Cathedral Close

It is eight o’clock.  From the great Gothic mass of the cathedral a tintinnabulation of bells proclaims the hour.

Skies of grey:  footsteps echo on the cobbles of the Close, and birch trees that line Cathedral Green’s flat acres of grass drip solemnly, the rain’s history whispered among their leaves. The shower has passed, they say.   Yes, but autumn remains.

The Close is wide, a mediaeval thoroughfare of heraldic grandeur beside Cathedral Green.  Birches stand like a guard of honor along one side, while little crooked shops built of tortured black timbers and white stucco bark and snap at the cathedral’s towering presence from the other.  They ogle passers-by through bottle-glass windows, do these emporia, their opened doorways lined with racks of postcards and souvenirs.  But a chill breeze plays in the alleys, and damp hangs pungently on the air.  There are few abroad today who might yield to such temptations.

I for one am in no mood to be tempted.  I walk this path each day on my way to work, and work, with the changes the last few years have wrought, is no longer the pleasure it once was.  I am a carver.  There was a time, not so long ago, when I took pride in my craftsmanship, when I was judged by the beauty of the finished piece, the quality and integrity of my art.  But this is no longer so.   Now, my day is punctuated by my manager’s repeated insistence that I finish faster, do more, simplify those details that require precious time.  Soon there will be no space for my art upon the wood; the furniture my Company makes will be faceless and bland, thrust into the world by jigs and machines that concede not a second to beauty.  Last week my lifetime’s occupation was threatened by a letter.  My ‘productivity’ was questioned.  My work rate must be ‘improved’.

This morning my wife, Renee, added her voice to the critical accord by telling me I am too timid – I should leave the Company, set up on my own.  I try to make her understand that it is not that simple, that I have no money to begin such an enterprise.  She calls me spineless.  With no bonuses to spend I know the privations of our poor condition hurt her terribly, and I understand why she strikes out.  But I hurt.  Deep inside me I hurt, and I do earnestly long for change.

There are others, though few, braving the weather this morning.  Amongst them one man stands out.  Marching towards me he is tall, with a determined stride and heavy hikers’ shoes which snatch at the cobbles.  He wears a blue jacket slightly darkened by the rain and on his back, beating against him with each step, is a red rucksack so well filled a lesser man might be borne down by its weight, but not he.   His lightly–bearded chin juts forward, his bright blue eyes stare past me undimmed by the chill, and his wide mouth is drawn back in determination.  He walks rapidly, closing the distance between us in seconds, and his very presence offends me, forcing the bitter gall of my own inadequacy up into my throat.

I am angry.  For a few delusional moments this man becomes the epitome of all I envy, all I hate; his commitment, his focused intent, his strength.  He is all that I am not and I see it in his eyes.  He knows my weakness.

Deliberately – I do it deliberately.  I step a little to one side, setting myself in this man’s path.  As we pass, I lean in.  My shoulder buffets his; his rucksack swings aside and I know the jolt must have hurt his arm at least as much as it hurt mine.   Instantly I am consumed with guilt.  My anger is vented and sorrow, apprehension, even fear take its place.  For me the encounter is over but somehow I feel his eyes on my back, demanding that I turn.

So I do.

I look around to find he has stopped.   He is looking at me with a challenge in his eyes.  I mutter an apology but he shakes his head.  The word is not enough, the offence was too calculated, too severe to be allowed to pass.  He has started walking back in my direction, his eyes never leaving mine.

Two paces away he stops to face me, and this time his expression is questioning: is this the fight I wanted?  Is this the expiation I seek?  Frightened now, for I am not a fighter by nature, I glance around in hope of escape but he moves as my eyes move, stepping before my gaze, his body wound up like a spring, his hands half-raised and spread in an unspoken invitation.

“Sorry – I’m sorry.”  I repeat those meaningless words.  Really, my mind is travelling:  why am I here?  How have I got myself into this position, a poor, frustrated loser on a cold autumn morning, marching forward into nothing when I know – my very soul knows – the time for change has come.  I could, I should take Renee’s advice.  I should make my living by carving and selling my own work, I should take her away from this.

Yet here I am, and in a minute or less I am going to get floored by this powerful, righteous figure of a man who I challenged for no reason other than my own pain.

I move to resume my journey but he steps before me, cuts me off.  As I turn to retreat, he blocks me again.  Unspeaking, yet unyielding, he is too formidable for my defeated mind.  In the final humiliation that must visit all who are as cowardly as I, I drop my shoulders, feeling the tears come.   He nods, stepping towards me, that final pace.  I cringe from him, I am shaking.

But then he smiles.  He smiles and with one gentle hand he reaches out to me, gesturing with the other that I am free to pass.  Stepping aside, he takes my elbow to guide me that first step or two; then he is gone.

Renee’s face is smiling, staring down at me, and there are tears on her cheek, too.

A quiet male voice says:  “He’s back.”

Renee nods, acknowledges the voice with a sob.  Her hand finds my arm and strokes it softly.  “Thank God!”  She murmurs.

There are white walls, clacking heels; there are girls in nursing blue and the steady beep of a machine.  Tubes spring from my flesh in a dozen different directions.  The owner of the quiet male voice comes into view.  He is dark-haired, with frank brown eyes, and he seems too impossibly young to support the lab. coat he wears.

“You’ve had a cardiac arrest, Mr. Frobisher.  We thought we were going to lose you for a while.”

I feel a salt splash as Renee bends to kiss my forehead, saying:  “We have to leave you now, so you can rest.  You’re safe now.  What would I do if I lost you, my darling?”

The faces leave, the screens are drawn.  Alone, with only the beeping machine for company, I have time to think; and in that blessed peace at last I understand.

For a while I was, truly, lost.  I have been allowed back, given a second chance, but on one condition – that my life will have to change.   The bearded man who had seemed a complete stranger is no stranger to me now, though I have been more accustomed to imagine him dressed in black.

One day I will meet him again; and next time, I will know his name.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  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.

Featured Image: Chris Santilli from Unsplash

Continuum – Episode Four Altered Circumstances

 

The story so far:

Alanee’s transportation in the aerotran has reached a conclusion.  She faces the immediate prospect of landing she knows not where.  Dag, her pilot, although kind and understanding, can offer no information about her future.

Alanee stirs blearily back to wakefulness, admitting to herself that the stresses of the day must have told upon her.  Far from refreshed by slumber, she feels exhausted.

The eyes in the mirror watch her:  “Now there’s a real morning person!”  Dag says.

The aerotran’s engines are different, they run in surges of sound.  Alanee feels that they are descending but by stages, as though dropping over a series of downward sills.  Dag is talking to someone on a communicator, being given instructions, she thinks.  Below the window and rushing past there is a bright tapestry, an almost distinguishable pattern although she cannot discern details; houses, maybe: or larger buildings – factories or offices.  Then suddenly all this is lost in darkness, and the sound of the engines is an echo, while the aerotran tracks a line of red lights which pass beneath it one by one.  It is difficult to guess its speed, but the nose is up and in another second there is light ahead, bright blue light that grows from distant dot to shining arc.  Almost immediately the aerotran is in the midst of that light, and forward motion has ceased.

“There we go!”  Dag says cheerfully.  “We’ve arrived!”

Arrived where?  From the window, Alanee sees only a solid grey wall.

“We’re on a lift-deck.”  Her young pilot explains.  “It’s a sort of elevator.  You are bound for…”  He glances at his console “….My, level five!  You must be quite important!”

Dumbstruck, Alanee stares at the grim, uncompromising wall as the aerotran ascends.  For a brief while she actually entertains an idea of diving back into the rest-place and locking herself inside.  Within this aerotran, this womb, within the care of the gentle Dag with his soft, deep voice she has gained solace to such a degree she now fears what may happen when she steps outside it:  after all, she has only the pilot’s opinion that she is not to face some form of punishment for being who she is. What if he is wrong?

Dag explains:  “The docks are all inside the hill.  The place they serve is built on the plateau above. So the lift-deck is taking us up to it.  We’re just about there now.”

As if at his prompting, a black number ‘one’ scribed on the wall slips into Alanee’s view, then passes beneath them, swiftly followed by numbers in sequence.  At ‘five’ the lift-deck’s upward motion stops.  There is a sensation of moving rearwards, a sudden emerge from entombment into soft ambiance.  She finds herself looking at a chamber as large, though more sumptuous by far than the ‘best room’ of her own house, with foam-carpeted floor, couches upholstered in red satin, a table and flowers.

A wood-panelled door on the further side of this space opens.  A woman of near her own age or a little older steps into view, a woman whose poise and elegance takes her breath away.

“Time for us to part,” Dag rises easily from his cockpit seat.  “Alanee-mer, can I say it has been a privilege to have met you?”

He is tall, so very, very tall.  She feels intense regret.  “Shall I not see you again?”  She asks.

He shrugs.  “If you need a pilot you might get me.  You might even ask for me.  If I am available I’m sure I would be permitted to fly you.”

Wondering at these words (why would she need a pilot?) Alanee nonetheless has presence of mind to say:  “You may be sure I shall.  Dag-meh, would you take your helmet off for me?”

Dag’s eyes give that smile again.  He removes the golden dome that has concealed his face, and what she sees makes Alanee’s heart shine.  Yes, she will remember this man.

“Thank you, Dag-meh, for looking after me.”  She leans forward on an impulse to kiss his cheek.

Dag slides back the door and the aerotran depressurizes noisily.  “Thank you for being such an unusually lovely passenger.  Be lucky, Alanee-mer.”

With reluctance Alanee steps out of the aerotran, leaving Dag behind in the cocoon that has been her sanctuary for a few precious hours.  Her feet are greeted by the soft warmth of deep carpet, and there is a scent of roses.  What sort of a world is she entering?

“You find all this awfully confusing, don’t you?”  The woman, a slender, dark-haired creature with large green eyes and the bronze pallor of a Mansuvine, a race of seafaring people from Eastern Oceana,  steps forward to greet her.  Her resplendent gold and burgundy tunic drapes over her body so perfectly it must surely have been made especially for her, and she moves languidly within it as only one with the absolute confidence of privilege can move.  The ring upon her finger bears a large emerald that speaks of wealth, yet her smile is open, her greeting sincere. She clasps Alanee’s hands in hers.

“Come!  You are Alanee, are you not; from Balkinvel on the Hakaan?  Is it very hot there at this time of year?  My name is Sala, Alanee my dear.  We are to be companions, you and I.”

Alanee does not answer, fearing any reply she makes to that kindly smile will reduce her to tears.  Behind her, the aerotran has slipped quietly away, taking Dag and her last contact with any part of a world she knows with it.  Sala understands at once.

“You must be so tired!  Come, we can talk tomorrow.”

She leads Alanee through that paneled door into a brightly lit passage lined by graphics of aerotrans along each wall; then beyond that to join a wide, green-carpeted walkway with high walls of waxen cream bathed by concealed, gentle light.  They are amongst people now, some introspective and hurried, some entering or leaving doors of richly polished wood which are the only features of this thoroughfare, others idling or talking among themselves, men and women in equal measure.  Sala exchanges casual greetings with some as they pass.

“Good even, Sala-mer!”

“Greet-you, Fra Perris.”

Alanee is used to walking amongst Hakaani, but there are all races here, light-framed, bird-like Oceanics, swarthy Braillecci, taciturn Proteians, dark mysterious Mansuvene.  All, or nearly all, are richly dressed, and many wear Sala’s colour scheme of burgundy and gold.  The exceptions, dressed in fatigues of grey drab, seem subservient and rarely speak other than among themselves.  Alanee, feeling shoddily-dressed and unkempt, aligns herself with the grey ‘drabs’.

They walk a long way for weary legs, passing row after row of doors and arches for the most part in silence because Alanee is intimidated by Sala’s splendour, and overwhelmed by the sheer size and scale of this place.  She has simply never imagined anything like it could exist.  What is waiting for her at the end of this walk?

“Where are we?  What is this place?”  She ventures at last.

“Oh Habmena!  Of course, they haven’t told you!  They couldn’t.  No-one may speak the name of the City outside its walls.  Such a stupid conceit!”  Sala chuckles sympathetically.  “My dear, this is the Consensual City, the seat of the High Council!  Not far now – see?  This is our door.”

At another anonymous doorway (Alanee is sure they must have passed a hundred), Sala touches a circular plate that exactly matches the size of her hand.  The door opens instantly, sliding back into a recess in the wall.

“Come!  You’ll be able to rest now, I promise.”

They enter a lobby area about ten feet square, impersonally decorated and furnished with full-length closets, a small table.  To their left a further door stands open, and beyond it a large room sumptuous in the extreme, high-ceilinged, its three inner walls hung with brightly-coloured tapestries and silks.    The fourth wall is wholly dominated by a vast, undraped window overlooking a courtyard some sixty feet below, and faces the front elevation of a great building which, lit by blue iridescence, seems to float in the darkness.

“Don’t be concerned,”  Sala reassures;  “It is one-way glass.  You can see out, but…”

Alanee feels her feet cosseted by thick floor-foam and her weary limbs tempted by long, low couches of soft hide.  A central table, edged by an ebony rail, is a fish tank filled with illuminated blue liquid.  Brightly colored Dap fish swim in the soft light that precisely reflects that of the stately mansion across the courtyard.   Alanee is dumbstruck at such opulence.   All this:  is this how people live in the Consensual City?

“This must belong to someone very important!”

Laughing, Sala acknowledges:  “Yes, I suppose one would think that.”  Then quickly sees how Alanee is overcome.  “Let me show you somewhere you can sleep.”

By another door then, to a bedroom, or at least a room with a bed, which by now is all Alanee can or would wish to see.  She is too tired to take in any more of her surroundings.  It is a wide bed – very wide – and comfortable enough: Sala leaves her to stretch upon it with the briefest of instructions:  “There’s a summoner” (a touch-panel on the wall) “if you need anything.  Call me on it tomorrow, when you’re ready.  There is no rush.  And that…”  She points to a pen-sized object which lies on a table beside the bed; “Is a homer.  If you go out exploring and are lost, activate this and it will guide you back here.  The door will know you, so never worry about getting locked out.  Sleep well and long, my dear.”

“I may go outside?”

“Of course; if your legs will carry you.  But first you should sleep, Alanee-mer.  You look completely worn out!”

So Alanee sleeps. And deep in dreams she is flying once more with Dag strong and safe at her side.  Below is the sun-mist on the Hakaan, and the plains stretch away on every side forever.  Together with the wild birds they swoop, hover, turn, climb and dive, companions upon the long, long journey into the mountains of morning.

When she opens her eyes again there is music somewhere, honey-sweet music.  Though she has slept fully clothed she cannot recall a time when sleep has been sweeter, or when she has felt more refreshed.  Poised on the edge of slumber she almost believes everything was a dream, that she will find herself back home again and making ready for work, in her own village, among the people she has known since she was born.

But no.

The air is sweet and vital.  She has woken in a bedroom with no windows to an outer world, that is yet filled with mellow daylight:  the décor that surrounds her is intensely feminine; smooth curves of furniture, tints of apple and white.  Her feet find soft rugs, that same deep floor-foam.  She is shocked that the rest-place, beyond an elliptical arch, is otherwise unprotected by any door – what if someone should see? She uses it quickly, shy of discovery; but then spies the pressure bath with its scents and toiletries, whereupon she reasons with herself that people rich enough to own a bedroom like this would not be so crass as to spy upon her, would they?  So she bathes for almost an hour, much longer than she intends, seduced by that unobtrusive music, drifting close to sleep.

At last she must rise from the water, throw a robe about her and venture out.  She puts a head shyly around the bedroom door: “Greet you?”

No-one answers.  She is alone.  Assuming her host must be otherwise employed, she slips hesitantly from the bedroom into the living area’s sumptuous space.    Here she must pause, losing all sense of herself, for the view through that transparent wall is beyond believing.  The mansion which was bathed last night in phantom blue is, by the light of day, an ornate building of great and blackened age with doors and walkways between forests of pillars at its lowest level. Two further storeys are punctuated by high, arched windows, balconies and statues of dignified pedagogues who pose in alcoves, impervious to the snow.  One of these (she cannot tear her eyes away) glares censoriously back at her, as though she was his reluctant pupil.  He carries a book beneath his arm and where his fingers clasp around it huddles a bird, tiny and forlorn, sheltering from the winter chill.  Alanee’s heart goes out to this little creature.  For all her uncertainty about her own future, his is no more certain.

Courtyard and walkways are busy with hurrying figures, clad in the same dark red robes so much in evidence last night.  Although Alanee can see that greetings are being exchanged no-one dallies, everyone has a purpose.  They move with an air of business to be done, importance, almost arrogance.

She has heard of The City, of course.  Throughout her growing up it has been the stuff of legend and in her dreaming it has always featured as a faery castle somewhere on high, frozen in a land of ice.

“It is a city where the sun never shines, Alanee–tes!”  Her mother had said.  “There live the Wise Ones who rule us, and keep us from harm.”

“Can we go there, Mummy?”

“No.  Neither you nor I will ever see it.  Few people even know exactly where it is, it is so closely guarded.  Those who dwell there are apart from us.  Their emissaries visit us from time to time, and you may see one.  That is as close as you can hope to get.” 

Oh mother, remember your daughter?  I am here!  I am inside the Consensual City! 

When Alanee has had her fill of the ancient building’s glory there are more discoveries to be made: across the living space and through a portal at its further end she discovers another rest-place (this time dignified by a door) and opposite, joy of joys, a kitchen!  But such a kitchen!  Gleaming cabinets, basins and faucets, spicers and mixers all in matching metal, all spotlessly kept.  The opulence of this alone should sap her credulity, were it not for a single touch: neatly set out on a counter adjacent to the hot plate are a tube of tsakal leaf crystals, a drinks-maker, and a mug.  Next to these, a packet of xuss mix is propped against a pat of Hakaani sil butter.

At first she does not consider this too deeply, beyond gratitude for Sala’s thoughtfulness in providing her favourite breakfast.  But after baking a pancake, idling as her tsakal brews Alanee begins to wonder.  Her morning meal is not typical of all Hakaanis:  these provisions cannot have been selected by accident or good fortune; does Sala perhaps share her taste, or is that too great a stretch of coincidence?  And where in this lavishly appointed space is the chill room, or a slot that might accept a Mak-card?  That or any other sign of the world she has left?

Plate in hand she completes her exploration by returning to the lobby, where the small bag of her possessions that she packed so hurriedly the previous afternoon sits as she left it.  Unaccountably, the sight of it makes her burst into tears.

“You haven’t unpacked.”  The apartment door hisses and Sala enters, responding to Alanee’s call on the summoner.  Alanee expects her to be dressed differently but no, she still wears the same coloured tunic.

“I didn’t think it worthwhile,”  Alanee responds.  “Not until I know where I’m going to end up, at least.”

Sala’s laugh is musical, as much a delight as her speaking voice.  “Oh, come; don’t be so tragic!  There are drinks in this cabinet, have you found them yet?”    A disguised cupboard in a side unit opens.  Arrays of glasses and decanters wait inside.

“I’ve just had tsakal!”  Alanee protests.

“Not tsakal.  I mean drinks.  Try one of these.”  Sala pours two measures of a yellow liquid.  “Come, we have nothing to do today, either of us.  And I’m here to answer your questions.”

She sits opposite Alanee, surveying her approvingly.  “Isn’t it so refreshing to see someone dressed differently?  (Alanee has donned clothes from her bag;  a tabard, calf-laced sandals, a bangle she likes)  Have you ever considered laskali at all, my dear?”

“What is laskali?”

Sala smiles.  It is more than a smile; it is at once mysterious and a confidence, an intimation of friendship.  “No matter.  You will find out in time.  Now, questions!”

The sweet and instantly warming drink dispels some of that latent dread, even inspiring a certain bravado.

“All right.  I was tired yesterday and very frightened.  Now I’ve recovered, where am I to be taken?”

“Alanee-mer, I’m sure I told you!  Maybe you were too overcome to listen.  You are going nowhere.”

“Nowhere?”  The word’s sinister implications  bring an onset of trembling.

“My dear, dear Alanee, you have nothing to fear.”

“I fear a lack of answers…”

Sala bites her lip and nods.  “I tend to be indirect, sometimes.  I admit I like the drama.  It is, shall we say, to my taste?  I am being obtuse.  Console yourself, Alanee-mer, you are not here to be punished, at least as far as I know.  This is your new home.  This is your apartment.”

Alanee is incredulous.  “I stay – here?”

“Indeed.  Make it your own.  There are merchants, traders, vendors who will supply you with any little favours you like.  Re-furbish it completely if you wish, within your means of course.”

“But I have no means?  At home, at my village I had work: I have nothing here unless there is work for me.  Am I to work here?  What would they have me do?”

“Tomorrow you will learn more.  I cannot tell you I’m afraid, that is not for me to discuss.  You will have means, Alanee-mer.”

Alanee has the feeling of being surrounded by doors:  each time she opens one, she discovers two more inside.  “Why me?  Why have I been selected to do this – this work?”

“Nor can I answer that question.  I simply do not know.”  Sala sees the despondency return to Alanee’s face. She stretches forth a cool hand to cover Alanee’s own. “Let me see, what can I tell you?  Well, Alanee-mer, you must have been brought here for a reason.  Rarely are new people brought to the Consensual City.  Those who are usually come in grey drabs (that is the uniform of the court servants); only a very few are accorded the robe.”

“The robe?”

“The robe of court, like mine.  You will be a member of the Sanctum.  Your work will take you within the Palace, I understand, so you must wear one.”

“What Palace?”

Sala waves airily at the window.  “Over there.  That is the Palace.”

Alanee follows her gesture, to be transfixed by the sightless eyes of the stone pedagogue, whose scornful expression withers her inside.  She feels instant dread.  What could she possibly offer within those walls?

The little bird has gone.

© 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.

Picture Credit:  Aaron Munoz on Unsplash

 

Hallbury Summer –Episode Six                     The Road to Maddock Gate  

The story so far:

 

Joseph has admitted to his relationship with Marian, the wealthy married businesswoman by whose patronage he managed to survive through most of his years in London.  Yet, to his aunt and uncle, his explanation for leaving her seems unconvincing, and too much interrogation sends him on a walk through Wednesday Common, from where he can view the outside of the farm where Violet Parkin was murdered.  He meets his former girlfriend Emma there.  She warns him not to discuss their past relationship with her husband, Tom, once Joe’s best friend.

Joe is helping his uncle at home in his garden when his aunt announces that the police have arrived…

Owen Masefield could hardly have failed to notice his nephew’s reluctance as they joined the uniformed constable who stood in their front room, gazing out through the french windows at Julia’s summer garden.  He was a young man with bright, eager eyes and a narrow, slightly pallid face.  His domed helmet sat on the chaise longue like an obedient pet, waiting for him to sit beside it.  He immediately picked up on Joseph’s misgivings, though Joseph had thought to disguise them.

“Am I keeping you from something, sir?”  Joseph shook his head dumbly.

“Joe hasn’t been well,” Aunt Julia explained.

The constable studied Joseph for a moment before he went on; “We’re asking everyone in the village if they saw or heard something which might help us with our investigation into a suspicious death.  This was on Friday.  About four o’clock in the afternoon it would have been.”

No, Joe’s aunt and uncle declared, they hadn’t.  And the other routine questions the young constable asked received similar negatives.  He jotted down their answers in his notebook.  It seemed, he admitted when he had completed his list, that no-one saw and no-one heard.

“Mrs Parkin must have struggled – she did struggle.  There would have been some noise.”  The constable’s eyes kept returning to Joseph.  “You weren’t here, though, were you sir?   You didn’t get into the village until when?”

“About five o’clock.  I caught the four-forty-five bus from Friscombe.”

“An hour later.  Come down from London?”

“Yes.”

“What train?”

Joseph filled in the details for the constable, who dutifully recorded them all in his notebook.  He thanked everybody for their co-operation, made complimentary remarks about Julia’s garden, and left, wandering down the front path towards the road.  Joseph caught up with him.

“I wonder, officer, can you tell me?  How did she actually die?”

The young man frowned.  “Now why would we want to know that, sir?”

“There are wild rumours.  I had a bit of respect for the old lady, and I know some of her relatives.  It would be better to know the truth.”

The constable subjected Joseph to puzzled scrutiny.  “Well, I can’t tell you everything, but I can say whoever killed her must have really wanted to hurt her.”

“He must have been strong, too.”  Joseph prompted.

“He?  How do you mean?”

“The thing with the pitchforks?  It can’t be easy to drive one of those so deep into wood?  Oh, come on, sergeant, it’s all over the village!  Or is that just embroidery?”

Joseph could not tell whether his deliberate promotion of the policeman’s rank flattered him, or not.  The young man certainly made no effort to correct him.

“No, it’s not embroidery.  But it would be easier if the pitchforks were specially sharpened, wouldn’t it now?”  The policeman shook his head.  “I think I’ve said enough, if you don’t mind.”

He turned away.  Joseph called after him, without knowing why:  “If I can be any help?”

And the policeman replied, over his shoulder:  “But Mrs Parkin passed away before you arrived, sir – didn’t she?  Anyhow, I’m sure we’ll be in touch.”

The next morning Joseph confirmed his brother Michael’s whereabouts from Julia and announced his intention to pay him a visit.  Michael spent his days in a care home a little less than thirty miles distant, near Maddockgate village, a tiny hamlet on the road to Marsden-on-Sea.  The only drawback was rain, which began soon after Joseph alighted from his local ‘bus in Abbots Friscombe.  With half an hour to kill before the ‘bus to the coast arrived, he sought shelter in a café on the village square.  A short woman in a floral apron and flat shoes shuffled between her five deserted tables.

“What can I get you, dear?  Got some nice tea-cakes.”

Joseph ordered coffee.  The woman shuffled away.

Condensation ran down the window-glass.  Outside, the rain was becoming heavier, inducing shouts of panic from passing perms, the clack of running feet.  Traffic on the square splashed past, black and half-seen through runnels of moisture.  The café door burst open.

“Oh my lord, Bella!  It’s just pissin’ down out there!”

Bella was making Joseph’s coffee.  “Manners now, Mary.  We got comp’ny!”

“Oops, sorry!”  The new arrival, a woman in early middle age, encompassed Joseph in an unseeing glance; then she looked again.  “Good lord!  Joey?  Joey Palliser?  What are you doin’ ‘ere?”

Joseph smiled bleakly:  “Everyone asks me that.”

“It is a surprise, you’ll admit: ‘specially after…”  Setting Bella about the task of brewing a pot of tea, Mary came to his table, resting a suggestive hand on the opposite chair to Joseph.  “Mind?”

“No.  No, of course not.”

“Well, we got to catch up, haven’t we?  Why you come back?  You reckon ‘tis all forgotten now, then?”

“Clearly not,”  Joseph muttered.  Mary Harkus certainly wouldn’t have forgotten.  Tom Peterkin once referred to her, kindly, as ‘The Voice of the Community’.  It was a title she fully justified.  Her small grey eyes fixed steadily on his, rain dripping slowly from her blunt features onto the bare wooden table.  “It’s been more than ten years, Mary.”

Bella brought their drinks.

“Folks don’t forget Joey,”  Mary poured some milk from a small creamer into her cup, topped it up with tea.  “No, they got long memories, dear.”  She spooned three sugars.  “What’s our Charker got to say?  Have you met ‘un yet?”

“I’ve met him.”

“Ah, well….”  This, laden with emphasis:  “He don’t forget his brother.  Often talks ‘bout him, he does.”

Joseph nodded curtly.  “I’m sure he does.”  There was no other recourse than to leave, his coffee untouched.  He paid Bella, ignoring her sotto voce:  “What did you expect?” and resigned himself to the rain.  As he closed the café door, Mary Harkus called after him.

“You watch out for our Charker, mind, Joe Palliser.  You watch out, now!”

 

True to the country tradition, the ‘bus was late and grew later with every mile as it picked its way north to Maddockgate.  It was fairly well filled, in spite of the weather: optimistic trippers with hopeful smiles and determined expressions:

“It’ll clear up later.”

“Just a shower.”

Joseph settled into a corner, watching through the fog of spray and steam as the world went past.  How foolish he had been to even consider returning here!   Of course they would remember – he could never forget, how should they?  And it was this road, and in a minute it would be the precise place…

Rodney Smith – as lean as his brother was fat, as clever as his brother was slow-witted, with a long, hooked nose, and Dickensian pomposity:  imbued with a swift, sarcastic tongue.  The Smith family took pride in his intelligence, his diligence, his certainty of success – but to Joey Rodney Smith was a relentless tormentor.  To Rodney, Joe was a target for humiliation; a hapless, worthless adversary who seemed a little slow, a little shy.

“You, Joe Palliser?  You won’t ever amount to anything!”

Whenever Joseph voiced an ambition that taunt sapped his confidence, drawing spikes of laughter from all about him and snapping shut like an iron maiden on the meagre flesh of his self-esteem.  It followed him through school, this malignancy, and into adulthood.  Wherever Joseph was, whoever he was with, Rodney would always be somewhere near.  Talking with girls:

“Now there’s a surprise!  Are you turning straight, Joey?”

Rodney excelled at sports.  Not just one, but any sport.  He scored goals, he ran like a cheetah, his tennis game was accurate and vicious.  Whenever teams were selected, Rodney was always the first to be picked.  Even then, the barb:  “If I play for you, you have to promise not to pick Joe Palliser.  I want us to win.”

Once, reduced very nearly to tears, Joseph grabbed Rodney’s hard-muscled arm.  “Why do you keep doing this to me?  What did I ever do to you?”

“Do to me?  Whatever makes you think you could do anything to me?  I just don’t like you, Palliser.  You’re a worm.  You belong in the soil where I can tread on you.  I enjoy it!”

Joseph would have succumbed completely, were it not for Sarah.  She nick-named Rodney Smith ‘Achilles’. It irritated him visibly, the more so because Sarah was as widely admired by the girls’ half of the school as he.  Finally, he was driven to ask her:

“Why Achilles?”

“Too much muscle and too much pride – and because you’ve got a heel, mate.  You’ve got a heel.”

Nobody knew what Sarah saw in Joseph Palliser, least of all Joseph himself.  One morning when Rodney, who constantly attempted to add her to his list of trophies, put that question, she smiled at him kindly.

“He’s all the things you’re not, Achilles dear.  One day you’ll find out.”

Sarah had departed for London and her new life long before that day came.  Joseph had begun working for a firm of solicitors in Braunston, with the hope of eventually taking articles.  His employer, an amiable old solicitor called Carnaby, bore his immaturity with resigned patience as he coaxed the best from this spotty-fleshed youth with his large, soft eyes and downcast look.

By then Tom Peterkin was Joseph’s closest friend.  Tom was a mechanic by nature and birth, performing little tasks in his father’s garage from an age when Victorian pauper children would have been too young to climb chimneys, only happy if he was oily fingered and greasy-faced, attacking an obscure nut or a recalcitrant bearing.   So when in the summer of fifty-nine Joseph bought an old Ford Pilot car, he provided a catalyst for them both.

Tom’s grin split from ear to ear.  “Now then!”  He said ecstatically:  “What can’t we do with that?”

Thereafter, car modification filled their weekends:  Tom’s Sunbeam in one corner of his father’s workshop, Joe’s Pilot in the other.  Tom wanted a ‘rod’, a highly modified, brightly painted street car, while Joseph, typically for him, craved anonymity and disguise.  As Tom’s car gradually mutated into a squat, barrel-tyred, garishly painted speed machine, Joseph’s underwent far more subtle changes.  Under the senior Peterkin’s tutelage Joe transformed his Pilot’s eight cylinders, subtly widened its road wheels and replaced its suspension, all without any obvious alteration.  He revelled in secret pleasure, enjoying the efficiency of the machine he created:  an inward smirk, maybe – or another aspect of the tightly introverted person he had become?

All that changed one Saturday morning in February nineteen-sixty, when Joseph drove into the garage, to find Tom standing triumphantly amid a stack of boxes.

“All the way from America!”  He proclaimed proudly.  “Absolutely the fashion, this.  We got Nitro, boy!”

Nitrous oxide; laughing gas:  the dentists’ companion and the street racer’s fuel of choice.  A sleeping giant, in the disguise of one small cylinder, a few fittings and valves, all concealed from general view.  At the turn of a tap, a monstrous surge of raw power, which might turn the exhaust pipe into a cannon, overheat and destroy an engine in seconds if used unwisely – but what seconds!  Joseph was not immune to a boy’s addiction to speed.  Before a week had passed, his dignified old conveyance had developed a more sinister aspect.

Joseph was proud of his driving skills and his car was admired by the local girls, not for its undiscovered pace – it retained its innocent outward appearance – but for the sheer shiny care he lavished upon it.  He enjoyed their attention.  It was not for him to acknowledge that his popularity was for all the wrong reasons: he was, in so many ways, a child still.  But he was no longer an outsider.

This did not escape the notice of Rodney Smith, whose new stamping ground was Braunston.  Rodney was bound for Cambridge that autumn, so why he could not simply put the Palliser boy behind him and move on, no-one could understand: yet Joseph remained the object of his jibes, a butt for much of his humour.  Palliser’s emergence, his seeds of success seemed to gall Rodney particularly; especially when one of his girlfriends enthused about the gleaming black Ford Pilot.

The ‘bus slowed down, dropping a grating gear for the winding descent towards Maddock’s Teirny.  A bend to the left…..no, not here:  not this one.  Very near, now though…

Joe had been alone, driving his favourite route into the hills.  He was so relaxed he did not see the sleek MG convertible that swept up the road behind him:  with a blare of twin air-horns it thrashed past, a brief snapshot of Rodney’s grinning face and an obscene gesture as he cut in viciously, sending Joe’s Ford careering out of control into the verge.

For a few seconds Joseph’s precious machine teetered at the brink of a ditch which would surely have sent it to its grave before he managed to stabilise it.   Receding into distance, Rodney Smith drove with his left arm resting across the top of his passenger seat, chuckling as his mirrors revealed the drama behind him.

Rodney drove fast, laughing as he rotated the joke in his head.  That stupid Palliser!  So pretentious, so impertinently neglectful of his station!   The boy was working class, and utterly naive.  It may have passed muster with the village tarts, but he, Rodney, was not convinced by a cheap old banger larded with polish.

At length the event ceased to amuse Rodney.  He began planning his first date with  Josephine, who he had promised to pick up from her Marsden home by half-past-ten.  There was a champagne picnic – a new concept even for him – in the car boot.  It promised to be a very special weekend indeed.

A raucous shout from a car-horn gave him a moment of alarm, which redoubled when he glanced in his mirror and saw the low bull nose of the Ford Pilot right behind him.  Through its windscreen he could pick out Joseph Palliser’s face, set in a grim smile.

So he wanted to compete, did he?  Good god, hadn’t the repeated humiliations, the thrashings at every game he played, the constant ridicule been enough?  Very well then!  With a calculated skill which typified everything he did, Rodney dropped a gear, put his foot to the floor.  The MG answered him willingly, and he allowed himself a leer of triumph as the old Ford fell back.  A right-hand bend at speed, a little tail-end drift, neatly controlled while the wind rushed through his chestnut hair – why didn’t he do this more often?

The Ford was still there.  Now it was drawing closer, its headlights set on full beam, its horn repeating that demanding yell.  All right, then, Joey Palliser – a bit more; is that what you want?  Again, Rodney decked the pedal: pounding along the straight towards the summit of Tierney Hill, watching Joe’s car drop back.  Then, a crackle like distant gunfire and all at once it became larger; very much larger.  There was a hard-edged whine from the pursuing car’s engine, a throaty bellow from its exhaust.

No-one would know at what precise point Rodney’s perception of Joseph Palliser changed from one of sneering contempt to acknowledgement of imminent threat.  Later, Joseph explained to the police how Rodney succeeded in negotiating the first three bends of the hill before the MG’s front tyres lost their grip.

“He was just going too fast – much too fast.  The speed when he overtook me…well!  Coming down the hill, I knew I was going to find he’d left the road somewhere…”

The bus slowed significantly now, sought out yet another gear.  This was it – this next bend.  Joseph could not resist scrubbing at his cloudy window as the bus heeled sharply left.  Still there, the gap in the hedge, after all these years, closed by chestnut hurdles.  Beyond it the field which dropped sharply away into the valley:  the field where Rodney Smith’s glittering future ended.

Joseph could not wipe away those memories.  Although there was nothing he could do, it was a high price to pay and the first time he had ever seen someone die.

The police did not even investigate Joe’s car.  After all, as he explained, he was well away from the accident when it happened.  There was no reason to believe he was anything other than a witness.  The Ford looked like quite an ordinary vehicle, so they never sought out the cylinder of nitro in the boot, or checked it to find it was nearly empty.

Joseph was free from suspicion.  He took care to remove all trace of gas injection from his car the same afternoon, replacing the old parts in the carburettors.  But rumours began to spread in Abbots Friscombe, tales of how Joey Palliser had forced young Rodney Smith into a duel, and by some devious trick or another Rodney had lost.  Some alleged Joe Palliser had run the innocent Rodney from the road; people who would have treated that suggestion with incredulity a week before, but such is the way of rumour:  it makes heroes or villains wherever its appetite takes it.

Tom Peterkin gave him the warning:  “The Smiths are after you, boy.  Charker’s sworn to get even.  I’d lie low if I was you.”

Tom, of course, knew more than anyone.  But he was a true ally:  he kept his peace.

But where, you might ask, did Joseph’s brother Ian feature in all this?  How often was he called upon to leap to Joseph’s defence through those lonely, harassed years?  Well, the answer is nowhere.  Ian, you see, counted himself one of Rodney Smith’s best friends.

© 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.