The story so far:
Having fled from his life in the big city, Joseph Palliser is re-establishing himself in the village where he grew up and renewing the acquaintance of people from his past, but it is clear his Uncle Owen, particularly, and Charker Smith, who lives in a neighbouring village, are unwilling to accept him.
Joseph’s attempts at explanation for the failures of his time in London seem to put extraordinary pressure upon him, causing him to faint, or black out, when Owen raises questions about Marian, the woman he has claimed to be his wife. Recovering, he admits he was never married to Marian.
Joseph adjusted his position in his chair uneasily. The truth, or at least a scintilla of it, was finally out.
“I wrote you I had got married, and I used Marian’s name, but our relationship wasn’t a marriage, it was an arrangement. I knew you wouldn’t understand that.”
“You’re right,” Owen snorted. “I don’t.”
Joseph could see in Julia’s face that she, at least, did. How could he explain, describe, justify Marian to someone as morally inflexible as Owen? Were there even words? He wanted to say mercurial, or brilliant, or beautiful: to eulogise (how curious his mind should search out that word!) her figure, her fever-bright eyes, her indomitable determination, but he could not. Any more than he could convey his feelings when he woke that cold November morning, warm between sheets of dark red silk – away from the chill reality of his tiny, colourless bed-sitting room; away from his tiny, colourless life.
“The world is changing, Uncle. There are a lot of people like Marian.”
When she walked into the room; when, through the fog of morning, he really saw her for the first time, their first encounter – he remembered that so clearly, down through all the years.
“Well, you’re still alive?”
He had been drunk, so very drunk the night before. Someone – someone with perfectly manicured, unvarnished nails:
“This bowl? Here? Come on, let’s try and catch it, shall we?”
And obligingly his stomach had delivered; obligingly and repeatedly, until sleep came. Then nothing until…
His leaden brain had cleared slowly. He was lying on a large, luxuriously comfortable bed in a room he did not recognise. Cerise walls, kidney-shaped dressing table, a chaise upholstered with powder-blue cloth and lots of fashionable chintz. An aggressively feminine room, as he then thought.
The woman in a white bathrobe who addressed him from the doorway had eyes which in the distance and light looked a steely black, but which later he would see were the blue of midnight. Her straight dark hair framed a small-featured, resolute face with porcelain-pale skin. A petite, almost gamine creature who, if she was older than he, showed it neither in pallor nor figure: she was as fresh-looking and vital as any girl of nineteen or twenty years, yet there was an authority about her; a confidence that could only come with time. She was surveying him with a half-amused expression.
“I’m Marian – Marian Brubaeker. My god you were pissed! Can I get you anything – stomach powders; aspirin?”
He shook off some of the fog. “No, thank you. Although if I could use some coffee…”
Marian came closer so he could catch a first breath of her scent. It was delicate, a cultured perfume. It was expensive.
“Coffee, of course. Come with me and I’ll show you where things are. Then you can make us both a mug and I can come in here and get dressed…”
There was a wedding ring. “Does your husband mind my staying over?”
Marian’s laugh was internalised and tiny – almost a hiccup: “Dear boy, my husband doesn’t know you stayed over. Nor will he. He has a somewhat narrow perspective on such things.”
Although the figure he followed – out into a short passage, through another door – was spare and lithe, Joseph was never in doubt of Marian’s power: she exuded it effortlessly; it was part of her. Even in his heavy, hung-over state he found himself admiring the grace of her walk, the smoothed sway of her hips. Already he was thinking of her in terms of those dark red sheets.
The kitchen was simple, practical. It was also very neat. Marian’s fingers played over the components for making coffee then left Joseph while she ‘slipped into something more suitable’. By the time she returned coffee was waiting in two mugs. Her business clothes – “I have to go to work, I’m afraid” – gave the same impression of trim simplicity as her kitchen: a two-piece suit of warm blue mohair, a striking red blouse open just enough to hint at cleavage, a pair of expensive heels to match the suit.
She saw his eyes approving her, so she performed a quick twirl: “what do you think?”
“The suit makes you look older.”
This time her laughter was a more expressive snort: “I didn’t mean you to be truthful! Is this my coffee?”
She perched beside him at her breakfast bar.
“I actually think you are very beautiful,” Joseph said.
“That’s better.” She said. Her fingers reached out and touched his hand, hesitantly; then quickly moved away. “Justyn told me your name was Joe. Are you Joe?”
“Yes. Thank you for looking after me last night. I behaved like a pig.”
“I’m not sure Cara was very impressed. You had better call her and grovel a little, I think.”
“A lost cause. She deserves better than me.”
Marian stared into her cup. “We don’t always get what we deserve, Joe.” She held her silence for a moment, then shrugged slightly. “Well, I’ll leave you to find your way home now. Just make sure the lock catches when you close the door, could you?”
That was all. Marian walked out of her flat and out of Joe’s life. He had no reason to believe he would ever see her again.
A week later a telephone call to the hallway of his latest Bayswater burrow found him packing his suitcase for the next in a series of moonlight flits. A female cockney voice bawled up through the network of bare wood staircases to his fifth floor. “Call for Palliser, anybody?”
“Joe?” The voice was Marian’s:
He was breathless from the stairs. “How did you find me again?” He asked her.
“Your temp agency gave me your address. Would you like to come to dinner?”
He ironed his one respectable shirt: he put on his only smart suit. When he rang Marian’s doorbell he hadn’t eaten for twelve hours and he had walked to Earls Court from Bayswater. He was unemployed, broke, and uncertain where he would sleep the next night.
“Hello Joe; it’s good to see you,” Marian said. She was wearing a short, low-cut green dress.
“You look ravishing.” He told her.
“And you look as though you called by on your way to a funeral.” She responded. “But that doesn’t matter, Joe. You’re here, that’s all that matters.”
He should not have had qualms: after all, he was warm that night for the first time in a week and he ate more in one hour than he had eaten for most of the week; but still he wondered: “What do you see in me, Marian? I can’t be important to you.”
She rose from her seat, came around the table to replenish his wine. She stood close beside him, bending so that, should he just move his head a little, he would brush the soft flesh of her arm.
“You are, Joe. Do I have to have reasons? I suppose I do. As to what I see in you, I see someone who is not very good alone: someone who needs support and company. Look at me and you will see the same things, though my reasons may be different. I like your company, Joe. You might even say I need it. And I could do with your support.” Marian returned to her seat, flashing him an impish look. “Will that do?”
He shook his head.
“I’m lonely.” She said quietly: “Now, will that do?”
That was where their love-making began – at that table, that night: and the beginning of the journey was neither comfortable nor promising. He was overawed by her; he was clumsy, lacking in art. She was patient, he was impatient. At its quivering, uncoordinated conclusion Marian declared their first encounter ‘interesting’. Joe, aware of his capacity to disappoint, mentally prepared himself for a long walk home.
“And where exactly will you go? After that little episode, young man, I’d say you have a lot to learn. I have an intensive course in mind, if you are prepared to study hard – are you?”
It was a Rubicon, a point of no return. Joseph might have, should have, turned back then. He did try. He fumbled with words: “I have to leave my flat, so I don’t know where I’ll be after tomorrow; I could end up anywhere, possibly even dossing.” That was true, although it was the first time he had allowed himself to contemplate it.
“The course I have in mind is residential. Now, come back to my bed, Joe. Let’s leave this talk of vagrancy until the morning.”
All sorts of contrary arguments passed through Joe’s mind, of course, not least among which was that gold ring on Marian’s finger. But she was right: he had nowhere to go, nowhere warm for any night beyond this. Marian’s gentle touch, her warm body against his back, the soft silk beneath and above him, was unanswerable. Sinking back into her arms and hidden as he thought from her ministrations he allowed himself that moment of contentment; and with her cheek pressed to his she felt it too, as together they dreamed themselves into sleep.
So their intimacy grew. Joe became the sort of tenant who never pays rent. Marian owned the building, keeping the top floor flat for herself and renting the ground floor shop to a commercial tenant. The flat on the first floor, which she had originally intended to offer to one of her business managers, was empty. Joe moved into it when Marian returned home to her husband for Christmas.
As relationships begin, it was the worst of beginnings. Those who witnessed its formation were few, mostly colleagues of Marian’s at work, but they might have expressed cynicism at the difference in their ages, as well as Joe’s obvious reliance upon Marian’s wealth. Who knew when all that began to change for Joe: when was the definitive moment he fell in love with Marian? That, though, was how it happened. That is how the story was composed.
“That’s it. That’s how it happened.”
Joseph looked at his adoptive parents: no, he could not show them Marian through his eyes. They could not visualise her tears when she was immersed in a Thomas Hardy novel, or her elation at a simple gift: they wouldn’t be able to encompass her frustration: the way a thoughtless employee or an act of discourtesy could penetrate her seemingly impregnable façade and leave her hurt and alone but for his consoling arms. No, they would see another side.
“Marian’s husband lived in Sussex.” He told them. “She stayed in London all week, at the flat in Earls Court, while I lived in a second flat downstairs her husband knew nothing about. I – we – spent most of our time there, or in hotels when she was travelling. We did a great deal of travelling. Hotel rooms were where she felt the most alone.
“She gave me money. Housekeeping, gifts sometimes, you know? I was always to be well dressed so she paid for clothes. Over the years I’ve saved quite a bit, actually. I don’t think she knew that. But now, it’s…well, it ended last month. When it happened, I had a sort of breakdown, I think. I had a couple of these episodes in town, and saw a doctor who prescribed rest. That was when I telephoned you.”
Aunt Julia shook her head: “Joey, I really don’t understand…”
“Why not?” Owen retorted. “It’s quite simple, woman. He’s a bloody gigolo!”
“Oh, Oz!” Julia remonstrated. “Look, Joey, whatever you did, I’m sure it was for the best of reasons. You must stay for as long as you want: re-charge your batteries, dear. Yes, that’s it. We are just happy to have you here, aren’t we, Oz?”
Joseph could see quite clearly that his uncle was not happy, but Owen bit his tongue.
Joe languished for a while, drinking in Julia’s attention, sipping tea and trying to describe more of his London time to her. But there were things he did not want to tell her or anyone, and she was, in her roundabout fashion, quite inquisitive. She persisted in returning to the subject of his relationship with Ian, which was one of those areas. So, around lunchtime, he excused himself on the pretext of needing some air.
For who knew what reason his feet took him along the path across Wednesday Common to stand in front of the old Parkin farmyard. There was, he thought, a sort of natural ruin about the old house and its tumbling stone barns – a biodegradability which was appropriate, somehow.
The farmyard, or that part of it visible from the path, formed a rectangle once defended by a rough stone wall some four and a half feet in height. There were several breaches now, however, and the rotted five-bar access gate hung open, jammed by the grass overgrowing those remnants of flagstones which, in more prosperous times, had formed the paved floor of the yard. To the left a large stone barn in relatively good repair formed the boundary, rented by the Manor Farm for storage of hay. The rear of the yard was fringed by buildings in a lesser state, a half-open flagstone-roofed shed, historically a smithy, at one end; a long, rendered barn which had once contained loose-boxes at the other: the doors to the loose boxes remained, five in number, gaping or drooping in various stages of disrepair.
Between smithy and barn was the dairy, constructed from random rubble and never large enough to house more than five or six beasts, although no milking or churning had taken place here in many years. Behind that large pair of doors was where Violet Parkin had been found – in there, if you cut through the police tapes and warnings, her blood would still lie sticky on the slabs of the stall where they found her – where they released her from the pitchforks that held her erect.
At the right-hand corner of the yard the farmhouse lay like a sleeping dog, its dark old walls, once whitewashed but now grey with lichen, beginning to bulge and spread where the sagging roof bore down upon them. Tiny, sightless windows, unfathomably black, were stabbed randomly into the walls like snake-eyes beneath the heavy brow of the tiles. It had been a comfortably-sized house – maybe three or four upstairs rooms: Joseph wondered how many of them had doors that would even open now – where the Parkins had slept, if they slept upstairs at all.
“She delivered me, you know.” Emma’s voice, so sudden in the silence, made Joseph start.
“I didn’t know,” Joseph said. “How long have you been standing there?”
“Long enough.” Emma’s words were clipped, almost nervous. “Vi Parkin: she brought me into the world. I’m not just saying.”
She was simply dressed, in a pale blue t-shirt and denim jeans. The t-shirt had a v-neck. Joseph realised he was staring at her cleavage. He snatched his eyes hurriedly away.
“Sorry! Of course not. I mean, of course you’re not. She was a midwife, then, was she? I didn’t know that.”
“Lord no. There wasn’t no midwife around, so Vi did it. She delivered a few round here. What makes you interested in ‘un, anyway?”
Joe shook his head. He really had no answer. It was the question he had begun to put to himself. Violet and Jack Parkin meant very little, other than a memory. Why, when all was said and done, should he care?
“I suppose because it doesn’t fit. After all, why would anyone want to murder someone – because they owed them money perhaps, or for some sort of revenge, or even jealousy? I shouldn’t think Violet was a debtor, and – well, I suppose she was a bit fierce, but I can’t ever see her rubbing up somebody so badly they’d want to kill her. As for jealousy; Jack and Violet were together all their lives, and honestly, if he’d caught Violet in bed with someone else I doubt if he’d even notice.” The thought brought a smile. The idea of Violet attracting any male attention he thought inconceivable, but he liked the image it conjured in his mind. “Oh sod it! Now I’m going to have to apologise again! I didn’t mean to be disrespectful.”
“It’s alright. I don’t believe it either!” Emma stood beside Joseph, as if by doing so she might see with his eyes. “Joe, why’d you come back?”
He could catch the faint scent of musk on her breath: he knew if he just turned to meet her stare; if he looked down into those pools of brilliant green he would…oh, god, what would he do? “Didn’t I say?” He muttered. “I wanted to renew my acquaintance with this place – I grew up here, after all.”
Emma was silent for a moment. In the trees behind the buildings, a blackbird struck up an alarm, as if a sparrow hawk were near. Then she said: “Tom doesn’t know. He thinks he do but he don’t. And you’re not to say anything, Joe – not anything, you understand?”
Joe nodded. He understood.
Emma looked up into his face, just long enough to betray the tiny lines of begun tears around her eyes.
“You shouldn’t have come back here, Joey Palliser. Best you were gone.”
She walked away then, hands plunged into her jeans pockets, head down. Joseph’s eyes followed her small figure as it retreated, watched her until she turned the corner into Feather Lane. A decade was suddenly no time at all.
That afternoon Joseph was fulfilling his promise to Owen, helping him to earth up his potatoes when his aunt’s voice shrilled from the kitchen door.
“Oz, Joe! Come inside, both of you. The police are here!”
Joseph Palliser’s heart missed several beats.
© 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.