The story so far:
On the morning after encountering the deceased Rodney Smith’s vengeful brother, Joe Palliser receives a mysterious letter. A mission for his aunt gives him cause to explore more deeply into his memories of the village, and while preoccupied with this he renews his acquaintance with mother and daughter of the wealthy Forbes-Pattinson family.
Tom Peterkin, best friend of his young years invites him out for an evening, during which he learns that the murdered Violet Parkin was daughter to Ben Wortsall, locally reputed to be a witch. Returning that evening, Tom’s parks his car on Wednesday Common, where Joe at last admits to his friend that Marian, the woman he had claimed to be his wife, is dead.
A last rattle of breeze through the bracken fluttered and died, and as it seemed to Joe the tiny creatures and floating things caught in the headlights’ beam were synthesizing to some unwritten music; the flotsam of life joined in solemn, courtly dance – a pavane for Marian.
“You better tell me the rest, boy,” Tom said quietly.
So Joseph did.
“Sometimes we went on sales trips together, but mostly Marian worked from her London office through the week, and stayed in our flat in Earls Court. On weekends, she went home to Sussex. Before we met, she used to take the Friday night train; but as we got to know each other better she stayed over on the Friday more often than not, and went home on the Saturday morning instead.
“Friday became her night to unwind. We’d have a few drinks, I’d get in some stuff and we’d try a bit of this; bit of that. It started with the odd pill, you know, to get things more lively? Then there was coke, and maybe acid, but never too much – never too heavy.
“Six weeks is it now? Friday. It seems like yesterday, Tom, believe me. I got some gear from a guy I used on Fulham Market. Marian liked sex. I think we were good together. She was…well, she was inventive, she liked to play, and the night started out that way; but then she went wild, absolutely wild – fierce, almost savage. I can’t explain – I’d never known her like that – no boundaries, no taboos; nothing barred. She was so controlled, you see, normally; but not that night. She was really angry, shouting at me, coming at me with her fists. It was like she was desperate, forcing me to give her what she needed and doing everything she could to make it hurt. All she wanted was to give me pain. If I tried to get away; just go to bed and shut the door on her she wouldn’t let me go. I couldn’t even turn my back without her clawing me, hitting at me…”
Joe drew breath; needing the break. The microbial dance lit by the headlights had ceased, its participants hanging suspended as if the orchestra had finished playing. The song was over. Beside him, Tom offered nothing: no encouragement, no support. At length, Joe continued.
“Well, sometime it must have stopped. I can’t remember, you see? The first thing I know it’s morning; I’m in bed and it’s late: the clock says eleven-thirty. Marian should have caught the nine o’clock train; but there she is, still lying beside me.
“I was that stupid I just thought she was tired, she’d slept in – not surprising, after all that happened the night before. I brought coffee back to bed, then I tried to wake her. She wouldn’t wake up! I tried and tried, Tom!”
Joe and his genie were face to face now, with the black tidal wave of its power straining against the glass of its bottle, ready to burst forth and drown him with merciful insensibility. But the glass remained intact. He was unsteady, he was dizzy, but he did not blank.
“I knew it really. I knew she’d gone. There was some of the stuff beside her on the pillow, like she’d tried to score again, or something. I don’t know, because I can’t remember what happened. I can’t remember anything except how scared I was. I have no recollection of going to bed, I don’t remember her joining me.”
After a long pause, Tom asked: “You think you killed her? Is that what you’re saying?”
“No.” Joe’s tongue wrapped itself around that negative. He dredged deep. “Yes? I have no bloody idea! What made her behave like that – bad gear? I took it too. She was – there was some bruising on her body. I can’t explain that, either. Did I do it? Did she?”
“So you could have killed her.”
“I panicked, Tom. I told you she had a separate flat upstairs. She only slept there if her husband was visiting. I carried her up. No-one saw, no-one heard me, but oh-my-god it was a struggle, she was so cold and stiff…I laid her in her bed like she’d simply gone to sleep, cleared up all the gear and dumped it in the food waste bin at the back of a restaurant we used to go to on Coulter Street.
“I wiped or washed anything in our flat that might connect to me, put all the bed-linen in a bag and took it to the Laundromat – left it there in one of the machines. I just went. It was Saturday evening by then and other than personal clothing there wasn’t much to carry really. Everything in our lives was hers.”
It was a long time before Tom said anything. “The filth, what about they? Did they find yer?”
“Not so far. I went to my brother’s place and just laid low, waiting to be found, basically. I wasn’t.” Joe recollected the Detective Sergeant’s visit and his dark looks; “At least, I don’t think so. I heard nothing more, until yesterday. Yesterday I got a letter from Marian’s solicitors asking me to contact them. ”
“You’d be easy enough to trace, I’d ha’ thought. Her people at work, they knew about you: you weren’t invisible. No, I’d say if the cops haven’t caught up with you by now they aren’t looking. They probably think you left afore she died, or sommat.” Tom shook his head gravely: “So that’s why yer not yerself, ah?” he mused. “Think I understand, boy. But I don’t see you got anything to worry about. You did pretty well, ‘sfar as I can see.”
He cranked his car into life, backing out onto the road. It seemed Joe had done pretty well. He had opened up to Tom and his mind had stayed with him. As his friend dropped him off he cautioned: “Tom, this mustn’t go further than us, yeah?”
Tom reassured him; of course it would not. “’Tis sommat to think on, though, ah? There was I thinkin’ you was quiet for quite a diff’rent reason tonight, Joe. See ‘ow wrong I can be?”
From the look in his eyes, from the timbre of that rich shire voice, Joe saw that Tom had connected some of the dots – he knew.
“You’ll do the right thing, boy. I’m certain o’ tha’.” And he drove away.
In his sleep that night, Joe hung suspended somewhere between dream and memory, and it was no longer Sarah’s face that watched him in the darkness, but that of his best friend’s wife.
“Fancy your chances, do you?” She arched an eyebrow, bringing his confidence instantly to its knees. Green eyes – she had almost iridescent green eyes.
“Some.” He stumbled: “Maybe.”
“Alright. I’ll dance with you.”
It was a local hall, a local band. They jived awkwardly, because he was far too nervous to lead.
She wore a cream blouse, a flared skirt which whirled about her as she spun. She moved with natural grace, as though she were born to dance.
They shouted to each other above the music. “What are you doing out without your mate? Everybody thinks you and Tom Peterkin are queer for each other!”
“We’re not! (He was so sensitive to those little jibes, back then!) Dunno what he’s doing tonight.”
When the music finished; “Buy me a drink, then?”
Emma Blanchland was no stranger. Even though they had gone to different schools, they had met from time to time; shy smiles, muttered ‘hello’s’. She had just been one of the local girls until that night.
Why had he decided to go to the dance in Fettsham on his own? Maybe because a member of the band was Ian’s friend; maybe just because he was tired of being alone, wanting to torture himself with more rejection. He didn’t know. But Emma was there, and the girl was no longer simply someone walking by – she was a young, vibrant woman with an expressive face, a slim waist and long legs which revealed a tempting glimpse of stocking-top when she danced.
He bought her drinks; they learned to laugh with each other. After the ordeal of meeting, the evening passed pleasantly to a point where even Joe’s dancing improved. They smooched through the final number. In the car park he copied a smart-Alec remark of Tom’s, glancing meaningfully down at her skirt. “What colour are they, then?”
“Cheeky sod! They’re red. And if you think I’m going to prove it for you, you’ve got another think coming!”
“Some other time, then?”
She glared. “I should change the subject, if I were you. Now, are you going to take me home?”
He drove her in the Pilot. He did not drive fast. At her door, they kissed – just a quick peck, just once.
Three days later Joe was walking on a shopping street in Braunston when he met Emma almost head-on. At first, he was unsure if the girl in a dark brown coat walking arm-in-arm with a broad-shouldered young man actually was Emma; but as they drew closer there was no mistaking those green eyes. They met his, and she curled inside at the sadness she saw.
That evening Joseph sat in his room packing another set of wasted fantasies into the bulging closet of his self-esteem. Love, he had decided, was an illusion, something he always aspired to but was destined never to reach. There was something in his psyche that was tuned to disappointment, something unlovable about him that had consigned him to a life of loneliness.
These and other such maudlin thoughts were rudely interrupted by his Uncle Owen, who bellowed up the stairs:
“Joseph! There’s someone at the door for you!”
He stumbled downstairs and there she was, jeans and a white sweater, a little half-smile that opened a minuscule window to the woman inside: Emma, who blurted: “Look, before you say anything, I don’t usually do this kind of stuff, right? I don’t, Joe.”
He replied with a crestfallen shrug – a gesture which had become so much his. “You’re with someone else – it’s alright. It’s allowed. I’ve no right to you, I don’t…I don’t have any claim on you.”
Emma shifted from one foot to the other, looking about her with an air of desperation. “Come with me! Come on!” She reached out, grabbed his hand, dragged him from doorway to lane, marched ahead of him, ignoring his protests – which, to do him justice, were neither persistent nor loud.
At the bend by the poplars she turned onto Wednesday Common and there, in the secret shadow of a beech hedge she took both his hands, so she could look into his eyes.
“He….see, Joey, he is my boyfriend, yeah? But…Okay, you talk about ‘owning’. He doesn’t ‘own’ me. I enjoyed the other night, with you. I really did, and I’d like us – if you want – to go on seeing each other, yeah? I’d like that, very much – if you want?”
And Joe smiled so broadly he almost cried because, yes, he did want. And she was leaning back against the hedge and looking up into his grey eyes with that incredible green of her own and she was waiting:
“Emma, can I kiss you?”
“If you don’t I’ll break your bloody neck!”
That was their first real kiss. But it was something much, much more.
There comes an interlude in the stressful process of growing that some will call a rite of passage, when the child learns that balance of nature which must exist between male and female, the initiatives each has to take, those areas of self each must surrender. Their kiss engendered the ‘spark’ – that unreasoned and unreasonable connection between boy and girl; the outrageous influence of fate upon choice, the indefinable glue that is ‘attraction’.
Hitherto, love for Joseph had meant worship: but whereas Sarah was a goddess on a pedestal, an alabaster idol demanding adoration, Emma was real; she was a laughing, entrancing equal who could turn him this way and that, should she want. Yet she would tread softly with such adolescent devices because in Joe she saw a lifetime ahead: the children she wanted to be hers, a home like her parents’ home, the sleepy contentment of age. In Joe she saw the boy who would become the man who would become the partner. She saw a pattern for her life.
They became not lovers at first – they became friends: fast friends, bonded so closely both thought the ties might never break, no matter how far they were to be apart.
They did not hurry into love. For if Emma was so certain of her feelings, Joseph was less easily convinced of his. Emma knew about Sarah of course; she had met her with Joe several times when they were together, and she was quick to realise that her new friend still measured her against his former love. Emma was patient, happy to be a kissing friend while their affinity to one another grew. She was content to be real while Sarah was a dream, but she would not commit entirely to Joe until she saw, not the reflection of Sarah in his eyes, but her own.
Then, one rainy morning in Spring, everything changed. Both were working in Braunston in those days, he for Mr Carnaby, the solicitor; she for a department store on Bridge Street. To cheat the rain Joseph decided he would take his car to work, so, thinking that Emma might go with him, he called at her door. There was no answer. Rollo, the family dog, a large, clumsy Alsatian, was silent. Emma’s father was away so Joe knew her mother, who also worked, would normally have woken her daughter before she left. He banged the door more loudly, then, when there was still no response, he tried the latch. It opened. Reasoning that further clamour might draw the attention of the whole village, he thought it sensible to go inside.
He called up the stairs: “Emma?”
“Joe? Oh, Joe, is that you?” The faint reply, not from above stairs but from beyond the house, led him out by the kitchen door into Rob Blanchland’s small, tidy garden. There he found Emma in her nightdress crouched on her heels, her dressing gown thrown over her shoulders, staring at a space between geometrically precise rows of cabbages and beans.
“Oh, Joe. I’m glad you’ve come. I didn’t know what to do.” Her voice trembled with emotion. “I loved him so!”
Joe drew closer. The space in the vegetation resolved itself into the inert form of Rollo, who lay with his teeth bared and open eyes, lifeless on the wet soil. The dog’s back was arched as though frozen in mid-stride, mud plastered on his brown fur. Joe reached down to touch his cheek: it was already cold.
“He’s gone, Emm.”
Emma nodded. “I let him out just as usual. You know what he’s like, flyin’ out the door like a big soppy grey-hound? He’s half-way down the garden, and he just leapt in the air, and …..” Her face creased. “He’s too heavy for me, and I can’t just leave him there. Joe, can you…?
He went to her, took her by the shoulders to raise her up. “It was probably a heart attack or a stroke: I shouldn’t think he felt anything. Come inside, you’ll freeze out here.”
Emma submitted mutely, shaking with the chill as she allowed Joe to pull her dressing gown around her and cradle her back to the warmth of the kitchen. He put a kettle on the range, then taking the old dog’s favourite blanket from his basket he returned to the garden, where he wrapped it around Rollo and carried him to the tool-shed, leaving him to lie in state on the dry wooden floor. Rollo was an amiable companion. He would be missed.
By the time Joe returned, Emma seemed to have recovered somewhat, though her shoulders still shook. Joe kissed her forehead, then instructed her firmly to take a hot bath and dress in some dry clothes. With a rueful smile, she directed his eyes to her feet. reminding him she had been barefoot in the garden – her feet, like her hands, with which she had tried to stir Rollo into life, were covered in grey mud. So Joe carried her upstairs, and stood her in the bath while he washed her feet, inducing some reluctant laughter because she was ticklish between her toes. Running fresh water so she might bathe, he left her then.
“I’ll make some tea. Come down when you’re ready.”
Minutes passed: five – ten……
Emma called out: “Joe!”.
Joseph rushed to reply, afraid lest…lest what? “Yes, what is it Emm?”
“Can you bring me my tea?”
So he did.
Hours later, warm and dry in her bed, Emma opened sleepy eyes to smile at the face on the pillow beside her.
“Let’s start this day again;” She said. “Good day to you, Joe.”
And those words, in a way, were spoken with sadness. But there, in the first blush of Rollo’s tragic morning, came affirmation – something profound was begun.
Photo Credit: Matthew Miles on Unsplash
© 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.