t ever amount to anything!”

Whenever Joseph voiced an ambition that taunt sapped his confidence, drawing spikes of laughter from all about him and snapping shut like an iron maiden on the meagre flesh of his self-esteem.  It followed him through school, this malignancy, and into adulthood.  Wherever Joseph was, whoever he was with, Rodney would always be somewhere near.  Talking with girls:

“Now there’s a surprise!  Are you turning straight, Joey?”

Rodney excelled at sports.  Not just one, but any sport.  He scored goals, he ran like a cheetah, his tennis game was accurate and vicious.  Whenever teams were selected, Rodney was always the first to be picked.  Even then, the barb:  “If I play for you, you have to promise not to pick Joe Palliser.  I want us to win.”

Once, reduced very nearly to tears, Joseph grabbed Rodney’s hard-muscled arm.  “Why do you keep doing this to me?  What did I ever do to you?”

“Do to me?  Whatever makes you think you could do anything to me?  I just don’t like you, Palliser.  You’re a worm.  You belong in the soil where I can tread on you.  I enjoy it!”

Joseph would have succumbed completely, were it not for Sarah.  She nick-named Rodney Smith ‘Achilles’. It irritated him visibly, the more so because Sarah was as widely admired by the girls’ half of the school as he.  Finally, he was driven to ask her:

“Why Achilles?”

“Too much muscle and too much pride – and because you’ve got a heel, mate.  You’ve got a heel.”

Nobody knew what Sarah saw in Joseph Palliser, least of all Joseph himself.  One morning when Rodney, who constantly attempted to add her to his list of trophies, put that question, she smiled at him kindly.

“He’s all the things you’re not, Achilles dear.  One day you’ll find out.”

Sarah had departed for London and her new life long before that day came.  Joseph had begun working for a firm of solicitors in Braunston, with the hope of eventually taking articles.  His employer, an amiable old solicitor called Carnaby, bore his immaturity with resigned patience as he coaxed the best from this spotty-fleshed youth with his large, soft eyes and downcast look.

By then Tom Peterkin was Joseph’s closest friend.  Tom was a mechanic by nature and birth, performing little tasks in his father’s garage from an age when Victorian pauper children would have been too young to climb chimneys, only happy if he was oily fingered and greasy-faced, attacking an obscure nut or a recalcitrant bearing.   So when in the summer of fifty-nine Joseph bought an old Ford Pilot car, he provided a catalyst for them both.

Tom’s grin split from ear to ear.  “Now then!”  He said ecstatically:  “What can’t we do with that?”

Thereafter, car modification filled their weekends:  Tom’s Sunbeam in one corner of his father’s workshop, Joe’s Pilot in the other.  Tom wanted a ‘rod’, a highly modified, brightly painted street car, while Joseph, typically for him, craved anonymity and disguise.  As Tom’s car gradually mutated into a squat, barrel-tyred, garishly painted speed machine, Joseph’s underwent far more subtle changes.  Under the senior Peterkin’s tutelage Joe transformed his Pilot’s eight cylinders, subtly widened its road wheels and replaced its suspension, all without any obvious alteration.  He revelled in secret pleasure, enjoying the efficiency of the machine he created:  an inward smirk, maybe – or another aspect of the tightly introverted person he had become?

All that changed one Saturday morning in February nineteen-sixty, when Joseph drove into the garage, to find Tom standing triumphantly amid a stack of boxes.

“All the way from America!”  He proclaimed proudly.  “Absolutely the fashion, this.  We got Nitro, boy!”

Nitrous oxide; laughing gas:  the dentists’ companion and the street racer’s fuel of choice.  A sleeping giant, in the disguise of one small cylinder, a few fittings and valves, all concealed from general view.  At the turn of a tap, a monstrous surge of raw power, which might turn the exhaust pipe into a cannon, overheat and destroy an engine in seconds if used unwisely – but what seconds!  Joseph was not immune to a boy’s addiction to speed.  Before a week had passed, his dignified old conveyance had developed a more sinister aspect.

Joseph was proud of his driving skills and his car was admired by the local girls, not for its undiscovered pace – it retained its innocent outward appearance – but for the sheer shiny care he lavished upon it.  He enjoyed their attention.  It was not for him to acknowledge that his popularity was for all the wrong reasons: he was, in so many ways, a child still.  But he was no longer an outsider.

This did not escape the notice of Rodney Smith, whose new stamping ground was Braunston.  Rodney was bound for Cambridge that autumn, so why he could not simply put the Palliser boy behind him and move on, no-one could understand: yet Joseph remained the object of his jibes, a butt for much of his humour.  Palliser’s emergence, his seeds of success seemed to gall Rodney particularly; especially when one of his girlfriends enthused about the gleaming black Ford Pilot.

The ‘bus slowed down, dropping a grating gear for the winding descent towards Maddock’s Teirny.  A bend to the left…..no, not here:  not this one.  Very near, now though…

Joe had been alone, driving his favourite route into the hills.  He was so relaxed he did not see the sleek MG convertible that swept up the road behind him:  with a blare of twin air-horns it thrashed past, a brief snapshot of Rodney’s grinning face and an obscene gesture as he cut in viciously, sending Joe’s Ford careering out of control into the verge.

For a few seconds Joseph’s precious machine teetered at the brink of a ditch which would surely have sent it to its grave before he managed to stabilise it.   Receding into distance, Rodney Smith drove with his left arm resting across the top of his passenger seat, chuckling as his mirrors revealed the drama behind him.

Rodney drove fast, laughing as he rotated the joke in his head.  That stupid Palliser!  So pretentious, so impertinently neglectful of his station!   The boy was working class, and utterly naive.  It may have passed muster with the village tarts, but he, Rodney, was not convinced by a cheap old banger larded with polish.

At length the event ceased to amuse Rodney.  He began planning his first date with  Josephine, who he had promised to pick up from her Marsden home by half-past-ten.  There was a champagne picnic – a new concept even for him – in the car boot.  It promised to be a very special weekend indeed.

A raucous shout from a car-horn gave him a moment of alarm, which redoubled when he glanced in his mirror and saw the low bull nose of the Ford Pilot right behind him.  Through its windscreen he could pick out Joseph Palliser’s face, set in a grim smile.

So he wanted to compete, did he?  Good god, hadn’t the repeated humiliations, the thrashings at every game he played, the constant ridicule been enough?  Very well then!  With a calculated skill which typified everything he did, Rodney dropped a gear, put his foot to the floor.  The MG answered him willingly, and he allowed himself a leer of triumph as the old Ford fell back.  A right-hand bend at speed, a little tail-end drift, neatly controlled while the wind rushed through his chestnut hair – why didn’t he do this more often?

The Ford was still there.  Now it was drawing closer, its headlights set on full beam, its horn repeating that demanding yell.  All right, then, Joey Palliser – a bit more; is that what you want?  Again, Rodney decked the pedal: pounding along the straight towards the summit of Tierney Hill, watching Joe’s car drop back.  Then, a crackle like distant gunfire and all at once it became larger; very much larger.  There was a hard-edged whine from the pursuing car’s engine, a throaty bellow from its exhaust.

No-one would know at what precise point Rodney’s perception of Joseph Palliser changed from one of sneering contempt to acknowledgement of imminent threat.  Later, Joseph explained to the police how Rodney succeeded in negotiating the first three bends of the hill before the MG’s front tyres lost their grip.

“He was just going too fast – much too fast.  The speed when he overtook me…well!  Coming down the hill, I knew I was going to find he’d left the road somewhere…”

The bus slowed significantly now, sought out yet another gear.  This was it – this next bend.  Joseph could not resist scrubbing at his cloudy window as the bus heeled sharply left.  Still there, the gap in the hedge, after all these years, closed by chestnut hurdles.  Beyond it the field which dropped sharply away into the valley:  the field where Rodney Smith’s glittering future ended.

Joseph could not wipe away those memories.  Although there was nothing he could do, it was a high price to pay and the first time he had ever seen someone die.

The police did not even investigate Joe’s car.  After all, as he explained, he was well away from the accident when it happened.  There was no reason to believe he was anything other than a witness.  The Ford looked like quite an ordinary vehicle, so they never sought out the cylinder of nitro in the boot, or checked it to find it was nearly empty.

Joseph was free from suspicion.  He took care to remove all trace of gas injection from his car the same afternoon, replacing the old parts in the carburettors.  But rumours began to spread in Abbots Friscombe, tales of how Joey Palliser had forced young Rodney Smith into a duel, and by some devious trick or another Rodney had lost.  Some alleged Joe Palliser had run the innocent Rodney from the road; people who would have treated that suggestion with incredulity a week before, but such is the way of rumour:  it makes heroes or villains wherever its appetite takes it.

Tom Peterkin gave him the warning:  “The Smiths are after you, boy.  Charker’s sworn to get even.  I’d lie low if I was you.”

Tom, of course, knew more than anyone.  But he was a true ally:  he kept his peace.

But where, you might ask, did Joseph’s brother Ian feature in all this?  How often was he called upon to leap to Joseph’s defence through those lonely, harassed years?  Well, the answer is nowhere.  Ian, you see, counted himself one of Rodney Smith’s best friends.

© 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 Three: Michael

The Story so Far…

One summer afternoon in the village of Little Hallbury Violet Parkin is murdered,  the same afternoon Joseph Palliser returns from the city to visit his Uncle Owen and Aunt Julia Masefield, in whose home he and his two brothers were raised. 

Joe is intent upon staying for a while, but he seems unwilling to discuss his London years.  To avoid interrogation he seeks his childhood haunts on the local common, where after startling a horse and its rider, he meets his erstwhile best friend, Tom Peterkin. Tom is now married to Emma, the girl Joe left behind when he moved to the city.

After an awkward encounter with Emma, Joe and Tom seek refuge in the local pub, where the subject for discussion is Jack Parkin’s arrest for his wife’s murder.  A drinker at the bar, Charker Smith, is less than happy to see Joseph walk in…

“You got some nerve, showin’ up ‘ere, Palliser, I’ll give ‘ee that!”  In the close confines of the bar, Charker Smith seemed even larger than Joe remembered.  The elder of an unlikely pair of brothers, it was said of Charker that he had inherited all of the family’s muscle, while his younger sibling, Rodney, had been bequeathed most of the brains.

“Leave ‘im alone, Charker!  He’s just visitin’. That’s all.”  Seeing Charker ready to square up, Tom Peterkin sprang to Joseph’s defence.

“Slummin’ more  like.”  Charker responded.  “I thought you was too big-in-yer-boots for us peasant folks these days, Palliser.”

Joe grinned deferentially:  “Yes, well, you know….”

“Ah.  I knows, right enough!”

“Keep thee lid on, Charker!”  Tom warned.  He turned to the landlady, “Let’s ‘ave a couple of your specials, Dot.”

Dot banged a warning fist on the counter.  “Now then you two, keep ut peaceful!  Gawd, let ‘un be, Charker!  He’m the first new customer I’ve had in ten year!  Here we are, m’ dears.”  The bar supported three massive, black handled pumps:  she mauled the first of these with the determination of an all-in wrestler, conjuring thick, warm beer from the ground like a healing spring.  “Special for thee, Tom dearest.  That’s one and eight pence, now.”

There were four other drinkers at the bar:  Aaron Pace, immediately recognisable because of his stoop, Pat Farrier,  Rob Pardin and  Albert Regan.  Each studied their beer after the manner of country folk, issuing their own quiet greetings without raising their eyes.

“You’ll be losin’ another customer soon, Dot.”  Rob Pardin piped up in his strange, cracked voice.  “When they locks old Jack away.”

This brought no more than a chuckle from Patrick Farrier.  Aaron Pace nodded in solemn agreement.

“Weren’t no cust’mer of mine!”  Dot responded quite sharply.  Everyone knew Ned Barker, the landlord, had thrown Jack Parkin out years ago.  “Not many pubs round here’ll miss ‘im, I’m afraid.”

“All the same…”  Patrick said.

“Ah, there’s no folk ‘d wish  this on ‘im.”  Aaron agreed sagely.  “’Twere your Janice found ‘er, wasn’ it, Bert?”

“Aye it was.  In the dairy.  She’m proper shocked, too.  Said she never seen nothin’ like it.  Violet’s arms was pinned against the stall with pitchforks.  Whoever done it must ‘ave been proper strong.  An’ she were cut open something ‘orrible.”

Patrick shook his head.  “Jack couldn’t never have done that.”

“Trouble is;” Albert Regan  said, “Jack was there.”

“He were at work weren’t ‘er?”  Charker asked.

“Should ‘a’ been, but he weren’t.  He ‘ad a row with old Williamson and took ‘isself off in a stonkin’ mood, ‘pparently.  He went ‘ome, round about the time Violet died, they say.   Bit after, he goes down The ‘Orse in Fettsham, calm as you please, and that’s where Davy Hallett found him.”

This brought a straggling chorus of disbelief.  Gradually the conversation drifted away from Jack Parkin, only returning now and again to reiterate the same opinions that, no matter how bad it looked, Jack could not have murdered his wife.

“Your brother done well for hisself, Joseph lad.”  Pat Farrier remarked.  Joe had to agree.

“Reck’n he’ll get ‘lected?”

He certainly reckons he will.”

“Not that ‘e’ll do much good fer us, mind!”  Rob Pardin muttered.  “Us’ll soon get forgot, once ‘e’s rich and powerful, like.”

“He’s fairly rich now,”  Joe said.

“They don’t do no good fer us country folks;”  Albert Regan chipped in.  “Picks on us when they wants more money, that’s all they do.”

This brought a general murmur of assent.

“Well, you never knows.”  Aaron Pace said.  “Might  do, might not.  Stranger thing’s ‘as ‘appened.”

Little by little, in spite of Charker’s hostile stare which had fixed on him from the first moment, Joseph found himself absorbed in this conversation:  he and Tom Peterkin ordered two of Dot’s home-made pasties  “That’s it, Dot, kill ‘im off for us!”  and ate, and drank, their way into the afternoon.  There was much to learn, about the years of nothing between the day he left and this day, the day he came back.  The people here, these people – yes, even Charker Smith, whose dislike he bore with equanimity – were his people:  people he grew up around; people who knew him in ways he barely knew himself.  When the time came, it would be hard to leave.  Why had he ever left?

“Oh, my lawd!”  Cried Dot.  “Who’s farted?”

This brought the laugh, and the accusations of guilt, it always did.  It was fundamental humour, perhaps not even funny, but it was the stuff of life.

By the time Dot tolled the hour at two o’clock, a great deal of her ‘Special’ had found its way into Joseph.  A couple of times it had been necessary to displace one lot to make way for another, and he had to make the trip through the unmarked back door which everyone knew led to the toilets.  On the second such visit he had followed Aaron on a similar mission, suffering the jibes of the others for his mistake.

“Mind yer arse, Aaron!”

“Keep yer back to the wall, lad!”

The yard beyond the unmarked door was a paved rectangle about eight yards by six, and the facilities no more than an outhouse at the further end.  To reach them, picking your way through Ned’s chickens, you had to edge past Ned’s Morris Oxford estate car, which was always parked, not to one side of the space, but right in the middle.  This of itself was a performance for Aaron Pace, whose bent back and stiff right leg, the lingering reminders of a horrendous accident many years since had to be turned and manoeuvred. On the side where the toilets were situated there was a high wooden gate, beyond which was the Pettisham road.  Opposite this across the road was a further gate, a five-barred affair, and beyond that was Ned’s orchard.

Everyone knew about Ned’s orchard, of course, in spite of his ludicrous attempts at secrecy:  everyone knew the apples were inedible, but everyone knew they were not meant for eating.  For on the far side of the yard, on the driver’s side of the Morris Oxford, there stood a stone-built shed which had once been a couple of loose boxes.  The door to this shed was always locked because within it was Ned’s cider press.

“He still does a bit of scrumpy, then?”  Joseph asked  Aaron.

Aaron nodded.  “Well, he’s got the trees, hasn’ ee?  There’s special nights, now.  Cons’able  Hallett caught ‘im a few year back.”

They were about to go back inside.  Aaron Pace stopped for a moment, as though a thought had suddenly struck him.  “Violet.”  He said.  “That’s a bad business, isn’ it?”

“Yes, a bad business.”

“’Tweren’t Jack.”  Aaron said.  “Couldn’t ha’ been.”

Joseph met Aaron’s eyes and saw the sincerity there.  “What makes you so sure, Aaron?  He was there, after all.”

“Violet.”  Aaron said in measured tone.  He opened the door, adding over his shoulder as he limped back into the bar:  “Things isn’t always how they seems, is they?”

Indoors, the conversation drifted on, and since this was not too long before Dot’s bell called ‘time’, Joseph thought little about what Aaron had said.  Later, though, it was to haunt him, and he would sleep less that night for thinking of it.

In the meantime, there was afternoon.  Crippled by beer of a quality he had not imbibed in more than a decade, Joseph fell back in one of Aunt Julia’s garden chairs to allow his wounds to heal.   Upon the paved area at the rear of their house (Owen refused to call it a ‘patio’) in hazy sunshine this was no great hardship, however, and he raised no objection when Benjy settled fatly onto his lap.  He passed some time whistling a new phrase to an interested starling – something he and Michael had been wont to do in earlier years.  Was it this simple trick that brought Michael to his mind?

Three months had passed since that fatal car accident which had brought Joseph and his brother Ian to Little Hallbury.  Children of their tender years adapt to their surroundings quickly.  Memories of their mother and father were already fading, becoming buried beneath layers of new experience.  Ian, particularly, accepted his new guardians and was learning how to make them love him.  The word ‘manipulate’ would have had no meaning for him then, yet he was already a master of the craft.  And the past had left no obvious scars, at least none of a kind that Joseph would notice:  oh, there was the little nervous laugh which ended every sentence,  the sudden way his mood could change – but nothing untoward:  nothing which could be listed as ‘damage’.

Julia spoke to them in a tone the brothers had identified as her ‘serious talk’ mode.

“Now I want you to listen carefully, both of you.”

They adopted their ‘listen carefully’ faces.  Only Joseph would know that Ian was trying hard not to giggle.

“Michael will be joining us this weekend.”

What reaction had there been?  None.

“The point is, children, he was very badly injured.  He is still in a lot of pain, and he won’t be quite…”  She drew breath.  “He won’t be the little brother you remember.  We have to look after him.  We have to take care of him.  He needs all your love.  Do you understand?”

“We’ll try, auntie.”  Ian, very solemn.  Ian, always knowing the right thing to say.

Michael came on the Saturday afternoon, and, in all fairness, Julia had done her best to prepare his brothers for what would follow – a stranger in a wheelchair, a broken creature, a deformed thing?  None of these.  No – other than a pronounced limp Michael bore few physical signs of the terrible ordeal he had endured.  But inside?

Later, much later, Joseph would learn the truth of that terrible night.  How Michael, sole survivor, had to be cut from the wrecked car:  of the trauma he had suffered, pinned across the decapitated body of his mother, drenched in her blood.  Had he or Ian known these truths that Saturday perhaps they might have behaved differently?  Perhaps; but they were, after all, just children.  As it was, Ian saw Michael’s injuries, heard the dry rasp in his voice, and he began to laugh.  Aunt Julia stepped forward to chide him, would have stepped between Ian and his brother – if Michael’s cracked face had not broadened in an answering grin.  The pair started waving mock punches at each other, so Aunt Julia could only protest that they take care – they just laughed the more, and play-fought the harder.  Joseph?  He could only watch.  He could not laugh, or share their joke:  he could not join in.  Marginalised as always, he hid in the corner of the room and let slip the tears he felt – for Michael?  Well maybe, but maybe also for himself.

In fact it took not weeks, or months, but years for the true state of Michael’s hurt to manifest itself.  They were years in which he and Ian became the fastest of friends, the closest of brothers.  Although right from the day he returned to his family it was acknowledged that Michael’s brain damage had left him ‘a little slow’, and Ian was already showing signs in his education of a brilliant intellect, the two seemed to spark a special kinship in each other:  they shared a room and they spent most of their days together.  Joseph slept alone in the room next door, and although he listened to their laughter at secret jokes and their muffled play through the partition wall, he rarely joined in.

In the village, whenever the local boys made a show of picking upon Michael, Ian was fiercely protective.  Even when Michael went to remedial school the bond did not appear to loosen.  At their own secondary school, Ian and Joseph, in different years, went their separate ways but each evening, when Michael came home, Ian lit up once more, and they were instantly close.

The change, when it came, was a thing of high drama – not entirely unexpected, though, because from the age of eleven Michael was a pressure cooker waiting to explode:  as his body changed in the natural way of things, so his mind began to unhinge:  he began to harbour suspicions, keep secrets:  to plot and to plan.

Michael came into Joseph’s room one Friday night; very late.  Louis, Julia’s feline companion at the time, was lying upon the bed and Joseph was playing his records – his ‘78s’ – quietly so as not to be heard downstairs when Michael, staring at him darkly, lifted the needle from the deck.

“We’re getting out of here.”  He muttered, sotto voce.  “You coming?”

Joseph was bemused.  “What, now?  Who’s ‘we’?  Where are we going to go?”

“Ah!”  Michael said.  “Tell you when.  Soon, is when.  Ian and I.  We’re going over to live with grandma.  That’s where.  See?”

“You and Ian have arranged this?  Why do you want to go to Grandma’s?”

“You don’t know, do you Joey?  Her – her downstairs – she’s a devil’s child, her.  She’s plotting!  Get away before it’s too late, Joey!”

“Devil’s child?  Aunt Julia?”  Joseph repressed a laugh.  “No, Michael.  Anyway, why do you want to go to Grandma’s?  We haven’t seen her in years!”

“Her!  Don’t you see?”  Michael’s posture was becoming peculiar, he was crouching nearer and nearer the floor, his stiff leg pushed out behind him, his arms and hands spreading in a smoothing gesture, as though he were stroking some invisible animal.  Louis got up with a disdainful look, stretched and stalked from the room.

“She’s keeping Grandma away.  She’s hidden us.  But we can see it.  We know!”

“Well I don’t think she is.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Aunt Julia, and I certainly don’t think she’s in league with Satan.  No, you can count me out, Mikey.  Go to bed.”

Michael shook his head, then he backed out of the room, wide-eyed as if he were outfacing something which made him afraid.  He said nothing more.  The following morning on the school bus Joseph asked Ian if he had agreed to Michael’s escape plan, but Ian just laughed.

“He hasn’t said anything to me about escaping.”

There it might have rested.  Certainly Michael mentioned nothing further upon the subject of absconding, but it was the first of many schemes, the nature of which became more and more outlandish.  Aunt Julia would feature somewhere in them all.

And then there was breakfast on Ian and Joseph’s School Sports Day.  This was in the July of Michael’s thirteenth year, when Julia had declared that they would ‘all’ – including Michael – attend.  Perhaps Michael feared he would be singled out in his brothers’ company – it was not his school, after all, and his often very apparent eccentricities were conspicuous in unfamiliar crowds.  He had been announcing little plots for some time, all designed to keep his Aunt from dragging him to the school sports.  Now the day had come, and after an innocent question elicited her determination that they should go, Michael began behaving very oddly indeed.  His head lowered to the table, so his chin was almost touching the cloth, and he began glancing to right and left as if he were a beast wary of breaking cover, arms outspread, fingers splayed.

“You shouldn’t go.”  His voice was deepened, an obvious attempt at a growl.  “My brothers would not like that.”

Ian did one of his suppressed giggles.

“Don’t include me, then!”  Joseph said brightly:  “I want you to come, Auntie!”

Julia, realising that he referred to neither Ian nor Joseph, was clearly disturbed.  “Who are your brothers, Michael?  Why won’t they want us there?”

Michael slid from the chair, crouching.  “They won’t want because I don’t want!  I command them – I command the pack!”   He slunk close to the corner of the table, an imitation; Joseph was sure, of how he imagined a wolf would behave.  Michael had flirted briefly both with Wolf Cubs and the local Boy Scouts  (briefly because they made it fairly obvious they did not want him.  There had been an evening visit to Uncle Owen and Aunt Julia by the ‘Pack Leader’ – Brian Holland – the subject of which was never discussed with either Ian or Joe).

“Pack, dear?”  Julia asked.

“Wolves!”  Michael announced with high drama.  “Giant wolves with yellow eyes and slavering fangs!”  He looked up at Ian as if he expected support.  Ian just giggled.   Michael screamed,  “My wolves!”

There was silence.  The boys’ uncle Owen had already left for work.  Julia seemed at a loss for anything to say.  It was Joseph who eventually stepped in, calmed Michael down, and manoeuvred him up to his bedroom.  Neither Michael nor Julia went to the school sports that year.   Instead, at Julia’s request, her husband returned from work.  Together, she and Owen set about the difficult task of acknowledging that Michael’s pain was too great for them to share.

© 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:  Dekorasyon on Unsplash.

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode 2. Inconvenient Angels

 

Lying in his single bed, Joseph could see through his window reflected flashes of blue against the sky and he wondered in passing what they might represent; but he was used to the noise and constant siren song of London, so he paid them little heed.   His mind was too full.

Perhaps he had not anticipated the flood of memory that his return to Little Hallbury would generate: perhaps he had thought only of gaining rest and some space.  Yet everything, every turn of every corner, every whisper of breeze, every rustle of leaves was alive with the things of the past.  Even this bed:  how big and soft it had once seemed!  He closed his eyes and turned his head to the pillow, letting the images churn in his brain.  And there was her face, inches from his own – the soft waft of her breath, her deep, deep eyes staring into his with – what? – wonder?  Love?  Fear?

Sarah.

They had grown up together, in a way.  They first met at school, shared a class in those strange years between childhood and adolescence when all was new.  He, intimidated and shy, trying to explain to himself the curtain drawn so dramatically over his early years; she a targeted and thoroughly extrovert young female with an open smile.

“You don’t like girls much, do you, Joey Palliser?”

He had mumbled something, she had given him that bright flash of a grin and loped away – a graceful deer so aware of her beauty, a tower too high for him to even contemplate climbing.

Then she came back.

“Walk home with me – after school?”

Sarah.

Sarah who sang like an angel, and the first time he heard her sing he was bewitched, captured, a hostage forever.  Sarah whose whole life was music, and who would go on to local college and to the London Academy of Music, but who would find time for Joey Palliser on her way.

Sarah.  Heaven knew what she saw in him, or how it came to be they lay in his bed – this bed – with nothing but flesh between them that one night.

His aunt and uncle were visiting friends.

“Come over and stay?”  She came over, and she stayed.

It was not the first time they had lain naked like this, but it was the only time they had made love.  She had withdrawn from him before, frightened that his desperate desires with their dire consequences could threaten her future.  This night – this one glorious night – she had acceded to his entreaties, his insistence that it was “quite safe”.   Why?  He never found out why.  Shortly after, Sarah departed for London and college.  He never saw her again.

“The village is fairly rattling with speculation!”  Julia enthused at breakfast the next morning after she had imparted the news of the murder.  “Apparently Jack Parkin’s been taken in for questioning.”

Owen harrumphed.  “Much good may that do them!”

Recalling his childhood encounters with Violet Parkin, Joseph thought Jack Parkin an unlikely suspect.  Playing jungles with his brother Ian in the reeds by the duck pond one day, he remembered a vast bulk of humanity looming over him like a total eclipse.

“I’se got eggs in them there grass, young ‘uns.”  Violet bellowed.  “Be off, now!”

Then there was the day when, walking across the common past Violet’s house, he heard such an eruption of shouting and seafaring language that he thought some major disaster was taking place.  Drawing closer, hesitating, uncertain it was safe to proceed; he stayed just long enough to see Jack come hurtling from the door, emitting squealing noises not unlike a terrified pig.  He was near to sprinting (the fastest Joseph had ever seen him move) and Violet was hard on his heels flailing at his head with what looked very much like a wooden table leg.  She caught him several hideous cracks before he managed to outrun her, leaving her standing at the edge of the common growling like a Mastiff.

“How is Ian, Joe dear?”  Julia’s enquiry cut across his chain of thought.  “We hear from him so rarely these days.”

“Oh, very well, I suppose.”  He replied defensively.  “I haven’t seen him myself for about a month.”

“Really?  Good Lord!  Well, I suppose he must be very busy.”

Busy?  Well, yes, although Joseph would not attempt to explain to aunt Julia that his prosperous brother’s new and burgeoning quest for political glory might not include him –  quite the reverse.  Julia tended to think of London as a rather large village, where everyone must know one another and visit – at least on a weekly basis.

“The election…”  He tried an expressive shrug.

“Do you think he’ll win?”  Owen asked (a little too crisply, Joseph thought).

“The Party’s doing well in North London generally.  I don’t see why not.”

After breakfast Joseph hedged around Aunt Julia’s:  ‘Well, dear, what do you want to do today?’  with a few muttered generalities and escaped.  He was waiting for, and dreading, the inevitable offer of an ‘outing in the car’ with all it implied, for within that imprisoning tin box lay captivity and open exposure to Owen in cross-examination.  His aunt and uncle must know the truth, of course; he just wasn’t ready to tell them yet.

Joseph slipped quietly through their front door, aware of the beehive drone of conversation he left behind.  Beyond the front gate, he turned his back upon Church Hill and the substance of the village, taking instead a narrow lane which led to Wednesday Common.  He walked in the middle of the road and as he walked he felt the air returning to his lungs, the spring come back into his step.  An early dew fairly dripped from the hedges, nether-world creatures slipped unseen through the grass, so that for a brief moment he could almost believe that he had come home. How should he not?  In so many ways, this was home.  In so many ways, he could wish he had never left.

Here he had come one cold, dark evening in winter, huddled with Ian in the back seat of their uncle’s Vauxhall – too young, then, to understand.  His abject tears had brought a crowing torrent of ridicule from his brother and a sound telling-off from his uncle; thereby setting a tone to their relationship which had lasted even to this day.   Ian was always the favourite.  Ian was a real man – Ian always won.  Of itself this did not present Joseph with too much of a problem – it was, after all, the status quo: his mum and dad had favoured Ian just as obviously, protected Michael, his youngest brother from them both.  Joseph was used to being the lesser child, the not-so-clever child, subject to a different set of rules.

He still might not recognise how traumatised he was, that night, or how his, Ian’s, and his younger brother Michael’s future hung balanced upon a knife-edge.  After all, he was only nine.   When the news had come he was asleep.  Ian was asleep, though he claimed later to have heard the fervent discussion below stairs, to have seen the police car outside their drive.  Joseph had never questioned why his mum and dad had taken Michael with them on the drive to Bristol, and why they, the older brothers, had been left behind with their grandma.  The next morning they were told:  there had been a crash.  Mummy and Daddy were never coming back.   Michael was very ill – maybe they could go and see him in a while.

Time mercifully fogged the memory of those first weeks after the world changed.  The funeral, the black-clad people who loomed over him like tall trees, bending their mournful limbs in sympathy:  the long journey to Little Hallbury, eventual reunion with Michael.  To begin with, Joseph scarcely recognised his youngest brother, his face still puffed, the livid scars across his cheek, the eye that would never properly see again.  In time, he would learn there were other scars, less easy to see.

Deep in reminiscence, Joseph turned the corner of the hedge out onto Wednesday Common with no awareness of the horse and rider coming the opposite way.  It was a big roan horse, all of seventeen hands, and it was difficult to say who was the more shocked.  Both expressed their surprise by stepping back rapidly, though the horse’s reaction was more rapid and a lot more dramatic.

“Settle, you stupid bugger!”  It’s rider commanded in a tone which did not brook disobedience, reinforced by two sharp slaps from her crop.  Joseph found himself apologising to a young woman with slightly angry eyes.

“Yes, well try not to be so scary.”  She admonished, giving him a quirky smile.

It was the briefest of encounters.  The horse danced round Joseph before trying half-heartedly to bolt up the lane.  A further thrashing and some forthright language nipped this in the bud.  Joseph stood for a second or so watching horse and tightly-jodhpur-ed rider’s retreating backs, then made to resume his walk.  A man about his own age had witnessed this incident from a few paces down the track which led over the Common.

“She’m a right ‘andful, ‘er.  Mind, I wouldn’t object to bein’ that ‘orse.”  The man said; then, scrutinising Joseph more closely.  “My Lord!  Joe?  Joe Palliser?”

Joseph returned the scrutiny: meeting a pair of languid, pale blue eyes.  Tall, spare of build, slightly stooped perhaps, hair the colour of a summer beach, that parchment skin which always burned in spite of his outdoor life.

“Tom?”  Yes, this was Tom Peterkin – older, but indisputably.  “Damn!  Still here, then, Tom!”

“Ah, still here.”  Tom nodded sagely, staring down his big long nose with a look Joseph remembered so well.  “Though I’m f****d if I know why.  Mind, you’ve looked more healthy – what brings you back ‘ere?  You a masochist or summat?”

Joseph considered.  If he were to impart his truth to anyone, it should be this close companion of his teenage years.  But he hedged still.  “Oh, I wanted to see the old place, that’s all.  Just for a few days.”

“Ah.”  He felt Tom’s eyes boring into him.  “Come to see the annual pig-flying festival, ah?  I was just takin’ a gander at this howd’y’do.”  Tom nodded towards the far end of the common, where the Parkin house stood, surrounded with black, official looking cars.

“It’s a strange ‘un, this.”

“She was killed then?”  Joe asked.  “That’s the gossip.”

“Aye.  Found ‘er in the dairy, ‘pparently.  Some says a knifing; some says ‘er were strangled.  Can’t get any sense.  Can you imagine tryin’ to strangle Violet?”

“Maybe she’d grown frail with the years?”

“Nah.  You haven’t been here.  Built like a brick shithouse, moved like a tank.”  Tom shook his head.  “Jack didn’t kill ‘er, no way.  If she weren’t indoors I’d say the only way would be to run her over with a truck.

“Still, you aren’t ‘ere for that.  Unless you did it, did yer?  So, what you doin’ wi’ yourself now?  Come on, take a walk with me and give us all the news.”

Walk they did; the quarter-mile across the western corner of the common, past the Parkin house and its ant-horde of police, side by side as it had once been their habit to walk, deep in conversation along rhododendron-fringed Feather Lane towards the Kings Head.

“Old Ned won’t open ‘til twelve today.  He’s getting’ on a bit now, mind.  Come on over to mine – we’ll start early.  I lives in the old Martin House, up by ‘Church.  There’s a Missus Peterkin now.”

“Really?  Do I know her?”

Tom smirked at him and said darkly:  “Ah.  You do.  An’ I’ll tell you who ‘tis if you tell me what brings you back ‘ere.”

“I told you.”

“Ah.  You told me summat.”

The Martin house, whitewashed and prim in the middle of the terraced line generally known as Church Cottages had only been gas-lit, the last time Joseph was there.  He remembered an embarrassing hour as an aged Mrs Martin took him through a photo-album she insisted he should see.  One of those charitable endeavours to indulge the old which always end so badly.

“The old dear died three year ago.  Not ‘ere, in Mary Magdalene’s, thank God.”

St. Mary Magdalene’s was a nursing home in Abbots Friscombe.  The old lady’s house looked bright and renewed, with a fresh, lemon-painted front door opening onto the village street, new thatch and sparkling windows.

Tom opened his front door.  “Got ‘lectric in now.  ‘Tis a lot better.  Come and see what We’ve done to the place.”

Joseph stepped into a front room very different from the dingy and slightly odorous den where he had sat with Mrs Martin’s album of pictures.  White walls, a fitted carpet deeply red, soft, inviting furnishings.  Tom slumped into an easy chair.

“Come on, take the weight off.  Darlin’, get us two beers, will ‘e?”

“Get ‘em yourself!  I’m doin’ the ironin’!”  The voice that replied from the back of the house shot instantly into that place in Joseph’s head which he reserved for cringing.  Emma!

Tom saw his reaction.  “Oh, ‘tis all right lad!  We got over that ages ago!  Emma!  Come and see ‘oo I’ve found!”

And there she was; at first just a silhouette against the light which flooded in from her kitchen as she opened the door.  “Oh, my dear lord!  Joseph Palliser!  What the ‘ell are you  doin’ ere?”

Joseph reflected this was the third time he had been asked that question:  he was beginning to wonder himself.  He got to his feet awkwardly.  “Hello Emma.”

His unease seemed to cause Tom immense amusement.  Perhaps he did not entirely understand its cause.  Emma moved towards Joseph, and though it might have escaped Thomas Peterkin’s attention, Joseph saw his own discomfiture reflected in her eyes, too.  She hadn’t changed.  Urchin cut hair a coppery brown, not quite auburn, a round face which would split into a broad grin at the least provocation.  Nor had she lost one inch of her figure – she was as gently graceful as the girl he remembered.

“Come now, Joe.”  She gave him a perfunctory hug.  Her cheek was cool as a hay-loft breeze.  “You’m welcome here.”

It was as if the one room, this warm, welcoming room, had divided and become three.  Emma brought beers and sat in her box, Tom in his, Joseph sandwiched between them in a segment of his own so distinct from the other two that he was able to decorate its walls with pictures from his memories.  They formed divisions insurmountable by conversation.  You see, the instant Joe met Emma’s eye, he knew that there were pictures on her walls too.  Perhaps by the end of that morning Tom was beginning to know.  Perhaps his were walls he would prefer not to look at.

They went through the motions:  Tom explained that he worked for an agricultural mechanic’s in Abbots Friscombe.

“Remember when old Foskett down on Halls Wood Farm there bought he’s first combine?  He used to go round his fields with it and when the bits fell off he’d just throw ‘em in the hedge!  Well, I go round the hedge picking the bits up and screwing ‘em back on.  See, more and more of ‘em’s buying combines now.  Farm machinery gen’rally’s gettin’ more an’ more complicated.  They can’t jus’ twist ‘un back to life with a spanner and a kick no more. There’s good money in ut.”

Emma had a part-time job at the Co-op in Pettisham, three days a week, served her turn at the Women’s Institute, did an afternoon helping out old Mrs Dickenson, up on Hurst Hill.

“Poor dear, she can’t do hardly nothing’ for ‘erself now, bless her heart.  And she’m such a lovely lady too.”

They had a Ford Cortina, in the lock-ups on Feather Lane.

“Can’t trust to leave nothin’ on the street nowadays.”

They were all a young married couple should be, doing all a young married couple should do.

“Married St. Andrew’s three year gone.”  Tom said.  “You’d have been best man if I’d known where to find you, but Owen Masefield didn’t seem to ‘ave an address for you at the time.  Where’d you disappear to, you bugger?”

Joseph was defensive.  He’d moved around a lot lately, he said:  there were business reasons, personal reasons too.

“We heard you’d married.”  Emma’s look carried a measure of accusation.

“Really?”  Joseph hoped his tone of disbelief would carry the day, and to some extent it did seem to:  but as he and Tom finally departed for the Kings Head, after he had bid a brief, embarrassed farewell to Emma, and Tom was closing his front door (“We was lucky to get this ‘ouse.”)  Tom said:

“And did you?”

“Did I what, Tom?”

“Marry?”

“Yes.  Yes, I did.”

Joseph thought Tom might ask more, but their walk to the pub was oddly silent.  Tom’s mood was contemplative, as though the morning and their reunion had posed a troubling question or two.

The King’s Head was one of the less celebrated Public Houses in the district, a small nondescript building which had fallen into disrepair within the time of Joseph’s memory, and had fallen even further since.  Near to his retirement, Ned Barker the Inn-Keeper took little interest in the weathered inn-sign or the render flaking from the walls:  in fact, he took very little care of his business in any way, except in the care of his beer.  Sometimes, when the mood was upon him, the old brown double doors would remain resolute long after opening time; sometimes they did not open at all.  There were occasions, if the day was sunny, when the old man would be found sitting, pipe stoked to an inferno, upon the fallen tree which lay across the north edge of Farrier’s Meadow well into the afternoon.  Upon such days Ned was immovable.   If the pub were to open it would be because Dot, his wife of forty years, would open it:  and to be truthful she would be better as a host than Ned ever was.  But below the stairs, in the tiny, cobweb-veiled dungeon which was the cellar, Ned was master.  Here he mothered and cosseted his precious kegs of warm beer with the protective instincts of a brood hen; so that, when you could get it, there was no better pint to be had anywhere in the County.  Which was why, in spite of unreliable hours and uncertainty of satisfaction, there would always be a faithful little queue of disciples at those doors every day at eleven thirty, and twelve o’clock on Sundays;  even in depths of winter.

The bar was exactly as Joseph remembered it.  The swing of the inner door produced a familiar squeak, the cloud of smoke it released into the outer world had that same tobacco smell.  Entering, especially when the day outside was sunny, seemed like a plunge into a bronze twilight.  Screwing up his eyes against the gloom, he began to pick out vague figures, five in number, lining a bar of dark-stained wood which formed the left-hand side of the room.  Lime-washed walls browned by nicotine formed the other three sides, the right-hand of which contained a window:  a sash frame with brown glass covered by brown net curtains, heavy brown drapes.  Three tables filled this side of the bar; oaken, polished and liberally engraved.  Equally stalwart-looking chairs surrounded each, their worn cushions bearing little trace of once-lively patterns in red brocade.  None of the customers strayed so far from the bar as to sit at one of these tables.  They never would.   Only old Mrs Higgs, when she was of the inclination to enjoy an evening of milk stout, ever graced those seats.  She and her hapless daughter together contributed to the Pub’s latent odour in their own distinctive way, so providing the true reason, it was said, that everyone else drank standing up.

All conversation ceased the moment Joseph followed his friend through those doors.  In eerie silence Dot Barker rose from some activity below the bar like a surfacing whale.

“Oh, Love us!  Look what the cat dragged in!”

“Well now, You’re going to have to do summat about that cat, Dot.”  Charker Smith’s features had not yet clarified in Joseph’s vision, but his deep voice was unmistakeable.  It wasn’t a friendly voice.  “What you doin’ back ‘ere, boy?”

 

© Copyright 2019 Frederick Anderson

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

This book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.