Parfitt’s Island – a chronicle in four parts

I try, within my limited abilities, to offer a variety of stories, thoughts and whimsies on this blog, so, if this is a bit of a romp I hope you will forgive me.  It’s a four-part story, which may not be for absolutely everybody, but it has been great fun to write!

(Incidentally, ‘stories, thoughts and whimsies’; so much better than that ugly word ‘genre’, don’t you think?)

It was Julian’s brother Freddy who made the discovery.  Julian, in commodities, had bought the island after a particularly successful season’s trading (he saw it advertised in The Times under ‘Property for Sale: Estates and Other’).  Freddy, staying in the house as Julian’s guest – a flamboyant, noisy one at that – was in the habit of taking walks in the early morning. This was how the discovery was made.

The Island of Aga was six miles from north to south, a mere mile across:  much of the terrain was naked rock, impassable without climbing experience.  Its few navigable paths were strewn with sudden descents and precipitous drops which made walking hazardous. The best morning stroll the island could offer led to the top of its highest point, Ben Adderhochie, from where, on a clear day, you could see the Scottish mainland, then down through a deepening series of rifts and clefts to the little Skaeflint’ae Beach. This beach was the stuff of legend, the cliffs around it permeated by tiny caves where smugglers were said to have hidden contraband which lay there still, along with its attendant ghosts.  There was a path to the beach, but Freddy was never one for paths.  He was slipping and sliding off-piste as it were, down the side of a little granite gorge when he made the discovery.

At first, when the bird flew past him and headfirst into the rock, Freddy thought it was just one of those hideous accidents which sometimes overtake our treasured wild creatures.  When a second one did more or less the same, he put it down to coincidence – but a third?

On the stony floor of the gorge he discovered a quite liberal scattering of little wild things, many of which appeared to have suffered the same fate as the birds.  Perplexed, Freddy sat down upon a user-friendly rock to try and make sense of all this.  That was when he heard a gentle hissing sound, and began to sniff the air for himself.

Rowena Parfitt was Julian’s wife and a woman of principle who, when she had taken Julian for better or worse had freely accepted that Freddy was the worst of the worse.  She tolerated him, but with a suppressed, implacable hatred; which was why, when he burst in through the kitchen door at seven o’clock in the morning yelling at the top of his voice:  “Eur-eeee-ka!!  You-bloody reeka!”  It was more than a woman of principle could bear.

Rowena picked up the heaviest plate she could find and threw it at Freddy.  The plate missed.  It spun out into the back yard, shattering against a gatepost (to the mild chagrin of the goat that happened to be tethered there at the time).

“Oh, good shot!”  Cried Freddy.  “Eureka, me little darlin’!  Get Julian!  Come and see what I’ve found!”

An hour later Julian and Rowena stood at the top of the little gorge staring down at Freddy as he alternately lifted and lowered a sizeable flat tablet of stone.

“On – off.  On – off!  It’s like a blasted stove, my loves!  Natural gas!  Find of the century, I’d say!”

At such moments of supreme accomplishment (and it is fair to say he may have been a little heady with his find), it was always Freddy’s custom to extract one of his largest Cuban cigars from his top pocket and light up for a deep, luxurious inhalation of that unique tobacco.  In spite of earnest entreaties from the top of the cliff, this morning would not be an exception.

Only after he had telephoned the coroner did Julian fall to some careful thinking.  By the time the local doctor arrived on a boat from the mainland to issue a death certificate, he and Rowena, not without difficulty, had borne Freddy’s mortal remains back to the house, laying him out informally on their dining room floor by a large open fire.

Rowena plied the doctor with some of her best amber nectar.

“The boat journey would be very cold at this time of the season, Doctor Creggie.”  Julian suggested, joining his wife in the kitchen.  “Have you much work around the islands at the moment?”  He topped up the good doctor’s glass.

“Aye, aye.”  Creggie affirmed.  “A great deal too much, ye ken?  All ye city folks gannin’’ tae the back o’ beyond and no experience of what a winter can be like, ye ken?”  It was very good Scotch.  He willingly took a second glass, stayed on for some excellent conversation and a third, generous measure.  At last he said:  “Well, now, I must’nae miss the tide.  Where is the puir man?”

“Oh, he’s in the dining room where he fell – terrible thing.” Julian said.  “I suppose you won’t have seen many cases like this?”

“Ye ken?”  Rowena added helpfully.

“Cases like what?”  Creggie enquired, attempting to cock a quizzical eyebrow and missing by several millimetres:  it really was exceptionally fine whisky, and if it was not quite good enough, Rowena had augmented it with a little something of her own.

“Spontaneous combustion:  our family is prone to it, unfortunately.  There was my great uncle Herbert, wasn’t there darling?  Oh, and my niece Jasmine.  Went up like a torch, poor dear.”

Rowena chipped in:  “Didn’t your grandfather…?”

“It was always suspected: although medicine was not as advanced then.  They didn’t have Doctor Creggie’s skills, did they, Doctor?”

Doctor Creggie, though mellowed by alcohol, was still dubious about recording a death as ‘spontaneous combustion’, but when he saw poor Freddy, who was in a very derelict state, and he thought of all the problems with obtaining a second opinion in this remote location, he finally concurred.  Besides, Rowena’s little ‘addition’ to his drink was taking effect:  “Now I must awa’ back tae the boat.  Ye’ll need tae make arrangements for the puir man.  He can be buried here, of course, but I’ve nae doubt his nearest and dearest’ll want him hame.  Meanwhile, I would put him somewhere a little cooler, ye ken.  Er…could ye direct me to the lavatory, now?”

Julian and Rowena watched, hand in hand, as the government boat with Doctor Creggie safely wedged aboard sailed back towards the mainland.

Rowena, whose hatred of Freddy extended even after death, insisted they remove his carcass to the back of the woodshed.  There they left him, propped between some bags of cement and a rusty plough of the horse-drawn variety, which Julian had pledged to restore when he had time.

“Right,” said Julian.  “I have things to do.”

A retired commodities trader has friends in curious places:  one of Julian’s was the disaffected son of a wealthy Nigerian land-owner, whose nefarious stock market activities had been a source of entertainment in the past.  Mwabe Mbabe Junior had been quiet of recent years, producing little to match his past triumphs:  “Diamond Concessions of Nigeria”, the “Mbabe International DNA Modification Corporation” and the briefly meteoric “Global Mall Shares Limited” had all long since become unhappy memories, their investors wiser, poorer men.  These days Mwabe Mbabe busied himself with begging letters on the internet and finding ways to leverage non-existent companies using the mythical backing of his father.  Julian ‘phoned him.

“Julian, my darling!”  Mbabe was effusive:  “What do you have for me?”

A few days after the undertakers came to scoop up Freddy and return with him (along with a bag of cement to which he had become inseparably attached) to the mainland, a dark, smartly suited figure stepped off the island-hopping boat.  He brought a considerable amount of luggage.  One or two of the suitcases rattled suspiciously as the boatman hove them ashore.

“Will ye want me back this year?”  The boatman enquired:  “Or at all?  Are ye moving in?”

The man was a seismologist whose speciality was discretion, whom Mwabe Mbabe had employed once to survey certain portions of his father’s estate when the old man was on a business trip to Europe.  His suitcases were stuffed with equipment.  He was tall and swarthy, with bright eyes and a haunting smile, and when Rowena saw him her heart leapt.

After settling in, the man (his name was Mahadis), accompanied Julian to Freddy’s gorge.  Mahadis was  impressed.

“I will check this out.”  He said.

For the next several days Mahadis busied himself setting up his experiments.  The island terrain was not the friendliest he had ever worked in, nor was the necessary secrecy easy to maintain, as that crowning glory of offshore living, the Royal Air Force, seemed to revisit every ten minutes at several hundred cacophonous miles per hour on a level at which, if the pilot could not see what Mahadis was doing, Mahadis could see what the pilot did.

Then came one of those days when the normally brisk breeze became a host of screaming demons.  On such a day the drops of endemic rain were freezing darts.  In such a gale two people were needed to push the front door closed.  Julian had gone to the mainland to replenish supplies, so the two people pushing together were Rowena and Mahadis.

“He won’t come back tonight,” said Rowena.  “Do you need more blankets?”

Two days elapsed before the seas moderated and Julian was able to return, by which time Rowena had supplied Mahadis with many more blankets.  Such affection was impossible to entirely disguise:  it betrayed itself in a multitude of little touches and covert looks, which Julian, no fool, could scarcely avoid noticing.  He needed Mahadis, however, so nothing was said.

Nothing, that is, until the seismologist’s work was complete.

“This is my report;” said Mahadis over breakfast one morning while Rowena gazed rapturously at a mole on his neck.

Julian riffled the wedge of manuscript.  “Difficult to visualize.”  Was his verdict.  “Come on, let’s get our boots on and you can show me.”

From the summit of Ben Adderhochie they could see the entire Island.  To the west, the mountain dropped in sheer cliffs many hundreds of feet to the sea:  they could look down upon the backs of gulls and Shearwater wheeling in the wind eddies far below.  To each of the other three main compass points, the island descended more gradually:  back to the house in the north, towards South Beach and Freddy’s Gorge, and more steeply towards the distant mainland (which could be seen on a morning as clear as this) in the east.

To Julian’s initial surprise Mahadis paused here, rather than continuing the descent to Freddy’s Gorge.

“Over there,”  Mahadis said, waving in a northerly direction;  “Beyond the house on the north shore, three places with substantial natural gas reserves that may be easily drilled.  I have put down markers.  Over there: (this time a gesture towards Freddy’s Gorge) another two, in addition to the one you have found.”

Julian’s eyes had been widening with this:  he said:  “Really?  Six places.”

“Six.  From at least two separate subterranean sources.  You are rich, my friend.”

“Wow!”  Said Julian.

“So, my work is done.  Now I will leave.  There is the matter of my account?”

When you tell a man he owes you forty thousand dollars, especially if you have been intimate with his wife, it is best not to do so at the top of a very high cliff.  The gulls and Shearwater in their wheeling flight parted politely to let Mahadis through.

As he walked back to his house, Julian was having a re-think:  rich, after all, was something he already was; a man of his intellect, of his imagination, should not just content himself with riches.  No, there was more to be gained.

Indoors, he lost no time.

“Mwabe;”  He told the telephone:  “We need another partner.”

“Ah!”  Said Mwabe Mbabe,  “I knew you would say that.  I have just the fellow!”

This was the moment, Julian decided, to take out insurance.

“Mwabe.  You wouldn’t think of double-dealing with me, now would you?”

“My dear chap!”

“Because I still have contact with a Mr. Luigi, you see?”

Mr. Luigi was a powerfully connected gentleman who had been persuaded to invest heavily in ‘Global Mall Shares Limited’.  Mr. Luigi had never found out how his millions had been mishandled, although he continued to investigate.  Should he ever discover Mwabe Mbabe’s part, there would be nowhere for the Nigerian trickster to hide.  The Luigi affair was a major contributor to Mbabe’s decision to take early retirement.

“My dear sir!”  Protested Mwabe again, his voice higher by a semi-tone.

Satisfied, Julian rang off.

Julian’s relationship with his spouse now entered a fairly volatile phase:  Julian’s explanation that Mahadis had left by sea very suddenly, though true in itself, gained only limited credence.

“He’s taken none of his equipment.”  Rowena pointed out.

“He won’t be needing it.”

“I didn’t see the boat.”  Said Rowena.

“I didn’t say anything about a boat.”  Replied Julian.

“Bastard!”  Said Rowena, secretly wondering why she could not stifle a shiver of admiration which vied with the grief in her throat.  Later, when Julian had exited to seek out Mahadis’ markers, she reduced the family crockery by twelve very good quality plates.

From this point on, matters proceeded apace, so fast that Rowena’s agony passed unnoticed by Julian, although it was to return to haunt him later.

A small group  of ‘fishing boats’ arrived at the island, their crews, all of olive-skinned appearance, staying long enough only to cap the six natural gas vents Mahadis had discovered.  They were, for the most part, uncommunicative, although Julian (never one to pass up an opportunity) managed to sell them the better part of Mahedis’ seismographic equipment.

Shortly after the departure of the ‘fishermen’ there hove onto the horizon a much larger vessel.  The ‘Xanadu’ was long, and elegant, and gleamed white in the late summer sun like some marvellous visitor from another world; which, in its way, it was.  Far too large to approach the little jetty which welcomed visitors into Julian’s domain, the ‘Xanadu’ anchored in deep water.  A launch which served as the yacht’s tender beetled across the gap from ship to shore, to be steadied against Julian’s jetty as the master of ‘Xanadu’ disembarked.

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  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.

Picture Credit: MW from Pixabay

The Cabinet of Jarvis Poulter

Another short story ‘sprung’ from the archives – I hope you will like it (I am writing more stories, BTW, they just take a while).  In the meantime, if you like these, there are many more to be found on ‘Black Crow Speaks’ – click on the cover picture on the right, here, to visit those  little darlings at Kindle who are just waiting for your call…

Jarvis Poulter studied the ancient cabinet carefully, the two ornately carved doors in the upper part, three gracefully slender drawers beneath and taloned feet which snatched fiercely at the saleroom floor. Olive wood or cedar, it was undeniably scruffy, its corners knocked and cracks showing here and there, but Middle-Eastern in origin and utterly in keeping with the theme he planned for his bedroom.   He measured it, squinting through half-moon spectacles at the small figures on his tape.       Just a little alteration would make of it a wardrobe, and the drawers below were ideal for his meager collection of sweaters and his nightwear.  Yes, perfect.

Poulter positioned himself so he might be seen from the rostrum.

“Lot 421, a cabinet, believed to be Moroccan.   Fifty for it?”  The auctioneer asked.

Silence.  Rows of inattentive heads, noses buried in catalogues.

“Forty then.  Twenty!  Come on, must be worth that?”

Silence.

“Alright.  Last chance.  Ten.  I’ll not go any lower…”

“Five.”  Piped Poulter in his thin nasal voice.

“Got to be ten.  Want it?”

Poulter sniffed.  “Alright.”

“Ten then.  Anybody?”  Catalogues shuffled uncomfortably.  “Ten it is.  Sold.”

Poulter was pleased with the price.  He told the auction porter this, as he helped maneuver the cabinet onto his pick-up truck.

“Well, you certainly got a lot of tonnage for your money.”  The porter grunted, from the heavy end.

 Poulter would not enjoy his drive home.  Never a natural driver, other traffic terrified him so the quiet roads, before rush hour really started, were a blessing.  He felt uneasy, though, because something, somewhere, was knocking.

Was it a wheel bearing?  His mechanical sense was no better than his road sense, but someone had told him once that a worn one of those would make a knocking noise.  So – was it a wheel bearing?  He looked down towards the place where he thought the noisy wheel might be.  It could be.  It would be another repair bill!  His local garage-man would rub his hands together with ill-concealed glee – Poulter was his most gullible customer.

Corner!  CORNER!

Preoccupied was he with the wheel Poulter had forgotten the road entirely, and the road, with a justifiable dislike of being ignored, sought retribution.

Panic!   Hauling on the wheel, Poulter managed to yank the old pick-up back into line.  It skidded; it slewed. 

It bounced.  

With crunch and thud Poulter’s prized cabinet unshipped itself and crashed onto the road.  He drew to a halt with a heartfelt groan, hardly daring to confront the consequences of his foolishness by looking in the mirror.  When he did, the sight offered little consolation; for there was the cabinet, lying drunkenly upon the tarmac:  it was not the cabinet which drew his eye, though.  It was the prostrate figure lying half-pinned beneath it!

“Oh, my Sainted Aunt!”  Exclaimed Poulter.  (Poulter often summoned his Sainted Aunt in times of crisis).   “I’ve killed someone!”

‘Someone’, however, was still moving.  By the time Poulter reached him, his victim, uttering a stream of invective, was wriggling free of the wooden tombstone.  A small man of apparent middle age in working overalls, he shouted angrily at Poulter:  “Bloody hell!  What d’ye think ye’re doing, yer old fool?  You bloody near slaughtered me then!”

“I’m sorry.  I’m really, really sorry!”  Poulter jabbered as he dabbed at tears of relief behind a grey handkerchief.  “Are you – are you badly hurt?”

“Dunno.”   To Poulter’s amazement his victim was clambering to his feet, dusting himself off.  “Nay, no harm done, lad!  Don’t upset yerse’n, now.  But lissen, next time brake before the corner, right?  Drive into it, don’t try and brake ‘alf-way round!”

“Yes, yes.”  Humbled, Poulter tried to make amends.  “Look, can I give you a lift anywhere?  Are you going far?”

The little man stared at Poulter intensely for a moment, as if a decision was needed.  “Aye,” He said.  “Awreet.  But first we’d better get this big coffin of your’n back on t’ truck.  Back up, will ye?”

For so small a figure the little man was surprisingly strong.  Together he and Poulter managed to restore the cabinet, distressed but entire, to its place in Poulter’s pick-up truck.  

“Now tie it down tight, lad!”

Poulter drove away with his new passenger breathing rather heavily beside him.   A horn sounded its impatience.

“Call me Albert.”  Said the little man.  “What’s tha name, lad?”

“Oh, I’m  – please call me Jarvis.”  Poulter rarely revealed his Christian name, but there was something very easy and familiar about  Albert.  Could he have found a new friend?  Jarvis Poulter had few friends.  In fact, he reflected as he pulled out onto the main road, he had no friends.

A squeal of brakes; angry shouts; things which happened to Poulter a lot, and for reasons he didn’t entirely understand.

“Bloody Stephen!”  Said Albert.   “Yer a right twaddy of a driver, Jarvis!   Yer nearly mashed that poor lad!  He wouldn’t mind so much if ye got going, but ye’r that slow!”

“I am, aren’t I?”  Poulter agreed.  “I wish I could do it better.”

“Sorry?”

“I said I wish I could drive quicker.”

Albert tightened his seat belt.   All of a sudden, for some reason, Poulter’s foot slipped across to the pick-up’s clutch.  His hand flicked down to the gear lever and he dropped a gear.  His right foot tweaked the accelerator just enough, and the pick-up answered him with a throaty roar.   As his speed in the new gear increased, Poulter eased his steering to the right and pitched into the bend in front of him.   The back of the vehicle, notwithstanding the weight upon it, drifted gently.  The tyres sang.  Ahead, evening traffic was gathering. 

“What’s happening?”  Poulter cried.  His hands, his feet seemed not to belong to him.  He was a marionette on mysterious, unseen strings, his limbs dancing over the controls, his balance perfectly attuned to the pick-up’s new-found vigor.  “I can’t stop!”

Fifty, sixty, seventy miles an hour, lanes of traffic on each side, yet somehow a path – a snaking, narrow path – between.  Eighty, ninety!   Now weaving an impossible course, touching gas, brakes, opposite lock on the corners, controlled drift through swerving lane-changes.  Sirens, blue flashing lights behind him at first, then receding.

“Lost ‘em!”  Albert said triumphantly.

“Help me, please!”  Screamed Poulter. 

“Nay, lad!  Tha’s doing awreet by tha’sen.”

Cars, lorries, buses, traffic great and small flashed by as Poulter, gibbering, clung to the wheel.  Traffic lights turned green in fright at his approach, open-mouthed pedestrians and protesting cyclists parted before him like the Red Sea before Moses, and in a matter of moments the pick-up had come to rest outside Poulter’s home.   The engine switched itself off.  Frozen in horror, Poulter stared through the windscreen as overheated metal ticked back into shape.

“What have I done?  What have I done?”

Albert glanced about him.   “Well, I think yer’ve driven ‘ome.  This isn’t my ‘ouse, so it must be your’n.”  He undid his seat belt.  “Right, let’s get this cabinet off t’ back and inside, then ye’d better take the truck soomwheer and park it.”   Poulter seemed incapable of movement.  “Coom on, son.  The filth’ll be round in a minnit!”

“The police?  Oh my god!”  (Somehow Poulter’s Sainted Aunt was just not adequate on this occasion).  “But they’ll trace me!   Their computers…”

“Aye, they’re bloody fast nowadays.  So it’s a good job y’ reported it stolen yesterday, in’t it?  But if yer think about it, t’ thieves aren’t likely to have brought it back to your house, so yer’d better take it soomwheer they might ha’ left it.”

“No!  I mean no.  You see, I didn’t report it stolen!”  Poulter shook his head helplessly.

Albert ‘s leathery face creased in a slow smile.  “Aye, lad.  Yer did.”

Much later, when Poulter’s cabinet was safely indoors and after the police had visited him with the news they had recovered his vehicle (‘Joyriders, probably sir. You should get it back in a couple of days’) Poulter faced Albert across his kitchen table.   With the help of several pills his mood had recovered.  “What was it?”  He demanded.  “You did that to me, didn’t you?”

“I don’t see how yer can say that!  You were driving!”  Albert replied.  “Yer made a wish, didn’t yer?  Yer got yer wish.”

Poulter’s laugh was a particularly abrasive, braying sound.  “Wish?  What wish?  Absolute nonsense!  You crossed the road without looking!  I had to swerve to avoid you.  After you collided with my cabinet I was unnerved – and then you were rude and aggressive about my speed.   I reacted.  That’s why I drove so irresponsibly!”   Though this version of events had scant regard for the truth, he rather liked it.  It would do no harm to reapportion some of the blame.

“Nay, lad!”  Albert said quietly.  “Ah weren’t hit by t’cabinet.  I were inside it.”

Poulter sniggered.  Poulter guffawed.  Finally, Poulter snorted. 

Albert said:  “Ah’ve been trapped in theer, lad, I have.”

 “Don’t be ridiculous!”  Poulter snapped.  “You simply can’t be serious!”

But Albert was serious.  And the sincerity written on his face was sufficient to convince.  “Yer moost ‘ave heard me knockin’, lad.  Yon’ cabinet’s got a false back, see?  T’crash loosened it, otherwise there’s no way out.”

Poulter shook his head.  “ Oh, really!  When did you get in?  How long were you in there?”

“Oh, about four hundred year this time.  That’s if yer stick to t’Gregorian calendar, o’ course.”

A long silence.  Eventually,  Poulter began to cackle, a noise that was, if anything, even more unpleasant than his snigger, or his guffaw, or his laugh.  “Four centuries?  Wishes?  You’ll be telling me you’re a genie next!”

“Aye lad.  Ah don’t like the word, but tha’s what I am.  That’s me.”

“You really believe this, don’t you?”  Poulter sneered.  “Alright, so, if I were to wish for a royal banquet to appear before us on this table, right now, you could make it happen, I suppose.”

“I wouldn’t mind sommat to eat, if tha’s offering, but I won’t do that, no.”

Can’t do that, you mean.”

“Won’t.  See, there’s a lot of competition amongst us genies, and I’ll not waste points lowerin’ me’sen to grantin’ that kind of wish.  I like a challenge!  Then again, tha knowst how it goes.  Yer only get three wishes, don’t yer?  Be careful what yer wish for.  Yer got two left.”

Poulter was of a mind to make a further derisive comment, but something prevented him.  After all, the events of that afternoon defied explanation.  “Are you really telling me you can grant wishes?  I mean, was it you who fixed it so the police thought my pick-up had been stolen?”

“Aye, that were me.  Now, ‘ave yer or ‘ave yer not got sommat to eat?  My stomach thinks my throat’s been cut!”

It was the least Poulter, convinced though he was that he had a madman for a house guest, could do to oblige, so he sought out some eggs and potatoes in his kitchen and began preparing a simple meal.  As he worked, he called through the opened door:  “How old are you, Albert?”

“I don’t rightly know.  Age doesn’t come into it really.  I live life in both directions, y’see – sometimes forwards in time, sometimes back.   T’earliest client I can remember were near on two thousand year ago.”

“Really!”  (worth another snigger)  “Who was that?”

“Why, it were soom chap who had a big speech t’make.  There were about five thousand in t’audience and they was all starvin’.   Honestly, I didn’t want to do it, not many points in it, see?  But he wished for me to feed ‘em.  Five thousand fish suppers, he said.  Think o’ theet!”

“And you did it anyway?”

“Aye, I had to.  They would have killed me!  He told ‘em I were t’catering manager.”

Poulter nearly set fire to his frying pan.  “What else did he wish for?”

“‘E wished for a couple a’ things – used oop his three, any rate.  He were a talented lad, ‘im, mind. Could do quite a bit o’ it for hisself.”

“Amazing.”  Poulter said drily.  “Any others I might know?”

“What d’yer want, bloody references?   There were that big fat chap; you might ‘ave ‘eard o’ ‘im.”

“Fat chap?”

“Aye, called ‘isself Henry, or sommat.  Wore soom right glitzy clothes but ‘e stank sommat awful.   Not easy for a lad like that to pull.”

“King Henry the Eighth?”

“That’s the chap!  He wanted a bootiful Queen, he said.  Ah sorted ‘im out a right tasty lass, but ‘e couldn’t hold onto ‘er.  Sliced ‘er ‘ead off in the end.  See, here’s the thing:  you got to be so careful what you wish for, or it turns out bad.  Ah daresn’t tell you what ‘appened to the fella wi’ the fish suppers!”

Poulter’s culinary efforts, rudimentary though they were, formed the foundation for a very pleasant evening.  By the time Albert and he had concluded their meal, cleaned up (Albert proved almost as fastidious as Jarvis himself), and gone on a tour of the feast of collectables in Poulter’s upstairs room, it was late.  Feeling hospitable, he offered Albert a bed for the night.

Albert surveyed the made-up bed in the spare room.  “Aye, that’ll be grand!”  Albert said.

After his day’s adventures sleep evaded Jarvis Poulter.  Preposterous though his house-guest’s claim to status as a genie was, he could not entirely wipe the idea from his mind.  The driving incident was still fresh, and would remain so for some time.  So, as he often did, he read from one of the many art volumes piled upon his bedside table and, as he often did, paused to admire a picture of a favorite sculpture, that of Auguste Rodin’s ‘The Kiss’.  His eager eyes devoured the graceful curves of the woman cradled in her lover’s arms and he thought how wonderful it must be to own such a perfect work:  how magnificent it would look, as the centerpiece of his upstairs collection.  How he wished…

So close to the edge of sleep, Poulter might not have noticed the first ominous creaking from his bedroom ceiling, but he certainly noticed the splintering explosion of timber and plaster that followed.  He certainly saw the plummeting progress of what appeared, in flashing past, to be a large white boulder which would be impeded not at all by the floor of his bedroom, nor by the floor of the kitchen below that.  Only God’s good earth stopped it, with a house-shuddering crash, on the concrete floor of the basement.  There it rested, obscured by a veil of dust.

“By ‘eck, lad!”  Albert exclaimed as he and his host stared into the crater.   “Tha’ needs stronger floors than theet.  Yon’ lump weights better than a couple a’ ton, tha’ knows.”

Jarvis, speechless, watched as the dust below them cleared.  Broken in two by its fall, Rodin’s masterwork was still clearly recognizable.    “But I didn’t wish for this!”  He wailed.

“Well, yes, lad.  You did.  One left now, mind.  Use it carefully, like!”

Poulter greeted the morning through fingers which clasped his head in abject despair.  His newspaper’s headline, concerning a mysterious ‘Theft of the Century’ from the Tate Gallery, could do nothing to improve his mood.

“What do I do now?”  He asked Albert, plaintively.  “My house is ruined, and I have a priceless stolen artwork shattered in my cellar.  Oh, my Sainted Aunt, what on earth am I to do?”

“I won’t lie to thee, lad.   Yon sculpture’s goin’ t’ be missed.  An’ the police’ll be wanting to know about things as go bang in the night, if you catch my drift.  If I were thee I’d make meself scarce for a while.”  Albert advised.  But then he added:  “O’ course, yer do still have one wish left…”

“Right now,”  Poulter admitted.  “I wish I could hide somewhere no-one would ever think of looking for me.  But I don’t suppose that’d be possible, even for you.”

#

The auction house porter groaned as he saw a familiar old pick-up, with an equally familiar Moroccan cabinet aboard, waiting by the saleroom doors.

“Not again!”  He said to the wiry man in overalls who emerged from the vehicle.

“’Fraid so.”  Said Albert.  “He wants it put in for t’next sale.  Gi’ us a hand, will thee?”

“Why is it so heavy?”  Complained the porter.

“Well built, lad; like me!”

After much labor the cabinet was restored to the saleroom. 

“I’ll get the paperwork.”  Said the porter.

“Aye.  You do that.”  Agreed Albert.   He had already seen the large Chinese urn which stood a little further down the aisle.  As soon as he was sure the porter’s back was turned he took the lid off the urn and wriggled down inside it, pulling the lid back after him. 

With no-one to sign for it, the auction house agreed their best course was to sell Jarvis’s cabinet, and to donate the proceeds to charity if its owner was never traced.   The following week’s sale saw the cabinet depart at a bargain price to a new bidder, much to the porter’s satisfaction, because thereafter that strange, troublesome knocking sound in the echoes of the saleroom would finally cease.

After a few years Jarvis’s deserted house would be sold off to a developer, when the remains of the marble sculpture would finally be discovered.   It was recognized instantly, of course, but the demolition man, fearing publicity and delay, set about it with his rock spike and reduced it to hardcore.

As for the Chinese urn, it would change hands many times.  Valuable as it was, no-one seemed anxious to keep it for long, and eventually it would find its way back to China where, inexplicably, its owner threw it off a cliff.  

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  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.

Hallbury Summer – Episode Twenty-Six The Tragedy of the Commons

The Story so Far:   Emma Peterkin has separated from Joe’s best friend Tom, and she has slept with Joe.  Although found out by Tom, Joe is still able to enlist him in a final visit to the Parkins’ home, where they are just in time to see a fire-raiser put it to the torch.  Beating the flames, the pair discover a hidden room laden with pagan artifacts, and the decomposed body of a child.

Meanwhile, Charker Smith has been stirring himself into an alcohol-driven rage against Joe, inspired by the machinations of journalist Jennifer Althorpe, for whom the confrontation will make an excellent story.   Charker has a gun.

“Have you forgotten Charker?”  Tom asked, as the Parkin house blazed behind them..

Joe shrugged, shooting needles of agony through his burnt shoulders.  “I  can’t leave now.”  He said.

“Well, you better be ready for ‘un, ‘cause there he is.”  Tom indicated over his shoulder back along the bridle path that followed the northernmost margin of Wednesday Common.  Three figures, one of whom was entirely appropriate to the path because he was as large as a horse, were discernible in the reflection from the fire, standing some two hundred yards distant.  They too had seen Constable Hallett’s police car.  Joe guessed they would come no closer until Hallett had gone.

Dave Hallett, of course, would not go, not once the tiny wrapping that lay on the lane had been explained to him: and with every minute the villagers were gathering, drawn from their homes by that red flower in the sky.  Their vigil was conducted in awed murmurings and sober looks, a reverential congregation before a burning altar.  How many knew what kind of altar was burning there, Joe wondered?  Was the sinister life of Violet Parkin common knowledge or something shared only by a chosen few?

“This’d explain some things old Jack’s been ranting on about since we locked him up.”  Dave Hallett said, after Tom and Joe had told their tale:  “’The cursed house’ ‘e calls ut.  One thing for sure, we won’t get no more information out of there.”

The Parkin house flared and crashed through its last throes, each new collapse erupting a roman candle into the night sky, as efficient an incinerator as any guilty murderer could wish.  Who was the arsonist, Joe wonderd?  Who knew there was something in that house that must be eradicated completely?  He pressed the folder where he had concealed it beneath his shirt, anxious for the assurance it was still there, because maybe inside it, at last, he had the answers.

Far too late a fire-engine’s siren echoed up the valley.  P.C. Hallett looked beset, trying to control a curious audience of villagers who were drawn particularly towards the small covered mound lying on the lane, while conducting conversations over his radio.  Hallett had covered the child’s body with a sheet, at once disguising it and increasing its mystery.  What was it?  Everyone wanted to know.

Meanwhile, the ever-growing throng kept Joseph secure from harm.  Of Charker and his cronies, there was now no sign.

Joe drew Tom to one side:  “Can we get in the car?”  He asked, pulling a corner of the folder into view.  “I want to look at this.”

Tom nodded.  “I’ll stay here.  Sit in the passenger side, so Dave don’t think you’m tryin’ to drive off.  I’ll tell ‘un it’s alright if he gets panicky.”

So Joe effected a casual stroll towards the car – a pitiful effort at disguise:  his shoulders were hunched with pain, he stared at the ground.

Davy Hallett noticed.  “Joe Palliser!”

“Leave ‘un, Davy.”  Tom said.  “He’s shocked, see?  Needs to sit down for a bit:  be on his own.”

“All same…”  Davy grumbled.  But he made no move to stop Joe.

In Tom’s car, by candle-power from its interior light, Joseph opened the folder which did indeed supply all his answers. Close by, as Jack Parkin’s old home was engulfed, the fire engine engaged its audience anew – police cars were gathering, a van, an ambulance.  Briefly separate from the rapid re-establishment of a crime scene, Joe sat in a daze of disbelief.

Screens were being raised; Hallett was giving his account to a CID officer.  Busy shadows flitted around and Joe knew very soon faces would be turning his way.  His thoughts were in turmoil.  He sat, desperately looking this way and that, trying to make sense of the evidence in his hands.  He needed space –.

“So you saw the fire, Mr. Peterkin,” The young detective was briskly efficient.     “You entered the house to see if anyone was inside.  Did you find anyone?”

“No.  Only that.”

“Ah, the body.”  The detective cast about him.  “The PC first on the scene – is he here?”

Dave Hallett acknowledged the call.  The detective addressed Tom:  “This is an unexplained death so we need a full account of what happened here.  I’m going to ask you to stay nearby for the moment.  Constable, is everything as you found it when you arrived?”

“Yes Sarge.  Mr. Peterkin and Mr. Palliser were stood there, in the lane, with the remains on the ground.  I didn’t let nobody disturb nothing.”

“And where is Mr. Palliser now?”  The detective asked.

Dave Hallett glanced towards Tom’s car.  It was empty. He glared at Tom.  “Dunno Sarge.  I had my hands full, see, keeping the scene clear?”

“Mr. Peterkin?”

Tom glanced towards his car.  “Don’t see ‘im nowhere.”  He answered, truthfully.

“Constable;” Said the detective in a glacial tone; “Would you kindly find Mr. Palliser for me?  Now?”

In the intense activity surrounding the fire Joseph’s escape had gone unnoticed: by the time his absence had been discovered he was the better part of a hundred yards away, bent double as he ran like a dog through the bracken.  And Jennifer Althorpe was running after him.

Jennifer’s evening had been spent on licensed premises in Abbots Friscombe.  Here was the best place, since she had set a fuse in her interview with Mary Harkus, to keep tabs on Charker Smith, he whom she suspected would provide the spark.  Tonight she had watched with almost open-mouthed amazement as Charker and his peers consumed a prodigious volume of beer.  It was apparent the powder keg was about to blow, for Charker was declaring loudly that “Palliser’s number was up”  and he would “deal with ‘un tonight.”  When he left with two companions to fetch his gun, Jennifer followed them.  When they set off for Hallbury, she was not far behind.

The scene which greeted Charker as he spotted Joe Palliser at the Parkin House, greeted Jennifer too.  Although Charker then made himself scarce, she decided the place to be was with Joe Palliser and steered clear of the crowd, focussed upon Joe.  He would not disappoint her.  Cloaked by darkness, she saw him scramble out of Tom’s car.  She could see he clasped something in his hand, and she was close enough to follow.

Of course, watching Charker Smith’s prowess in a public house meant that she, Jennifer, had also been obliged to consume a quantity of alcohol, an area in which she lacked a journalist’s expertise.  Now, bent double in her pursuit of Joe at his rather faster pace, she was, euphemistically speaking, very uncomfortable.  Fortunately the pursuit was brief – unfortunately, its conclusion was other than she expected.

Joe planned to hide the folder and its epic message.  The police, he reasoned, would want a lot more from Tom and himself.  They were likely to be searched – Tom’s car was likely to be searched.  A nearby clump of fern seemed large enough to offer safe hiding for the folder until he was free to retrieve it the following morning.

He heard Jennifer’s clumsy progress at around the same time he discovered his chosen clump of undergrowth was larger than he had supposed: sufficient, in fact, to conceal the person of Charker Smith.  Although his two sidekicks had fled at the very thought of police, Charker’s greater resolve had induced him to remain, hidden at a distance, hoping to get his chance at Palliser.  Even so, he could hardly have wished for a better result, for if he had not risen to his feet Joe Palliser would have tripped over him!

For Joe the jarring impact was as though he were stopped by a wall.  He hit Charker in the belly, head-first.  Charker did not even exhale.

“Now then, Palliser!”   Joe felt himself lifted like a puppy by the grip of one vice-like hand on his collar – small and delicate Charker’s hands might have been, but they packed all the power of the arms that bore them.

“Charker!  Not now!”

“Oh, aye.  Now will do, boy.  You had this ‘ere comin’ a long time, didn’t you?”

With no time even to catch his wind, Joe might well have surrendered to his fate, had he not felt his captor’s shoulders tense, and become aware that Charker was no longer looking at him.

“Hello dearie!”  Charker’s softer voice, on top of so much alcohol, was almost comical.  “Now who the f**k are you?”

“I’m Jenny, Charker.”  Jennifer Althorpe thrashed her way out of the bracken and, discomfited though she was, did her best to sound seductive.  “Remember, in the pub?  You were watching me, weren’t you?  So glad we’ve got to meet at last.”

The big man’s mental capacity was insufficiently flexible to deal with such vicissitudes of fortune.  His simple mission was to throttle Joe (which he was already in the process of doing – to the point where Joe was choking for air) and this added presence was an interference he could not quite take in.

“Well, you met me.”  Charker said, lowering Joe slowly to terra firma.  “Now what?”

“Now?  What now? What do you think?”  Jennifer was advancing, moving in passable imitation of a tigress.  “Now I’ve tracked you down I want to spend some time with you, Charker darling.  Don’t waste your time on Mr Palliser, hmm?  I think he’s holding something we both might need.    I think you have something a girl like me might need too, don’t you?”

If late, her intention to draw the heat off Joe showed some sense of decency – or fear of untimely attention from the police; but she had miscalculated.  Charker in matters of sexual attraction was a breed bull, slow to respond and brief in execution of the act.  As such, he was impervious to flirtation.   In his cups Jennifer, bedraggled by her encounters with nature and her charms blunted by darkness was merely an unwelcome distraction from his single purpose.  Her reference to Joe’s folder was lost upon him: it had no existence for him – all that did exist was Palliser’s neck.

Jennifer, shaking the bracken from her feet, approached within touching distance,

“You stay right there now.”

“Oh, come on, Charker!  You’re a big healthy lad, aren’t you?  I’m sure you are!  Why don’t we have a little fun; just you and I?”  She nodded towards Joe, “Have a little fun with him, if you want?”  Showing utter faith in her abilities, she took the last fateful step.  Charker stood with his left fist clenched on Joe’s neck, his twelve-bore cocked ready for use in his right hand.  Did he see her as a threat, or was he simply confused, addled by drink?  .  The gun discharged upwards into Jennifer’s stomach – a shot she felt much more than she heard.  As fire-arrows shot through her, Jennifer, her breath taken from her, could only utter a rather foolish “Oh!” of surprise.  Then came a deeper blackness.  Far off, at the sound of the gun, the shouting began.

Difficult to know if Charker realised the horror of what he had done – difficult to know if he was cognisant of anything at all.   Away to his right, bodies, torches flickering, pounded through the bracken towards him:

“CHARKER!”  Tom’s voice bellowed.  Tom knew whose gun he had heard.

Charker Smith stood like a colossus, motionless as Jennifer’s body crumpled against him before dropping like a discarded doll onto the heath.  At the clamour of urgent voices he said nothing, did not even move, save to crunch his fingers ever deeper into Joe Palliser’s throat.  Still weak from the smoke of the Parkin fire and pinned by those vengeful eyes, Joe was once more on the cliff edge of a struggle.  Too long it was before the mob could reach them, before shouting, grabbing human forms barged Charker down:  three or four of them, it took.  Big hands trussing him with handcuffs.  Joe, released, falling into capable arms…Tom’s arms.

And then silence…..unearthly silence.

#

At three o’clock in the morning Finsborough Town Hall was normally deserted.  The chairs and tables which rattled and scraped so busily now would be stacked away; the bare board floor a night-time desert across which wayfaring mice might wander fearlessly, with the odd small bug or two for their only company.  Just once in every five years might the lights be burning like this so early in the morning, the floor so heavily burdened by the rush and bustle of a crowd buoyed up on a heady ambrosia of renewed hope – rarely at any time of day or night would the atmosphere be so electric, the hum of expectation so vibrant.

For all the years of their marriage Ian and Caroline Palliser had maintained a single-minded dedication to The Party.  They had been challenging years.  Tonight, they would remain close to one another, and occasionally the girl from the Shires who had reached for the highest apple might sneak a hand into her husband’s; a reassuring squeeze, a hint of encouragement.  And Ian might respond, a little; though mostly these days it seemed he did not see her, or feel her touch at all.  She had reconciled herself to this.  The frantic round of engagements, political discussions – high-minded theory, low-minded cunning – had left them both so exhausted that she had very few moments to stop, to ask herself where her future was going, whether or not she would have taken this road?  Only here, tonight, dutifully beside her husband in her entirely empty role as a prospective candidate’s wife, had she time to properly contemplate that future.  Did she like the things she saw?  In marriage, she had been told, once the years of passion were gone, the years of deepening friendship were there to look forward to.  Had there ever really been passion?  Was Ian her friend?  Was she anything at all to him, other than the right wife to have, from the right family, the proper background?  So maybe those little gestures of reassurance were necessary indeed.  Not for Ian, but for herself.

Ian was deep in conversation with Laurence Montague-Hearst, his agent.  The clerk touched his shoulder.

“They’re almost ready, Mr. Palliser. It would be best to make your way to the stage now.”  The clerk, in trying to maintain a pretence of confidentiality amid noisy cheering from certain sections of the throng, managed to achieve something best described as a subdued shout.  “After the Presiding Officer has announced the result, you make your acceptance speech, sir.  Can you keep it to five minutes, if you would?”

Ian raised a hand to show he had heard, though he did not move to follow the shorter, stumpy figure of the clerk as it made its way through the crowd.  No, he would take his time, be sure he was last, or nearly last, to join the gaggle of hopefuls who shifted nervously and noisily around those boards.  His political hackles were up; his nostrils filled with a scent of plot.  By midnight the trend in the count had been blatantly clear: it was Palliser by almost a landslide – so why was Trimby Harris, his principle opposition, looking so buoyant?  When their eyes had met, as occasionally they must in so small a space on so long a night, there had been an odd twinkle there, not the disposition of a man who expected to come second.

He gave the Clerk another couple of minutes, then moved purposefully towards Harris with an extended hand.  The old man responded instantly; his strong clasp at once a gesture of friendship and confidence.

“Looks like you’ve won the count, dear fellow!  Shall we face the music?”

‘Won the count’?  Why not just ‘won’?  Mind buzzing, Ian accepted the big, guiding hand on his shoulder as it steered him towards the dais.

So……

At what point did he realise?  When did he see the two men – those two odd, misfit figures in their cheap clothes standing between him and the stage, between him and that symbolic climb?  Did he notice the small push by which Harris compelled him forward?

“You are Mr. Ian Palliser?”  The taller of the two addressed him deferentially.  “I’m Detective Inspector Royston, sir.  I wonder if we might have a word with you?”

 

© 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.