The story so far:
After an uncomfortable encounter with the police, Joseph Palliser decides to visit Michael, his younger brother, who is resident in a nursing home; but the ‘bus trip which takes him there evokes harsh memories of his bullied childhood, and his involvement in the car accident which killed his tormentor, Rodney Smith (Charker Smith’s brother). He is reminded of this, and the subsequent rumours which drove him into leaving Hallbury all those years ago, as the ‘bus passes the place where the accident happened.
Joe remembers his first car and the modifications he made which led to his implication in Rodney’s end. If he were to try to forget there are others in Rodney’s home village of Abbots Frsicombe ready to remind him, like village busybody Mary Harkus,. She warns Joe to beware of Charker…
By the time the bus reached Maddockgate, its holidaymaking passengers’ faith had been repaid. The rain had stopped. Over hills which rose steeply across the southern horizon a watery sun elbowed its way through the clouds, endowing wet-leaved hedges with a welcome sparkle. Joseph quitted the bus here at a request stop on the corner of Manor Lane beside a telephone box. A discreet white signpost declared that Maddockgate Manor Nursing Home was a half-mile away, so he set off up the lane with a spring in his step.
‘The Gate’ was a large Victorian manor house of red sandstone standing upon a rise in five acres of its own grounds. Despite its grim age it was far from the worst place to be sheltered if you were one of those who society deemed insane. The dayroom Joseph was shown into had freshly painted walls and large bay windows through which what sun there was shone a welcome. The leather chairs looked comfortable and there was a studious, subdued air about its five inmates who, distributed about the room, were each engrossed in something, though precisely what might have been hard to define.
“Michael,” The nurse called. “Look who’s come to see you!”
He rose from an oxblood red winged chair at the end of the room; a tall, gaunt figure with scant, wispy brown hair and a patch over one eye, upon whose face flesh was tensioned like canvas on a stretcher. It was an old canvas, that face, painted by a master perhaps: lined and faded with wide mouth slashed darkly across it as though opened by a knife. His check shirt, covered in turn by a yellow V-neck pullover drooped about a thin neck and long, bent body. Baggy grey trousers went the rest of the way to the floor, revealing the toes of tartan slippers peeking furtively from beneath their turn-ups.
Joseph barely recognised that wasted figure: he had to try hard to remember that Michael was younger than him. Yet, for all his physical impoverishment, Michael had a certain nobility about him, the bearing of a gentleman not favoured by fortune. He waved Joseph regally to a chair on his right.
“Welcome, stranger! Come and sit before me.”
It was clear that Michael did not know who he was, Joseph thought. And why should he? Drawing closer, he could see his scars had faded considerably from childhood days, although the long one which had all but taken out one eye was still obvious. It vanished behind the eye patch to re-emerge below it, a savage weald he guessed would never go.
“Do you bring news from the east?” Michael enquired anxiously: “Come, tell me at once. Are our armies lost?”
“Michael, I didn’t come from the east. Well, not today, anyway.”
“Damn! So they have us! I’ll have to break it to the men.” Michael sat back in his chair, this time crossing his legs as though they were upon a large cushion and saying, in a thick Arabian accent: “Sit with me. You honour my tent.” Then, with startling clarity: “What brings you here, then, Joseph?”
Joe’s face must have shown his relief. Michael gave a slow chuckle. “Well, you expect it, don’t you? Coming in here, I mean? Got to give my public what they want to see. Jesus, Joey, how many years has it been? I barely recognised you.”
Joseph returned his brother’s smile. “Too many,” he said; “too many. How do they treat you here? Are you well?”
“I’ve been ill from time to time, who isn’t? Medication, Joey; that’s the answer for everything here. Avoiding medication is the secret of happiness, I’ve found. They teach you that.”
“How do you mean?”
“Tell me, dearest brother; what do you think of this place? Pleasant – airy? It is, of course, if you pass through here for a day. You might even stay for a week and find it educational, at the very least: soft bed, a radio in your room. But if you stay here for a year, five years, seventeen years….” Michael leaned forward, speaking confidentially. His breath had a slight menthol smell. “You count the blemishes in the paint on the walls. You know intimately every leaf on every bush in that garden, you know everything about everybody who cries in the middle of the night and it’s a bloody prison, then.” He sat back. “But you don’t protest. You don’t raise your voice. If you do, you’re ill, so you must have medication. Medication messes with your head, it twists up your nerves and makes you wild inside but you can’t do anything. Illness is a crime in here, and medication is the punishment: a sort of perverse Christian Science, if you like. You met the matron on your way in, I expect? Frau Forster? I call her Mary Baker Eddie – got away with it to her face for years, until she looked it up one day. I was medicated for a week.
Michael’s face split in a thin smile. “But things aren’t so bad now. I don’t get ill very often, and I’m allowed out, you know. I have friends in Marsden where I can go and stay for a few days if I want. And from time to time I can take myself on days out if I’m good. So, you – where have you been all this time? What have you been doing with yourself?”
Joseph knew the question was coming, of course. He re-told the story he had given to Julia and Owen, leaving nothing out.
When he had finished, Michael nodded sagely. “Children of demons.”
The remark took Joseph aback: “What?”
“Demon-spawn: they feed on us, Joey. They’re everywhere.”
It was the first serious intimation Michael had given that he was still unwell. Joseph disguised his reaction to it as best he might by managing a bleak smile. “True.” He said. He was beginning to wonder why he had come.
Together the brothers opened the scrapbook of their respective memories, sharing recollections of the past, speaking a little of the present, but never of the future. Because, Joe would have to acknowledge, Michael did not have a future he would want to discuss. There was no further mention of predatory demons.
Something interested Joseph. “You haven’t asked about Ian.” He said.
Michael returned him a blank, almost glazed look. “No.”
“Why not? He’s doing very well for himself, he’s….”
Michael cut him short. “There are some things in here; things close to you, you have to forget. Memories are bad for you, Joey.” It was as though he had slammed a door. There was obviously no room for further talk about their elder brother.
“Oh, I have some hot local news!” Joseph tried to restore some lost ground: “You remember Violet Parkin, the big woman who used to do all that stuff for the church? She’s been murdered, Mikey! What do you think of that?”
Whatever reaction he had anticipated, it was not the reaction he was given.
“Ah.” Michael said. His head began to nod in affirmation; not quite naturally. It was an exaggerated, almost stylised movement. “That I do know.”
“Really?” Joseph said, very carefully: “Who told you?”
Michael’s eyes met his own with a look in them that was remote, as if he were staring at something inside himself. “There are things I know. You must accept that.” He spread his arms, slowly raising them above his shoulders, hands limp and drooping, as if in crucifixion. With horror Joseph realised he was imitating the position in which Violet Parkin’s body was discovered.
“How do you….”
Michael dropped his arms, raised a hand in a quieting gesture: “There are things I know.”
“I see.” Joseph chose his words. “So do you know why she had to die? Because that’s what puzzles me, Mikey – what could a woman like that have done to get herself killed?”
“Who have you spoken to about this? It’s vitally important!”
“Oh, most of the village, I suppose. Everyone wants to discuss it. Why, Mikey? I barely knew the woman. And why is it vital? And how the hell do you ‘know’?”
“I just do.” Michael’s thin features were almost lupine; had Joseph noticed that before? Or was his face changing? His hands had begun to twitch, stretching their long, skeletal fingers and curling. He had begun that strange smoothing gesture he had shown to Aunt Julia once, at a breakfast table, a long time ago.
“Look, Michael, I don’t want to distress you. Let’s change the subject, yes?”
“I’m not distressed, brother – not for me. I’m distressed for you; for all you once knew and you’ve now forgotten; for the Earth-Lore that was yours to take and is lost now. You left the pack, didn’t you? You should have stayed. In the pack you learn. It teaches you your place in the order of things, who is first to the kill; who takes the first bite. Oh, the glory in that first bite, Joe! I know because they’ve tried to keep me away – tried for years. They try, Joey! They don’t know the pack is inside me. They can’t know!”
A quiet voice spoke at Joseph’s shoulder. “Mr Palliser? I think we ought to let Michael rest for a while if you don’t mind?”
Joseph nodded. “I’m going now, Mikey. I’ll be back soon, though, Okay?”
There was no other description to fit it: Michael bared his teeth. “Talk to Ned Barker.” He growled. “Talk to him, Joey. Do it before it’s too late!”
The nurse, a pretty, petite girl in a neat blue uniform, led Joseph from the room. She gave a meaningful nod to a male nurse who encountered them at the door.
“We’ll take good care of your brother, Mr Palliser; don’t worry. He gets excited like this sometimes. It soon passes.”
“Is there a doctor around – anyone who can explain his symptoms?”
“I’m not allowed to discuss the patients. I’ll see if Doctor Bernowski’s available, if you’d like to wait?”
Bernowski was a man of challenged stature, with piercing eyes behind rimless spectacles. “You are fortunate to catch me, Mr Palliser. I have much to do, you see?”
“Thank you for sparing me the time. What is wrong with Michael?”
Bernowski shrugged. “Essentially he is brain-damaged – his malady is a legacy of the accident in his childhood, and the trauma associated with it: as to its manifestation, in these cases it is so difficult to say. Often we work for years and years and never find a cause. I thought at first schizophrenia, but now I think more likely a personality disorder. It is not harmful anyway, and he has a good life here.”
“He told me he’s allowed out. Is that true?”
“Not strictly. We have – how you call them – sheltered accommodation in some places, where they can go for a few days. They are always supervised.”
“In Marsden on Sea?”
“Yes. This I believe.”
“And was he there last week?”
“He was due a visit, I think. You must ask the Matron that. She will tell you.”
Joseph waited a further ten minutes for Mrs Forster, who was a friendly, tall woman with a frank, professional smile. Yes, Michael had been on a ‘visit’ last week. He had stayed in Marsden but, no, she was sorry, they did not give out the address.
“The people who perform the service for us have no visiting arrangements, you see. But it is one of the advantages we offer our patients here.”
“I’m impressed. The National Health Service never ceases to surprise me.”
Mrs Forster treated Joseph to a bemused glance. “Mr Palliser, we are not a National Health Service hospital. Maddockgate Manor is a private concern.”
By the time Joseph returned to Little Hallbury it was early evening, a weak sun had yielded once more to heavy cloud, and there was a far-away drum-beat of thunder. He had questions to ask.
“Aunt Julia; who pays for Michael to stay there? It’s quite expensive, isn’t it?”
Julia looked puzzled. “I thought you knew that, dear.”
“Until I asked yesterday I didn’t even know where he was. “
His aunt shifted her gaze uncomfortably. “Well then, I suppose you are owed an explanation. Your parents left money in trust for whoever looked after you. We became your guardians, so their will left us free to dispose of that part of their estate as we saw fit. Michael’s care was the obvious solution.”
“So we should have had some money coming to us, Ian and I?”
“Any residue would have been passed on to you at the age of twenty-one: but with Michael the way he is, dear….” Julia left the sentence open. “Owen discussed all this with Ian and yourself years ago. You must have forgotten. Now, what would you like for your tea?”
Nothing simple: the answers, if they were there, begged questions and those questions spawned more questions still. Joseph went to his bed that night with questions spiralling through his brain. Somehow Julia’s answer did not satisfy him: his father, or so he had always been told, was a civil servant: assiduous in his career, yes: frugal in his habits no doubt; but able to finance the fees of Maddockgate Manor for the whole of Michael’s lifetime? No.
That night, Joseph drifted like a ship of ghosts into a crewless, aimless sleep. Without any obvious reason, Violet Parkin’s death had become important to him. She had died in a manner wholly inappropriate for a god-fearing woman – with no explanation – none at all. Yet Michael knew something – thirty miles away and never without someone to keep watch over him – he seemed to be convinced of a dangerous secret pertaining to that grisly event for which Ned Barker, the landlord of The King’s Head could provide an answer.
The next morning the police came again. This time the young constable was accompanied by an older man:
“Detective Sergeant Stonebridge, Mr Palliser. Can we have a word?”
While the young constable dithered by the French windows, DS Stonebridge perched on the arm of a chair, reminiscent, Joseph thought, of detectives he had seen on television.
“You haven’t been quite honest with us, Mr Palliser.”
Joseph suppressed an inner tremor: “What do you mean?”
“You told my assistant here you arrived at Braunston on the…what was it?…” He consulted a notebook; a ragged-edged affair produced from his trouser pocket: “Ten-o-five am train from Paddington. Correct?”
“And you got to Abbots Friscombe at about four thirty. Is that right?”
“Yes. It should have been four-twenty-five, but the train was late. The train usually is late.”
“Then you took the four forty-five bus from the station?”
“Didn’t I already say that too?”
“Well yes, Mr Palliser, yes you did. Trouble is, though, it doesn’t quite square. Like, for example, if the ten-o-five out of Paddington got to Braunston in time, which it did, more or less, why wasn’t you on the earlier train out of Braunston? Then you’d have arrived in Abbots Friscombe in time to catch the three-thirty ‘bus. That would have got you here at three forty-five, Mr Palliser.”
“True. But I didn’t. I missed it. My London train was a little late arriving, and I don’t like to use the lavatories on trains. When I got to Braunston I needed to…well, to freshen up, shall we say? And I missed the two fifty-five for Friscombe.”
The detective sergeant nodded. “I see. So you’re saying….”
“I’m saying I was on the four o’clock train from Braunston. I got to Abbots Friscombe at four thirty, in time for the four forty-five ‘bus.”
“And you want to stand by that statement, Mr Palliser, do you?”
Joseph gritted his teeth. “Can you tell me the problem here?”
The detective shifted in his chair. “The problem: all right, Mr Palliser, I’ll tell you the problem. No-one can remember you, either on the four o’clock train from Braunston, or on the four forty-five ‘bus. There are two elderly passengers who do think they remember you, however: but they tell me they were on the three thirty ‘bus.” He leaned forward. “If that were true, it would put you in Little Hallbury well before four pm, which was when Mrs Parkin died: now, Mr Palliser – you tell me the problem?”
© 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: Annie Spratt on Unsplash