Hallbury Summer – Episode 2. Inconvenient Angels

 

Lying in his single bed, Joseph could see through his window reflected flashes of blue against the sky and he wondered in passing what they might represent; but he was used to the noise and constant siren song of London, so he paid them little heed.   His mind was too full.

Perhaps he had not anticipated the flood of memory that his return to Little Hallbury would generate: perhaps he had thought only of gaining rest and some space.  Yet everything, every turn of every corner, every whisper of breeze, every rustle of leaves was alive with the things of the past.  Even this bed:  how big and soft it had once seemed!  He closed his eyes and turned his head to the pillow, letting the images churn in his brain.  And there was her face, inches from his own – the soft waft of her breath, her deep, deep eyes staring into his with – what? – wonder?  Love?  Fear?

Sarah.

They had grown up together, in a way.  They first met at school, shared a class in those strange years between childhood and adolescence when all was new.  He, intimidated and shy, trying to explain to himself the curtain drawn so dramatically over his early years; she a targeted and thoroughly extrovert young female with an open smile.

“You don’t like girls much, do you, Joey Palliser?”

He had mumbled something, she had given him that bright flash of a grin and loped away – a graceful deer so aware of her beauty, a tower too high for him to even contemplate climbing.

Then she came back.

“Walk home with me – after school?”

Sarah.

Sarah who sang like an angel, and the first time he heard her sing he was bewitched, captured, a hostage forever.  Sarah whose whole life was music, and who would go on to local college and to the London Academy of Music, but who would find time for Joey Palliser on her way.

Sarah.  Heaven knew what she saw in him, or how it came to be they lay in his bed – this bed – with nothing but flesh between them that one night.

His aunt and uncle were visiting friends.

“Come over and stay?”  She came over, and she stayed.

It was not the first time they had lain naked like this, but it was the only time they had made love.  She had withdrawn from him before, frightened that his desperate desires with their dire consequences could threaten her future.  This night – this one glorious night – she had acceded to his entreaties, his insistence that it was “quite safe”.   Why?  He never found out why.  Shortly after, Sarah departed for London and college.  He never saw her again.

“The village is fairly rattling with speculation!”  Julia enthused at breakfast the next morning after she had imparted the news of the murder.  “Apparently Jack Parkin’s been taken in for questioning.”

Owen harrumphed.  “Much good may that do them!”

Recalling his childhood encounters with Violet Parkin, Joseph thought Jack Parkin an unlikely suspect.  Playing jungles with his brother Ian in the reeds by the duck pond one day, he remembered a vast bulk of humanity looming over him like a total eclipse.

“I’se got eggs in them there grass, young ‘uns.”  Violet bellowed.  “Be off, now!”

Then there was the day when, walking across the common past Violet’s house, he heard such an eruption of shouting and seafaring language that he thought some major disaster was taking place.  Drawing closer, hesitating, uncertain it was safe to proceed; he stayed just long enough to see Jack come hurtling from the door, emitting squealing noises not unlike a terrified pig.  He was near to sprinting (the fastest Joseph had ever seen him move) and Violet was hard on his heels flailing at his head with what looked very much like a wooden table leg.  She caught him several hideous cracks before he managed to outrun her, leaving her standing at the edge of the common growling like a Mastiff.

“How is Ian, Joe dear?”  Julia’s enquiry cut across his chain of thought.  “We hear from him so rarely these days.”

“Oh, very well, I suppose.”  He replied defensively.  “I haven’t seen him myself for about a month.”

“Really?  Good Lord!  Well, I suppose he must be very busy.”

Busy?  Well, yes, although Joseph would not attempt to explain to aunt Julia that his prosperous brother’s new and burgeoning quest for political glory might not include him –  quite the reverse.  Julia tended to think of London as a rather large village, where everyone must know one another and visit – at least on a weekly basis.

“The election…”  He tried an expressive shrug.

“Do you think he’ll win?”  Owen asked (a little too crisply, Joseph thought).

“The Party’s doing well in North London generally.  I don’t see why not.”

After breakfast Joseph hedged around Aunt Julia’s:  ‘Well, dear, what do you want to do today?’  with a few muttered generalities and escaped.  He was waiting for, and dreading, the inevitable offer of an ‘outing in the car’ with all it implied, for within that imprisoning tin box lay captivity and open exposure to Owen in cross-examination.  His aunt and uncle must know the truth, of course; he just wasn’t ready to tell them yet.

Joseph slipped quietly through their front door, aware of the beehive drone of conversation he left behind.  Beyond the front gate, he turned his back upon Church Hill and the substance of the village, taking instead a narrow lane which led to Wednesday Common.  He walked in the middle of the road and as he walked he felt the air returning to his lungs, the spring come back into his step.  An early dew fairly dripped from the hedges, nether-world creatures slipped unseen through the grass, so that for a brief moment he could almost believe that he had come home. How should he not?  In so many ways, this was home.  In so many ways, he could wish he had never left.

Here he had come one cold, dark evening in winter, huddled with Ian in the back seat of their uncle’s Vauxhall – too young, then, to understand.  His abject tears had brought a crowing torrent of ridicule from his brother and a sound telling-off from his uncle; thereby setting a tone to their relationship which had lasted even to this day.   Ian was always the favourite.  Ian was a real man – Ian always won.  Of itself this did not present Joseph with too much of a problem – it was, after all, the status quo: his mum and dad had favoured Ian just as obviously, protected Michael, his youngest brother from them both.  Joseph was used to being the lesser child, the not-so-clever child, subject to a different set of rules.

He still might not recognise how traumatised he was, that night, or how his, Ian’s, and his younger brother Michael’s future hung balanced upon a knife-edge.  After all, he was only nine.   When the news had come he was asleep.  Ian was asleep, though he claimed later to have heard the fervent discussion below stairs, to have seen the police car outside their drive.  Joseph had never questioned why his mum and dad had taken Michael with them on the drive to Bristol, and why they, the older brothers, had been left behind with their grandma.  The next morning they were told:  there had been a crash.  Mummy and Daddy were never coming back.   Michael was very ill – maybe they could go and see him in a while.

Time mercifully fogged the memory of those first weeks after the world changed.  The funeral, the black-clad people who loomed over him like tall trees, bending their mournful limbs in sympathy:  the long journey to Little Hallbury, eventual reunion with Michael.  To begin with, Joseph scarcely recognised his youngest brother, his face still puffed, the livid scars across his cheek, the eye that would never properly see again.  In time, he would learn there were other scars, less easy to see.

Deep in reminiscence, Joseph turned the corner of the hedge out onto Wednesday Common with no awareness of the horse and rider coming the opposite way.  It was a big roan horse, all of seventeen hands, and it was difficult to say who was the more shocked.  Both expressed their surprise by stepping back rapidly, though the horse’s reaction was more rapid and a lot more dramatic.

“Settle, you stupid bugger!”  It’s rider commanded in a tone which did not brook disobedience, reinforced by two sharp slaps from her crop.  Joseph found himself apologising to a young woman with slightly angry eyes.

“Yes, well try not to be so scary.”  She admonished, giving him a quirky smile.

It was the briefest of encounters.  The horse danced round Joseph before trying half-heartedly to bolt up the lane.  A further thrashing and some forthright language nipped this in the bud.  Joseph stood for a second or so watching horse and tightly-jodhpur-ed rider’s retreating backs, then made to resume his walk.  A man about his own age had witnessed this incident from a few paces down the track which led over the Common.

“She’m a right ‘andful, ‘er.  Mind, I wouldn’t object to bein’ that ‘orse.”  The man said; then, scrutinising Joseph more closely.  “My Lord!  Joe?  Joe Palliser?”

Joseph returned the scrutiny: meeting a pair of languid, pale blue eyes.  Tall, spare of build, slightly stooped perhaps, hair the colour of a summer beach, that parchment skin which always burned in spite of his outdoor life.

“Tom?”  Yes, this was Tom Peterkin – older, but indisputably.  “Damn!  Still here, then, Tom!”

“Ah, still here.”  Tom nodded sagely, staring down his big long nose with a look Joseph remembered so well.  “Though I’m f****d if I know why.  Mind, you’ve looked more healthy – what brings you back ‘ere?  You a masochist or summat?”

Joseph considered.  If he were to impart his truth to anyone, it should be this close companion of his teenage years.  But he hedged still.  “Oh, I wanted to see the old place, that’s all.  Just for a few days.”

“Ah.”  He felt Tom’s eyes boring into him.  “Come to see the annual pig-flying festival, ah?  I was just takin’ a gander at this howd’y’do.”  Tom nodded towards the far end of the common, where the Parkin house stood, surrounded with black, official looking cars.

“It’s a strange ‘un, this.”

“She was killed then?”  Joe asked.  “That’s the gossip.”

“Aye.  Found ‘er in the dairy, ‘pparently.  Some says a knifing; some says ‘er were strangled.  Can’t get any sense.  Can you imagine tryin’ to strangle Violet?”

“Maybe she’d grown frail with the years?”

“Nah.  You haven’t been here.  Built like a brick shithouse, moved like a tank.”  Tom shook his head.  “Jack didn’t kill ‘er, no way.  If she weren’t indoors I’d say the only way would be to run her over with a truck.

“Still, you aren’t ‘ere for that.  Unless you did it, did yer?  So, what you doin’ wi’ yourself now?  Come on, take a walk with me and give us all the news.”

Walk they did; the quarter-mile across the western corner of the common, past the Parkin house and its ant-horde of police, side by side as it had once been their habit to walk, deep in conversation along rhododendron-fringed Feather Lane towards the Kings Head.

“Old Ned won’t open ‘til twelve today.  He’s getting’ on a bit now, mind.  Come on over to mine – we’ll start early.  I lives in the old Martin House, up by ‘Church.  There’s a Missus Peterkin now.”

“Really?  Do I know her?”

Tom smirked at him and said darkly:  “Ah.  You do.  An’ I’ll tell you who ‘tis if you tell me what brings you back ‘ere.”

“I told you.”

“Ah.  You told me summat.”

The Martin house, whitewashed and prim in the middle of the terraced line generally known as Church Cottages had only been gas-lit, the last time Joseph was there.  He remembered an embarrassing hour as an aged Mrs Martin took him through a photo-album she insisted he should see.  One of those charitable endeavours to indulge the old which always end so badly.

“The old dear died three year ago.  Not ‘ere, in Mary Magdalene’s, thank God.”

St. Mary Magdalene’s was a nursing home in Abbots Friscombe.  The old lady’s house looked bright and renewed, with a fresh, lemon-painted front door opening onto the village street, new thatch and sparkling windows.

Tom opened his front door.  “Got ‘lectric in now.  ‘Tis a lot better.  Come and see what We’ve done to the place.”

Joseph stepped into a front room very different from the dingy and slightly odorous den where he had sat with Mrs Martin’s album of pictures.  White walls, a fitted carpet deeply red, soft, inviting furnishings.  Tom slumped into an easy chair.

“Come on, take the weight off.  Darlin’, get us two beers, will ‘e?”

“Get ‘em yourself!  I’m doin’ the ironin’!”  The voice that replied from the back of the house shot instantly into that place in Joseph’s head which he reserved for cringing.  Emma!

Tom saw his reaction.  “Oh, ‘tis all right lad!  We got over that ages ago!  Emma!  Come and see ‘oo I’ve found!”

And there she was; at first just a silhouette against the light which flooded in from her kitchen as she opened the door.  “Oh, my dear lord!  Joseph Palliser!  What the ‘ell are you  doin’ ere?”

Joseph reflected this was the third time he had been asked that question:  he was beginning to wonder himself.  He got to his feet awkwardly.  “Hello Emma.”

His unease seemed to cause Tom immense amusement.  Perhaps he did not entirely understand its cause.  Emma moved towards Joseph, and though it might have escaped Thomas Peterkin’s attention, Joseph saw his own discomfiture reflected in her eyes, too.  She hadn’t changed.  Urchin cut hair a coppery brown, not quite auburn, a round face which would split into a broad grin at the least provocation.  Nor had she lost one inch of her figure – she was as gently graceful as the girl he remembered.

“Come now, Joe.”  She gave him a perfunctory hug.  Her cheek was cool as a hay-loft breeze.  “You’m welcome here.”

It was as if the one room, this warm, welcoming room, had divided and become three.  Emma brought beers and sat in her box, Tom in his, Joseph sandwiched between them in a segment of his own so distinct from the other two that he was able to decorate its walls with pictures from his memories.  They formed divisions insurmountable by conversation.  You see, the instant Joe met Emma’s eye, he knew that there were pictures on her walls too.  Perhaps by the end of that morning Tom was beginning to know.  Perhaps his were walls he would prefer not to look at.

They went through the motions:  Tom explained that he worked for an agricultural mechanic’s in Abbots Friscombe.

“Remember when old Foskett down on Halls Wood Farm there bought he’s first combine?  He used to go round his fields with it and when the bits fell off he’d just throw ‘em in the hedge!  Well, I go round the hedge picking the bits up and screwing ‘em back on.  See, more and more of ‘em’s buying combines now.  Farm machinery gen’rally’s gettin’ more an’ more complicated.  They can’t jus’ twist ‘un back to life with a spanner and a kick no more. There’s good money in ut.”

Emma had a part-time job at the Co-op in Pettisham, three days a week, served her turn at the Women’s Institute, did an afternoon helping out old Mrs Dickenson, up on Hurst Hill.

“Poor dear, she can’t do hardly nothing’ for ‘erself now, bless her heart.  And she’m such a lovely lady too.”

They had a Ford Cortina, in the lock-ups on Feather Lane.

“Can’t trust to leave nothin’ on the street nowadays.”

They were all a young married couple should be, doing all a young married couple should do.

“Married St. Andrew’s three year gone.”  Tom said.  “You’d have been best man if I’d known where to find you, but Owen Masefield didn’t seem to ‘ave an address for you at the time.  Where’d you disappear to, you bugger?”

Joseph was defensive.  He’d moved around a lot lately, he said:  there were business reasons, personal reasons too.

“We heard you’d married.”  Emma’s look carried a measure of accusation.

“Really?”  Joseph hoped his tone of disbelief would carry the day, and to some extent it did seem to:  but as he and Tom finally departed for the Kings Head, after he had bid a brief, embarrassed farewell to Emma, and Tom was closing his front door (“We was lucky to get this ‘ouse.”)  Tom said:

“And did you?”

“Did I what, Tom?”

“Marry?”

“Yes.  Yes, I did.”

Joseph thought Tom might ask more, but their walk to the pub was oddly silent.  Tom’s mood was contemplative, as though the morning and their reunion had posed a troubling question or two.

The King’s Head was one of the less celebrated Public Houses in the district, a small nondescript building which had fallen into disrepair within the time of Joseph’s memory, and had fallen even further since.  Near to his retirement, Ned Barker the Inn-Keeper took little interest in the weathered inn-sign or the render flaking from the walls:  in fact, he took very little care of his business in any way, except in the care of his beer.  Sometimes, when the mood was upon him, the old brown double doors would remain resolute long after opening time; sometimes they did not open at all.  There were occasions, if the day was sunny, when the old man would be found sitting, pipe stoked to an inferno, upon the fallen tree which lay across the north edge of Farrier’s Meadow well into the afternoon.  Upon such days Ned was immovable.   If the pub were to open it would be because Dot, his wife of forty years, would open it:  and to be truthful she would be better as a host than Ned ever was.  But below the stairs, in the tiny, cobweb-veiled dungeon which was the cellar, Ned was master.  Here he mothered and cosseted his precious kegs of warm beer with the protective instincts of a brood hen; so that, when you could get it, there was no better pint to be had anywhere in the County.  Which was why, in spite of unreliable hours and uncertainty of satisfaction, there would always be a faithful little queue of disciples at those doors every day at eleven thirty, and twelve o’clock on Sundays;  even in depths of winter.

The bar was exactly as Joseph remembered it.  The swing of the inner door produced a familiar squeak, the cloud of smoke it released into the outer world had that same tobacco smell.  Entering, especially when the day outside was sunny, seemed like a plunge into a bronze twilight.  Screwing up his eyes against the gloom, he began to pick out vague figures, five in number, lining a bar of dark-stained wood which formed the left-hand side of the room.  Lime-washed walls browned by nicotine formed the other three sides, the right-hand of which contained a window:  a sash frame with brown glass covered by brown net curtains, heavy brown drapes.  Three tables filled this side of the bar; oaken, polished and liberally engraved.  Equally stalwart-looking chairs surrounded each, their worn cushions bearing little trace of once-lively patterns in red brocade.  None of the customers strayed so far from the bar as to sit at one of these tables.  They never would.   Only old Mrs Higgs, when she was of the inclination to enjoy an evening of milk stout, ever graced those seats.  She and her hapless daughter together contributed to the Pub’s latent odour in their own distinctive way, so providing the true reason, it was said, that everyone else drank standing up.

All conversation ceased the moment Joseph followed his friend through those doors.  In eerie silence Dot Barker rose from some activity below the bar like a surfacing whale.

“Oh, Love us!  Look what the cat dragged in!”

“Well now, You’re going to have to do summat about that cat, Dot.”  Charker Smith’s features had not yet clarified in Joseph’s vision, but his deep voice was unmistakeable.  It wasn’t a friendly voice.  “What you doin’ back ‘ere, boy?”

 

© Copyright 2019 Frederick Anderson

No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

This book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.

 

 

Hallbury Summer – Prologue and Chapter One

Prologue

When I remember the summer days of my childhood I think of hot sun and warm rain.  I recall standing by a dairy door to gaze in wonder at rows of steaming bovine flanks as Alfa Laval milking machines hissed and sucked and a heavy lactose aroma hung on the air.  Or sitting on a field gate to watch elephantine combine harvesters clumber to and fro, or playing on Wednesday Common, making secret pathways through the bracken, dens among the blackthorn.  I remember wars and jealousies and fights, the sense of living – the light of morning.  And it seems to me the sun was younger then.

The village where I grew up was a placid beast, a mother protective of her young.  She made our lives a special thing – to come home to her from the battle of a day was to return to faces that smiled, sounds which comforted, food and rest.  It was a place that was mine, a box for all my memories:  a place of warmth, of peace, and of love.

How does the saying go?  We always hurt the ones we love?  I was neglectful, I know.  As I came to manhood her nurture bored me, my Hallbury, my mother of the Earth.  She hemmed me in, kept me by her isolation from meeting friends, going out, exploring the greater world; until I, like my father before me, would want to leap her fences – to venture into lands beyond.

This my father taught me – that only when I left her would I understand: only when I was miles away in time and space would I wish I could return.  There would be no going back, of course – I might travel the miles, walk up the village street, tap on the same doors – but never pick up the threads I lost, or find again those delicate flowers of friendship I plucked when I went away.  They would be gone, like the times, forever.

So here is the lesson I was given, by way of a tale told to me by my father once when we spoke of these things; when he heard me speak of leaving.   It is a tale of my village, and a story of innocence lost.  It is his account: the scene he describes, of Little Hallbury asleep in the heat of an afternoon, is a picture in my memory too:  but the mother of my memory is not the mother of his: and his story is very different to my own.

Chapter One.

Upon this day Little Hallbury slumbered beneath a solemn sun.  Wednesday Common robed in the bracken-green of summer was motionless and silent.  Around the old, cold stone of barnyard eaves martens twittered, while above them in azure-blue stillness rooks wheeled lazily, carking guttural orders.  A solitary dove warbled from St. Andrews’ steeple.  The service ‘bus’s slow drone as it wheezed and coughed up the hill from Abbots Friscombe stirred verges of frazzled grass to reluctant movement, sending the tiny secret creatures that live there scurrying into deeper shadow.

She would have, must have screamed.  Did she recognise the one who hurt her so, who drove spikes through her wrists – who hung her, like a great doll crucified – upon a wooden wall?  She was still living; still conscious when the prongs struck home: she knew and saw and felt the worst excess of death.  She must have screamed:  how she must have screamed!  But though the stone walls heard and the still air heard, no-one else in the sleeping heat of afternoon heard her. Her last entreaty to the world went unnoticed.

Joseph Palliser, my father, arriving at Braunston on the train from Waterloo had missed his connection, condemning him to an hour on a platform bench.  The little branch line tank engine which finally puffed to his rescue (and which had a certain brassy charm, it was true) struggled with a train lacking any form of charisma.  Its carriages were a sooty, no-corridor horror story – musty compartment after musty compartment of vandalised cushions, each with their own history of graffiti and stains. Joseph perched unwillingly for a jolting half-hour as they groaned and ground their way along the old single-track branch line to Abbots Friscombe.

When his bus grumbled past the military line of poplars on Gypsy Lane it was afternoon and my father had been travelling for nearly seven hours.  He had read “The Andromeda Strain” from cover to cover; he was tired, he was hot.  If ever he needed reminding of his reasons for re-visiting his childhood home so rarely he would recall this day, he told himself, and thereby absolve any guilt he might feel.

There were those evocative sounds, however.  On the station platform at Abbots Friscombe:  the steamy whistle of the little tank engine, the Station Master’s warning:  “Mind the doors now!” followed by clattering closure,  guard’s whistle and screech of heavy wheels, metal on metal.  Then the ‘bus, empty but for himself and a pair of pensioners sitting at the front:  “Af’noon young fella!”  whose low plainsong of conversation was punctuated by a kettle-drum rhythm from a sturdy engine: and now, alighting outside his one-time home in early evening sun, that characteristically noisy rural peace – sweet, pungent harmony of sound and scent – wood pigeon in the trees, raucous rooks, lap and slap of the little brook which ran between road and garden wall.  Melodies unforgettable – so poignant they threatened tears.

Joseph remained by the roadside for a little to collect himself, as the ‘bus struggled off in a black haze of exhaust up Church Hill, past the Andrews’ house where he had played as a young child; past the Walker farm, with all its rumours and romance.  There were so many things to recollect and he could not do justice to them all, so he told himself he was tired and over-emotional, which he quite possibly was, shrugged off the cloak of nostalgia and picked up his suitcase.

A peeling wooden gate, a garden full of the industry of summer:  buzzing among hollyhocks, throaty defending of nests, noisy squabbling over tiny trophies of food.   A front door still painted black, the same black it had been the day he left:  very possibly the same paint.

“Hello Aunt.”

“Good heavens, Joe, you are late!  Let me look at you.  You poor dear, you must have had a nightmare journey!”

Aunt Julia – with another of her infernal cats cradled lovingly in her arms – somehow smaller than his recollection of her, and a little more lined perhaps, but still Aunt Julia.  A smoky voice, large, frank eyes, blue cardigan as ancient as the door-paint.

“Say hello to Benjy.  What do you think of this dreadful election, Joe?  Are we going to get a decent government at last?  Your uncle’s in the kitchen.  Come and get settled in, we’re about to have tea.”

Poking his head into the kitchen, Joseph grunted a greeting.  The figure that was Uncle Owen grunted back.  He was bent over the kitchen table, painstakingly separating seeds with a razor blade.  Several small brown paper bags seemed to be intrinsic to this process.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake Oz, will you get that stuff off the table?  I want to lay it, dear!”

Uncle Owen glared over angry half-lenses.  An old man now, indisputably, his white hair thin, eyes clouded by life – not quite the formidable force of nature Joseph remembered.

Julia said:  “I’ve put you in your old room, Joe.  I thought you’d like that.  Can you find your way?”

Yes, the third stair still creaked.

And here it was, the room of his childhood, his youth, the greater share of a short past.  Like Aunt Julia, a little smaller than he remembered – did houses, like people shrink with age?  Plain green curtains in a sort of straw weave – they were different, but not the window they revealed; that was the same.  Cream paint, cream wallpaper much treated by drawing pin acupuncture:  Presley would have been there, above the oak chest of drawers, smouldering defiantly at Bill Haley’s amused disdain on the opposite wall.  The door to the wall cupboard which served as a wardrobe, where Little Richard’s dark menace once lurked – Johnny Mathis cow-eyed over a table laden with comic book imagination.

They were all gone now.  Or were they?

Joseph swung the cupboard door open.  An odd array of empty hangers on a wooden rail played host to a well-worn pair of gardening trousers he assumed must be his Uncle’s.  And there, behind them, on the cupboard’s rough plaster wall, was his montage – a winter’s day of artistic endeavour and glue when he was just twelve years old.  Presley again – always there – united by paste down the years with The Platters, Doris Day, Bobby Darin, Chuck Berry…..and…..

Faces he had already forgotten, names he could no longer place – once so important in his life that some had seemed more than life itself, all so easily erased.

Voices from below the stair:  Aunt Julia and his uncle arguing.  A somehow comforting sound because they had always argued, and it was good to know this at least had not changed.

It was half-past seven that night before Jack Parkin was told that his wife was dead.  Janice Regan, who cleaned the church, had walked into Violet Parkin’s kitchen the way she usually did at half past five.  Violet always spent her Friday morning washing “Vicar’s bloody surplices” and, given a good drying day, they would be ready for Janice to collect, so she could take them “Up St. Andrew’s” when she cleaned in the church the next morning.  Surprised to see the dry vestments still dangling idly from Violet’s washing line, she had called out:  first, she called up the stairs of the dilapidated cottage.  Receiving no reply from there, she went out into the yard that had once been the yard of the Parkin farm and called again.  Apart from an anxious clucking of hungry hens, Janice heard nothing:  and then she became concerned.  Violet had never “been out” – never in thirty years, and precious little in the twenty-five years before that – the years before she married Jack.  Oh, there was the Sunday trip to Church, and there were stories, of course, of other outings; but never on a Friday afternoon.  Across the sun-fissured mud of the yard, the broken door of the old dairy hung half-open: unsure why her fingers had started to tremble, Janice walked towards it.

Jack was in the little village of Fettsham, two miles away.  He was at his usual place at the bar of the Black Horse, with his usual pint of cider clamped in his earth-blackened fingers.

“Need to talk to ‘ee Jack.”  P.C. Hallett studied the labourer’s face closely.  It was never possible to tell if Jack was drunk, but the likelihood of his being sober was fairly remote.  Those who knew him well claimed he never was.

“Ha’ a pint Davy?”  Jack Parkin: man of few words, fewer expressions.  Those who wanted to be unkind said ‘man of few thoughts’.  Jack stared.

“Come an’ sit down over ‘ere.”  Davy Hallett coaxed.  He knew better than to insist.   “Give ‘un a shove?”  He requested the two companion bar-proppers at Jack’s side.  Persuasive hands guided Jack to a settle.  Aggravated grunts issued from Jack.  Someone thoughtfully provided a full glass.  Jack’s hand moved to embrace it.

“’Tis Violet, Jack: ‘tis Violet.”  Hallett saw the old man’s eyes had moved.  There was a rheumy depth to them, a pool of silted emotions.  “She’m been ‘urt, Jack.  She’m been ‘urt bad.”

“Violet?”  Hallett wasn’t sure if Jack had recognised the name.

“Violet your wife.  She’m been taken, Jack.  She’s died, old chap.”

“Violet.  Ah.”  Parkin’s hand lifted the pint glass to his fat lips.  “She’m what?”

#

“Passed on.”  Uncle Owen fiddled irritably with a piece of butter as it skittered before his knife.  “Gone to his Maker about five years ago, now.”  He pinned a slice of bread to his plate as though he feared it might also escape him, reached for a second slice.  The business of bringing bread and butter together so all edges and crusts exactly matched was an elaborate one, taking immense concentration.  “He was mad as a hatter for two years at least before that.  Used to wander around the village knocking on doors.  We’d know about that, wouldn’t we?”  He fixed Joseph with a stare.

“Poor old man must have called here a dozen times, Joe dear.”  Julia explained.  “Asking about war-time comrades, you know?  All dead, of course.”

“He wasn’t that old, that’s the thing; still completely ga-ga though.  Should have been in a home.”  Uncle Owen opined.  His battle with his bread and butter was entering its final phase, the invasion of the jam.

Joseph tried to balance this image with his own of Aleph Parkin:  of the handlebar moustachioed man in his waistcoat and cap whose permanence he had never doubted;  an amiable figure with two beloved terriers milling about his ankles who walked the village lanes on a never-ending journey, always ready to stop and talk, always with a tale to tell.  Aleph was gone!  Jack Parkin’s older brother, the pair of them as unlike as scrumpy and ale – Aleph who was never drunk and Jack who always was – yet Jack who was the worker: whereas Aleph, to the knowledge of those in the village with long enough memories, had never worked a day in his life.

“A war wound, young ‘un;” Aleph explained one day to a garrulous young Palliser with courage enough to ask:  “can’t work, see?  I was at Wipers, boy. Shrappel.”

But if Joseph tried to pin him down as to the exact nature of the injury from the battlefields of Ypres that had so afflicted his life, Aleph would be less specific.

“I has to sit down a lot, see?”

So Joseph sought the truth from Mrs Martin, a solitary old pensioner who lived in a stuffy little cottage by St. Andrew’s Church.  “Oh yes, dear,” She confirmed:  “it was a shrapnel wound.  I remember when Beth  Parkin got the letter. there was weepin’ and wailin’ and all sorts that day, my lord!  Beth,you see, she always favoured Aleph.  He was her first.  She never wanted a second son and when Jack came along a dozen year later he was a bit of a surprise, I can tell you!  And there was some of us wondered but that’s not for me to say.

“Anyways, she never set Aleph to work as a child, though she had Jack out working when he was ten summers old.  Then Aleph went to war at sixteen, and then there was the wound.  He comes home on crutches and Beth she has a hero’s welcome waitin’ for him – she made half the village turn out with flags and that.  He hasn’t worked since, and he didn’t work afore.  I suppose that’s why he and his brother doesn’t get on so well.  That and the other thing.”

Mrs Martin wouldn’t be drawn upon the subject of ‘the other thing’ but it was common knowledge the pair of brothers had little time for each other.  Joseph had seen at first hand how Jack might take a different road rather than pass his brother upon it.  If they should unavoidably meet they would pass with no more than a grunted acknowledgement, and Jack would take a swipe at one of Aleph’s dogs with his boot.

Leaning on the bar at the King’s Head in the days when he was still welcome there, Jack was also scathing concerning Aleph’s wound.

“War wound?  War wound be buggered!  He didn’t get no shrappel at Wipers.  When I finally got ‘un to ‘elp unload the hay-cart down our yard he dropped a bale on my head so I shoved a fork handle up his arse. In ‘thirty-six that was and he’s never forgotten ‘un. that’s the only wound he got!”

Joseph remembered the mouth organ Aunt Julia had given him for his thirteenth birthday – something then treasured, for somehow he had always believed he had a future in music.  Breathing idle chords upon it one afternoon on his way back from school he had come upon Aleph sitting on the wall outside Polkcombe Farm, his two Jack Russell terriers milling impatiently around his feet.

“Armonicky is ‘ut?”  Aleph said.  “Can I ‘ave a go, young ‘un?”

Joseph had lent his precious instrument reluctantly, then watched horrified as Aleph plucked a complete set of porcelain teeth from his mouth and placed them on the wall beside him.   The vaguely recognisable sea-shanty a toothless Aleph wheezed out was the last tune the instrument ever played.  When the old man had finished and Joseph politely retrieved it he put it in his pocket and walked away, not waiting to see the teeth replaced.  In his room that evening he put the mouth organ in his drawer, unable to countenance the thought of raising it to his own lips.  For all he knew, it was still there.

“Well!”  Julia folded her hands in her lap.  “I think we’ve accounted for the local population for now.  So what about you, Joe?  We didn’t expect you to come visiting.”

It was a rebuke, and Joseph knew it.  Somehow he had to explain how this place, which had been an irrelevance for so long, had suddenly become so important to him.  He had always insisted that to look back, to retreat into the past was wrong – a mistake.  What had changed?  He muttered an apology, said something about the business in London keeping him away.

“I just wanted to see you, I suppose; and to stay for a few days.  I hope it isn’t too inconvenient?”

“It’s bloody inconvenient!”  Uncle Owen spluttered, consuming his victory.  “Should have changed the locks.”

Julia smiled.  “Take no notice of your uncle, dear.  It’s his peculiar sense of humour.”

Joseph was not entirely certain his uncle was joking.  Much later, when he finally managed to extricate himself from his hosts’ gently persistent interrogation and retire to his old room, he pulled open that drawer.  The mouth organ was gone.

In the gathering evening, blue lights of police vehicles flickered from around Violet Parkin’s cottage with increasing brilliance, while rumours flickered around the village, building upon themselves.

Hettie Locke, Ben Locke’s wife was first to break the news.  “She was dead in the dairy, stuck up against the stall!  Janice ‘twas found ‘er!  Er ‘adn’t even ironed vicar’s surplices!”

“There were poor Violet’s blood ever’where!”  Abbey Walker’s eyes grew wider as she passed the story on.

“Pinned against the wall with pitchforks, she were, poor soul.”  Mary Gayle relayed the information to Paul over dinner; adding as an afterthought: “I ‘spect vicar ‘ll be askin’ me to do ‘is surplices now.”

“Nailed to thic wall with pitchforks!”  Paul Gayle told a rapt gathering at the King’s Head.  “Er were hangin’ upside down be all accounts!”

Word of Jack’s arrest followed.

“Jack?”  Cried Rob Pardin.  “’E’d never do that to ‘er, wouldn’t Jack!”

“Wouldn’t ‘urt a fly, wouldn’t Jack.”  Agreed Aaron Pace.  “But they got ‘un!”

 

© Copyright 2019 Frederick Anderson

No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

This book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.

 

‘Summer’ is here!

 

I’ve been away for a while, so I’d better explain some stuff.

My ‘write as you go’ serial stories (two so far) have proved popular reading on this blog and I want to do more, but time management is a problem.  I want to prepare those finished titles;  ‘A Place that was Ours’ and ‘Nowhere Lane’ for publication as books, revamp my Kindle page and to start experimenting with a vlog – three projects which, against the background of other summer commitments, demand rather more hours than my day can provide.  So…

Up comes the serialised version of my book ‘Hallbury Summer’!

‘Summer’ is a thriller that has enjoyed very little exposure, yet it is one of my favourite pieces of work and deserving of more.  Here is the ‘blurb’:

Beneath the blistering sun a village sleeps, while unheard and 
in a dark place a woman is ritually murdered.
Hallbury will remember the day Joseph Palliser came home.
Emma who loved him when he left ten years ago would discard her marriage to be with him; the furiously independent Sophie could so easily fall victim to his feckless appetite. But Joseph has secrets neither can know, and he has only to turn over a stone or two to find the village has secrets too; secrets that are dangerous to learn.
Hallbury Summer is a tale of a serene English village, a village with a primal, lethal heart. 
It is a place where Joe Palliser perfectly belongs.

Beginning from tomorrow, an episode a week will be available to read here, completely free.   I will be serialising the whole book, so I hope you won’t think of this as a ploy to persuade you to buy the original, but there will be certain differences in the blog edition; I will not, for example, be able to follow the original book ( bit.ly/Hallbury ) chapter for chapter – the episodes will be adjusted so each provides a hook to the next.   There are also one or two semi-erotic passages that will have to be moderated a bit!

So, tomorrow, then!  Barring computer crashes or other natural disasters, ‘Summer’ will be here.   I do hope you’ll join me!