Hallbury Summer – Episode Seventeen.   A Deeper Darkness

Alex Chernenko

The story so far:

No sooner has Joe Palliser discovered sick younger brother Michael has been removed from Maddockgate care home, than his elder brother Ian summons him to a meeting.  Ian, who is on the verge of election to parliament, tells Joe the press are pursuing him, and offers to pay him to move out of reach, but Joe refuses.  He also learns that Ian has tried to move Michael, and Michael has vanished.

Shortly afterwards, Joe receives the news that Ned Barker, landlord of ‘The King’s Head’ has died.  With time in hand before he takes the ‘bus to collect his new car, Joe keeps an appointment to view a house, and is captivated by it.

For a distance no more than a dozen crow-flown miles, Wilton Bishop by service ‘bus involved three changes, so the hands of Joseph’s body-clock had crept to lunchtime before he could collect the Wolsey car that awaited him on Maybury Motors forecourt, polished to an imperious shine.  He steeled himself to climb into a driving seat for the first time in many years, ashamed of how he trembled at even the thought of driving, yet eager for freedom regained.  Wallace Maybury found him there as he rolled and paddled his panting body up the hill from the village, bearing an unfurled newspaper where lurked his lunch of fish and chips.

“Little beauty, isn’t she?” Enthused the salesman, his lustful fingers embellishing Joseph’s cheque with patches of cooking fat. “Any trouble with her, you don’t hesitate to call me!”

Joseph gritted his teeth, turned the key and pulled the starter.  There was little hint of femininity in the protest from the gearbox at his unaccustomed touch, but after a second attempt at a start the Wolsey swept him regally away. From a layby a hundred yards away a younger Austin slipped into more elegant motion.  As inconspicuously as possible, it tagged along behind.

At the first service station Joe added fuel to the pint or so of Maybury’s contribution and replenished his own tank with coke and a soggy cheese sandwich, before making his way to the county town, where he intended to seek out the office for a local newspaper, the County Despatch.   He discovered it lodged in a tall narrow building of four storeys, sandwiched between ‘Godfrey’s Shoes’ and a store devoted to ‘Surgical Requisites’ on the lower main street,

Selwyn Penny, a reporter of some vintage, seemed eager to help.“Matheson – I remember that one.  Poor child!  A man walking his dog found the clothing, as I recall.   I saw the chap who was sent down for it. Toby Bridall was presiding at Quarter Sessions that winter.  He reduced the sentence to life because there was no body, you see; the victim was never found.     What was the accused’s name now – Robertson?  Robinson?  You’ll find it in the archive somewhere.  He was always going to be in trouble because he had a record of minor crimes against children – molestation and so forth – but killing wasn’t in his nature:  you could see that. I’ve never been entirely satisfied with that one.”

“Tabloid stuff, though?”  Joseph suggested.

Selwyn nodded.  “Yes, I sent in some copy.  Strange, sometimes, how you think the things that should galvanise the ‘nationals’ don’t even get space on page fourteen.  It wasn’t used – borderline, I’d say.  There were a lot of other things going on at the time; political scandals, and so forth.”

Joe thanked Mr Penny.  Outside, heavy rain was setting in, compelling him to make a dash for the refuge of his car, parked some distance up the street.   There, as a storm gathered, he sat listening to the raindrops’ steady hammer on the roof, mentally brushing dust from the archives in his brain and letting his mind go to dangerous places.

“There are things I know,” Michael had said.   And he had spread his arms in a cruciform imitation of Violet’s execution.   Only one means existed by which he could have known how she had been displayed.  He had to have been there.

There were things which now, perhaps, Joe thought it might be better not to know, for the coven dancing in his head was no longer a circle of credulous village women –it was something demonic, and he could picture Michael in it, clasped hand in hand with Violet Parkin, with Dot Barker, Janice Regan, Hettie Locke…and who else? What was the secret Michael was so certain Ned Barker had known, that could make that evil cabal turn upon one of its own?

He could not help but wonder now if, as his aunt had implied, those women were somehow implicated in Christian Matheson’s disappearance, too.  The little boy’s scattered clothing had been found near Slater’s Copse – the hill where Aaron Pace had once seen the witches dancing.  Michael would have been thirteen years old and already very disturbed, when the Matheson child was taken: so impressionable, so young – surely too young to be accepted by those women?  But who knew what they were capable of:  the headless crows, Benjy the cat’s mutilated carcass impaled upon his aunt and uncle’s front door?  These were evidence of something very dark indeed.

Joseph’s memory of that time burned bright: Michael was hurting – so badly hurting!  Joe?  All Joe could do was hide in his room, afraid of the shouting, the rows from the floor below.

Michael’s tremulous crescendo:  “I call you, I call you!  You are commanded to come!”

Julia:  “Michael, stop it!”

“Come before the council and be tried!  Stand before us and be tried!”

“Oh, Michael!  For goodness sake, please!”

It would go on, and on.  Michael raving his distress, Julia torn between pity and fear; for there was no doubting the terror Michael inspired in his aunt.  Were he one of her own and not the child of her dead sister, maybe it would have been different; but he was a surrogate child, and now, a changeling.  A stranger; a violent, dangerous stranger.

“Honestly Oz, sometimes I think he’s about to kill me!”

If Joe’s brother in his illness might have done some terrible, some dreadful things, then what satisfactory reason had he to pursue Jack Parkin’s cause?  Michael was out there, somewhere, and though he hated the phrase he must use it:  ‘on the loose’.  Was he, Joseph, not the only Palliser in Hallbury that hot afternoon when Violet Parkin died?  Was his thirst for justice enough, if it promised to bring down the roof on one of his own  family?

In celebration of the new freedom which came with having transport of his own, Joe spent two hours just driving aimlessly before he returned to Hallbury, and even then he did not return immediately to his aunt and uncle’s house, but parked up on Wednesday Common, near to a place where he and Emma had once spent time together, hiding from the lights as teenagers in love will hide; for now his lost loves were very much on his mind – Marian and Emma; the one gone forever, the other a living temptation whose cries from among the rocks bade him sail ever closer to ruin.

Marian had rescued him, hadn’t she?  Plucked him from the street and given him self-worth when he needed it most.  So was it love or gratitude that filled his memory of her?  He might doubt the integrity of his feelings, even at the time when her love for him began to cool – was it his heart or his insecurity that had most troubled him then?  And now, as he thoughtof her – as she immersed his mind with her memory – did he think of her for love lost, or in fear of a truth he did not want to face:  that loving her, he had killed her?

Now there was Emma, who had saved him, too, in her way.  When his adolescent passion for Sarah had left him languishing in a pool of despondency, it was she who taught him love could be fun.  Emma had helped the scarred boy become something of a man, or as much of a man as he thought he could ever become.  And Emma was married to someone else, forced to accept a lesser kind of love because he had deserted her, and made no attempt to retrieve what he had lost.

The wheel of fortune had turned, had it not?  He was faced with a moral dilemma:  should he quit the field and leave the love he betrayed behind once more, or take her as he surely could from the arms of his best friend?  Although all his sense of rectitude and all its probable consequences militated against the latter choice, yet he was consciously driving himself towards it:  buying a house in Hallbury was probably the worst life decision he could make – which was probably why he was making it.

The tap on the car window made him jump so hard he almost hit his head on the roof.

“Excuse me!”  A feminine voice – the window had steamed in a renewal of the rain, so Joe could not see.  He wound it down to reveal its owner – a pretty dark-haired woman in a white blouse and short skirt.  The neck of the blouse gaped open sufficiently to reveal a generous cleavage.  “I hope you don’t mind, but I saw you were parked here.  I wonder – could I be awfully cheeky and ask you for a lift?  My car’s gone phut you see, and I really have to get back to…I believe it’s Brenton, isn’t it?.”

“Braunston,”  Joe corrected her, “Sure, get in.”  A damsel in distress:  what else would he do?

“Golly, thanks!”

She tottered on heels to the passenger side and slipped expertly in beside him, demurely pulling at the hem of her skirt.  “I’m so sorry to be a bother.  The blessed thing just stopped working – aren’t cars awful?”

Joe smiled, thinking that cars weren’t awful at all.  “You’re soaked!”  he said.  Her wet blouse clung to her enough to reveal evidence of a low-cut lacy bra.

She looked down at herself.  “Oh, golly!”  She folded her arms across her chest, giggling at her own embarrassment, her tiny nose wrinkling as she laughed.  She really was, Joe thought, extremely alluring.

He retrieved his jacket from the back seat, “Here, you’ll be cold.”

“Oh, you are kind.”  She snuggled down into the seat. “This is so cosy!”

Joe started the car, wiped away as much condensation as he could, and U-turned, wheels slipping enough to give a moment’s concern.  “Of course, I could be stuck myself.”  He admitted.  “Where in Braunston  did you want to go?”

The Wolsey bounced back onto tarmac, swerving to avoid a stricken-looking Austin Princess which stood dripping and inert beside the road.

“I’ll get the AA man to look at it for me.”

She was down from London visiting friends, it transpired; her name was Jennifer, and she was staying at a Braunston hotel.  “But if you wouldn’t mind just getting me to civilisation?”

Joe wouldn’t hear of it.  No, he would not turn her out into this rain, her hotel was not far.

“Oh, you are kind!”  Jennifer enthused.  “My saviour!  You haven’t told me your name…”

“It’s Joe.”

“Honest Joe!”  Her laugh was music.  “Do you live here, Joe?”

“Nearby.”

“Really?  I was visiting a chum in Little Hallbury – you might know her, Joe.  Sophie Forbes-Pattinson?  Do we have a mutual friend?”

Joe said yes, indeed he did, and yes, Sophie might have mentioned him and his second name, since she asked, was Palliser.

“Wow, what an inspiring name!  Don’t I know it from somewhere?  Oh, my god!  I don’t suppose….you couldn’t be any relation to Ian Palliser, could you?  You look so alike!”

“He’s my brother.”

“Really?  Golly!”  Exclaimed Jennifer, wide-eyed.  “Isn’t the world just absolutely tiny?  You must be so proud of him!  He’s going to be most amazingly famous, you know.  Daddy’s a member of the Party Selection Committee thing, and he’s terribly enthusiastic because they don’t pick just sort of anybody and members from our constituency usually end up being in the cabinet for something or other.  What’s it like to have a famous brother, Joe?”

A bit of a problem, Joe said.  The miles passed unnoticed as Jennifer’s words tumbled over one another in an enthusiastic cantilena to life and living.  He joked, she laughed; her eyes sparkled.  More than once he glanced sidelong at her to see her approving him.  And the conversation turned.

“Well I hope Sophie’s making good use of you.  You’re rather a nice chap, Joe.”

“Thank you.”  He said.  They were nearing Braunston.  As if upon a whim, Jennifer suddenly moved across her seat so her head could rest on his shoulder.

“My god I’m cold!”  She said.  “You’re so warm and comfy, do you mind?”

He didn’t.

Jennifer was staying at one of the smaller hotels:  “Travelling’s so expensive, isn’t it?  Daddy’s awfully careful like that.”

Joe parked at the roadside close to the hotel’s front doors and remarked foolishly that the rain had stopped, which of course was obvious, but he felt so confused by the mesmerising presence at his side he couldn’t think of anything more profound to say.  Jennifer did not move.

“Gosh, you really are a super bloke, Joe.”  Her eyes shone; her lips slightly parted to reveal white teeth; her hands, clasped around one knee, tightening her shoulders so the valley between her breasts was dark and deep.  With difficulty, he tore his eyes away, knowing otherwise he must suffer obvious humiliation.  Jennifer seemed delighted with her effect upon him.  “Well, I suppose that’s it?”  She asked.  It was a genuine question.

Hurriedly, lest humiliation should visit him anyway – his thoughts were running faster than his self-discipline could follow – Joe alighted, walking around to her door and opening it.  Jennifer’s long legs swung out, riding up her short, short skirt for a moment:  a glimpse of pink satin – “Oops!” – before she tugged it to respectability.  Then, in a movement bordering on the miraculous, she slid herself upright so that every part of her body pressed to every part of Joe’s body; and before he could stop her she was kissing him on the mouth.

She had surprised him in every sense, so much so that he could not react.  Before he could respond she moved her head so they were cheek to cheek as she whispered, with an inference that was plain:  “Come in with me?”

What made him draw back, alarm, instinct maybe?  Where did she spring from, this divinity, this gift from God?  Why had she, on so brief an acquaintance, taken to him so much that she wanted to share herself?  Maybe that; or maybe some instinct, a fear even, that this was not all it seemed.  Anyway, step away he did, and however reluctantly he gave his refusal.  She looked mildly taken aback.

“What a pity.  You’ll never know what you missed, now, will you?”  Jennifer reverted to the formal.  “Well, thank you for the ride, Sir Joe.  I’m sure we’ll meet again sometime.”  And she clacked away on those impossible heels, leaving Joseph admiring and helpless in her wake.

He did not drive away immediately.  He sat in his car, simultaneously castigating himself for turning down the opportunity of a lifetime and wondering whether it had all been some kind of self-delusion – a dream.  There was no reconciliation to be found, however, so at last he started the Wolsey to begin his drive home.

Joseph would have been interested in a meeting which took place in the lobby of the hotel, five minutes after his car had turned the corner at the end of the road.  Jennifer, who had not gone straight to her room to change from her wet clothing, was sitting in one of the leather armchairs when a conservatively dressed middle-aged man with greying hair and a goatee beard sat down on the sofa opposite her.

“Did you get anything?”  Jennifer asked the man.

“Not much chance – one of the kiss, I think, though it won’t be very clear.  The light’s bad, too.  How many times do I have to tell you?  Stand the other side of the car door, Jen.”

“I must be losing my touch.”  Jennifer said.

© 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.

 

 

 

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode Seven    Ship of Ghosts

The story so far:

After an uncomfortable encounter with the police, Joseph Palliser decides to visit Michael, his younger brother, who is resident in a nursing home; but the ‘bus trip which takes him there evokes harsh memories of his bullied childhood, and his involvement in the car accident  which killed his tormentor, Rodney Smith (Charker Smith’s brother).  He is reminded of this, and the subsequent rumours which drove him into leaving Hallbury all those years ago, as the ‘bus passes the place where the accident happened.

Joe remembers his first car and the modifications he made which led to his implication in Rodney’s end.  If he were to try to forget there are others in Rodney’s home village of Abbots Frsicombe ready to remind him, like village busybody Mary Harkus,.  She warns Joe to beware of Charker…

By the time the bus reached Maddockgate, its holidaymaking passengers’ faith had been repaid.  The rain had stopped.  Over hills which rose steeply across the southern horizon a watery sun elbowed its way through the clouds, endowing wet-leaved hedges with a welcome sparkle.  Joseph quitted the bus here at a request stop on the corner of Manor Lane beside a telephone box.  A discreet white signpost declared that Maddockgate Manor Nursing Home was a half-mile away, so he set off up the lane with a spring in his step.

‘The Gate’ was a large Victorian manor house of red sandstone standing upon a rise in five acres of its own grounds.    Despite its grim age it was far from the worst place to be sheltered if you were one of those who society deemed insane.  The dayroom Joseph was shown into had freshly painted walls and large bay windows through which what sun there was shone a welcome.  The leather chairs looked comfortable and there was a studious, subdued air about its five inmates who, distributed about the room, were each engrossed in something, though precisely what might have been hard to define.

“Michael,” The nurse called.  “Look who’s come to see you!”

He rose from an oxblood red winged chair at the end of the room; a tall, gaunt figure with scant, wispy brown hair and a patch over one eye, upon whose face flesh was tensioned like canvas on a stretcher.  It was an old canvas, that face, painted by a master perhaps: lined and faded with wide mouth slashed darkly across it as though opened by a knife.  His check shirt, covered in turn by a yellow V-neck pullover drooped about a thin neck and long, bent body.  Baggy grey trousers went the rest of the way to the floor, revealing the toes of tartan slippers peeking furtively from beneath their turn-ups.

Joseph barely recognised that wasted figure:  he had to try hard to remember that Michael was younger than him.  Yet, for all his physical impoverishment, Michael had a certain nobility about him, the bearing of a gentleman not favoured by fortune.  He waved Joseph regally to a chair on his right.

“Welcome, stranger!  Come and sit before me.”

It was clear that Michael did not know who he was, Joseph thought.  And why should he?  Drawing closer, he could see his scars had faded considerably from childhood days, although the long one which had all but taken out one eye was still obvious.  It vanished behind the eye patch to re-emerge below it, a savage weald he guessed would never go.

“Do you bring news from the east?”  Michael enquired anxiously:  “Come, tell me at once.  Are our armies lost?”

“Michael, I didn’t come from the east.  Well, not today, anyway.”

“Damn!  So they have us!    I’ll have to break it to the men.”  Michael sat back in his chair, this time crossing his legs as though they were upon a large cushion and saying, in a thick Arabian accent:  “Sit with me.  You honour my tent.”  Then, with startling clarity:  “What brings you here, then, Joseph?”

Joe’s face must have shown his relief.  Michael gave a slow chuckle.  “Well, you expect it, don’t you?  Coming in here, I mean?  Got to give my public what they want to see.  Jesus, Joey,  how many years has it been?  I barely recognised you.”

Joseph returned his brother’s smile.  “Too many,” he said; “too many.   How do they treat you here?  Are you well?”

“I’ve been ill from time to time, who isn’t?  Medication, Joey; that’s the answer for everything here.  Avoiding medication is the secret of happiness, I’ve found.  They teach you that.”

“How do you mean?”

“Tell me, dearest brother; what do you think of this place?  Pleasant – airy?  It is, of course, if you pass through here for a day.  You might even stay for a week and find it educational, at the very least: soft bed, a radio in your room.  But if you stay here for a year, five years, seventeen years….”  Michael leaned forward, speaking confidentially.  His breath had a slight menthol smell.  “You count the blemishes in the paint on the walls.  You know intimately every leaf on every bush in that garden, you know everything about everybody who cries in the middle of the night and it’s a bloody prison, then.”  He sat back.  “But you don’t protest.  You don’t raise your voice.  If you do, you’re ill, so you must have medication.  Medication messes with your head, it twists up your nerves and makes you wild inside but you can’t do anything.  Illness is a crime in here, and medication is the punishment:  a sort of perverse Christian Science, if you like.  You met the matron on your way in, I expect?  Frau Forster?  I call her Mary Baker Eddie – got away with it to her face for years, until she looked it up one day.  I was medicated for a week.

Michael’s face split in a thin smile.  “But things aren’t so bad now.  I don’t get ill very often, and I’m allowed out, you know.  I have friends in Marsden where I can go and stay for a few days if I want.  And from time to time I can take myself on days out if I’m good.  So, you – where have you been all this time?  What have you been doing with yourself?”

Joseph knew the question was coming, of course.  He re-told the story he had given to Julia and Owen, leaving nothing out.

When he had finished, Michael nodded sagely.  “Children of demons.”

The remark took Joseph aback:  “What?”

“Demon-spawn:  they feed on us, Joey.  They’re everywhere.”

It was the first serious intimation Michael had given that he was still unwell.  Joseph disguised his reaction to it as best he might by managing a bleak smile.  “True.”  He said.  He was beginning to wonder why he had come.

Together the brothers opened the scrapbook of their respective memories, sharing recollections of the past, speaking a little of the present, but never of the future.  Because, Joe would have to acknowledge, Michael did not have a future he would want to discuss.  There was no further mention of predatory demons.

Something interested Joseph.  “You haven’t asked about Ian.”  He said.

Michael returned him a blank, almost glazed look.  “No.”

“Why not?  He’s doing very well for himself, he’s….”

Michael cut him short.  “There are some things in here; things close to you, you have to forget.  Memories are bad for you, Joey.”  It was as though he had slammed a door.  There was obviously no room for further talk about their elder brother.

“Oh, I have some hot local news!”  Joseph tried to restore some lost ground:  “You remember Violet Parkin, the big woman who used to do all that stuff for the church?  She’s been murdered, Mikey!  What do you think of that?”

Whatever reaction he had anticipated, it was not the reaction he was given.

“Ah.”  Michael said.  His head began to nod in affirmation; not quite naturally.  It was an exaggerated, almost stylised movement.  “That I do know.”

“Really?”  Joseph said, very carefully:  “Who told you?”

Michael’s eyes met his own with a look in them that was remote, as if he were staring at something inside himself.  “There are things I know.  You must accept that.”  He spread his arms, slowly raising them above his shoulders, hands limp and drooping, as if in crucifixion.  With horror Joseph realised he was imitating the position in which Violet Parkin’s body was discovered.

“How do you….”

Michael dropped his arms, raised a hand in a quieting gesture:  “There are things I know.”

“I see.”  Joseph chose his words.  “So do you know why she had to die?  Because that’s what puzzles me, Mikey – what could a woman like that have done to get herself killed?”

“Who have you spoken to about this?  It’s vitally important!”

“Oh, most of the village, I suppose.  Everyone wants to discuss it.  Why, Mikey?  I barely knew the woman.  And why is it vital?  And how the hell do you ‘know’?”

“I just do.”  Michael’s thin features were almost lupine; had Joseph noticed that before?  Or was his face changing?  His hands had begun to twitch, stretching their long, skeletal fingers and curling.  He had begun that strange smoothing gesture he had shown to Aunt Julia once, at a breakfast table, a long time ago.

“Look, Michael, I don’t want to distress you.  Let’s change the subject, yes?”

“I’m not distressed, brother – not for me.  I’m distressed for you; for all you once knew and you’ve now forgotten; for the Earth-Lore that was yours to take and is lost now.  You left the pack, didn’t you?  You should have stayed.  In the pack you learn.  It teaches you your place in the order of things, who is first to the kill; who takes the first bite.  Oh, the glory in that first bite, Joe!  I know because they’ve tried to keep me away – tried for years.  They try, Joey!  They don’t know the pack is inside me.  They can’t know!”

A quiet voice spoke at Joseph’s shoulder.  “Mr Palliser?  I think we ought to let Michael rest for a while if you don’t mind?”

Joseph nodded.  “I’m going now, Mikey.  I’ll be back soon, though, Okay?”

There was no other description to fit it:  Michael bared his teeth.  “Talk to Ned Barker.”  He growled.  “Talk to him, Joey.  Do it before it’s too late!”

The nurse, a pretty, petite girl in a neat blue uniform, led Joseph from the room.  She gave a meaningful nod to a male nurse who encountered them at the door.

“We’ll take good care of your brother, Mr Palliser; don’t worry.  He gets excited like this sometimes.  It soon passes.”

“Is there a doctor around – anyone who can explain his symptoms?”

“I’m not allowed to discuss the patients.  I’ll see if Doctor  Bernowski’s available, if you’d like to wait?”

Bernowski was a man of challenged stature, with piercing eyes behind rimless spectacles.  “You are fortunate to catch me, Mr Palliser.  I have much to do, you see?”

“Thank you for sparing me the time.  What is wrong with Michael?”

Bernowski shrugged.  “Essentially he is brain-damaged – his malady is a legacy of the accident in his childhood, and the trauma associated with it:  as to its manifestation, in these cases it is so difficult to say.  Often we work for years and years and never find a cause.  I thought at first schizophrenia, but now I think more likely a personality disorder.  It is not harmful anyway, and he has a good life here.”

“He told me he’s allowed out.  Is that true?”

“Not strictly.  We have – how you call them – sheltered accommodation in some places, where they can go for a few days.  They are always supervised.”

“In Marsden on Sea?”

“Yes.  This I believe.”

“And was he there last week?”

“He was due a visit, I think.  You must ask the Matron that.  She will tell you.”

Joseph waited a further ten minutes for Mrs Forster, who was a friendly, tall woman with a frank, professional smile.  Yes, Michael had been on a ‘visit’ last week.  He had stayed in Marsden but, no, she was sorry, they did not give out the address.

“The people who perform the service for us have no visiting arrangements, you see.  But it is one of the advantages we offer our patients here.”

“I’m impressed.  The National Health Service never ceases to surprise me.”

Mrs Forster treated Joseph to a bemused glance.  “Mr Palliser, we are not a National Health Service hospital.  Maddockgate Manor is a private concern.”

By the time Joseph returned to Little Hallbury it was early evening, a weak sun had yielded once more to heavy cloud, and there was a far-away drum-beat of thunder.  He had questions to ask.

“Aunt Julia; who pays for Michael to stay there?  It’s quite expensive, isn’t it?”

Julia looked puzzled.  “I thought you knew that, dear.”

“Until I asked yesterday I didn’t even know where he was. “

His aunt shifted her gaze uncomfortably.  “Well then, I suppose you are owed an explanation.  Your parents left money in trust for whoever looked after you.  We became your guardians, so their will left us free to dispose of that part of their estate as we saw fit.  Michael’s care was the obvious solution.”

“So we should have had some money coming to us, Ian and I?”

“Any residue would have been passed on to you at the age of twenty-one: but with Michael the way he is, dear….”  Julia left the sentence open.  “Owen discussed all this with Ian and yourself years ago.  You must have forgotten.  Now, what would you like for your tea?”

Nothing simple:  the answers, if they were there, begged questions and those questions spawned more questions still.  Joseph went to his bed that night with questions spiralling through his brain.  Somehow Julia’s answer did not satisfy him:  his father, or so he had always been told, was a civil servant:  assiduous in his career, yes:  frugal in his habits no doubt; but able to finance the fees of Maddockgate Manor for the whole of Michael’s lifetime?  No.

That night, Joseph drifted like a ship of ghosts into a crewless, aimless sleep.  Without any obvious reason, Violet Parkin’s death had become important to him.  She had died in a manner wholly inappropriate for a god-fearing woman – with no explanation – none at all.  Yet Michael knew something – thirty miles away and never without someone to keep watch over him – he seemed to be convinced of a dangerous secret pertaining to that grisly event for which Ned Barker, the landlord of The King’s Head could provide an answer.

The next morning the police came again.  This time the young constable was accompanied by an older man:

“Detective Sergeant Stonebridge, Mr Palliser.  Can we have a word?”

While the young constable dithered by the French windows,  DS Stonebridge perched on the arm of a chair, reminiscent, Joseph thought, of detectives he had seen on television.

“You haven’t been quite honest with us, Mr Palliser.”

Joseph suppressed an inner tremor:  “What do you mean?”

“You told my assistant here you arrived at Braunston on the…what was it?…”  He consulted a notebook; a ragged-edged affair produced from his trouser pocket:  “Ten-o-five am train from Paddington.  Correct?”

“Yes.”

“And you got to Abbots Friscombe at about four thirty.  Is that right?”

“Yes.  It should have been four-twenty-five, but the train was late.  The train usually is late.”

“Then you took the four forty-five bus from the station?”

“Didn’t I already say that too?”

“Well yes, Mr Palliser, yes you did.  Trouble is, though, it doesn’t quite square.  Like, for example, if the ten-o-five out of Paddington got to Braunston in time, which it did, more or less, why wasn’t you on the earlier train out of Braunston?  Then you’d have arrived in Abbots Friscombe in time to catch the three-thirty ‘bus.  That would have got you here at three forty-five, Mr Palliser.”

“True.  But I didn’t.  I missed it.  My London train was a little late arriving, and I don’t like to use the lavatories on trains.  When I got to Braunston I needed to…well, to freshen up, shall we say?  And I missed the two fifty-five for Friscombe.”

The detective sergeant nodded.  “I see.  So you’re saying….”

“I’m saying I was on the four o’clock train from Braunston.  I got to Abbots Friscombe at four thirty, in time for the four forty-five ‘bus.”

“And you want to stand by that statement, Mr Palliser, do you?”

Joseph gritted his teeth.  “Can you tell me the problem here?”

The detective shifted in his chair.  “The problem:  all right, Mr Palliser, I’ll tell you the problem.  No-one can remember you, either on the four o’clock train from Braunston, or on the four forty-five ‘bus.  There are two elderly passengers who do think they remember you, however:  but they tell me they were on the three thirty ‘bus.”  He leaned forward.  “If that were true, it would put you in Little Hallbury well before four pm, which was when Mrs Parkin died:  now, Mr Palliser – you tell me the problem?”

 

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Photo Credit:  Annie Spratt on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

Nowhere Lane – Chapter Twenty-Four. A Guttering Candle.

“I don’t know who you are!”  Daphne Scott-Halperton sounded defensive.  Whilst she could sense nothing threatening about the mop-haired young man looking up at her from the auditorium, he had stayed behind after the rest of her devotees had left, which was to say the least unusual.  “If you want to guidance from someone on the other side you’ve missed your opportunity.  I can’t work without the atmosphere of an audience, you see.  So that’s that, I’m afraid.  Next month?”   Daphne regarded her monthly appearances at the Gaiety very much as a sideline and their duration as strictly limited.  She was on overtime.

“Please, Miss Scott-Halperton, I don’t want a reading, just information.”

No deputations from the Choir Eternal, Patrick wanted to say: no guiding spirit of Emeline Pankhurst or voice of Elizabeth Fry, suddenly anxious to communicate from beyond the grave.  He had already endured two hours of those, unable to offer any satisfactory explanation why the almost inarticulate spirit of Boudica should be so well informed concerning Great Uncle Harry, who, despite being dead, was still enjoying his pigeons.

Miss Scott-Halperton was eyed him suspiciously.  “Information about what?”

“Someone who comes here every month – I suppose you might consider her one of your ‘regulars’?”  This evoked no response from the stage, so Patrick continued; “I thought she might have turned up tonight, it was sort of a last hope.  She’s vanished:  been abducted, we think.”

He gave his best description of Karen, to which Daphne, who was a large and quite forbidding force, appeared to listen politely, “She never misses your sessions, I’m told.  Tonight, though – I waited for her outside and she didn’t come.  I wondered…”

“Yes, yes,” Daphne interrupted him.  “I know who you mean.”  Her mind went back to her previous performance, just as it had when she opened the front door of her cottage a few days since to find Karen standing in her porch, her clothes dripping from the rain.  “One moment, young man.  I’ll be down.”

There were steps at the end of the apron stage.  Daphne descended with the careful progress incumbent upon one of her dimensions and possibly, Patrick thought unkindly, her capacity for gin. “She obtained my address from the library. I must warn you that is a loophole I have since closed.  I give private consultations but I am very careful to reserve my personal details to whomsoever I choose.”

“She went to your home?”

“Indeed she did, young man.  Some days ago.  She was a troubled soul, beset by many demons, you understand; one of which had broken free of the underworld to pursue her, poor child.  Such people carry the Devil’s mark, I’m afraid.  One wishes the best for them, yet acknowledges there is little that can be done.”

Patrick tried to clear his brain.  Miss Scott-Halperton seemed to inhabit a separate universe he was not equipped to understand, but somehow he had to build a bridge between them.  Dipsomaniac or not, eccentric or not, the medium must now be considered the last person to see Karen.  She was free then, might she still be free?”

“You want me to help you to find her?  I may not be able to do that, young man.”

“I’ll take the crumbs from anyone’s table.  Right now, I’ve nowhere to turn.”

Daphne alighted majestically three seats away from Patrick, then contrived to look learned by placing her fingertips together and nodding sagely.  “I see your pain and I shall try.”

“So she probably came to you the day she disappeared.  Do you know where she intended to go after she left you?”

“Into battle, I imagine.  She was intent upon outfacing her tormentor.  A sad mistake.  I advised her against anything so impetuous, They are not of this world, you see.”

“I hoped she might have given you some clue.”

“I witnessed the demon that beset her, young man.  At my last session its malevolence took possession of the gallery just above where you are sitting, a loathsome sight.  It was looking down upon her, filling this hall with the evil of its intention!”

“Some idea where she went?”

“Why, to the field of battle, I imagine.”

“Which would be where?  Geographically, I mean?”

“Or influentially.”

“I’m sorry, Miss Scott-Halperton, you’ve got me with that one.”

“Demons, child, are drawn to people of greatness.  Megalomania, lascivious vice and greed are their oxygen, you see.  You will find no demons in a poor man’s cabin, but in the stately corridors of men of power, they are legion. There do they hold their dominion!”

“Are we talking about any specific men of power here?”  Patrick felt he was riding a chariot behind an increasingly unpredictable horse.  “I mean, names?”

“I can tell you no more.  They are there to be found.  Seek them amidst the fire – beware the inferno, young man!”  Daphne’s head was sinking slowly into her ample chest, and her eyes were closing.  Patrick, who had passed the previous two hours watching her use a similar device to introduce the visitation of a spirit guide waited, half-expecting something similar with some concrete information within it, but after a few minutes the psychically gifted matron began to snore.

It was a disappointingly anti-climactic end to the interview.  Patrick retreated quietly.

“Golly, how utterly, utterly bizarre!”  Gabrielle enthused when he had finished his narrative.  “I do wish I’d been there!”

Her brother shook his head.  “You wouldn’t have enjoyed it.  It was a long evening, and knowing my sister as I do, she would have been giggling the whole time.”  He leant with arms upon his chair back, gazing moodily through the window of the snug, as if his eyes might find answers in the moonless darkness,  “What I don’t get – I mean, seriously don’t get – is what Karen got out of stuff like that.  It isn’t her, Gabs, not any part of her.  At least, not the Karen I knew.  Oh, god, I said it, didn’t I?  The past tense – I ‘knew’.  Am I giving up, in spite of myself?”

“No, Sweetie, not you; you’re a terrier.  You’ll dig up the whole garden if you can’t find a bone. Although, and don’t take this the wrong way, are you so sure of your image of Karen?  The girl I met was very insecure and vulnerable, not the tough female detective type at all.  I think she hated what she was, I do!  I also think she was haunted by the ghost of her sister, and in desperate need of your protection and love.”  Gabrielle gave a nervous little laugh, “Gosh, sorry!  That just slipped out!”

That night, sleepless, Patrick lamented the waste of days – the fruitless telephoning of newspapers with no interest in running the story, and even his doorstepping of a local organisation dedicated to tracing ‘the lost ones’.  Their answers were kind and, for the most part, patient, but no better than the verdict previously delivered by DC Ames: ‘She’s an adult, she’s expressed her choice clearly, there’s no evidence of any harm having come to her’.  There were endless hours frittered away in Caleybridge Library. ploughing column inch by column inch through back numbers of the County Herald, searching vainly for copy on either Emma Bartlett or Rachel Priest, those past disappearances cited by Constable Flynn.

And now, to cap it all, an evening spent at a spiritualist gathering led by a half-inebriated medium.  Were these the despairing measures of one with nowhere left to turn?  Yes, it had been wasted time, because in his heart he knew the last straws of hope were sinking.  So why did his thoughts keep re-running the old woman’s final sentences concerning ‘men of power’ – ‘they are there to be found’ – did those words allude to some clue he had missed?

In the morning he caught up with his mother before she embarked on her newly extended school run with his little sister Amanda.   “The other night you mentioned that Lord Lieutenant bod – Sir Clive something?  Do you know where he lives?”

“Sir Clive Webster; yes dear.  I also have his ‘phone number somewhere.  Would it be a good idea to call him first?”

“I would, but at some point in the conversation I would have to tell him my reason for wanting to see him, and I’m not sure I could answer that.”

“So beard the lion, you thought.”

“And see what develops.  I don’t suppose you could…?”

“Oh, Patsy, you’re such a wimp sometimes!  What makes you think I could give an answer that was any better than yours?”

“Because you know him, and because you have a way of…”

“I tell you what.  I will offer you a trade.  If I agree to try and bring the two of you together on some pretext, will you take our darling youngest to school tomorrow and bring her back?  How’s that?”

“Tomorrow’s Saturday!”

“It is.  I have succeeded in placing the dear little bugger in her third school this year, which is twenty-five miles away.  And apparently I have landed upon the one bloody school in the County, in Elverton,  that gives lessons on Saturday mornings – from nine until twelve, to be precise. It isn’t worth taking her, coming back, then going to fetch her, so – you catch my drift?”

Patrick sighed.  “Okay, I agree.  A morning kicking my heels in glorious Elverton.  But are we sure we want her back?”

“No promises, Patsy, I’ll try my best.  In the meantime, try not to be horrible to your wonderful little sister, darling.  That’s my prerogative.  Just a suggestion, while she passes her hours of learning you could poodle down the road to Harterport?  Take your swimmies.  It isn’t far.”

The one attribute Patrick’s Daimler lacked was stealth.  Its distinctive exhaust note drew attention, whether or not attention was wished.  Turning into the car park of the King’s Arms, even on a Friday lunchtime when it was fairly busy, it turned the heads of two people for whom Patrick would rather have retained an element of surprise.  Mark Potts was one, standing beside a very new-looking Sunbeam Alpine.  The other, a much older, quite wasted figure, was equally familiar to Patrick, but seeing him in Mark’s company surprised him nonetheless.

Patrick parked up, then accosted the pair.   “Nice car, Mark.  Have you had a pay rise?”

Potts seemed less than glad to see him.  “What are you doin’ here, Hallcroft?”

“Beer’s good.  Why not?”  Patrick nodded to Potts’s companion.  “’Good morning.  Last time we met, you didn’t stop to introduce yourself.”  He turned back to Potts, “Did you know your mate here spends his nights spying on the parked cars up on Monument Hill?”

“We haven’t got nothin’ to say to each other, have we?”  Potts was unfazed.  “If you don’t mind, Hallcroft, we were in the middle of a conversation.”

“Really?  It wasn’t anything remotely to do with Karen Eversley’s departure, I suppose?”

Potts leered.  “Moved away, has she?  Nosey bitch.  Couldn’t stand you once she found out you was a pervert, eh?  Good riddance, I say.”

“No, Mark.  Disappeared – like Gasser, who suddenly isn’t around anymore…”

“Or that sexy little prossy girlfriend of ‘is?  No surprise there, either.  Stuck his nose where it didn’t concern him, maybe, Maybe a bit like you, Hallcroft – stickin’ your nose in.  You want to be careful, you do…”  intending to add detail to his threat, Potts was brought up short by a heavy nudge from the older man, who had so far made no contribution to the exchange.

“Aren’t we missing some drinking time?”  He said, in a dry, cracked voice.

Patrick ignored the interruption.  “What happened to Gasser, Mark? Where did you really leave him that night?”

Potts dropped his voice, attempting to sound dangerous.  “Everythin’ happened just like I told it to your bitch girlfriend, see?  Nothin’ no different.  You want to watch it, chap, or …”

“Careful, Mark!”  Patrick cut in.  “Saying things like that, you’re worrying your silent friend, here.  Was this the other bloke in your old car; you know, the night you beat Gasser up?”

“You don’t know what you’re talkin’ about!  You’re getting’ it all wrong, Hallcroft.  I ain’t sayin’ no more.  Oh, yeah, an’ if you were thinking of harassing Perry don’t bother.  He’s on holiday.  Three weeks!  Go and have a drink, peaceful-like, and stop provokin’ folks.”

Patrick shook his head.  “No thanks, I’m fussy who I drink with.  Anyway, you should be flattered; I only came to find you.  I was hoping you had something more for me, like maybe you knew a bit about Karen’s disappearance.”

“Well you was wrong, then, wasn’t you?”

“I dunno. Maybe if I’d found you without the present company…Never mind, in a way I think you’ve given me more than I expected.  I’ll think about that.” He turned on his heel and began walking back to his car, leaving Mark Potts to glare at his back.  When he reached the Daimler there were choices because it was often his custom to vault over the door and straight into the driving seat, but today, lacking the required level of exuberance, he opted for a proper use of the door.  It was, in a sense, his undoing.

As he gripped the door handle an iron hand clamped over his so fiercely he could not move it.  The face of the cadaverous man, the almost silent man who had witnessed his encounter with Potts was suddenly just inches from his own, growling fiercely:  “You’ve been told, boy.  You won’t be told again, so listen.  She’s gone, understand?  You won’t see her again, so give this up before you and your family get hurt.   Stop now, you got me?”

Shocked into silence for a few seconds, Patrick could only nod, dumbly.  It was enough. Before he could make a more suitable response the man was striding away purposefully and rapidly, a repeat of their last encounter when he had woken to see that face outside his car window.  His eyes followed the tough little man’s retreating back, his ears heard Mark Potts’ derisive laughter.

With utter deliberation Patrick climbed into his car, turned the key, pressed the starter.  Then he selected first gear, decked the accelerator and almost jumped the clutch.  The distance across the car park amounted to nothing, three seconds or less.  He fixed his eyes on Mark Potts, watched the smirk on his face turn to horror, heard a scream from a bystander, saw the alarm on the small man’s face as he turned to see the danger, almost too late.  He dived out of the car’s path just as Patrick swung the wheel and turned the Daimler’s high, blunt bonnet aside.  As he drove out of the Public House car park he glanced in his mirror, gratified to see a row of shocked faces watching his departure, and his snarling aggressor being helped to his feet by Potts.  Neither of them was smiling.

Patrick needed several minutes to calm himself in the lea of that encounter, and several hours of self-examination when he recognised how close he had come to intentionally harming the man.  He had never seen himself as violent, or even lacking in temper; but the past few days had aroused emotions new to him, not all of which he welcomed.

An air of tension pervaded Caleybridge Hospital.   It had primed itself for a warm late spring weekend, with the spate of injuries that was likely to bring.  It was busy, too, forcing Patrick to thread his way through the visiting hoards on his way to Jacqui’s ward.

“You’re lucky to catch me!  I’m only waiting for a free seat in an ambulance.”  Jacqui informed him with a grin.  “They’re throwing me out this afternoon.  No rigging, see?”

Her ‘halo’ brace had been removed together with most of the heavy bandages, so only a few light dressings remained.  “You’ve no idea the relief!  I actually felt like I was carrying a water jar on my head, or something, Now, I can move freely, look!”  She waggled her head in demonstration,  “Ouch!  Well maybe not that much!”

“Would you like me to run you home?”

“Oh, you are a love!  Would you mind?”

Jacqui’s apartment was across town.  As he drove, Patrick was constantly forced to avoid small fleets of motor scooters, Lambrettas and Vespas, that were buzzing up and down the main roads, bare-headed riders flaunting their machines for the benefit of small groups of motorcyclists, who languished in side alleys or beside kerbs, watching and waiting.

“It’s going to be a hot weekend,” Jacqui commented.  “There’ll be trouble, I’m thinking.”

Her apartment occupied the ground floor of a detached house set well back from the road within a high walled garden accessed by a black painted wooden door.  The house itself, a lofty Victorian structure in red brick had a faintly disdainful air, its tiers of bay windows like an upturned nose sniffing at matters it would prefer to avoid.   To approach the front door meant negotiating a short flight of stone steps.  As he ascended these, Patrick’s attention was drawn to a pathway that led, he assumed, to the back of the house.  Set into it was a padlocked wooden hatch.  He remarked upon it.

“What is that for, Jacqui?”

“Oh, nothing.  Nothing interesting, at least.”

“No, tell me?”

“Most of these old houses had basements.  For storage, usually – somewhere cold, before fridges, you know?”

“Like wine?”

“Yes, absolutely like wine.  Most people have them filled in these days, and most people have the hatches filled in at the same time.  Not my dear Daddy.”

“Then there’s still a basement down there?”

“I couldn’t tell you, Pat.  If there is, I’ve never found any other way in, and I don’t relish opening that great heavy thing.  So I remain blissfully ignorant – although I swear I can smell the damp sometimes.  It’s probably flooded.”

“Shall I explore?”

“No!  I mean, no thank you; I’d rather you didn’t.”

At her door, Jacqui tempted Patrick with tea and he accepted, wanting to be sure she had food to last her until she could shop for herself.  And although she insisted she could manage:  “I’ve some stuff in the chest freezer, I’ll be alright;” he made an errand to a corner shop for basic supplies.

Her apartment seemed ascetic and soulless.   Perhaps Patrick had envisioned it would be so.  Her furniture was wooden, plain and relentlessly practical, her carpets well-trodden, the walls bare.  It was also something of a time capsule, exactly as she had rushed from it on her workday morning more than a week ago.

“Sorry about the bathroom.  My bedroom’s through there – don’t look, I can’t remember if I made the bed or not,”   For verification, she opened the closed door just sufficiently to peep through.  “Not.”

In retrospect, Patrick thought as he drove back across the town, it was a home that existed as Jacqui herself lived; in limbo.  He had known for some months of her indecision – whether she should stay in Caleybridge or follow her nearest kin the other side of the world.  Her apartment reflected that: she might share the house now, letting the upstairs to tenants, but she had no enduring interest in it – no motive to remodel or change any of the furnishings, even the colours, her parents had left behind.

Such upheaval as would be necessary for Jacqui to migrate to a distant foreign land was alien to her careful nature; she had only a few close friends, but many acquaintances.  Her life in Caleybridge was a fabric not easily torn apart, yet that did not seem to be the true root of her vacillation.  Something bound her to this small, backwoods borough that was not entirely rational, the nature of which Patrick had no notion.

In the town the gangs of motor scootering youths who called themselves ‘Mods’ were gathering, no longer cruising around but parked in huddles, as many as twenty chrome-rich bikes in one place, their riders quaffing beer while they engaged in mawkish displays of machismo.  Around them the streets were almost silent; pedestrians and other motorists alike intimidated by the waxing sense of threat.   It was hot for so late an hour.  The air was heavy.  Conflict seemed destined to follow.

 

© 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