The Day Room in Caleybridge Hospital was a twilight affair of clinical leather and faded colours, which Karen, still shaken after her most recent encounter with the malevolent dark man, would scarcely notice. She had allowed herself to be driven here by Paul Wheeler, whose girlfriend Gabrielle, Patrick’s sister, had explained the events of the morning. Now, when the ward door opened and Patrick entered the room she had to restrain an urge to rush into his arms and beg forgiveness for all her negative thoughts. He limped towards her gamely, the very image of walking wounded; his head bandaged and his left cheek yellowed by a developing bruise.
“Why the limp. Have they amputated?” She asked him kindly, feeling so glad to see him she wanted to laugh her delight.
“Oh, twisted it slightly, apparently. It’s nothing – not important. I’m sorry I couldn’t make our lunch date – they wouldn’t let me out, and the ‘phones in here are hopeless. Do you hate me?”
“Only a little. I thought you’d ditched me. Gabby told me someone else was hurt; is she…”
“Jacqui; she’s a colleague. It’s quite serious, I’m afraid. Fractured skull – they had to operate straight away to relieve pressure on her brain. I’ve just been up to try to see her, but she hasn’t regained consciousness yet. Whoever they were, they were aiming for me, not her. I’m the one who normally enters the Conference Room first.”
“I’m so sorry!”
“Why? It isn’t your fault. Paul and Gabby came in to see me – nearest relatives, and stuff – so I asked them to tell you what happened. And now you’ve come, so that’s one better!”
“They brought me – actually, they rescued me. They’re waiting downstairs in the lobby. Gabby seems to think we need a conference: are you up to it?”
“Up to it? Foolish woman, of course I’m up to it. What do you mean, ‘rescued you’?”
As they walked – in Patrick’s case quite gingerly – to join Gabby and Paul, Karen related her adventure of the previous hour. Patrick was grave. “You were lucky, the way things turned out. If those two had been ten minutes later…”
“I would have had to deal with him myself!” Karen told him brightly. “He’s only a sad old perv, you know!”
“Yeah,” Patrick acknowledged. “I’ve met him, remember? Old pervs seem to be quite large and lively these days. Paul and I were talking about things this afternoon. You have to think of something to discuss in visiting hours, or the silence can become deafening.”
They had negotiated an elevator and reached the end of a corridor which opened out into the hospital lobby where, true to their word, Paul and Gabrielle were waiting.
“Talking about what, Pat?” Karen asked. “Explain?”
“You haven’t told her yet!” Gabrielle accused.
“I was about to. Karen, it’s time you met our parents. We want you to come and stay with us for a few days.”
Even the thought filled Karen with alarm. “No, Pat! Your parents don’t know me! I’ve got nothing..”
Pat grinned. “Nothing to wear? Yes, Karen, you’re coming. Gabby’s already cleared it with the olds and they agree. Come as you are. You look a damned sight better than I do at the moment, anyway.”
“That isn’t the point! Don’t I have a say in this? What if I choose not to turn my back on my entire case load…”
“Look, love, whoever’s after you, they mean business. It’s dangerous for you here! You must see that – especially after today’s attacks.”
“Attacks? Are you connecting my stalker with what happened to you? Why?”
“He won’t tell you,” Paul cut in, “But you need to know. He was warned to stay away from you.”
“Thanks a bunch, Paul!” Patrick said heavily. “I wasn’t going to tell her that.” He explained to Karen, “Someone left a note on my car the night you dropped me off at the office car park?”
“The night of the storm – the night Mr. Nasty attacked me. You think the note was his?”
Patrick grinned, a lopsided grin that refused to spread to his bruised cheek. “Is that what we’re calling him now? He was around, I suppose,” He glanced significantly at Paul. “But we think there’s more than one person involved in this.”
Karen was distraught: “Oh, Pat, if I accept your invitation he – or they – might come after me. I can’t put your family in danger!”
Patrick shook his head. “You’ll be out of town and there’s no reason anyone should find out where you’ve gone. You’ll have us around you, and we’ll have space to get this sorted out. I mentioned Mum was a solicitor, didn’t I? Well, she wants to get her teeth into this, and she’s longing to meet you. Accept it, love, it’s a fait accompli, really it is. We leave here, we get my car, we drive.”
To say Karen harbored doubts would be complete understatement. Apart from her natural tendency to rebel when anybody tried to organize her life, she was genuinely more afraid, at that point, of encountering Pat’s mother and father than of anything the sinister leather-clad man might do to her. Now, though, she had Pat’s safety to consider as well as her own. It would be nice, at least, to find a place where she could sleep peacefully, and Pat was clearly disinclined to accept no for an answer. “Are you supposed to drive, after what you’ve been through?” She asked, lamely. “No concussion, no after-effects?”
“They wanted him to stay in overnight,” Gabrielle confided. “He’s colossally stubborn.”
“I’m fine! This place is full of mods and rockers – seems like it was a fine weekend for a punch-up in Harterport. ”
“I’ll have to go back to the apartment, get a few things.”
“I don’t believe that would be wise.”
“Karen, I’ve never been more serious about anything in my life. We should get you out of town, and it needs to be now. Gabby’ll stump up with anything you lack. Her resources are endless.”
“Absolutely!” Gabrielle agreed. “Bulgy wardrobes-full of stuff!”
The right turn from the Halminster Road led into a lane lined by tall trees; parkland beeches, oak and plane interspersed with the occasional heraldic spear of larch, all garbed in their bright, optimistic green of burgeoning summer and stirred regally by a light westerly breeze. There was still a month before maturity would add the first blues to the palette; a month more of darker glory before September winds breathed among those aldermanic boughs, inducing them to creak in conversation among themselves, hold a council and decide upon the onset of winter.
For now, though, the evening sun was warm and the air in Karen’s face was a blessing. Patrick’s hand, playing dangerously with her leg, kept her from too obvious a display of nerves if only because he needed constant reminders to pay attention to his driving. Without these distractions she would have resembled a jelly, for this was the encounter she dreaded: she was visiting the Hallcrofts at home.
The Hallcroft-Smythes. She couldn’t erase the hyphen from her mind. Or the ‘y’.
Each time she glanced across at Patrick her head filled afresh with those nagging doubts: somehow he had slipped into her not-so-well-ordered life with quiet ease; and comfortable as she might allow herself to be, dreaming along in such style, she had to prove to herself that she could face Pat’s perceived danger alone, that for all there was something very compelling in the way he was taking charge of her, she could not become his cipher. Whatever the risk, she must be ready to face it, and if necessary, face it alone.
“I’m stronger than I look, Pat.” She shouted above the wind.
“Yes, Karen, you are. What brought that on?”
“I need to prove it, I think. How’s that head?”
“Still attached. Am I going to pass out while I’m driving, do you mean? No. Do you want to drive?”
“Drive your pride and joy – your other woman? Heavens no! I do kind of like you in a bandage. You look very buccaneering.”
“I lack both eye-patch and parrot, I’m afraid.”
And then she saw it: Radley Court. Only a glimpse at first, of grey-green stone among trees: “Oh, Patrick. That isn’t it! Please tell me that isn’t it?”
The Daimler’s nose swung between banks of flossy rhododendron bushes and through a pair of high wrought iron gates. Acres of manicured lawn spread itself before her; amid which sprawled a two-storey Georgian pile, its high windows frowning down upon her beneath their pediments as if intrusion from riff-raff such as herself was unforgiveable. Wheels crunched on pea beach gravel luxurious as a carpet; a carpet for cars, she thought, beginning to wish she had worn jewellery. The engine echoed back to her from those walls, the porticoed entrance doors loomed like some dark temptation of the Bunyan mind.
“I can’t go in there!”
“I’m in jeans! I should have worn something more suitable. What on earth are they going to think of me?”
“’They’ will think you look perfect in jeans!” Patrick squeezed her hand. “Come on, darling, Mum and Dad aren’t that terrifying, honestly!”
As if something within the soul of the old house had heard Karen’s cries, the sombre mood was shattered by a fusillade of excited yelping. A large Golden Labrador dog came bursting from the front doors like a badly-aimed torpedo and flew across the driveway towards them.
“Oh hell!” Patrick exclaimed. “I hope you like dogs!”
She just had time to say “You know I do” before this dog launched herself at the car and, in a feat she had clearly practiced often, landed with fuss and noise upon the tonneau cover. Thereafter speech was almost impossible, because a very long tongue was enthusiastically washing Karen’s face.
“She answers to Petra – sometimes.” Patrick said, by way of introduction.
Scarcely had Patrick driven the car into a parking position before Paul and Gabrielle, in Paul’s car, crunched onto the forecourt behind them. A tall, greying man in a frayed maroon pullover and ancient cord trousers appeared atop the flight of steps that led up to those grand front doors, his face broken by a broad smile.
“That’s Dad. He’s been gardening.”
Karen cast an eye over the wide expanse of manicured lawn, the elegantly planted flowerbeds. “He’s been busy.”
“Oh, we have gardeners. Dad just likes to mess around.”
Karen suppressed another inner groan. She was beginning to feel quite light-headed.
Petra had changed allegiances with a single bound and now sat at Gabrielle’s side as if she had always been there. “Karen, darling! You look awfully pale. Are you ailing, or has Patrick’s driving finally cracked your nerve?”
The tall man descended the steps in slow, steady strides. “Hello. You must be Karen. I’ve heard a lot about you, lately, young lady.”
“Dad, Karen. Karen, my Dad.” Patrick said over his shoulder as he ferreted for his briefcase in the back of his car. “It’s alright, Karen, you can ignore him if you like.”
Mild blue lagoons of eyes met Karen’s embarrassed look and drew her deep. Perhaps her impression of this man, drawn so far from Patrick’s affectionately disparaging description, had led her to expect a super-salesman; a smooth talker who had risen in his chosen industry by his gift of the gab – a success pedlar; a showman. The real Jackson Hallcroft was as far from that. Behind the hypnosis of those eyes was several fathoms of intellect, a warm sea of wisdom that flowed gently to its shore – never intrusive, never loud, yet utterly absorbing. She saw in the father all she adored in the son, and her legs went from under her. She fumbled. “Hello Mr. Hallcroft;” She blurted hopelessly; “I hope you don’t mind my staying here..I mean, because Patrick’s very special to me, and I…that is, thank you for taking me in.”
What made her say that? All too aware of Gabrielle’s stifled giggle, she rushed to cover herself: “Patrick didn’t tell me you were American.”
Patrick was behind her. “He isn’t. He’s Canadian. Didn’t I say? I should have.”
But Jackson Hallcroft merely smiled: “You’re welcome, Karen. I sincerely hope you’re going to take this young man off our hands. I was beginning to despair.”
“We all were!” Gabrielle chipped in. “Come on inside, you two. Paul wants to challenge Patsy on the Scalextric.”
Your mother’s anchored to a queen’s pudding in the kitchen.” Jackson said informatively. “Gabby, maybe you and Karen here might attempt a rescue?”
“Oh super, yes!” Gabrielle took her cue, “ You simply must be introduced, sweetie.” She squeezed Karen’s arm and added, in a much lower voice: “And you can tell me about your wedding plans.”
Mortified, Karen shielded a scarlet blush behind her hands. “Whatever have I said? ”
“Nothing! You’ve been through a lot, you’re exhausted. The rest is something Daddy does, darling. It’s a gift – he does it to everyone, so don’t worry! Anyway,” Gabby grinned; “it was rather sweet! I should warn you, though; I think Patsy heard.”
Within the double main doors, Radley Court’s baronial hall asserted its cool authority, a long central chamber richly carpeted in green which ran from the front to the rear of the house. Oak panelled walls lined either side, drawing Karen’s eyes to a wide staircase which dominated the further end. Lit by tall stained glass windows, this ascended to a mezzanine at first floor level. Above, if she could crane her neck so far without falling over, a severe, ornately plastered ceiling presided.
For all its initial impression of austerity and patronage – so oppressive it brought a whimper to Karen’s throat – Radley Court had a character which made it very much a home. Petra’s toys: a rubber ring, a squiggly thing of interlaced rubber, a bright yellow plastic bone and other miscellaneous pieces of flotsam were scattered about an expensive green carpet, which also hosted a black loop of Scalextric track at which Paul already knelt in an attitude of prayer.
He waved informally. “Excuse my rudeness, I was just getting the hang of this thing before Patsy got himself bludgeoned! No! No, Petra!”
Anxious to join in, Petra had neatly plucked Paul’s slot car from a speedy corner and brought it helpfully, tail wagging, to Karen. Paul grinned apologetically. “Come on, Pat, I’ll take advantage of your condition and thrash you this time. Sorry Karen – going to borrow him for a minute. Oh, and please Miss, can I have my car back?”
In the brief time Karen knew him, she would learn to like Paul Wheeler immensely. He was perhaps a year or so older than Gabrielle and taller too with a head that seemed so large and heavy it gave him a stoop. When he was seated he would often support that head, as though his neck was not up to the task unaided. She would remember the firm clasp of his handshake, the earnest intensity in those searching grey eyes and the curious femininity of his long, curled eyelashes. He spoke with a regional drawl that lilted pleasingly. It was easy to see how Gabrielle might love him, and it was very evident that she did.
“This is going to end in tears.” Gabrielle commented, as Pat grabbed a hand control and stiffly joined Paul in sitting on the floor. “Come and meet Mum.”
At the right-hand corner of the hall, shaded by the stairs, was an imposing oak door. “Kitchen.” Gabrielle said informatively, grabbing the brass handle and swinging the door back.
The room thus revealed was, of course, roughly the size of Karen’s entire apartment. She had expected no less. Neither was she surprised by the large centre table, the long reaches of beech worktop or the imposing Aga range in a cavernous fireplace at the further end. She was confronted by walls painted raging red, and mildly taken aback at the chaos: scattered plates, scattered food, spilt flour, errant pools of liquid, a faint but unmistakable burnt smell, the hapless waving of an open Aga door. The one absent ingredient was Gabrielle’s mother, who, in Karen’s opinion, had justifiably abandoned ship. Not so.
“Oh f***! Bloody f***ing f*** and bugger! Gabs, is that you?” The voice, in a falsetto of panic, came from behind the table.
“Thank christ! Come and help me, would you?” The figure of a woman, disarranged in every way, rose into view. Wild-eyes took in Karen, and said profoundly: “Oh, bollocks. Is this…?”
“Mother dear, this is Karen.” Gabrielle gave Karen’s arm a quick squeeze, then rushed to her mother’s aid. “Oh, Mumsy, I told you not to attempt it!”
In a moment of some poignancy, mother and daughter stood side by side, staring down. Mother smiled bravely. “I could slide something underneath, don’t you think?”
She came to greet Karen, wiping hands rich in ingredients. “Hello, Karen. How nice to meet you! You must forgive my language, but as you see, I’m cooking.”
Gwendoline Hallcroft, Karen would quickly learn, was the sort of woman who threw herself body and soul into every undertaking. Brown hair, just on the edge of auburn, flecked with flour and possibly several specks of egg yolk, fell in disorder to her shoulders. Framing a facethat was probably beautiful, with awestruck eyes set beneath thin, arching eyebrows so fine they seemed almost white. A refined nose twitched with her smile; the big, all-consuming smile of a mouth that was wide and sensual. Her pinafore, which in better days had advertised Paignton Zoo, disguised a combination of green sweater and jeans. She was large, inelegant in stature, a big boned woman; but she exuded honesty and Karen took to her at once.
“Christ, what must you think of me? I cuss like a bloody sailor, I’m afraid. Do make yourself at home, Karen dear, while I prepare dinner. Gabs, take Karen to see the horses.”
“Well, there. You’ve experienced all of us now, Karen.” Gabrielle said as she led the way out of the back door of the kitchen on their way to the stables. “Except Sprog, of course.”
“Yes. Didn’t Patsy tell you? Sprog – our little sister Amanda – is pajama-partying with a school friend.” Gabrielle wrinkled her nose in mock distaste. “She won’t be missed.”
“Shouldn’t I help out in the kitchen? Your mum seemed a little…”
Gabrielle laughed. “Overwhelmed? Yes, she is, totally. It’s alright, though. Mrs. Beatty will be in soon.”
“Of course. You didn’t think we looked after this ghastly heap all by ourselves, did you? We have the two ‘B’s. Mrs. Beatty and Mrs. Buxham keep us in order – and sane. Mrs. Beatty does the cooking. She’ll clear all that up and have a meal ready within the hour. Marvellous woman – I don’t know how she does it! Oh lord, do you realise I only met you three hours ago? I feel as though I’ve known you all my life! I do hope we’ll be friends, Karen, I really do!”
© 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