The Story so Far:
Succumbing to the temptations of Ned Barker’s famous beer at The Kings Head pub Joseph Palliser has lunched not wisely but too well.
As he relaxes beneath an alcoholic haze of beer and warm sun in his Uncle’s garden, he recalls the time his younger brother Michael became ill, and the terrible circumstances that brought his family to Hallbury.
A remark by Aaron Pace, one of his drinking companions, is preying on his mind. Can Jack, Violet’s drunken husband, be innocent of his wife’s murder? With time hanging heavily on his hands, he decides to investigate for himself.
After Michael’s act of defiance on the morning of his brothers’ School Sports Day his behaviour became more and more irrational, and he alternated between short stays in hospital and time at home. Then, early in February on the week of his fourteenth birthday, Michael stole a billhook from a local farmer, which he used to threaten a courting couple in a car parked on the village common. As a result, Michael had to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act, and everyone agreed there was no longer any alternative to residential care. He did not return, then, to Little Hallbury, for many years.
Lazing in the back garden of his erstwhile home, Joseph wondered if that was the moment when he and his older brother Ian finally sealed their pact of mutual dislike – whether Michael’s departure had so affected Ian that he decided to put his family behind him as soon as possible: to move on.
Where would Michael be now; Joseph wondered? They had lost touch many years since. although – intrigued by the thought, he opened his eyes, shaking off his alcoholic mantle – a memory of Michael might remain here even yet. Easing a reluctant Benjy from his lap he persuaded himself to rise and follow a dirt footpath which led through his Uncle Owen’s lovingly-tended vegetable garden, around the garage by stands of tomato plants, to the high garden wall with its row of espaliered plums. At the end, just before its south-east corner, there was a section of wall much older than the rest. Joseph counted from the top to the fifth brick from the end on the twelfth row down. It was loose; it slipped out easily.
And there, nestling in the cavity was a little piece of wood, a tiny carved effigy with a crudely whittled head, long arms and a stumpy body. The back of the brick was covered in scrawled letters which Michael would have insisted was a secret code; for it was he who had carved the effigy, one of many concealed about the house which he swore, in his torment, were the root of his ‘power’.
“I shall rule these people.” He had said in the low growling voice which became so characteristic of his last semi-rational phase. “You are all my pack!”
Joseph shook his head sadly, replacing the talisman and the brick. Maybe he was right, he thought. In a way, maybe we are.
“I think,” Sarah said; “It’s a little bit sad.”
Joseph had opened one eye, squinting against the sun. “What is?”
“O.K. Marty Bignall.” He opened the other eye, turned sideways. Sarah was propped on her elbows, gently chivvying a large red and black caterpillar with a stem of grass. “What made you think of him?”
“My beliefs.” She treated Joseph to a superior smile, shifting the attention of the grass-stem to the end of his nose. She had been a Buddhist since the beginning of June. “You see, I believe we come back – after we die, you know?”
“Yes. You told me.”
“Well, Marty Bignall ate himself to death, didn’t he? Just kept eating and eating? And now here he is.”
Joseph glanced at the caterpillar. “So you think that’s Marty?”
“I’m certain of it. He was always hanging around me, the dirty old man. I thought when he died I’d got rid of him. But no, he’s still hanging around.”
“If it is, he’s getting what he wanted,” Joseph replied. “From there, he can see right down your blouse.”
“Oh! He can’t, can he?” Sarah feigned alarm, shifting sideways. “There! That’s solved that little problem. Although…” She pushed herself upward, allowing her neckline to tease, “although now I suppose you can, can’t you?”
Joseph grinned at her and nodded dumbly. Sarah was an unselfconscious young woman, aware of her gifts. He did not object. It was an affirmation of their familiar friendship, a toe dipping in the deeper pool of love.
“It’s so beautiful today!” Sarah looked around, taking in the horizon of trees, the acres of long grass and fern. “Do you think if I lay flat I could take this off and tan my back?”
Joseph nodded. “No-one ever comes to this part of the common.” They were in a place they had made their own, one that he had known since childhood – at the far end of Wednesday Common, beyond the road and nearly a mile from the village. To get here they had waded through long grass, away from the track. “You’ll have to move Marty first, though.”
Plucking ‘Marty’s’ leaf gently, Sarah put the caterpillar aside, then unbuttoned her blouse, and chuckled at Joseph as he averted his eyes.
“Ow! Prickly!” She complained. And, after a pause: “Are you keeping your shirt on?” Then, in a darker voice: “What are you doing?”
Joseph stirred at the memory. What was he doing? Taking her shoulder, rolling her so she was open to his gaze, falling upon her so, so clumsily! Sarah, far from displeased, tumbling with him and laughing at his ineptitude, until…
“No, Joey!” All at once afraid of herself. “No, Joey, please?”
And he wanted her: oh, he so wanted her! He might have taken her then, or any of those precious, remembered times; had he been other than the boy he was. But the boy he was loved her, and would not hurt her no matter how powerful the desire. So he had sighed and fallen back, to lie dreaming next to her in the grass.
Tonight, somewhere between dream and memory, Joseph turned sideways and opened his eyes, almost believing he would see Sarah beside him in his bed. One time, just one time in all their years of growing together, they had completed their act of love. It was a struggling, desperate thing made wonderful by the powder-keg of their passion: her gift to him, as though she knew that before they parted forever there must be a moment that would be kept sacred in their hearts – a memory for them both.
How could Sarah have understood the yoke it would place on those young shoulders, or how he would wander through life, fruitlessly seeking her image in every new face? After all, it had been he who had insisted they finish their relationship.
On the platform waiting for her London train. There to see her off to her new life – there to say goodbye.
“I’m not going to write – no point. You’ll make new friends, forget….”
She had cried, of course – Sarah would – but she agreed. And no, though he hoped against hope, waited for the post every day for a year, she did not write. And no, though the first thing he did when he arrived in London was to search for her, she was nowhere to be found.
Yes, he could blame Sarah. Joseph lay still, making the act of will he always made that would blank her from his mind for another few hours. He might try to sleep, now. His old bed, his old room: the old house, talking to him – a living thing, not of bricks and plasterboard, but of stone hewn from the earth itself with all its history to carry with it. Never silent, always talking. As if the ancient spirits which once walked upon those rocks were constantly returning to find their way again, going from room to room searching out each footprint in turn, from a stone in the walls to the flagstones of a floor. They groaned their frustration, clicked their pleasure, creaked as they passed. The wind was their breath, whining through lungs encrusted by the dust of time. But they were not malevolent ghosts – they were friends, friends he remembered.
“Things isn’t always how they seems, is they?”
Aaron’s crooked face, coming to him in the dark; another, very different ghost. What made him think of that? Joseph had never really liked Violet Parkin; few people did. ‘Liking’ was not a verb that applied to that formidable woman. ‘Respect’ felt more apt. Nobody deserved to die that way, especially if their agelessness was so vital to a place and its identity. This little village would be the poorer now she was gone. Well, he had nothing but time, and it might be worse spent than by enquiring further into Violet’s demise. Joseph sailed into the ocean of the night with Aaron perched like a parrot on his shoulder.
It was Tuesday morning. Word of Jack Parkin’s arrest for murder had reached the breakfast table. It animated Julia.
“Oz, you don’t think he could possibly be guilty, do you? I know he’s a drunkard and all that, dear, but murder?”
Owen glanced over the top of his paper, and over the top of his glasses, and over the top of Julia’s head. “Guilty as sin. Hang the old bugger! And get that bloody cat off the table!” He raised the Daily Telegraph curtain again.
Jack Parkin’s drunkenness had warranted his eviction from The King’s Head many years before, forcing him to drink in the nearby village of Fettsham; which he did with relentless regularity and in copious amounts. In earlier days, when Joseph was still quite new to the village, Jack had possessed a horse which knew its way down the turnpike road to Fettsham as well as he knew it himself; so that when it was time to return home, dead drunk, he would just clamber aboard and hold onto the bridle, allowing his horse to do the navigating. More than once he fell off, to be found asleep by the roadside the next morning with the horse in patient attendance. In recent years, after the horse had gone to its maker, a bicycle had become his vehicle of transmission. The bicycle having no independent sense of direction, when Jack was too sozzled to steer he merely leant against the hedge, still perched on its saddle, and slept. Could Jack be capable of murder?
After breakfast Joseph took a walk in the garden, breathing in the morning. The air in Hallbury had a sweetness that tasted, a substance of vitality he had so missed in the smoke of London. It was good to savour it again. The sun was already well above the east wall when, feeling particularly aimless, he took a cup of coffee to sit at the little oak table in the yard. Owen was already there.
“I’m going to earth up those ‘lates’ this afternoon.” He said over his ‘paper as Joseph pulled up a chair. “You can help me, Joseph. Might as well earn your keep.”
Joseph nodded. He had noticed the four rows of potatoes at the bottom of the garden. He did not relish shovelling dirt in the hot sun, but Owen had made a point.
A bee circled above the table for a while, confused by heat from the coffee cup. Benjy, ever attentive, took a speculative swipe at it. Aunt Julia, who was watching through the kitchen window, went into a minor panic.
“Oz! Don’t let Benjy catch the bees! Don’t! Stop him, dear!”
As he pushed an indignant Benjy from the table, Owen asked: “When are you going to tell us?”
“You. Why you’re here. Don’t hear from you for donkey’s years, then suddenly here you are. What’s happened Joseph?”
“Does anything have to have happened? Suppose I just wanted to see you both again – felt homesick, or something?”
Owen shook his head. “This was never your home. We tried to make it your home, in the beginning; but you never quite fitted in.”
No, Joseph thought. His head was hurting: pain, like an old friend coming to his rescue. Ian was the one who ‘fitted in’.
“So why have you come back?” Owen persisted. “I’m interested. I want to know how long we’re going to have to put up with you. What does Marian have to say about you just miking off by yourself?”
“Marian?” This was the attack he had half-hoped would never come. Of course they would ask him about Marian – how should they not? Joseph felt his mind closing down on him, the way it did so often lately, the way it did whenever Marian’s name was mentioned. Soon, the blankness would come and he would not be able to answer or remember anything. Where he had been, what he had said, what he had done. Stress, the doctor had told him, but the doctor had no idea – none!
“Marian doesn’t mind.” With a conscious effort he focussed. “She has her own interests.”
“She’s your wife, boy! Of course she’ll mind! Have you called her? Does she know you’ve arrived here safely?”
Marian – strange how he had managed not even to think of her, for nearly a week now, not since he stepped off the train at Abbots Friscombe – how he had succeeded in losing himself, shutting down that corner of his mind. He was drifting.
“Not any more. She isn’t …with me, anymore.”
“You’ve separated? Good god, lad! Heaven knows, you never were much use for anything, but I thought you’d make a go of marriage, at least! What did you do?”
The constant accusations, the assumption, always, that the fault was his. “Do? I didn’t do anything…anything…”
He did not seem to have moved, yet his cup of coffee had gone. Aunt Julia was bent over him, her eyes full of concern.
“Joe, are you alright? Oz, what have you done? Do you need a doctor? Shall I call you a doctor, dear?”
He was mouthing something – doctor not needed – just faint: maybe the heat? His head felt foggy, he couldn’t think. In the background Owen’s eyes watched him, and he knew that Owen missed nothing.
“You passed out, darling. We were beside ourselves!”
They gave him tea, offered an ice-pack. Julia rigged a parasol over the table, insisting he have shade. “You’re to take plenty of rest, Joe: but I suppose that’s why you came, didn’t you – to get away? Perhaps, when you’re ready, you could tell us the whole story, dear. I think we ought to know.”
“I believe we all need a drink.” Said Owen, with finality.
So Joseph told them his story. Or he tried. He put ten years into five minutes like a genie into a bottle, hoping to absolve himself from all the guilt he felt. It was an evil, malicious genie; a creature of black spells and vicious deeds, and it had things to say. It stared at him through the glass, waiting for the release it knew must come.
“In London – you know – the job wasn’t what they promised. Oh, I tried it for a while, closeted in a little back office like a battery hen; but it didn’t work out. I wasn’t good enough to rise above it, I guess. So I was out within six months, looking for work.”
The things he could not admit. Why he was sacked – why he didn’t go to work but went looking for Sarah; was there some kind of desperation in that? He did not find her: Sarah had left her musical training after only a term: some said she had gone to America with a band, others that she had moved to Scotland; but nobody really knew.
“I tried all sorts of stuff: if there was a pay-day at the end, I did it. I sold encyclopaedias, repaired office machinery, worked as a temp for a modelling agency. I did some – other things: I don’t want to give you details. Meanwhile, I wrote to you about forming a new business and how well I was doing: it was all rubbish, really. I was one step away from eviction: in fact, a couple of times I was evicted. I ended up in a bed-sit in Bayswater: more rats than tenants.”
Julia interrupted: “Why on earth didn’t you go to Ian, Joe? He would have been glad to help!”
Joseph shook his head. “Too proud, I suppose. After I wrote to you about my business successes I was sure you would have spoken to him so I would have been found out. But for all that, I had one stroke of what I suppose you could call luck. Up there, if you get a chance, you grab it with both hands and I did.
“I made a casual acquaintance with one of the models from the agency: we dated, off and on. Cara was in with the circuit, so, for a while, I joined it too; went to some parties; got to learn how the so-called jet set live, and in a strange way, I think I fitted in. There was a night at Maxim’s, a club on the King’s Road when I was quite drunk. We had a fight and Cara left. Marian rescued me; took me home.”
“Marian, your wife?” Owen asked.
“The same, Uncle; but…” Joe hesitated, reluctant to frame the words.
“But what?” Owen wanted to know.
He wasn’t to be let off the hook so easily. Taking a deep breath, Joe said: “But Marian was never my wife.”
© 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.