The Story so Far…
One summer afternoon in the village of Little Hallbury Violet Parkin is murdered, the same afternoon Joseph Palliser returns from the city to visit his Uncle Owen and Aunt Julia Masefield, in whose home he and his two brothers were raised.
Joe is intent upon staying for a while, but he seems unwilling to discuss his London years. To avoid interrogation he seeks his childhood haunts on the local common, where after startling a horse and its rider, he meets his erstwhile best friend, Tom Peterkin. Tom is now married to Emma, the girl Joe left behind when he moved to the city.
After an awkward encounter with Emma, Joe and Tom seek refuge in the local pub, where the subject for discussion is Jack Parkin’s arrest for his wife’s murder. A drinker at the bar, Charker Smith, is less than happy to see Joseph walk in…
“You got some nerve, showin’ up ‘ere, Palliser, I’ll give ‘ee that!” In the close confines of the bar, Charker Smith seemed even larger than Joe remembered. The elder of an unlikely pair of brothers, it was said of Charker that he had inherited all of the family’s muscle, while his younger sibling, Rodney, had been bequeathed most of the brains.
“Leave ‘im alone, Charker! He’s just visitin’. That’s all.” Seeing Charker ready to square up, Tom Peterkin sprang to Joseph’s defence.
“Slummin’ more like.” Charker responded. “I thought you was too big-in-yer-boots for us peasant folks these days, Palliser.”
Joe grinned deferentially: “Yes, well, you know….”
“Ah. I knows, right enough!”
“Keep thee lid on, Charker!” Tom warned. He turned to the landlady, “Let’s ‘ave a couple of your specials, Dot.”
Dot banged a warning fist on the counter. “Now then you two, keep ut peaceful! Gawd, let ‘un be, Charker! He’m the first new customer I’ve had in ten year! Here we are, m’ dears.” The bar supported three massive, black handled pumps: she mauled the first of these with the determination of an all-in wrestler, conjuring thick, warm beer from the ground like a healing spring. “Special for thee, Tom dearest. That’s one and eight pence, now.”
There were four other drinkers at the bar: Aaron Pace, immediately recognisable because of his stoop, Pat Farrier, Rob Pardin and Albert Regan. Each studied their beer after the manner of country folk, issuing their own quiet greetings without raising their eyes.
“You’ll be losin’ another customer soon, Dot.” Rob Pardin piped up in his strange, cracked voice. “When they locks old Jack away.”
This brought no more than a chuckle from Patrick Farrier. Aaron Pace nodded in solemn agreement.
“Weren’t no cust’mer of mine!” Dot responded quite sharply. Everyone knew Ned Barker, the landlord, had thrown Jack Parkin out years ago. “Not many pubs round here’ll miss ‘im, I’m afraid.”
“All the same…” Patrick said.
“Ah, there’s no folk ‘d wish this on ‘im.” Aaron agreed sagely. “’Twere your Janice found ‘er, wasn’ it, Bert?”
“Aye it was. In the dairy. She’m proper shocked, too. Said she never seen nothin’ like it. Violet’s arms was pinned against the stall with pitchforks. Whoever done it must ‘ave been proper strong. An’ she were cut open something ‘orrible.”
Patrick shook his head. “Jack couldn’t never have done that.”
“Trouble is;” Albert Regan said, “Jack was there.”
“He were at work weren’t ‘er?” Charker asked.
“Should ‘a’ been, but he weren’t. He ‘ad a row with old Williamson and took ‘isself off in a stonkin’ mood, ‘pparently. He went ‘ome, round about the time Violet died, they say. Bit after, he goes down The ‘Orse in Fettsham, calm as you please, and that’s where Davy Hallett found him.”
This brought a straggling chorus of disbelief. Gradually the conversation drifted away from Jack Parkin, only returning now and again to reiterate the same opinions that, no matter how bad it looked, Jack could not have murdered his wife.
“Your brother done well for hisself, Joseph lad.” Pat Farrier remarked. Joe had to agree.
“Reck’n he’ll get ‘lected?”
“He certainly reckons he will.”
“Not that ‘e’ll do much good fer us, mind!” Rob Pardin muttered. “Us’ll soon get forgot, once ‘e’s rich and powerful, like.”
“He’s fairly rich now,” Joe said.
“They don’t do no good fer us country folks;” Albert Regan chipped in. “Picks on us when they wants more money, that’s all they do.”
This brought a general murmur of assent.
“Well, you never knows.” Aaron Pace said. “Might do, might not. Stranger thing’s ‘as ‘appened.”
Little by little, in spite of Charker’s hostile stare which had fixed on him from the first moment, Joseph found himself absorbed in this conversation: he and Tom Peterkin ordered two of Dot’s home-made pasties “That’s it, Dot, kill ‘im off for us!” and ate, and drank, their way into the afternoon. There was much to learn, about the years of nothing between the day he left and this day, the day he came back. The people here, these people – yes, even Charker Smith, whose dislike he bore with equanimity – were his people: people he grew up around; people who knew him in ways he barely knew himself. When the time came, it would be hard to leave. Why had he ever left?
“Oh, my lawd!” Cried Dot. “Who’s farted?”
This brought the laugh, and the accusations of guilt, it always did. It was fundamental humour, perhaps not even funny, but it was the stuff of life.
By the time Dot tolled the hour at two o’clock, a great deal of her ‘Special’ had found its way into Joseph. A couple of times it had been necessary to displace one lot to make way for another, and he had to make the trip through the unmarked back door which everyone knew led to the toilets. On the second such visit he had followed Aaron on a similar mission, suffering the jibes of the others for his mistake.
“Mind yer arse, Aaron!”
“Keep yer back to the wall, lad!”
The yard beyond the unmarked door was a paved rectangle about eight yards by six, and the facilities no more than an outhouse at the further end. To reach them, picking your way through Ned’s chickens, you had to edge past Ned’s Morris Oxford estate car, which was always parked, not to one side of the space, but right in the middle. This of itself was a performance for Aaron Pace, whose bent back and stiff right leg, the lingering reminders of a horrendous accident many years since had to be turned and manoeuvred. On the side where the toilets were situated there was a high wooden gate, beyond which was the Pettisham road. Opposite this across the road was a further gate, a five-barred affair, and beyond that was Ned’s orchard.
Everyone knew about Ned’s orchard, of course, in spite of his ludicrous attempts at secrecy: everyone knew the apples were inedible, but everyone knew they were not meant for eating. For on the far side of the yard, on the driver’s side of the Morris Oxford, there stood a stone-built shed which had once been a couple of loose boxes. The door to this shed was always locked because within it was Ned’s cider press.
“He still does a bit of scrumpy, then?” Joseph asked Aaron.
Aaron nodded. “Well, he’s got the trees, hasn’ ee? There’s special nights, now. Cons’able Hallett caught ‘im a few year back.”
They were about to go back inside. Aaron Pace stopped for a moment, as though a thought had suddenly struck him. “Violet.” He said. “That’s a bad business, isn’ it?”
“Yes, a bad business.”
“’Tweren’t Jack.” Aaron said. “Couldn’t ha’ been.”
Joseph met Aaron’s eyes and saw the sincerity there. “What makes you so sure, Aaron? He was there, after all.”
“Violet.” Aaron said in measured tone. He opened the door, adding over his shoulder as he limped back into the bar: “Things isn’t always how they seems, is they?”
Indoors, the conversation drifted on, and since this was not too long before Dot’s bell called ‘time’, Joseph thought little about what Aaron had said. Later, though, it was to haunt him, and he would sleep less that night for thinking of it.
In the meantime, there was afternoon. Crippled by beer of a quality he had not imbibed in more than a decade, Joseph fell back in one of Aunt Julia’s garden chairs to allow his wounds to heal. Upon the paved area at the rear of their house (Owen refused to call it a ‘patio’) in hazy sunshine this was no great hardship, however, and he raised no objection when Benjy settled fatly onto his lap. He passed some time whistling a new phrase to an interested starling – something he and Michael had been wont to do in earlier years. Was it this simple trick that brought Michael to his mind?
Three months had passed since that fatal car accident which had brought Joseph and his brother Ian to Little Hallbury. Children of their tender years adapt to their surroundings quickly. Memories of their mother and father were already fading, becoming buried beneath layers of new experience. Ian, particularly, accepted his new guardians and was learning how to make them love him. The word ‘manipulate’ would have had no meaning for him then, yet he was already a master of the craft. And the past had left no obvious scars, at least none of a kind that Joseph would notice: oh, there was the little nervous laugh which ended every sentence, the sudden way his mood could change – but nothing untoward: nothing which could be listed as ‘damage’.
Julia spoke to them in a tone the brothers had identified as her ‘serious talk’ mode.
“Now I want you to listen carefully, both of you.”
They adopted their ‘listen carefully’ faces. Only Joseph would know that Ian was trying hard not to giggle.
“Michael will be joining us this weekend.”
What reaction had there been? None.
“The point is, children, he was very badly injured. He is still in a lot of pain, and he won’t be quite…” She drew breath. “He won’t be the little brother you remember. We have to look after him. We have to take care of him. He needs all your love. Do you understand?”
“We’ll try, auntie.” Ian, very solemn. Ian, always knowing the right thing to say.
Michael came on the Saturday afternoon, and, in all fairness, Julia had done her best to prepare his brothers for what would follow – a stranger in a wheelchair, a broken creature, a deformed thing? None of these. No – other than a pronounced limp Michael bore few physical signs of the terrible ordeal he had endured. But inside?
Later, much later, Joseph would learn the truth of that terrible night. How Michael, sole survivor, had to be cut from the wrecked car: of the trauma he had suffered, pinned across the decapitated body of his mother, drenched in her blood. Had he or Ian known these truths that Saturday perhaps they might have behaved differently? Perhaps; but they were, after all, just children. As it was, Ian saw Michael’s injuries, heard the dry rasp in his voice, and he began to laugh. Aunt Julia stepped forward to chide him, would have stepped between Ian and his brother – if Michael’s cracked face had not broadened in an answering grin. The pair started waving mock punches at each other, so Aunt Julia could only protest that they take care – they just laughed the more, and play-fought the harder. Joseph? He could only watch. He could not laugh, or share their joke: he could not join in. Marginalised as always, he hid in the corner of the room and let slip the tears he felt – for Michael? Well maybe, but maybe also for himself.
In fact it took not weeks, or months, but years for the true state of Michael’s hurt to manifest itself. They were years in which he and Ian became the fastest of friends, the closest of brothers. Although right from the day he returned to his family it was acknowledged that Michael’s brain damage had left him ‘a little slow’, and Ian was already showing signs in his education of a brilliant intellect, the two seemed to spark a special kinship in each other: they shared a room and they spent most of their days together. Joseph slept alone in the room next door, and although he listened to their laughter at secret jokes and their muffled play through the partition wall, he rarely joined in.
In the village, whenever the local boys made a show of picking upon Michael, Ian was fiercely protective. Even when Michael went to remedial school the bond did not appear to loosen. At their own secondary school, Ian and Joseph, in different years, went their separate ways but each evening, when Michael came home, Ian lit up once more, and they were instantly close.
The change, when it came, was a thing of high drama – not entirely unexpected, though, because from the age of eleven Michael was a pressure cooker waiting to explode: as his body changed in the natural way of things, so his mind began to unhinge: he began to harbour suspicions, keep secrets: to plot and to plan.
Michael came into Joseph’s room one Friday night; very late. Louis, Julia’s feline companion at the time, was lying upon the bed and Joseph was playing his records – his ‘78s’ – quietly so as not to be heard downstairs when Michael, staring at him darkly, lifted the needle from the deck.
“We’re getting out of here.” He muttered, sotto voce. “You coming?”
Joseph was bemused. “What, now? Who’s ‘we’? Where are we going to go?”
“Ah!” Michael said. “Tell you when. Soon, is when. Ian and I. We’re going over to live with grandma. That’s where. See?”
“You and Ian have arranged this? Why do you want to go to Grandma’s?”
“You don’t know, do you Joey? Her – her downstairs – she’s a devil’s child, her. She’s plotting! Get away before it’s too late, Joey!”
“Devil’s child? Aunt Julia?” Joseph repressed a laugh. “No, Michael. Anyway, why do you want to go to Grandma’s? We haven’t seen her in years!”
“Her! Don’t you see?” Michael’s posture was becoming peculiar, he was crouching nearer and nearer the floor, his stiff leg pushed out behind him, his arms and hands spreading in a smoothing gesture, as though he were stroking some invisible animal. Louis got up with a disdainful look, stretched and stalked from the room.
“She’s keeping Grandma away. She’s hidden us. But we can see it. We know!”
“Well I don’t think she is. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Aunt Julia, and I certainly don’t think she’s in league with Satan. No, you can count me out, Mikey. Go to bed.”
Michael shook his head, then he backed out of the room, wide-eyed as if he were outfacing something which made him afraid. He said nothing more. The following morning on the school bus Joseph asked Ian if he had agreed to Michael’s escape plan, but Ian just laughed.
“He hasn’t said anything to me about escaping.”
There it might have rested. Certainly Michael mentioned nothing further upon the subject of absconding, but it was the first of many schemes, the nature of which became more and more outlandish. Aunt Julia would feature somewhere in them all.
And then there was breakfast on Ian and Joseph’s School Sports Day. This was in the July of Michael’s thirteenth year, when Julia had declared that they would ‘all’ – including Michael – attend. Perhaps Michael feared he would be singled out in his brothers’ company – it was not his school, after all, and his often very apparent eccentricities were conspicuous in unfamiliar crowds. He had been announcing little plots for some time, all designed to keep his Aunt from dragging him to the school sports. Now the day had come, and after an innocent question elicited her determination that they should go, Michael began behaving very oddly indeed. His head lowered to the table, so his chin was almost touching the cloth, and he began glancing to right and left as if he were a beast wary of breaking cover, arms outspread, fingers splayed.
“You shouldn’t go.” His voice was deepened, an obvious attempt at a growl. “My brothers would not like that.”
Ian did one of his suppressed giggles.
“Don’t include me, then!” Joseph said brightly: “I want you to come, Auntie!”
Julia, realising that he referred to neither Ian nor Joseph, was clearly disturbed. “Who are your brothers, Michael? Why won’t they want us there?”
Michael slid from the chair, crouching. “They won’t want because I don’t want! I command them – I command the pack!” He slunk close to the corner of the table, an imitation; Joseph was sure, of how he imagined a wolf would behave. Michael had flirted briefly both with Wolf Cubs and the local Boy Scouts (briefly because they made it fairly obvious they did not want him. There had been an evening visit to Uncle Owen and Aunt Julia by the ‘Pack Leader’ – Brian Holland – the subject of which was never discussed with either Ian or Joe).
“Pack, dear?” Julia asked.
“Wolves!” Michael announced with high drama. “Giant wolves with yellow eyes and slavering fangs!” He looked up at Ian as if he expected support. Ian just giggled. Michael screamed, “My wolves!”
There was silence. The boys’ uncle Owen had already left for work. Julia seemed at a loss for anything to say. It was Joseph who eventually stepped in, calmed Michael down, and manoeuvred him up to his bedroom. Neither Michael nor Julia went to the school sports that year. Instead, at Julia’s request, her husband returned from work. Together, she and Owen set about the difficult task of acknowledging that Michael’s pain was too great for them to share.
© 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: Dekorasyon on Unsplash.