Hallbury Summer – Episode Twenty-five Purification

The story so far:

Shaken badly by his discovery of his brother Michael, bloodied and in possession of a knife, then further upset by having to watch as Michael is taken into care, Joe Palliser arrives upon his erstwhile friend Tom’s doorstep, seeking help.  The door is opened, however, not by Tom but by his wife, Emma, and he learns Tom, aware of her love for Joe, has left her.   Passions flare and Joe makes love to Emma.

Joe does not return to his aunt and uncle’s house until late afternoon, in the lea of a storm.  He finds the pantry roof has leaked, and looking at the ruined food provides him with a spark of inspiration.

Joe clasped Julia’s shoulder so fiercely she squealed in alarm.  “Joe, dear!”

“Aunt – telephone the police.  Get Constable Hallett to meet me at the Parkin house as soon as he can.  Tell him it’s vital he comes quickly, yes?”

Gripped by an urgency he had neither time nor ability to explain, Joe barely acknowledged Julia’s dumb expression.  “Do it for me – please?”  He nearly collided with Owen as he ran from the door.

In the garage, he hurriedly assembled those tools that had accompanied him on his and Sophie’s raid the previous week.  The bag was where he had left it, most of the equipment easily to hand.  He rushed out into the lane, packing the bag into the back of his Wolsey, acting in such haste that it was not until he had turned the car and headed towards the road that he saw Tom’s Cortina parked at the end of the lane, blocking his path.

As he juddered to a halt, Emma’s husband swung from the driver’s seat, striding towards him.

“You bastard!”

Oh, god, not now!  His heart palpitating, Joe climbed from the Wolsey, stood in the lane – ready to face Tom, to take whatever he chose to hand out.

“No, it’s alright; I aren’t come to hit you, though f**k knows I should!”  Needles of torture were shooting through Tom’s face – agonies Joe could imagine, but never share.  “We was friends once, Palliser – that’s why I’m here.  You got to go!  You got to go now!”

Joe was speechless.

“Take Emma with yer.  I don’ want ‘er.  I told her.  She’s waitin’ for yer – I seen to that!  You got to leave now.”

“I can’t leave, Tom. There’s something I must do.”

Tom shook his head.  “No.  Nothin’ you must do, boy.  Charker Smith’s after yer.  Someone’s been stirrin’ ‘im up.  He’s been drinkin’ hard all af’noon, an’ ‘e’s sworn he’s goin’ to send yer to meet his brother tonight. He’s on his way from Friscombe now, and he’s got his twelve-bore with ‘un.  You got to be out of ‘ere, ‘fore it’s too late.”

What did Joe feel?  Fear, certainly: he had no wish for a showdown with Charker – especially now.  He searched frantically for inspiration.  “Then help me, Tom!  Oh, I’m so, so sorry about Emma and everything that’s happened between us, but Tom, I have to do this before I settle anything with Charker.  I must!”

Tom’s expression was one of complete disbelief:  “Settle with ‘im?  Boy, he’s goin’ to kill yer!  You don’t ‘settle’ with folks like Charker!  What’s the matter with the’?  See here:  Emma, she deserves to be ‘appy.  If she can’t be ‘appy with me, then it’s you she must have.  You aren’t no good to her in a bag, Joe!”

Overwhelmed by Tom’s generosity of spirit, Joe stumbled over his words, but his resolve was absolute.  “There’s been two deaths already in this village – have you forgotten that?  If I don’t act there’ll be at least one, maybe two more.  I think I know what’s been going on Tom and I have to finish it.  I have to get inside the Parkins’ house tonight – now!  The answer’s there, I’m sure of it.  Let me through, please?!”

It was more of a plea than anything else, but it seemed to weigh with Tom.  Those who had died, after all, had been his neighbours too.  Tom was ever a man of action.

“You mad?  All right, if you want to get yerself shot – I’m comin’ with yer, though.  We’ll take mine.”

“You don’t have to, Tom, you’re not part of this…”

“F**k you, Palliser, shut up boy!  Get in – this ‘un’s faster’n your’n!”

“Wait, then!”

Joe grabbed the tools from his own car, ran to join Tom in his.  They were in motion before he could even shut his door.

The Cortina flew.  It flew as though Tom had no desire to live, did not care whether he had a destination or none.  He aimed the vehicle at the bend which led their lane out into Wednesday Common, passing in a flicker the hedge where Joe and Emma had first kissed, where Joe and Sophie had said goodbye.

“See, Joe; I know‘t weren’t all you.  I knows that.  Emma and I, we aren’t been right fer a while.  ‘T would have been alright if we’d had kids, see.  ‘Twould have been alright then.”   He threw the car around the junction at The Point, tail-sliding past the telephone box and missing it by a whisker.  “Then you come’d back, you bastard, and I knew.  I knew.”

The Parkin house was ahead of them now, crouching beyond the bracken in the dusk like some maleficent insect.  Was there – did Joe see – a figure, just for an instant?  Someone half-walking, half-running, around the corner into Feather Lane?  They were there themselves seconds after, scraping to a halt beside the hay barn.

“Now let’s get on with this, whatever ‘tis, and get you both out of ‘ere!”  Tom urged him.

“There’s a window open round the back.”  Joe grabbed the bag of tools.

“No need.”  Tom rejoined.  “Front door’s open – look!”

Someone had been there!  Upon a sudden presentiment and with Tom close behind him, Joe set off for the house door at what amounted to a run.  The smell of smoke hit him immediately – behind it, just as pungent, another tell-tale scent.

“Petrol!  Somebody’s torched the place!”  He shouted.  “Come on, quickly!”

Inside the dim hallway a brown-paper crackle of burning timber added to their exigency.  Smoke crept along the ceiling like a black arachnid, reaching everywhere, probing for release.  Through the wide-flung living room door an orange muzzle of flame snapped and snarled, bubbling the dark varnish of the architrave.  “In there?”  Tom asked.

“No, this way.”  Joe thrust a shoulder against the kitchen door:  it dragged open.  “How do you know Charker’s intent on shooting me?”

The smoke followed them, filling the space above their heads.

“I’m drinkin’ down there now.  I was in the pub as he was workin’ hisself up to it.  He’s pissed silly.  He’d do anythin’ when he’s like that.”  Tom said, closing the door behind them as best he could.  “What the ‘ell are we lookin’ fer?”

“It didn’t strike me until today,” Joe replied,  “I broke in here a few nights ago, trying to find something I’ve known was here all along.  But I didn’t work it out, the first time.”  Behind them, the fire was growing, wood splitting and groaning in the heat.  “Look at the ceiling!”

“What of it?”

“It’s dry – well, almost.  There’s a room upstairs on this end of the house, where a lot of the roof’s gone.  Rain from there must soak through, but it hasn’t, not in here.  So behind this …” He grabbed at a high welsh dresser which dominated the far wall:  “Give me a hand, will you?”

Tom jumped forward, lending his weight.  Showered by a minor cascade of Violet’s best plates the pair slid the heavy wooden edifice aside and instantly a rush of stale, fetid air assailed their nostrils.

“…Is an extra room!”  Joe’s voice betrayed more trepidation than triumph.

The big cupboard had concealed a doorway.  In the day’s fading light there was little to illuminate the small room beyond it save for thin, vertical cracks permeating a rectangular area in the far wall, evidence of wooden screening over what once might have been a window.

“This here’s a hatch!”  Tom raised his voice above the growing roar behind them.  “Us’ll have to get out this way now, boy.  There’s no goin’ back through there!”  He shook his head in bewilderment.  “How come I never noticed this afore?  You must be able to see ‘un from outside!  ‘T would ‘ave been the buttery once, I reckon.  That bolt holds ‘un – you got a wreckin’ bar?”   Joe produced the gemmy he had previously used to force entry to the house, and Tom wasted no time in setting about the bolt, which was seized up by rust.  He worked methodically with a born mechanic’s hands, accustomed to stubborn fastenings in obscure places.

“There she goes!” Tom cried.

The hatch split into two wooden shutters which snapped back with a bang to admit what was left of the daylight.  Their surrender, though, also whipped the fire beyond the kitchen to a fury.  The door from the passage burst open, inducing a gale of heat and smoke from the body of the house, which was now well alight.

“Good glory!”  Tom’s choking gasp was spontaneous.  Joe, too, took a sharp breath, taking acrid smoke into his throat.  Whether he had expected it or not, the sight that greeted them was grim.

Even given its new source of illumination this little room, in size barely more than a cupboard, remained wreathed in gloom.  The threatening glow of the fire did more, highlighting features of the wall to the right of the hatch, against which there stood a small table embellished by two pewter candlesticks and an altar cloth fallen into shredded decay.  On the wall behind the table was a large and quite exquisitely carved crucifix, suspended upside down within a crudely painted pentangle.

The plaster-less walls, saturated by a constant intrusion from water,: were already steaming in the fire’s heat.  A live and very active fungal growth filled one corner, tendrils from it reaching squid-like right and left, its main shoot climbing upwards in delicate white steps.  Fungal stench intensified the oppressive atmosphere.

“Who’s there?”  Tom’s cry was instinctive, “There’s someone in ‘ere!”

Joe snatched a torch from his bag. There was no-one.  The beam, flashed about him at eye-level, discovered only Tom.  “It’s the humidity,” he tried to explain.  “The fire’s vaporizing the damp in here.  The place is wringing wet!”

But superstition was a part of Tom’s nature.  “I don’t like this ‘ere, boy!   Gives me the creeps, this!”

His disquiet was so palpable he seemed to have all but forgotten the rapidly encroaching peril of the fire.  Coughing smoke from his lungs, Joe martialled all his concentration, forcing himself to keep exploring this hellish little space.  Upon the floor, strewn everywhere, his torchlight revealed the bones of small creatures, animals and birds, to which fragments of feathers or pelt still clung.

“Sacrifices?”

“This aren’t witchcraft.  This ‘ere’s paganism.”  Tom voice wavered..

“Right now the distinction’s too fine to matter!”  Joe retorted, inhaling more smoke.

Snatching up one of the tiny skeletons, Tom pointed out a sliver of metal – a hat pin or a large needle, possibly, that had pierced its heart.  All were like this, small sacrifices to a very different god.

“See that?  Black arts, boy.  Devil worship!”

But Joe’s eyes were drawn elsewhere, for in the room’s left-hand corner, partly wrapped in shreds of blanket, and not at first easy to identify, was a larger sacrifice.

Tom saw it too.  “Oh, Jesus!”  He said.

Curled up, the body lay as it had probably died.  There was little more than a collection of bones, but as Tom’s and Joe’s eyes accustomed themselves to the light, neither could mistake the skull, or the pathetic human form it took:  a child, no more than five or six years old.  Tom’s expression asked:  who?  Why?  Joe could only shake his head as an answer, although the explanation was all too clear.   As the fire flowered and prospered behind them, there was no time to reply.

Guided by flickers of angry orange Joseph hastily gathered the remains, wrapped them in the rotted blanket, then carried all he could save carefully to the newly forced window.

“He’s here!”  Suddenly, inexplicably, Tom blurted out the words; “Stop ‘un!  Lord God, stop ‘un!”

Joe froze, the terror in his friend’s eyes turning him to stone.  Choking on smoke he tried to respond; “Who, Tom?  Who can you see?”   Tom’s expression was wild.  It became clear in the space of seconds that the sad collection of bones Joe cradled in his arms was somehow maddening him, but there was no time to discover why, for the fumes in his lungs prohibited further speech and the clothing on Tom’s back was smoking from the heat. Gesturing to him that he should climb out through the window, Joe shoulder-barged him enough to remove any element of choice.  Although a change in him was clearly taking place, Tom seemed to need no second bidding, and once he was through, he accepted the tiny burden Joe passed to him.

Joe made to follow, himself fighting an oppressive sense of fear and baseless anger, casting his torchlight one last time around that evil room.  He knew something must still be missing and he almost failed to see it, for the smoke was obscuring everything now, as though a cleansing spirit was intent upon obliterating a memory, removing a past.  The one last thing it may not have was there, on the table, hidden beneath that ragged altar cloth – an incongruously clean cardboard folder sealed with tape.  Grabbing it, Joe slipped it beneath his tee shirt, then, feeling his flesh sear in the coming inferno, he dived for the window and safety.

Strong hands thrust him back.

Tom, barring his way.  Tom, as though possessed, his features contorted with hate.  “You did it with ‘er, didn’t you, you bastard?  In my bed, was it?  Was it?

The smell of scorching – the realisation that his clothes were beginning to smoulder, ready to ignite.  “No Tom, not in your bed.”  Joe gulped in the fresh outside air  “What do you want me to do, apologise for loving her?  I can’t do that.”

Tom spat on the ground, his face convulsed.  “Love ‘er – you?  You, you fornicatin’ arsehole?”

Joe felt he could stand the assault of the flames no longer.  Smoke rushed past him, stifling him.  He could feel his flesh burning, his consciousness beginning to fade.

Words in his head: ‘Make his guilt his funeral pyre.’

Reality whirled about him; through it the women, those middle-aged respectable country women with their fingers jabbing an accusation:

“Mould him, bind him, make him BURN!”

“Burn he will, die, he shall…”

Summoning up a last ounce of strength Joe made a despairing attempt to get past Tom, to escape from the witchery, to dive for the window; only to have Tom’s big hand grip his throat, pinning him back.

“You?  You didn’t never love nobody, Palliser.  I loves ‘er, see?  An’ I can have her now can’t I?  ‘Cause you’re goin’ to bloody fry, boy!”

So shall it be.  In stillness and calm – in acceptance:  through the gateway of pain is a better place,  so shall it be.

Sarah, half-naked, lying on a grassy bank playing with a caterpillar on a leaf;  Marian between sheets of silk laughing at him gently, teaching him tenderly; two horses grazing in a summer glade; a cottage with empty rooms he would never fill, where someone so precious as to defy expression was waiting…

No!  No, not yet.  Not here, not now.  Too much to live for – for the first time in a long life, too much to live for!!  Joe gasped out the truth he had denied to himself.  “She loves you, Tom.  She was always yours.”

And then – from where – somewhere in his delusional mind, perhaps? –  the priestess came to Tom, a woman tall and strong in robes of fire-silver, as brilliant as the source of all light; and she laid her hand so softly on Tom’s shoulder he might scarcely have felt her touch; but Joe saw it.  For she had said to him:  “I shall try to smooth your path…..”  and she was true to her word.

Tom’s face creased.  “It’s not true.  ‘Tis not true!”  But his demon had left him.  Utter misery and despair etched every line; tears welled in pink runnels down his smoke-blackened cheeks.  His throttling grasp changed into a grip around Joe’s collar, his resistance into a pull.

“F**k it, Joe!”  Joe, only half-conscious with his clothes on fire, allowed himself to be hoisted bodily out into the cool air.

“Roll!”  Tom yelled at him, swore at him, kicked him.  “Roll, you bastard!”

#

Joe and Tom were standing in the lane beside the Parkin barn, watching P.C. Hallet’s blue panda car as it drove around the point at the end of the road.  Behind them, the Parkin house flared as though the devil himself had lit it, engulfed in flame, a red, sparking pyre of malevolence ascending to light the heavens.  Joe’s burnt jacket lay discarded; his ruined T-shirt soaked by the water Tom had thrown over him.  Between them on the stony ground lay a pathetic bundle of blanket with the bones of a child wrapped within.

“Have you forgotten Charker?”  Tom asked.

 

© 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.

 

 

 

Nowhere Lane – Chapter Seven. A Gathering Storm

 

The rain was gaining in strength as Karen Eversley drove away from the carpark where she had reunited Patrick with his car.  He would never know how much she had ached to issue the invitation that would mean, for her, there was no turning back.  It would have been so easy to take Patrick into her apartment, into her bed, into her life.  But no, the gulf that separated their backgrounds and the closeness of Tim’s impending visit prevented her.  She admonished herself even for thinking of it.  Class was the arbiter of all things, was it not?  Had her sister Suzanne not warned her?  The upper classes got their wealth by using people.  No matter how great your achievements, no matter how high you might fly, you would never be more than a servant in their eyes.  They would use you and move on.  Karen was resolved; her heart would not be used.

To the west a black horizon flickered dangerously, muttering to itself as it marshalled up its forces for a night of pillage and pain.  At this hour, the roads were already fairly clear of traffic, so Karen drove briskly but not extravagantly, which made the blue flashing lights in her mirror the more surprising.  With trepidation she told herself she had no reason to feel, she pulled over.

The policeman was young and in no mood to extend their interview.  Standing outside Karen’s lowered window, he was getting wet.

“See your licence, please?”

Karen ferreted – handbag, dashboard:  it was behind her sun visor.  “What’s this about, officer?”

“Licence.”

She waited while he scanned the document.  “Is this your name and current address?”

Karen was often forced to accept that her chosen profession incensed certain members of ‘the finest’.  This would not be the first time she was pulled over, or, she could be reasonably sure, the last;  yet something was nagging at the back of her mind, some little voice deep within her which answered in an undertone: ‘You know it is.’

“What’s this about?”

“Insurance?”

“Oh, come on!  Why have you pulled me over?”  Karen snatched her insurance certificate from her bag and thrust it at him.

“Are you aware your offside brake light isn’t working?”

“No, I’m not.  It was working this morning – I’m careful about these things.”

“Do you have a spare bulb?”

“No.  No, I don’t think I do.”  Her Dad had warned her: ‘Get yourself a little pack of spare bulbs, Karen.  They do break, you know’.

“Not careful enough, then.  Please park your car in the side road on your left and lock it securely.  Remove any valuables.  You can instruct your garage to replace the bulb in the morning.”

“What?”  Rain was clattering against the road.  As if on cue, a cannonade of thunder loosed into the heavens, almost overhead.  “How am I going to get home?”

“Not my concern, Miss Eversley. In these conditions, it’s unsafe for you to drive without proper lighting.  I’ll remain behind you until you’ve parked up.  Don’t attempt to drive the car again before a repair has been affected.  This is your ticket for the current offence – you’ll be summoned in due course.”

There was nothing else for it.  Biting back tears of fury, Karen quitted her car under the watchful eye of the constable, taking her camera with her as she stalked away.  She knew of a telephone box by the park gates where she might call a taxi.  It had been vandalized, the box jimmied open, the receiver cut from its cord. Left without that final hope, Karen resigned herself to walk the mile that would take her home – a mile she was usually glad to walk, passing as it did through Albert Park and along a path by the river – but today the river was in spate, running close to its retaining wall, foaming angrily.  Rain pummeled her, soaking through her clothing to her skin.  Above, Thor’s hammer struck with furious repetition.  Lightning leapt across the heavens in a manic dance.

Umbrellas ran past, hurrying home, scurrying to clear the rain-washed paths, leaving desertion and silence in their wake.  Soon the only sounds were those of rain bombing tarmac and the Caley’s roar as it savaged the confinement of its banks.  Karen should have been alone; a solitary walker in the park.  Yet for all the noise that might have drowned them, another’s steps beat through the rain’s rhythm clearly, steadily, heavily, distant at first but coming closer – closer with every second.  Someone was behind her, and they were walking fast.  She could not see them without turning, dared not turn, but they were catching up! The sky was black now, enforcing night until lightning tore it open; a jagged stab of vivid blue, a bang of impact.  Near – very near.

No clinging wetness could still the crawling ants of nerves on Karen’s skin.  Cold terror crept up her backbone.  They were close to her, those feet, no more than a dozen yards behind.  And now they slowed their pace, so mimicking her own step that they struck the pavement in unison, the clack of her heels in time with the deep thud of heavy boots.  Her heart was beating wildly, her lips dry despite the rain.

No more than thirty paces away Riverside Walk entered a passage where it passed beside the river, underneath Caleybridge High Street.  Karen knew she could not outdistance this menacing presence before they both entered the disguise of that deeper darkness; she should draw on her training and make a guard.  She decided.  Screwing up all her courage, she stopped in mid-stride, made the half-crouch that would keep her centre of gravity low, and she turned.

They were face to face.  He was dark and angry, the man.  The long coat he wore hung open, exposing pale flesh, naked to the waist.  His long hair fell about features made noble and shining by the rain.  His feet stormed the ground, clawing into the earth they walked upon and he did not cease his tread but continued to advance upon her.  She saw the brooding fury in his eyes, sensed the cold depths of his soul.  All training forgotten, she froze in those eyes, felt rather than heard the little cry that escaped her lips.

“No!  Oh no!”

And then he was upon her.  His hands were snatching at hers; his breathing was a hot gale in her face.  Long fingernails clawed into her skin, powerful arms drew at her.  His eyes, now hidden, must have shown his hatred if only she could have seen – but she did not have to see.  She knew his stare was frozen death and she smashed at it.  She swung her camera like a whip, heard it crack and crumple into his head, hitting she knew not what, or where.  And in the moment when he cried – the moment when he released his grip to clutch at his pain she screamed, and she ran.

She ran, not through the dark passage, but into the cascade of the storm, up wet, slipping steps to the black gleam of the High Street, the bright displays of the shop windows, the sanctuary of those few, who like her, were still abroad in the pounding rain.  A small group of forlorn teenagers watched her morosely as she splashed by, still clutching her camera’s shattered remains, whimpering to herself like a terrified dog.  An elderly couple reflected her horror.  A police car drove past the end of the street.  And she ran, and ran until she could run no more.  Only then did she dare to look back.  No-one was following her.  She had met with the Angel of Death and somehow she had been spared.  Outraged tears mingled with the rain on her cheeks.  A trickle of blood ran down her fingers.

“Lord above what’s happened to you, lassie?”  Karen’s mother was scandalized, most probably because Karen was dripping on her hall carpet.  “What have you done to your hand?”

“I slipped,”  Karen said, knowing better than to elaborate.  “It’s not too bad, just needs a bandage.  The worst of it is I broke my camera.  I was going to go back to my place, but you were nearer.”  She told her mother about the incident with the policeman, extracting her father’s first and only contribution to her welcome, shouted from the lounge where he was watching television.

“I told yer to get some bulbs!”

A full half-hour of explanations had elapsed before she was able to throw off her sodden clothes, dress the claw marks on her wounded hand and lie back in a warm bath.  That was when anger – cold anger – replaced the fear.  An obdurate young constable with his unsympathetic attitude had put her in harm’s way and she was not prepared to forgive:  she was ready to burst with the injustice she felt.

This mood was not improved by a telephone conversation with her garage the following day.  “There’s nothing wrong with your brake-lights; I’ve been up to have a look at them this morning – they’re working perfectly.”

“Really?  Look, Fergus, can you give me that in writing?  And an extra copy of your bill, if you would?”

Karen was made to wait ten minutes before the desk sergeant, a red-faced giant with a nose applied to his visage like a lump of pumice, acknowledged her presence.  “Yes, Miss, can I help you?”

“Yes, you can.  My name is Eversley – one of your officers deprived me of my right to drive my car last night?  He forced me to walk home in a thunderstorm.  You’ll have a record, of course?”

“I suppose we will.  Will you give me a moment to check up?”

“No.  I’ve given you enough moments.  I’ll make sure you get a letter from my garage verifying that the brake lights on my car were not faulty, as he suggested.  You’ll also get my garage bill, a bill from my cleaners, and personal billing for my time.  Oh, and I will be consulting solicitors, given the mental distress involved.  Your officer placed me in harm’s way.  I was assaulted and I was hurt.  See that any charges are dropped, will you?”

“I don’t know we can guarantee anything.  Your vehicle might have been subject to an intermittent fault.”

“It wasn’t.  If it was, prove it.”

“Miss Eversley!”  The desk sergeant’s voice was suddenly harsh.  “You’re a private dick, aren’t you?”

Karen glared at him.  “So?”

“Things can get rough, in your job, can’t they?” The sergeant leered.  “I mean, if you’re like most of your sort you’ll be the first to come running to us when there’s a bit of trouble.  If you take my advice…”

“Are you going to give me advice next?  Look, save it.  Right now I can’t summon up enough hypocrisy to even pretend I’m listening to you.”

She left before she could allow her tongue to deliver the tirade that was boiling within, remembering in time that the desk sergeant was right.  In her work she needed the cooperation, or at least the forbearance of the police, no matter how little she respected the attitude and conduct of the lower ranks.  Vincent Carmody, Chief Constable of the County, was on record as advocating ‘low profile police presence’, which Karen had always assumed to mean laziness.  Suzanne had briefed her concerning Carmody in the past.  “He gets most of his policy from the bottom of a whisky glass.  The rest comes from his handshake.”

Karen understood her sister’s meaning completely.  The handshake was a means of recognition between Freemasons.  Almost anyone above the rank of Sergeant in the County Police knew that handshake.  It was a prerequisite for promotion.

The post greeted her in an untidy, soggy heap on the office mat.  In heavy rain the door leaked, leaving a small pool for her fresh paperwork to mop up in the morning.  She had to get a letterbox fitted, she told herself for the umpteenth time.

There were no surprises that day:  an update on an insurance scam from a local company, a price enquiry for a domestic matter and a wedge of leaflets from a local food mart.  Nothing entertaining, but the kind of activity which kept the wolf from the door and her mind off tall long-haired men.  Fergus brought her car keys and paperwork promptly at eleven.

“Those bulbs should last twice that long.  Nothing wrong with them, nothing at all.”

The rain had cleared overnight, Karen’s hand was smarting and she needed diversion, so she locked the office and headed out with two photographs in her hand – one of Gavin Woodgate and one of Anna Parkinson.

Whatever else Karen was to learn in the next forty-eight hours, she would discover that in a small town where everybody knew everybody else, absolutely no-one knew either of her missing persons.  Neither the owner of the Numismatists’ and Stamp Collectors’ shop on High North Street nor the secretary of Caleybridge Train-Spotters’ Club (yes, there was one!) had heard of Gavin Woodgate.

“No, never seen him.  Not on Caleybridge Station, anyways.”  Cedric Melkin frowned.  “Mind you, he could have gone to Baronchester West.  A lot of them do go there.”

Trading her heels for flat, comfortable walking shoes Karen trod the pavements for an entire afternoon, touring the coffee bars, the Trocadero, a haunt on Fernley Street known as Jimmy’s, and a few others in the lower town.  Wherever she went, her questions were met by blank stares, a sprinkling of the usual come-ons, or emphatic denials.  As night clouds gathered she took her car and kerb-crawled the pavement on Lower Bridge Street.

“Hello babe, my name’s Kathy, fancy a bit of action, do yer?”  Karen heard a hand try the car door but she’d covered that one.  The door was locked and she kept her finger on the button, so the girl rested a skinny arm on her door-sill.  She was no more than a wasted sixteen, in a plunge-necked blue mini-dress, she scarcely filled.  “You should let me in, darlin’.  I can do yer real nice, yeah?  We’d be good together, you an’ me.”  Her breath stank of cheap tobacco and her hair was dark auburn; either because she had dyed it that way, or because it hadn’t been washed in a week.  Her two friends leant against the bridge wall behind her as if their thin flamingo legs wouldn’t support them anymore, giggling knowingly.

“I want your help.”  Karen tried.  “You can all help me.  Did any of you know Anna?  Anna Parkinson?”

Kathy’s eyes narrowed:  “Might do.”  She said.  “Lookin’ for a special, are yer luv?  I can do it for yer.”

“No.  Just information.”

“Oh.”  Kathy nodded, grimaced.  “Just information, yeah?  Worth money, information.”

“Knowledge is power.”  Her friend added helpfully.

“Okay.”  Karen was tired.  She wanted to go home.  “How much?”

“How much yer got?”

“I’ve been this road before,”  Karen told her.  “If you know Anna, you can describe her for me.”  She hadn’t shown the girl the photograph, yet, and now she wasn’t about to.

A hand was thrust in the window, palm outstretched.  The bare arm behind it was dotted with puncture scars.  “Give us twenty and I’ll describe ‘er for yer.”

“Look, I want to help her.”

“Yeah, bollocks.  What are you, the filth?  Fuck off, darlin’.  You’re interferin’ with trade.”

Karen knew better than to pursue it further.  Glad she had decided to remain in gear, she drove away quickly, letting Kathy deal with her intrusive arm and fast enough to avoid the coke can thrown by her friend.  She couldn’t resist glancing back in her mirror to see Kathy standing, legs astride and arms akimbo, like a spider whose fly had just escaped its web – mouthing words at Karen’s departing car she was sure she would not care to hear.

That evening she screwed up her courage enough to return to her apartment.  She checked the road several times – there was no sign of the man in the leather coat.  One more thing was needed to complete her day.  She called Pamela Woodgate.

“Miss Eversley?  Oh yes, Norman told me he’d asked you to look for Gavin.  How can I help?”

“There’s just one or two questions.  I’d like to meet you personally.  That way I’ll get closer to Gavin?”

She arranged to call at The Woodgates’ house in High Pegram the next afternoon, which would be Friday.  She was meeting Pat at The Huntsman on the evening, and Tim would be on his way from London.  It was shaping up to be a crowded weekend.

Time snapped at Karen ’s heels as she set out for High Pegram on the Friday afternoon.  In a way she found the pressure of a schedule invigorating, and she might have admitted to a frisson of excitement at the prospect of meeting Patrick again, so she drove with quick precision as she navigated the country lane that would lead her to Gavin Woodgate’s home village.  Almost too quickly, in fact, to notice a signpost half-buried in the wilderness of summer flora that brimmed from the hedgerow, its arm pointing into a narrow gap on her left.

Karen had driven almost a further hundred yards before she realized what was written on the sign, so faded were its letters. But as soon as her head had interpreted them she braked hard.  ‘Boulter’s Green’ – of course! This was the road upon which, according to her information, Gavin Woodgate and Anna Parkinson, were last seen!  She reversed and parked, alighting from her car to give the gap a closer inspection.  It was, as Patrick’s map had promised, the beginning of a cart-track, its margins so heavily overgrown as to reduce it to the width of a footpath in places.  Other than its unkempt state, there was little that was distinctive about the track.  There were fields under cultivation to either side of it, and the hedges that bordered it were high, so she could see no further than the point where it breasted the next hill.  Boulter’s Green was obviously a long walk, one which she had not the time to undertake that afternoon.

She was about to turn away when she noticed the white of a peeling wooden sign buried in a tangle of bindweed and briar.  Careful of thorns, she parted the overgrowth, revealing all that was left of a name with which someone, sometime, had tried to label the track.  The sign said:  ‘Nowhere Lane’.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of 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.  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

 

View from the Armchair

Television is a tranquilizer.

All winter it is our solace and our comfort, helping us to pass those long, cold nights in peace. Television is, to the twenty-first century, what gin was to the nineteenth.
Of course, we don’t like to admit this, because we don’t like to accept we are addicted to television.

Just as we’d prefer to think we weren’t addicted to gin.

So summer television comes as a rude awakening. Summer television brings the truth to Cyclist and non cyclistour door and lays it before us, like a cat with a dead mouse. Televised sport, for example. Sport says, loudly and clearly, you are addicted. Sport is a shivering turkey, because sport actually requires a viewer – that is, someone who stays awake.

Now I know sporting people don’t understand why we hate them, but to say that televised sport is ‘riveting’ is to imply that your eyeballs need to be nailed to the screen. Sport makes it impossible to sleep. It is too loud, too brash, too intrusive. And when summer comes the screens are filled with it. All sensible programming leaves via the window faster than a pop star’s cocktail cabinet; the schedules are crowded with anything the least bit ‘sporty’. The London Marathon trumpets reveille, and from then on, through ‘Queens’ and ‘Eastbourne’ to ‘Wimbledon’, to the Davis Cup, to the Scottish Open (golf), to the British Open (golf) we are forty-loved and deuced and eagled and bogeyed until our brains fry.

Two major issues dog this philosophy of program-making. The first is an assumption that everyone likes ‘sport’. Bad news, Wayne! There are thousands, nay millions of us out here who find it excruciatingly boring! The sight of drugged-up lugs legging it round in circles or muscular ladies with abs and breasts like Schwarzenegger screaming at each other over a net sets our teeth on edge just as much as those members of the ‘Fit’ family who bounce up and down on our doorsteps at seven-thirty on a wet morning insisting we’d feel much better if we went for a five-mile run.

Speaking of ‘wet’ – in winter, we are reconciled to rain. In summer, rain remains a fact of life for everyone except sports broadcasters, who treat it like a beached whale. We might forebear when all the programs we regularly watch for the rest of the year, and actually like, are elbowed aside to make room for sporting juggernauts. We might even find it mildly entertaining, watching a ‘severe’ gust of wind blowing three very professional golf-balls off the seventeenth green; but we positively fume when a three-hour program has to be filled by knowledgeable punditry because the intended sporting event is ‘rained off’. And then, when the event is re-set and another schedule of meaningful television gets deleted to make room for it, we have been known to get our daily exercise by hurling heavy objects.

On one notable afternoon this summer, the BBC showed the same tennis match simultaneously on both their main channels. Now, I know they are meant to be cutting costs, but really?

This cavalier disregard for audience needs has repercussions for health. Thousands of us, unable to be lulled into semi-consciousness by dreaming yak breeders or measured doses of quiz questions need hospital treatment for illnesses brought about by sleep deprivation. We are awake. We are nervous, always on edge. Where are the programs about home improvers? When can we nod off to the tune of a citizen driven to bankruptcy by architecture, or settle comfortably before a moral debate about sugar?

Only prayer can help us. Only August will bring relief.

And then the football starts…