A Faery Tale

Again, from the dusty archives! This is just a bit of fun, really!  Oh, and quite long again, so bring sandwiches.

“There were tales told of a girl, in the days before imagining, when wild people lived deep in the wild wood, and wild deer danced in sunlit glades.  It is said those blessed by the sight of this girl described an apparition so beautiful the raindrops about her turned to diamonds as they fell.  They spoke of auburn hair, of a dress gossamer-white that flowed about her graceful limbs as freely as the waters of a mountain stream; and light would shine in their eyes at just the memory of her.  It is said that old men from their beds could see her, and young men riding by on their steeds might desire her, but she was of the faery people, and none may touch her if they wished to live.

“Those were old tales.  This was long, long ago.”

Anna poked experimentally at a willow frond.  “You make it sound so real.  I thought I could see her for a moment there, among the trees.”

“If you see her, she will bring you good fortune.”  Callum replied. 

“But not if I touch her.”  Anna wound the frond about her finger.

“No.  You must never touch her.”

“I won’t, then – if I see her.  What was her name?”  

Callum watched Anna as she walked before him, and he thought her as beautiful as any spirit of the woods.   “Legend had it that her name was a riddle.  Whosoever solved it would marry her.”

“Ah, so there’s a story, isn’t there?”  Anna called back over her shoulder.  “What happened to

her?” 

“These are old, old tales.  Some say she passed as all the faeries did, into the Land of the Forgotten.  Others that she still walks here, among these trees, but will only appear to a very few who are specially blessed. Me, I like the story most often told, in those far gone days, of a young man from Halverton.”

Callum stopped talking, lost for a moment in his rapture of Anna.  She turned to see the far-off  look in his eyes and laughed her music, saying:  “Go on, then!  Who was this ‘young man from

Halverton’?”

“Halverton was just a village in those days, not the town it is now.  A collection of mean peasant huts huddled in the river valley, fearful of the wild wood; but it was a place where the river might be crossed, so there was a living for a few.

“According to legend a tyrannical merchant controlled the only route across the river, taking tolls from all who used it.  This merchant made a slave of a young man, working him all hours of night and day, then getting drunk and beating him mercilessly.  Now one morning, gathering firewood for his master in the deep dark forest this young man he met with the faery.  When she saw the blood that evidenced his beating she took pity on him.  She led him to her home deep in the forest, where she cared for him, healing his wounds.  There they fell in love.  They made a home together in the root bole of an old oak tree, and its ancient roots wrapped them in their warm embrace.  And so they lived, in happiness.”

“He must have solved the riddle?”

“I suppose.”  Callum smiled.  “Or maybe she cheated and told him her name.  It’s only a story!”

“Oh, but it’s so sweet!”  Anna enthused.  “Happy ever after, Callum.  Isn’t that sweet?”

“Well, not so happy, no.”

“Now, Callum!  Don’t spoil the story!”  Together, Callum and Anna stood at a place where their path divided into two; one of which would lead across open fields, the other into the cool shade of the trees.   “Which way?”  Anna asked.

“You choose.”  Callum said, but he held his breath while she made her choice.

Anna grinned meaningfully, deciding.  “Let’s hide in the deep dark forest, Callum.  Perhaps we can find an oak tree, do you think?”  She took his hand.  Then, as they strolled together on their new path into the darker recesses of the wood, she said:  “Why not a happy ending?”

Callum did not reply immediately, for the moment Anna placed her cool hand in his he forgot everything that had gone before.  Her presence, her soft breathing next to him, the way dappled sunlight found its way through the treetops to play in her hair enraptured him, and all else was lost.

At last, when they were already far from the open light of day, he said:   “There was a king who ruled this land.  Although he was a fair, just ruler, so too was he powerful and hot-blooded. For many years, years before the slave-boy met her, this king had heard tales, brought to him by his courtiers, of the forest maiden.  His palace echoed to accounts of her loveliness, and he was determined to take her hand in marriage. He sent his courtiers to the forest to find her; but even if they saw her once in a while, they could never get close enough to capture her.  Oh, they tried.  They contrived to bind her with nets, they dug pits that they covered with leaves, they laid traps; but she was wise in forest ways, and nothing that was made by man could hold her.”

“She was meant to be free.”  Anna murmured, half to herself.  “It’s so quiet in here, isn’t it?  So peaceful.  I can picture her, you know, Callum?  I can feel her close to me.”

Callum smiled.  “Can you?   Could it be possible you are one of the blessed?  But first you must hear the end of the legend.

“At last, the king grew angry.  He sent his herald to the forest with a proclamation, that the faery girl was to be his bride and she was to go to him, by his command.  He was king, after all.  He was not to be disobeyed.”

“Oh no!  What happened?”

“The faery girl emerged from the forest; something so unexpected and amazing all who saw her were frozen to the spot, because this was the first, the only time anyone from the outer world would hear her speak.  In a voice as soft and as pure as a thousand caroling bells she told the royal party she was wed already, and the lonely slave-boy was her husband.  She would never come to the king.”

“So the king wasn’t happy?”

“He was furious!  He sent soldiers to arrest her, but they were lowly paid and not as courageous as the courtiers.   They had heard it was fatal to touch her so they didn’t look very hard before they told the king she could not be found.  Now the king himself, who ruled by divine right, was not so fearful of her touch, or troubled by faery riddles, but he was wary of the forest people, and he had long sought an excuse to drive them out.  So in his passion he swore if he could not possess the faery girl no-one would.  He accused the forest people of hiding the girl and ordered their forest to be razed to the ground. 

“They set fire to the forest?”

“They came with torches in the first light of dawn.   They set fires along the forest edge and by sunset all the trees were well alight.  They say a thousand woodland people died.  Those who survived scattered and fled.   But Nature is stronger than any king, and they were not gone for long.”

“The girl, Callum!  What happened to the girl?  Oh, stop.  I already know.”  

“Yes, she died in the fire.  It was said she never left the old oak that gave her shelter, but curled up with her lover in her arms beneath its mighty trunk and waited for the fire to come.   When the forest people returned they discovered two bodies lying there, and left them while they conjured the rebirth of the forest with their magical husbandry.  With time, the greenwood swallowed up the faery girl, and so she rests.   For a while her memory died with her.”

Anna had walked a few paces in front of Callum so she might hide her face from him, in case her tears spilled.  “Only for a while?”

“Of course.  Isn’t it always so?  When one legend dies another is born?    This one tells how the faery girl wore a ring as symbol of her love, which she kept with her when she died.  Well, many claim to have found her ring as they walked through the forest, but none could recover it, for the legend says she holds it on her finger until one person of true virtue passes by, and only if they are as pure of mind as she will she release the ring into their care.”

“You mean, like the sword in the stone thing.  Like King Arthur?”

“Yes.  And here the riddle story comes in again. Whoever lifts the ring will learn the answer.  They will learn her name and the power it gives.”  Seeing Anna’s wide-eyed look, Callum laughed.  “It is only a legend.”  He assured her gently.  “There are thousands of old folk-tales like it in early history.  One version even says that if someone evil tries to pick the ring up, the faery will drag them down into the earth with her.  Like I said – only a legend.”

“Wow!”  The pair walked together silently for a while, lost in their thoughts, and they walked deeper and deeper into the wood.

Anna said:  “What if…?”   And she stopped.

“What if?”  Callum questioned her with his eyes, but she was staring at something far off among the trees.  “What, Anna?”

“Callum, what sort of tree is that?”

Callum tried to follow the direction of her stare, towards the knarled old tree that stood perhaps a hundred yards ahead of them.  “That?  I believe it’s an oak.  Why?”

“Because there’s something shining – there in the leaves at the bottom of it.”

“Oh, Anna!  I’m sorry I told you now!  It’s a folk tale – a story!”

But Anna was running.  “No!  No, it isn’t.  I can see it.  I can see it, Callum!”

Laughing, Callum ran in pursuit, but she was a young hind, fast and light of foot beyond his means to catch her.  He only did so when she had stopped before the old tree.  

“Callum, this is the tree.  I know it.  I can feel it!”  

Callum tried to catch his breath.  “It’s certainly old.”  

“She died here.  She’s laying here, the faery girl!  And this…”  Anna stooped to brush away leaves from the forest floor:  “Callum – oh, Callum – this must be her ring.”

Together, they stared down at a ring of gold all but buried in the black soil, its single stone flashing in rivulets of sunlight from the canopy of trees above their head.

“Could it be you?”  Callum murmured, overcome.  “Could you be the one to take the ring from her?”

“Well, it’s certainly a very beautiful ring, but I’m not worthy of it.”  Anna said.  “I hate to break this to you, Callum, but my soul really isn’t that pure.”

“It is in my eyes.”  Callum said.  “At least you should try.”

“No.  Should I?”

“Yes.  But as you do it, say a prayer for the faery girl.  I don’t know.  Maybe she will hear you.  Maybe you’re about to solve the riddle at last.”

“Oh, stop it!  I have to try, though, don’t I?”  Hesitantly, and trying to drive all thoughts of avarice from her mind, Anna crouched beside the ring.  With shaking fingers she grasped the gold band gently, making a prayer as Callum had suggested, right from the very essence of her being, a prayer of hope and love.  So, so carefully, she pulled the ring upwards.

The soil released it.   

Anna held it there, for seconds, for a minute perhaps, disbelieving.  When at last she found her feet, the ring nestled in the palm of her hand as though that was where it had always belonged.

“Oh, Callum!  It’s so lovely!”

“Almost as lovely as the hand that holds it.”

“But how do I find the answer to the riddle?  How do I learn her name?”  Anna cried.  Then:  “Wait!  There’s something written on the inside of the band.  It’s so small I can hardly read it.  It says…”

“What does it say?”  Callum prompted.

Anna squinted to pick out the words.  “It says:  ‘Anna’.  It says, ‘Anna with love’!”  Then, as the truth dawned, she glared at him in mock fury.  “Callum, you bastard!”

Callum grinned.  “I am, aren’t I?  Anna, will you marry me?”

© 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: Header photo by Anastacia Cooper at Pixabay

Hallbury Summer – Episode Nine      Silver’d in the Moon’s Eclipse

The story so far: 

While job-seeking in town Joe Palliser meets Emma, his best friend’s wife, and is reminded of his feelings for her.  When she abjures him to return to London he lets slip that he cannot, which Emma takes to mean he has separated from his wife, just as he – in her view – abandoned her, years ago.

Meanwhile, Joe is melting opposition from his Uncle, who, whilst advising him on village politics suggests he might set up home in Hallbury.  He is considering this when, on a walk past Violet Parkin’s farm, he is hailed by Davy, the local constable, who provides an insight into the complacency of the local force in pinning Violet’s husband Jack for her murder.  Heading up the lane to his local pub, his progress is interrupted…

“Don’t like the police.”  Growled a deep voice behind Joe; “You doesn’t want to be seen consortin’ with they, Palliser.”

Joe’s heart skipped several beats.  The voice was Charker Smith’s.  The presence was Charker’s.  He suppressed a desire to run, which was the one thing he was pretty certain he could do faster than the big labourer.

“It’s just Davy Hallett.”  He said as evenly as he could.  “I’ve known him for years.”

“All same – bastards.  You aren’t moved on, then?”

“Thinking of staying for a while, Charker.”  Joseph said, determined not to be intimidated.  “I grew up here, you know?  It is sort of my home.”

“Ah.  You and those brothers of your’n.  I had a brother once, Palliser.”

“I know.”  Joe responded solemnly.  The more he looked at Charker’s massive slab of a body, his small, almost conical head which rose from a neck that would not have disgraced a Hereford bull, the more he marvelled that this man could have been engendered from the same seed that created Rodney.  “I’m really sorry, Charker.  I still remember that day very well.  There was nothing I could have done – you must believe that.”

“So you said at the time.  ‘Tweren’t like ‘im to drive too fast, see?  He were a good driver, were Rod.”

Joe sighed.  “Look, I know I can never convince you, but I wasn’t responsible for Rodney’s death.  I happened to be the one who found him, that’s all.”

Charker was poised with his hands to his hips, legs astride.  His breath came in regular gusts, like a steam engine at rest – vast and immovable.  “You’re right.  I aren’t convinced.  ‘Tis daylight now, but it won’t allus be, so if I was you, I’d be movin’ on – you got that?”

There was no point in protest.  “I got that.”  Joe said.

Charker’s fierceness suddenly evaporated, though somehow the menace remained.  “That’s right, boy.  Now, you comin’ fer a drink?”

“In a minute, Charker.  I’ll come in a minute.”

“Collect yerself, eh?  Have a think about it.”  Charker nodded approvingly The steam engine puffed into gear and rumbled on, rolling up the lane towards The King’s Head.   Joe watched him, remarking that in spite of his size, Charker had hands that were quite small, with long, sensitive fingers.

He might have accepted the big man’s invitation, had he not caught a glimpse of a tall, slightly stooped figure making its way along the adjoining road.  The sight of Tom Peterkin also bound for the King’s Head jolted his resolve: Joe tucked his chin into his chest and turned quickly, retracing his steps. Whereas he knew he could not ignore Tom, neither could he face him this night.

An official-looking envelope arrived for Joseph in the post the next morning.  He drew it close to his chest as he read the contents before tucking it into his trouser pocket.  “It’s from London.”  He told his aunt and uncle by way of explanation.  “Can I use the ‘phone later?”

As she cleared the breakfast table, Julia said to Owen:  “That was a solicitor’s letter.  He was worried.  Did you see his face?”

Joe read the letter again in the privacy of his room.  He read it three times.  Then he went to the telephone.

“I have to go into Braunston tomorrow morning;” he announced at lunch. “Is there anything I can get for you?”

“No, darling.”  Julia appeared content to let her curiosity take a back seat for now.  “But there is something you can do for me this afternoon if you have time?”

Joe laughed at the gentle sarcasm.  “Nothing but time.  What was it you wanted, aunt?”

“Do you remember the Forbes-Pattinsons? “

“Up at the top of Church Lane?  The ‘nobs on the hill’?  Of course I do.”

“I have the minutes for the Parish Council meeting ready to be copied.  Emily Forbes-Pattinson normally calls down for them, but she’s a bit tied up today, apparently.  I would take them myself, but it’s such a struggle up that hill in this heat….”

“I’ll be happy to do it.”

“Oh, Joe, you’re such a dear!”

When they rose from lunch, Joseph accepted the package of Parish Council documents from his aunt without any hint that he had seen through her very transparent ploy.

“I’ll just change my shoes.”  He said.  And he climbed the stairs to his room where he made sure that the confidential letter would make his errand with him,  secure in his pocket.

He set out up the lowert part of the hill, a road strewn with memories bitter and sweet.  To his left after the Masterson farm was Staggers, the old house where the Honourable Mrs Palmerston once harangued him from her first-floor windows.

“Keep off my grass!”

“Don’t come in!  The dogs will savage you!”

On the right was Hallows Cottage.  How many times in childhood and youth had he knocked on that door, dragging Madge Peterkin from her comfortable chair?

“Can Tom come out?”

“’Tisn’t ‘Tom’, Joseph dear.  It’s ‘Thomas’.”

She died before he left for London.  Albert, her husband, found her when he returned from work, in the bath she had been taking when he left that morning.  Albert still lived there, and Tom was a dutiful son.

House after house, memory upon memory:  the Pollocks with their sad-eyed daughter –where was Stella now?  The Ravenscourts who never emerged beyond their front door; and on, climbing past St. Andrew’s Church into Church Lane, narrow and steep.

There were three houses on Joe’s left, two close together, whitewashed thatched affairs with split front doors and tiny windows.  Mary and Paul Gayle lived in one of these; he couldn’t remember who owned the other.  Then Charlie Lamb’s home, the house Owen had suggested he might buy.  Charlie had a young family when Joe left years before, and a sharp-nosed, vivacious wife with a penchant for the ridiculous.  When Charlie played the dame in Abbots Friscombe’s pantomime his wife dressed him for the part, in a costume which kept the village talking for years.  The cottage had a red sandstone facade, a good sound roof:  there was a garden at the back (the front door opened directly onto the lane), and yes, that door invited him.  He could see himself living there.

Thus preoccupied, Joe scarcely noticed the sun, though it beat down upon him remorselessly.  Perspiration was beading on his brow by the time he finally arrived at the iron gates of ‘Highlands House’, residence of the Forbes-Pattinsons, which stood at the top of the lane.

Behind a high brick wall, ‘Highlands’ was hidden from the road.  To those who applied a structure to village society, this was the ‘Squire’s Manor’, sufficient reason to open its gates with respectful care.  Beyond the gates, a driveway plunged through a screen of laurel which parted after twenty paces or so, revealing ‘Highlands’ to be a large nineteen-thirties’ construction, faced delicately in faded brick.  Everything about the place exuded permanence, from the mature oaks that bordered the acre of lawn to the Bentley Continental parked before its polished wooden front doors.

All this should have impacted profoundly upon Joseph, and would have, were there not a nearer view that was much more distracting.  For stretched upon the grass in the sun was a girl, her slender form clad only in a pair of brief green bikini pants.  She lay on her back with her head turned towards him, her face. framed by silken ash blonde hair and soothed by the perfect innocence of sleep, in which state she had rolled from her original position –  leaving her unclipped top lying uselessly beside her and exposing a pair of small, invitingly white breasts.

It took Joseph a full five seconds to realise that his eyes were devouring the girl whose horse he had frightened the previous week, and to rebuke himself for staring.  With exaggerated quietness he retraced his steps to the driveway gates which, whistling tunefully, he swung open and closed with an audible metallic clang.  A cry of alarm emitted from beyond the laurels, and by the time he ambled back into view the girl had disappeared.

“Oh, thank you.  So you must be Joe?”   Mrs Forbes-Pattinson greeted him, accepting Julia’s package with a glint in her eyes which suggested she had not entirely missed the drama his approach had caused.  She added with a touch of mischief:  “Did you happen to run into my daughter Sophie on your way in?”

“Almost,”  Joseph answered.  Mrs Forbes-Pattinson in a lemon-coloured summer dress was every bit as stunning as her daughter.  At times like these he could easily be persuaded that the very rich were, in truth, a race apart.

“You look awfully warm!  Would you like to come in and have something to drink?”

“That’s very kind, but I must be getting back.”  Joe stumbled over his reply, cursing his ineptitude.

He walked away, carrying with him in an entirely new compartment of his imagination a vivid picture of Emily Forbes-Pattinson and her lovely Sophie.  He was quite sure he wanted to meet them again.

That evening, as Joseph was once more browsing the ‘Situations Vacant’ columns, Tom Peterkin called.

“Yer been avoiding me, lad?”  He nodded towards the gate, beyond which a dark green Cortina saloon car stood waiting.  “I brought the car down, ah?  Thought we might go for one or two in Braunston?”

Joe threw on a coat.

“Nice!”  He approved.  “What did you do with your Sunbeam?”

“Sold it.  Emma made me see sense.  Family man, see?”

Joe was surprised and showed it.

“Oh, no; she’s not pregnant or nothing.  But we got plans, ah?  Been trying for a while, now.   I asked ‘er to come with us, but she aren’t feeling so well, ‘pparently.”  Tom grinned toothily.  “Women, ah?”

Emma had evidently not managed to prevail upon her husband to drive slowly.  The Cortina flew the back road to Abbots Friscombe in minutes.  Once clear of the village, Tom patted the steering wheel enthusiastically.  “Goes well, du’n ‘er?  So how come you’re not driving these days, then?”

Joseph explained that he had driven very little since Rodney Smith’s accident.

“Can’t let it put yer off, Joe.  Somethin’, mind, seein’ an accident like that.  You and ‘e never did get along, though, did yer?”  Tom asked.  It was a rhetorical question, because the conviction with which he threw his car into the next bend put Joe beyond speech.  The next time Joe trusted himself to open his mouth; the Cortina was drawing into a car park outside the Shire Tavern.

“As a matter of interest, Tom, why didn’t we just go to the King’s Head?”

“Ah, you might ‘ave problems at yon’.  I was up there last night, and Charker Smith were getting hisself drunk, and he were swearin’ ‘bout ‘ow he’s goin’ ter get you for Rodney?  I tried to calm ‘un, but you know what ‘eem like when ‘eem drunk?  Steer clear, that’s my rec’mendation.  Anyhow, didn’t I see you change yer mind ‘bout goin’ in there yourself, early on?  Could of sweared that was you in the lane.”

At the centre of Braunston was a square dominated by a mediaeval shire hall, one-time host to the Town Council, and now containing meeting rooms, offices for an insurance company, and the Shire Tavern.  Always crowded, ‘The Shire’ offered sufficient anonymity for self-conscious youth, and so had become a favourite watering place for Tom and Joseph in their teenage years.

The Wheelwright’s Bar on the first floor was unchanged from those days.  Creaking narrow stairs were packed with chattering girls and grunting, recalcitrant young men whose fashions might have altered – no more the long jackets with velvet collars, the flounces and back-combed hair – and the fake beams and cart-wheel tables might have looked a little tired now, yet it retained enough familiarity to make Joe feel at home.  He fought his way through smoke-haze to a crowded counter, emerging with pints of beer.

Tom said:  “We got to get you a car, boy.  There’s a nice Wolsey up Maybury’s – I’ll take yer to look at ‘un on Saturday if yer wants?”

This began an evening which, mainly spent in idle conversation, should have been pleasant and relaxed.  Faces Joe remembered came and went, a few stopping to say hello, like small, dependable eddies in the current of humanity.

Tom did his best to distract.  “That old Ford Pilot of yours?  That’s up Pettisham way.  Emma seen it there, t’other week.  Still looks alright, ‘pparently.”

But just the mention of Emma’s name felt like a poniard in Joe’s heart.  Although he disguised the pain he did not altogether deceive his friend.  Tom had known him for too long.

“Good car, ah?  Bet you wish you’d kept that ‘un.  Would have served yer well in London.”

Joe changed the subject hurriedly:  “Tom, do you know more about Violet Parkin than I do?”

“She’m dead, I know that.”  Tom pursed his lips.  “’Pends what you mean, I s’pose.”

“Well, the way I remember her, she never went anywhere much, did anything much.  All I remember her for was the day I disturbed her bloody ducks.”

Tom laughed.  “She were a queer bird ‘erself, mind.  There were always stories.  She were Ben Wortsall’s daughter, weren’t she?”

“Never heard of him.”

“What?  Been in the village all they years and never heard of Ben Wortsall?  You must ‘ave cloth in your ears, boy!  Ben was a witch, that’s what!”

“You mean…pointy hat, and stuff?”

“No!  No!  I mean mad old bugger used to go round cursin’ anybody he took ‘ception to.  Mind, folks swore by ‘e’s spells and potions.  No-one went near no doctors when Ben was around.  He died when I was still a nipper, but some say that Violet…..you ask Aaron Pace about Violet.  He’ll tell yer some tales.  Whether they’re true or not, though…”

There the conversation ended, for Tom was as obsessed with automobiles as ever.  He would always return to the subject; whether in the context of his activities for the week -“Called out to one of those old single-pot Fordson’s.  Wouldn’t start, no matter what.  Told ‘un he’d have to get a new tractor.  Seen them John Deeres?”  – or in his assessment of people:“That maid over there?  She’m a Mini owner – you can see that, can’t yer?  Not much room for it in they, eh boy?”

Joseph was glad when eleven o’clock struck and the evening was forced to draw to a close.  He had joined in the prattle, served his turn as he thought:  but on the way home Tom disabused him.

“Sommat wrong, ain’t there, Joe?  See, I thought if I took yer out, got a few pints past yer, you might loosen up a little, but no.  You got more cards in that ‘and than you’m showin, ‘aven’t yer?”

They had passed through Abbots Friscombe, driving up the narrower back road for the final mile towards Hallbury.  Wednesday Common lay dark and unfathomable on their left, laced with little trackways through the bracken that the farmers used to access the fields beyond.  Tom drove off the road into one of these, switching off his car’s engine.  The headlight beams probed into the darkness through a mass of tiny flying and floating things.

“Now, for sake of your conscience, boy, you’m goin’ to tell me what they are, see?  But first, I got to get shot of some of this bloody beer.”

He got out of the car, unzipped his jeans and urinated copiously into the long grass.  A car roared past on the road behind him and he waved to acknowledge the cheers of encouragement from its occupants.  Joe waited apprehensively for his return, uncertain what to say, uncertain how much Tom knew.  He, Joe, was certain of one thing he must not say:  that he suspected Emma was still in love with him; and of something he must not even think – that maybe he was still in love with Emma.

When at last Tom returned, with a “Well then?” that brooked no refusal, Joe told him the London story; the full London story he had confided to Owen and Julia.  He revealed all he could to his friend, aware even as the words spilled from his mouth that each one could be a word too many;  that although Tom and he were once the closest of allies he had no right to expect that same loyalty again – that he might be arming an enemy.

After he had concluded all that he dared to say he felt at one with those tiny bits of life out there in the headlights; adrift on the wind, rudderless, and lost.

“Well!”  Tom said, staring at his steering wheel.  “There’s a tale!”

Joe nodded.   That genie was with him again, its bottle shaking in its anger.

“So you aren’t married to this Marian, then?”  Tom said.

Why did it slip out?  Did he want it to?

“No.  She was married to someone else.”

For a second or so he thought Tom had not heard him, or noticed.  For a second, two, five, ten, Tom said nothing.  Then:

“‘Was’ Joe?”

The genie’s face became one enormous leer. “She’s dead.”  Joe muttered.  “Marian is dead.”

© 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:  Lucas Huter on Unsplash

 

 

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode Four Lone Wolf

The Story so Far: 

Succumbing to the temptations of Ned Barker’s famous beer at The Kings Head pub Joseph Palliser has lunched not wisely but too well. 

As he relaxes beneath an alcoholic haze of beer and warm sun in his Uncle’s garden, he recalls the time his younger brother Michael became ill, and the terrible circumstances that brought his family to Hallbury.

A remark by Aaron Pace, one of his drinking companions, is preying on his mind.  Can Jack, Violet’s drunken husband, be innocent of his wife’s murder?  With time hanging heavily on his hands, he decides to investigate for himself.

 After Michael’s act of defiance on the morning of his brothers’ School Sports Day his behaviour became more and more irrational, and he alternated between short stays in hospital and time at home.  Then, early in February on the week of his fourteenth birthday, Michael stole a billhook from a local farmer, which he used to threaten a courting couple in a car parked on the village common.  As a result, Michael had to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act, and everyone agreed there was no longer any alternative to residential care.  He did not return, then, to Little Hallbury, for many years.

Lazing in the back garden of his erstwhile home, Joseph wondered if that was the moment when he and his older brother Ian finally sealed their pact of mutual dislike – whether Michael’s departure had so affected Ian that he decided to put his family behind him as soon as possible: to move on.

Where would Michael be now; Joseph wondered?  They had lost touch many years since. although – intrigued by the thought, he opened his eyes, shaking off his alcoholic mantle – a memory of Michael might remain here even yet.  Easing a reluctant Benjy from his lap he persuaded himself to rise and follow a dirt footpath which led through his Uncle Owen’s lovingly-tended vegetable garden, around the garage by stands of tomato plants, to the high garden wall with its row of espaliered plums.  At the end, just before its south-east corner, there was a section of wall much older than the rest.  Joseph counted from the top to the fifth brick from the end on the twelfth row down.  It was loose; it slipped out easily.

And there, nestling in the cavity was a little piece of wood, a tiny carved effigy with a crudely whittled head, long arms and a stumpy body.   The back of the brick was covered in scrawled letters which Michael would have insisted was a secret code; for it was he who had carved the effigy, one of many concealed about the house which he swore, in his torment, were the root of his ‘power’.

“I shall rule these people.”  He had said in the low growling voice which became so characteristic of his last semi-rational phase.  “You are all my pack!”

Joseph shook his head sadly, replacing the talisman and the brick.  Maybe he was right, he thought.  In a way, maybe we are.

#

“I think,” Sarah said; “It’s a little bit sad.”

Joseph had opened one eye, squinting against the sun.  “What is?”

“Marty Bignall.”

“O.K.  Marty Bignall.”  He opened the other eye, turned sideways.  Sarah was propped on her elbows, gently chivvying a large red and black caterpillar with a stem of grass.  “What made you think of him?”

“My beliefs.”  She treated Joseph to a superior smile, shifting the attention of the grass-stem to the end of his nose.  She had been a Buddhist since the beginning of June.  “You see, I believe we come back – after we die, you know?”

“Yes.  You told me.”

“Well, Marty Bignall ate himself to death, didn’t he?  Just kept eating and eating?  And now here he is.”

Joseph glanced at the caterpillar.  “So you think that’s Marty?”

“I’m certain of it.  He was always hanging around me, the dirty old man.  I thought when he died I’d got rid of him.  But no, he’s still hanging around.”

“If it is, he’s getting what he wanted,”  Joseph replied.  “From there, he can see right down your blouse.”

“Oh!  He can’t, can he?”  Sarah feigned alarm, shifting sideways.  “There!  That’s solved that little problem.  Although…”  She pushed herself upward, allowing her neckline to tease, “although now I suppose you can, can’t you?”

Joseph grinned at her and nodded dumbly.  Sarah was an unselfconscious young woman, aware of her gifts.  He did not object.  It was an affirmation of their familiar friendship, a toe dipping in the deeper pool of love.

“It’s so beautiful today!”  Sarah looked around, taking in the horizon of trees, the acres of long grass and fern.  “Do you think if I lay flat I could take this off and tan my back?”

Joseph nodded.  “No-one ever comes to this part of the common.”  They were in a place they had made their own, one that he had known since childhood – at the far end of Wednesday Common, beyond the road and nearly a mile from the village.  To get here they had waded through long grass, away from the track.  “You’ll have to move Marty first, though.”

Plucking ‘Marty’s’ leaf gently, Sarah put the caterpillar aside, then unbuttoned her blouse, and chuckled at Joseph as he averted his eyes.

“Ow!  Prickly!”  She complained.  And, after a pause:  “Are you keeping your shirt on?”  Then, in a darker voice:  “What are you doing?”

Joseph stirred at the memory.  What was he doing?  Taking her shoulder, rolling her so she was open to his gaze, falling upon her so, so clumsily!  Sarah, far from displeased, tumbling with him and laughing at his ineptitude, until…

“No, Joey!”  All at once afraid of herself.  “No, Joey, please?”

And he wanted her:  oh, he so wanted her!  He might have taken her then, or any of those precious, remembered times; had he been other than the boy he was.  But the boy he was loved her, and would not hurt her no matter how powerful the desire.  So he had sighed and fallen back, to lie dreaming next to her in the grass.

Tonight, somewhere between dream and memory, Joseph turned sideways and opened his eyes, almost believing he would see Sarah beside him in his bed.  One time, just one time in all their years of growing together, they had completed their act of love.  It was a struggling, desperate thing made wonderful by the powder-keg of their passion:  her gift to him, as though she knew that before they parted forever there must be a moment that would be kept sacred in their hearts – a memory for them both.

How could Sarah have understood the yoke it would place on those young shoulders, or how he would wander through life, fruitlessly seeking her image in every new face?  After all, it had been he who had insisted they finish their relationship.

On the platform waiting for her London train.  There to see her off to her new life – there to say goodbye.

“I’m not going to write – no point.  You’ll make new friends, forget….”

She had cried, of course – Sarah would – but she agreed.  And no, though he hoped against hope, waited for the post every day for a year, she did not write.  And no, though the first thing he did when he arrived in London was to search for her, she was nowhere to be found.

Yes, he could blame Sarah.  Joseph lay still, making the act of will he always made that would blank her from his mind for another few hours.  He might try to sleep, now.  His old bed, his old room:  the old house, talking to him – a living thing, not of bricks and plasterboard, but of stone hewn from the earth itself with all its history to carry with it.  Never silent, always talking.  As if the ancient spirits which once walked upon those rocks were constantly returning to find their way again, going from room to room searching out each footprint in turn, from a stone in the walls to the flagstones of a floor.   They groaned their frustration, clicked their pleasure, creaked as they passed.  The wind was their breath, whining through lungs encrusted by the dust of time.  But they were not malevolent ghosts – they were friends, friends he remembered.

“Things isn’t always how they seems, is they?”

Aaron’s crooked face, coming to him in the dark; another, very different ghost.  What made him think of that?   Joseph had never really liked Violet Parkin; few people did.  ‘Liking’ was not a verb that applied to that formidable woman.  ‘Respect’ felt more apt.  Nobody deserved to die that way, especially if their agelessness was so vital to a place and its identity.  This little village would be the poorer now she was gone.  Well, he had nothing but time, and it might be worse spent than by enquiring further into Violet’s demise.  Joseph sailed into the ocean of the night with Aaron perched like a parrot on his shoulder.

It was Tuesday morning.  Word of Jack Parkin’s arrest for murder had reached the breakfast table.  It animated Julia.

“Oz, you don’t think he could possibly be guilty, do you?  I know he’s a drunkard and all that, dear, but murder?”

Owen glanced over the top of his paper, and over the top of his glasses, and over the top of Julia’s head.  “Guilty as sin.  Hang the old bugger!  And get that bloody cat off the table!”  He raised the Daily Telegraph curtain again.

Jack Parkin’s drunkenness had warranted his eviction from The King’s Head many years before, forcing him to drink in the nearby village of Fettsham; which he did with relentless regularity and in copious amounts.  In earlier days, when Joseph was still quite new to the village, Jack had possessed a horse which knew its way down the turnpike road to Fettsham as well as he knew it himself; so that when it was time to return home, dead drunk, he would just clamber aboard and hold onto the bridle, allowing his horse to do the navigating.  More than once he fell off, to be found asleep by the roadside the next morning with the horse in patient attendance.  In recent years, after the horse had gone to its maker, a bicycle had become his vehicle of transmission. The bicycle having no independent sense of direction, when Jack was too sozzled to steer he merely leant against the hedge, still perched on its saddle, and slept.  Could Jack be capable of murder?

After breakfast Joseph took a walk in the garden, breathing in the morning.  The air in Hallbury had a sweetness that tasted, a substance of vitality he had so missed in the smoke of London.  It was good to savour it again.  The sun was already well above the east wall when, feeling particularly aimless, he took a cup of coffee to sit at the little oak table in the yard.  Owen was already there.

“I’m going to earth up those ‘lates’ this afternoon.” He said over his ‘paper as Joseph pulled up a chair.  “You can help me, Joseph.  Might as well earn your keep.”

Joseph nodded.  He had noticed the four rows of potatoes at the bottom of the garden.  He did not relish shovelling dirt in the hot sun, but Owen had made a point.

A bee circled above the table for a while, confused by heat from the coffee cup.   Benjy, ever attentive, took a speculative swipe at it.  Aunt Julia, who was watching through the kitchen window, went into a minor panic.

“Oz!  Don’t let Benjy catch the bees!  Don’t!  Stop him, dear!”

As he pushed an indignant Benjy from the table, Owen asked:  “When are you going to tell us?”

“About?”

“You.  Why you’re here.  Don’t hear from you for donkey’s years, then suddenly here you are.  What’s happened Joseph?”

“Does anything have to have happened?  Suppose I just wanted to see you both again – felt homesick, or something?”

Owen shook his head.  “This was never your home.  We tried to make it your home, in the beginning; but you never quite fitted in.”

No, Joseph thought. His head was hurting: pain, like an old friend coming to his rescue. Ian was the one who ‘fitted in’.

“So why have you come back?”  Owen persisted.  “I’m interested.  I want to know how long we’re going to have to put up with you.   What does Marian have to say about you just miking off by yourself?”

“Marian?”  This was the attack he had half-hoped would never come.  Of course they would ask him about Marian – how should they not?  Joseph felt his mind closing down on him, the way it did so often lately, the way it did whenever Marian’s name was mentioned.  Soon, the blankness would come and he would not be able to answer or remember anything.  Where he had been, what he had said, what he had done.  Stress, the doctor had told him, but the doctor had no idea – none!

“Marian doesn’t mind.” With a conscious effort he focussed.  “She has her own interests.”

“She’s your wife, boy!  Of course she’ll mind!  Have you called her?  Does she know you’ve arrived here safely?”

Marian – strange how he had managed not even to think of her, for nearly a week now, not since he stepped off the train at Abbots Friscombe – how he had succeeded in losing himself, shutting down that corner of his mind.  He was drifting.

“Not any more.  She isn’t …with me, anymore.”

“You’ve separated?  Good god, lad!  Heaven knows, you never were much use for anything, but I thought you’d make a go of marriage, at least!  What did you do?”

The constant accusations, the assumption, always, that the fault was his.  “Do?  I didn’t do anything…anything…”

He did not seem to have moved, yet his cup of coffee had gone.  Aunt Julia was bent over him, her eyes full of concern.

“Joe, are you alright?  Oz, what have you done?  Do you need a doctor?  Shall I call you a doctor, dear?”

He was mouthing something – doctor not needed – just faint:  maybe the heat?  His head felt foggy, he couldn’t think.  In the background Owen’s eyes watched him, and he knew that Owen missed nothing.

“You passed out, darling.  We were beside ourselves!”

They gave him tea, offered an ice-pack.  Julia rigged a parasol over the table, insisting he have shade.  “You’re to take plenty of rest, Joe:  but I suppose that’s why you came, didn’t you – to get away?  Perhaps, when you’re ready, you could tell us the whole story, dear.  I think we ought to know.”

“I believe we all need a drink.”  Said Owen, with finality.

So Joseph told them his story.  Or he tried.  He put ten years into five minutes like a genie into a bottle, hoping to absolve himself from all the guilt he felt.  It was an evil, malicious genie; a creature of black spells and vicious deeds, and it had things to say.  It stared at him through the glass, waiting for the release it knew must come.

“In London – you know – the job wasn’t what they promised.  Oh, I tried it for a while, closeted in a little back office like a battery hen; but it didn’t work out.  I wasn’t good enough to rise above it, I guess.  So I was out within six months, looking for work.”

The things he could not admit.  Why he was sacked – why he didn’t go to work but went looking for Sarah; was there some kind of desperation in that?  He did not find her:  Sarah had left her musical training after only a term:  some said she had gone to America with a band, others that she had moved to Scotland; but nobody really knew.

“I tried all sorts of stuff:  if there was a pay-day at the end, I did it.  I sold encyclopaedias, repaired office machinery, worked as a temp for a modelling agency.  I did some – other things:  I don’t want to give you details.  Meanwhile, I wrote to you about forming a new business and how well I was doing:  it was all rubbish, really.  I was one step away from eviction:  in fact, a couple of times I was evicted.  I ended up in a bed-sit in Bayswater: more rats than tenants.”

Julia interrupted:  “Why on earth didn’t you go to Ian, Joe?  He would have been glad to help!”

Joseph shook his head.  “Too proud, I suppose.  After I wrote to you about my business successes I was sure you would have spoken to him so I would have been found out.  But for all that, I had one stroke of what I suppose you could call luck.  Up there, if you get a chance, you grab it with both hands and I did.

“I made a casual acquaintance with one of the models from the agency:  we dated, off and on.  Cara was in with the circuit, so, for a while, I joined it too; went to some parties; got to learn how the so-called jet set live, and in a strange way, I think I fitted in.   There was a night at Maxim’s, a club on the King’s Road when I was quite drunk. We had a fight and Cara left.  Marian rescued me; took me home.”

“Marian, your wife?”  Owen asked.

“The same, Uncle; but…” Joe hesitated, reluctant to frame the words.

“But what?”  Owen wanted to know.

He wasn’t to be let off the hook so easily.  Taking a deep breath, Joe said:  “But Marian was never my wife.”

© 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.