The Patient Sea

THe Patient Sea

Another ‘short’ from my archives, but a quite special one for me, for reasons I can’t expand upon here.  I hope you enjoy it.

The dusk had reached a late, frosted luminosity, as yet too bright to submit to the superiority of the car’s headlights.  A red line topped the western hills where the sun had been, a thin amber voile that misted from it faded upwards into deep blue.  Above the driver’s head the vault of sky he could not see was probably dark by now.  There were probably stars.  Was there a moon tonight?  He could not remember.

Ten more miles.

Davy knew his way too well; far, far too well.  He knew the last bend that parted the black mass of  woodland like a curtain.  Beyond, furniture of high buildings and a carpet of town lights, their crazed lines marching across one another to the blinking, blackening sea; and the sea quiescent beyond them, its patience infinite, waiting.  Far-off, a lighthouse thrust a spoke of brightness across the sky – a slowly rotating lance, its beam questing but finding nothing – nothing but clouds, white and ghostly, mildly put out at its disturbance of their privacy.

Oncoming cars, vans, lorries, flared past, a ceaseless procession; some blinding, some not.   There would be a turning soon.  A meeting of roads.

And a decision.

An hour ago he had driven from the airport knowing that he must arrive at this place, and now it was before him he could not suppress the eagerness in his heart.  Beneath a bridge the motorway; a glowing train of busy traffic beckoning, a magic carpet ride to hearts that welcomed him, love it was his place to accept.  Turn here, and in only a few hours his car wheels would crush the gravel of that familiar drive.  Love, food and rest:  he need only make that turn.  

And yet…

As if some other arms controlled the wheel – as if neither car nor mind were truly his – he did not turn.   The bridge guided him instead above the motorway, towards the town.

He knew his way here, too.  The wide main street, the sea road, San Bernardo Towers, the Cherrington Hotel standing gaunt upon its own headland, a little avenue with its attendant lines of beech trees, and in a line of cream-washed villas a cream-washed villa with a curving drive.  A door flung wide, arms flung wide.

“Davy!  Davy you darling!  What a surprise! How wonderful to see you!  My lord you look different, you do!  Have you grown?” 

Belle, big and laughing, her ursine hug so warm and sincere:  how often had she greeted him with these same glad tears?  Had he eaten, had he been away?   “There was one of those newsfeed things about you.  Were you really in Hollywood?  You’re quite the star, aren’t you?  You’ll stay for supper.  You will.”

“Thank you.  I was on my way home.  I just had to say hello, to remind you I was still alive.  I’m not really a star, you know.  Far from it.”  He added deferentially.

“But you’ll stay for supper?”

Through the front door with its Deco geometry, into the hall and familiar glow.  Parquet honey floor, walls half panelled in oak, half painted in Buckingham cream; stairs to a higher floor.  Davy raised his eyes.   “Do you still let the room?”

“You know, I think you were my last tenant!  It’s just a store-room now.  We inherited some money when Robert died.  I’m quite comfortable these days.  Do you want to see it?”

HIs fingers played upon the smooth polish of the banister rail.  “No.  I’ll rest content with the memory.   Look, I mustn’t keep you….”

“Don’t be silly!  I have pasta already prepared, and it’s Friday night, you know?   Una and Ros will be here any minute, I should think.”

Ah, he thought.  “You still have your Friday nights, then?”

He had expected, or hoped it would be so.  That was why he was here, was it not?  Or why he dreaded to be here?

The living room was still the same – chintz and comfort.  They ate pasta on their laps, talked with their mouths full.  Belle was effusive.  “You’ve changed so much, you know!  Filled out – and I don’t mean that unkindly.  I almost didn’t recognise you, Davy.”

“I was a student when I was here.  Students are always thin.”

The lean years.  The hours of practice in that little upstairs room.  The drama school with its impassioned principal, the desperate gathering of hopeless aspirants hanging on her every epigrammatic jewel.  How would he ever have risen from such beginnings were it not for Belinda’s father:  his contacts, his coaching?  It was often said of Davy’s profession that success was thirty percent talent, seventy percent luck.  Luck had come in the form of a party one Islington night, and the beguiling black eyes of Belinda.  Luck was a promise – she would be playing in her father’s production at the Haymarket and Davy could get the juvenile lead.  Then another promise.  They would marry in the spring.

Sated, Davy was only vaguely aware of the doorbell’s call.  Perhaps he was thinking of Belinda and how soon he would be with her.  Just two hours away she would be waiting, expecting him.  He would be late, and he knew the cruelty of his wilful neglect.  He needed to be cruel.

“You remember Davy, don’t you?”  Belle was urging Una forward, her hand in the small of the petite German frau’s back.   Davy smiled.  Yes, they had met once or twice.  Una; shy, quiet, burbled acknowledgement.   “And Ros?   You remember Davy?”

He smiled as a reflex.  He smiled to cover his pain, seeing his hurting mirrored in Rosalind’s eyes – a flicker, no more.  But her response was steady.  “It’s been a long time.”   She said.

“How are you?”

“Oh, quite well.”  

Belle’s smiling eyes flitted from Rosalind to Davy; as eyes might when following verbal combat.  Belle would have gossip to share later.

“Let’s have drinks.”  She suggested.

It was an evening of tales, of questions gently rebuffed, impertinences humorously countered, reminiscence and reflection.   Trivial Pursuit around Belle’s rosewood table and red wine to sip away the hours.  Davy, whose presence the older women found exotic, needed to do little to fulfil expectations other than be there, yet there was a wire about him, a tautness they might not expect.  Rosalind was quiet, almost withdrawn.  She spoke rarely.  Davy’s eyes kept finding her.  She avoided their gaze, although she could not mistake their meaning.

Time slipped by.  Twice Davy’s mobile phone vibrated in his pocket, twice he ignored it.  The women’s conversation washed around him, buoyed him up on its eddies and swirls, yet failed to disguise Rosalind’s icy silence. 

The clock in the hall struck ten.   “I should go.”  Rosalind said.  “I have to start early tomorrow.  I work Saturdays now, you know.”

Davy affected a sigh.  “Me too.  I promised I would be in Dorchester long before this.”

Belle was genuinely alarmed.  “Davy, you can’t!  You’ve been drinking, my dear.”

“Only a little.  I’ll take a turn on the Esplanade first, to freshen up.  Then I’ll come back for the car.  I won’t disturb you.”

“You dear boy!  I’ve found you, and all at once I’m losing you again!”

“I found you, remember?  And I will again. Thank you for tonight, Belle.”

The villa released Rosalind, and Davy beside her, from its grasp.  A chill October breeze came off the sea.

“I thought I might take a stroll along the Undercliff.”  Davy said.

“You know I go home that way.”  Rosalind said.

“Let’s walk together then.”

“Yes.”  She wore a long coat with a high collar that framed her face and tucked in below her chin. 

“You still live in Bardshire Crescent?”

“Yes.”

He complimented himself on his memory.  She struck out ahead of him, leaving him to watch the easy grace of her gait and listen to the rhythmic click of her heels on the paving.  “You needn’t follow.”  She murmured over her shoulder, as though she did not want him to hear.

“May I not, then?”

Her shrug was unconvincing.  “As you please.”

Where the avenue ended their road merged with a short, steep hill that led to the beach.  At the foot of the hill, no more than fifty yards away, stood the entrance to the pier, still alive, even in deepening winter, with the promise of light.  Stretching out like an accusing finger over the black water it dangled an invitation Davy was tempted to accept.   “Would you care for a walk on the pier?”

“It’s closed.  It’s winter, or haven’t you noticed?”

“Then why all the illumination?”

“I have no idea.  Maybe they just want to remind you there are some roads that have only one ending.”   

Rosalind’s stride was rapid.  Davy, struggling to keep up with her, had to remind himself of the distance, the mile that followed the margin of the sea – the black, black sea that slipped and muttered in the shadows, patiently waiting.  Around him, streetlights that had no street (for no vehicles might use this road), interminable rows of beach huts, the rise of cliff, and the glitter of hotels above it.   Distant streetwise youths boomed on accelerators, anxious sirens spoke of pursuit.  Above him the sky – the moonless sky.  

“At some point,”  She stopped so suddenly he almost fell into her.  Her tone was venomous. “You’re going to tell me our meeting like this was accidental.  You’re going to tell me you’d forgotten about Friday nights, aren’t you?”

Taken aback, Davy found himself leaning against the balustrade, and avoiding her challenge by staring out into the dark.  Far off, a navigation light blinked.  Further off, the beam of the lighthouse continued its unending swing.  “I’m not going to tell you that.”  He said.

“Then why, David? What are you doing here?  If you knew, or if you thought…”

“Maybe I didn’t think!”  He interrupted her.  “Maybe I had no idea what I was doing.   Maybe…”

“So you just roll up!  You just roll back the years as if nothing – nothing ever happened between you and this town; between…”

“Us?”

“Yes, us.”  Rosalind glared at him.  “My god, in the middle of a freezing night and leaning against that rail you still manage to look like a lounge lizard.  Didn’t I read somewhere about someone’s impending marriage?  Yours, if I’m not mistaken.  Why are you here?”

“Honestly?”  He said honestly.  “I don’t know.”

“Honestly!”  She said.  “Honesty to an actor is a word on a page.   I never did know when you were acting, or when you were serious.”

“Sometimes, I don’t know myself.”  He said humbly.  “Perils of the trade, I suppose.”  He asked suddenly:  “Are you with someone?”

Rosalind’s lips twisted into an edge of a smile.  “Am I in a relationship, do you mean?  No, I’m not.  Was our last thrash together the last time I went to bed with someone?  Again, no.  I’ve tried every conceivable way to forget that we ever happened, David.”

“Any success?”  She did not answer.  

Davy again turned his attention to the wavelets, tried to attune his thoughts to their gentle motion, but his heart was in turmoil.  “I had to see you.  Don’t force me to explain, I won’t have a reason.”

She sighed, relented because she could not sustain anger with Davy – never could.  She came to lean against the balustrade beside him.  “I’m cold.” She confessed.  Tentative, he reached his arm about her shoulders.  Instinctive, she leaned into him and her breath was close.  “We didn’t work together, Davy.  We were bad for each other.”

“Being bad once seemed so good, though.”

“Did it?”

He grasped her shoulders, anxious she should face him.  She did not resist.  With a gentle hand, he brushed her hair away from her forehead, and kissed her there, softly.  Her skin was cold to his lips.  “I’ve never forgotten.”  He said.

The tear she blinked away might have been induced by that sharp onshore breeze.  “Don’t.”  She told him, but her voice was irresolute and her lips were tilted towards his, offering.  He met them in a kiss flooded with memories, of times past, of happiness and wanting.  It was fulsome and sweet, it might have been deep.  But then he was clinging, suddenly desperate and she, alarmed, squirmed from his hold, thrusting him back.  “I said don’t.”

He turned away instantly, abashed.  “I’m sorry.  I have no right….”

“Who is she, David?  I mean, apart from the director’s daughter?   Who is she?  You’re engaged to her.  That’s what I heard.  And this is how I heard it!”  she snatched her mobile phone from her coat pocket, waving it in his face.  “On Facebook from bloody I-told-you-so Jennifer.  Very brief and concise, very, very sententious, and liberally illustrated with your publicity pics – you and whoever-she-is holding hands, you and whoever-she-is embracing…”

“Jennifer’s a bitch.”

Rosalind shook her head, sadly.  “No, Jennifer was right.  She warned me not to become involved.”

“But are you – involved?   I mean in any way…”

“Oh for Christ’s sake!  You know I am!  Isn’t that why you’re here?  Truthfully now, isn’t it?”

“Belinda.”  Davy told her.  “Her name is Belinda.”

“Belinda Halprin.  A great name, I suppose; with a daddy who can raise you up from that terrible little school and make you a leader of your profession.  The fulfilment of dreams!”  Rosalind took his hands in hers, closing around his long, delicate fingers.  “But oh, David, I know you so well!   You don’t love her, do you?  You didn’t think you needed to.  Seduction – such an easy thing for you.  You don’t have to try, hardly at all.”

“You’re wrong; you’re so wrong.”  In his passion his hand clenched with hers, emphasising each word.  “I wanted to go to Belinda, yet I had to – I had to – come to you.  I had to try and see you again.  I’ve never once stopped thinking about you, wondering how you were, if I should write to you or leave you alone.  Ros, darling, I don’t know what I can do.  I’m trapped.  I love her for everything I want to be, but I want you, because you are who I really am.”

“Well, that was easy.”  She said.

“How do you mean?”

“You love her, you want me.  No contest.  Love conquers all, darling, doesn’t it?  Forgive the cliché.”

Davy sighed.  “Honestly, I think it may be the other way around.”

“There’s that word again.”  Rosalind leant upon the rail at his side, sharing his view of the black horizon.  “Do you want me to be honest?  I have no script, you see – I’m not reading it from a page.  I love you, David.  I have never got over us.  I never will.   But until tonight that memory was a comfortable warm bed of embers;  and I can only forgive you for fanning it into flame once more because I see the little boy in you, and I think I can understand just how lost you are.  We could never be together, my love.   You may want your life back, but you’ve lost it irreparably, and I can’t help you.  It’s your problem – I hope you do love her, or if not, that you will learn to…”

“I could give it all up!”

“No, you couldn’t.  Or you shouldn’t; at least not for me.  It’s not my trap, David.”

She reached up, and her cool hand stroked his cheek.  “A pity.  A great, immense pity.  But I’m going to say goodbye now.   You walk that way, I’ll walk this.  And if you do ever return to my town, avoid Fridays, will you?”

He stayed for a while, watching the sea and the steady arc of the lighthouse beam.  When at last the sound of Rosalind’s heels had faded and the night was reduced to silence he turned towards the east once more, and as he retraced his steps he began to cry, freely.  With no-one to see him in the dark and tears streaming down his face he thought of her, and he wished for her, and he cried the more because he knew she was right.  Only as he neared the lights at the entrance to the pier did he attempt to wipe his face to respectability, regaining the confidence of stride his way of life had taught.

He arrived at the foot of that short rise that would lead him away from the seashore.  Here he stopped, as if transfixed; seeking to retrieve a terrible thought that had flashed through his mind then disappeared.  The hill to his left, the pier to his right.  A choice presented itself, one that was his alone to take.  A second decision.

With a deep intake of breath, Davy clambered over the barrier which guarded the way to the pier.

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Hallbury Summer – Episode Twenty-Three. Bonds of Blood

The story so far:

Humbled and saddened by Sophie’s rejection, Joe learns the truth about his last day with Marian and the reason for her death.  His inherited wealth will mean he can provide for his brother Michael’s care, wresting control from their elder sibling, Ian, who wants to keep them both out of sight, in case they damage his political ambitions.  Michael has absconded, and while  Joe does not fully understand his elder brother’s anxiety about this, he is determined to find Michael for his own reasons.   Joe fears Michael may be involved in Violet Parkin’s killing.  If he is, will he return to the scene of his crime?

Remembering Emma Peterkin’s information that Michael had spent time with villager and reputed witch Margaret Farrier quite often in his growing years, Joe decides to pay Margaret a visit…. 

“I want to ask you about witchcraft.”  Joe said.

Margaret Farrier raised an eyebrow.  “You’re remarkably direct, I’ll concede that.  Is this the approach you used on poor Janice?  If so, I’m not surprised you frightened her.  Now she is someone who doesn’t like you.”

“She’s changed so much since Teddy died.”

Margaret nodded curtly:  “People do.  The altered state.  We are never prepared.”

Joe felt there was hidden meaning behind those words.  He paused, wondering whether to pursue that particular tack, but decided against it.   “Maybe.  Anyhow, I don’t know any other way to ask.  It seems such an obvious question.”

“Let me see.  You do not believe that Jack Parkin did away with Violet, is that right?”

“Yes.”

“I agree with you.  You do believe her death had something to do with pagan ritual?”  Joe nodded.  “Well, you see there I cannot agree with you.”

A lull.  Margaret Farrier offered no further amplification, though Joe waited expectantly for a number of seconds.  At length he asked:  “Why not?”

“An absence of any evidence, together with the ludicrous notion that this village is infected by the black arts.  The very idea! Absolute balderdash!”  She rose to her feet.  “I think the sun is over the mainmast.  Would you like something to drink?  Whisky, sherry?”

He accepted.  “Miss Farrier, I know Violet Parkin was involved in witchcraft – so why is it such a ridiculous presumption that her death may have been ritual?”

“You know?”  She withdrew a bottle from her sideboard for his whisky, poured her own from a decanter on the shelf, then brought the drinks to him. He stood up.

“Please sit down Joe – may I call you that?  I’m Margaret, by the way; or Margo, if you prefer.  Joe, the people of this village – no, I’ll go further than that – the lonely old women of this village (of which I, by the way, might be said to be one) indulge in the odd herbal remedy now and then;  the occasional spell, if you will.  It is a hand-me-down from generations of folk medicine, and it is a sort of hobby for us, no more than that.  The idea we would stake poor Violet out in a ritual sacrifice is – well – I already used the adjectives:  unthinkable!”  She stood close to Joe as she handed him his drink, challenging his eyes to meet her own.  “Do I look like a black witch to you?”

Joe grinned:  he was beginning to like Margaret Farrier.  “Possibly not.  But then, possibly I wouldn’t know a black witch if I did see one.  I’ve had several versions of the ‘poor harmless herbalists’ argument thrust at me, though, and I don’t entirely believe them.  Dancing naked at solstices, overturned gravestones, and dead animals nailed to people’s doors?  Three pagan rituals and not a hint of sorrel.”

She returned his smile.  “I am a Wiccan priestess, Joe.  There are certain areas of worship that require communion with nature: when it happens it is a joyful thing, but that is just one tiny part of what witchcraft is about, and it’s a long way from that sort of ritual to one entailing human sacrifice.  No such ceremony could be sanctioned by any form of The Craft.  As to the sacrilegious activity and your guardians’ unfortunate experience…”  Margaret shrugged, though her expression was sympathetic.  “Not us.”

“Oh, just as simple as that!  A single brush-stroke:  ‘not us’!”

“Joe, whenever the rumour mill finds a fresh breeze, its sails can be seen turning miles away.  Stories of how poor Violet was found germinate these excesses in every depraved soul who believes he knows how witches behave: and he uses them – to create mischief, to revive old grudges.  As I said:  not us.”

“Nonetheless you admit you do practice witchcraft?”

“I thought I just confirmed that,” She sipped her drink.  “But I’m not the issue, here, am I?”

“No.  I came to ask you about my brother.”

Margaret paused in mid-sip.  Then she said, as if she might have misheard:  “About…?”

“Michael, my brother.”

“Oh, of course!  I remember.  About what concerning your brother, specifically?”

“He joined you, didn’t he?”

“Michael sought initiation, once, it is true.  I gave some teaching, but…”  She paused, choosing her words.  “Michael was in a dark place, I quickly sensed it.  We could not admit him.”

“Margo, have you seen Michael recently?”

Joe was very careful to note the timing, as well as the phrasing, of Miss Farrier’s response.  It was perfect.  “Not for some years, I fear.  He had such burdens, your poor brother – such burdens.”

Still Joe was not fully convinced.  Michael must be nearby, and this house, he felt certain, was one of the first places he would visit.  He continued the conversation, asking questions about witchcraft in a general sense.  Margaret Farrier gave very frank, open answers.

Only when he tried to get her to name specific people or places did she demur with the sweetest but most uncompromising of smiles.

At last he was ready to leave.  As he rose from his chair, a thought occurred and he felt in his jeans pocket, producing the little package Sophie and he had discovered the previous week.

“Would you know what this is?”

It was clear Margaret did know, instantly.  But she delayed long enough to unwrap the parchment and to look upon the photograph within.

“Where did you get this?”

She had displayed perfect honesty: so did he.  “From Violet Parkin’s bedroom.”

Margaret nodded.  “So it was you.  I should have known your curiosity would get the better of you.”

“You know about…?”

“I get to learn, Joe.  I get to learn.  This…”  She waved the components of the package:  “Is very interesting – very interesting indeed.  Tell me, what do you think it is?”

“I thought maybe a love letter, but I couldn’t read the writing.  The man in the picture, is that a younger Jack?  It doesn’t look like my memory of him, but I could be wrong.”

“No – not the younger Jack.  It’s Ned Barker:  taken about twenty years ago, I’d say.  This is a binding spell, Joe.  The sort of spell a woman casts when she wants someone to love her.  The ‘writing’ is in runic symbols – I didn’t think Violet had an appreciation of those – and the spell is bound together with her hair.”  She dangled the thread with faint distaste between her thumb and forefinger.  “Not, you understand, hair from her head?”

As he was leaving, she said:  “I wonder, would you be susceptible to advice?  Be careful Joseph – be very, very careful.  Sometimes in seeking the truth of others we discover the most unwelcome things about ourselves.  I know you have trouble.  I shall try to smooth your path.”

Joe bade the woman goodbye.

In early evening, after tea was concluded and Owen and Julia had departed the kitchen, Joe raided their larder for bread and a little cold meat.  With these and a bottle of fresh water in a carrier bag he slipped from the house by means of the back door and quietly started his car.  He did not quite know why he had to leave so secretly, though maybe there were notions of protection for the old people, whose suffering was undeserved; yet there were others, too, whose attention he would prefer not to attract.  So when he reached the Parkin farm, when he turned into the lane, he cut the engine and free-wheeled the Wolsey as furtively as any thief through the open farmyard gate, only stopping when he reached the cover of the hay barn.  Had he made the journey unseen?  He had reason to hope; the farm was away from the deserted road, and the crime scene tape that until recently made it conspicuous had been withdrawn.

What did he expect to find there?   Joe’s reasoning would have been his need, now he had the means, to do something, anything, to help his brother; to remove him from Ian’s pernicious influence, yet that may not have been entirely truthful.  If he were honest, he might admit that he had to confirm his terrible suspicion that Michael would return to  Hallbury to revisit the scene of his crime.   If it were, where else but this farm should he come?  Joe quitted his car in favour of a stack of hay bales nearer the barn entrance which offered concealment while still commanding a view of the open yard.  Here, braving a constant meal-queue of hungry midges, he settled down to wait.

The hours passed.  An evening sun obscured from his sight set lower in the western sky, casting its rays in a roseate glow across Wednesday Common. He stayed, knees cramped and shivering, as darkness crept, as a pall of solemn sky gathered for rain.  He stayed for a long time.

Much, much later, after the moonless, overcast night had fallen and the cold had begun to etch itself into his bones, he began to admit to the possibility he was wrong.  Michael had not appeared, and glad he should have been!  Had he really doubted his brother’s innocence?  Had he honestly believed Michael would murder a lonely old woman in such bestial fashion?

Eventually, now in total darkness, Joe, resigned, rose to stretch himself.  The torch he had rested on his lap fell to the ground with a clatter.  Immediately, as if in answer, there was another sound.  Not from the open common but behind him, in the barn.  A stir of birds, or bats, in the rafters maybe?  No, this was different.  He cursed himself for omitting the most obvious check of all.  Someone was already there, hiding among the high-piled bales of hay.

“Michael?”

A flurry of raindrops on the roof, promising more.  No other sound.

“Michael, I brought you some food.”

Still nothing.  Joe edged back to his car and reached through the open window, switching on sidelights that would bathe the barn’s interior in a soothing glow.

“Mikey?”

A confusion of sound and shape half-slithered, half-fell from high in the stacks of hay, and even in that dim light Joe knew this was his brother.  Michael landed with no pretence at stealth, springing cat-like back to his feet and for an alarming moment Joe felt he might attack, but Michael, having corrected his balance, seemed to freeze.  They were face to face, the brothers, no more than a yard between them.  Michael’s eyes were wild, his mouth drooling blood and working at muttering, cursing sounds, crying sounds, sounds of distress.  Biting back fear Joe reached out, his fingers finding sodden clothing, exploring the contours of Michael’s arms, his shoulders, his face.   The flesh he touched was icy, the hair matted with mud.  Pity consumed him and he was moved to close his arms around his brother, until he felt the stickiness, saw the darkness on his fingers – smelled the blood.

“Oh, Mikey, where have you been, old son?  What the hell have you been doing?”

No answer came.  The sounds, the inner writhing, continued unabated.  Michael’s body was rigid; his arms pressed into his sides.   Trembling, Joe sought his hand, and found cramped fingers clasping cold steel.    His heart missed a beat.  He ran his fingers along it, the knife, at first as if he did not believe it; then, believing it, in sheer horror; for it was a long knife, a broad-bladed, heavy affair –  a machete, perhaps.  And Michael’s grip was clamped around its hilt with a furious strength.

“Mikey;” Joe said slowly, trying to control the terror in his voice:  “Give me the knife?”

“NO!”  Michael jumped back, raising the blade in a shaking hand, “No.”  Her repeated, and several times more:  “no, no, no, no…”

For once in his life Joe felt seriously scared of Michael.  But that was no answer:  he could not turn his back, not now.  “Mikey, you must give that up.  It’s a bad thing, old son.  Knives are bad.”

“No.”  Michael was focussed, stepping forward again, stabbing the machete at his brother.  Joe might have fled.  He might have done that, and been justified; for to all appearances Michael was beyond him, a lethal stranger only destined to do him harm.  But then what; the police, Joe supposed:  an armed confrontation in the night – Michael, disturbed, angry – scared?  What could happen then?  Courage came, as it always does, from somewhere when it is needed.  Purposefully Joe reached for his brother and gripped the bladed arm, steadying it.  “Mikey; for me, yeah?  Drop the knife.  It’ll be Okay, Mikey, honestly.  We’ll look after you.  Everything’s going to be alright.”

“Okay Mikey.”  They were the only other words Michael said.

#

“I’ve found him.  He’s with me, in the car.”  Joe banged his head against the glass of the ‘phone box.  “God knows why I’m handing him back to you.  I should have gone straight to the police.”

Ian’s reply was calm.  “Joe, you‘re doing the right thing – no police, alright?  He’s our brother, Joe.  We take care of our own.”

“You haven’t seen the state he’s in.  Ian, his clothes are soaked with blood, and it isn’t his.  There’s blood on his face, around his mouth, for Christ’s sake!  I dare not think….”

“Joe!  Joe, it’s alright.  I’m sure it’s alright.  Has he said anything?”

“Just three words.  He doesn’t seem able to talk.  He’s calm now, for the moment, and he’s hungry, but he won’t eat; been living rough for days by the smell of him.  ”

A brief silence at the other end of the line – Ian, thinking.  “Right.  This is what we do.  Take him to the lorry park at Calleston – the new one; do you know it?  It’s not well-known yet, so it won’t be too busy.  Find somewhere – a quiet corner; park up and wait.  Some really good people I have connections with will meet you there – they might be about half an hour after you arrive, but not long.  They’ll get him sorted out and he’ll be back in hospital before morning.  Look, Joe, don’t worry.  Michael’ll be fine – a warm bath and some clean clothes can do wonders, yes?  Now what model of car are you driving?”

“Ian!  He had a knife – a big one.  Have you any idea what he may have done?”

“Candidly?  Have you?  You clearly think he’s been up to something: what – murder?  Did you find him standing over a body?  He’s my brother, Joe, as he is yours; I don’t believe Mikey would hurt anybody, even if you do.  Get back to him and take care of him.  I’ll organise things at this end.  And no police – he’s clearly got enough to cope with without them.  So, what was the make of that car?”

Two hours later, Joseph found himself outside Church Cottages without any notion of how he had arrived there, or what instinct had driven him.  The better part of an hour had been spent waiting, with Michael sitting wordless and inert beside him, in a lorry park for the arrival of a very professionally equipped ambulance.  The two nurses who came to take charge of his brother were caring and gentle with Michael, who, his crisis apparently over, allowed himself to be led like an obedient dog.  The nurses were every bit as concerned for Joseph, aware that he was in the grip of delayed shock and worried that he should contemplate driving in so emotional a state.  There was little they could do, however, and upon Joe’s insistence that he would manage they departed.  Michael sat on the stretcher in the rear of the van, staring fixedly out into the night.   He made no response to Joe’s farewell.  As the ambulance took him away, Joe realised he had forgotten to ask where Michael was being taken.

Now he was here, in front of Tom Peterkin’s door, because Tom was his only friend, and there was nowhere else.  To go home in these bloodied clothes would mean running an impossible gauntlet of questions from Julia and Owen, questions which, in his exhausted state, he could not face.  The shock of this night, the horror of his brother, the sad beauty of Marian’s ghost and Sophie’s last words to him all rotated in his brain and he could not, dare not, spend the next few hours alone.  It was cold and the shivering had begun: someone had to listen; someone had to make sense of it all.  If he had not taken their friendship too far towards destruction, if Tom was still ready to understand, he would be that person:  if Tom was no longer his friend, Joe had no idea to whom he might turn.

His knock echoed in the empty street.  It went unanswered.  The blue front door stared blandly back at him.  He had no notion of how late it was; he had no thought of time.  He waited, knocked again.  At last a light, the shuffling of tired feet:  the sound of a key grating in the lock, a latch turning.

“Oh my Lord!”  Cried Emma.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Photo Credit:  Steve Halama on Unsplash

 

 

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.