The story so far:
In a dream-state Joseph finds himself at the mercy of Hallbury’s ‘witches’ who condemn him to burn if he does not leave Hallbuury. The following morning his aunt’s cat is impaled on her front door, and the church graveyard is desecrated. Joe’s aunt and uncle regale him with the story of little Christian Matheson, a child abducted from the village many years before, citing this as a reason to believe darker forces are at work.
Thinking his brother Michael must have something to do with these events, Joe decides to pay him a visit, but his telephone call to Michael’s erstwhile care home informs him that his brother has been removed from its care, and no information is available concerning his whereabouts…
Julia was in her kitchen with her back to the door, cleaning some brassware that hung on the wall by the range. Joe noticed the tension in her shoulders as he entered and surmised that she must have overheard much of his call.
“Aunt Julia – did you know that Michael has been moved?”
She did not turn or look at him. “Has he, dear?”
“From Maddockgate Manor. Why, please? I don’t understand.”
Julia started out: “Well, I suppose we….” The words wavered and drifted away. “Oz!” She called out. “Come in here for a minute, will you?”
Joe’s Uncle Owen arrived bearing the armful of wood he had been collecting from the store in their yard. “Oz, tell Joe why Michael has been moved to a different home, will you?” She was looking directly at her husband in a desperate attempt at communication, but Joe was watching them both intently, and he did not miss the flicker of surprise on Owen’s face. Furthermore, Owen was not quick enough on his feet: he stammered at the beginnings of a reply, which Joseph cut across:
“You didn’t know, did you?”
Julia turned to look at him helplessly. “All right Joe. I think you’ve rather found us out. No, we didn’t know.” Then she said to Owen in what sounded like genuine mystification: “And I can’t for the life of me think why…?”
“Nor I.” Owen muttered. “All seems a bit strange to me.”
Julia explained. “I’m afraid I’ve been guilty of deception, Joe. When Michael’s illness demanded full-time care and he was taken into the County Hospital your uncle and I looked around for some way of making life more agreeable for him. Maddockgate Manor seemed pleasant and fairly inexpensive at the time, so we used all that remained of your parents’ estate to lodge him there. I suppose we hoped he would get better, or that we would be able to muddle through, but although the fees kept getting higher poor Michael showed no signs of recovery. Our retirement would mean we had little enough money of our own and your parents’ legacy was long gone.” As Joseph opened his mouth to interrupt she lifted a placatory hand. “Yes. Yes, I know. I led you to believe there was a large bequest, didn’t I? Money left in trust for you, and so on. There wasn’t, Joe. Your parents left almost nothing: just enough to raise you boys with, no more.”
Owen took up Julia’s thread. “It was seven – maybe eight years ago? The fees went up again, and we knew we had not the ability to pay. We wanted to get in touch with you and tell you what would have to happen – Michael would have to go back into ‘County’, but we couldn’t find you at the time. So we discussed it with Ian.”
“He was wonderful, Joe,” Julia said. “He didn’t hesitate. He stepped in to pay the outstanding fees and absolutely demanded that all accounts were made over to him. He’s been paying for Michael’s care ever since. However, he insisted that no-one else should be told of the arrangement; including you, dear. I’m sorry.”
What could he say or do? Joseph felt unreasonably annoyed – cheated, although he could not have explained why he should react that way. Ian’s long hand slipping unobtrusively out of the fog, quietly adjusting, subtly altering the things that he loved and valued. Yet he was taking care of Michael, wasn’t he? And wasn’t that altogether a commendable, brotherly act? To do it secretly, to avoid attention to himself, was entirely laudable – or would be if it were not Ian’s hand on the tiller, Ian’s name on the cheque. The word which kept creeping back into Joe’s mind was stealth. Stealthy was a word that typically described his brother Ian.
Wanting time to himself to assimilate these new bullets of information Joseph retired to his room with some tea and a book he had no intention to read. It did not take much deduction to see why Michael had been ‘moved’ – Ian was on the threshold of an election and did not want to have a mad brother within easy reach – but instructing those responsible to conceal his whereabouts from his own relatives suggested something more than mere political expediency: it hinted at fear. So was Ian privy to some of Joseph’s own thoughts, own concerns about Michael?
At two o’clock Julia and Owen went shopping. The Monday Braunston trip was a regular expedition, influenced mainly by a pensioners’ discount day at the Savers’ Market, so the spectacle of Owen’s stuttering old Standard Vanguard scraping its way out of the lane was a well-established one, said to be as reliable as any clock. Julia, ever the anxious passenger, sat on the back seat, hunched forward with her shopping bag on her knees, from whence she would acknowledge others abroad in the village with regal waves. Owen slouched in the driver’s seat holding the wheel in one hand, his pipe in the other; a posture which only changed when the old car needed to negotiate a corner. Then he became intensely active, jamming his pipe into his mouth and exerting his weight upon the steering wheel with Herculean effort. On sharp curves he would throw everything at the necessary side of the road, often disappearing below the high windscreen altogether.
Joseph had several mundane matters to attend to: having telephoned Ian’s London home number and obtained no answer, he tried his constituency office with a similar result. Then he telephoned the Agent responsible for selling the Lamb house and arranged a viewing. Events of the last twenty-four hours had shaken his initial resolve to take up residence in Hallbury, but he reasoned that there would be no harm in viewing the property: he had to move somewhere out of London after all, and it would help him to gauge a likely cost.
The knock on the front door was so soft and feminine he barely heard it, so he opened the door only half-believing he would find anyone outside. He found Emma Peterkin.
“Joe, can I talk to you?” She looked small and unhappy, with her pretty chin tucked down into the collar of her charcoal coat as she stared at some point low on the chipped paint of the doorjamb. Her slender feet fidgeted uneasily and Joseph did not think he imagined that her hands, though plunged deep into her pockets, were trembling. He remembered the first time she had called unexpectedly at this door, looking equally discomforted, though perhaps for different reasons. His heart surged – not entirely with pity.
“Come in.” He said quickly.
In the hall they stood facing one another; two willow wands that might be stirred at the merest quiver of a breeze, inclining by a timid fraction together then shrinking back, never daring to meet each other’s eyes.
“Oh, Joe!” She murmured.
There was such sadness, such repressed longing in her voice that every instinct within him wanted to reach out to her, to take her in his arms. He felt as helpless in the intoxication of her beauty as a wood mouse caught in the eye of a snake.
“Owen and Julia are out.” He said. “I know we’re not kids, but is this wise?”
“Probably not.” Still she would not look at him. “I shouldn’t be here. I won’t stay.”
“But now you are here…” If he could just place one hand on her flushed cheek, cross that narrow gulf – so close now – so close he could catch the scent of musk on her breath; see the moistness of her lips, the yearning in her eyes. “I miss you,” it was little more than a whisper; “I can’t help it. Every minute I’m not with you.”
“Don’t do this, Emma.” An immense effort of will was all that could rescue him from the primacy of that moment. “There are – things – I want as much as you, if it weren’t for Tom. We can’t betray him.”
“Do you think I don’t know that? I came to talk, Joe, that’s all. Honour for your friend, all that. ‘T’is only right, I s’pose. But you got two friends, Joe. You was supposed to love one of them and you let her down. Don’t you owe her something too?”
“Even if one of my friends is married to the other?”
“Fine talk of marriage! You with a wife you’re not intending to see again! You’re good at leaving, aren’t you Joe?” So Tom had kept one secret, at least; and of course he would, because if Emma knew Joe was without ties he would present even more of a threat.
“See here,” She said, and he felt the cool touch of her fingers on his hand “I’m not proud of how I’m sounding, and lord knows I’m ashamed of what I’m thinking, but here we are; different platforms, different trains.”
“It’s hard for me, too.” He told her.
“Yeah? Maybe you don’t feel like I feel. Maybe it’s easier for a man. Tom’s a good husband – he’s a decent man, if he don’t kill ‘imself in that car of his. He wants a child – he wants a family. I want that, too; we’ve tried, and there’s nothing wrong, nothing medical, I mean.”
“Then I’m sure it will happen,” he said.
The caress of her fingers became a grip. “It won’t. It won’t, Joe, because it isn’t natural, not to me. You were the only man whose child I wanted…”
“Don’t talk like that!…”
“Why shouldn’t I? We’re not in a public park, now. Look at me! I’ve got no pride – I’m between a wish and a hope, Joe. What’s between us, it’s that deep, that strong. I thought I had it all in hand, I did, really. Then you walked into my house…”
He stopped her, “Emma!”
“If we…” The clasp of her hand conveyed the words she could not bring herself to say; “Tom, he would never know. He doesn’t know…”
“I think he would; I think he does. And you would always know.”
Quite suddenly her face crumpled and she dropped her head onto his shoulder. He felt her nod of acceptance. She spoke through her tears. “You’re right, of course you are, I shouldn’t say nothing like that. Oh lord, what’s the matter with me, Joe? I’m making such a fool of myself!”
“You aren’t,” He placated her. “Come into the kitchen. I’ll make us some coffee.”
“Oh, yes. Very civilised!” Emma managed a watery smile. “No, thank you. I’d better leave, I think. You’ll be leaving too, then; moving on? Now, or in a couple of days?”
“You should, Joe. People are starting to talk…it doesn’t take much to spark off a rumour around here, you know that. Most of ‘em can remember us when we were together. Now you’ve come back…That isn’t fair on Tom, neither.”
“Who’s been doing the talking?”
“Most of ‘em is, or will be soon. Hettie Locke.” Emma saw his quizzical look. “She’s the biggest scandal-monger ever, our Hettie. She’s putting it all over the village that Tom better watch his wife, and how I’m the reason you returned. But that isn’t true, Joe, is it? I’m not the reason.”
So, Tom had told her something. Again, Joe could expect no less. His friend would use any weapon to defend his marriage – friendship must always come second to that. How much had he told her? As for Emma’s question, he had returned. Could she have been the reason?
“Hettie and Janice must have got their heads together. Janice Regan is frightened.” He said. “I went to see her to find out more about Violet’s death. I also wanted to find out about Violet’s dalliances with witchcraft. I know about her father, you see?”
“Oh my lord!” Exclaimed Emma. “’Spose you know Janice is one of they, too – and Hettie?”
“I told Janice I knew.”
“You told ‘er – to ‘er face? Joe, you don’t do that! You just don’t do that! No wonder they got it in for you – in for me, comes to it. It’s one of the village’s deepest secrets, the witch thing.”
“It’s a cartload of superstitious rubbish!” Joe opined, mentally turning his back on his experience of the previous night.
“Mebbe’s, but they takes it serious. Aaron caught them at it once, and look at the stories they spread around about him!”
“You mean all the ‘peeping tom’ stuff? That wasn’t true, then? From what I know of Aaron…”
“No, it wasn’t true. Well, it might have been, I suppose. I think I’d have been too young to be told.
“The day after he saw they women up there on the hill, doing…..what they were doing, Aaron was in the pub tellin’ the whole village about it. He didn’t leave nothing out. Two days after that, he had the accident: did you know how he got that limp? He was loading hay on a lift and somehow his trouser leg got caught in the conveyor. He was lucky to keep his leg at all, they say. The rumours about him started around that time.”
“And so everybody believed the accident was caused by witchcraft…” Joe deduced.
“And the rumours about him were true.” Emma finished his thought neatly; as neatly as she had so often done in their time together. The profundity of this did not escape either of them.
Emma brushed at her sleeve, said hurriedly, “Anyhow, that’s the way things are. The witch thing is a sort of secret ever’one knows about, but no-one speaks of. Of course your Michael was something to do with it once, wasn’t he?” Joe’s expression must have given him away: “I thought you knew?”
Joe shook his head. “No, not for sure. Although I might have – should have – guessed, I suppose. Did he go to their meetings?”
“I’ve no idea. He got very friendly with Margo Farrier though. Mind, she always did have a way with young men.”
“Margaret Farrier – really?” Joseph tried to paste his mental image of the woman into the role Emma seemed to be painting for her; an imposing, rather severe woman – it didn’t seem to fit. The thought of Margaret Farrier as a sultry temptress made him want to laugh. Emma read his mind effortlessly.
“Oh, Margo’d amaze you once she’s got a few gins inside her. Besides, there’s not many Sirens on a bunch of rocks like these, are there? Young Michael spent a bit of time round at Hatton Cottage – a whole afternoon once, I know for sure. See, all this was before you and I…” She checked herself, as though afraid. “Look, I’d better leave now, yeah?”
Pulling her coat tightly about herself, Emma said: “But you think carefully about what I’ve told you, you hear? Charker, he’s still after you; Hettie and her lot, they’ll turn the whole village against you. And Joe…” She turned to face him, striving for sincerity within the moist emeralds of her eyes: “Please, just go, lover, okay? Go and don’t come back.”
He reached for her arm. She flinched away. “Better not.”
And she was gone, through the door, down the path half-running, her grey charcoal coat wrapped about her, and along the lane towards her home.
It was Abbey Walker she passed on that hasty retreat: Abbey who looked into her tearful eyes and saw all she needed to see, all she needed to tell. And Joseph’s story became that much more closely intertwined with Emma’s in spite of anything they could do to stop it. For the village machine, as Owen so aptly described it, was inexorable. No-one escaped its scrutiny.
Slamming her front door upon the world, Emma ran blindly for the stairs and the refuge of her bedroom. Here and only here, in this safe cocoon, she could let the tears come as they would; in choking, hysterical sobs of her pain. In this fury of hurt she ripped her coat from her shoulders to be thrown onto the floor, then, in the little red set of lingerie that was all she had on beneath it, she threw herself upon the bed.
“Stupid!” She cried out to the unhearing walls. “Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!”
Sadly though, for Emma, there was one who did hear – one who did see. In the blindness of her passion she had not heard Tom in the kitchen. He had come home early, and he stood now, leaning for support against the jamb of the bedroom door, watching as his wife of just a scattering of years wept herself into sleep. When she had quietened he retreated to the solace of his living room chair, there to do some weeping of his own.
© 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: Eddie Howell on Unsplash