Lying in his single bed, Joseph could see through his window reflected flashes of blue against the sky and he wondered in passing what they might represent; but he was used to the noise and constant siren song of London, so he paid them little heed. His mind was too full.
Perhaps he had not anticipated the flood of memory that his return to Little Hallbury would generate: perhaps he had thought only of gaining rest and some space. Yet everything, every turn of every corner, every whisper of breeze, every rustle of leaves was alive with the things of the past. Even this bed: how big and soft it had once seemed! He closed his eyes and turned his head to the pillow, letting the images churn in his brain. And there was her face, inches from his own – the soft waft of her breath, her deep, deep eyes staring into his with – what? – wonder? Love? Fear?
They had grown up together, in a way. They first met at school, shared a class in those strange years between childhood and adolescence when all was new. He, intimidated and shy, trying to explain to himself the curtain drawn so dramatically over his early years; she a targeted and thoroughly extrovert young female with an open smile.
“You don’t like girls much, do you, Joey Palliser?”
He had mumbled something, she had given him that bright flash of a grin and loped away – a graceful deer so aware of her beauty, a tower too high for him to even contemplate climbing.
Then she came back.
“Walk home with me – after school?”
Sarah who sang like an angel, and the first time he heard her sing he was bewitched, captured, a hostage forever. Sarah whose whole life was music, and who would go on to local college and to the London Academy of Music, but who would find time for Joey Palliser on her way.
Sarah. Heaven knew what she saw in him, or how it came to be they lay in his bed – this bed – with nothing but flesh between them that one night.
His aunt and uncle were visiting friends.
“Come over and stay?” She came over, and she stayed.
It was not the first time they had lain naked like this, but it was the only time they had made love. She had withdrawn from him before, frightened that his desperate desires with their dire consequences could threaten her future. This night – this one glorious night – she had acceded to his entreaties, his insistence that it was “quite safe”. Why? He never found out why. Shortly after, Sarah departed for London and college. He never saw her again.
“The village is fairly rattling with speculation!” Julia enthused at breakfast the next morning after she had imparted the news of the murder. “Apparently Jack Parkin’s been taken in for questioning.”
Owen harrumphed. “Much good may that do them!”
Recalling his childhood encounters with Violet Parkin, Joseph thought Jack Parkin an unlikely suspect. Playing jungles with his brother Ian in the reeds by the duck pond one day, he remembered a vast bulk of humanity looming over him like a total eclipse.
“I’se got eggs in them there grass, young ‘uns.” Violet bellowed. “Be off, now!”
Then there was the day when, walking across the common past Violet’s house, he heard such an eruption of shouting and seafaring language that he thought some major disaster was taking place. Drawing closer, hesitating, uncertain it was safe to proceed; he stayed just long enough to see Jack come hurtling from the door, emitting squealing noises not unlike a terrified pig. He was near to sprinting (the fastest Joseph had ever seen him move) and Violet was hard on his heels flailing at his head with what looked very much like a wooden table leg. She caught him several hideous cracks before he managed to outrun her, leaving her standing at the edge of the common growling like a Mastiff.
“How is Ian, Joe dear?” Julia’s enquiry cut across his chain of thought. “We hear from him so rarely these days.”
“Oh, very well, I suppose.” He replied defensively. “I haven’t seen him myself for about a month.”
“Really? Good Lord! Well, I suppose he must be very busy.”
Busy? Well, yes, although Joseph would not attempt to explain to aunt Julia that his prosperous brother’s new and burgeoning quest for political glory might not include him – quite the reverse. Julia tended to think of London as a rather large village, where everyone must know one another and visit – at least on a weekly basis.
“The election…” He tried an expressive shrug.
“Do you think he’ll win?” Owen asked (a little too crisply, Joseph thought).
“The Party’s doing well in North London generally. I don’t see why not.”
After breakfast Joseph hedged around Aunt Julia’s: ‘Well, dear, what do you want to do today?’ with a few muttered generalities and escaped. He was waiting for, and dreading, the inevitable offer of an ‘outing in the car’ with all it implied, for within that imprisoning tin box lay captivity and open exposure to Owen in cross-examination. His aunt and uncle must know the truth, of course; he just wasn’t ready to tell them yet.
Joseph slipped quietly through their front door, aware of the beehive drone of conversation he left behind. Beyond the front gate, he turned his back upon Church Hill and the substance of the village, taking instead a narrow lane which led to Wednesday Common. He walked in the middle of the road and as he walked he felt the air returning to his lungs, the spring come back into his step. An early dew fairly dripped from the hedges, nether-world creatures slipped unseen through the grass, so that for a brief moment he could almost believe that he had come home. How should he not? In so many ways, this was home. In so many ways, he could wish he had never left.
Here he had come one cold, dark evening in winter, huddled with Ian in the back seat of their uncle’s Vauxhall – too young, then, to understand. His abject tears had brought a crowing torrent of ridicule from his brother and a sound telling-off from his uncle; thereby setting a tone to their relationship which had lasted even to this day. Ian was always the favourite. Ian was a real man – Ian always won. Of itself this did not present Joseph with too much of a problem – it was, after all, the status quo: his mum and dad had favoured Ian just as obviously, protected Michael, his youngest brother from them both. Joseph was used to being the lesser child, the not-so-clever child, subject to a different set of rules.
He still might not recognise how traumatised he was, that night, or how his, Ian’s, and his younger brother Michael’s future hung balanced upon a knife-edge. After all, he was only nine. When the news had come he was asleep. Ian was asleep, though he claimed later to have heard the fervent discussion below stairs, to have seen the police car outside their drive. Joseph had never questioned why his mum and dad had taken Michael with them on the drive to Bristol, and why they, the older brothers, had been left behind with their grandma. The next morning they were told: there had been a crash. Mummy and Daddy were never coming back. Michael was very ill – maybe they could go and see him in a while.
Time mercifully fogged the memory of those first weeks after the world changed. The funeral, the black-clad people who loomed over him like tall trees, bending their mournful limbs in sympathy: the long journey to Little Hallbury, eventual reunion with Michael. To begin with, Joseph scarcely recognised his youngest brother, his face still puffed, the livid scars across his cheek, the eye that would never properly see again. In time, he would learn there were other scars, less easy to see.
Deep in reminiscence, Joseph turned the corner of the hedge out onto Wednesday Common with no awareness of the horse and rider coming the opposite way. It was a big roan horse, all of seventeen hands, and it was difficult to say who was the more shocked. Both expressed their surprise by stepping back rapidly, though the horse’s reaction was more rapid and a lot more dramatic.
“Settle, you stupid bugger!” It’s rider commanded in a tone which did not brook disobedience, reinforced by two sharp slaps from her crop. Joseph found himself apologising to a young woman with slightly angry eyes.
“Yes, well try not to be so scary.” She admonished, giving him a quirky smile.
It was the briefest of encounters. The horse danced round Joseph before trying half-heartedly to bolt up the lane. A further thrashing and some forthright language nipped this in the bud. Joseph stood for a second or so watching horse and tightly-jodhpur-ed rider’s retreating backs, then made to resume his walk. A man about his own age had witnessed this incident from a few paces down the track which led over the Common.
“She’m a right ‘andful, ‘er. Mind, I wouldn’t object to bein’ that ‘orse.” The man said; then, scrutinising Joseph more closely. “My Lord! Joe? Joe Palliser?”
Joseph returned the scrutiny: meeting a pair of languid, pale blue eyes. Tall, spare of build, slightly stooped perhaps, hair the colour of a summer beach, that parchment skin which always burned in spite of his outdoor life.
“Tom?” Yes, this was Tom Peterkin – older, but indisputably. “Damn! Still here, then, Tom!”
“Ah, still here.” Tom nodded sagely, staring down his big long nose with a look Joseph remembered so well. “Though I’m f****d if I know why. Mind, you’ve looked more healthy – what brings you back ‘ere? You a masochist or summat?”
Joseph considered. If he were to impart his truth to anyone, it should be this close companion of his teenage years. But he hedged still. “Oh, I wanted to see the old place, that’s all. Just for a few days.”
“Ah.” He felt Tom’s eyes boring into him. “Come to see the annual pig-flying festival, ah? I was just takin’ a gander at this howd’y’do.” Tom nodded towards the far end of the common, where the Parkin house stood, surrounded with black, official looking cars.
“It’s a strange ‘un, this.”
“She was killed then?” Joe asked. “That’s the gossip.”
“Aye. Found ‘er in the dairy, ‘pparently. Some says a knifing; some says ‘er were strangled. Can’t get any sense. Can you imagine tryin’ to strangle Violet?”
“Maybe she’d grown frail with the years?”
“Nah. You haven’t been here. Built like a brick shithouse, moved like a tank.” Tom shook his head. “Jack didn’t kill ‘er, no way. If she weren’t indoors I’d say the only way would be to run her over with a truck.
“Still, you aren’t ‘ere for that. Unless you did it, did yer? So, what you doin’ wi’ yourself now? Come on, take a walk with me and give us all the news.”
Walk they did; the quarter-mile across the western corner of the common, past the Parkin house and its ant-horde of police, side by side as it had once been their habit to walk, deep in conversation along rhododendron-fringed Feather Lane towards the Kings Head.
“Old Ned won’t open ‘til twelve today. He’s getting’ on a bit now, mind. Come on over to mine – we’ll start early. I lives in the old Martin House, up by ‘Church. There’s a Missus Peterkin now.”
“Really? Do I know her?”
Tom smirked at him and said darkly: “Ah. You do. An’ I’ll tell you who ‘tis if you tell me what brings you back ‘ere.”
“I told you.”
“Ah. You told me summat.”
The Martin house, whitewashed and prim in the middle of the terraced line generally known as Church Cottages had only been gas-lit, the last time Joseph was there. He remembered an embarrassing hour as an aged Mrs Martin took him through a photo-album she insisted he should see. One of those charitable endeavours to indulge the old which always end so badly.
“The old dear died three year ago. Not ‘ere, in Mary Magdalene’s, thank God.”
St. Mary Magdalene’s was a nursing home in Abbots Friscombe. The old lady’s house looked bright and renewed, with a fresh, lemon-painted front door opening onto the village street, new thatch and sparkling windows.
Tom opened his front door. “Got ‘lectric in now. ‘Tis a lot better. Come and see what We’ve done to the place.”
Joseph stepped into a front room very different from the dingy and slightly odorous den where he had sat with Mrs Martin’s album of pictures. White walls, a fitted carpet deeply red, soft, inviting furnishings. Tom slumped into an easy chair.
“Come on, take the weight off. Darlin’, get us two beers, will ‘e?”
“Get ‘em yourself! I’m doin’ the ironin’!” The voice that replied from the back of the house shot instantly into that place in Joseph’s head which he reserved for cringing. Emma!
Tom saw his reaction. “Oh, ‘tis all right lad! We got over that ages ago! Emma! Come and see ‘oo I’ve found!”
And there she was; at first just a silhouette against the light which flooded in from her kitchen as she opened the door. “Oh, my dear lord! Joseph Palliser! What the ‘ell are you doin’ ere?”
Joseph reflected this was the third time he had been asked that question: he was beginning to wonder himself. He got to his feet awkwardly. “Hello Emma.”
His unease seemed to cause Tom immense amusement. Perhaps he did not entirely understand its cause. Emma moved towards Joseph, and though it might have escaped Thomas Peterkin’s attention, Joseph saw his own discomfiture reflected in her eyes, too. She hadn’t changed. Urchin cut hair a coppery brown, not quite auburn, a round face which would split into a broad grin at the least provocation. Nor had she lost one inch of her figure – she was as gently graceful as the girl he remembered.
“Come now, Joe.” She gave him a perfunctory hug. Her cheek was cool as a hay-loft breeze. “You’m welcome here.”
It was as if the one room, this warm, welcoming room, had divided and become three. Emma brought beers and sat in her box, Tom in his, Joseph sandwiched between them in a segment of his own so distinct from the other two that he was able to decorate its walls with pictures from his memories. They formed divisions insurmountable by conversation. You see, the instant Joe met Emma’s eye, he knew that there were pictures on her walls too. Perhaps by the end of that morning Tom was beginning to know. Perhaps his were walls he would prefer not to look at.
They went through the motions: Tom explained that he worked for an agricultural mechanic’s in Abbots Friscombe.
“Remember when old Foskett down on Halls Wood Farm there bought he’s first combine? He used to go round his fields with it and when the bits fell off he’d just throw ‘em in the hedge! Well, I go round the hedge picking the bits up and screwing ‘em back on. See, more and more of ‘em’s buying combines now. Farm machinery gen’rally’s gettin’ more an’ more complicated. They can’t jus’ twist ‘un back to life with a spanner and a kick no more. There’s good money in ut.”
Emma had a part-time job at the Co-op in Pettisham, three days a week, served her turn at the Women’s Institute, did an afternoon helping out old Mrs Dickenson, up on Hurst Hill.
“Poor dear, she can’t do hardly nothing’ for ‘erself now, bless her heart. And she’m such a lovely lady too.”
They had a Ford Cortina, in the lock-ups on Feather Lane.
“Can’t trust to leave nothin’ on the street nowadays.”
They were all a young married couple should be, doing all a young married couple should do.
“Married St. Andrew’s three year gone.” Tom said. “You’d have been best man if I’d known where to find you, but Owen Masefield didn’t seem to ‘ave an address for you at the time. Where’d you disappear to, you bugger?”
Joseph was defensive. He’d moved around a lot lately, he said: there were business reasons, personal reasons too.
“We heard you’d married.” Emma’s look carried a measure of accusation.
“Really?” Joseph hoped his tone of disbelief would carry the day, and to some extent it did seem to: but as he and Tom finally departed for the Kings Head, after he had bid a brief, embarrassed farewell to Emma, and Tom was closing his front door (“We was lucky to get this ‘ouse.”) Tom said:
“And did you?”
“Did I what, Tom?”
“Yes. Yes, I did.”
Joseph thought Tom might ask more, but their walk to the pub was oddly silent. Tom’s mood was contemplative, as though the morning and their reunion had posed a troubling question or two.
The King’s Head was one of the less celebrated Public Houses in the district, a small nondescript building which had fallen into disrepair within the time of Joseph’s memory, and had fallen even further since. Near to his retirement, Ned Barker the Inn-Keeper took little interest in the weathered inn-sign or the render flaking from the walls: in fact, he took very little care of his business in any way, except in the care of his beer. Sometimes, when the mood was upon him, the old brown double doors would remain resolute long after opening time; sometimes they did not open at all. There were occasions, if the day was sunny, when the old man would be found sitting, pipe stoked to an inferno, upon the fallen tree which lay across the north edge of Farrier’s Meadow well into the afternoon. Upon such days Ned was immovable. If the pub were to open it would be because Dot, his wife of forty years, would open it: and to be truthful she would be better as a host than Ned ever was. But below the stairs, in the tiny, cobweb-veiled dungeon which was the cellar, Ned was master. Here he mothered and cosseted his precious kegs of warm beer with the protective instincts of a brood hen; so that, when you could get it, there was no better pint to be had anywhere in the County. Which was why, in spite of unreliable hours and uncertainty of satisfaction, there would always be a faithful little queue of disciples at those doors every day at eleven thirty, and twelve o’clock on Sundays; even in depths of winter.
The bar was exactly as Joseph remembered it. The swing of the inner door produced a familiar squeak, the cloud of smoke it released into the outer world had that same tobacco smell. Entering, especially when the day outside was sunny, seemed like a plunge into a bronze twilight. Screwing up his eyes against the gloom, he began to pick out vague figures, five in number, lining a bar of dark-stained wood which formed the left-hand side of the room. Lime-washed walls browned by nicotine formed the other three sides, the right-hand of which contained a window: a sash frame with brown glass covered by brown net curtains, heavy brown drapes. Three tables filled this side of the bar; oaken, polished and liberally engraved. Equally stalwart-looking chairs surrounded each, their worn cushions bearing little trace of once-lively patterns in red brocade. None of the customers strayed so far from the bar as to sit at one of these tables. They never would. Only old Mrs Higgs, when she was of the inclination to enjoy an evening of milk stout, ever graced those seats. She and her hapless daughter together contributed to the Pub’s latent odour in their own distinctive way, so providing the true reason, it was said, that everyone else drank standing up.
All conversation ceased the moment Joseph followed his friend through those doors. In eerie silence Dot Barker rose from some activity below the bar like a surfacing whale.
“Oh, Love us! Look what the cat dragged in!”
“Well now, You’re going to have to do summat about that cat, Dot.” Charker Smith’s features had not yet clarified in Joseph’s vision, but his deep voice was unmistakeable. It wasn’t a friendly voice. “What you doin’ back ‘ere, boy?”
© 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.