The Story so far:
Joe Palliser has taken a letter from Marian Brubaeker’s legal representatives to his old employer, local solicitor Alistair Carnaby. By this means he learns that he is the principal benefactor in his deceased lover’s will. However, Marian’s husband is challenging the will and demanding an enquiry into the manner of his wife’s death, to which end he has requested her body be exhumed for autopsy.
In the King’s Head pub that night Joe catches up with the landlord and questions him concerning Violet Parkin’s murder. At the bar, Aaron Pace lets slip that Violet was a member of a local coven of villagers he believes to be witches.
After his evening at the King’s Head, with Ned Barker’s beer and his interrogation of Aaron Pace to regale him, Joseph Palliser should have had plenty to dream about when he retired for the night. But other influences of the day, the conversation with Mr Carnaby and the dreaded word ‘autopsy’, proved too heavy a weight. When he closed his eyes he found Marian waiting and he knew he would be forced to replay his memories of their final night together.
“I’d like you to find somewhere else to live.” Marian had her back to him. “I’ll give you money for a decent deposit. You’d better start looking right away.”
That was what he had heard: that was what he thought she had said. “I don’t understand!” He protested. “Is it something I’ve done?”
She rounded on him, eyes set in a hard, professional stare: “Look, Joe, don’t make this difficult. I told you at the beginning this wasn’t going to be forever – remember?”
But that was then. That was before he had learned to love her.
“Have you found somebody else?” Joe tried to keep his tone calm, matter-of-fact, but he could not suppress the break in his voice. “Is there someone else?”
“What if there were? You have no claim on me. I told you, Joe!”
“Yes, you told me. A long time ago, you told me.”
Then he had lied to her, taken the money she gave him as a bond for a new apartment, told her he had found himself somewhere in North London. “Finchley, as a matter of fact.” The money languished in his account. He could not bear to contemplate moving anywhere new. Instead, he had struggled on, trying to please her, hoping to recover all he was about to lose. He tried different things, new things: as a lover she had always been experimental – willing to explore, ready to learn; but in bed now she was withdrawn, her look was somewhere far off. Try though he might, he could not find a way back to her. In her mind she was already elsewhere.
Then came that morning when, for whatever reason, he dared believe he might have a chance.
She had gone to work as normal. She had not mentioned his departure for some days and he was going through the agony of wondering if she had changed her mind, so when she returned to their flat briefly, at lunchtime, he dared to hope.
Marian’s dark eyes were red, as though she had been crying. How often had he seen her like this? Work was frequently painful for her, the process of success was not something she enjoyed. They were talking, just making small talk. He wanted to make her laugh like he used to, he was trying – so very hard. She suddenly grabbed him, turned him into her arms and kissed him with a depth of passion they had not shared for some time.
“Joey darling, stop torturing yourself. Get on with your life, my love. Move on!”
She was close, so close for a moment. She pressed a small parcel into his hand. “Get us some dope, and put these on before I get home, sweetie, will you? Promise?”
Around four-thirty he returned from a meeting with a friend whose gear he trusted in Fulham Market, and prepared dinner in their small kitchen: Chicken Marengo, a Caesar salad; things he knew she liked. Then he opened the parcel, and with a quiet chuckle to himself went into the bedroom to slip on the dark red posing pants he had found inside. He donned a pair of blue slacks over the top and went back to his preparation of the meal.
This night she was early. She came in at around six, looking pale and tired.
“Give me the stuff, Joe.” She said.
“Do you want to eat first?”
“No. I want the stuff,” suddenly angry. “Give me the fucking stuff!”
He gave it to her, watched her go into the bathroom to inject. Minutes later she was back.
“You too.” She said.
Half an hour, it took. He was in the kitchen putting food onto plates, she was in the lounge. The first he knew of her presence was the touch of her hand on his back.
Joseph faced her, seeing her wearing a long silk robe she favoured in her more passionate moods, a blue robe embroidered with red Chinese dragons.
“Don’t want me yet, Joe. Not yet!”
The robe slithered from her shoulders: she came closer, teasing him, giggling girlishly; he was her pet, her dog. If he reached out for her she stepped away, allowing him to see what she would not have him touch, wagging her finger in reproof. “Mustn’t. Bad boy! Naughty!”
With steely determination he tried to obey, to be the dispassionate spectator to her little game. But this night was too special. It promised their first act of love for so long, and he needed its reassurance too much. His hands rebelled, clasping her shoulders, snatching her to him, and her expression altered instantly to one of fury. Her eyes blazed.
“My neck, Joe Palliser! My neck!”
So it was, on the night when everything changed.
Tom Peterkin turned up early in his Cortina car to drive Joe to Wilton Bishop, where a dealer who traded in the name of Maybury eked out a tenuous existence. They flew through the lanes, the car’s wing brushing at the overgrown hedges, its wheels scrabbling for grip on the tight corners.
“Came up ‘ere the other day;” Tom said. “Met a Fergie pullin’ a wain. Bugger did I ‘ave to stop!”
Joe found himself praying their path would be free of hay wains. More than once they came face to face with other cars, Tom diving into the hedge like a bolting rabbit, somehow always emerging unscathed on the other side, leaving a shocked motorist staring back at them as they receded into the distance. There were no tractors, however, and Tom’s beloved machine remained intact as they plummeted down the hill into Wilton Bishop.
Beneath Wilton Crown, a high ridge lined with conifers that loomed over the Turlbury road ‘Maybury’s Car Mart’ was a dejected line of ageing merchandise looking undeniably shady: Mr Maybury slid up to them, shadier still. “Joe old lad!” He had kept the Wolsey ‘out the back’, he said. “Super little motor!”
They followed Maybury’s wobbling bottom through his oil-slick workshop to some rough ground where he ‘reserved’ cars for his special clients. A grey Wolsey stood by the far fence.
“Beautiful, isn’t she?” Enthused Maybury. “Jowett designed they were, you know? Lovely leathers – come and see!”
They came and saw. The old car glowered at them silently as they probed and prodded its more private parts. They started it, they revved the engine, they put Maybury’s price through the mangle, and Joe bought it.
“I’ll have it ready for you in a few days,” Maybury assured them.
On the journey back, Tom said. “You’re a tough bugger to deal with these days! I remember when you wouldn’t say boo to a bloody goose, boy!”
Joe nodded. Times had changed, he said.
The telephone rang for a long time before Caroline answered.
“Ian isn’t here.” She informed Joe icily. As Ian’s wife, she was accustomed to defending him from Joe’s constant sallies.
“When’s he coming back?”
“For you to talk to? Never.”
“Oh, come on, Caroline! You can’t do that, he’s my brother for god’s sake! Tell him to call me, will you?”
“He’s not your brother by any law that has to do with God!” She clipped. “Very well, I’ll tell him.” And she replaced the receiver.
Joseph cooked himself a lunch, waited an hour. When he was convinced that Ian wasn’t going to call back that afternoon, he slipped quietly out of the door so as not to excite Julia’s curiosity, and wandered up Church Lane in the direction of Charlie Lamb’s house with a vague idea in his head that he might make some enquiries concerning Charlie’s plans to sell. In the event he did not need to do this, because a large ‘For Sale’ sign flapped before it in the breeze. He fumbled in his pockets for a pen.
“Are you interested?”
The girl had come upon him quietly; so quietly he had not heard her. She was tall, almost as tall as he. A cascade of ash-blonde hair dropped to her shoulders, through which the sun danced, casting the clear flesh of her cheeks into deep shade so Joe could barely see how her eyes looked at him, or the pert perfection of her nose, or the delicate pout of her lips. She wore a loose blouse over a long skirt of cream straw cloth, that draped over soft curves to small, elegant ankles and slippered feet. She spoke confidently in a cultured yet not unmelodic tone and he should have recognised her at once.
“In the house? I only ask, you see, because were you to purchase this property we would be neighbours.” She waved airily towards the summit of the hill. “Sophie Forbes-Pattinson. How do you do?”
Joe realised immediately. Of course! He had met Sophie Forbes Pattinson just twice. The first time that hair was tucked beneath a riding helmet; the second, he would have to admit, he had not been concentrating on her face.
“Joe Palliser,” He responded evenly. “How do you do, Sophie?”
“There! You see, Joe, we’re on first name terms already. How neighbourly can one get?” Sophie Forbes-Pattinson walked around him, keeping a small distance between them as she looked him up and down. Joe imagined that if she were carrying her riding crop by now it would be tucking up under his chin. “You look awfully frightened to me, Joe Palliser. Why would that be?”
Joe smiled. Now she was facing the sun he could see her face. She had eyes of pale blue that squinted against the light. Her mouth was on the small side, but a natural pout to her lips made them full enough to be inviting; though if he had to describe her then, ‘inviting’ would not be a term he would use. “I prefer ‘wary’,” He said. “Would you like to examine my teeth?”
Sophie scowled. “Are you trying to make fun of me, Joe?”
Joe didn’t answer. She stood watching him for a moment, shifting lightly from foot to foot, a finger raised to her little chin and a thoughtful look in her eyes.
“Well, I must go now. No doubt we shall meet again, if you do decide to buy this house. I hope you will come and visit us. We hold a garden party for the villagers every year.”
Joseph watched her as she walked away. She drifted, as though she were not carried by human feet at all, but washed along by some invisible current. When she was almost at the top of the road, she turned to look back at him and raised a dainty hand in a wave.
‘Very good!’ Joseph thought to himself. ‘You knew I’d still be watching you.’ His next thought was less complimentary.
Sunday dawned hot and sultry. At ten-thirty the telephone finally rang.
“What do you want, Joe?” Ian’s voice carried that undertone of barely restrained impatience he specially reserved for his brother.
“How are you, Ian? Caroline wasn’t exactly forthcoming.”
“Get on with it.”
“Did you know that Violet Parkin had died?”
There was a pause. Eventually Ian said: “How on earth would I know that? It hasn’t made the ‘nationals’ as far as I’m aware. Anyway, I hardly remember the woman. Is that all you called me for?”
“I’m sorry, Ian – I’m sure you must be very busy.”
“I have a church service to attend in twenty minutes, so is that all?”
“She was murdered, Ian.”
“I didn’t know it but apparently she was a witch – at least, what they would call a witch around these parts – do you remember when Michael was into witchcraft and mysticism?”
Ian’s voice had calmed. “Mikey was into a lot of things, as I recall. Once he believed root vegetables were a means of communicating with a subterranean race. Some of them lived under the house, he told me. I spent hours in the garden with him while he tried to get an intelligent answer from a parsnip. Why are you so interested, Joe?”
“Connections – I’m pretty certain Violet was ritually killed. I wondered if Mikey ever tried to get into her circle – her coven, so to speak? I thought you’d be the one to know; he was closest to you, after all.”
“No, nothing here, I’m afraid.” Ian’s tone was resuming its peremptory edge: “Try asking around the village.”
“I am, but they are closing up like clams.”
“I imagine they would. Look, Joe….”
“Yes, I know, you’re busy. Keep well, Ian.”
That morning, for the first time in many years, Joseph emulated his brother and went to church.
Summoned by a single steeple-bell, a trickle of humanity converged upon St. Andrews, the little sandstone church which was symbolic of God to all who came to Hallbury. They brought, fermenting beneath the sheaths of their ‘Sunday Best’, all the prejudices, quirks and crimes they kept within their breasts, clotted into alliances, woven and spun into family groups. At the lych-gate they dispersed in solemn file, passing by ones and twos along the margin of the graveyard where their sins lay buried and into the cool embrace of the West Door.
They were all there; Tom and Emma, Emma avoiding Joe’s gaze, Tom smiling awkwardly, sweating into a shirt collar around which he wore his tie like a noose. Emily and Sophie Forbes-Pattinson, mother and daughter in their Sunday dresses in the company of a harassed-looking man Joe took to be Emily’s husband. The Forbes-Pattinsons were fulfilling their role as feudal chiefs; despite, Joseph thought with amusement, Emily’s obviously more egalitarian nature. She was not, by instinct, a baroness. Others were equally ungainly – Dot Barker, Hettie Locke and Ben, Janice Regan and her son, Mary and Paul Gayle with their two children, Margaret and Patrick Farrier, the Pardins; the list went on. Aaron Pace, limping up the road in a suit that had seen better decades.
Each found their way to time-allotted pews. They sat in family huddles, islands of consanguinity with empty oaken seas between.
Joe sat with Owen and Julia. In his childhood, the Pallisers had come to this place infrequently; Owen, who declared himself an agnostic and Michael, Joe’s younger brother were averse to any notion of religion. Towards his last days in the village, Michael began cursing and ‘speaking in tongues’ whenever he went near St. Andrews, so if Joseph attended church at all, he would wander there in Julia’s and Ian’s company. Owen remained at home to restrain Michael, who was always ready to address the congregation with sermons of his own.
Ah, but how the years had mellowed the Masefields! As their own appointments with God drew nearer, so their desire to appease Him increased. With quiet amusement Joseph watched them while the vicar breezed through his service, joining in the prayers, bellowing out the hymns. Yet the days when Joe would sneer at such shallow devotion were gone. Religion was a personal commitment, a private affair. He would leave it to those who possessed it, even if he did not himself believe.
A strange hour. Scrooping chairs, wailing children, a cracked old organ beaten into submission by Mrs Higgs’ less than expressive hands. At one point, mercifully the last hymn, Joe was certain she began to play ‘Knees up Mother Brown’ for a few bars before coming to herself; but the strains were lost beneath another agony of discordant singing. Almost before he knew it, the whole painful ordeal was over.
After the service Joe wandered away on pretence of studying some of the more readable gravestones. From the churchyard he was free to survey the emerging congregation, and reaped his reward, for although most drifted away there were some who stayed – Dot Barker, Hettie Locke, Janice Regan and Margaret Farrier: it was a strange, very private gathering. While the Forbes-Pattinsons monopolised attention, this four, like Joseph, stood to one side among the gravestones at the far side of the churchyard; and an earnest conversation was going on.
“There’ll be some wicked spells cast tonight then!” Tom Peterkin took Joseph by surprise. “What are you doin’ lurkin’ out here, then, you pervert – spyin.’ on young Sophie, are you?”
Joe smiled, “I wouldn’t mind the body, Tom, if it supported a different head. What do you mean, ‘spells’ – are they witches, those four?”
Tom grinned, “I’d say ‘tis likely. What do you reckon to our Sophie, then? D’you think she looks lost without ‘er ‘orse?”
“I met her yesterday. She has a clear understanding of her place in the world. How old is she?”
Tom pondered this: “Must be twenty-three or twenty-four now.”
“Everyone has, Joe. Trouble bein’ in her case, she’m grown into a snobbish little bitch. Ah, I’d say so. But then, she could be fun, playin’ the bit of rough for a while. Do you fancy a go, then?”
Joe knew whatever response he made would be reported to Emma. There was an edge of desperation in Tom’s voice: he was looking for crumbs, anything that might divert the friends from the collision course they were on.
“Perhaps not.” He said carefully. “I think life is complicated enough.”
Tom nodded. “I must catch Emma up – she’m gone ahead.”
Joe chose to forget the Peterkins lived just three houses away from the Church. He knew why Emma had ‘gone ahead’. He, too, was ready to leave, deliberately passing close to the quartet of secretive females as he went. They stopped talking as he drew near, and their eyes followed him all the way to the lych-gate.
© 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: Ovidiu Creaga on Unsplash