A Quiet English Village with a Lethal Heart

Hi!

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

A fulfilment of a promise.

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

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

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

Hallbury Summer – Episode Twenty-five Purification

The story so far:

Shaken badly by his discovery of his brother Michael, bloodied and in possession of a knife, then further upset by having to watch as Michael is taken into care, Joe Palliser arrives upon his erstwhile friend Tom’s doorstep, seeking help.  The door is opened, however, not by Tom but by his wife, Emma, and he learns Tom, aware of her love for Joe, has left her.   Passions flare and Joe makes love to Emma.

Joe does not return to his aunt and uncle’s house until late afternoon, in the lea of a storm.  He finds the pantry roof has leaked, and looking at the ruined food provides him with a spark of inspiration.

Joe clasped Julia’s shoulder so fiercely she squealed in alarm.  “Joe, dear!”

“Aunt – telephone the police.  Get Constable Hallett to meet me at the Parkin house as soon as he can.  Tell him it’s vital he comes quickly, yes?”

Gripped by an urgency he had neither time nor ability to explain, Joe barely acknowledged Julia’s dumb expression.  “Do it for me – please?”  He nearly collided with Owen as he ran from the door.

In the garage, he hurriedly assembled those tools that had accompanied him on his and Sophie’s raid the previous week.  The bag was where he had left it, most of the equipment easily to hand.  He rushed out into the lane, packing the bag into the back of his Wolsey, acting in such haste that it was not until he had turned the car and headed towards the road that he saw Tom’s Cortina parked at the end of the lane, blocking his path.

As he juddered to a halt, Emma’s husband swung from the driver’s seat, striding towards him.

“You bastard!”

Oh, god, not now!  His heart palpitating, Joe climbed from the Wolsey, stood in the lane – ready to face Tom, to take whatever he chose to hand out.

“No, it’s alright; I aren’t come to hit you, though f**k knows I should!”  Needles of torture were shooting through Tom’s face – agonies Joe could imagine, but never share.  “We was friends once, Palliser – that’s why I’m here.  You got to go!  You got to go now!”

Joe was speechless.

“Take Emma with yer.  I don’ want ‘er.  I told her.  She’s waitin’ for yer – I seen to that!  You got to leave now.”

“I can’t leave, Tom. There’s something I must do.”

Tom shook his head.  “No.  Nothin’ you must do, boy.  Charker Smith’s after yer.  Someone’s been stirrin’ ‘im up.  He’s been drinkin’ hard all af’noon, an’ ‘e’s sworn he’s goin’ to send yer to meet his brother tonight. He’s on his way from Friscombe now, and he’s got his twelve-bore with ‘un.  You got to be out of ‘ere, ‘fore it’s too late.”

What did Joe feel?  Fear, certainly: he had no wish for a showdown with Charker – especially now.  He searched frantically for inspiration.  “Then help me, Tom!  Oh, I’m so, so sorry about Emma and everything that’s happened between us, but Tom, I have to do this before I settle anything with Charker.  I must!”

Tom’s expression was one of complete disbelief:  “Settle with ‘im?  Boy, he’s goin’ to kill yer!  You don’t ‘settle’ with folks like Charker!  What’s the matter with the’?  See here:  Emma, she deserves to be ‘appy.  If she can’t be ‘appy with me, then it’s you she must have.  You aren’t no good to her in a bag, Joe!”

Overwhelmed by Tom’s generosity of spirit, Joe stumbled over his words, but his resolve was absolute.  “There’s been two deaths already in this village – have you forgotten that?  If I don’t act there’ll be at least one, maybe two more.  I think I know what’s been going on Tom and I have to finish it.  I have to get inside the Parkins’ house tonight – now!  The answer’s there, I’m sure of it.  Let me through, please?!”

It was more of a plea than anything else, but it seemed to weigh with Tom.  Those who had died, after all, had been his neighbours too.  Tom was ever a man of action.

“You mad?  All right, if you want to get yerself shot – I’m comin’ with yer, though.  We’ll take mine.”

“You don’t have to, Tom, you’re not part of this…”

“F**k you, Palliser, shut up boy!  Get in – this ‘un’s faster’n your’n!”

“Wait, then!”

Joe grabbed the tools from his own car, ran to join Tom in his.  They were in motion before he could even shut his door.

The Cortina flew.  It flew as though Tom had no desire to live, did not care whether he had a destination or none.  He aimed the vehicle at the bend which led their lane out into Wednesday Common, passing in a flicker the hedge where Joe and Emma had first kissed, where Joe and Sophie had said goodbye.

“See, Joe; I know‘t weren’t all you.  I knows that.  Emma and I, we aren’t been right fer a while.  ‘T would have been alright if we’d had kids, see.  ‘Twould have been alright then.”   He threw the car around the junction at The Point, tail-sliding past the telephone box and missing it by a whisker.  “Then you come’d back, you bastard, and I knew.  I knew.”

The Parkin house was ahead of them now, crouching beyond the bracken in the dusk like some maleficent insect.  Was there – did Joe see – a figure, just for an instant?  Someone half-walking, half-running, around the corner into Feather Lane?  They were there themselves seconds after, scraping to a halt beside the hay barn.

“Now let’s get on with this, whatever ‘tis, and get you both out of ‘ere!”  Tom urged him.

“There’s a window open round the back.”  Joe grabbed the bag of tools.

“No need.”  Tom rejoined.  “Front door’s open – look!”

Someone had been there!  Upon a sudden presentiment and with Tom close behind him, Joe set off for the house door at what amounted to a run.  The smell of smoke hit him immediately – behind it, just as pungent, another tell-tale scent.

“Petrol!  Somebody’s torched the place!”  He shouted.  “Come on, quickly!”

Inside the dim hallway a brown-paper crackle of burning timber added to their exigency.  Smoke crept along the ceiling like a black arachnid, reaching everywhere, probing for release.  Through the wide-flung living room door an orange muzzle of flame snapped and snarled, bubbling the dark varnish of the architrave.  “In there?”  Tom asked.

“No, this way.”  Joe thrust a shoulder against the kitchen door:  it dragged open.  “How do you know Charker’s intent on shooting me?”

The smoke followed them, filling the space above their heads.

“I’m drinkin’ down there now.  I was in the pub as he was workin’ hisself up to it.  He’s pissed silly.  He’d do anythin’ when he’s like that.”  Tom said, closing the door behind them as best he could.  “What the ‘ell are we lookin’ fer?”

“It didn’t strike me until today,” Joe replied,  “I broke in here a few nights ago, trying to find something I’ve known was here all along.  But I didn’t work it out, the first time.”  Behind them, the fire was growing, wood splitting and groaning in the heat.  “Look at the ceiling!”

“What of it?”

“It’s dry – well, almost.  There’s a room upstairs on this end of the house, where a lot of the roof’s gone.  Rain from there must soak through, but it hasn’t, not in here.  So behind this …” He grabbed at a high welsh dresser which dominated the far wall:  “Give me a hand, will you?”

Tom jumped forward, lending his weight.  Showered by a minor cascade of Violet’s best plates the pair slid the heavy wooden edifice aside and instantly a rush of stale, fetid air assailed their nostrils.

“…Is an extra room!”  Joe’s voice betrayed more trepidation than triumph.

The big cupboard had concealed a doorway.  In the day’s fading light there was little to illuminate the small room beyond it save for thin, vertical cracks permeating a rectangular area in the far wall, evidence of wooden screening over what once might have been a window.

“This here’s a hatch!”  Tom raised his voice above the growing roar behind them.  “Us’ll have to get out this way now, boy.  There’s no goin’ back through there!”  He shook his head in bewilderment.  “How come I never noticed this afore?  You must be able to see ‘un from outside!  ‘T would ‘ave been the buttery once, I reckon.  That bolt holds ‘un – you got a wreckin’ bar?”   Joe produced the gemmy he had previously used to force entry to the house, and Tom wasted no time in setting about the bolt, which was seized up by rust.  He worked methodically with a born mechanic’s hands, accustomed to stubborn fastenings in obscure places.

“There she goes!” Tom cried.

The hatch split into two wooden shutters which snapped back with a bang to admit what was left of the daylight.  Their surrender, though, also whipped the fire beyond the kitchen to a fury.  The door from the passage burst open, inducing a gale of heat and smoke from the body of the house, which was now well alight.

“Good glory!”  Tom’s choking gasp was spontaneous.  Joe, too, took a sharp breath, taking acrid smoke into his throat.  Whether he had expected it or not, the sight that greeted them was grim.

Even given its new source of illumination this little room, in size barely more than a cupboard, remained wreathed in gloom.  The threatening glow of the fire did more, highlighting features of the wall to the right of the hatch, against which there stood a small table embellished by two pewter candlesticks and an altar cloth fallen into shredded decay.  On the wall behind the table was a large and quite exquisitely carved crucifix, suspended upside down within a crudely painted pentangle.

The plaster-less walls, saturated by a constant intrusion from water,: were already steaming in the fire’s heat.  A live and very active fungal growth filled one corner, tendrils from it reaching squid-like right and left, its main shoot climbing upwards in delicate white steps.  Fungal stench intensified the oppressive atmosphere.

“Who’s there?”  Tom’s cry was instinctive, “There’s someone in ‘ere!”

Joe snatched a torch from his bag. There was no-one.  The beam, flashed about him at eye-level, discovered only Tom.  “It’s the humidity,” he tried to explain.  “The fire’s vaporizing the damp in here.  The place is wringing wet!”

But superstition was a part of Tom’s nature.  “I don’t like this ‘ere, boy!   Gives me the creeps, this!”

His disquiet was so palpable he seemed to have all but forgotten the rapidly encroaching peril of the fire.  Coughing smoke from his lungs, Joe martialled all his concentration, forcing himself to keep exploring this hellish little space.  Upon the floor, strewn everywhere, his torchlight revealed the bones of small creatures, animals and birds, to which fragments of feathers or pelt still clung.

“Sacrifices?”

“This aren’t witchcraft.  This ‘ere’s paganism.”  Tom voice wavered..

“Right now the distinction’s too fine to matter!”  Joe retorted, inhaling more smoke.

Snatching up one of the tiny skeletons, Tom pointed out a sliver of metal – a hat pin or a large needle, possibly, that had pierced its heart.  All were like this, small sacrifices to a very different god.

“See that?  Black arts, boy.  Devil worship!”

But Joe’s eyes were drawn elsewhere, for in the room’s left-hand corner, partly wrapped in shreds of blanket, and not at first easy to identify, was a larger sacrifice.

Tom saw it too.  “Oh, Jesus!”  He said.

Curled up, the body lay as it had probably died.  There was little more than a collection of bones, but as Tom’s and Joe’s eyes accustomed themselves to the light, neither could mistake the skull, or the pathetic human form it took:  a child, no more than five or six years old.  Tom’s expression asked:  who?  Why?  Joe could only shake his head as an answer, although the explanation was all too clear.   As the fire flowered and prospered behind them, there was no time to reply.

Guided by flickers of angry orange Joseph hastily gathered the remains, wrapped them in the rotted blanket, then carried all he could save carefully to the newly forced window.

“He’s here!”  Suddenly, inexplicably, Tom blurted out the words; “Stop ‘un!  Lord God, stop ‘un!”

Joe froze, the terror in his friend’s eyes turning him to stone.  Choking on smoke he tried to respond; “Who, Tom?  Who can you see?”   Tom’s expression was wild.  It became clear in the space of seconds that the sad collection of bones Joe cradled in his arms was somehow maddening him, but there was no time to discover why, for the fumes in his lungs prohibited further speech and the clothing on Tom’s back was smoking from the heat. Gesturing to him that he should climb out through the window, Joe shoulder-barged him enough to remove any element of choice.  Although a change in him was clearly taking place, Tom seemed to need no second bidding, and once he was through, he accepted the tiny burden Joe passed to him.

Joe made to follow, himself fighting an oppressive sense of fear and baseless anger, casting his torchlight one last time around that evil room.  He knew something must still be missing and he almost failed to see it, for the smoke was obscuring everything now, as though a cleansing spirit was intent upon obliterating a memory, removing a past.  The one last thing it may not have was there, on the table, hidden beneath that ragged altar cloth – an incongruously clean cardboard folder sealed with tape.  Grabbing it, Joe slipped it beneath his tee shirt, then, feeling his flesh sear in the coming inferno, he dived for the window and safety.

Strong hands thrust him back.

Tom, barring his way.  Tom, as though possessed, his features contorted with hate.  “You did it with ‘er, didn’t you, you bastard?  In my bed, was it?  Was it?

The smell of scorching – the realisation that his clothes were beginning to smoulder, ready to ignite.  “No Tom, not in your bed.”  Joe gulped in the fresh outside air  “What do you want me to do, apologise for loving her?  I can’t do that.”

Tom spat on the ground, his face convulsed.  “Love ‘er – you?  You, you fornicatin’ arsehole?”

Joe felt he could stand the assault of the flames no longer.  Smoke rushed past him, stifling him.  He could feel his flesh burning, his consciousness beginning to fade.

Words in his head: ‘Make his guilt his funeral pyre.’

Reality whirled about him; through it the women, those middle-aged respectable country women with their fingers jabbing an accusation:

“Mould him, bind him, make him BURN!”

“Burn he will, die, he shall…”

Summoning up a last ounce of strength Joe made a despairing attempt to get past Tom, to escape from the witchery, to dive for the window; only to have Tom’s big hand grip his throat, pinning him back.

“You?  You didn’t never love nobody, Palliser.  I loves ‘er, see?  An’ I can have her now can’t I?  ‘Cause you’re goin’ to bloody fry, boy!”

So shall it be.  In stillness and calm – in acceptance:  through the gateway of pain is a better place,  so shall it be.

Sarah, half-naked, lying on a grassy bank playing with a caterpillar on a leaf;  Marian between sheets of silk laughing at him gently, teaching him tenderly; two horses grazing in a summer glade; a cottage with empty rooms he would never fill, where someone so precious as to defy expression was waiting…

No!  No, not yet.  Not here, not now.  Too much to live for – for the first time in a long life, too much to live for!!  Joe gasped out the truth he had denied to himself.  “She loves you, Tom.  She was always yours.”

And then – from where – somewhere in his delusional mind, perhaps? –  the priestess came to Tom, a woman tall and strong in robes of fire-silver, as brilliant as the source of all light; and she laid her hand so softly on Tom’s shoulder he might scarcely have felt her touch; but Joe saw it.  For she had said to him:  “I shall try to smooth your path…..”  and she was true to her word.

Tom’s face creased.  “It’s not true.  ‘Tis not true!”  But his demon had left him.  Utter misery and despair etched every line; tears welled in pink runnels down his smoke-blackened cheeks.  His throttling grasp changed into a grip around Joe’s collar, his resistance into a pull.

“F**k it, Joe!”  Joe, only half-conscious with his clothes on fire, allowed himself to be hoisted bodily out into the cool air.

“Roll!”  Tom yelled at him, swore at him, kicked him.  “Roll, you bastard!”

#

Joe and Tom were standing in the lane beside the Parkin barn, watching P.C. Hallet’s blue panda car as it drove around the point at the end of the road.  Behind them, the Parkin house flared as though the devil himself had lit it, engulfed in flame, a red, sparking pyre of malevolence ascending to light the heavens.  Joe’s burnt jacket lay discarded; his ruined T-shirt soaked by the water Tom had thrown over him.  Between them on the stony ground lay a pathetic bundle of blanket with the bones of a child wrapped within.

“Have you forgotten Charker?”  Tom asked.

 

© 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 Twenty-Three. Bonds of Blood

The story so far:

Humbled and saddened by Sophie’s rejection, Joe learns the truth about his last day with Marian and the reason for her death.  His inherited wealth will mean he can provide for his brother Michael’s care, wresting control from their elder sibling, Ian, who wants to keep them both out of sight, in case they damage his political ambitions.  Michael has absconded, and while  Joe does not fully understand his elder brother’s anxiety about this, he is determined to find Michael for his own reasons.   Joe fears Michael may be involved in Violet Parkin’s killing.  If he is, will he return to the scene of his crime?

Remembering Emma Peterkin’s information that Michael had spent time with villager and reputed witch Margaret Farrier quite often in his growing years, Joe decides to pay Margaret a visit…. 

“I want to ask you about witchcraft.”  Joe said.

Margaret Farrier raised an eyebrow.  “You’re remarkably direct, I’ll concede that.  Is this the approach you used on poor Janice?  If so, I’m not surprised you frightened her.  Now she is someone who doesn’t like you.”

“She’s changed so much since Teddy died.”

Margaret nodded curtly:  “People do.  The altered state.  We are never prepared.”

Joe felt there was hidden meaning behind those words.  He paused, wondering whether to pursue that particular tack, but decided against it.   “Maybe.  Anyhow, I don’t know any other way to ask.  It seems such an obvious question.”

“Let me see.  You do not believe that Jack Parkin did away with Violet, is that right?”

“Yes.”

“I agree with you.  You do believe her death had something to do with pagan ritual?”  Joe nodded.  “Well, you see there I cannot agree with you.”

A lull.  Margaret Farrier offered no further amplification, though Joe waited expectantly for a number of seconds.  At length he asked:  “Why not?”

“An absence of any evidence, together with the ludicrous notion that this village is infected by the black arts.  The very idea! Absolute balderdash!”  She rose to her feet.  “I think the sun is over the mainmast.  Would you like something to drink?  Whisky, sherry?”

He accepted.  “Miss Farrier, I know Violet Parkin was involved in witchcraft – so why is it such a ridiculous presumption that her death may have been ritual?”

“You know?”  She withdrew a bottle from her sideboard for his whisky, poured her own from a decanter on the shelf, then brought the drinks to him. He stood up.

“Please sit down Joe – may I call you that?  I’m Margaret, by the way; or Margo, if you prefer.  Joe, the people of this village – no, I’ll go further than that – the lonely old women of this village (of which I, by the way, might be said to be one) indulge in the odd herbal remedy now and then;  the occasional spell, if you will.  It is a hand-me-down from generations of folk medicine, and it is a sort of hobby for us, no more than that.  The idea we would stake poor Violet out in a ritual sacrifice is – well – I already used the adjectives:  unthinkable!”  She stood close to Joe as she handed him his drink, challenging his eyes to meet her own.  “Do I look like a black witch to you?”

Joe grinned:  he was beginning to like Margaret Farrier.  “Possibly not.  But then, possibly I wouldn’t know a black witch if I did see one.  I’ve had several versions of the ‘poor harmless herbalists’ argument thrust at me, though, and I don’t entirely believe them.  Dancing naked at solstices, overturned gravestones, and dead animals nailed to people’s doors?  Three pagan rituals and not a hint of sorrel.”

She returned his smile.  “I am a Wiccan priestess, Joe.  There are certain areas of worship that require communion with nature: when it happens it is a joyful thing, but that is just one tiny part of what witchcraft is about, and it’s a long way from that sort of ritual to one entailing human sacrifice.  No such ceremony could be sanctioned by any form of The Craft.  As to the sacrilegious activity and your guardians’ unfortunate experience…”  Margaret shrugged, though her expression was sympathetic.  “Not us.”

“Oh, just as simple as that!  A single brush-stroke:  ‘not us’!”

“Joe, whenever the rumour mill finds a fresh breeze, its sails can be seen turning miles away.  Stories of how poor Violet was found germinate these excesses in every depraved soul who believes he knows how witches behave: and he uses them – to create mischief, to revive old grudges.  As I said:  not us.”

“Nonetheless you admit you do practice witchcraft?”

“I thought I just confirmed that,” She sipped her drink.  “But I’m not the issue, here, am I?”

“No.  I came to ask you about my brother.”

Margaret paused in mid-sip.  Then she said, as if she might have misheard:  “About…?”

“Michael, my brother.”

“Oh, of course!  I remember.  About what concerning your brother, specifically?”

“He joined you, didn’t he?”

“Michael sought initiation, once, it is true.  I gave some teaching, but…”  She paused, choosing her words.  “Michael was in a dark place, I quickly sensed it.  We could not admit him.”

“Margo, have you seen Michael recently?”

Joe was very careful to note the timing, as well as the phrasing, of Miss Farrier’s response.  It was perfect.  “Not for some years, I fear.  He had such burdens, your poor brother – such burdens.”

Still Joe was not fully convinced.  Michael must be nearby, and this house, he felt certain, was one of the first places he would visit.  He continued the conversation, asking questions about witchcraft in a general sense.  Margaret Farrier gave very frank, open answers.

Only when he tried to get her to name specific people or places did she demur with the sweetest but most uncompromising of smiles.

At last he was ready to leave.  As he rose from his chair, a thought occurred and he felt in his jeans pocket, producing the little package Sophie and he had discovered the previous week.

“Would you know what this is?”

It was clear Margaret did know, instantly.  But she delayed long enough to unwrap the parchment and to look upon the photograph within.

“Where did you get this?”

She had displayed perfect honesty: so did he.  “From Violet Parkin’s bedroom.”

Margaret nodded.  “So it was you.  I should have known your curiosity would get the better of you.”

“You know about…?”

“I get to learn, Joe.  I get to learn.  This…”  She waved the components of the package:  “Is very interesting – very interesting indeed.  Tell me, what do you think it is?”

“I thought maybe a love letter, but I couldn’t read the writing.  The man in the picture, is that a younger Jack?  It doesn’t look like my memory of him, but I could be wrong.”

“No – not the younger Jack.  It’s Ned Barker:  taken about twenty years ago, I’d say.  This is a binding spell, Joe.  The sort of spell a woman casts when she wants someone to love her.  The ‘writing’ is in runic symbols – I didn’t think Violet had an appreciation of those – and the spell is bound together with her hair.”  She dangled the thread with faint distaste between her thumb and forefinger.  “Not, you understand, hair from her head?”

As he was leaving, she said:  “I wonder, would you be susceptible to advice?  Be careful Joseph – be very, very careful.  Sometimes in seeking the truth of others we discover the most unwelcome things about ourselves.  I know you have trouble.  I shall try to smooth your path.”

Joe bade the woman goodbye.

In early evening, after tea was concluded and Owen and Julia had departed the kitchen, Joe raided their larder for bread and a little cold meat.  With these and a bottle of fresh water in a carrier bag he slipped from the house by means of the back door and quietly started his car.  He did not quite know why he had to leave so secretly, though maybe there were notions of protection for the old people, whose suffering was undeserved; yet there were others, too, whose attention he would prefer not to attract.  So when he reached the Parkin farm, when he turned into the lane, he cut the engine and free-wheeled the Wolsey as furtively as any thief through the open farmyard gate, only stopping when he reached the cover of the hay barn.  Had he made the journey unseen?  He had reason to hope; the farm was away from the deserted road, and the crime scene tape that until recently made it conspicuous had been withdrawn.

What did he expect to find there?   Joe’s reasoning would have been his need, now he had the means, to do something, anything, to help his brother; to remove him from Ian’s pernicious influence, yet that may not have been entirely truthful.  If he were honest, he might admit that he had to confirm his terrible suspicion that Michael would return to  Hallbury to revisit the scene of his crime.   If it were, where else but this farm should he come?  Joe quitted his car in favour of a stack of hay bales nearer the barn entrance which offered concealment while still commanding a view of the open yard.  Here, braving a constant meal-queue of hungry midges, he settled down to wait.

The hours passed.  An evening sun obscured from his sight set lower in the western sky, casting its rays in a roseate glow across Wednesday Common. He stayed, knees cramped and shivering, as darkness crept, as a pall of solemn sky gathered for rain.  He stayed for a long time.

Much, much later, after the moonless, overcast night had fallen and the cold had begun to etch itself into his bones, he began to admit to the possibility he was wrong.  Michael had not appeared, and glad he should have been!  Had he really doubted his brother’s innocence?  Had he honestly believed Michael would murder a lonely old woman in such bestial fashion?

Eventually, now in total darkness, Joe, resigned, rose to stretch himself.  The torch he had rested on his lap fell to the ground with a clatter.  Immediately, as if in answer, there was another sound.  Not from the open common but behind him, in the barn.  A stir of birds, or bats, in the rafters maybe?  No, this was different.  He cursed himself for omitting the most obvious check of all.  Someone was already there, hiding among the high-piled bales of hay.

“Michael?”

A flurry of raindrops on the roof, promising more.  No other sound.

“Michael, I brought you some food.”

Still nothing.  Joe edged back to his car and reached through the open window, switching on sidelights that would bathe the barn’s interior in a soothing glow.

“Mikey?”

A confusion of sound and shape half-slithered, half-fell from high in the stacks of hay, and even in that dim light Joe knew this was his brother.  Michael landed with no pretence at stealth, springing cat-like back to his feet and for an alarming moment Joe felt he might attack, but Michael, having corrected his balance, seemed to freeze.  They were face to face, the brothers, no more than a yard between them.  Michael’s eyes were wild, his mouth drooling blood and working at muttering, cursing sounds, crying sounds, sounds of distress.  Biting back fear Joe reached out, his fingers finding sodden clothing, exploring the contours of Michael’s arms, his shoulders, his face.   The flesh he touched was icy, the hair matted with mud.  Pity consumed him and he was moved to close his arms around his brother, until he felt the stickiness, saw the darkness on his fingers – smelled the blood.

“Oh, Mikey, where have you been, old son?  What the hell have you been doing?”

No answer came.  The sounds, the inner writhing, continued unabated.  Michael’s body was rigid; his arms pressed into his sides.   Trembling, Joe sought his hand, and found cramped fingers clasping cold steel.    His heart missed a beat.  He ran his fingers along it, the knife, at first as if he did not believe it; then, believing it, in sheer horror; for it was a long knife, a broad-bladed, heavy affair –  a machete, perhaps.  And Michael’s grip was clamped around its hilt with a furious strength.

“Mikey;” Joe said slowly, trying to control the terror in his voice:  “Give me the knife?”

“NO!”  Michael jumped back, raising the blade in a shaking hand, “No.”  Her repeated, and several times more:  “no, no, no, no…”

For once in his life Joe felt seriously scared of Michael.  But that was no answer:  he could not turn his back, not now.  “Mikey, you must give that up.  It’s a bad thing, old son.  Knives are bad.”

“No.”  Michael was focussed, stepping forward again, stabbing the machete at his brother.  Joe might have fled.  He might have done that, and been justified; for to all appearances Michael was beyond him, a lethal stranger only destined to do him harm.  But then what; the police, Joe supposed:  an armed confrontation in the night – Michael, disturbed, angry – scared?  What could happen then?  Courage came, as it always does, from somewhere when it is needed.  Purposefully Joe reached for his brother and gripped the bladed arm, steadying it.  “Mikey; for me, yeah?  Drop the knife.  It’ll be Okay, Mikey, honestly.  We’ll look after you.  Everything’s going to be alright.”

“Okay Mikey.”  They were the only other words Michael said.

#

“I’ve found him.  He’s with me, in the car.”  Joe banged his head against the glass of the ‘phone box.  “God knows why I’m handing him back to you.  I should have gone straight to the police.”

Ian’s reply was calm.  “Joe, you‘re doing the right thing – no police, alright?  He’s our brother, Joe.  We take care of our own.”

“You haven’t seen the state he’s in.  Ian, his clothes are soaked with blood, and it isn’t his.  There’s blood on his face, around his mouth, for Christ’s sake!  I dare not think….”

“Joe!  Joe, it’s alright.  I’m sure it’s alright.  Has he said anything?”

“Just three words.  He doesn’t seem able to talk.  He’s calm now, for the moment, and he’s hungry, but he won’t eat; been living rough for days by the smell of him.  ”

A brief silence at the other end of the line – Ian, thinking.  “Right.  This is what we do.  Take him to the lorry park at Calleston – the new one; do you know it?  It’s not well-known yet, so it won’t be too busy.  Find somewhere – a quiet corner; park up and wait.  Some really good people I have connections with will meet you there – they might be about half an hour after you arrive, but not long.  They’ll get him sorted out and he’ll be back in hospital before morning.  Look, Joe, don’t worry.  Michael’ll be fine – a warm bath and some clean clothes can do wonders, yes?  Now what model of car are you driving?”

“Ian!  He had a knife – a big one.  Have you any idea what he may have done?”

“Candidly?  Have you?  You clearly think he’s been up to something: what – murder?  Did you find him standing over a body?  He’s my brother, Joe, as he is yours; I don’t believe Mikey would hurt anybody, even if you do.  Get back to him and take care of him.  I’ll organise things at this end.  And no police – he’s clearly got enough to cope with without them.  So, what was the make of that car?”

Two hours later, Joseph found himself outside Church Cottages without any notion of how he had arrived there, or what instinct had driven him.  The better part of an hour had been spent waiting, with Michael sitting wordless and inert beside him, in a lorry park for the arrival of a very professionally equipped ambulance.  The two nurses who came to take charge of his brother were caring and gentle with Michael, who, his crisis apparently over, allowed himself to be led like an obedient dog.  The nurses were every bit as concerned for Joseph, aware that he was in the grip of delayed shock and worried that he should contemplate driving in so emotional a state.  There was little they could do, however, and upon Joe’s insistence that he would manage they departed.  Michael sat on the stretcher in the rear of the van, staring fixedly out into the night.   He made no response to Joe’s farewell.  As the ambulance took him away, Joe realised he had forgotten to ask where Michael was being taken.

Now he was here, in front of Tom Peterkin’s door, because Tom was his only friend, and there was nowhere else.  To go home in these bloodied clothes would mean running an impossible gauntlet of questions from Julia and Owen, questions which, in his exhausted state, he could not face.  The shock of this night, the horror of his brother, the sad beauty of Marian’s ghost and Sophie’s last words to him all rotated in his brain and he could not, dare not, spend the next few hours alone.  It was cold and the shivering had begun: someone had to listen; someone had to make sense of it all.  If he had not taken their friendship too far towards destruction, if Tom was still ready to understand, he would be that person:  if Tom was no longer his friend, Joe had no idea to whom he might turn.

His knock echoed in the empty street.  It went unanswered.  The blue front door stared blandly back at him.  He had no notion of how late it was; he had no thought of time.  He waited, knocked again.  At last a light, the shuffling of tired feet:  the sound of a key grating in the lock, a latch turning.

“Oh my Lord!”  Cried Emma.

 

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

Photo Credit:  Steve Halama on Unsplash

 

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode Twenty. Night Moves

The story so far: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“For a walk.”

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

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

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

He asked:  “You enjoy being scared?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I liked it too.”

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

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

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

“I think housebreakers would call it a gemmy.”

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

“You first.”  He joked.

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

“I told you to wear jeans.”

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

“Don’t stare!” She chided.

“It’s too dark!”  He complained.

“Such gallantry!”

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

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

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

“Probably just to sweep the step?”

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now?”  Joe whispered.  “Run!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That was close.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sophie was lost in thought.  “They?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It lived up to expectations, then?”

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit:  Brandon Morgan on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode Fifteen. Different Trains

 

 The story so far:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You didn’t know, did you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come in.”  He said quickly.

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

“Oh, Joe!”  She murmured.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t talk like that!…”

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

He stopped her,  “Emma!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, perhaps.”

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

“Who’s been doing the talking?”

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

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

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

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

“I told Janice I knew.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Eddie Howell on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode Fourteen.      Encounter at Slater’s Copse

The story so far:

On the tail of an eventful weekend Joe returns from a difficult interview with Janice Regan, one of the ‘coven’ of women so interested in observing him after church.  Needing shelter from a thunderstorm he shares the cover of Jack and Violet Parkins’ barn with Sophie Forbes-Pattinson, whose rebellious horse he helps to control.  This exigency helps to break down some of the hostility Joe feels for Sophie, and she agrees to go on a date with him.  In the meantime, he has found something both sinister and familiar concealed amidst the hay in the barn…

Sophie rode away on Tumbler. Joseph followed her as far as the farmyard gate, watching as she broke the horse into a trot across The Common.   She did not look back.

Perhaps he expected she would.

He retrieved the talisman he had found between the hay-bales from his pocket, seeing how, when he had clenched his fist around it, its crudely-carved edges had broken the skin of his palm.

His thoughts tumbled over themselves, making images from memories: Rodney Smith’s dying face, his brother’s quiet threat; Violet Parkin crucified, Janice Regan’s hate, Ben Wortsall’s muttered spells, two ancient pensioners on a ‘bus, Emma’s cry of distress, Marian’s poor, lifeless form in his arms.   He had cradled Rodney’s head for those final moments – would he ever, ever tell anyone that?  Would he admit to his outburst, his flood of pity for someone he had loathed and feared for so many years?

Of this much Joseph was certain:  the little human effigy clasped in his hand must have been placed amongst those bales recently, for the hay was fresh.  Was it Michael’s work?  Had his brother come back to Hallbury within the last few months?

Something in Joe prompted him to walk the mile which would lead him to Slater’s Copse.  Later, he would remember, or seem to remember, retracing his steps along Heather Lane, seeing Janice Regan’s stern eyes upon him from her cottage door, passing the King’s Head with the feeling Dot Barker was behind an upstairs curtain;  meeting Hettie Locke on the hill and reeling as she brushed past him.

He would never know with any certainty the point at which reality ceased, and the dream began – for how long had he been walking before the road was no road anymore, but the roughest track.  Trees hooding the way, dark avenues dripping a gauntlet from the passing storm, the slip of mud beneath his feet, rime of green moss wherever his hands might reach or touch; a way strewn with rocks and stones, a running stream fed by the rain.  This was like another country, another time when no birds sang – there were no sounds at all, and one scent alone, so intense it was almost overpowering, a stench of wild garlic.

And then he was no longer alone.

She stood in a clearing that was suddenly free of all but her figure – she was tall, majestic almost, garbed in some diaphanous thing that might be there or might not:  for if he chose to see her without clothes or robed he might, and he knew that he was dreaming now.  Around her, upon her, there was light.  He stared at her from darkness, heard her yet did not, for the words she gently spoke were in no language he knew.  Around her there were gathered other voices, quietly murmuring accusation, pointing at him with long fingers.  Their voices in unison, slow like the creak of an ancient door, declared their sentence.

“Fashion his likeness, bind his darkness, clean his blackened soul with fire.”  Then, with aspirate vehemence:  “Mould him, bind him, burn him, make his guilt his funeral pyre!”

Finding its rhythm, their mantra gathered in volume, priestess at its centre, arms outspread. The light upon her strong, growing stronger until it glared, dazzled, forced him to shield his eyes.

“Mould him, bind him, make him BURN!”

An eruption, burgeoning, growing in seconds.  His hand ripped away and the woman’s face in his, full of fury, and the words:  words he would understand and remember – incised like an inscription into his brain:

“Burn, he will – be it so!  Die he will!”

“Be it so.”

And the voices all repeating, “Be it so.”

“Be it so.”  Fading, like consciousness before the grey mist.

Before the peace.

#

A shaking, convulsive chill demanded he wake. In sodden clothes, he was lying in wet grass and many hours must have passed, for his befogged vision perceived a sky full of stars.  Cold clamped itself around him so acutely he felt that, far from burning, if he did not find warmth somewhere exposure would claim him – he would not survive.  Gradually he came to himself, seeing as his vision cleared he was not alone; a shadow, just distinguishable from a lighter sky –loomed over him.

“He’m movin’ now.”  He knew the voice.

“How long he been ‘ere?”  There was a second figure in the background, and this time a voice he knew very well.  Janice Regan was there, somewhere outside his vision.

“’Oo knows, my dear?  Could ha’ been hours, I’d say.  Look at ‘un!”  Hettie Locke, this was.  He recognised her now.

“He’m wet, right enough.”

Struggling, Joe managed to get to his knees.  Where was he?   He had thought himself on Wednesday Common, yet there was no bracken here.  The grass was long, lank – an icy wind flayed his skin.  He was somewhere high up.

“Lucky you found ‘un, Hettie.  All that rain – fit to drown a man, ‘tis.  ‘Ear that, mister?  Lucky, that’s what you are.”

“Exposure, they calls it.”  Hettie said.  “Can be deadly, that.”

Joe, still fazed, floundered for a minute, then managed to stand.

“Left ‘ere ‘til morning, ‘oo knows?”  Said Janice sagely.  “There’s them as ‘as died of it, all right.”

Below, somewhere, dim specks of light.  Behind him trees, rustling and groaning in the wind.  Staggering, striving to keep his balance…

Hettie:  “You alright, then, mister Joe Palliser?”

Out of nowhere, from beyond his sight or his thought she came at him, the third figure.  He had time, but only just time, to see Dot Barker’s coarse features creased in a snarl, smell her foul breath gusting in his face –

“Best be gone, Joe Palliser.  It ain’t lucky here, for thee!”

And darkness, dangerous darkness, embraced him once more.

The next Joe knew, there were sheets beneath him, a pillow for his head.  A weight of blankets covered his body, and he was in his own bed, dry and warm.  He took hold upon that consciousness and laid awake then, for he did not know how long, afraid to sleep until he was assured the nightmare and his fear; yes, fear, would not return.  Then and only then would he permit himself to sleep once more, certain that he was back in the world, and eventually dawn must come.

But fear was merely resting, waiting for the dawn.

Aunt Julia’s scream raised Joseph from his bed.  It was a deep, primal sound, so stark that at first he thought she must be in pain, and he rushed down the stairs.  He found his aunt standing by her open front door, staring at the dead thing impaled upon it, at the black stream of venal blood which issued from it; at the mess of red that dripped slowly to the floor of the porch.

Joe grabbed her shoulders, pulled her away.   Owen appeared at that moment to support his wife, who sobbed almost hysterically as he guided her back into their kitchen.  The dead creature was Benjy, Julia’s beloved cat.  Somehow, in the silence of night he had been executed, nailed to the door so his head pointed downward and his front legs spread in imitation of an inverted cross.  Then his throat had been slit so his blood would empty down the door into a pool upon the step.

For minutes together Joe could do nothing.  He stared at the poor creature’s mutilated remains, struggling with revulsion and unreasonable anger.  Then he turned his back on the sight and joined his former guardians in their kitchen.

Owen was incandescent. “How the hell did they do it without waking us?  Who in god’s name would do this?”

“Who indeed?  This is a completely new experience for me.”  Julia gulped back her sobs,   “Joe; is this something you are involved with?  Is this something you have brought back with you?  I don’t understand, Joe – tell us, for god’s sake!  Because I do not understand!”

“I’m afraid it might be.”  Joe admitted:  “I think Violet Parkin’s death was something to do with her beliefs.  This might be a message.”

“Witchcraft!”  Julia spat out the word.  “That’s what this is about, isn’t it?  These absurd people with their stupid superstitions…”

Seeing Joe’s perplexed expression, Owen explained.  “There’ve been incidents like this before.  Broken gravestones in the churchyard, a dead squirrel nailed in that same upside-down cross position on the door of the church:  that sort of thing.”

“Against you personally?”  Joe asked.

“Never!”  Julia said flatly.

“Then this is a warning directed at me,” Joe said.  “I’m treading where I shouldn’t tread.  Yesterday afternoon I thought I was getting near to something:  maybe this confirms it.”

“You stirred a pot,”  agreed Owen,  “But these people aren’t killers:  for the most part, they wouldn’t hurt a fly!  They might play at stuff like paganism, but I can’t think they would ever murder somebody over it, especially one of their own.  The furthest they ever get is a bit of communal muttering over a few harmless herbs, isn’t it?”

“And crows,”  Julia said quietly.

“Aunt Julia?”  Joe felt his aunt might be suffering from shock.

“No, I’m alright.  I have always wondered if there was some more sinister activity going on.  Perhaps you won’t remember, Joe – you were still quite young at the time – the Mattheson child?”

Joe looked blank and Owen shook his head vehemently.  “No.  No dear.”

“I know you don’t agree, Oz.  Joe, a little boy from Fettsham (Christian, I think his name was) came to Petra Sharp’s birthday party in the days when they lived at Church Cottages.  The day was fine, so the children all played in the back garden in the afternoon.  At some time, no-one could be sure when, Christian disappeared.  In broad daylight!  Someone snatched him, took him by way of the field at the back of the houses.   Anyway, he was never seen again.  His clothing was found up on Hallbury Rise a few days after – near Slater’s Copse, you know?”

“The only abduction we ever had around here.”  Owen acknowledged, adding:  “They arrested a chap from Friscombe, some sort of serial pervert – it had nothing to do with witches, Julia dear.”

Julia did not appear to have heard him.  She stared ahead, into the darker corner of the room.

“Aunt:  you said ‘crows’?”  Joe prompted.

“Yes, yes I did, didn’t I?”  Julia came to herself.  “The day after the child’s clothing was found, Rob Pardin cut the grass in the churchyard as usual.  Ben Wortsall’s grave was covered; completely covered, with headless dead crows.  Fifty or more, Rob Pardin said.”

Joseph shot a look at his Uncle.

“All right,” Owen conceded; “Even given Rob’s capacity for exaggeration, I didn’t say the two things were completely unrelated; but I don’t believe the grisly soul who put the crows there had anything to do with the child’s disappearance.  It was just some misguided person’s reaction to the whole sorry affair.  That was all of seventeen years ago.  Whoever did it must be either too old or too far away by now to have any implication in this business.”

Julia shrugged fatalistically.  It was time to round off the discussion.  “Joseph, kindly be careful, will you?  I’m told that someone out there is looking for a chance to even old scores with you.  Don’t, please, bring any more of this to our door?  Things might get very unpleasant, you see.”

“Would you  be happier if I left, Aunt Julia?”

Joe’s aunt considered this.  “No.  It’s up to you, of course, Joe dear, but I’m sure our delightful neighbours, having committed their little outrage, will rest content, now.  Just as I am sure you’ll keep your quarrel with the Smith brother contained.  However, perhaps it would be wiser to let well alone, where poor Violet is concerned.”

Owen pulled his pipe from his jacket.  “You may recall what I said concerning enemies, Joe.  Up to a point, having a few can be an advantage, but don’t make too many:  these are simple people.  They tend to tar whole families with the same brush.  We respect your concern for Jack Parkin, but not at a cost to ourselves:  you do see that?”

Joseph thanked him and said that he did.  “I’ll clean up,”  he volunteered, gathering bucket and mop from the kitchen cupboard.

He removed Benjy’s remains and worked methodically, shutting his mind to all the questions that queued up, waiting to be asked.     Owen joined him.  “Young man, I might not have succeeded as a father to you, but I hope I taught you courage to stand up for those who need your support.  Don’t shrink from this.”

“But Aunt Julia…”

“Your aunt is stronger than she looks.  When she gets over the loss of her blessed cat she will say the same.  Those old harridans out there, they’re a trifle on the ghoulish side, but they’d stop short of burning us down.  You’ve got a roof here for as long as you need.”   He wrapped the carcass in his Financial Times.  “I’d better bury this.” Then, changing the subject abruptly; “Where were you last night, Joe?”

Joseph stared at him.

“You didn’t come home – at least until after midnight, because that was when we went to bed. There were towels on the floor in the bathroom this morning; wet towels with mud on them.  Where were you?”

“I met some friends; we went into Braunston, had a few drinks.”  It was a white lie, Joe tod himself; he had given his relatives trouble enough for one day; he would not disturb them with tales of his dreams, if dreams they were:  “Got back late, cut across the Common, and you know what the weather was like.  I got soaked.  Sorry if I was untidy, I’m afraid I may have been a little drunk.  Oh, and there was no sign of Benjy when I came in – I wasn’t as drunk as that!”

Joe dressed to go out, needing air, space to satisfy some of those questions, and something tangible to justify his relatives’ faith in him.  Before all else, he had to understand what had happened to him in the night, and with that in mind, he decided to take a fresh look at Slater’s Copse.

His way would take him past the church.  He did not have the lane to himself.  Abbey Walker and Bess Andrews, the Masefield’s’ immediate neighbours, bustled ahead of him, engrossed in earnest discourse.  At St. Andrews’ Church, these two ladies joined a small, intense group of respectable village matrons who whispered and huddled at the junction of the roads beside the churchyard wall.     It was not hard to distinguish the focus of their attention.

In all, the village churchyard covered a little more than a third of an acre, falling gently away from the Church itself towards trees bordering Manor Farm on its western side.  For all the conspiratorial overtones Joe had detected on the previous day it was a placid, peaceful place, dedicated as it was to the contemplation of final rest.

That rest had been brutally disturbed.  Much of the quiet meadow of graves had been desecrated:  several headstones laid flat, several others broken:  one grave actually looked as if it had been opened, with the slab cast aside and jammed, corner first, into the adjacent earth.  The church door hung open.  On the flagstones before it, and upon the timbers of the door, pentangles, the five-pointed star symbol of the Wicca had been painted – in a fluid that appeared to be blood.

Immediately, Joe recalled his aunt’s description; saw her horror reflected on the faces of the assembled women, their suspicion, anger too, perhaps.  Few met his eye; those who did looked away quickly, defensively, as though afraid.

Did he need further evidence for the veracity of his experience the previous night?  Abandoning his intent to visit Slater’s Copse, Joseph turned away:  after all, there was nothing he could do.  As he walked back down the lane PC Hallet was arriving in his panda car, the little blue light on the top flashing gamely, though its siren was turned off.  Later, much later that day he would learn why Dot Barker was not among those who had gathered to witness the satanic chaos, but for now Joe had other plans.  He decided it was time to pay his brother Michael another visit.

“Who is calling, please?”  The voice at the other end of the ‘phone was dispassionate, distant.

“Michael Palliser’s brother Joseph.”  Joe could not understand why his initial enquiry had evoked a hasty ‘hold on, please’ followed by a lengthy wait.  “Look, I only want to confirm that Michael will be there this afternoon.  I want to come and see him.”

“What is the purpose of your visit, Mr Palliser?”

“Purpose?  Does there have to be a purpose?  I’m family.”

There was a pause; then a different voice, a calm, authoritative voice.  “I’m sorry Mr Palliser that will not be possible.”

Beginning to experience the frustration of one who knows he is being stonewalled, Joseph asked coldly:  “Why?”

“Michael is no longer with us.  He has been removed.”

“Removed?  When?  Where to, for god’s sake?”

“Michael left us this morning.  I’m sorry Mr Palliser, I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to disclose any further information.”

“On whose authority, then?”

“Same answer, I can’t disclose that information.”

The line went dead.

 

© 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 Thirteen. Treasure in the Rain

The story so far:

Joe Palliser’s mind should focus on the Parkin murder, but instead his dreams remind him of his last drug-intoxicated night with Marian, and the mystery obscuring her death.

He encounters Sophie Forbes-Pattinson for a third time, finding her snobbish and detached.  Later, recalling Tom Peterkin’s suggestion that Violet Parkin’s father was a witch, Joe ‘phones Ian to ask if their brother Michael could have had any association with the occult, but Ian discounts Michael’s ravings on the subject to be a symptom of his illness.

On Sunday Joe goes to church, hoping to see more evidence of a darker side to the villagers and is rewarded by the attention of a group of local women, one of whom is Janice Regan…

After church Joseph ate a light, appetite-less lunch, then defied the heat to go for a walk.

Albert Regan was in his garden.  He waved over his shoulder at an open side door.  “She’s in the kitchen,”  He said. “You’d better go on in.”

The Regans lived on the west side of Hallbury, in a ‘tied cottage’ which could only be their home for such time as Albert kept his job. The house was not in a good state of repair. Once-white paint around its sash windows had peeled, the grey render cladding its random-rubble walls cracked in several places, while the gable-end wall was split down its centre by a fissure like a scar that Albert had stuffed with mortar to keep weatherproof.  But it was a home, tidy and clean, with oil-cloth on the kitchen table and a fire burning forcefully in the range.

Janice Regan was busy.  “Oh ‘tis you, Joe Palliser.”   It was scarcely a greeting.  “What brings you to my door?”

Albert’s wife, a pinched-looking woman whose iron-grey hair clung to her head like sculpted plaster, had prominent veins at her temples, throbbing through barely enough opaque flesh to stretch over the razor-sharp bones beneath:  she had a fever-bright look of starvation about her, even though their garden suggested that she and her husband ate very well.

There was a time, Joe could recollect, when he would have been more welcome.  Janice had been a smiling, fulsome woman once, with flashing humour and a ready greeting for the rather shy child who called each Saturday to ask if “Teddy could come out?”

The Regans had tried for many years before Edward Regan came into their world, and there is no child so treasured as a child born to parents in their middle age.  Teddy was the delight of their lives and they lavished their love upon him with ice-cream, chocolate, fish and chips, and his favourite spaghetti hoops.  So Teddy, though spoilt, of course, ample in girth, naturally, was nonetheless a popular playmate for the village boys; because when Teddy “came out” good things to eat came out with him; treats he would share among his friends.  A tractor rolled on Teddy, crushing the life from him, when he was just twelve years old.

Thereafter Janice Regan, changed.  She never mentioned Teddy: if anyone broached the subject of Teddy, she would walk away.  She began to withdraw from people, became dour, humourless – a narrow, unlovely woman whom life had dealt a shallow hand, and who had more than a single reason to resent Joe’s appearance at her door.

“Tea?”  She asked.  It was a formality, scarcely an invitation.

“No thank you Mrs Regan.  I won’t stay.”  Joseph felt awkward, out of place.  “I wanted to ask you about Violet.”

This earned a glance of arrows from Janice.  She had been washing something in the kitchen sink:  now she stopped, drying long, spidery hands on her apron.  “Oh aye.  What about ‘un?”

“You were the one who found her, Mrs Regan.  There’s been a lot of rumours and I just wanted the truth, if it isn’t too painful for you.  I was going to ask you how she died?”

Janice Regan’s laugh was harsh.  “Rumours!  Yes, there’s rumours!  There’s one rumour says you’m already party to a lot of the truth, Joseph.”  She stood opposite him, glaring across the table:  “So what you want to know for, eh?”

“I didn’t have anything do with it, Mrs Regan.  Why should I want Violet Parkin dead?  I don’t think Jack did, either.  I’m trying to find out what actually happened, that’s all.”

Janice thrust out a wrist.  “See that?”  She pointed with one tendril-like digit.  “Through there!  Through each wrist, driven straight through and into the bliddy timber behind her, they was – pitchforks!  Like that!”  She spread her arms outwards:  “Like she been cruesy-fied, or sommat!  And then….and then they went to work on ‘er.  Oh aye, they knowed how to make ‘er suffer, Joe Palliser!”

“They?”

“Can’t have been just one:  can’t have been.  Violet, she were a large woman and she’d have fought ‘em.  Too big for thee, Joseph.  That’s why I don’t believe that rumour, meself.  ‘Less you had help, that is.”

“Janice,”  Joseph collected himself.  “Was it a ritual killing?”

Janice Regan stared at him.  What was behind those eyes – anger?  Fear?

“What you sayin’?  What you trying to say?”

“Violet was a witch, Janice, wasn’t she?”

The expression he got back was blank, windowless.   “What?”

“A witch, like her father.  You know, spells and potions, the old religion, that stuff?  You were one of her closest friends, weren’t you?  I have to know, Janice.”

Janice rounded on him.  “There ain’t no bliddy rumour out there like that, and don’t you bliddy start one!  Violet weren’t no ‘arm to no-one.  There’s those didn’t get along with ‘er, but she never had a bad word to say about no-one, and don’t you!”  Her voice was rising.  “Violet weren’t no ‘arm to anyone, and to see her like that, all open and with her insides all over, and her poor blood soakin’ ever’thing…Violet weren’t no ‘arm!  She didn’t have to die like that!”

Albert’s large form filled the open doorway:  “Now, then, Janice!”

But Janice was fierce – her eyes were anything but expressionless now.  “Had to be a madman done that!  Had to be!  Alright I don’t think you done it, Joe Palliser, but I don’t think you’m so innocent, neither!  ‘Twas a bad day you come here, you Pallisers!  A bad day.”

Joe felt Albert’s hand on his shoulder.  “She’s upset.”  He said quietly.  “You better go now.”

Nodding, Joe turned to walk out of the door.  “I’m sorry to cause you pain, Janice.  I just had to know what you saw.”

“Yes, well, now you do.  Take my advice, Joseph and go back to Lon’on where you belongs!  We don’t want you ‘ere!”

Joe would have replied, but Albert stilled him.  “Just go.”  He said.

In the lane outside, Joseph let his true wretchedness overcome him for a minute – for long enough to let a tear roll down his cheek in sympathy for a woman he had never really known; for Violet Parkin’s undignified and ignominious end, about which he could do nothing, other than to prove somehow that it was not her husband, the man who in some fashion had been her lifetime companion, who had brought it upon her.

His aimless feet took him down Feather Lane with Janice Regan’s ‘We don’t want you ‘ere!’ ringing in his ears, towards the solitude of the Common and the places of his childhood – those he could recall without pain.  But it was pain, really.  Always the outsider, always playing to other people’s rules and getting nothing in return, and nothing had changed or would change.  Janice was right:  he should not have come back to Hallbury.

As if the heavens were attuned to his moods, as he turned the corner by the Parkin farm it began to rain:  not just in a light, balmy shower, but with vigour.  Thunder banged from nowhere; a hustling wind raked the fern, and drops like saucers spattered onto the tarmac road.  Facing the prospect of adding a drenching to his blackened circumstances, Joseph sought shelter, and the only place which offered was the hay-barn at the end of the Parkin’s yard.  He took a quick decision.

Although police tape surrounded the yard and its main buildings were locked, the open end of the hay barn could not be so secured.  Joseph simply lifted the tape and ducked beneath, wincing at multiple blows of rain on his t-shirted back.

In the protection of the barn roof he stripped off the wet shirt, spreading it across a hay-bale to dry.  Blinking in the half-light he could see the old place looked much as he remembered it; sweetly scented bales of hay six or seven deep, stacked high into rafters.   His head instantly filled with far-off childhood sounds – Ian’s irrepressible giggling, Michael’s shouts of command as he and his brothers clambered among the bales, which their imaginations arranged into dens and forts to attack or defend.

Lost in the tympanic din of rain, Joseph might scarcely have noticed a clatter of hooves from outside, but he could not possibly escape what followed;  a confusion of hoof beats punctuated by torrents of feminine abuse, then a rear view of an unseated rider as she stumbled backwards into the barn in her riding boots;  Sophie Forbes-Pattinson, clutching frantically at the reins of her big roan horse, the same horse that had shied upon meeting Joseph by the common some days before. The beast was white-eyed with fright, rearing and turning so quickly Sophie, helpless in its path, was thrown to the floor.   It was right above her, ready to pound her into the flagstones with its hooves, yet she would not release the reins: instead, uttering a further string of invective, she clung to the leather as though it was her last straw before drowning.  Without thinking Joe rushed to lend his own weight to the rein, trying to swing the animal’s head away from its erstwhile rider, making every steadying noise he could think of.

“What’s his name?  What’s his name?”  And when Sophie managed to gasp the name out he repeated it:  “Tumbler!  Steady, Tumbler!  There boy!”

For a few extremely anxious seconds Joe felt as though he were trying to placate a Brahma bull.  But then, as suddenly as his peace had been disturbed, reason prevailed.  Wooed, possibly, by the fragrance of hay the horse calmed, began to accept his reassurance. Blowing hard and shaking still, he allowed Joe to restrain his head as he stroked and patted, talking as much nonsense in a low voice as occurred to him until finally Tumbler consented to have a tangle of police tape removed from his legs.  Joe tethered him to one of the stanchions that reinforced the barn walls, and broke open a bale for him to eat.

A mortally embarrassed Sophie struggled to her feet, brushing dust and rain from herself as though she were under attack by angry wasps.  “Thank you.”  She avoided his eyes.  Her china-white skin was wet from the rain and pleasingly flushed.  Limping slightly, she walked across to the horse, petting him affectionately.  “He’s always been scared of storms, you see, and the lightning struck quite near to us.  I had to try and get him indoors.  I hope you aren’t hurt?”

“I’m fine.”  Said Joseph.  Lightning flared, illuminating the whole barn.  The horse snickered.  “I’m not so sure about him, though.”

“Oh, he’ll be alright now.”  Sophie assured him.  “No more rain on his back, some nice fodder.  I suppose it belongs to someone.  Who should I reimburse, do you think?”

“I’ve no idea.  You, are you hurt?”  Joe wondered at the concern his voice betrayed.

She caught his tone instantly and sought refuge in her strange little smile.  “Only my dignity.  You seem to have a penchant for catching me at a disadvantage.”

Joe raised an eyebrow.

“Mummy told me – when you brought some papers up for her the other day.  I have to be more careful, was how she put it.  You caught me sunbathing, didn’t you?”

Joe didn’t answer.  “You’re very wet.”  He pointed out.  “You’d better get that jacket off, I think.”

Thunder banged.  Sophie said:  “Anyway, I think you’re quite the knight in shining armour, Mr Palliser.  Thank you.”

“Joe, please.  Call me Joe?”

Sophie shrugged her hacking jacket from her shoulders.  The rain had penetrated it easily, soaking both shoulders of the white blouse she wore beneath.  It clung to her skin, informing Joe’s experienced eye.  She caught his glance with amusement.  “Too hot for excess clothing.”

“I’m sure.”  Joe was uneasy at being so quickly found out.

“Oh come on!  You must let me score some points!”  She spread the jacket over a bale.  “You’re a bit of an intrigue, Joe.  You didn’t tell me you had a home here already.”

“I’m staying with my aunt and uncle, I don’t really belong in the village.  Although I was thinking of buying a house here, I admit.  I would have acquainted you with more detail last time we met, but you didn’t allow me much opportunity.”

He seated himself on a hay-bale.  Sophie hesitated for a moment, then sat beside him.  Both stared out at the storm.  “Well!”  She said at last.  “Where do we go from here?”

“More small talk?”  Joe offered.

Sophie shook her head.  “Not my thing, really.  Mummy’s good at that.  She’s very smitten with you, you know.”

He laughed: she insisted.  “She is!  She was absolutely full of you after you left the other day.  Foolish me, I didn’t make the connection when I met you outside the Lamb House.  And why shouldn’t she?  You’re a very attractive man, Mr Palliser.”

Again, Joseph laughed. The malaise that overcame him at the Regan’s was lifting.   Sophie’s ice-cool frankness, so clinical at their last meeting, had an artless way with flattery.  Her eyes sparkled and in spite of himself, he was pleased.

“You have a gift with horses, and Tumbler’s an awfully good judge of character,” She went on.  “Nice face.  I think you could be kind.  Tall; a good, strong body….”

“What does your father do?”  He asked quickly.

“Daddy?  He’s a consultant surgeon.  He spends his week in London, so poor mummy gets most terribly lonely up there at the house.  What do you do, Joe?”

“Nothing at the moment.  If I do come to live back here, I shall have to find a job.  No skills, no prospects – future extremely uncertain.”

“Oh dear!”

“You needn’t sympathise.”

“I’m not.  ‘Oh dear, we’re making small talk’.”

“No,” said Joe, getting to his feet.  “We weren’t.”

On an impulse, he dug his fingers into the hay, hoisting himself up towards the top of the bale stack.  It was not vertical, so there were ledges, places to get a foothold.  “When my brothers and I were young;” he said as he climbed; “We used to play here.  We used to build ourselves hidey-holes and have battles and secret meetings and stuff.”

Sophie stood up.  “Would you give me a hand?”

Joe reached down for her, took her hand in his.  Together they scrambled to the top of the haystack, crawling between the bales and the rafters of the barn.

“Hope you don’t mind spiders.”  He offered, teasingly.

“Spiders completely fascinate me.”  She rejoined.

Joe was moving bales, stacking them to one side to create a hollow.  “You can go down two or three layers – with a child’s imagination, they can make anything you like.”

Sophie slipped into the space he had made.  Her riding boots made climbing difficult.

“Anything?”

“Yes.”  He moved a few more bales.  “A fort to defend – seats, you see? “  His words tailed off apologetically, “Alright, I know it seems feeble, but we were only kids.”

“A bed?”

She was behind him.  He looked around, to see her stretched out over the soft hay, looking up at him with mischief in her eyes.  “Mmm.”  Her appraisal was almost drowned by the sound of the rain.  “What should a poor damsel do if her noble rescuer insists upon his reward?  Such a quandary!”

“Perhaps,”  Joe replied, attuned to her thought and not a little surprised.  “But a rescuer of true nobility really could not insist.”

“Ah, Sir!  Imagine the damsel’s relief!”  Sophie chuckled.   “Oh my goodness!  Quite, quite excellent!”

Relaxing into the warm fragrance of the haystack, Joe allowed himself to stare – and Sophie luxuriated in his gaze; moving softly beneath her clothes, tantalising him gently.  But the moment the look in his eyes altered, she saw.

“What is it?”

His fingers, idly probing between the bales had discovered something pressed into the tight-packed hay.  He withdrew the object cautiously.

“Oh my!”  Sophie sat up.  “Whatever is that?”

“I’m not sure.”  Joe said.  “Somebody’s been doing a little whittling I expect.”

He turned the object over in his hand.  A crudely-carved effigy made from wood, with long arms and a stubby, short body; an effigy exactly like one concealed in his aunt and uncles’ garden wall.  As its significance dawned upon him he stiffened, clamping it in a grip so fierce it gave him pain. 

There are things I know.  Michael had said.  There are things I know.

Conscious he was shielding the effigy, for some reason, from Sophie’s gaze, Joe slipped it into his trousers pocket.  And seeing the gravity of its effect upon him, she did not inquire further.

Above their heads, the drum of rain ceased as suddenly as it had begun.  Unspeaking, they made their descent, Sophie falling the last four feet with a somewhat unconvincing girlish squeal, Joe catching her neatly around the waist to break her fall.  Their faces were only inches apart.

Sophie’s eyes brightened with challenge:  “You wouldn’t take advantage of me, would you, Joe?”

“The thought occurred,”  Joe said.  “Look, I suppose….would you like to go out sometime?”

“You mean, like a date?”  Sophie asked.

“I guess so, yes.”

“I’m sorry, Joe…..”

“Oh, no.  I’m the one who should apologise.”  He stumbled.  “Sorry I asked.”

She turned on her heel with a playful buck of her hips.  “I don’t steal my mother’s boyfriends.”

Her placated steed was waiting patiently.  He watched as she dried the saddle with her jacket and mounted.

“However, if you’re not doing anything on Thursday night?.”

“No, I’m not doing anything.”

“Seven o’clock, then.  No dressy dinners or anything like that, though.  I don’t do those.”

“I’ll think of something.”  He 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.