Hallbury Summer – Episode Twenty-One (1)         The Message of The Stones

To my long-suffering readers, an apology.  When I decided to make a serial of ‘Hallbury Summer’, a book I had already written, I foresaw problems with dividing it into episodes of acceptable size.   I thought I had done quite well, until I finally came to a point where I couldn’t conveniently break into the story.  This is it.

So this week two posts that together make one satisfactory episode.  At least if they’re broken down I’ve spared you a reading marathon – or so I hope!The story so far:  we left Joe after his date with Sophie Forbes-Pattinson, in which the pair broke into murdered Violet Parkin’s house, seeking clues to her mysterious involvement with a local witches’ coven.  The only item they found was a small package.  Meanwhile, in Abbot’s Friscombe…

Jennifer Althorpe studied the house for some minutes before opening its green wooden gate.  Grimly functional, this house, a squat dwelling roofed with grey slate, a belching chimney despite so hot a summer’s day, and walls of hard, red engineering brick part-blackened by smoke – smoke which lingered over the whole neighbourhood in a choking blanket – listless windows returned her gaze.

Although there was so much to repulse the house did nothing to repel Jennifer, yet equally it could not invite, for there was no greeting to be found in those bland walls, no welcome on the frayed coconut of the mat which kept damp station on a concrete step.  Jennifer walked the path, the concrete path.  She squelched into the sodden mat, she pressed the weathered bell.  And she waited.

A woman’s moon face, blotched skin, tiny suspicious eyes, peered out.  “Yes?”

“Mrs Harkus?”  Jennifer asked.

“Might be.  What of it?”

Bella at the local café had been extremely helpful; almost worth the mediocre coffee and the limpid toast Jennifer had endured.

“Ask Mary Harkus.  She’ll tell you all about young Joe Palliser.”  Bella had advised her.

Jennifer asked.

“Come in.”  Said Mary Harkus, inclining her blunt head.

The wall of heat would remain in Jennifer’s memory for some time.  Before the troubles, Mummy and Daddy had been posted briefly to Aden.  One school holiday she had flown out to visit them, and would never forget the sudden blast of desert air as she stepped from the plane in that furnace of a place.  Mary Harkus’s living room was as close as she could ever come to revisiting the experience.  The fire in the grate was every bit as fierce as an Arabian sun, and the warmth it generated brought an instant bloom of perspiration to Jennifer’s delicate brow.

“Havin’ a bath.”  Mary said, as though that would suffice as an explanation.

“Do you grow orchids, or something?”  Jennifer asked ingenuously.

“Why no, bless you!”  Mary Harkus laughed:  her voice had a flinty edge, as though she would rather curse than bless.  She seemed impervious to the heat.  “’Tis these houses, dear.  They only got immersion heaters, see, and the ‘lectric costs a fortune?  So us do use the  back-boiler, see?  Anthracite’s cheaper.  The fire heats the water, see.”

“And everyone knows when you’re having a bath.”    Mary Harkus’s little eyes squinted enquiringly, so Jennifer directed her gaze pointedly to the chimney breast.  “Smoke signals?”

“Ah.”

“Is there a photograph of Rodney?”

She had in fact already seen one.  Selwyn Penny had been very helpful, though his newspaperman’s sensibilities had needed to be observed.  Jennifer already knew the story of Rodney’s fatal accident as the newspapers had related it: she was about to explore the local angle and Mary Harkus was about to give it to her.

This would be forgivable:  after all, she was a journalist in search of a story.  Mary Harkus was her best lead to an incident which, though it was deeply embedded in the past, shed light upon the man her quarry, Joe Palliser, was today.  This would be forgivable:  the ploy with which Jennifer Althorpe concluded the interview was not.

When she had eked out every detail of Rodney’s fatal accident from Mary Harkus’s account and though every fibre of her being just wanted to quit that duchess’s kitchen of a house, she remained seated somewhat damply on Mary’s couch, saying nothing as she affected to check through her notes.

“I’m surprised.”  She said at last (timing was vital).

Mary, whose patience was being tried (she had none) raised a quizzical eyebrow.  “Why?”

“Well…..I’ve covered lots of cases like this; read about a lot more.  And frankly, Mary (I can call you that, can’t I?) although the really guilty ones may escape the law, they rarely escape entirely, if you see what I mean?”

“I don’t.”  Said Mary Harkus.

“Well, I mean, I often think the police turn a blind eye because no-one ever gets arrested, or anything, but usually the guilty party ends up in a ditch somewhere.  Someone – shall we say an interested party – someone makes up for the inadequacy of the law, don’t they, and that doesn’t seem to have happened here.  No loyal relation or close friend to redress the natural balance, I suppose.  Joseph Palliser’s still walking about out there, isn’t he?  I mean, please don’t think I wish the man any harm, or anything, but really – has no-one even tried?  I’m just curious.”

Jennifer did not receive an answer:  she did not want one.  She left gladly, secure in the knowledge that a seed had been sown.  As she gulped in the fresh outdoor air she was sure Mary Harkus’s abiding sense of outrage would be compelling her to lift up her telephone.  Douglas Lynd had been right – Ian Palliser’s brothers were his Achilles’ heel.  Tomorrow, or the next day, or very soon, Joe Palliser would provide her with fresh copy, one way or another.  All she had to do was wait.

For the next few days Joe would be forced to put thoughts of Sophie to one side. Mr Carnaby had accepted his instructions for the purchase of the Lamb house, and his bank had to be seen so he could make arrangements for payment.  The Wolsey needed to be returned to the clutches of oily Mr Maybury for some corrective surgery, condemning him to a day of bus and rail travel once more, and then there was the day he used to journey to Branchester, the cathedral city where St. Andrew’s parish registers stored, to research Violet Parkin’s family line.  Throughout all this he kept Violet Parkin’s strange little packet unopened in a drawer in his room, promising himself he would return to it later.

Sophie rang on the Wednesday morning.

“It’s super today: I’m going to take Tumbler for a ride, would you like to come?”

Joe did his best to sound enthusiastic.  “I’m not exactly an expert.  Anyway, I don’t have a horse.”

“Transport provided!”  Sophie chimed.  “See you in an hour!”

Joe had come down to breakfast to find a local newspaper open on the kitchen table, trumpeting the headline:  “Hallbury Publican’s Suspicious Death.”

“Ned Barker.”  Owen said without looking up from his seed catalogue.  “It appears that the police are involved in that one, now.”

Julia had a plate of bacon and tomato warming for him under the grill:  “It’s all too awful! What on earth is going on, Joe?”

Joe scanned the article, which described how Ned had been found by his wife Dorothy the morning after the desecration of St. Andrews’ churchyard.  Ned was thought to have died of a heart attack during the night, but, as was the law in the case of any unexplained sudden death, an autopsy had been performed.

Selwyn Penny’s article was unspecific.  It merely quoted the police as saying they were treating the death as ‘suspicious’ and were ‘pursuing their enquiries’.  They refused to reveal whether they were looking for any third party in connection with the death, or to consider a link to the murder of Mrs Violet Parkin the previous week.  Inspector Porcott of the Two Counties Constabulary pointed out that Mr John Parkin had already been charged with the first murder, and was being held in custody while he awaited trail at the quarter sessions.

“I wish I knew.”  Joe said in reply to Julia’s question.

Julia was right to ask.  He looked up at the two elderly people who had given him shelter and he saw the intense concern, the fear, almost, in their faces.  Without really considering, he had assumed they did not know Michael had absconded, just as they knew nothing about Michael’s involvement with the village witches.  Perhaps they did.  Or perhaps their disquiet was that of many middle-class people whose homes, but not whose hearts, are in country communities, when they discover the rural idyll is not what it seems.  For all of his wisdom concerning the construct of small village society, Owen might well be at the limit of his depth.  And Julia, though she gave the impression of someone who skated across the surface of life, would know inside herself that the ice had become perilously thin.  He was in so many ways their child, their product:  yet the village he inhabited, for all it was the same geographical place, was very different to theirs.  He had brought his village to their door, invited it inside.  They simply had no idea how to deal with that.

The hour had struck eleven by the time Sophie arrived, clopping down Church Lane on Tumbler, the big roan Joe had placated in the Parkin farm’s barn on their earlier meeting.  If he had expected Sophie’s strapping horsewoman image with jodhpurs and riding helmet he was to be disappointed.  Today’s Sophie had at last ‘dressed down’, although the combination of red halter top and designer jeans with trainers was scarcely less alluring than her denim mini-skirt.  She was leading a rather compact bay mare with a submissive look and placid eye, which she introduced as “Moppy.”

“She’s a complete darling.  She really won’t give you any trouble.”

Moppy greeted Joe with a bemused expression befitting any adult animal facing life with a name like ‘Moppy’, and exhibited exemplary forbearance while he set her stirrups as long as he dared, then took three attempts to mount her.  He had ridden before; a long, long time before, with Sarah Halsey for company.  Sarah, of course, was as accomplished at horse-riding as she was at everything else.

“I’m most dreadfully sorry I didn’t call you sooner, Joe,”  Sophie apologised.  “I’ve been away:  to Daddy’s in London, you know?”

Joe smiled.  “No need to apologise.”  He met her eyes, which said that she was fibbing – that she had been waiting with a vague notion he might call her first.

“I missed you.”  She allowed herself to say, as they set off.  Then quickly added:  “A bit.”

After a brief pause for negotiation, Moppy agreed to a walk on the Common; probably, Joe suspected, because her big friend Tumbler was being directed to go there, and she had no inclination to be left by herself with the obvious incompetent who slouched upon her back.

Sophie was bright and genial; “How is the Witch-Finder General today?” the sun grew stronger and it promised to be a perfect morning.

Abbey Walker was tending her front garden.  She straightened to greet them courteously as they clattered past, but with a reserve in her voice that told Joe she was part of Janice Regan’s gossip circle; so small a thing, yet enough to darken his particular skies a little.  The net was closing.   He had not heard from Tom Peterkin for all of that week, even though he had sought his old friend in his usual haunts, nor had he caught sight of Emma.   Yes, he had wondered if Tom knew the true state of Emma’s tormented mind; believed that he very probably would have guessed, and the awkwardness of this shared but unspoken knowledge was evidence of guilt in itself.  Neither had the nerve to contact the other, and as the interval grew so the hurdle became higher.

Sophie caught Joe’s absent expression.  “Did you open that little envelope from Mrs Parkin’s picture album?”

He confessed:  “No, I haven’t thought about it.  Something I must do.”

“A mystery!”  Sophie enthused.  “Do make sure I’m there when you do.  I’m simply dying to know what it is!”

“So if I told you I have it in my pocket…”

“Excellent!   Then I shall have an opportunity to exercise my sleuthing skills, Joe.  The perfect prelude to lunch.”

“Lunch?”

They followed that narrow lane which bisected the upper part of Wednesday Common, passing on their way a little copse of trees where Joe had hidden the car on what Sophie had begun to refer to as their ‘burglary night’ and walking on briskly for the first half mile until they reached ‘The Point’; a junction marked by a telephone box where roads from Abbots Friscombe, Little Hallbury, and Fettsham met.  The greater part of the common land lay before them, to the west of the Abbots Friscombe to Fettsham road.  For the most part this was laid down to bracken, interspersed with small clumps of blackthorn and mature broom.  From ‘The Point’ one very specific bridle path skirted the lower common like a perimeter track.  Too narrow for motor traffic, it owed its existence to horse riders who frequented it, or to adventurous youngsters, like Michael, Ian and Joe.

This trail would circumnavigate the wild land for two miles or more before it returned to the Abbots Friscombe road.  Much of it was pleasant, level ground ideal for a casual ride, until it reached its furthest point from the road where it began undulating sharply, the ditches often boggy even in the height of summer.  On the high, open areas exposed grey slabs of rock offered basking space for lizards, slow-worms and sometimes grass snakes: tales of adders abounded, although Joe had never seen one.

Here, about a mile from ‘The Point’ Joe motioned his intention to Sophie then left the trail to strike out across the turf, guiding a suspicious Moppy towards a stand of  trees and scrub some hundred yards distant.  He dismounted, tethering Moppy’s rein to a branch of hawthorn.  Exposed in open ground, these stunted thorns were ageless, undefined by time, and like everything associated with childhood, of course, they had diminished in Joe’s perception; yet walking among them, stooping to avoid their stoical resistance, they were a-brim with memories.  There, to his right, the grassy hollow where he had lain with Sarah; then, deeper into the wood, the little pool of turgid water surrounded by a clearing where he and his brothers had made their ‘den’ – their secret place, protected by solemn vows of silence.

Here, still, was the little circle of stones where Ian had burned his fingers on stolen matches as they attempted to build camp fires, the tree where Michael’s initials, distinguishable yet, were carved by his first penknife in the bark.  Saddened by the changing of the times Joe wondered how he and his brothers could each have grown so differently.  He did not know why, specifically, he had wanted to revisit the clearing in this little wood, just that he did.  Lost in reminiscence, he failed to notice that Sophie had joined him.  Her hand touched his shoulder.

“This is a sad place?”

He managed a weak grin, “Is that how it seems to you?”

“No.  To me it’s just a poky little child hideaway, I suppose.  It wasn’t my hideaway, though.  I rather gather it was yours, Joe.  I can sense the melancholy in you.  Unhappy memories?”

“Not really.  Maybe.”  Bearing the weight of years, Joe turned away.  Only then did he pick up an odour – just the faintest, barely present trace of wood smoke, or more probably fresh ash, in the breathless air; sufficient inducement to stoop and place a hand on one of the rough hearth stones.  Was it – could it be?  Was there a latent warmth that had persisted through the summer night?  There were ash traces surrounding it that were fresh and a whitish grey, and now he looked he could see how the stones had been rebuilt.  Someone had been there; and recently, too; maybe this morning, certainly last night.   That was why some subconscious urge had drawn him this way!  “Michael!” He breathed the name.  Now he was sure – like a homing pigeon given his freedom Michael had come back to Hallbury. But why?   If not to return to the scene of a crime, then why?

Sophie was looking at him quizzically.  “Who is Michael?”

“My younger brother.  I told you about him, remember?”

Sophie asked if he meant the one who was ill, and he was in a ‘home’ wasn’t he?  And Joe had to explain how Michael came to be missing, and even as he told her he could see her concentration straying.  He did not blame her.  That was the reaction of most people when he mentioned he had a brother who was mentally ill.

“So you think he might have been here?”

“Someone lit a fire: last night, I should think.”

“Gosh.”  Sophie responded – then:  “Could just be a tramp, I suppose?”

They remounted to make a contemplative journey back to the bridle path where, beneath the shade of a row of stately elms Sophie dismounted again to open a gate. They urged their horses across a ditch into open farmland.

“We use Williamson land for hunting.  Barry Williamson was made Master of Foxhounds this year.  He doesn’t mind our riding across his fields, as long as we’re careful.  I often come this way.  Do you know Barry at all?”

Joe had to confess that he didn’t.  Barry Williamson was chalked down as yet another acquaintance they didn’t share.

With Wednesday Common behind them, a dune-like landscape of ripening green or fallow brown fields swelled and flowed uninterrupted for several miles – westward to the River Staun, and northward with the valley as far as their eyes could see.  Interspersed among this arable patchwork were occasional rectangular islands of poppy-flecked meadow, and odd reefs of dark trees which conjoined to southward as forest, at the foot of the Calbeck Hills.  In the heat of a high summer sun this fertile valley would bleach in its final weeks to haymaking, its brave tall grasses burning to a gentle gold.  Away from the canopy of trees Joe felt his flesh toast beneath that same unremitting glare.  There was the merest trace of breeze, no more, to ruffle the hare-bells, nothing to disperse a shimmering heat haze.  Before Joe, for they rode in file, Sophie’s long back moved with supple ease, while his own thighs were already stiffening and beginning to hurt.  Under the thin cotton of his t-shirt he felt the tickle of sweat.

 

© 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.

 

 

Nowhere Lane – Chapter Fourteen. A Cry in the Night

 

 The back door of Radley Court opened onto a cobblestone courtyard that was partly surrounded by the main house on two-and-a-half sides.  Opposite Karen and Gabrielle as they emerged from the kitchen stood a shortened two-storey wing, its smaller four-paned sash windows conveying none of the hauteur of their counterparts on the front of the house, but twice the mystery.  To the right of this stub of building and divided from it by a path, a fenced paddock was tenanted by a single, depressed-looking Shetland pony.

“Her name’s Bella,”  Gabrielle explained.  “She has problems, poor sweet.”

She led the way beside the kitchen wing, past a tack room to the final single storey portion of the wing, which consisted of loose boxes.   Here, against a muted background of culinary industry emanating from the kitchen, she allowed her enthusiasm to bubble over.  She was certainly passionate about her horses – all four of them, though she unashamedly favoured a bay with a white blaze.

“This is the absolutely best horse in the world!”  She planted a kiss on the horse’s nose.  “He’s called Chuffy and he’s utterly fab, aren’t you, darling?”

Chuffy reciprocated by tossing his head and showing off outrageously.

“Then this is Shiner,”  Shiner, a strawberry roan, surveyed his two visitors stoically for a moment, before sidling forward to be greeted.  “You’re Mummy’s horse, yes, sweetie?  You don’t do anything unless there’s a treat at the end, do you?  ‘What’s in it for me’, that’s Shiner’s philosophy.”

The last box was occupied by Percy, the Suffolk, huge and amiable.

“Mums bought him on a whim because nobody wanted him, and now we know why.  He has his breakfast delivered on a lorry!”

Karen, who had never ridden, learned more about horses in an hour that evening than she could possibly want to have learned, while her friendship with Gabby deepened to the most personal and conspiratorial level.

“Patsy gets awfully serious sometimes.  I expect you’ve noticed?  Oh, and have you caught him doing that thing with his tackle?  He seems to get dreadfully muddled up down there, bless him!  Gosh, I shouldn’t have asked that, should I?”

Within a space of a few precious hours Karen had discovered new friends, each of whom had some special quality she found endearing.  Gabby’s enthusiasm, Paul’s gentle, ambling sincerity, Jackson Hallcroft’s mesmeric charm, and Gwendoline, who disguised an incisive intelligence with the overt appearance of a hopelessly disorganized human being.  Patrick acquainted Karen with the truth.

“Didn’t I say?  Before she married Dad she was a solicitor.  She could have had quite a career, apparently. Don’t play chess with our mother, she’ll wipe the floor with you.  Oh, and she loves horses as much as Gabs, unfortunately.”

Dinner was augmented by lively conversation and a friendly interrogative process to which Karen submitted willingly enough, because it was right that the Hallcrofts should know all they wanted about her and she found herself actually wanting to tell them.

With night came rain, which stimulated a bustle of activities; Patrick braving the elements to cover his car before joining Gabrielle in her routine around the stables, Paul assisting Jackson in stowing away garden tools.

Karen joined Pat’s mother in the kitchen to ‘clear away’, a feeble contrivance which lost credibility the moment they switched on the lights because the working surfaces, cupboards and shelves were pristine and the washing up, left in the hands of Mrs Beatty, already done.  That good lady was in the process of finishing her day as they entered, donning her coat from a hook by the outside door.

“I’ve left the breakfast stuff in the fridge, tonight, Mrs Hallcroft.  Mrs B will sort that out in the morning.  Good night to you.  And to you, young lady.”   She gave Karen a smile that was uncomfortably close to a smirk.

Karen was taken aback and perhaps did not disguise it.  When she came to herself she realized Gwendoline was watching her.  “There’s another Mrs B?”  She asked, by way of a diversionary tactic.

“Mrs Buxham, she does mornings.  You have to be on your mettle, though.  She has a way of making your bed while you’re still in it.  Do you like espresso coffee, Karen?  I’m afraid I can’t get the machine to work.  Would you care to try?”

An espresso coffee maker glowered defiantly from one of the kitchen’s less cluttered corners.  Karen admired it.

“I have this aversion,” Gwendoline explained while Karen tinkered, “to kitchen machinery.  It utterly defeats me, I’m afraid.  You mustn’t mind Mrs Beatty.  She can be very – how shall I say – direct?”

Karen weighed her words carefully. “Thoughts once harboured are better expressed.”  She said.  “Where’s the coffee?”

“Third from the right, bottom shelf.  One might hesitate, sometimes, for fear of causing offence, don’t you think?”

“I think I’m not easily offended.”  The filter in the machine looked as if it had been there since it left the factory, so Karen scraped it into a bin.  “Have you any more of these, Mrs Hallcroft?”

“Gwendoline, please – or Gwen.  Do you know I’ve no idea?  Try the shelf above the plate rack.  Although when the subject is one’s own son, I suppose it might be necessary.”

Karen tracked down the filters in a lower cupboard.  “It should work!”  She said brightly.

“What do you think?  I ask, because I find this a peculiar reversal.  Isn’t it usually the father who seeks assurances from his daughter’s suitor?  And here I am…should it be making that gurgling noise?”

“It’s heating the water.”

“Ah!  That’s obviously where I have been going wrong.  We’re very fond of him, you know.”

“Of course you are.  And so am I.”  Karen replied, adding:  “In spite of myself.  Cups?”

“Oh, yes – I’ll get some.  That looks awfully interesting.  Is it working?”

“Absolutely!”  Karen exclaimed, borrowing Gabby’s favourite word.  “We simply have to intercept the outcome…”

The cups arrived just in time, and in the slightly panic-driven process of producing the miraculous beverage, the main thread of conversation was lost.  It would not remain buried, however.  As they sat at the table, tasting their success, Gwendoline said:  “In spite of yourself?”

“I think I anticipated this conversation.”

“And…”

“And I wasn’t sure how I would answer the charge.”

“He is very young, you see.”

“Yes.”  Karen acknowledged.  “I’m the older woman – not by much, but still enough to be frowned upon, especially where our differences in fortune are concerned.”

“Do you know, this coffee is quite delicious?  Well done, Karen!  He is very gullible at times.  He can be easily led.”

“I’m not the one who is leading, in that sense.”

“You’ve slept with him, of course.”

“Oh, now!”

“There is no better way to lead a man, is there, Karen?  Men think with their balls, dear.  Don’t tell me you are unaware of that.  In your bed they’ll promise you anything…”

“Please stop?”  Karen begged.  “You’re beginning to make me sound like a fortune-seeking harlot and I’m not.  Believe me I’m not!  You’re laying out all the reasons I’ve given myself for ending our relationship, not my scheme for tying him down.  The truth I face is that I’m very fond of Pat.  I wanted to walk away, I really did – still do, perhaps.  But…”

“It’s happening very fast, Karen!”

“I know; I know.  And I keep trying to hold back, but everything just seems to conspire to keep us together.  I don’t mind about money – if you cut him off and we had to live in a garret it would be alright.  It would be heaven.  Oh, god, what am I saying?  I thought it was uniquely your husband’s gift to inspire fits of verbal irresponsibility, but you’ve got it too…”

“Have I?”  Gwendoline laughed.  “I wonder though if we always find the truth.  How shall I phrase it – have you ‘found something special’ with Patrick?”

With all her self-erected barriers tumbling before her, Karen suddenly found she needed to admit it.  “Yes,” she murmured. “I believe I have.”

“And this has nothing to do with his protecting you, or shared danger, or good old-fashioned lust?”

“It may.  But it’s real, nonetheless.”

“Well then, we’ve finished our coffee, haven’t we?  Perhaps we should go and find out what your boyfriend is doing, and sort out some night things for you.”

Karen could barely hide her incredulity:  “Is that it?”

Gwendoline studied her fingers.  “A long time ago, when I was a junior in chambers, a large, very attractive man with a legal issue caught my attention.  We were married within a month of meeting one another.   That was twenty-six years and three children ago, and we’re still together.  Love?  Yes, I love him.  But love is always a frantic, emotionally turbulent thing to begin – it’s what is left when the embers start to cool that matters: whether friendship is there, after all the fury.  You have to wait at least ten years to find that out.

“So, what can I do as a mother?  If what you have is a week or two of passion, I will see it flare out.  If you are ‘meant’ to be together, I don’t want to be the one to stand in your way, either of you.  All I ask is if you have to break his heart, be gentle, will you?”

#

Neither parent was present when their children accompanied two bottles of wine to a small room at one corner of the house that they referred to as the den.

“Mother retires early with her books and Dad goes to his study in the evenings,”  Patrick explained.  “He’s working.  He’s always working.”

Either by neglect or intent, the den had no electric light.  Its rich, sand-coloured walls danced with candle shadows, choreographed by standing candelabra as old as the house itself.  In winter the room would be induced to warmth by the flickering of a small wood fire, but tonight the hearth only promised, its fire-basket of logs waiting to be lit.  Patrick lounged upon an old overstuffed couch against the window wall with Karen at his side.  Paul and Gabrielle sat on a similar couch across the room, leaving space between them on the seat which was quickly claimed by Petra.

“Pat.”  Karen decided to broach the subject that troubled her most.  “You believe you were attacked because you ignored that note…”

Pat blinked at her, owlish in the subdued light.  “Yeah, this note.”  He sat up,  foraging in his pocket and producing the piece of paper he had found on his car windscreen.  “It’s a bit smudged but you can read what it says.”  He passed it to Karen.  “I kept it specially.”

“Mr Nasty put this on your windscreen sometime in the afternoon of the stakeout?”

“Maybe.  It was wet when I found it,  Look.”

“So it would have been Mr Nasty who was responsible for what happened to you this morning.”

“It seems logical.  I can’t think of anyone else who would hate Jacqui or me that much. But I don’t think he did it himself.”

“It could have been him.”

“Possibly; I didn’t see anyone.  Here’s the thing, though.  Whoever attacked us had detailed inside knowledge:  no-one outside the offices would be familiar with our routine – we don’t exactly publicise it.”

“So who would know?  Who could know?”

“Someone studying us pretty closely – spy, rather than spymaster.  Get the facts, report them to someone, get paid, maybe…”

Karen winced.  “I’m beginning to feel completely paranoid!  When I think of it, the man knew I would be walking home, the night of the storm – which route I would take, what time I would be at the bridge…it would have to be that policeman told him that.  The police couldn’t be behind it all, surely?  I know they don’t like me, but…”

“No.  In on it, yes, instigating it, no.  Who first set you off on the Boulter’s Green goose chase?”

“Frank Purton, I suppose.  Oh and Wilson, who said Gasser was last seen near there.”

“We were talking about this, this afternoon in visiting hours, and remember that was before your last contretemps with your hide-bound friend.  It’s even more certain now, to me, at least.”

Paul said:  “Karen, I asked my olds about Boulter’s Green and it has quite a reputation among local psychics.  There have been, reputedly – nothing certain, never is with these things – ‘events’ associated with the place; visions of a ‘dark angel’, things that disappeared, and so on?  You seem to have stumbled on Ghost Metropolis.    Oh, and incidentally, the ruins aren’t cottages, they never were.”

“No?  So the address on the Turnbull letter…”

“A complete fabrication.  Originally, the meadow the ruins stand in was ‘Boulter’s Field’.  In mediaeval times it was part of the Driscombe estate, and there was one building upon it, their family chapel…”

“A church?”

Paul nodded.  “A small one, yes. Matthias Boulter A mining prospector,  bought the meadow from the Driscombes.   He must have given them a good price because they redefined their estate borders at the river and built a new chapel, which still stands at the North end of the house.  Boulter never mined the land – lead prices dipped, maybe, or it proved to be a false hope.  Anyway, the second ruin is the remains of an office or a shed for tools.  Now, am I good, or what?”

“Brilliant!”  Karen enthused  “The fact it was a chapel could explain those graves.  But we still haven’t made a connection with my stalker.”

“You’re supposed to be the detective.”  Patrick reminded her.

“I know, but I never said I was a good detective.  Indulge me.”

“Could it be that your Mr Nasty is being employed by these people to hurt you, or wreak revenge for something…?”

“…Or kill me, you mean.”

“Yes, alright.  I was trying not to say that.”  Patrick grimaced.  “Could you have done something to offend some high-up in the town – or could you maybe have information that might do damage if it got out?”

“Not that I know of.  But kill me?  Bad as they are, the police could never be implicated in something like that.”

“Rub you out, darling,” Gabby contributed. “They do that all the time.  I’ve seen it in the movies.”

“Thanks, Gabby!”

“Don’t mench.”

“Shut up, Gabby!”  Patrick growled.  “Unlikely as it seems…listen, Karen love, we think this whole Gasser thing is designed to push you in the direction of Boulter’s Green.  Not because it’s connected to anyone’s disappearance (Gasser’s probably just lying low somewhere, maybe even being paid to) but because it’s somewhere nice and quiet where their nefarious designs are unlikely to be disturbed.”

“Which, in the case of Mr Nasty…”  Karen shuddered.  “I can’t think of what he would do to me.  Oh, Pat?”

“I know, love.  We won’t let anything happen to you, honestly!”

“He’s not a hitman in the Charles Bronson mode, though, is he, my dark angel?  He’s no ghost, either.  He seems a tiny bit mad.”

“A contract in a small town?  Not likely to attract Bugsy Seigel,  is it?  I know you think I disbelieved you at Boulter’s Green when you told me about the skinny old man; I actually suspect he was there to help get you.  You were in the right place.  If I hadn’t reappeared things might have been very different.”

“He vanished, Pat.  I must have dreamed him…”

Pat shook his head somberly.  “I’m not so sure.  I don’t know how he managed it, but I think he was real all the same.  So that’s why you’re here with us, until we sort this out.”

“Sprog will be back tomorrow,”  Gabby, now stretched out with her head on her boyfriend’s lap, changed the subject.  “My grotty little sister,” she reminded Karen.  Paul and Patrick groaned in unison.

Conversation became drowsily relaxed, interspersed with comfortable silences.   Midnight passed, the candles guttered, sufficient wine had flowed.

“And now my head really aches.”  Patrick complained.  “I’ll let Petra out, and then it’s bed for me.”

Karen’s room was a large, comfortable space.  Hangings of middle-eastern origin adorned walls of eggshell blue; there was a fireplace that had been lamp-blacked until it shone, a kidney-shaped dressing table draped in chintzy peach with hairbrush and hand-mirror neatly arranged, and a large double bed that grunted amiably when she lay upon it.  Floor length dragon-print curtains added drama, concealing a high casement window which, when she raised its sash, admitted a hint of honeysuckle.

With one of Gabby’s thinnest, lightest nightdresses to clothe her, Karen settled on top of the bedcovers, happy to accept the warm breeze from her window and pleasantly ready for sleep.  In the corridor beyond her door sounds of the household gradually dwindled into silence.  Somewhere out in the darkness a nightingale sang.  Listening to its music, and thinking or dreaming of the day’s events she drifted happily, eyelids heavy, towards slumber.

The clatter was loud and startling:  the language that immediately followed could only be Patrick’s.  Her idyll shattered, Karen leapt from the bed, rushed to the door.  Patrick met her there.

“Pat, what on earth?”  She hissed in an open whisper.  “Are you all right?  What happened?”

“No, I’m not alright!”  Pat let himself into the room.  “And there’s no point in whispering.  I should think the whole house is awake now anyway.”

“What happened?”

“I kicked a bucket, that’s what happened.”  Patrick sat himself down on the edge of her bed, massaging a foot.  “Somebody left a bucket in the middle of the landing.”

“Oh, you poor darling.  Mrs Buxham?”

“You know about Mrs Buxham?  No, not Mrs Buxham; someone much younger, I’m fairly sure; someone with a particularly warped sense of humour.”

Karen caught his drift and, cruelly, began to laugh.  “Oh no, I don’t believe you!  It was probably just carelessness…”

“Yes, probably.  Like the piece of string stretched across the landing tethering it to the bannisters was probably accidental too.  I’ll kill her!”

“Never mind.”  She discovered his bare leg in the darkness and stroked it affectionately.  “It is rather sweet.  Were you coming for me?”

“I always pace the bloody ramparts about this time of night!  What do you think?”

“I think it would be nice if you stayed.  Especially since it seems everyone knows you’re here now.  It’ll help them to find you if they need you in the morning.”

“What about you?”

“Me?  Oh, I need you tonight.”

“My foot’s sore.”

“When I say I need you…”

“I know – you aren’t thinking specifically of my foot.  My head aches as well.”

“Oh, your poor head!  But I wasn’t thinking of your head, either.”

“All the same…”

“I promise I’ll be gentle.”

Later, much later, when their genial conversation with the big old bed had reached a hiatus and they had both dropped into exhausted sleep a vixen’s cry, long and agonized, rose from the outer darkness, wavering and weeping as it departed on the wind.  Its sound dragged Karen from her dreaming so suddenly she jumped and sat up.  And just as suddenly, the air froze about her shoulders as if icy fingers had clutched her heart.  Her dark angel was reaching for her; she heard the sound of Suzanne, her sister’s voice lifted in warning, her sister’s tears.

Patrick stirred, coaxed her back to him.  “Hey!  Don’t be alarmed, you old townie.  Haven’t you heard a fox before?”

“It isn’t the fox,”  She admitted.  “Oh Pat, darling, he’s out there, isn’t he?”

“He?  Mr Nasty, your dark angel?  No, no.  You’re safe from him here – you are, seriously.  He can’t harm you.”

“I can feel him.  I can feel his hands crawling over me!  Wherever I go, whatever I do, he’s going to find me, Pat, I can’t escape him.  He’s going to find me!”

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

 

Of Cavalry, Queens and Gypsy Gold

June is a particularly busy month if you are a horse or a monarch.

This year 4th June was the sixtieth anniversary of the Queen’s Coronation.  Happy anniversary, Mrs. Windsor.  And then; happy birthday, Mrs. Windsor!

In Britain the reigning monarch has an ‘official birthday’ – rather like a horse, and for oddly similar reasons.   As head of the Commonwealth, the monarch’s birthday is excuse for a good knees up in various nations across the world, and the best possibility of a nice day  for a party in Britain would place the occasion in summer, hence June.  The Queen’s real birthday is April 21st, by the way.

Horses also have ‘official birthdays’.  Horses’ birthdays are adjusted (January 1st for UK, August 1st for Australia) so a new batch of foals will be old enough, broken and ready for racing when the season begins.  Why am I so intent on making this connection?  Well, one good reason would be the Queen’s well-advertised interest in thoroughbred horses, but my personal excuse is much more to do with ‘Royal Occasions’, in which nearly all the splendid men in funny costumes are supported by shiny-flanked horses.  There are hundreds!  

Now I am not one of the world’s great equestrians.  Only once did I come together with a horse in a riding sort of way and I fell off.  The relationship ended there.   However, that doesn’t mean we didn’t remain friends; so I have always worried.   Horses are expensive to maintain, and like so many of us in later life can become hostage to fortune.   I worry about the horse that has outlived its useful years, the older animal about to embark upon retirement:  what happens to all those cavalry giants when their time comes to go out to grass?

ImageAppleby Horse Fair begins on 6th June.  This week, 40,000 people will descend upon the narrow roads of a little country town with a residential population of only a few thousand.   And for many the journey will be made from afar in a traditional gypsy wagon.  Appleby is the gypsy Mecca, renowned throughout the Romany world certainly, and a pretty formative experience for anybody else who tries to pass through the town in the course of the next ten days.

Apart from fights and dubious car sales, the business of the fair is trading horses which, before they are ‘demonstrated’ at the gallop on a course known as the ‘Mad Mile’ are washed to glory in the local river by their riders.  These are for the most part gypsy cobs – horses better suited to pulling those wagons – and the element of spectacle is introduced by the bare-back rides, which can be quite dramatic.

When the fair is over those horses will return to their gypsy life, meaning anything from grazing on a tether beside some busy road to pulling the carts and traps their owners use for either business or travel.  Alas some, the old and the work-weary, will enjoy a less certain future.  I am not saying that all gypsy horses are treated badly – there is an old phrase that goes something like ‘gypsy gold gleams by day and neighs by night’ – and certainly many will enjoy active retirement. Some, though, will be neglected, some will simply be turned loose to fend for themselves, and some will be sold for meat.

On royal occasions or at horse fairs, the RSPCA are always in evidence, always watching.  But the chances are they will be far more engaged at the latter than the former.  Cruelty has always been an issue where the treatment of horses is concerned.   Once the occasion is over and those spectacular creatures which make it so special are scattered once more to their respective homes, it is far more difficult to be vigilant.

I have few fears for the cavalry giants:  well-heeled patrons buy them at their working life’s end and charities step in when public generosity fails.   Sadly, it is less likely the gypsy cob’s life will come to a natural conclusion, be there ever so many kind hearts out there ready to help if they can.  The numbers are simply too great, the documentation – or traceability if you prefer – too scant, if it exists at all.

Spare a thought, please, for these poorer cousins, for in Britain the class divide doesn’t stop at people.  Or if this doesn’t move you, forgive my tenuous link to a past post when I offer you instead:

frozen Lasagne, anyone?