The story so far:
‘Wiccan Priestess’ Margaret Farrier tells Joe his brother Michael was rejected by the Hallbury witches, who Margaret insists are harmless herbalists. She denies knowledge of recent desecration in the village. He shows her the package from Violet’s home which she identifies as a love charm. Ned Barker, deceased landlord of ‘The King’s Head’, is its subject.
Joe finally finds his brother Michael in the grip of a psychotic episode. He placates him, and his elder brother arranges to have him taken into care. Regardless of the hour, a traumatised Joe seeks support from Tom Peterkin, his best friend. He knocks at his friend’s door, and it opens…
“Oh my Lord!” Cried Emma.
This was not expected! Joe tried to form words, “Emma, is Tom….?”
“Oh Joe!” She took his arms, drew him inside; “Are you hurt? What have you done?”
In the light of her living room, bleary eyes wide with astonishment Emma took in his dishevelled state. “Damn it Joe….” She guided him to an armchair.
“Is Tom awake?” Joe repeated without thinking, because he was incapable of rational thought, right then. Why had he not expected Emma to greet him at the door?
“I’ll get you something to drink.” From the bar Tom had made for a corner of the room, Emma half-filled a whisky glass and brought it to Joe, shuffling in pale green slippers, her dressing gown tied carelessly about her, dropping to her knees to look at him more closely. “This is blood! You’m been in the wars properly, haven’t you?”
In the wars? For hours that seemed like forever his head had been filled with Sophie’s rejection, the shock of his inheritance, Michael’s expressionless face, his emptiness, his despair. And here was Emma, with her emerald eyes which, full of sleep though they were, could still hold him in thrall, her hair in a tangles, and the smokiness of night in her voice filling him with a warmth of reminiscence for long-ago mornings. To go back there – yes, those were his first rational thoughts for a while…
“Tom?” He struggled to complete his mantra. Only a summons to Tom would make this early morning intrusion excusable: Tom’s presence would quell the surges of emotion which were bursting in his chest, make everything respectable – everything right.
“He’m not here, Joe. I’m sorry.”
“Not here?” He repeated her words, mechanically. At this time of night? “I must see him, Emm. Where is he?”
“Tom’s gone, Joe. He don’t live here no more. Let’s not talk about it now, hmm? Seems like you’m got bigger things on your mind, boy.”
But no, this was exactly what he wanted to talk about. “Gone? Why, what’s happened, Emm?” For all the scheming of his subconscious mind, that demonic genie that dogged every virtuous decision he attempted to make, it had never occurred to him that his return to Emma’s life might lead to a separation from Tom – or so he would exculpate himself. But his genie would secretly smile.
She shook her head, seeking strength. Her features puckered for a second as though she was about to cry. “I was stupid. I did something stupid. Not that it mattered. The village does the damage anyway, once the talking starts. Don’t matter what you try and do – how hard you try. I hurt him, Joe…I hurt him real bad…..”
Emma got to her feet quickly, turning so he should not see the chance escape of a tear. “You stay comfor’ble there. I’ll heat some water for ‘e so’s you can get a bath – some of Tom’s clothes…” She hurried away, through the door into her kitchen. He forced himself to his feet, following her in the grip of something too strong to be refused, finding her standing in the centre of the flagstone floor with her back to him. Her shoulders were shaking.
“Emma, I’m so sorry!”
“Sorry? Why? Is it your fault? I’m long past blaming you, Joe – for comin’ back, whatever. It’s me! It’s all me!”
His hand reached out. She brushed it aside. “Don’t!”
He reached out again.
“Stop!” Emma told him. “You don’t know what you’re doing. You’re tired, you’re upset…”
His fingers touched her wet cheek, all of him shaking at the sense and feel of her. “I should never have left you.” He said.
“Joe, we’m married to other people – both of us.” She turned, looked up into his face no longer careful of her tears. “Think o’ the things we’d destroy. Think o’ your poor wife, Joe. I don’t know her, but….”
He pressed his finger to her lips. “Come back and sit down.” He said.
“But the water’s hot, look. You needs to rest, whatever it is can save until tomorrow…”
He was insistent, guiding Emma to her living room couch where he sat down beside her, took her trembling hands and told her everything. The words he used, though garbled by fatigue and tainted by the thunderhead of regret above his head, came from deep within him – some not his own, because in his confession it was many times easier to use the criticisms and descriptions of others; of Marian, of Ian, of those acquaintances who had passed by and paused for a while on the winding London road. It was Marian, after all, who had told him he was weak, Ian who had described him as a leech, Owen who gave him the title of Gigolo. Joe wanted Emma to see him in the light he turned upon himself.
“I know what I am. I know who you let into your house tonight.”
When he came to speak of Marian’s death, however, he had no other words than those his own heart could speak. He described her fondly, honoured her memory.
At the news Joe was not married, Emma caught her breath, raised tired eyes to the ceiling. When he had finished, she withdrew her hands from his, so that for a moment he thought he had lost her, that she would turn away now she knew the truth. She got to her feet, looked down on him, then tenderly cradled his face in her hands.
“Not married then?” She said.
“Joe, Joe! All they other things – I’ve known them since we met. God knows you’m not perfect, and maybe some’d find you weak, or selfish? But back in them days…” She paused, reflecting; “Well, there was a seed I saw growing and p’haps you didn’t see it, or if you did you turned your back. Together we were strong, Joe. We would have been so strong!”
Here he would have spoken, but she stilled him. “No, let me say what must be said. I knew you didn’t really love me. I would have settled for that.” Again he made to protest, again she held him in check. “No, you didn’t. You didn’t then and you probably don’t now: but I can see something tonight I didn’t see back then: I can see why. You don’t know how to love, Joey. Maybe because you lost your mum and dad so young, lost your home and everything – maybe because of your upbringing with those two bloody awful brothers of yourn, or because of what happened to Rod Smith, I can’t tell. But this is what’s left. You can’t trust – not nobody. You can’t give yourself. It isn’t in you.”
Joe wanted to dissemble, although in his heart he knew that everything Emma said to him was true. So when she tugged his hand to make him stand up he meekly obeyed. “Come on. Whatever happened tonight, you’m exhausted, boy. Get yourself a bath while I makes up the bed in the spare room. When you’ve slept us’ll talk some more, if you want.”
And so it was. He drew himself a bath among the dangling tights and bath-oil forests that were part of Emma’s separate life, and took on one of Tom’s old coats while she did her best with his mangled clothing. Then he fed himself between sheets of cool linen and fell into a sleep deeper and more dreamless than he had known in years. No condition, then, to hear the bedroom door quietly open, or the muted pad of Emma’s feet.
She stood for a long time, irresolute, torn between need and pride, content, as she believed, to watch the slumbering figure in the bed. But the early hours of morning were cold, and there was a heat within her that would brook no denial at the last. All the years of fruitless waiting seemed to point towards this moment, on this one night, and if there was a goddess of the Earth she stood commanded now. So it was that like an act of worship to the first light of dawn Emma slipped the nightdress from her body and slid soundlessly into bed, draping herself behind Joe’s unwary form; making a promise to herself she knew she would not keep; that she would leave again before he woke.
Joseph’s eyes opened to daylight. He could not tell whether or not the day was far advanced or how long he had slept, Beyond the opened window no sound, other than the melodies of the birds. Within, and close to him, the regular rhythm of Emma’s breathing, as fragrant and as gentle as the touch of a breeze; around him, the arms he had lived without for many, many years.
Hours had passed. They had made love, conspired together with words that were for them alone, and drifted back into sleep. Now, as Joseph woke it was to the touch of lips upon his cheek. Smiling serenely Emma slipped a lazy arm across his shoulders
“Oh my lord!” she murmured, “I’m in such trouble with you!”
“You are.” He grinned, indicating the open window. “You’re reputation’s gone, for sure.”
She was rueful. “I was noisy, wasn’t I?”
“You were a bit. I think the whole neighbourhood heard us. In fact, I think I detected a round of applause.”
She slid a leg over the side of the bed. “You can be sure they was listenin’ in. Not that it matters. They’d have guessed anyway, what with the car parked outside all night. They curtains‘ll have been twitchin’ long afore now.”
“When you said – what you said last night; about my not loving you?” Joe clutched her arm, seeking to detain her, “Maybe that was true, in a way. Maybe you’re right, I can’t really love anyone. But I want to be with you more than any of the things I am supposed to want from life – when you walk away from me it’s as though a part of me leaves with you; if there’s a way for me to love, that’s it. I love you, Emm.”
Even while he was speaking, her bright green eyes were filled once more with tears. She stretched out her fingers to stroke his cheek.
“There’s a pretty speech.” She said. “Thank you, Joe darling. Dress now, and I’ll get us something to drink, yeah?”
He did not want the dismissal in her voice. He did not want to leave her.
“No.” Emma said more firmly. “Go on now Joey. It’s for the best.”
Joe nodded mutely, acceptance. A moment that was past, a threshold he should never have crossed. Outside; the seedling corn, clover, cornflower and meadowsweet, children to the burgeoning sun – inside, Emma with the Earth Mother’s blessing within her, primal and so, so powerful; To turn away was hard.
“It’s peaceful, isn’t it?” Said Emma’s voice beside him. “You belong here, Joe; you – not your brothers, just you. You always did.”
They had dressed. He, standing by the window again, looking out on the sun-drenched fields and the rain-clouds gathering over the hill; she, stripping the bed of its tell-tale linen, in practical mode. His thoughts were whirling, confused – why had he believed, somewhere in his shrivelled and damaged soul that they could do what they had done and walk away? It was, after all, so easy when he had done exactly that before. Not this time. He had cuckolded a friend, taken the thing that friend held most dear; coveted Emma, slept with her in his house. What was he? What kind of amoral monster could do such a thing?
Emma came to him.
“Don’t ‘ee punish yourself Joe dear.” She told him gently, as though she could read his thoughts,: “We’m both weak, selfish creatures. You at least held back until I told you Tom had left. I came to you, remember? I’ve no excuses at all, except one. I could have no more resisted the nearness of you last night than I could live without water. You’m my fate, Joe – you always were.” She lapsed into silence, gazing out with him into the bright yellow of the corn, the indigo threat of the coming storms.
As they ate breakfast that was nearly lunch together, Emma expressed the opinion Tom might return to collect some of his possessions that evening, after he had finished his work. Thus the full story of Tom’s separation from her was revealed. She told Joe why she had been unable to remove her coat the last time they met, during her visit to the Masefield house, and how Tom had discovered her lying in that state of undress when she returned home afterwards.
“He knew, you see – where I’d been? He knew as soon as you comed back, Joe. I couldn’t hide it from him; he was too clever – he understands me too well.”
That evening they had rowed. Tom had snatched a few belongings and left. He was staying with a friend in Braunston, this much she knew. Other than one telephone call, though, Emma had not heard from him since. It was in that call, after Tom had stated his wish that they should separate, that he had suggested this night as an opportunity for their final meeting.
“I still loves him, Joe. There’ll always be a space in my heart for Tom.”
Joe wanted to stay, to help her face it out with her husband; Emma wouldn’t hear of it. “No, my love, this is my fight. I’ll deal with it my way.”
He nodded his understanding. “He was my friend too, but alright, if that’s what you want. Now what about us, Emma?”
Emma pressed her finger to his lips. “Don’t think about that – no plans, no promises Joe.”
At the door, as they paused to let a pair of village feet click past outside, she whispered: “Besides, I’m a scarlet woman now, aren’t I? Who else could I turn to?”
She kissed him goodbye with fervent passion, knowing this was the last time she would kiss him that way, hustled him gently onto the street, then watched his retreating back as he returned to the waiting Wolsey. And in the sure and certain knowledge that most, if not all of her wishes had been achieved on this night of nights, she tried to imagine the little shoulders that would grow to be so broad, the tiny eager lips that would hunger for her breast, and the end to all the yearning years.
Feeling explicably guilty, Joe did not return to the Masefield house, for he could not face his elderly relations with a sober countenance and deny the electric change that had just taken place in his life. Instead, as the first distant sounds of thunder muttered their warning, he drove himself by an old road that wound and climbed into the Maddock Hills until it emerged from between high hedges onto a bare hilltop, elevated sufficiently to overlook the coming storm. Here, he allowed the sheer celebration in his heart to join with the theatre of the elements. It would not be moved aside by thoughts of propriety; so when he tried to turn his brain to the Parkin murders, or to Michael’s distress, even Marian’s sweetly melancholy letter, it merely threw up another image of Emma, and his body would fill with the same heat, the same need. Wondering about her, fearing for her lest Tom should fly into a rage, or she should give way to despair, or change her mind, or…. All the while the lightning ripped, the thunder volleyed, the rain fell with the intensity of a glass curtain, sweeping across the valley in fold upon fold.
Hours later, on his way back to the village, Joe called Ian from the telephone box on ‘The Point’.
“Michael’s fine. He needed a little sedative, and a lot of rest, but he’s safe now.”
“That blood, Ian…he was covered in it!”
“I know.” Ian said. “Look, Joe, there’s no proof. If we were wrong and he hadn’t done anybody any harm, think what we would be putting him through!”
“Is he speaking now? Has anyone asked him where he’s been? Ian, if he’s done something to somebody, then he’s dangerous. There are people who need to know.”
“Do you think I don’t understand that? No, he hasn’t said anything. The doctors think he may be some time regaining his speech – a psychotic episode, is how they describe it. Samples of the blood’ll be sent away and tested. We’ll know ourselves for sure in a couple of weeks.”
“And meanwhile there’s an election?”
Ian sighed. “All right, yes: there’s an election. I’ve worked all my life for this, Joe. Is it so wrong to want to keep the waters calm for a few days? Give me a chance to succeed?”
“I will. I’m sure the answer to all this is in that house – why would he come back here if it weren’t for that?”
“The Parkin house. I need to get in there, get some time to look around properly.”
“Joe! Joe, let it lie, please. Just let go for once, will you?”
Joseph discovered his Aunt Julia in her kitchen, mop in hand. One glance told him that now was not a good time for glad tidings.
“That infernal storm. The rain found its way into the scullery. Everything’s ruined!”
“He’s on the roof, trying to fix it. Help him dear, will you? I worry about him up there – it’s almost dark!”
“No need!” Owen’s muffled voice consoled her from the heavens: “I’ve done it, I think! I’m coming down!”
Leaning through the scullery door, Joe could see the devastation that torrents of rain could wreak upon packets of flour, boxes of sugar, salt, soap powder, and other household commodities – his aunt and uncle’s supplies for a week, mostly reduced to salvage.
The ceiling had caved in, plaster littered the shelves.
And revelation was a slap in the face, a thousand curtains opening, a fanfare in trumpets of gold.
© 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.