Karen Eversley kept her word. Patrick discovered her occupying a window seat in the lounge bar of The Hunters, staring moodily into a glass of something short. When she saw him, her features tightened in a slow smile that her eyes failed to imitate.
“I thought you weren’t coming.” She chided him lightly.
Patrick apologised. “I’ll get us some drinks. Another of those?”
She watched him as he returned from the bar, idly wondering what lay in the eaves beneath that tousled mop of hair that so attracted her. As he carefully set their glasses on the small table beside them she picked out the little shards of reserve at the corners of his green eyes. “You were thinking about standing me up, weren’t you?” She accused him.
“No.” He hesitated. “Well yes, maybe. I’ve been doing some hard thinking.”
Patrick stared into his beer-glass, “Doubts.” He said.
“About, is this a good idea? Did we get carried away, the concert and everything?” Karen asked, adding cynically, “or maybe I just don’t look so good in this light.”
“You look – you look incredible! It’s because…” He stuttered into silence.
“Ah!” Karen’s smile was thin-lipped, “The bush telegraph’s been at work, hasn’t it? The Chinese whispers, the Caleybridge underground? What have you been told?”
“Alright, perhaps I have – heard something!” Patrick acknowledged. “Oh, how do I say this? Karen, I like you, a lot. But is there anyone who might be concerned, our meeting like this?”
“You mean is there a jealous boyfriend-stroke-husband-stroke-girlfriend?”
“It did cross my mind: would you?”
“Would I what?”
“Stroke a girlfriend?”
Her eyes brightened. “I might. Then again, I might return the question, mightn’t I?”
“I think you already have the answer to that.”
“Whereas?” She asked. She was looking at him in that certain way, and he might have reached for her hand, or at any rate close the heavy curtain of distance he felt was hanging between them. The easy familiarity of their Saturday date whirled like corn-chaff on an awkward breeze. “Whereas I wouldn’t want to destroy anything.” He said.
The clouds crossed her eyes once again. “Don’t worry, you aren’t.” She volunteered nothing more.
Patrick could not read her expression. Was she angry or simply uneasy because he had learned something she would have preferred to keep secret?
“Boulters Green,” Karen said, after they had sipped their drinks in silence for a while.
“Three ruins.” Patrick replied. “do not a village make.”
“Not in our eyes, certainly. But Frank Purton thinks it is a village. And Mr Purton is paying my fees; so help me?” Her handbag was open beside her on the seat and she produced a piece of paper from it, tossing it onto the table so he might see. It was a letter. Patrick did not reach for it at once.
“Frank Purton. Isn’t he something in the County Clerks’ Department? He does legals, doesn’t he? What’s it about?”
“Questions, questions! Please, Pat; read the letter?”
The letter was coarsely hand-written, barely readable in the half-light of the bar.
Dear Councillor Burnett,
Now my son Casper is of an age for schooling I would wish him to attend a local preparatory school. I cannot find such a school or how it is for him to get there, as I have no transportation at all.
Please write for me to say what I am to do.
Joshua Turnbull. Number Three, Smith’s Lane, Boulters Green. He is aged five.
“Joshua Turnbull, he thinks it’s a real village,” Karen said. “And Councillor Burnett, he’s worried because he’s chairman of the Education Committee and they’ve already had to ride out one scandal this year.”
“You mean the Beauchamp case? Yes, I remember.” Patrick replied half-absently, reading. The scrawl was heavy and rich in ink, as though scratched by a crude instrument; perhaps a quill.
Karen watched him. “I investigated the Beauchamp case for the County. Frank Purton instructed me on that one, and now he’s asked me to follow this through.”
“It was you who caught the demon teacher? Wow! I am profoundly impressed.”
“The work’s important to me, Pat; I need it. I need to do well too so I could use your thoughts. What does that letter say to you?”
Patrick gave his impressions of the letter, and she frowned. “Those were my conclusions. It isn’t any older than a couple of weeks. It was delivered last Monday, stamped and everything, with a Caleybridge postmark.”
“Not a Boulter’s Green postmark?” Patrick suggested flippantly. “I suppose he posted it while he was in town, him not having any transportation and all.”
“You think it’s a hoax, don’t you? So do I. But why?”
“I can’t explain it any other way. It’s the ‘why’ that troubles me, too. What is there to be gained from it?”
“Some political points, maybe.” Karen sighed. “Anyway, it seems to have run out of mileage. I’ve checked all around the County departments and nobody’s heard of Boulter’s Green. I’ve even been into the census records and looked for birth certificates. Nothing! The only lead I had was those three ruins.”
“So, is that why you agreed to meet me tonight? Your last hope of keeping the case open?”
Karen’s fingers played with the stem of her glass and she did not speak for a while, because the thoughts in her mind ran too deep for speech. Then she murmured: “No. No it wasn’t.” And she glanced up at Patrick, giving him the feeling that there was an added note behind her voice. “Walk home with me, Pat. No strings, no promises. Just that.”
They strolled along the riverside path that followed the Caley’s meandering journey through the town’s Albert Park, watching as children cast bread upon the waters, and listening to the waterfowls’ eager demands. Sometimes they were arm-in-arm, sometimes Karen would break away, turning to lean upon a railing, or just to create space between them. They spoke very little.
Leaving the riverside after the bridge that took it beneath a main thoroughfare, to Patrick’s surprise Karen guided their steps, not in the direction of her parents’ house and the place of their weekend meeting, but up a network of roads on one of the sharp, steep hills which bordered the river, arriving at a small block of purpose-built apartments.
“I live here. I have the top apartment. It isn’t very grand or expensive or anything, but its home. Sometimes I go back to stay at Mum and Dad’s for weekends.” Karen had stopped in the shelter of the street door, turning to lean against the brick recess as she sought her keys. “Thank you for walking with me, Pat.”
“This is goodnight, then?”
He wanted to kiss her, but somehow he knew it would expose him to a gentle rejection, “Will I see you again?”
“That’s it? I have to make do with ‘possibly’?”
She gave a faint smile and looked away. “Possibly.”
Impulsively he took her chin and turned her face to him, so she couldn’t hide the clouds in those cool blue eyes. “Karen…”
“No!” She said sharply. “Look, Pat, it isn’t as simple as you think. I’m not good at hurting people, you know? There are loyalties…”
“Then the bush telegraph was right. There is a Tim.” He said grimly. “That’s alright. I understand.”
“Well, honestly, no I don’t. You’re sad. You’re unhappy about something and I want to help, Karen.
“Could be because I gave up smoking last week?” She volunteered another weak smile: “Jumpy!” She twitched her fingers a few times as a demonstration.
Patrick shook his head. “I’m not wrong about us. We may have only just met, but…”
“Stop! Just stop! You found out about Tim. I suppose I expected that you would, but you’re going too fast and I’m not sure I’m ready for that. Okay? Goodnight, Pat. Look, just…goodnight!”
The key was in the lock, the latch was turning. Then she was inside and gone, and he was left with a blank, unfeeling door closed to him, and a half-curious look from a man passing on the street.
“I know about the martial arts, too.” He said to the door.
Patrick began the long walk back to his car as the last of the daylight faded, a red sun slipping beneath the far horizon like a weary traveller, pulling the distant hills like blankets over its head. Its final efforts bathed Karen’s little apartment building in a soft vermillion glow, making mirrors of its windows to hide the sorrow inside. His mind was a whirl of thoughts and pictures. He could envisage her tiny hallway as she entered, her quick steps into her private world and in his fantasy he thought that she might be secretly weeping. He could see her cheeks wet with tears, hear those quiet, lonely sobs in an empty room. If he had doubted before or if he had wanted to keep a distance between them, he was certain now. His heart was hers.
Standing back from her window Karen watched him walk away, filling the void of sound with her own imagining so she might hear his firm tread on the pavement, feel his purpose rush through her like a howl of need. He was so strong, with such confidence in his stride, such power! And her heart was full of wishing, but her head would not let her call out foolishly, or run after him, or catch him in her arms. She stayed to see the sunset, looking down over the town and bound by the enchantment of flickering streetlights as they caught fire, red embers into yellow flames. But there was a conscience within her that would not be ignored. Karen went to her ‘phone, picked it up and dialled.
“Karen? Hello, love, where’ve you been? I called three times.” Tim’s voice contained a hint of petulance.
“I know, you called home: Mum told me. I was out. You sound tired.”
“Yes, I am. Busy day!”
“Beginning to wish you’d stayed in Caleybridge?”
“What? Oh, no. No, I did the right thing, Kerry. I miss you, darling, of course, but it’s my career, you know?”
Karen knew; Tim repeated it often enough. Tim was strong, wasn’t he? Probably much tougher than Patrick. Tim was intelligent and kind? Yes, but Tim’s was a policeman’s ponderous, deliberate strength, humourless and slow. She had to try and sound enthusiastic, although to convince him she had first to convince herself. “I miss you, too.” She tried, but maybe failed – she thought she had. She covered quickly: “Anyway, you were ringing about next weekend, Mum said?”
“Yes. I’m off duty all through from Friday to Monday so I can come down. We can maybe spend some time together?”
“That sounds lovely.”
“I’ll drop in on Saturday morning. Maybe we can go for lunch at the Mason’s Arms?”
“That sounds lovely.”
All at once, without warning, the conversation was over. There was nothing either of them could drop into that stony silence. They faced each other, across the miles: he in London, she in her provincial apartment, and they had nothing to say.
“I’ll see you on Saturday, then?” Tim prompted.
“Yes, see you Saturday.”
“Okay. Love you?”
It was a question. “Of course. Love you.” Karen said, reminding herself there was a time when they would hang on the line, each waiting for the other to put down the receiver, each with a new promise of devotion. Tonight she did not wait for Tim’s response. She rang off.
Emptied, Karen dragged herself into her kitchen, found some bread and put together a sandwich of a Bolognese sauce she had made the previous night. Then she ran a bath, filled it with an obscene amount of bubbles and slid inside their envelope of care, taking her lumpy old sponge from the rack, soaking it, and thrusting it into her face until the foam got in her nose, making her splutter pleasingly. With warm water for her blanket, she settled back to let dilemma have its say.
Tim Birchinall. At school, he was the fit one, the natural athlete who played in the school rugby team. Karen dated him then; meetings after school, embarrassing each other with words, experimental kisses in dark corners, a couple of trips to Baronchester on the bus. Tim was fun in those days and Karen liked him, but they were really never more than friends. He was a trophy boyfriend who drew looks of envy from less fortunate girls. They lost touch when school was over. Karen went on to college, Tim found his niche with the police.
Some years later on a seaside visit to Harterport, a few months after her older sister Suzanne died in a motorbike accident, Karen was basking in hot July sun on a crowded beach and trying to eat an ice-cream faster than it melted. In her new bikini she was shuffling self-consciously through dry sand towards the promenade steps when she was swept off her feet by three very large males in bathing trunks who were doing more charging than looking. Prostrate in the sand and liberally embellished by ice-cream she was offered the assistance of a big, friendly hand.
“I’m terribly sorry!” A resonant voice apologized; “That was really clumsy of me – are you hurt?”
Karen was about to unleash an appropriate reply when she realized she was being helped to her feet by an Olympian. She choked back carefully chosen invective. “Only my pride.” Her eyes took their time travelling up her assailant’s body, eventually reaching his face. “Good god! Tim Birchinall!”
A fully-grown, fully matured, fully swoon-inspiring Tim grinned at her. “Karen Eversley! Now fancy meeting you here!”
And so it began – slowly at first; because outside a sports ground Tim never did anything quickly, but by the winter of that year they were in a relationship of sorts. The heat, the romantic heat, the passion – well, that was always there on Karen’s side but Tim seemed quite happy to maintain a little distance: kissing goodnight, familiar touching, intimate whispers, no more than that.
The change came one night in January. Tim, who was a member of the Beaconshire force then, played rugby for the County Police and whenever Karen’s work allowed she followed the team. She was a devoted supporter, organising kit, arranging the half-time snacks, and cheering dutifully from the touchline.
It was a Saturday: the team was playing away and it snowed. In terms of the match itself that meant little, apart from very cold feet and a few bruises on hard ground; but when it came to persuading the coach driver to take the team home it meant a great deal.
“Too risky in this.” They had let him get near a pub and he was eyeing it longingly. “The main road’s blocked anyway. It was on the news.”
There was not enough accommodation. Bea, another of the groupies, was philosophical: “We’ll have to double up.” She said, and she was almost laughing out loud as she said it.
“You and I?” Karen suggested hopefully.
“You are kidding?”
“Look, mate,” Karen told Tim; “It’s me in the bed and you on the chair, right?”
“Of course!” Tim reassured her. “Karen, would I?”
And, of course (extremely drunk and with disastrous ineptitude) he did.
All of which was three and a half years since, years in which, for all the good intentions, nothing special grew. Far from improving Tim’s positivity and initiative, the police force seemed to have sapped him of what little he possessed, and his sense of fun had disappeared. After a couple of those years questions began to be asked which Karen answered defensively, but doubts could not help but form in her mind too. In a way she was glad: the lot of a policeman’s wife was not always a happy one, after all, and as time passed her commitment to that vision of her future dwindled.
Then Tim had suddenly announced he was going to join the Metropolitan Police. Karen saw his move to London as having far more than mere geographical significance. London, with all it meant in terms of distance and lifestyle, was an opportunity to draw a natural line beneath their relationship. He would meet others and she would be suitably sad to lose him. They would naturally drift apart; go their separate ways.
But Tim kept coming back.
At twenty-five years old Karen was tethered to a man. Not uncomfortably so: although bedroom time was scarce to non-existent, she was always comfortable with Tim, always safe. And she might easily spend a life on just those terms with him, if thoughts of London attracted her; yet the doubts were there – the questions. There should not be a time when you have to try to love somebody; to recapture the emotions that drew you together, so long ago. And she was having to dig more and more deeply to find those things which she should feel every time she heard his voice or saw his face.
And now? Now there was Patrick; she would not investigate him in the way she might check someone out for a client; she couldn’t do that to him. So he would remain someone about whom she knew little or nothing, except that his parents were wealthy enough to buy him an expensive car for his twenty-first. Yet he was thoughtful, he was perceptive, and when her head rested on his shoulder there was a feeling of rightness about it that might remind her of early days with Tim. He made her laugh in a way Tim could never do. Patrick who said he wanted to know her, yet flattered to deceive. And she was – for a while: flattered, that is. Patrick who, she told herself, wanted her. His deception was his ease of manner, belying his upper-class roots and giving an impression of being available to her, a bridge across that great class divide. But these matters, even if she might overcome them, ultimately rested in the judgment of others. Karen drew a picture in her mind of a cocktail party in the course of which her father would meet with Patrick’s, and despite herself she began to laugh.
The water had cooled. She rose from it reluctantly, towelled off as she held onto a little fantasy of hands around her, drying her body; smooth strong hands which she took to bed with her too, still imagining. The hands were not Tim’s.
That night the sky was full of shadows, strange fleeting shades across the moon that darkened her window. She could not know who or what they were, those shades, but she fancied she could hear their cries.
Were there steps yet that she could not hear – striding feet upon the pavement beneath her apartment? Feet that struck the stones so harshly they spoke of hatred with every tread? Were there eyes darker than the night that watched her windows, knowing now where she slept and where she bathed, and when she was sure to be alone? She would sleep while those eyes stayed open, and by morning they would be gone. For now – for a while yet…
© Frederick Anderson 2018. All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction. All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content