Continuum – Episode Twenty-Two: An Eyeglass to Infinity

In the previous Episode:

Alanee has pacified Hasuga after what she thinks was a sexual attack, and learned that he wants her to steal one of the High Council’s sacred books for him.  Sensitive to her own danger, she has discussed Hasuga with Sala, who tells her Cassix the Seer is very ill.

When she returns to her apartment, Alanee gets a summons to the watchtower…,

 The arched entry to the watchtower is flanked by a pair of rampant stone lions at least three metres in height.  A planked oak door bars the way.  Alanee knocks, a latch creaks and the door elbows itself out of its jamb.   A face fills the gap thus created.

“Ess?”  The questioner is in military uniform.  He has the blunt head of a Proteian, the missing consonants of an Oceanic, and the hostile look of one who is unappreciative of being disturbed.  “Ess ‘Ady?”

“I have come at Sire Cassix’s bidding.”

“Ave ‘ou now?  He’d be ‘sleep I think.”

Alanee persists.  “He called me less than half an hour ago.  I believe he might be quite annoyed if he learned you’d been difficult.  Let me past.”

“Ess,”  The Proteian with Oceanic tendencies acknowledges:  “’e would.”

“Well?”

“Ess,”  The Proteian concedes:  “Go on, ‘en.”

Alanee shuffles warily past the bulk and odour of the sentry, to embark upon the first of  seven flights of stairs.  Worn stone treads punish her sandaled feet as she climbs, cold walls induce her to shudder in spite of the warmth of her exertions.  By the time she reaches the top she will have counted one hundred and forty steeply raked, sparsely lit stairs.  She will have risen high above the roof of the City.

Her breath is short when at last she ascends into an unfurnished hallway.  Lights made to resemble burning brands are bracketed to naked stone walls, the furthest of which is broken by another door as dauntingly uncompromising as one Alanee remembers all too well, in the vaults below the palace on the day of her introduction to Hasuga.  But this one answers to her hand upon the iron ring of its latch; it creaks open to reveal a few last steps, and what lies beyond would, if she had any left, take her breath away.

The observatory of the watchtower is not large, an area no more than a dozen paces to either hand, a dish, in simple terms, the rim of which is around three feet in height.  The rest; roof and upper walls, is one transparent dome, an eyeglass to the night sky.  And such a night!  A black starscape in which each galactic smear, each delicate pinpoint of light has perfect integrity.  No moon, although she might imagine the brighter planets to be almost as bright, no earthly interference – just heaven, in absolute and utter majesty.

There is little artificial illumination within the watchtower to guide her.  So she hears him first.

“Come here.  Join me.”

That clear, crystalline voice has a resonance she remembers, and it speaks slowly, brittle with pain.

“Sire Cassix?”  A cluster of textiles is heaped on a mattress at the centre of the floor.  Around it, the basic essentials of living:  chairs, a shelf with plates and drinking bowls, a ewer.

“Lie here.”

Closer now: standing over him; her eyes accustoming themselves to the dim light, seeing the muddle of fabrics resolving itself into a shrunken ghost of the man she met in Balkinvel, skin pale, lips cracked, hair in soiled disarray.  Is there nothing left of him?

“My heart, Alanee, has failed the test.  As you see, I am not well.”  A weakened hand pats the mattress at his side.  “Join me, please?”

She does as she is bid, arranging herself so that laid upon her back with her head next to his she must look up into the marvellous vista of night; and this a night she is part of, at one with, floating amidst. 

“Wonderful!”

“Is it not?  Eternity.  Depthless, endless:  distance and time beyond our knowing.”  Cassix shifts his body laboriously.

“You should be in a warmer bed, Sire.”  She tells him.

“This is warm enough, warmer at least than my next bed.  And here I may contemplate the voyage to come.  There is very little time to prepare.  So I called you at this hour.   I hope you are not too annoyed with me?”

“Annoyed with you?”  Alanee replies with a trace of irony,  “How should I be that?  Anyway, I asked to see you, did I not?  Lady Ellar passed on my message?”

“Ellar?  No.  I summoned you for my own reasons.  Tell me now, how do matters proceed with Sire Hasuga?”

She sighs.  Her answer will displease him, she supposes, but there is no point in denying the obvious.  “He is not to be placated, Sire.  I see no way he can be controlled by me.  He is young and set upon asserting his manhood.”

“Of course.”

“You aren’t angry?”  She is surprised by Cassix’s mild reaction.  “I am not succeeding in the task you set me.”

“Really?”  Cassix shifts himself once more.  “I wonder, Alanee, could you fetch me a little water?  The ewer is full.  My lips and mouth are so dry….”

“Yes, Sire, at once.”  Hurrying to her feet, she takes a cup that stands by Cassix’s shoulder, filling it from the ewer.

“You see the two stones beside the jug?  Bring them, too.”

Two ovoid stones,  each in length about five inches; one a refulgent green that shines even in this sparse light, the other a colourless crystal.  She juggles them about with the filled cup until she can carry all three before returning to moisten Cassix’s lips with water.  She helps him raise his head so he may sip from the cup. 

“Alanee, I did not expect you to control Hasuga’s will.  Even to contemplate such a thing would be punishable by exile or death.  We should have moved on from those times, but frightened people have scant regard for progress.  The High Council are very frightened, so they employ the phrase ‘kerb his excesses’ as a compromise:  no more nor less than they have done since time immemorial.  But with Hasuga’s added maturity those excesses will become unmanageable.  For the whole history of time Hasuga has been the player of our music:  now he is the composer.”

“They think he will become a despot.”

“Lady, they know he will.”

“So why did you bring me here?  If not to pacify Hasuga, then what was your reason?”

“One which until now has remained closed in my heart.”  Cassix hoists himself onto his elbows.  The water seems to have revived him a little.  “Take the stones and go to the window; you will  see two cradles there.”

On the sill where the dome and low foundation wall of the Watchtower meet rest two small brackets of black metal, a fraction more than a yard apart.  Each bracket is topped by a horizontal cup about four inches in diameter.

“I see them.”

  Alanee, who has an instinctive dislike of heights, has been avoiding this giddy edge, yet it does not occur to her to disobey.  Tentatively she edges towards the glass, then tests her weight upon the ledge, leaning forward so she may peep over.  For the first time she sees how far above the city she has climbed:  below a mass of lights refract and waver in the rising air. 

“Do exactly as I say – exactly, now, do you hear?.  Place the larger end of the clear stone in the left-hand cup.  Have you done that?”

She affirms that she has.

“Now remove your hand from the clear stone.  Place the green stone in the other cup.  Do not touch both stones simultaneously – do you understand?”

Bemused, she does as she is told.

“Be very careful.  I want you to look out into the eastern sky, Alanee.  Look deeply, find texture, find detail.”

Texture:  what is he talking about?  Has the old man’s mind gone – is he senile or fanciful?  Yet there is a sort of vague meshing effect, a kind of weave – and yes, odd though it may seem, she can see something. 

“You have found it?  You can see the vortex?”  Cassix knows that she can.  “Now put your right hand upon the green stone.”

Alanee does so.

“The other hand upon the clear stone.”

The universe becomes alive – or so she will describe it in some future time when her memory returns to this moment.  A current shooting through every physical and mental corner of her, a charge of such voltage her whole frame is rigid within its grip, as though some infernal angel’s long fingers are reaching in to grip her heart.  So extreme is the sensation her mind is seared free of the watchtower, of Cassix’s distant voice, of the City and all its sights and sounds.

Instead?

Through her arms, her hands, the stones and far, far outwards an intense flare of herself is joined with the firmament:  for a blinding instant she can comprehend what it means to be at one with the stars.  Alanee is the sky – Alanee is the earth – Alanee is melting…melting….

And then – she sees!  The sky is not clear, or majestic, or free.  The heavens are a stirring, rolling ocean of light, waves that flicker and stab, expressing their instability by small flashes of discharging lightning.   There are clouds there; clouds that whirl and twist and there is burning – burning that flares from the dark recesses between the galaxies, hungry orange tongues consuming, devouring, withdrawing once more into mouths deeper than infinity.  A battle of flame and thunder, filled by cries of tortured souls.  She must observe: a spectator at the corrida when the sword strikes home and the horrid fascination as the blood spurts forth; she may not avert her consciousness, may not redirect her inner eye.  She stands mesmerised before a window.  She watches Armageddon.

The experience will end as unexpectedly as it began, whether within a few seconds or an hour Alanee has no idea.  Her hands are released; she may lift them from the stones.  Though her body feels enervated and her knees shake she cannot feel that any harm has befallen her.  When she comes to herself the sky is calm – once again a tapestry of innocent stars.

“What was that?”  Is all she can think of to say.

“I have named it the Continuum.”  Cassix answers.  If she could see his face from where she stands she would see that he is smiling the smile of one whose theory has just been vindicated.  “The Continuum as only you and I may witness it, Alanee.  Every day it grows:  a disturbance in the ether that began less than a generation since, and until a cycle ago no more than a distant maelstrom in the skies of the south-east.  Now – well, you saw its immensity.”

“So, it’s what:  a kind of solar storm, or some form of illusion?  It’s gone now.”

“It is no illusion, and no, it has not ‘gone’- though few can see even a small part of it and none at all without the presence of a Seer, it is real enough:  it is a prophecy.  You saw it:  how did it speak to you?”

“I believe it cut across time.  I don’t know whether I was watching the present, the future or the past.  Is that an answer?”

“A part of an answer.”  Cassix acknowledges.  “The rest will come.”

“I must watch it again?”

“And again, and again and again.  Alanee, now do you see why I brought you to the City?  Do you see what the High Council has missed, what is so far above their heads both physically and conceptually they could never hope to understand?”

“No, Sire.”  Alanee is mystified.  She is sure any reasoning so obscure as to defeat the learned Councillors must be incomprehensible to her poor brain.

“No-one in the City has this gift; no-one attuned to Hasuga’s huge telepathic powers can follow me.  He is in my head now, wrenching, tearing at my inner vision.  You – you can resist that, give him the clear balance he needs and, as we both just witnessed, you have the gift of sight.  Alanee, you are my successor:  you are the next Seer.”

Alanee staggers, almost loses all sensation in her legs.  “Me?  Sire, I am honoured, but….”

“Please do not consider this an honour!”  Cassix’s voice rises.  “There is no honour in this!  There is a great task, a momentous task that comes upon us quick as thunder and neither of us has time to ponder it as we should.  You must accept it and meet it alone.

“The Continuum and Hasuga are associated – linked – one and the same.  I am certain of that.  He must be shown what it will do to the City, Alanee.  It is destruction and it is upon us!”

“Sire I cannot…”

“Don’t try to say no.  You have no choice.  Even from this lofty perch I see the cauldron stirred by those poor, frightened colleagues of mine.  They are not pleased with their new Hasuga, Alanee, and they are equally displeased with you.  Whereas they are compelled by Lore to suffer one, they can dispense with the other.”

Cassix’s voice now has a tired finality. His strength is failing.  “I knew when I first met you:  I knew you were the only possible way forward.  I had planned to take so much longer in training you, in showing you ways through The Lore to grow in your craft.  But Hasuga would not have it so, and my health is forfeit.  You must study the Lore for yourself and you will learn as he wants you to learn, which is how it should be.  Now go. Take the stones, for although you will not always need them you must keep them close to you.  I have to use what time remains to me to ensure your election.”

She would stay, protest further, but one look at that ashen face is enough.  She quietly takes her leave, and with feet scarcely finding the treads and sometimes clinging to the rope that serves as a rail Alanee makes her way down from the sick-room in the sky.

“’Een un then?”  She passes the sentry without noticing, or smelling, his presence – back into the city.

Watching her pass, the sentry scratches himself reflectively, wondering what business so beautiful a woman can have with a sick old man in the early hours.  As she disappears into the bright maw of the Avenues he settles to his nocturnal routine, the pacing discipline which is all that will keep him awake through the watches of the cold hours.  A visitor on this shift is an event: at least now the stillness has returned and he can attune his ears once again to that distant music from the bazaar – music which always plays, no matter what the hour.  The night has not long to go, now.  There should be no more such interruptions.

But out there in the official residences and the resplendent salons of the High Councillors, Altor the Convenor is busy.  Behind the superficial calm a rising tumult; summoners buzzing; mighty heads stirring from their sleep.  Before much longer the sentry’s night will become very eventful indeed.

#

 “You have done what?”  The Domo’s face is purple with anger.  Actually it is also purple with expended effort; the protracted climb to the Watchtower is one he rarely makes, and then always with the assistance of two drabs.  He is not alone in his reaction.  The others present have also vented their disbelief.

“I have nominated the Lady Alanee as my successor to the office of Seer.”  Cassix has been propped up so he may face the assembled gathering, though he is so weak his head can hardly support itself.  “It is my duty and my right.”

“NO!”  Portis cries.  “Seer is an office of the High Council, for Habbach’s sake!  Sire, what on earth possesses you?”

For Trebec the climb has also been an arduous one, and now, in the presence of so many High councillors in so small a space, the heat is stifling.  “This is intolerable.”

“Really my Lord, why?”  Though weak, Cassix’s words command attention.  He has prepared for this battle.  “She alone among you can see The Continuum for what it truly is.”

“This Habmenach-forsaken bloody Continuum again!”  Such expressions of intolerance from the Domo are rare.  “You are not well, Cassix.  You realise we must question your mental state?”

Cassix assents:  “I do.  In a total absence of precedent, though, should you even try?  I have already published my intent and taken the required test for my sanity.”  He nods towards a screen that has been set up beside his pallet.  “The whole city knows, My Lord Domo.”

There ensues one of those pauses wherein no-one feels free to speak, yet such a volume of thoughts fills the space that whole philosophies are wordlessly exchanged.  At length the Domo breaks the silence.

“Well then, we must ratify your choice, Sire Cassix.”

Trebec sounds as if he might explode:  Remis grunts, Ellar says softly:  “Oh, Cassix!”

“It is the Lore.”  The Domo says.  “We must observe the Lore.  Clearly, this is Sire Hasuga’s wish.”

“And where is that wish to take us?”  Ellar demands, ignoring Portis’s warning glance.  “Where?”

The Proctor cannot ignore this.  “Lady Ellar, you are guilty of a blasphemy!”

“Sire Remis!”   Cassix intercedes:  “The lady is a High Councillor elect!  Of course we should – no – we must question where Hasuga is leading us!  I am no longer able to fulfil a role which is vital to us all; a role Alanee can play.  She will show you Hasuga’s intentions Ellar, if you let her.  She might even be able to moderate them, though maybe not in the way you wish.  I repeat to you:  I nominate Lady Alanee as my successor.  She shall be Seer to the High Council.”

There is no more to be said, and if there were Cassix no longer has breath to say it.  His task complete, he sinks back into the cushions that prop his torso erect for this meeting, deflated, spent.  The sight of his decrepitude affects the Domo especially, who lumbers across to him, placing a gentle hand on his forehead with the quiet words:

“It shall be done.  Goodbye, old friend.”

For the others, too, this obvious sign dispels any further wish for argument and each in their turn pay their respects to the great man who has served with them for so many years.  Ellar, last to come to him, feels his touch upon her arm.  Sees, rather than hears him whisper:

“Stay?”

So she waits, listening as he does to the receding quarrels as the rest of the High Council makes its laboured descent back to the City.  Then she sits upon the floor beside him, cradling the man who has loved her, in his patrician way, ever since she met him in the womb of the Palace so many years ago.

“My Lord?”  She asks him softly.

For a moment she thinks he has already embarked upon his journey, but behind the parchment skin a candle of life still flickers.  After a while he speaks.  “Lady.  Take care of Alanee.  You alone.  Understand?”

“That will be hard, Sire.”

“You disapprove of her.”  It is not a question.  He has not time or energy for questions.  “She will need you.  The world will need her.”

“If you wish it, I will do all I can.”

Cassix allows a ghost of a smile to play across his dry lips.  “I know you will.  Ellar?”

“Yes, my Lord?”

“You’ll stay, won’t you?”

“Cassix my dearest, I’m with you always.”

With her arm about his shoulders and her hand clasped over his, Ellar sits with him to wait for the sunrise.  And in the first warm rays of morning, Cassix dies.

© 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.

Photo credit: Pexels from Pixabay

Hallbury Summer – Episode Five Marian Brubaeker

The story so far: 

Having fled from his life in the big city, Joseph Palliser is re-establishing himself in the village where he grew up and renewing the acquaintance of people from his past, but it is clear his Uncle Owen, particularly, and Charker Smith, who lives in a neighbouring village, are unwilling to accept him.

Joseph’s attempts at explanation for the failures of his time in London seem to put extraordinary pressure upon him, causing him to faint, or black out, when Owen raises questions about Marian, the woman he has claimed to be his wife.   Recovering, he admits he was never married to Marian.

Joseph adjusted his position in his chair uneasily.  The truth, or at least a scintilla of it, was finally out.

“I wrote you I had got married, and I used Marian’s name, but our relationship wasn’t a marriage, it was an arrangement.  I knew you wouldn’t understand that.”

“You’re right,” Owen snorted.  “I don’t.”

Joseph could see in Julia’s face that she, at least, did.  How could he explain, describe, justify Marian to someone as morally inflexible as Owen?  Were there even words?  He wanted to say mercurial, or brilliant, or beautiful: to eulogise (how curious his mind should search out that word!) her figure, her fever-bright eyes, her indomitable determination, but he could not.  Any more than he could convey his feelings when he woke that cold November morning, warm between sheets of dark red silk – away from the chill reality of his tiny,  colourless bed-sitting room;  away from his tiny, colourless life.

“The world is changing, Uncle.  There are a lot of people like Marian.”

When she walked into the room; when, through the fog of morning, he really saw her for the first time, their first encounter – he remembered that so clearly, down through all the years.

“Well, you’re still alive?”

He had been drunk, so very drunk the night before.  Someone – someone with perfectly manicured, unvarnished nails:

“This bowl?  Here?  Come on, let’s try and catch it, shall we?”

And obligingly his stomach had delivered; obligingly and repeatedly, until sleep came.  Then nothing until…

His leaden brain had cleared slowly.  He was lying on a large, luxuriously comfortable bed in a room he did not recognise.  Cerise walls, kidney-shaped dressing table, a chaise upholstered with powder-blue cloth and lots of fashionable chintz.  An aggressively feminine room, as he then thought.

The woman in a white bathrobe who addressed him from the doorway had eyes which in the distance and light looked a steely black, but which later he would see were the blue of midnight. Her straight dark hair framed a small-featured, resolute face with porcelain-pale skin.  A petite, almost gamine creature who, if she was older than he, showed it neither in pallor nor figure:  she was as fresh-looking and vital as any girl of nineteen or twenty years, yet there was an authority about her; a confidence that could only come with time.  She was surveying him with a half-amused expression.

“I’m Marian – Marian Brubaeker.  My god you were pissed!  Can I get you anything – stomach powders; aspirin?”

He shook off some of the fog.  “No, thank you.  Although if I could use some coffee…”

Marian came closer so he could catch a first breath of her scent.  It was delicate, a cultured perfume.  It was expensive.

“Coffee, of course.  Come with me and I’ll show you where things are.  Then you can make us both a mug and I can come in here and get dressed…”

There was a wedding ring.  “Does your husband mind my staying over?”

Marian’s laugh was internalised and tiny – almost a hiccup:  “Dear boy, my husband doesn’t know you stayed over.  Nor will he.  He has a somewhat narrow perspective on such things.”

Although the figure he followed – out into a short passage, through another door – was spare and lithe, Joseph was never in doubt of Marian’s power:  she exuded it effortlessly; it was part of her.  Even in his heavy, hung-over state he found himself admiring the grace of her walk, the smoothed sway of her hips.  Already he was thinking of her in terms of those dark red sheets.

The kitchen was simple, practical.  It was also very neat.  Marian’s fingers played over the components for making coffee then left Joseph while she ‘slipped into something more suitable’.  By the time she returned coffee was waiting in two mugs.  Her business clothes – “I have to go to work, I’m afraid” – gave the same impression of trim simplicity as her kitchen: a two-piece suit of warm blue mohair, a striking red blouse open just enough to hint at cleavage, a pair of expensive heels to match the suit.

She saw his eyes approving her, so she performed a quick twirl:  “what do you think?”

“The suit makes you look older.”

This time her laughter was a more expressive snort:  “I didn’t mean you to be truthful!  Is this my coffee?”

She perched beside him at her breakfast bar.

“I actually think you are very beautiful,”  Joseph said.

“That’s better.”  She said.  Her fingers reached out and touched his hand, hesitantly; then quickly moved away.  “Justyn told me your name was Joe. Are you Joe?”

“Yes.  Thank you for looking after me last night.  I behaved like a pig.”

“I’m not sure Cara was very impressed.  You had better call her and grovel a little, I think.”

“A lost cause.  She deserves better than me.”

Marian stared into her cup.  “We don’t always get what we deserve, Joe.”  She held her silence for a moment, then shrugged slightly.  “Well, I’ll leave you to find your way home now.  Just make sure the lock catches when you close the door, could you?”

That was all.  Marian walked out of her flat and out of Joe’s life.  He had no reason to believe he would ever see her again.

A week later a telephone call to the hallway of his latest Bayswater burrow found him packing his suitcase for the next in a series of moonlight flits.  A female cockney voice bawled up through the network of bare wood staircases to his fifth floor.   “Call for Palliser, anybody?”

“Joe?”  The voice was Marian’s:

He was breathless from the stairs.  “How did you find me again?”  He asked her.

“Your temp agency gave me your address.  Would you like to come to dinner?”

He ironed his one respectable shirt: he put on his only smart suit. When he rang Marian’s doorbell he hadn’t eaten for twelve hours and he had walked to Earls Court from Bayswater.  He was unemployed, broke, and uncertain where he would sleep the next night.

“Hello Joe; it’s good to see you,”  Marian said.  She was wearing a short, low-cut green dress.

“You look ravishing.”  He told her.

“And you look as though you called by on your way to a funeral.”  She responded.  “But that doesn’t matter, Joe.  You’re here, that’s all that matters.”

He should not have had qualms:  after all, he was warm that night for the first time in a week and he ate more in one hour than he had eaten for most of the week; but still he wondered:  “What do you see in me, Marian?  I can’t be important to you.”

She rose from her seat, came around the table to replenish his wine.  She stood close beside him, bending so that, should he just move his head a little, he would brush the soft flesh of her arm.

“You are, Joe.  Do I have to have reasons?   I suppose I do.    As to what I see in you, I see someone who is not very good alone:  someone who needs support and company.  Look at me and you will see the same things, though my reasons may be different.  I like your company, Joe.  You might even say I need it.  And I could do with your support.”  Marian returned to her seat, flashing him an impish look.  “Will that do?”

He shook his head.

“I’m lonely.”  She said quietly:  “Now, will that do?”

That was where their love-making began – at that table, that night:  and the beginning of the journey was neither comfortable nor promising.  He was overawed by her; he was clumsy, lacking in art.   She was patient, he was impatient.  At its quivering, uncoordinated conclusion Marian declared their first encounter ‘interesting’.  Joe, aware of his capacity to disappoint, mentally prepared himself for a long walk home.

“And where exactly will you go?   After that little episode, young man, I’d say you have a lot to learn.  I have an intensive course in mind, if you are prepared to study hard – are you?”

It was a Rubicon, a point of no return.  Joseph might have, should have, turned back then.  He did try.  He fumbled with words:   “I have to leave my flat, so I don’t know where I’ll be after tomorrow; I could end up anywhere, possibly even dossing.”  That was true, although it was the first time he had allowed himself to contemplate it.

“The course I have in mind is residential. Now, come back to my bed, Joe.   Let’s leave this talk of vagrancy until the morning.”

All sorts of contrary arguments passed through Joe’s mind, of course, not least among which was that gold ring on Marian’s finger.  But she was right:  he had nowhere to go, nowhere warm for any night beyond this.  Marian’s gentle touch, her warm body against his back, the soft silk beneath and above him, was unanswerable.  Sinking back into her arms and hidden as he thought from her ministrations he allowed himself that moment of contentment; and with her cheek pressed to his she felt it too, as together they dreamed themselves into sleep.

So their intimacy grew.  Joe became the sort of tenant who never pays rent.  Marian owned the building, keeping the top floor flat for herself and renting the ground floor shop to a commercial tenant.  The flat on the first floor, which she had originally intended to offer to one of her business managers, was empty.  Joe moved into it when Marian returned home to her husband for Christmas.

As relationships begin, it was the worst of beginnings.  Those who witnessed its formation were few, mostly colleagues of Marian’s at work, but they might have expressed cynicism at the difference in their ages, as well as Joe’s obvious reliance upon Marian’s wealth.  Who knew when all that began to change for Joe:  when was the definitive moment he fell in love with Marian?  That, though, was how it happened.  That is how the story was composed.

“That’s it.  That’s how it happened.”

Joseph looked at his adoptive parents:  no, he could not show them Marian through his eyes.  They could not visualise her tears when she was immersed in a Thomas Hardy novel, or her elation at a simple gift:  they wouldn’t be able to encompass her frustration: the way a thoughtless employee or an act of discourtesy could penetrate her seemingly impregnable façade and leave her hurt and alone but for his consoling arms.  No, they would see another side.

“Marian’s husband lived in Sussex.”  He told them.  “She stayed in London all week, at the flat in Earls Court, while I lived in a second flat downstairs her husband knew nothing about.  I – we – spent most of our time there, or in hotels when she was travelling.  We did a great deal of travelling.  Hotel rooms were where she felt the most alone.

“She gave me money.  Housekeeping, gifts sometimes, you know?  I was always to be well dressed so she paid for clothes.  Over the years I’ve saved quite a bit, actually.  I don’t think she knew that.  But now, it’s…well, it ended last month.  When it happened, I had a sort of breakdown, I think.  I had a couple of these episodes in town, and saw a doctor who prescribed rest.  That was when I telephoned you.”

Aunt Julia shook her head:  “Joey, I really don’t understand…”

“Why not?”  Owen retorted.  “It’s quite simple, woman.  He’s a bloody gigolo!”

“Oh, Oz!”  Julia remonstrated.  “Look, Joey, whatever you did, I’m sure it was for the best of reasons.  You must stay for as long as you want:  re-charge your batteries, dear.  Yes, that’s it.  We are just happy to have you here, aren’t we, Oz?”

Joseph could see quite clearly that his uncle was not happy, but Owen bit his tongue.

Joe languished for a while, drinking in Julia’s attention, sipping tea and trying to describe more of his London time to her.  But there were things he did not want to tell her or anyone, and she was, in her roundabout fashion, quite inquisitive.  She persisted in returning to the subject of his relationship with Ian, which was one of those areas.  So, around lunchtime, he excused himself on the pretext of needing some air.

For who knew what reason his feet took him along the path across Wednesday Common to stand in front of the old Parkin farmyard.  There was, he thought, a sort of natural ruin about the old house and its tumbling stone barns – a biodegradability which was appropriate, somehow.

The farmyard, or that part of it visible from the path, formed a rectangle once defended by a rough stone wall some four and a half feet in height.  There were several breaches now, however, and the rotted five-bar access gate hung open, jammed by the grass overgrowing those remnants of flagstones which, in more prosperous times, had formed the paved floor of the yard.  To the left a large stone barn in relatively good repair formed the boundary, rented by the Manor Farm for storage of hay.  The rear of the yard was fringed by buildings in a lesser state, a half-open flagstone-roofed shed, historically a smithy, at one end; a long, rendered barn which had once contained loose-boxes at the other:  the doors to the loose boxes remained, five in number, gaping or drooping in various stages of disrepair.

Between smithy and barn was the dairy, constructed from random rubble and never large enough to house more than five or six beasts, although no milking or churning had taken place here in many years.  Behind that large pair of doors was where Violet Parkin had been found – in there, if you cut through the police tapes and warnings, her blood would still lie sticky on the slabs of the stall where they found her – where they released her from the pitchforks that held her erect.

At the right-hand corner of the yard the farmhouse lay like a sleeping dog, its dark old walls, once whitewashed but now grey with lichen, beginning to bulge and spread where the sagging roof bore down upon them.  Tiny, sightless windows, unfathomably black, were stabbed randomly into the walls like snake-eyes beneath the heavy brow of the tiles.   It had been a comfortably-sized house – maybe three or four upstairs rooms:  Joseph wondered how many of them had doors that would even open now – where the Parkins had slept, if they slept upstairs at all.

“She delivered me, you know.”  Emma’s voice, so sudden in the silence, made Joseph start.

“I didn’t know,”  Joseph said.  “How long have you been standing there?”

“Long enough.”  Emma’s words were clipped, almost nervous.  “Vi Parkin:  she brought me into the world.  I’m not just saying.”

She was simply dressed, in a pale blue t-shirt and denim jeans.  The t-shirt had a v-neck.  Joseph realised he was staring at her cleavage.  He snatched his eyes hurriedly away.

“Sorry!  Of course not.  I mean, of course you’re not.  She was a midwife, then, was she?  I didn’t know that.”

“Lord no.  There wasn’t no midwife around, so Vi did it.  She delivered a few round here. What makes you interested in ‘un, anyway?”

Joe shook his head.  He really had no answer.  It was the question he had begun to put to himself.  Violet and Jack Parkin meant very little, other than a memory.  Why, when all was said and done, should he care?

“I suppose because it doesn’t fit.  After all, why would anyone want to murder someone – because they owed them money perhaps, or for some sort of revenge, or even jealousy? I shouldn’t think Violet was a debtor, and – well, I suppose she was a bit fierce, but I can’t ever see her rubbing up somebody so badly they’d want to kill her.  As for jealousy; Jack and Violet were together all their lives, and honestly, if he’d caught Violet in bed with someone else I doubt if he’d even notice.”  The thought brought a smile.  The idea of Violet attracting any male attention he thought inconceivable, but he liked the image it conjured in his mind.  “Oh sod it!  Now I’m going to have to apologise again!  I didn’t mean to be disrespectful.”

“It’s alright.  I don’t believe it either!”  Emma stood beside Joseph, as if by doing so she might see with his eyes.  “Joe, why’d you come back?”

He could catch the faint scent of musk on her breath:  he knew if he just turned to meet her stare; if he looked down into those pools of brilliant green he would…oh, god, what would he do?  “Didn’t I say?”  He muttered.  “I wanted to renew my acquaintance with this place – I grew up here, after all.”

Emma was silent for a moment.  In the trees behind the buildings, a blackbird struck up an alarm, as if a sparrow hawk were near.  Then she said:  “Tom doesn’t know.  He thinks he do but he don’t.  And you’re not to say anything, Joe – not anything, you understand?”

Joe nodded.  He understood.

Emma looked up into his face, just long enough to betray the tiny lines of begun tears around her eyes.

“You shouldn’t have come back here, Joey Palliser.  Best you were gone.”

She walked away then, hands plunged into her jeans pockets, head down.  Joseph’s eyes followed her small figure as it retreated, watched her until she turned the corner into Feather Lane.  A decade was suddenly no time at all.

That afternoon Joseph was fulfilling his promise to Owen, helping him to earth up his potatoes when his aunt’s voice shrilled from the kitchen door.

“Oz, Joe!   Come inside, both of you.  The police are here!”

Joseph Palliser’s heart missed several beats.

 

© 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.