Mission Creep

If I only learn one thing this year, it will be this:  in the mind of its author, a book is never perfect.

When I decided to serialize ‘Hallbury Summer’ in this blog through the Summer and Autumn, my plan was to break up the chapters of a book I had already written and published into shorter episodes. I anticipated a lighter workload than that which a completely new composition represented, enabling me to shift attention onto other things.

How wrong was I?

From the very first split of the very first chapter I was led by my compulsion to edit, altering tenses, swapping word order, re-jigging the paragraphs that, when I re-read them, no longer seemed smooth to me.  Minor things I thought would get better as the chopping down process progressed didn’t.  In fact, dear and tolerant readers, they got worse!

Now, as I spin Episode 23 into an MS Word document I find myself altering whole scenes.  I am weaving new material in and rejecting the old, to a point where I can no longer claim that the published version and the serialized version are the same book!  So when I promised at the beginning of this venture that you could take a shortcut if you wished by purchasing the Kindle book, I fear I may have (unintentionally) misled you.  There are changes; among other things, the ending will be different.

How different?  I don’t know yet!

And that’s the exciting thing, you see, because I’ve just seen the digital light.  Once upon a not-very-long-time-ago when your book went to print, that was all:  like the felled tree, the wood would no longer grow, only begin the business of dying.  The author would move on, leaving that small trail of forgotten titles rotting in his wake.

But now!  Ho, ho, now!   Now you can take it back almost at will, the book, you can return to it, breathe new life between its pages, and the story is the better for your being there, because you have brought it that much closer to perfection.  That’s what I’ve done with ‘Hallbury Summer’ – I’ve revitalised it:  in my mind at least I have raised it higher, and it is a better story thereby.

This is not to say the old book is bad – it’s not, or I don’t consider it so.  It’s different, reflecting a perspective of a few years ago, and redolent of my thinking then.  I will, however, replace its contents with the serialized version as soon as I have finished it here.

In the meantime, the original remains live on Kindle, linked here on your left if you wish to investgate!

 

 

 

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 Sixteen.   The Cuckoo’s Child

The story so far:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The receiver was replaced before Joe could protest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I suppose you had better bring those inside.”

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

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

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

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

“Ian, I wouldn’t ask, but…”

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

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

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

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

He had stayed for a month.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, please.  Scotch would be good.”

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

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

“Open and read.”

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

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

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

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

“And the catch is…?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Why, what have I done?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s gone.”

“What?”

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

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

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

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

“Twenty-four hours, huh?”

“More like eighteen.  Go home.  Pack.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Mr Chapman?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So that’s why I’m a problem?”

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

“Don’t use that word again!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How?”  Joe asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nor am I,”  Joe replied.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nowhere Lane – Chapter Twenty-Nine. Home Affairs

One foggy winter evening early in the year 1970, a few weeks before Patrick Hallcroft and Jacqui Greenway were due to marry, the smoky intimacy of a private room at ‘Ricco’s’, a gentlemen’s club in London’s Mayfair hosted an informal gathering of three men: Sir Robert Burford, a senior member of the Conservative Party Executive, Marmaduke, Earl of Peverel, an active member of the House of Lords, and Peter Lederhulme, a political elder of many decades’ experience, one of a select few who might, in more recent times, be considered a ‘grandee’. These honorable gentlemen, so seemingly relaxed in the dark red leather of their wing chairs, could speak with quiet confidence upon matters of substance, knowing their words would be absorbed in subdued light and the stalwart oak paneling of the room, their only witness an eland’s head adorning the wall above their heads and so dead as to be unlikely to repeat their words.   The subject that had brought these party elders out into the rigours of a dark February night was the impending General Election.  They were only three:  but between them they exercised most, if not all, the authority to confer status in the corridors of power.  Those whose names were mooted unofficially here would become Ministers of State if their party prevailed.  They would form the new Government.

One by one, they discussed the bearers of those names and their suitability for inclusion in a new Conservative Cabinet.  Beginning with minor roles they examined the credentials of each, agreed or disagreed as to their potential, and made decisions – a lengthy, hard-fought and painstaking business; so they were well into the brandy and cigars before they lit upon the vexed question of the Offices of State.

“Home Secretary?”  Burford said, adding his exhalation to the haze.  “Settled, I presume?”

Lederhulme nodded.  “I had rather hoped Reggy would be among us tonight, but he declined.  Wisely, I suppose.  Any thoughts, Peverel?”

The Earl shook his head.  “No, no, there is only one candidate, I think.  Home Affairs, now…”

Lederhulme raised an eyebrow.  “Driscombe, surely?”

Marmaduke looked doubtful.  “Aren’t there others in the frame?  I’m sure the Associations are more keen on Honeyday.  I think I would prefer her myself, if you want the truth.”

“Doubtful, doubtful, doubtful.”  Burford murmured from behind smoke.  “Given the TUC position, I would prefer to see a stronger pair of hands.“

“Do I detect a whiff of misogyny?”  Marmaduke raised a mildly critical eyebrow.  “Not like you, Robert.  I was inclined to think of you as bearing the standard for equality, and all that.  What’s changed?”

“Nothing, dear chap; nothing at all; Home Affairs needs a low profile approach in the current climate.  A female Secretary of State is inevitably going to draw attention, and Honeyday is a progressive.  The trades unions will shake her like dogs with a rag.  I see Stafford Driscombe as an ideal choice – he has that quality of pragmatic stubbornness about him.”

“Pragmatic stubbornness!”  Chuckled Lederhulme.  “Now there’s a quality to conjure with!  But if you mean he digs his toes in, I’d agree with that.  And he’s a time server, isn’t he?  All the experience is there, especially with the unions.”

“They certainly dislike him,” Marmaduke said.

“Exactly!  All the more reason to pick him, say I.  Unadventurous, and stubborn.  And – and I never met a man so oblivious to questioning.  His PM on Land Registry reform last April was one of the worst argued pieces I ever heard, but he stuck to it rigorously.”  Robert sipped at his glass.  “No, the ideal Home Affairs choice, Stafford.  I back him, anyway.  You do Peter, I take it?”

The Earl of Peverel shook a doubtful head.  “I can’t agree with you, I fear.  He’s a ghastly chap.”

“Oh dear!”  Lederhulme’s smile remained fixed, although the humour had left it.  “That doesn’t disqualify him as a Minister of State, does it?  Rather chimes in his favour, I suggest.  Don’t spare us, Peverel – what dissuades you?”

“A number of things.  His arguments border on the obtuse, his speeches on the stultifying, but on both those issues I take your point:  he is immovable, in fact I doubt he ever realizes he is being pushed.  No, it’s in the more personal aspects I have concerns.  The man’s a bounder:  he docks it wherever safe harbour is offered, and we have had to cover up for him on a few occasions.  Do any of you remember Lucy Bedington-Carey?”

Burford nodded.  “I believe so.  Lady Calpepper as was, lives with some artist chappy in France now – man twice her age.”

“Yes.”  Nodded the Earl.  “Well, Driscombe put down his marker there first, and he did not stop to seek permission.  Her family threatened the most frightful row.  I remember it distinctly – I had the task of organizing the corrective surgery.  Just one misjudgment of many.  Then there’s that rather droll wife of his…”

“Jacintha?  Bit of a stunner, isn’t she?”  Burford commented.  “Always an asset, an attractive wife.”

“Attractive?  Showy, yes.  A deuced too many relatives in the E1 area, including, I’m told, a sister who works the Whitechapel Road.”

“Oh, my dear fellow!”  Lederhulme protested.  “Can’t we keep a sense of moderation, here?  The man’s been Member for North Beaconshire for nearly twenty years, for goodness sake.  The Driscombe Estates?  His feet are hardly clay, are they?”

Marmaduke, Earl Peverel smiled.  “On the contrary, I have Stafford as steeped in alluvium, and it isn’t just his feet.  Well, well, perhaps I overstate.  But the man is not a Driscombe in his father’s mould, and since dear old St. John died he’s become dangerously extravagant.  I worry we may lay ourselves open to unwanted scandal if we pick this particular name from the hat.  I remember Profumo too well.”

Robert Burford drew on his cigar.  “Well, I must say I don’t agree.  I believe he’s the man for the job.  Peter?”

“For me, too.”  Lederhulme nodded; “Although I take on board all you say, Peverel.  I assume we go to a majority vote on this one?”

“You do.”  The Earl said.  “Burford, m’dear, let’s be sure this chap’s underwear drawer is examined minutely, yes?”

“Of course.”  Burford agreed.  “I’ll think of someone appropriate to deal with it.”

“Toby Caverley-Masterson”  Lederhulme said.  “Everybody’s choice of attack-dog.  Put him on it.”

“I’m deeply uneasy about this choice;” said the Earl.  “Stafford Driscombe is the Daily Mirror’s dream Minister.  We’re in danger of handing the press a gift they simply cannot refuse.”

#

Patrick and Jacqui returned to Radley as newly-weds on the morning of the twentieth of March.  Jet-lagged, they slept late on the twenty-first, so Patrick had only recently dressed when a red Porsche sports car erupted onto the forecourt.  He witnessed its arrival from the breakfast room window and opened the front doors in time to see a whip of a woman in a short leather jacket and tight black jeans ease herself from the driving seat.  She glanced over her shoulder and saw him advancing.  She nodded at the house.

“Nice gaff.”  She said.  Then:  “Remember me, do you, Patrick?”

There was something quite familiar about the woman.  “Sorry, but I can’t recall,”  Patrick replied cautiously;  “You are…?”

“Me?  Rebecca Shelley?  Beaconshire Herald, then.  I’ve bettered meself since, though.”

“Ah, I remember.  You didn’t run my story.”

“Nah, true.  Sorry.  We have to talk.  Can we go inside?  I could murder a cuppa.”

“I’m not sure…”

“Believe me, we do need to talk.  I suppose you’ve heard about the election?”

“Of course.”

“Well, then.  Oh, bless you, I’m not canvassin’ for anyone!  I’m still a journalist, Patrick.  I work for the Daily Standard now – great big national, y’know? So, can we…?”

They sat at the breakfast room table.  Inga served them tea.

“Fabulous!  Darjeeling, yeah?”  Rebecca sipped generously.  “You just got married, didn’t you?  Congrats, Patrick.  Do you keep your good lady on the premises?”

“If you mean do we live here together, then yes.  I take it you got the story of our wedding from the local ‘paper?”

“I did so.  Dear old ‘Herald’!  Mr Penger sends ‘is regards, by the way.  You left an impression on him, you did.”  This comment found only stony ground.  Patrick doubted if the ancient ‘advertising manager of the Beaconshire County Herald remembered him at all.  Rebecca swiftly resumed her narrative.  “Right, not to waste your time, I’ll come straight to the point, yeah?  Stafford Driscombe.  You ever met him?”

“No, I’m afraid not.  I know very little about him.”

“Well, you see.  I do.”  ‘Becca nodded her head vigorously.  “I know a lot about him.  Let me test you – guess who might become Secretary of State for Home Affairs – if Heath gets in?”

“From the drift of this conversation would I be right in suggesting Stafford Driscombe?”

“Great, you catch up fast!  Now, for this next bit you have to trust me, Patrick, because I’ve been workin’ on something for a while and I’ve got six months start on you.  Then I want some answers from you, and then the story really starts!

“When a member of the aristocracy’s son – well, anyone, come to that – is being considered for a ministerial post a lot of checkin’ goes on.”

“Checking?”

“Yep.  Special Branch, MI5, the works.  Our ‘powers that be’ have to know the new boy is kosher, yes?  The Profumo affair put the fear of Jesus into them and these days, believe me, they’re thorough.  Squeaky clean, no cobwebs.  No naughty ladies in mews cottages in Knightsbridge, no close male friends without visible support, that sort of thing.”

“So they’re delving into Stafford’s cupboards?”

“Did I say you caught up fast?  Absolutely.  Why am I interested?  Because…let’s just say because.”

“Because maybe things aren’t quite right?”

‘Becca’s eyes flicked onto Patrick’s face like the shutters of twin cameras.  “I might be puttin’ it a little bit differently, but let me ask you again.  What do you know about the Driscombes?”

“Stafford and – what’s her name – Jacintha, I believe.  They are very private people – their estate is locked up like Fort Knox.  To get to meet them you have to make an appointment through their London Offices.  They never agree to meet anyone at home.”

“Exactly.  Now, those kinds of limits might work for, say, business appointments, but you don’t put restrictions like that on MI5.  It isn’t done.”

“In Stafford’s case it was done?”

“So we’ve heard.  Nothin’ official, of course; we don’t get this sort of stuff through conventional channels; ‘reliable sources’ are what we call them.”

‘Becca pulled a notebook from the small brown handbag she carried and flicked it open.  “February fifteenth, Driscombe gets the ‘call’; a casual chat with Heath, soundin’ him out about the job.  As far as we know, Heath got an unequivocal ‘yes’.  February eighteenth, Special Branch arrives at the Driscombe Estate to do a preliminary investigation.  Access is refused.  Well, Special Branch don’t like bein’ refused, so an amicable meetin’ quickly turns ugly.  They have to go back to Heath’s people and through ‘channels’ to gain admission to the Estate.   Heath wouldn’t have known about this – it’s all a little bit off the record, you see, because he hasn’t been elected yet.  Had he heard, he might have scotched the whole ministerial appointment thing right then, but he didn’t hear, so he didn’t scotch.”

“And you did – hear about it,”  Patrick said.

“We hear everythin’, Patrick.  It actually takes a week – in other words until February twenty-fifth, for Special Branch to gain access to that place.  All unofficial, you see – they can’t arrest anyone – but accordin’ to my source it required a lot of legal paper to get past Driscombe’s security.  As my source put it, ‘like opening a baked bean tin’.

“What was Stafford’s explanation?”

“None given, as far as we know.  Apparently his office claimed the Estate was run by his father’s holding company, not him.”

“Not his concern.  Don’t you believe that?”

“Oh, we do!  Just one little niggle; his father died three years ago.  They really meant to say the Estate was run by his father’s side of the company.  But it still leaves the question ‘why’ and makes me wonder what the Driscombe’s needed to tidy up.”

“But they have tidied it up.”

“There haven’t been any adverse comments, so I could hazard a guess the place is as clean as a Mother Superior’s conscience.”

Patrick sighed, and sat back to sip at his tea.  “I don’t see how I can help your story; or even that you’ve got a story,” he said, “unless there’s something else you haven’t told me.”

‘Becca leaned towards him, elbows on the table.  “Two words, Patrick.  A name.  Karen Eversley.”

Her two words struck Patrick as heavily as a physical blow.  He asked, drily:  “What has this to do with Karen?”

Rebecca Shelley’s voice softened:  “Still hurts, then?”

“It’s in the past.  It’s a closed book.”

“Which you re-open every day?  Never found her body.  You must wonder?”

“Look, I don’t see where this is going, but..”

“I said to trust me, didn’t I?  I told you I’ve been working on this for six months now, and I’ve got a lot of what I want, but I need to hear your story.  Not to rehash a dead news item, but maybe begin a new one.  I’m like you, Patrick.  I want to know what happened to her.”

At some time in the course of ‘Becca’s explanation, Jacqui had entered the breakfast room unnoticed.  Now she moved into ‘Becca’s view, putting her hands on Patrick’s shoulders.  “Darling, do you want to do this?”

“Hi.”  ‘Becca said.  “You must be the new bride.  Congratulations!”

“I’m Patrick’s wife, yes.”

“Jacqueline.”

“Yes.”

“Stay with us, Jacqueline.  Help Patrick.  Tell me the story.”

A number of negative options must have flashed through Jacqui’s thoughts at that time.  She could urge Patrick to say nothing, ask this waspish little woman to leave, even call Jackson to join them.  She did none of those things because she could see that by just the utterance of Karen’s name, her cause was lost.  That extra person was already back in the room, and there was nothing she could do.

“I really didn’t know her that well.  My husband will be able to fill in any details I shared.”  Jacqui said quietly.  “I’ll be in the snug if you need me.”  And she left the room.

Patrick watched her go before he asked:  “Are you saying there’s a connection?”

“Between Karen’s disappearance and the Driscombes?  I’m not sayin’ anythin’ yet.  Tell me the story.”

The re-telling of Karen’s tale was against Patrick’s instincts, yet he agreed and took Rebecca Shelley through the sequence of events that led to her disappearance.  As he did so, memories refreshed themselves in the telling, and Kare’s image stood before him renewed, so he almost felt she could be somewhere in the house again, that he had only to open the right door or call her name, and she would come.  Albeit admitted only to himself, guilt washed over him, so he felt tired and world-weary, disappointed that the tide of fortune might play with him as easily as it liked.

‘Becca was a good listener.  She only spoke when she felt there was a detail omitted or a reasoning process unexplained, and when he concluded, at the point of his last visit to Boulter’s Green, she waited silently, as if expecting more.  But they had reached Patrick’s sunder point.  He had nothing left to tell.

“Okay,” she said at last;  “You lost track of Karen after she left this clairvoyant woman’s house, and the last evidence you had of her was her car, parked in a ruined boathouse.”

“I swear it was her car.  There was an old red Pathfinder in there, too, and four bikes, but when I went back later they’d gone.”

“Strange, isn’t it?  But you didn’t see her, in person, after you left her here that mornin’?”

“No, I didn’t.”

“See, Patrick, people don’t just vanish into thin air, do they?  It just doesn’t happen.  So she either came back to the car and drove it away, after or maybe because you saw it, or someone who abducted her did the same.  Are you all right with that?”

Patrick sighed.  “I suppose so, but twice?  From Nowhere Lane and then from the boathouse?  I’ve gone back over this time after time.  Either way, it gets us no further.”

“You seem a decisive sort of bloke, Patrick.   Did you keep on lookin’ for her?”

“Of course I did, up to a point at which my family was being threatened.  The barn here was burned down with my father’s car collection inside.  You wrote that story up, didn’t you? And I just ran out of places to look.  Her letter, together with the removal of her furniture from the apartment, meant the police wouldn’t help.  Her parents seemed convinced she had moved away.  I couldn’t find the firm who made the removal, so there was no way of discovering where or why her things were taken.”

“Her parents are less certain now.  They’ve heard nothin’.  No more letters, though she promised she would be in touch.  They’re a bit grief-stricken, thinkin’ they’ve lost their second daughter.  Oh, and the removal firm came from London.  They took a bit of findin’, but they have the record.  Karen paid for the removal, or at least the payment was debited to her account, after the proceeds of the sale were deducted.  Her stuff was auctioned, all of it.”

Patrick arched an eyebrow.  “You have been busy!”

“Told you, I’ve had six months on this.”  Rebecca slipped her notebook back into her handbag. “I’d like to have a look at this Boulter’s place, maybe tomorrow, and I’d like you to come with me.  Would you do that?”

“I’ve been back there.  There’s nothing to find.”

“And it seems hopeless, don’t it?  On the map, though, it looks awful close to Boult Wells, and I’m a new pair of eyes, you see?”

“If you think…”

“I don’t think. I check.  I follow up everythin’, every tiny little thing, Patrick.  Are you in or not?”

“I’ll come.  Tomorrow.  And we’ll use my Range Rover if we’re going to drive that lane.  It’ll murder your car.”

“Well done!”  The young reporter grinned.  “Eleven thirty, then.  I’ll bring sandwiches.  Pick me up at the Huntsman, yeah?”

“The Huntsman!”

“I’m staying there.  It used to be your regular, didn’t it?  I’m makin’ the acquaintance of the locals.”

After Rebecca Shelly had left, Patrick discovered Jacqui in the snug as she had promised, pondering over a ‘Country Life’ magazine.  She glanced up when he entered, then returned to her reading.

“Come on, Jacks; you know you hate that magazine!”  Taking it gently from her hands, he ignored her mild protest, sitting beside her and putting his arm around her shoulders.  “I’ve been asked to go back to Boulter’s Green.”  He told her.

Jacqui sighed, dropping her head onto his arm.  “We’ll never be free of her, will we?  I mean, really free.”

“I won’t go if you don’t want me to.”

“No, you go.  Who knows, maybe this woman will provide some answers at last.  Maybe that’ll give you peace, I don’t know.”

“I have peace;” Patrick told her.  “I have you.”

They settled back into the cushions, shutting their minds to the lie.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

A Place that was Ours. Chapter Nine – Moving On.

“I don’t know, Chas, do I?”  Sarah Coldbatch protested. “I’m not Sue’s keeper.  She’s gone, that’s all I know.”

“Said nowt to none of us, man.”  Jonna declared in his girlfriend’s support.  “Joost booggered off, middle of the night, Dave said.”

The scene was MacDonalds on the Friday morning, the day after my case.  It should have been a time for celebration, had I not been told of Sue’s unexpected departure.  The joy of my small victory had dwindled to dust alongside this news, and I was trying to get more information.

“Looka,”   Jonna leaned across the table;  “She were changed, Chas.  Affer you’s had that run in wi’ ‘er Da, she barely spoke to us, nivver!  She coomed to school wi’ Dave, she walked ‘ome wi’ Dave.  She divvent want ter know us, man!”

Sarah nodded.  “It was like she couldn’t wait to get away; from the school, from us, from ever’thing.   I Mean, we were her friends, y’kna?”

Jonna said:  “We didn’t wanna tell yer. Chas man, ‘cause yer were hurtin’ enough already, y’kna?  ‘Cause it wasn’t nuffin’ terr’ble nor nowt.  She was jus’ stand offish, like.”

What were my feelings?  I was worried, I was puzzled; maybe I was a little confused.  I tried to express these conflicting emotions to John Hargreave, when I called at his house later that day.   He was evasive, to begin, and tried to divert the conversation to other matters:  did I feel relieved now the court case was over, what were my plans for the coming football season, how was I going to serve my forty hours of community service?  I gave answers, inasmuch as I knew them, to each of these things.

“Have you seen this?”  We were in his bedroom.  He reached for a magazine that lay open on his desk and thrust it at me.  Photographs of some unattractive black electronics dominated the page.  “That’s the future, man!   Analogue cellular phones, Chas!  No strings, yeah?  You can carry them around with you, make calls from them, get calls on them.   They’re the future!  America’s got them, Japan’s got them, Australia, Israel – we’ll be having them next – think o’ that!”

I remember my scepticism.  I never shared John’s gift for prediction.  To me, the prospect of carrying something around which resembled in appearance and probably weighed the equivalent of a house brick seemed uninspiring.  I said so.

“They’re just the first.  They’ll get smaller, you’ll see!  Give it five years and everyone will have one.”  His tone was suddenly grave.  “She always fancied you, you know?”

“Sue?”

“Aye, daft really, the way it works.  She liked you, right from when we were nay high.  I liked her, she didn’t even notice me.  Seems to me girls decide like that.  No reason in it, none at all.  I’m cleverer than you, I’m better lookin’ than you, and she still  picked you, y’bastard .”

“And now she’s unpicked me. So we’ve both lost, haven’t we?”  I said.

“She must have took her sunglasses off.”  John nodded.  “I miss her.”

“Even without her glasses?”  On reflection, I must have been aware of the candle John held for Sue, but I had taken little account of it until now.  John was, in Sue’s assessment, ‘deep’, and that was undeniably so; his heart was buried deep, a treasure in a labyrinth where only those who had need could find it, but it was a strong heart and loyal, and it served his true friends, be they few, with unswerving faith.

“So you’ll be off with Angela Carey, now then?”  John asked.  “You’ve pulled there, man.  You must have noticed?”

“Aye.  I’m not much in need of a lass right now.”  I said.  “I was hoping to find Sue.”

“Aye.”  My friend burrowed into a sheaf of papers on his desk and extracted a large photograph.  “Seen this?  While you was busy getting’ your end away ah took a train down to Heathrow for the day.  Took that from the observation deck, man!  That is one radical aeroplane, isna?”

“Yes, it is.”  I found myself looking at an extremely good picture of a British Airways Concorde, taken as it approached the terminal buildings from a taxi lane, and I had to remind myself that by entering John’s room I was voluntarily immersing myself in his world of technological enchantment, because that was the essence of him – it was where he found solace when reality proved too painful, as it often did, for John.

“The day after you left school she came back – she’d been on ‘study leave’ or something, at least that’s what was said –  and she hardly spoke to any of us.  She just sat through lessons, answered the questions Chemical Carter asked, stayed in the classroom for breaks, sat at a separate table wi’ Dave for dinners; all that.  She came to school with Dave, she walked home with Dave.  It was like he was her bodyguard, or summat; and he wouldn’t say anything, neither.  We used to have good chats, Dave and me.  Weird!”

“She was under pressure.”  I surmised.

“Off her Da’, you reckon?  Mebbe’s.  How well d’y’know him, Chas?  He’s serious.”

I shook my head.  “I thought I knew him quite well, once.  Mind, it could have been her Ma who was leaning on her.  Jonna says she left in the middle of the night.”

“Aye.  We did get Dave to tell us that much.  It was like he didn’t want to talk about it at all, y’na?  She slipped out in the night, he reckons.  She packed some stuff, cleared her savings book the day afore.  Not even her Ma and Da’ knew.  Just sneaked off.  Doesn’t seem sense to me – she was due to sit her GCEs in a couple of months. Everything goin’ for her, man.  Doesn’t seem sense.”

“She was supposed to be going to live with her aunt, or someone, in Bedeport – study for her ‘A’ levels there, at the college.”

“I know a couple of lasses who go there.”  John volunteered.  “I can find out if she’s there, easy enough.”

It would be a week or two before I knew for certain.  Sue was not attending Bedeport college.

What do you do?  What do you do at sixteen, with all your life before you and a love already in your past?  This you do not do – you do not forget.  You try to find someone who has left this massive hole in your life:  you ask questions, you follow trails that were not taken, you ponder and reason and scheme within yourself as you try to understand; but you are young and your days are full, and with time you learn to consign to the past that which belongs there.

Yes, you ask: at the railway station if anyone remembers a dark-haired girl with blue eyes who boarded an early morning train, at the bus station, the cab drivers your mother knows, even your own mother if she could have taken Susan’s call one night.  You try to get to talk to her other friends, to visit the club where she went to practice Judo, the amdram group where she was cast to play in a Christmas pantomime; but all you find are dropped threads, others as clueless as yourself.  With time and without funds eventually there is no other place to turn, so you cease your search.   Then, finally, you move on.

Carlo made pizzas.  His Emporio Da Pizza wafted an air of toasting cheese and baking bread down the length of Front Street every night promptly at six o’clock, drawing a steady dribble of customers, and no matter if the occasional ‘roach might be seen tanning itself in the reflected heat of his stone oven, his food had a reputation of which he was proud.

“Is the best, the ingredients I use.  Is the tomatoes, sun-dried fresh from Napoli, the best-a mozzarella of the buffalo of my blessed country, the finest pepperoni!  Is beautiful, that I cook!  Is perfecto!”

I met Carlo while my community service group was cleaning the alley behind his Emporio.  He wanted a delivery rider and I wanted a job, so I will always be grateful to Carlo.  From him I learned the joys of riding a motorised vehicle because a scooter with a set of ‘L’ plates came with the package.  He even financed my first licence.

The very first thing I learned about Carlo was his nationality, because Carlo was an Italian of convenience.  His real name was Carl, he actually came from Sheffield, and although he insisted he had an Italian grandfather somewhere I was inclined to believe his parentage was shrouded in mystery.  To his customers, he was from Napoli, which was probably the only Italian city name he knew.  At the back of his shop, in his storeroom, or when the takeaway was devoid of clientele, his accent and his dialect was broad Yorkshire.

Then there was all I gained in knowledge from Carlo.  He taught me how to make his ‘perfecto’ pizza; how to knead and spin the dough into a symmetrical base and how to deck it with the buffalo mozzarella that was analogue cheese, the tomatoes that originated in a tin and the pepperoni that came from Tesco’s.  In short, he taught me much about the quintessence of commercial success; that it is not the integrity of the item you sell but the intensity of its presentation.

“You buy-a from me you buy the finest – the very finest!”

His customers believed him.  They believed him knowing if you wanted pizza the alternatives in Casterley were even worse, or because they liked his floor show, or after ten o’clock because they were so drunk it didn’t matter anyway.

Carlo was kind.   “You ask-a my people he work for me I am a generous man, no?”

“Carlo, can I take the scooter home tonight?”

“Aye, lad, awreet.  Keep it in yer yard, mind, we don’t want it stolen do we?”

He would agree, such was his faith that I would return the bike to him promptly at six the following night.  If it would start, of course.  That was a lottery in itself.

In the meantime, football dominated more and more of my days, as my involvement with Casterley Town Juniors grew.   Although our fixtures were limited in number, I played in all twenty matches against the other Junior teams in our league, and I scored at least one goal in each.  By the following summer we were second in the league and I was the top scorer.   By the summer of ‘eighty-eight I was eager for another season, and indecently pleased with myself.

It took Jonna to remind me of my fan club:  Angela.

“When’re yer gonna date the poor lass, man?  She’s gorrit sommat chronic fer thee, like.   Ah’m tempted ter try for ‘er mesen’.  Ah cud let her use me fer a night so she’s cud get to thee.  Wha’ d’yer think o’ that?”

“I think that would be immoral.”  I told him.  “And I wouldn’t advise it, like.  What if Sarah found out? She’d eat you alive!”

Jonna broached the subject in December, the middle of the season.  I was zealous in my asceticism.  Dating was out.  But came spring there was Angela, still faithfully cheering in the home stand, and I weakened.  From the terraces above the tunnel one Saturday in April, the last before our season closed, after a wet match on a soaked pitch, most of which I seemed to be carrying back into the dressing room with me, I couldn’t have seemed at my most attractive.

I called up to her.  “Hi, Ange.  What are you doing after?”

Her face lit up.  “Oh, not much.”

With that Angela Carey and I became friends.   We hung out together that first evening at Mr Pellosi’s, an ice cream parlour in the town, and we talked.  Actually, Angela did most of the talking; rather as though she had been saving up everything she wanted to say to me for a year of distant longing and this was her time to let it out.  Her voice was light and musical, her eyes were icy blue and bright as air, and it was a very pleasant evening, although, looking back upon it now, I cannot remember one thing she said.  I walked her home in the rain to a house very like my own in a street quite near to mine.  She was still talking, her eyes flashing with relections of the lamplight – because somehow evening had turned into night, and at her door her face came suddenly to within inches of mine, inviting a kiss.  Was I ready for that yet?  Did I even think before our lips were touching, reminding me painfully of a sweetness I had almost forgotten?  When she stepped away she was aglow with happiness, so I was happy too, for a time.  Yes, I was ready for that.

“Can I see you tomorrow?”

“Yeah, if you want.”

“Yeah, I want.”

The stamping feet of conscience were loud on the street behind me as I walked home.  Almost a year had passed when all I had of Sue was memories and regrets, yet she still spoke quietly in my head, reminding me of our brief moment of union.  A tiny demon, a creature I had kept buried in my psyche for a year sat upon my shoulder now, refreshing my conclusion that love meant trouble.  Attachment always ended in pain.  Concentrate on who you are and where you want to be, and never permit anyone to distract you from your path.  Angela was very, very distracting.

Nevertheless, I fell into a relationship with her.  It was so easy.  She expected nothing from me, and that was her gift.   If I was late, or if I cancelled an outing we planned together she did not complain; if I became impatient or angry she would remain quiet and step aside to let me flail at the cruel air for a while, knowing when to come close – knowing I would return to her when I was tired and ready to bathe in the calmness she bestowed.  Her talk could flow over me and around me like warm rain, no matter that it lacked the food my intellect required.  Angela was nothing about intellect:  she was everything about presence and, I suppose, about love.  Did I ever love her?  To answer in the negative would seem unkind because she was no cypher, and all she gave to me should be acknowledged and honoured, but we were only seventeen.  I felt privileged to be with her, and I think, conceited as I am, she had some love for me.  We enjoyed each other, for a while.

Angela taught me that beauty was power, a lesson that has helped me through many a honey trap moment since those days.   Motorists would stop at a pedestrian crossing when she was still ten yards from it, just so they could watch her cross in front of them, and maybe harvest a smile.  Once, taking her home (illegally, because I was a learner) on the back of Carlo’s scooter the inevitable happened and a police motorcyclist pulled me over.  My background being as it was, I quaked as the copper took out his notebook.  Then Angela unclipped her helmet and shook out her long blonde hair, and the notebook disappeared.   I could never completely define that quality in her, but some of it must have been down to her natural grace and some to her complete lack of angst or defiance.  She exuded gentleness.

So that was my seventeenth year:  Angela was my girl, John Hargreave was my friend, and football was my life.   My photo appeared twice in the sports pages that season so I thought of myself as a pretty important member of small town society – hard though it may have been to equate such high status with a job delivering pizzas.  Had you seen me then, you might have felt that my preposterous self-importance deserved a sharp dose of ego-puncture.  Certainly there were cauldrons bubbling – in terms of celebrity Mackenzie Crabtree outdid me by three to one.  A member of the council now, rumour suggested Mackenzie had his eye on selection as the local Member of Parliament; something of no concern to me, were it not for increasing evidence of the Crabtree finger in every pie.  Mack’s portly figure made front page news for our local ‘paper – attending this or opening that; his money loudly supportive of good causes, his opinions sought on matters as diverse as local housing and national politics.  And Shelley?  Shelley was always on his arm, supporting him or, in my mother’s more acid opinion, being supported.

“Look at ‘er eyes, Chas.  She’s ‘ad a skinful, that one!”

I regretted that there seemed no longer any prospect of personal contact between the Crabtrees and my mother.   I might have wished it otherwise, because it offered the only means to gain information about Sue, but my mother was adamant.

“I’ll never talk to that bitch again!”  And that was that.

Dave Crabtree had been moved to Ramphill, a private school over the river, down Lambtree way, apparently to help his ‘A’ level studies and prepare him for university entrance.  We rarely encountered Dave, and if we did he ignored us.

One evening in July of 1988, just before my eighteenth birthday, Carlo dispatched me with a pizza order for Rossiter’s Hotel.  Rossiter’s, a relatively new concrete barn on the riverside about two miles east of Casterley, is one of those anonymous multi-room establishments frequented by the business community, and popular because of its proximity to Bedeport.   Orders for pizza emanated from there quite frequently, so this was a routine call.  I knocked on the door of room 41.  It opened promptly.

The man whose tall and substantial figure greeted me had a face and a voice I recognised.

“Mr Benton!”

The face grinned at me.  It was a very broad, Cheshire Cat, ear-to-ear grin.   “Ranton; call me Allen.”  He said, standing aside for me.  “Come in, Chas.  Is this my pizza?  Do you want a share?”

“I – I have to be getting back.”  I stammered.  Two years before, I remembered meeting  Allen Ranton while training with Jack Master’s football class.   Then he had been wrapped in an expensive suede jacket, sufficiently opulent for Jonna to suggest he might be a chicken ripe for the plucking., Back then he had commented upon my conduct in the tackle.  Now, three seasons later, I understood what he had meant.  I was in the congenial presence of a man who really knew about football.

“Don’t worry, lad.  I had a word with your boss, Carlo.  He isn’t expecting you back for a while.

Come and sit down, Chas.  We’ve got summat to talk about.”  He had a habit, I remembered, of leaning close to me, bending over me from his superior height and looking down.  I had grown since then, yet not enough to meet him eye to eye.  A coffee table with two tub chairs were clustered beside the room’s large window and he threw the pizza box down on the table, planting himself in one of the chairs, waving to the other.  “Here y’are, don’t be shy lad.  Grab a piece!”

He led by example, grabbing a fistful of Four Seasons and stuffing his cheeks with it.  Trying to catch up with this string of surprises, I followed more timidly, picking at a slice of pizza as I slithered into the chair and wondering what could possibly be happening.

Allen was not averse to speaking with his mouth full.  “Right!  Now this isn’t complicated.   Do you know what I do?  No.  Alright, I’m an agent.  You know what an agent is, right?  Well, I’m one.  I represent footballers.   Why do footballers need me?  Because the bastards who want them to play in their teams try to tie them up as tight as possible and pay them as little as possible.   I do the scrapping, I do the bargaining, I do the politics, Chas.   I get players the money they deserve and more besides.  Now, lad, do you know what this is?”  A briefcase was stashed, open, beside his chair and from it he produced a binder full of A4 sheets.

My eyes must have been as wide as saucers by then.  “A contract?”

“That’s right.  You catch on quick; I like that.  It’s a contract with your name on it, Charles Haggerty, and if you sign it you will be bound to me.  I’ll explain why…”

And explain Ranton did.  He showed me his ‘client list’, names familiar to me as among the top earners in football.  Then he told me how his business thrived on new, young talent, and how he took no more than a basic fee while he ‘developed them’ through the game.

“If I didn’t think you had the ability, lad, I wouldn’t be having this conversation; there’s no money in it for me, not at this stage.  But you’ve got a future, and if you’re my client it’ll be profitable for both of us.”

That was when he dropped the bombshell.  “Casterley Town are interested in you.  They want you in the team for the beginning of the season.”

I remember it so well.  I think – no, alright, I admit, though I’m not proud of it – I burst into tears.  Allen thrust a napkin at me.

“Don’t get too excited.  I’m sure you know they’re in danger of dropping out of the league, and most of the team make up their earnings from their old age pension, so they won’t pay you much, although there are some politics involved – you needn’t bother with them – which give us leverage.”   He passed the contract to me.  “Now I don’t want you to sign this tonight.  Take it with you, show it to a solicitor, make sure you’re happy with everything.  If you are, sign it and give it to Jack Masters when you see him on Wednesday.  He’ll see that I get it.  Don’t put it off, though, I need to get the deal sorted soon.”

 

© Frederick Anderson 2017.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

God of the Rocks

35They said of him that he would be watching.   They said he would see the last of them to their graves, and the world itself would spiral down into infinity, before his eyes could rest.  He brought to them the seasons, the sun and the rain, and he taught them dread.

They said he was a god.

They worshipped him.  They beseeched him often, in their times of peril or of pain; sought in vain for his solace, begged fruitlessly before him that he might forgive their sins, because even though they could not explain the meaning of sin, the gift was not theirs to understand.  And although they believed they heard his voice, he never answered.

Enthroned upon his mountain-top among the frozen rocks, his immortal flesh scoured by wind and ice, he was a king, at least, of all he surveyed:  his eyes always open, his ears filled by the knowledge of man, unsleeping, watching the ages pass.  And he learned.

In his time he was accused of many things, at once feared and admired for his indiscretions.   He took the innocence of a king’s beautiful daughter they said; came to her disguised by the night in a cloak of swan-down to give her a son she would raise to be his intermediary with the people – but no-one saw, or had word of the child.  Time brought rumours of many sons, to whom were accorded the powers of minor gods, and daughters too.   He divided his responsibilities among them, his subjects claimed – for childbirth, for death, for fire and fertility – children unseen, with powers never proved.

The people prospered.  Their numbers grew.  They lost their fear of him, spurning the myths of his children and turning their prayers to the mountain less often, yet they committed greater and greater enormities in his name, and still they had no understanding of their wrongs.

He had left the mountain long before the first bold feet ascended to his high watchtower, left no trace of his presence among those merciless rocks; so they allowed themselves to laugh, perhaps a little nervously, at their primitive notions of his existence.  But he was watching, just as before.

There were some who knew his presence still, and many who pretended.   They made proclamations, they wrote laws they said that he had written, and words they said that he had spoken.  Some said he lived within each one of them, others believed him to rule from somewhere beyond the sky.  Few knew the truth; for the truth was that his home was where it had always been; beneath their feet – that he was the ground whereon they walked.

In all the world there were none who suspected, or truly understood his mind; who could fathom his relationship to man.   They sought his guidance when he had none; prayed for his favour when he gave none, but because they had shaped him into a loving and merciful image in their own minds they were sure, despite all evidence, he must be righteous and just.

With time he grew tired of learning about the imperfect mortals that moved about him.  He resented the barbs they plunged ever deeper in his flesh.  And he recognised signs of a transformation in himself, because of all the lessons he had acquired from the human infestation one stood tall – they had taught him emotion.  Their unnatural agriculture used chemicals to burn his skin and their treatment of beasts that truly were his own creation moved him to tears; and where he wept new waters sprang, and where he vented his fury he sent fire into the sky.  Now, at the last, he would prove worthy of their prayers.  Now at last, far too late, they had reason to fear him.

Knowing these creatures could never be true custodians of his world he was not yet moved to their destruction, though his impatience with them grew.  He shrugged his shoulders, sending their dwellings tumbling, more and more.  He charged the air with fire, he turned oceans to ferment, ice to rain.  Yet he did not dispatch them.  They vexed, but they did not infuriate.  Not yet.    Why?   Well, there was yet something in his aged world to gladden his heart.

He had seen her walking by this river before, a girl with pale cheeks and features that were perfection; whose dark blue eyes were filled by the mystery of the waters and whose soul was clear of mortal sin.   She walked with a man, another human, but this did not deter him, for no mortal could withstand his presence.   He had seen her, and he had wanted her.

“I think,”  said Nadia, as she crouched on her heels by the riverbank, reaching to dabble her fingers in the water;  “You should leave the poor fish alone.”

“Do you?”  the young man laughed.  “So you would consign the most popular pastime of all to the dustbin of incorrectness at a stroke, would you?”  He baited his hook.

“No, Ben, but I don’t see the point.  You entice them to bite on those horrible barbed things of yours, terrify them by hauling them from their natural element, then rip their mouths apart before you toss them back in.  Why?”

“Fish can’t feel pain.”  Ben shaped to cast his line.

“Are you sure of that?”

“It’s been proven.”

“Not, I take it, by a fish.”  Nadia sighed.  “Oh, look at the swan, isn’t it beautiful?”

“It’s a bird.”  The young man’s baited hook zipped over Nadia’s head on its way out into the torrent.  “If you don’t like fishing, why did you come?”

“I like the river, and I like you.  Ben, is it me, or is that swan swimming towards us?”

“Maybe it thinks you’ve got some bread for it.  Give it a sandwich.”

“I’m sure you shouldn’t….”   Nadia’s voice faded into silence as she found herself gazing into the eyes of the swan, which were the most thoughtful and visionary eyes she had ever seen.  They were eyes  of knowledge and destiny, bearing a message for her alone.   It was all she could do to remain where she was upon the riverbank, because the bird’s stare was mesmerising her.  It wanted her to join it, to give herself to its embrace.  Reflected in shimmering white upon the water, the noble creature glided ever nearer, dipping its head to nibble at a temptation that skipped by on the current.

“It’s taken my hook.”  The young man shouted.   “The bloody thing’s taken my hook!”

“Oh no!  Do something!” Nadia rushed forward, plunging to her waist into the river to reach for the swan, all her instincts screaming that this bird must be protected; must be rescued.   For a few dread filled seconds the swan’s powerful wings churned the water as it thrashed wildly against the line, then, as suddenly as it had been taken, it was gone.  Running with the current on desperate feet it gained the air.   Graceful yet crippled, its neck crooking as it tried to cough the metal hook free, it ascended,  and all Nadia could do was watch it depart.  She rounded on Ben.  “I could have got to it.  Why didn’t you wait?”

“I cut the line.   I couldn’t hold it, I’d have lost the rod and everything if I’d tried.”

“You let it go.”  Nadia wept bitterly, for she had seen in the space of a second everything the world had missed.  “You condemned it.”

She turned from Ben to walk home alone.  As she walked the world grew cold and a different darkness fell.

#

“Another one?”    Baldai asked.

“The third in this cycle.”  Procator affirmed, as they watched the screen.  “Most regrettable.  It seems this is the critical evolutionary phase.  The statistics for this galaxy are quite damning, I’m afraid.  We’re having some success, but almost entirely with acquatic solutions.  Land-based life forms are simply too fallible.  It’s almost as though the stock is corrupt.”

“That is possible, of course.”  Baldai admitted.  “However, there’s nothing to be done.  Is he recovering?”

“To a point, I suppose.  Avian disguises are particularly difficult to treat, and he had been in a river for three weeks before we could bring him up.  The physical recovery is good, but…”  Procator made a gesture of futility;  “his psychological makeup has completely burned out.  He has expressed a wish to retire to his galaxy of origin and I think that is probably best.”

“And that?”  Baldai waved at the image on their screen of the bereft planet:  “What shall we do with that?”

“Oh, dispose of it.  There’s another eligible candidate closer to this sun-star, if you think we should have another try – but I would be inclined to emphasise the oceans, this time.”

 

© Frederick Anderson 2016.  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

 

 

 

 

 

The Destiny Game

 

” I’d say it has all to do with names.”  Kevin’s eyes were drawn to the window, and a row ofRaindrops beech trees beyond his friend’s water-logged garden.  He was in reflective mood.

“What are you saying now?”  Christian asked.   “Names?  I thought we were talking about relationships?”

Outside, the blackened sky delivered rain like a flagellation, whipped up by a strengthening gale to be hurled against the glass.

“Listen to that!”  Kevin murmured:  “Nature’s baptism, yes?  ‘I name this house’?  Baptism, you see?  Baptism is where the fatal blow is struck. There you are doing your mewling and puking and definitely not in control of the situation, while your future is decided by two well-meaning but deluded parents and a scary old man who throws water on you.  ‘I name this child’.  If I’d been in any condition to know what they were doing, I’d have risen up from the font and severed their heads.  ‘Kevin’!  My god!”

“I’m a strong believer in fate, yet I refuse to believe so much is decided by a name.”

“No, fate has nothing to do with it!  It was some fiendish kink in the curtain of the Grand Plan.  Someone said ‘condemn this one to a life of misery.  Name him Kevin’.  I can hear them laughing even now!  Names strike at the very fabric of a relationship.  I mean, ‘Kevin’, you know?  The hard ‘K’?  Women will never freely date a Kevin.  And it isn’t exactly a superhero’s name, either, is it?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that. You’ve got some hard ‘K’s batting for your team.  Consider Clark Kent.”  Christian adjusted position in his armchair, carefully perching his glass of whisky on the arm whilst reaching for a poker from the hearth.  He thrust at the fire that burned brightly there, agitating it into a volcanic profusion of sparks.  “Look at my name.  I’m living a lie.  I’m agnostic at best.  You can’t seriously hope to convince me that your misfortunes are attributable to your parents’ dismissive choice of name!”

Kevin turned away from the window and the depression of greys crowding his view.   “Dismissive.  You don’t know how accurately that describes my parents.  Did you ever meet my father?”

“Once or twice.”

“Which was about as often as my mother met him.  My baptism was probably his last stand.  He stayed long enough to ensure I was irrevocably Kevined then left for the pub and never came back.”

“Please, permit the poor man some justice!  You were mewling and puking all over him, remember.  And he must have been rather more present than you imply, because I remember his being in the house when we played together as children.  Was your mother his third wife?  Not strong on that whole bonding for life thing, was he?”

“Like father like son, is that your inference?”  Kevin shook his head.  “I thought I’d laid that ghost long ago.”

“They say the luck runs.”

“And I don’t believe that. It isn’t luck, it’s design.  Incidentally, it’s a skill you have, and I apparently lack.  After all, we’re much of a muchness, you and I;  I don’t see myself as particularly ill-favoured, or you, forgive me, as particularly handsome.  We’re roughly the same height, the same weight; our personalities are similar; yet here I stand, left in the departure lounge of yet another failed relationship, without the faintest idea where I went wrong.  And here are you, flying business class in this immaculately kept house with Svetlana who is, you have to admit, an exquisite testament to womanhood…”

“Who can be a little – shall we say – eccentric at times.”

“I will stick to exquisite.  After fifteen years she still looks as beautiful as the day you introduced me to her.  And you still dote on her, I can see that.  Fifteen years!  Can I tell you my experiences of those fifteen years?”

Christian chuckled sympathetically.  “There was Melissa.  She was a lovely girl!”

“With some lovely friends.  a whole cohort of lovely friends, mostly male!  Then Claire, and Michelle…”

“Six months later.”

“Alright; that was brief even by my standards.  But Alicia…”

“Ah  Alicia!  She was a shredder, wasn’t she?”

Kevin gave a grim nod.  “Ribbons, literally.  I couldn’t go out, sometimes.  Scar tissue is so unsightly.  And now…”

“Now Sophie.”

“Yes, Sophie.  Absolutely Sophie.”

Kevin sighed, feeling his eyes smart from a revisited sadness.  He crossed to his friend’s sideboard and the whiskey glass that awaited him.  “Teach me, Chris!  Let me share your gift.  And while you’re about it, tell me where in the known universe is there a Svetlana waiting for me?”

Christian’s finger traced an imaginary picture on the arm of his chair as he tried to frame an answer for his friend.  Somehow the picture seemed to resemble Svetlana. “I don’t know, Kev.  I could say there’s someone out there, someone you’ve yet to meet; but that wouldn’t hack, would it?  I think it’s just fate – no more and no less.”

“Fate!  Nonsense, my friend. You have a seduction plan.  It’s time you publicized!  I want answers, before age and bachelorhood place my assets beyond recall.  Come on, give!”

“If I had a plan it would be rather rusty by now, but honestly, I have nothing to impart!  Svetlana and I were one of life’s chance encounters; no more, no less.”

“You met her on the Internet.  She posted on a dating site.  Or, wait – YOU posted on a dating site!”

Christian laughed.  “I did not!”

“I used to believe she was a mail order bride.  For years I was convinced you were holding out on me, in spite of her perfect English.”

“Oh really!  She came to this country when she was ten.  Her father’s a ‘something’ with Debrette Cooper – the bankers?   All right, I never told you how we met, did I? So I will, if only to show you how strong a hand fate plays in these things.  It was pure chance.  I was in the middle of an aisle in the middle of a supermarket in the middle of an evening, trying to decide which size of Cornflakes I should pick and this glorious woman just walked up to me and said: ‘Hi’.

supermarket aisle“Amazing! I shall need details:  haircut, aftershave, manner of dress…”

“Amazed was I!  Was I wearing aftershave?  I don’t remember.  Dress?   Casual, I suppose.  What else?  Anyway, back to lovely lady and ‘Hi’.  What could I do but respond?”

“I suppose you could have hidden behind the Cornflakes.  But obviously you didn’t.  I should point out that details of dress are important, however.  What did you do?”

“I said ‘Hi’ right back at her.  Quite courteously but avoiding one of those leers you do so well.  I wasn’t going to be intimidated, you see.”

“Heavens no, why should you be?  Though that is true – we men do find beauty intimidating.  So there you are, you see – technique stepping in.  Memo to face: ‘avoid leer’.  And?”

“And?”

“Sort of ‘what next’ and.  As in ‘and what next’?”

Ah yes!  She gave me that quirky smile of hers and took a little blue card from her purse.  She came right up close to me, slipped it into my trousers pocket – bold as you please – then just walked away.  But oh, the quick touch of those fingers slipping into my pocket; and what a walk!”

“Stop it, you’re embarrassing yourself!  So let me guess, her ‘phone number was on the card?”

“A soft blue colour, that card.  It was nothing special – I mean, she hadn’t had fifty printed, or anything like that.  I think it was a business card for a hair salon, or something.  You’re right, she’d written her number on the corner.  And her name.”

“So that was how it all began?  Yes, of course it was.  You called, you dated, you lasted.  I shall  want precise dating procedure – details, please?”

“You really are missing the point!  The Fickle Finger of Fate had already played the trump, so to speak.  The date, all the dates, were perfect.  We matched – perfectly.  Over a dinner table, at a bar, walking beside the river, it was as though we read each other’s thoughts and we never really needed to speak.  We were married within a month, we’re still together.  We still love each other.  And I never told her.”

“Never told her what?  Oh, Christian!  Intriguing.  There’s was a secret between you?”

“Hear me out. I couldn’t tell her how I worried about that first encounter: a beautiful woman who freely gave me her number.  Was I so incredibly lucky, or was this an approach she had a habit of making?”

“One hates to coin the term ‘promiscuous’…”

“Yes, one’s choice of word could be kinder, too, couldn’t it?  Anyway, eventually the subject came up in conversation.  Apparently the shopping basket was my Ace of Hearts.  I had no idea that Tuesday night in that particular supermarket was ‘singles night’, or that if you carried a hand basket containing cheese and Cornflakes, on that particular aisle, it said you were seeking a companion.  It was a code.  Svetlana knew, I stumbled into it.  Fate, you see?  She was carrying the same items, if I’d looked.  I didn’t. I didn’t even think about that.  How could I have known?”

Kevin  frowned.  “But that’s not a secret, not now.  Although it’s likely to guide my feet towards the supermarket at issue next Tuesday, it’s information you both share.  What’s the story?  What’s the big, humungous confidence you have kept to yourself for fifteen years?”

“Well, it’s a small thing, I guess….”

“What, then?”

“In that supermarket, all those years ago – which means nothing now, of course…”

“Oh, no!  Of course not.   But something you never told her…”

“I was  shopping with my aunt.  It was her basket I was carrying, while she was checking out the toiletries in the next aisle.  The cheese was hers, the basket was hers.  I wasn’t shopping for myself at all, not in any sense.   You see what I mean?  Fate, Kevin.  Just fate.”

 

© Frederick Anderson 2016.  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.