If, by inviting herself to Sunday lunch Karen had expected understanding from a supportive family she could not have been more mistaken. Her mother was scathing, probably the more so because she had been trying to keep her Dad waiting for his dinner until she arrived – which caused Dad to be pretty scathing, too.
“Tim called yesterday.” Her mother said.
“Yesterday! Why? What did he say?”
“He seems to think you and he are finished. He reckons he wasn’t the first man to be in your flat yesterday morning.”
“Well, he was right about that, at least.”
“What, you slept with another man knowing Tim’d be round first thing in the day?”
Karen could have made the same virtuous denial she had given Tim, with, she thought, about the same chance of being believed. What demon possessed her? “You know what they say, Mother, don’t you? Famine or feast!”
“Karen; I’m disgusted with you! Who is he, this new fella?”
“He isn’t a ‘new fella’. I’m just finished with Tim, that’s all.”
“A what-d’y’call-it; a one-night stand, then, was it? All these months with nothing, hardly any dates, no evenings out, now all at once you’ve got two in twenty-four hours. That’s not how we brought you up, young lady!”
“Bloody hell! Can’t you always rely on your family to think the best of you? No, he wasn’t a ‘one-night stand’. No, we didn’t sleep together, and I am too old to be called a ‘young lady’. I seem to recall you were the one who told me to sort it out with Tim, not so long ago!”
“Not to stick him on the rack right next to his successor, I didn’t – hardly sensitive, Karen, is it? He sounded very, very upset.”
“How do you think I feel? It was the way it worked out; I didn’t mean it to happen. And Patrick’s a friend, which is probably as far as its going. You know him; he was the lad who took me to the Stones concert. I was very lucky he was around, as it turned out. We both knew I had to break up with Tim. What are you staring at?”
Bridget Eversley rarely gave looks that could be described as incisive, but she was giving one now. “Is he?”
“Is he what, Mother?”
“Is he just a friend, nothing more?”
“Don’t be ridiculous!”
“I’m not. It’s good, mind: chipping off a few of those flinty edges of yours won’t do any harm at all. I can see he’s got to you, if you can’t.”
“Then you won’t object if he calls for me at two-thirty, will you?”
“Ah!” Said Karen’s mother, nodding with ill-concealed smugness. “That’d be why you’re dressed like that, then?”
“Why, what’s wrong with this?” Karen protested. Sandals, shorts and a sleeveless top were perfectly rational choices for a hot day, and this day was hot. Had she, subconsciously (alright, sort of consciously) dressed to impress? “It’s not your business what I wear, not any more. We’re comfortably eight years down the road from that argument.”
“He was a nice fella, was Tim.” Her dad said between gobfuls of food. “I were bloody starving!”
“Policeman.” Her mother nodded. “You can’t go wrong with a policeman.”
Her father asked: “Does he go to football?”
“Tim? He plays rugby – you know he does.”
“No, t’other fella.”
Nowhere Lane proved almost impossible to navigate – torturously narrow and packed with car-jarring stones. Karen and Patrick had to endure a mile of clinging weed and red dust before they found a place wide enough to pull over and survey the valley. In front of them a descent getting narrower and steeper – too steep, they judged, for Karen’s little car.
Shimmering heat gave the forests dominating the opposite hills a spectral aspect; deciduous woodland to the right side, a pine plantation on the left, kept apart by the Driscombe’s Great House of Boult Wells, white walls, a battalion of tall brick chimneys, glinting windows of old glass catching the afternoon sun. Formal gardens in a patchwork of colour led from the house down to the River Boult, and a boathouse at the water’s edge,
No more than fifty yards from the nearer side of the river there stood a trio of collapsed stone buildings, half-choked by briar and weeds.
“So that’s Boulter’s Green,” Karen said.
“They might have been houses. Yes, I guess so.” Pat agreed. Then added brightly: “It looks like we walk it from here!”
The afternoon was fiercely hot. A merciless sun scorched down upon open fields of turning corn and fallow grass to either side of the lane. A pair of yellowhammers were doing sentry duty, tagging them along the hedge in twittering agitation; A wood-pigeon cooed. Bees droned among cornflowers. The scent of winnowed grass was almost intoxicating. Karen burst into laughter, without really knowing why. “Smythe?” She said, giggling.
“Ah, sister Gabrielle. She’s not only horse-mad, she’s an impossible snob. Hallcroft is my father’s name – Hallcroft Carpets – Gwendoline Smith (with an ‘i’) is my mother’s. Only my ghastly sisters would insist on hyphenating the two names and substituting the ‘y’. Please forgive?”
“Sisters?” Karen emphasized the plural.
“There are two. Gabby’s the eldest one.”
“Actually, she sounds rather nice.”
“She said the same about you.”
“Yep. That’s us; the uncrowned royal family of Axminster. Dad was one of the first to latch onto foam-backed, and he’s very good at riding waves, once he finds one.”
The lane was a sloping trough between hedges high enough to obscure their view for much of the time. Only as they rounded the last of the successive bends that featured every twenty or thirty yards on this descent could they get a clearer, closer impression of the vista they had seen from the car twenty minutes before. Here the lane ended, crossed by a wooden gate beyond which there was no track but an uncultivated field; beyond that, amid an acre or more of meadow grass, and shored up amidst dense clumps of bush and bramble, were the three ruins of Boulter’s Green.
The gate looked as though it had not been opened in many years. Clambering over, they set off briskly, kicking through cornflower and clover, shepherd’s purse and dock, Karen with a skip in her step which made Patrick chuckle.
“I wonder if I asked at the House?” She said aloud.
“Ask the Driscombes, you mean?”
“Yes. After all, this is part of their view. I should imagine they would know quite a lot about it.”
“Perhaps.” Patrick sounded doubtful.
“Why wouldn’t they?”
“Oh, I’m sure they do. The Driscombes are not exactly approachable, though. If you get a moment go for a drive on the Ullerchurch road where it passes the main gates to the estate. The place is fortified like a secret army base, or something. You just don’t get in.”
“I could make an appointment?”
“Yes, through their London offices; Dad had to, once, for a contract. They did see him – in London, though, not here.”
“Doesn’t that strike you as odd – such obsession with privacy?”
“Why? If you have the money, and they have, why not buy yourself some peace? Old Lord Driscombe is a bit of a hermit, by all accounts. His son Stamford is the socialite. He needs to be, being a member of Parliament and all.”
Although the river was out of sight, a cool waterborne breeze blessed their cheeks and nature’s choral society was in full swing. But approaching the ruins they were shadowed by grim walls of grey stone which seemed to drain all heat from the sun. There was no chirrup of crickets in the grass now, no birdsong, although the undergrowth – dense bramble and thorn – must have been perfect nesting territory. The closer Karen got the more a coldness gripped her heart, and the more she felt the eyes of the Driscombes glaring down upon her – Pat’s description had made her feel that she was trespassing, unwanted here, venturing so close to that great forest estate.
Each building was roofless with walls part-fallen, over-run by weeds. Little remained of those to left and right of her, their gable ends caved inwards so their interiors were reduced to piles of rubble; the splintered timbers that once supported their roofs, now white with age, all overlaid and tangled with Ivy. Only the centre cottage showed some signs of structure. A pair of window apertures glowered at her from their empty sockets. Since she and Patrick had entered the meadow they had been watching. They watched them still.
Patrick fidgeted uncomfortably behind her. “Um?” He said.
“Scary, isn’t it?” She taunted. “Can the valiant Pat be feeling a little bit nervous?”
“No, it isn’t that.” He admitted humbly. “I think this chill must be getting to me. I’m bursting for a…look, I’ll just be a minute, okay?”
“Oh, fine!” Karen protested to his departing back. “Good timing!”
Her desperate companion made for the cover of the far wall.
Between the centre and eastern-most derelicts lay a stretch of open grass. This seemed to lead from shade back to sunlight, so Karen wandered on alone until her goosebumps were able to rediscover the sun, letting its warmth fill her as her eyes took in the land beyond. These dwellings had to have a reason – why would someone want to live here?
“Tha’s a sight, lass.”
Karen suppressed a squeal of surprise. Turning, she saw the speaker, a withered-looking man, leaning against the wall of the centre ruin. He was regarding at her with a disapproving expression on his shipwrecked face.
“Too much skin, in my thinking: ‘tis shameful. Brazen. Aye.”
Just how old was he? She could not tell. His clothes, grey, tattered and stiff with age, hung over his sparse frame as though they might have fitted once and he had wilted within them. Although his flesh was thin and grey and she could not dispute the gnarled hands which protruded like hawthorn roots from his ragged sleeves, there was vibrancy in his hazel eyes which denied decrepitude. His attention seemed focused on her unclad legs and the brief shorts which clung snugly to her hips.
“Offers temptation to a man, does that. Sinful.”
She found a voice from somewhere: “I’m sorry if I offend you…” She said, trying to imagine what he could possibly have left to be tempted, “and for disturbing you. I thought this place was deserted.”
His head moved in a slow nod. “Deserted, aye. Has been a while now. Are you going to get dressed?”
“I’m afraid these are all the clothes I have with me. It’s a little rude of you to stare at me like that.” She rebuked him mildly. “Look, if I’m causing offence I can just go.”
“Go as you like, stay as you like. I’m of no pref’rence.”
Her mind was turning somersaults. What or who was he? He was roughly dressed, but he didn’t seem like a tramp. She could only imagine she had stumbled upon someone like herself – out for a walk, possibly?
“Are you going far?” She asked.
“Not going nowhere, lass.”
“I don’t understand. You don’t live here, do you? Where do you come from?” Karen refrained from adding ‘when do you come from?’
“Come from.” He echoed her words, staring at his shoes.
“Yes. Where do you live?” There was no reply. Propped against the wall, he seemed to be lapsing into a doze, as if she were no longer there. “Can you tell me your name, then?” She insisted. “Are you Joshua Turnbull?” It was a wild stab, but it seemed to fit, if only because she was increasingly convinced the wizened man had been expecting her.
“Turnbull, aye. We’ve had illness here tha’ knows.” He said.
“We’ve had the sickness wi’ us. There were no help for them. They’m gone.”
“Who? Your family? Who do you mean, Joshua?”
“All on ‘em. They took sick, see? Then they died.”
“Couldn’t you get help? Oh, you poor man!”
Karen noticed his attention had moved past her towards the Great House, and following his gaze, she could distinguish several slightly raised areas in the grass. They might have been no more than natural undulations, but in her head something made the connection with burials, forging a link to a time when it was still possible for a poor family to be purged by disease: when those left alive might have buried their own dead with no-one to pray over them. She counted six; six graves. Three were pathetically small.
“Your children?” He nodded. Karen swallowed a lump in her throat. She hardly dared utter the next question: “Is Casper there?”
The man gestured towards the furthest of the graves. “That one.” He said, “That one’s Casper.”
Karen edged shakily along the little line of burials to the place where Casper lay. The grave was unmarked save for its little mound – there was no cross, no name, but here, she was sure, rested the subject of Frank Purton’s letter and the first object of her quest. Casper Turnbull would require no education.
It seemed unfair that one who had known such suffering should be interred in a nameless grave at a place no-one visited – a place without a Christian parish to defend it. She could only try to imagine the grief and pain of this sad creature whose family – wife, sons and daughters perhaps – lay in such unforgiving earth.
“This sickness;” She asked. “What was it? What took them from you, Joshua?”
There was no answer.
Karen turned around. The old man had gone.
“No!” Unwilling to accept what her heart was telling her, she ran to the end of the buildings, hoping she might see Joshua Turnbull walking away across the meadow, but there was no sign of him.
“Pat!” Pat was behind her, clambering through the gap between the buildings. “Did you see him?”
“Didn’t he walk past you? He must have.” She described her little man in his faded clothes.
“No-one passed me. I heard you talking to yourself.”
They searched. They scanned the horizons, they exhausted every possibility, but there was no sign of anyone, nor was there anything that could provide cover. Unless the old man had a turn of speed to vie with an Olympic sprinter, he could not have reached concealment.
“You were dreaming.” Was Pat’s verdict.
“I was not!”
“It’s warm, it’s sunny; you’ve been working hard and you’re tired. You sat down on the grass, you dozed – and you dreamed.”
“I did not.” Karen met Pat’s discerning gaze. “Pat, I swear to you, he was standing right there.”
“It’s getting late,” Pat said.
As they walked back to the car together Karen related her encounter in more detail, and Pat listened intently. She silently wondered what her psychic mentor, Daphne Scott-Halperton, would have made of it. Perhaps she might ask her. They paused, turning to look back over the valley at the ruins before the hedges hid them from sight. The mounds the old man had guided Karen to see, though faint, were thrown into relief by the evening sun.
“Are they graves, do you think?” He asked.
She said, “Pat, do you believe in ghosts?”
“I believe the mind can play strange tricks. We should hurry. It looks like rain.”
Angry purple banks of cloud were threatening in the east. A nipping breeze whipped down the lane, stirring the hedgerows and bringing prickles of gooseflesh to Karen’s unclothed limbs. She shuddered involuntarily so Patrick, noticing, put his arm around her and suddenly she found herself close to him; snuggling into his side, her head laid on his shoulder and inclined – very much inclined – to kiss him. She broke away, quickly. It was there again, the fear of submitting to a rich boy’s dalliance, becoming a part of his game. She read the sorrow in his eyes. “Pat, I…”
“It’s alright.” He cut her off. “I understand, you know? Let’s get back to the car, Karen.”
They walked in wordless rhythm, step matching step. Karen was glad when the shelter of her car was finally reached, and the sound of the engine could break their silence.
“Oh god!” She didn’t want to admit to weakness. “Now I have to turn this around.”
Patrick asked quietly: “Do you want me to do it?”
She blazed back at him. “NO! Do you think I can’t drive? Poor little woman, not safe to be let out on her own little woman?”
His tone didn’t alter. “That wasn’t what I meant. I wanted to help, that’s all.”
“It absolutely is what you meant! You can’t help it, Patrick. You probably don’t even know what you’re saying, but that is exactly what you meant. What everyone means.”
“If by ‘everyone’ you include…”
“I mean everyone.” She snapped. “Now shut up and let me do this!”
Karen shifted from forward to reverse five times in using the gateway to turn. Pat remained impassive throughout, and true to her instructions, said nothing. And so it was for the whole of the drive back to Caleybridge, while a battle of emotions raged inside Karen’s head. Why was she so angry? She had promised herself. She had promised!
The weekend roads were quiet with the onset of rain and there was nothing to indicate the return of her stalker. She would drop Pat at her parents’ house to recover his car, then return to her apartment. She had to come to terms with her fear, she told herself, because nothing would persuade her to give up her independence and run home to her mother. They were turning into her parents’ home street before Pat broke the icy clamp of silence between them.
“Shall we have dinner at The Hunters?”
“I already ate.” Karen told him. It wasn’t true.
“A bar meal, nothing more.”
“Thank you, but no. I’m just going to go home. I’m quite tired.”
He nodded sagely. “You’ve been through a lot these last few days. I understand.”
Drawing to a halt outside her parents’ house, something raised the fire in her once more. “What? What do you understand? You keep saying you understand, Pat. If all you can do is understand me, will you bloody well stop now, please?”
“No. No, I won’t, or I can’t, just stop. You let me kiss you, see, a while ago, and it was nice. It was more than nice.”
“It was a mistake. I got carried away when I should have been more sensible. Things are different now.”
“How? Tim, you mean? You’re going to stay with Tim?”
“It isn’t Tim. I think Tim and I are over, but this is too soon and I can’t…” Karen cut herself off, because she had to stop talking – had to! She was gabbling, might say things better left unsaid, give rein to her innermost thoughts, let her body scream for him as it had all through the drive back to town, trying to ignore the muscles beneath that thin shirt and the intensity of his eyes. She knew it then. There were no half-measures, no compromises. Her feelings were already so deep she could not remain close to him, just as a friend. “Pat, can I say goodbye? Thank you and goodbye? You’ve been wonderful and…”
“So you don’t like me, then?”
“…and I am so grateful…”
“You don’t like me!”
“You know that isn’t true. Pat, please, just go?” Where were the tears coming from; tears for a fire that would not be put out? Why was she shaking? “There has to be distance, you see? I can’t let myself get close to you. I just can’t, Pat.”
“Stop, Karen. Stop, darling.” His right arm was about her shoulder, drawing her to him; she was sharing his heat, betraying herself. Yet she tried to push him back. Flapping like a distressed bird, she did try. His left arm cradled her thighs, lifting her to him. She felt him kissing away the tears, his fingers travelling through her hair, probing; and then his lips testing hers, insistent, demanding; and there, or somewhere there, she stopped trying.
And she was lost.
© Frederick Anderson 2018. All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction. All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content