The story so far:
Joe Palliser, though torn between his moral responsibility to his friend Tom and his feelings for Emma, Tom’s wife, is nonetheless drawn towards buying a house in Hallbury. Meanwhile, he approaches a journalist from his local newspaper to learn more about the disappearance of Christian Matheson, a child abducted in Hallbury many years before. The fear is growing that his younger brother, Michael, may be implicated in Violet Parkin’s murder and even in the disappearance of the child.
Alone with his thoughts, he is asked for assistance by Jennifer, an attractive motorist apparently in distress. He takes her to her hotel in his car and is briefly compromised by her advances, which he manages to resist. However, the encounter has been observed, and photographed. Jennifer is considerably more than she seems…
Wednesday dawned in shades of grey and in a while that grey became rain, and the rain became a sustained downpour. Joseph drove into Braunston where, after no small amount of deliberation, he lodged an offer of three thousand nine hundred pounds with the agent handling the Lamb house. There was no denying the conflict churning in his head: Emma’s presence alone should have been enough to turn him away, to leave Tom, his friend, in married contentment. Janice Regan’s vituperation was a voice not just her own, but of others who would count themselves the elders of the village. Charker Smith, that excellently honed tool of destruction, waited only to get drunk enough before he came to avenge his brother; and when he came….Oh, Joseph!
So why was he not more afraid?
Well, a part of him certainly was – a part of him was terrified, but that part of his mind also saw the Lamb property as an excellent opportunity and of course, should he elect not to stay in Hallbury he could always find a tenant. But there was another part that seemed to almost defy explanation, something more powerful, something real: Hallbury was his home. And that filled him with a courage and resolve that was extraordinary. He could ride out as many troubles as there were in his desire to stay there, because there, the place – not a house, or a woman, or the sweet breath of country air – was where he belonged. He had run from it once, when he had lacked experience in life to understand the importance of belonging: he would not make that mistake again.
The morning was far from over when Joe entered the gravel drive of Maddockgate Manor. Mrs Forster, the matron, admitted him when he pressed the visitors’ bell.
“Mr Palliser, isn’t it? Didn’t we explain that Michael has been moved?”
Yes, Joseph acknowledged; but perhaps Mrs Forster didn’t know that Michael had absconded. His family were naturally very anxious about him – did she have any idea if he had friends who would take him in? No, Mrs Forster said after consideration, she didn’t.
“He used to visit a supervised house in Marsden, didn’t he?” Joe suggested: “Could he have gone there?”
“I shouldn’t have thought so. It would be like turning himself in, so to speak. The owner is a qualified psychiatric nurse, who I’m sure would call us if Michael appeared without an escort. He would call us, very probably.”
Joseph repeated Michael’s assertion that he was allowed from time to time to go out on his own. This drew a surprised look from Mrs Forster, for whom even the thought of such liberty was clearly shocking. Michael was delusional, she responded – he might have been convinced in his own mind that he enjoyed such privileges, but that did not necessarily make them real. Nevertheless Joe had inadvertently struck a nerve. He pressed home his advantage. Suppose, for whatever reason, they were real? Suppose Michael had been trusted, say, to run short errands on his own, suppose he had been able to sneak away?
He needed to talk to the nurse in charge in Marsden: see if there are connections the family knew nothing about.
The matron considered this. “Would you wait here for a moment?”
She kept Joe waiting, in fact, for about ten minutes, while she disappeared into her office. At length she returned. Unsmiling, she placed a piece of paper in Joe’s hand.
“Mr Winter, the charge nurse, is in until about two o’clock. I called him to say you were on your way: I didn’t explain why.”
Joe embarked upon the road to Marsden-on-Sea, pondering the matron’s exact meaning. Why had she elected not to tell this person the reason for his visit? In spite of her defence of the nurse, did she suspect that Mr Winter’s care was not all it might be?
A buffeting onshore wind wrenched irritably at the Wolsey and hurled spray at it as he drove along Marsden’s courageous little esplanade. Flashing neon bravely proclaimed ‘Non-Stop Bingo’, ‘Live Arcade’, ‘Fish and Chip Heaven’ to a scattering of the foolhardy and the half-drowned who ran from one venue to another, plastic macs gathered transparently against the elements. A motley line of desperate Edwardian hotels displayed signs offering ‘Special Bank Holiday Rates’ – timely warning of the forthcoming holiday weekend.
But it was the sea, the battle-front between land and water, that drew Joseph here. It was many years since he had seen the Channel in full spate, and there was a perverse veneration owed to power such as this. White caps charging forth upon the shore, chasing along quoins, leaping the sea wall. Winging gulls, masters of their element, riding the storm like ethereal surfers: these were things he loved. Joe had been to Marsden many times and often on days like these, once with Emma, happy to walk beside him by the shore, the gale screaming through her bright hair, laughing at the whip of salt rain on her face – kisses on cold, wet lips, arms warm with love.
How could he ever have forgotten her? How could he have put her, all this, aside so easily? However could he turn away again? As he drew up to the neatly-written address which lay on the passenger seat at his side it was not the surf still stinging in his eyes, but mourning for opportunities missed, for lost love.
Rosebank Crescent was ‘on the hill’; one of many streets lined by similar detached villas, all of which were in a state best described as ‘mature’. Number seventeen’s red roof-tiles were greyed by lichen, its rendered walls a spider-web of cracks. There was putty missing from the window frames, and paint missing where putty was not.
Joe wielded a big brass knocker which projected from the front door like a grotesque nose. The letter box drew up a flappy lip:
“Who’s that?” A voice empty of any form of artifice.
“I’m Joe Palliser.”
“Hello Joe!” The wind thrashed, the rain lashed. The door remained closed.
“Can I come in?”
After an interval: “Who is it?”
Suddenly the door was flung open to reveal a very tall, very wide young man whose ample features creased into a beatific smile: “Hello Joe. It’s windy!”
“Yes.” Joe agreed.
“Shut that bloody door!” Snarled a voice from the rear of the house.
“Come on.” Said the large young man. He ambled backwards into an entrance hall. “I’m Terry.” He held out a big hand which Joe shook warmly. “How do you do, Joe?”
“How do you do, Terry?”
As if ignited by a fuse, Terry turned and walked rapidly away towards a door at the rear of the hall, his denims taut around stubby legs, faded carpet slippers shuffling on the parquet. “I’ll get him.” He said over his shoulder.
The hallway of the house was furnished unpretentiously, a barometer on the wall, a small hall table, a couple of upright chairs. Its walls were papered with woodchip and painted in mint green, a pendant light hung from a textured ceiling. The wind’s surreptitious intrusion rattled its doors. It was a house, but it was not a home.
Terry had been gone no more than ninety seconds when a much sparer specimen of masculinity, clad in a thin black polo-neck sweater and checked flares appeared.
“Can I help you?” his voice was a high tenor. “I’m Morris Winter.”
Joe saw why Mrs Forster had registered some disquiet at his suggestion that he might visit here: the professional title of ‘charge nurse’ did not hang easily upon Mr Winter, whose careless appearance, flabby, unshaven face and defensive look spoke of one expecting arrest rather than an expert carer. Winter ran his fingers through fair, greasy locks which fell nearly to his shoulders.
“Joseph Palliser. I believe Mrs Forster told you I was coming?”
“Yeah, she did.” Winter frowned suspiciously; “You from the gov’ment?”
“No, I’m Michael Palliser’s brother? You remember Michael? He comes to stay here from time to time.”
Winter’s expression brightened. “Mikey! Ah yes, Mikey! Of course! Look, you better come in; have a cup of tea. Terry – make this nice man some tea.” He grinned a gappy grin: “He’s a good kid, Terry. He likes to make tea.”
Terry had reappeared and stood in the doorway behind Winter. He nodded happily. “Good tea!”
“No thank you Mr Winter, I’m not staying.” Joe said hurriedly. “I just wanted to ask a couple of quick questions, that’s all.”
“Well, fire away, then. Yes, fire away! Sure you won’t have some tea?”
“No, no thanks. I’m trying to trace anyone who knows Michael. He’s allowed out, isn’t he – do you know if he sees any friends in the town?”
Winter’s brow furrowed but he made no attempt at denial. “He always has money of his own, has Mikey – not like some of them. I tell him; if you get thirsty or hungry, there’s cafes who’ll welcome us. We know which ones, see? And he treats us sometimes, don’t he, Terry?”
Terry nodded a happy affirmative. “Mikey’s rich.”
“So he does go out – for how long, an hour, a day? Does he ever stay out overnight?”
“Oh no, no more than a few hours!” Winter shook his head. “I tell him: ‘we got to be back by eight o’clock, Mikey’. He always is. I wouldn’t let him stay out overnight.”
“Did he go out the Friday before last?”
“Last time he was down here? Might of, yes, I think he did.”
“And came back at about eight?”
“Yeah.” Winter reflected. “Got himself in a bit of a state, he did. Does that from time to time, Mikey. Had to give him a pill, that night.”
“Was he out longer that day – was he ever unsupervised?”
A flicker of concern crossed Winter’s face. “No. Did I say that? No.”
“Who was with him, Mr Winter?”
“Well – I was, wasn’t I?”
At this, Terry’s moon-faced smile suddenly changed. He raised an anxious finger, as if he had something to say if he were given permission. Joseph picked up on the gesture: “Can you help, Terry?”
Terry said to Mr Winter: “You were with me.”
Winter glanced over his shoulder, saying quite sharply: “No, you didn’t come with us, Terry – not that time. It wasn’t your week.”
“You and me played draughts.” Terry reminded him.
“No, you got it muddled up, Terry,” Winter corrected. “This was last week. You weren’t down here last week.”
Terry’s brow creased in concern. “Can’t play draughts when Mikey’s here. He calls it ‘devil game’ and he hits the board. We only play when…”
“Terry!” Winter’s voice took on a dangerous edge: “You weren’t here, mate.”
Terry was not to be repressed: “Mikey went out so we played draughts.”
Winter smiled, a thin, unconvincing smile: “He gets confused.” He said.
Terry’s face displayed anything but confusion. Joe, worried that Terry might be at risk if he persisted, took up the thread hurriedly: “Supposing Michael should get out – slip away – on his own, is there anyone in the town or nearby he might confide in, or who he might call a friend – apart from here?”
“No, not that I can think. Not that it could happen.” Mr Winter’s rictus smile was becoming irritating. “I’m sorry I can’t help you clear up your little mystery, whatever it is.”
In the background, Terry had begun to rock on the balls of his feet. This display of agitation, though silent, was not lost on Winter: Joe could see his eyes shifting, his jaw starting to work: “If there’s nothing else?”
“Thank you for your help.” Said Joe, turning to leave. “If you think of anything…”
“I’ll tell the proper people, yes.”
Suddenly Terry’s voice rang out: “Mikey went out. Him, he was worried, ‘cause Mikey didn’t come back, not ‘til very late! Very, very late! We played….”
Winter’s voice sliced through the outburst as finely as a razor:“Terry! No cake!”
Whatever the threat could mean, it silenced Terry. His face fell, his body collapsed as though he had been punctured. The prolonged “Ooooh” he uttered had an undertone of fear.
Winter’s visage was contorted by desperation: “See here, Mr Palliser: outsiders, they don’t know what its like, this job. It don’t pay well, there’s never a moment when you can…alright, maybe Mikey does get out from time to time. He’s usually OK, yeah? He’s fine. Just goes out in the town, has a little walk along the front, drops into a café or two. He never does no harm to anyone, never gets in anyone’s way; only the other week – I don’t know – something must have gone wrong: somebody had a go at him, or something. See?”
Joe found himself nodding, almost sympathising with this tired and probably inadequate man who was expressing sentiments he had experienced himself so many times.
“Don’t worry;” he heard himself saying; “I’ve no reason to persecute you. I needed to know, that’s all.”
At the door, Winter took him by the arm. “You won’t say nothing?” Joe shook his head.
“The Shilling Café,” Winter said. “On Duke Street, just off the Esplanade. He goes there.”
Outside on the street, the wind had increased in fury. A tidal surge was carrying full waves over the seawall, thrusting angrily into ornamental garden plots, thrashing across the esplanade, deserted now, the whole seafront empty except for a few brave walkers who tempted and teased at nature, staring her in her raging eye as she lunged for them with boiling cascades.
The Shilling Café proclaimed its raison d’etre on a hand-written sheet of paper taped to its window: ‘Meal for a Shilling!’ The facia celebrated its cheapness: within, two naked strip lights threw a soulless glow over cream walls, bentwood chairs and bare tables; nearly all of which were empty. Behind the counter amid an array of stainless steel and china, a small woman in a floral apron welcomed Joseph expansively.
“Well now! Here’s someone with a taste for adventure! I was just thinking about closing, dear. But seeing as its you…”
Joe ordered a cup of tea and a ham roll and while he waited for them to appear, he asked questions; “Do you know someone called Michael, or Mikey, who comes in here?”
“Oh, Mikey! He’s one of Morris Winter’s guests. Yes, I know him, don’t I?”
“Has he been in here recently?”
“Mikey? Why he’s in and out all the time, dear – whenever he’s down here. He’s a bit mad, mind. He calls me his Flossy Hilda – told me once I reminded him of a Rhinemaiden – I ask you!”
“Really?” Joe felt he ought to keep the conversation to essentials – who knew where Mikey’s mind might have taken him next? “Was he in here on his own, the Friday before last?”
“I can tell you he wasn’t,” said the woman, “’cause it was his week and I laid in a lasagne for him specially. He likes lasagne.” She shook her head. “Then he didn’t come. Set your clock by him, normally.”
“I don’t suppose he’s been in since? In the last couple of days, for instance?”
“Well no. But he wouldn’t be, dear. It’s not his week. Are you looking for him then?”
“I’m his brother. We seem to have lost touch, that’s all.” Joe explained. “Did he ever have company?”
“His Brother? Well, I’ll never be! Mind, I can see the likeness there. Morry Winter must have brought him in the first time, ages back, but no-one since. Oh, wait, now, there was that well-dressed fella – a couple of times, him. Not long ago, either.”
“Can you describe him?” Joe asked.
“Well-dressed, dear, like I said. A nice suit: not John Colliers, if you see what I mean? Sort of thirties, medium height – dark hair, I think. Proper nice looking wasn’t he?”
“What sort of nice looking?” Joe persisted: “What colour eyes – large nose, small nose?”
“Well, sort of average, I think. Here’s your roll, dear.”
Try as he would, Joe could not elicit further detail concerning this mystery man, so he quaffed his tea and an amply buttered ham roll with a taste memory that would stay with him for the rest of the afternoon. As he left, the little woman in the apron asked: “You’ll know, won’cha? These Rhinemaidens – what do they do, exactly?”
Fleeing the gale, Joe hunched into his collar, making for the sanctuary of his car so quickly he failed to notice an Austin Princess that was parked across the street. He knew for certain now – Michael had been away from his carers and alone on the day Violet Parkin died. Hallbury was not so far away – had he also been there? Had he, with the extraordinary strength of madness, wielded the pitchfork that had dispatched the old lady so cruelly? How else could he know the precise manner of her death? As Joe made his way back to Hallbury, counting off the miles, his mind was intrigued by a new mystery:who was the man in the suit; the good looking man who was so completely unmemorable? Whoever he was, Michael had clearly known him, and their meetings, or at least one of them, would have had to be by arrangement; unless, of course, this man was following Michael…
© 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: Brandon Molitwenik on Unsplash