When I remember the summer days of my childhood I think of hot sun and warm rain. I recall standing by a dairy door to gaze in wonder at rows of steaming bovine flanks as Alfa Laval milking machines hissed and sucked and a heavy lactose aroma hung on the air. Or sitting on a field gate to watch elephantine combine harvesters clumber to and fro, or playing on Wednesday Common, making secret pathways through the bracken, dens among the blackthorn. I remember wars and jealousies and fights, the sense of living – the light of morning. And it seems to me the sun was younger then.
The village where I grew up was a placid beast, a mother protective of her young. She made our lives a special thing – to come home to her from the battle of a day was to return to faces that smiled, sounds which comforted, food and rest. It was a place that was mine, a box for all my memories: a place of warmth, of peace, and of love.
How does the saying go? We always hurt the ones we love? I was neglectful, I know. As I came to manhood her nurture bored me, my Hallbury, my mother of the Earth. She hemmed me in, kept me by her isolation from meeting friends, going out, exploring the greater world; until I, like my father before me, would want to leap her fences – to venture into lands beyond.
This my father taught me – that only when I left her would I understand: only when I was miles away in time and space would I wish I could return. There would be no going back, of course – I might travel the miles, walk up the village street, tap on the same doors – but never pick up the threads I lost, or find again those delicate flowers of friendship I plucked when I went away. They would be gone, like the times, forever.
So here is the lesson I was given, by way of a tale told to me by my father once when we spoke of these things; when he heard me speak of leaving. It is a tale of my village, and a story of innocence lost. It is his account: the scene he describes, of Little Hallbury asleep in the heat of an afternoon, is a picture in my memory too: but the mother of my memory is not the mother of his: and his story is very different to my own.
Upon this day Little Hallbury slumbered beneath a solemn sun. Wednesday Common robed in the bracken-green of summer was motionless and silent. Around the old, cold stone of barnyard eaves martens twittered, while above them in azure-blue stillness rooks wheeled lazily, carking guttural orders. A solitary dove warbled from St. Andrews’ steeple. The service ‘bus’s slow drone as it wheezed and coughed up the hill from Abbots Friscombe stirred verges of frazzled grass to reluctant movement, sending the tiny secret creatures that live there scurrying into deeper shadow.
She would have, must have screamed. Did she recognise the one who hurt her so, who drove spikes through her wrists – who hung her, like a great doll crucified – upon a wooden wall? She was still living; still conscious when the prongs struck home: she knew and saw and felt the worst excess of death. She must have screamed: how she must have screamed! But though the stone walls heard and the still air heard, no-one else in the sleeping heat of afternoon heard her. Her last entreaty to the world went unnoticed.
Joseph Palliser, my father, arriving at Braunston on the train from Waterloo had missed his connection, condemning him to an hour on a platform bench. The little branch line tank engine which finally puffed to his rescue (and which had a certain brassy charm, it was true) struggled with a train lacking any form of charisma. Its carriages were a sooty, no-corridor horror story – musty compartment after musty compartment of vandalised cushions, each with their own history of graffiti and stains. Joseph perched unwillingly for a jolting half-hour as they groaned and ground their way along the old single-track branch line to Abbots Friscombe.
When his bus grumbled past the military line of poplars on Gypsy Lane it was afternoon and my father had been travelling for nearly seven hours. He had read “The Andromeda Strain” from cover to cover; he was tired, he was hot. If ever he needed reminding of his reasons for re-visiting his childhood home so rarely he would recall this day, he told himself, and thereby absolve any guilt he might feel.
There were those evocative sounds, however. On the station platform at Abbots Friscombe: the steamy whistle of the little tank engine, the Station Master’s warning: “Mind the doors now!” followed by clattering closure, guard’s whistle and screech of heavy wheels, metal on metal. Then the ‘bus, empty but for himself and a pair of pensioners sitting at the front: “Af’noon young fella!” whose low plainsong of conversation was punctuated by a kettle-drum rhythm from a sturdy engine: and now, alighting outside his one-time home in early evening sun, that characteristically noisy rural peace – sweet, pungent harmony of sound and scent – wood pigeon in the trees, raucous rooks, lap and slap of the little brook which ran between road and garden wall. Melodies unforgettable – so poignant they threatened tears.
Joseph remained by the roadside for a little to collect himself, as the ‘bus struggled off in a black haze of exhaust up Church Hill, past the Andrews’ house where he had played as a young child; past the Walker farm, with all its rumours and romance. There were so many things to recollect and he could not do justice to them all, so he told himself he was tired and over-emotional, which he quite possibly was, shrugged off the cloak of nostalgia and picked up his suitcase.
A peeling wooden gate, a garden full of the industry of summer: buzzing among hollyhocks, throaty defending of nests, noisy squabbling over tiny trophies of food. A front door still painted black, the same black it had been the day he left: very possibly the same paint.
“Good heavens, Joe, you are late! Let me look at you. You poor dear, you must have had a nightmare journey!”
Aunt Julia – with another of her infernal cats cradled lovingly in her arms – somehow smaller than his recollection of her, and a little more lined perhaps, but still Aunt Julia. A smoky voice, large, frank eyes, blue cardigan as ancient as the door-paint.
“Say hello to Benjy. What do you think of this dreadful election, Joe? Are we going to get a decent government at last? Your uncle’s in the kitchen. Come and get settled in, we’re about to have tea.”
Poking his head into the kitchen, Joseph grunted a greeting. The figure that was Uncle Owen grunted back. He was bent over the kitchen table, painstakingly separating seeds with a razor blade. Several small brown paper bags seemed to be intrinsic to this process.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake Oz, will you get that stuff off the table? I want to lay it, dear!”
Uncle Owen glared over angry half-lenses. An old man now, indisputably, his white hair thin, eyes clouded by life – not quite the formidable force of nature Joseph remembered.
Julia said: “I’ve put you in your old room, Joe. I thought you’d like that. Can you find your way?”
Yes, the third stair still creaked.
And here it was, the room of his childhood, his youth, the greater share of a short past. Like Aunt Julia, a little smaller than he remembered – did houses, like people shrink with age? Plain green curtains in a sort of straw weave – they were different, but not the window they revealed; that was the same. Cream paint, cream wallpaper much treated by drawing pin acupuncture: Presley would have been there, above the oak chest of drawers, smouldering defiantly at Bill Haley’s amused disdain on the opposite wall. The door to the wall cupboard which served as a wardrobe, where Little Richard’s dark menace once lurked – Johnny Mathis cow-eyed over a table laden with comic book imagination.
They were all gone now. Or were they?
Joseph swung the cupboard door open. An odd array of empty hangers on a wooden rail played host to a well-worn pair of gardening trousers he assumed must be his Uncle’s. And there, behind them, on the cupboard’s rough plaster wall, was his montage – a winter’s day of artistic endeavour and glue when he was just twelve years old. Presley again – always there – united by paste down the years with The Platters, Doris Day, Bobby Darin, Chuck Berry…..and…..
Faces he had already forgotten, names he could no longer place – once so important in his life that some had seemed more than life itself, all so easily erased.
Voices from below the stair: Aunt Julia and his uncle arguing. A somehow comforting sound because they had always argued, and it was good to know this at least had not changed.
It was half-past seven that night before Jack Parkin was told that his wife was dead. Janice Regan, who cleaned the church, had walked into Violet Parkin’s kitchen the way she usually did at half past five. Violet always spent her Friday morning washing “Vicar’s bloody surplices” and, given a good drying day, they would be ready for Janice to collect, so she could take them “Up St. Andrew’s” when she cleaned in the church the next morning. Surprised to see the dry vestments still dangling idly from Violet’s washing line, she had called out: first, she called up the stairs of the dilapidated cottage. Receiving no reply from there, she went out into the yard that had once been the yard of the Parkin farm and called again. Apart from an anxious clucking of hungry hens, Janice heard nothing: and then she became concerned. Violet had never “been out” – never in thirty years, and precious little in the twenty-five years before that – the years before she married Jack. Oh, there was the Sunday trip to Church, and there were stories, of course, of other outings; but never on a Friday afternoon. Across the sun-fissured mud of the yard, the broken door of the old dairy hung half-open: unsure why her fingers had started to tremble, Janice walked towards it.
Jack was in the little village of Fettsham, two miles away. He was at his usual place at the bar of the Black Horse, with his usual pint of cider clamped in his earth-blackened fingers.
“Need to talk to ‘ee Jack.” P.C. Hallett studied the labourer’s face closely. It was never possible to tell if Jack was drunk, but the likelihood of his being sober was fairly remote. Those who knew him well claimed he never was.
“Ha’ a pint Davy?” Jack Parkin: man of few words, fewer expressions. Those who wanted to be unkind said ‘man of few thoughts’. Jack stared.
“Come an’ sit down over ‘ere.” Davy Hallett coaxed. He knew better than to insist. “Give ‘un a shove?” He requested the two companion bar-proppers at Jack’s side. Persuasive hands guided Jack to a settle. Aggravated grunts issued from Jack. Someone thoughtfully provided a full glass. Jack’s hand moved to embrace it.
“’Tis Violet, Jack: ‘tis Violet.” Hallett saw the old man’s eyes had moved. There was a rheumy depth to them, a pool of silted emotions. “She’m been ‘urt, Jack. She’m been ‘urt bad.”
“Violet?” Hallett wasn’t sure if Jack had recognised the name.
“Violet your wife. She’m been taken, Jack. She’s died, old chap.”
“Violet. Ah.” Parkin’s hand lifted the pint glass to his fat lips. “She’m what?”
“Passed on.” Uncle Owen fiddled irritably with a piece of butter as it skittered before his knife. “Gone to his Maker about five years ago, now.” He pinned a slice of bread to his plate as though he feared it might also escape him, reached for a second slice. The business of bringing bread and butter together so all edges and crusts exactly matched was an elaborate one, taking immense concentration. “He was mad as a hatter for two years at least before that. Used to wander around the village knocking on doors. We’d know about that, wouldn’t we?” He fixed Joseph with a stare.
“Poor old man must have called here a dozen times, Joe dear.” Julia explained. “Asking about war-time comrades, you know? All dead, of course.”
“He wasn’t that old, that’s the thing; still completely ga-ga though. Should have been in a home.” Uncle Owen opined. His battle with his bread and butter was entering its final phase, the invasion of the jam.
Joseph tried to balance this image with his own of Aleph Parkin: of the handlebar moustachioed man in his waistcoat and cap whose permanence he had never doubted; an amiable figure with two beloved terriers milling about his ankles who walked the village lanes on a never-ending journey, always ready to stop and talk, always with a tale to tell. Aleph was gone! Jack Parkin’s older brother, the pair of them as unlike as scrumpy and ale – Aleph who was never drunk and Jack who always was – yet Jack who was the worker: whereas Aleph, to the knowledge of those in the village with long enough memories, had never worked a day in his life.
“A war wound, young ‘un;” Aleph explained one day to a garrulous young Palliser with courage enough to ask: “can’t work, see? I was at Wipers, boy. Shrappel.”
But if Joseph tried to pin him down as to the exact nature of the injury from the battlefields of Ypres that had so afflicted his life, Aleph would be less specific.
“I has to sit down a lot, see?”
So Joseph sought the truth from Mrs Martin, a solitary old pensioner who lived in a stuffy little cottage by St. Andrew’s Church. “Oh yes, dear,” She confirmed: “it was a shrapnel wound. I remember when Beth Parkin got the letter. there was weepin’ and wailin’ and all sorts that day, my lord! Beth,you see, she always favoured Aleph. He was her first. She never wanted a second son and when Jack came along a dozen year later he was a bit of a surprise, I can tell you! And there was some of us wondered but that’s not for me to say.
“Anyways, she never set Aleph to work as a child, though she had Jack out working when he was ten summers old. Then Aleph went to war at sixteen, and then there was the wound. He comes home on crutches and Beth she has a hero’s welcome waitin’ for him – she made half the village turn out with flags and that. He hasn’t worked since, and he didn’t work afore. I suppose that’s why he and his brother doesn’t get on so well. That and the other thing.”
Mrs Martin wouldn’t be drawn upon the subject of ‘the other thing’ but it was common knowledge the pair of brothers had little time for each other. Joseph had seen at first hand how Jack might take a different road rather than pass his brother upon it. If they should unavoidably meet they would pass with no more than a grunted acknowledgement, and Jack would take a swipe at one of Aleph’s dogs with his boot.
Leaning on the bar at the King’s Head in the days when he was still welcome there, Jack was also scathing concerning Aleph’s wound.
“War wound? War wound be buggered! He didn’t get no shrappel at Wipers. When I finally got ‘un to ‘elp unload the hay-cart down our yard he dropped a bale on my head so I shoved a fork handle up his arse. In ‘thirty-six that was and he’s never forgotten ‘un. that’s the only wound he got!”
Joseph remembered the mouth organ Aunt Julia had given him for his thirteenth birthday – something then treasured, for somehow he had always believed he had a future in music. Breathing idle chords upon it one afternoon on his way back from school he had come upon Aleph sitting on the wall outside Polkcombe Farm, his two Jack Russell terriers milling impatiently around his feet.
“Armonicky is ‘ut?” Aleph said. “Can I ‘ave a go, young ‘un?”
Joseph had lent his precious instrument reluctantly, then watched horrified as Aleph plucked a complete set of porcelain teeth from his mouth and placed them on the wall beside him. The vaguely recognisable sea-shanty a toothless Aleph wheezed out was the last tune the instrument ever played. When the old man had finished and Joseph politely retrieved it he put it in his pocket and walked away, not waiting to see the teeth replaced. In his room that evening he put the mouth organ in his drawer, unable to countenance the thought of raising it to his own lips. For all he knew, it was still there.
“Well!” Julia folded her hands in her lap. “I think we’ve accounted for the local population for now. So what about you, Joe? We didn’t expect you to come visiting.”
It was a rebuke, and Joseph knew it. Somehow he had to explain how this place, which had been an irrelevance for so long, had suddenly become so important to him. He had always insisted that to look back, to retreat into the past was wrong – a mistake. What had changed? He muttered an apology, said something about the business in London keeping him away.
“I just wanted to see you, I suppose; and to stay for a few days. I hope it isn’t too inconvenient?”
“It’s bloody inconvenient!” Uncle Owen spluttered, consuming his victory. “Should have changed the locks.”
Julia smiled. “Take no notice of your uncle, dear. It’s his peculiar sense of humour.”
Joseph was not entirely certain his uncle was joking. Much later, when he finally managed to extricate himself from his hosts’ gently persistent interrogation and retire to his old room, he pulled open that drawer. The mouth organ was gone.
In the gathering evening, blue lights of police vehicles flickered from around Violet Parkin’s cottage with increasing brilliance, while rumours flickered around the village, building upon themselves.
Hettie Locke, Ben Locke’s wife was first to break the news. “She was dead in the dairy, stuck up against the stall! Janice ‘twas found ‘er! Er ‘adn’t even ironed vicar’s surplices!”
“There were poor Violet’s blood ever’where!” Abbey Walker’s eyes grew wider as she passed the story on.
“Pinned against the wall with pitchforks, she were, poor soul.” Mary Gayle relayed the information to Paul over dinner; adding as an afterthought: “I ‘spect vicar ‘ll be askin’ me to do ‘is surplices now.”
“Nailed to thic wall with pitchforks!” Paul Gayle told a rapt gathering at the King’s Head. “Er were hangin’ upside down be all accounts!”
Word of Jack’s arrest followed.
“Jack?” Cried Rob Pardin. “’E’d never do that to ‘er, wouldn’t Jack!”
“Wouldn’t ‘urt a fly, wouldn’t Jack.” Agreed Aaron Pace. “But they got ‘un!”
© Copyright 2019 Frederick Anderson
No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
This book is a work of fiction. All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.