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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.

 

 

A Place that was Ours.  Chapter Nineteen – Moments From the Grown-up Years

I recall the afternoon so well.  Angie and I were both at home, for once, when the telephone rang.  It was a call – no, it was the call I had been expecting.  I remember Angie’s face as she watched me answer it, set and serious, those intense eyes of hers giving her message of defiance at the news we both already knew must come.

The caller was my agent, Allen Ranton.  The conversation was brief.  When I replaced the receiver, Angie was coiled tightly, overwound.   “Well?”  She demanded, her voice unusually harsh.

“Ranton’s cut the deal,”  I said.  “Torley want me.”

Angie nodded.  We stared at each other, shaken by the arrival of a moment we had both dreaded.  “That’s it, then.”  She said.

“I can’t turn them down.”  It should have been a joyous occasion, the final gesture which announced my arrival on the big club scene; we should have been cavorting in a crazy circle, dancing for sheer delight.  Neither of us felt like dancing.  Angie began clearing our coffee mugs from the table, already with her back to me, already walking away.  “Ange, the money’s unbelievable!  You’d be able to have whatever you wanted…”

“It’s not about money.  Money doesn’t matter to me, Chas; ah thought you knew that…”

“Nor is it for me.  A big Premiership club, the chance to play in Europe, that’s what matters to me!  But Ange, we’d be able to try for a baby, properly, I mean…”

“Don’t do that to me!  Ah’m not goin’, man!  Ah dinna care what’s at the end of it, it’s two hunderd an’ fifty mile away.  Ah’ve a life here, an’ work, an’ friends, y’kna?”

“It’s my life, Ange.  It’s all I’ve ever dreamed of.”

She turned back to me, putting the mugs aside so she could wrap her arms around my shoulders and kiss me.  “I know, Chas.  I know.  But I have my life too.”

Upon the Sunday of the week following Ranton’s call, Angie and I set out to visit Malcolm and Debbie, Angie’s parents, in Casterley, because we would not keep our decision to split up a secret from them:  they were precious in Angie’s life and they had become very special friends in mine.

The diversion was Angie’s idea.  “D’you remember that little wood where we walked a few year ago, Chas?  Ah’d like to go back there again.”

“The Step Wood?”  I remembered it well.  Glad enough to delay what might prove an unpleasant interview with Angie’s Mum and Dad, I found the road that would lead us to the wood easily enough, and turned off our regular Casterley route.  From this, the Carlton end, the diversion would consume several miles, so I settled back to enjoy the drive while Angie called her parents on her new mobile ‘phone.  The length of our search matched the length of her conversation.

“It’s here somewhere; I can see the trees – and there’s the stone bridge!  Oh, Chas!”

I did slow down enough to be certain, but the high wire fence with its tethered warning signs against trespass left no room for doubt.  Behind it, the full-leafed flora of our Step Wood crowded up and thrust fingers through the wire, like a prisoner crying for escape.

Angie was genuinely moved.  “Why would someone do that?”

“I guess it’s private land.  It’s quite a new fence, so maybe they’re going to develop it.  Houses or something.”

We completed our drive in silence.

There are some who will talk about ending a relationship as if it were a habit, like drinking or smoking, that can simply be given up.  Others will speak of recriminations, of bitterness and fights, or again of their tugs-of-war over custody; and there are some, all be they relatively few, who will confess to ‘remaining friends’, whether genuinely or not.  One thing, though, is common to all of us who stand on the further shore; an extra line among the many on our brow that is deeper and reminiscent of a scar.  It is indelible – it will never be erased.

I cannot say that Angie and I were ever truly finished.   For a long time after I moved out of our Carlton apartment we continued visiting each other, spending some time together when we could; but although I longed for her we were never man and wife after the day I packed my last bag.  Were we friends or just two people in the grip of a habit we could not break?   I don’t know.

I was, and I am, proud of Angie; of all she has achieved, and the part I played in helping her to reach the goals she so richly deserved.  Her love of life is as infectious as ever, the light in her eyes as bright, but there is a place on her forehead she cannot disguise when she frowns – a furrow as deep and livid as a scar – as deep as my own.

The dawn of the Premiership was too much for Casterley Town’s delicately balanced finances.  They plunged into a cess-pool of health and safety demands, tottering ticket sales and years of unpaid debt, closing their turnstiles for the last time at the season’s end.   Within weeks the bulldozers had moved in, clearing the grey old stadium away to make room for a new manufacturing plant that a company called Wesfane Electronics claimed they needed for construction of their industrial coolers.  The story that Mack Crabtree had bought the stadium and its debts for a minuscule sum, then settled the debts and sold it on to Wesfane for a small fortune took time to leak out and was of little consequence to the local population, who mourned the loss of their football club only briefly before transferring their allegiances to Bedeport Rovers.

I watched Casterley Town’s departure with no sense of loss, only commenting to John Hargreave in one of our last telephone conversations that I thought the new industrial unit seemed very small to be in the business of assembling big industrial coolers.

John sounded cynical.  “Doesn’t really matter Chas, man.  Have you any idea how hard it is to get an industrial cooling unit off Wesfane?  I checked them out.  The trade’s barely heard of them, and they reckoned their order book’s stacked up for years ahead. Not taking any more orders, is what I was told.”

“Maybe that’s why they need the extra production?”  I suggested.

“Aye, maybe.”

I did no more than glance at the little book John Hargreave bequeathed to me for a few years.  I had no superstitious fear of reading it,  only a healthy dislike of anything to do with pen and paper which would have to be overcome by something startling, like the words ‘I AM ON FIRE’ in capital letters.  John’s book contained nothing so dramatic, being rather page upon page of close handwriting which I took to be diary entries, only relieved by some curious letters and figures on the last two pages that I decided on initial inspection to be not worth the pain of deciphering.   My boat was moored above the tidal lock at Bedeport until recently, and somehow the book ended up in a cupboard above the stateroom berths.   Somehow?  This is how…

Footballers and their families necessarily spend much of their time in each other’s’ laps.  Mostly, because there is no alternative, we do our best to make the social scene enjoyable, but there are times when my yen for solitude kicks in, and my best defense against the world is open water.  I enjoy sailing, so although the round trip from my southern home was more than five hundred miles if I had a break I would take off for Bedeport and spend a day or two days at sea.  Which is how I happened to be wandering the streets of that town one Friday night, trying to decide whether I wanted to eat ashore, or deplete provisions on the boat before I sailed.

I spotted her first, in a new Italian restaurant I had not tried.  She was sitting alone at a table laid for two, and judging by the dejected slope of her shoulders, laid bare by a black halter dress, she had been there for some time.  She looked up as I approached, probably hoping I was someone else.

“Chas!”

“Hello Nel.  Fancy meeting you here!”

“Dare I call it my local stomping ground?  No, probably better not to.  I’m on my third one of these.”  Nel gestured towards a nearly drained Martini.  She said ruefully:  “My companion for the evening’s a little late.”

“How late?”  I asked.

“I think it must be two hours – nearly.  Hell Chas, I’ve been stood up, haven’t I?”

“You’ve tried his ‘phone?”

“It’s on message.”

“Okay, that’s a yes, then.  You must be hungry, will you have dinner with me?”

“Why not?  I hope that didn’t sound too eager?”

“Not eager in the least,”  I told her, signalling to a hovering waiter that his landing pad was ready at last.  “What will you have?”

Until that night I had scarcely spoken to Nel on other than business affairs, yet we were friends.  Over the next two hours, though, we poured out our personal lives, assisted admirably by a bottle of wine and two further Martinis.  Business matters received not one mention.

“I don’t normally go on dates.”  Nel informed me as she polished off the last of our dessert, “Does it show?”

“Not obviously.   I can’t understand the mentality of anyone who could stand you up.”

“I’m not good at dates.  I don’t do relationships, you know, Chas.  I don’t even have a cat.”

“I didn’t know, although I sort of guessed you weren’t married.  I mean, no rings or anything.”

“Oh bloody ‘struth, no!  Marriage?  Stick marriage!   Mummy and Daddy taught me all I needed to learn about bloody marriage.  Did you know they decided to divorce right in the middle of my GCE ‘A’ Level Exams?  I’m upstairs studying while they’re downstairs screaming at each other!  No, no marriage for me, young man!  No!”

“It isn’t always hereditary.”  I looked up to meet her green eyes staring dreamily at me.

“You’re lovely, Chas!  You’re a beautiful, brilliant young man and if I could meet someone like you I’d marry them tomorrow; but don’t worry!”  She slapped the table for emphasis.  “You’re too young for me, dear boy.  Much, much too young!”

“I wish you’d stop treating me like I was still in short trousers,”  I told her.  “Anyway, you’re not my grandmother; what’s the difference between us?  A few years?”

“Ho – ho!  And a few more, sweetie. Are we done here?”

I scanned the empty plates.  “I guess so.”

“Good.   Not that I don’t mean – thank you for the meal, and stuff – because I do.  I do. I was ravenous, in fact.  Now I’ll just pop to the restrooms and then we’ll head for – oh, frig!”  Nel’s attempts to rise teetered for a moment at the edge of disaster.  “Chas, darling, I wonder if you would mind steadying my arm?  Just as far as the bathroom, darling – not inside, you understand?  Nothing so personal.”

So I helped her to her feet as decorously as possible, then steered her on her course towards the restroom, trying to disguise a smile as our anxious waiter snatched a chair from her path.  Nel drew herself up as she passed.  “I’m a lady of poise and elegance, you know.”  She informed him.  “You’re lucky to be enjoying my patronage.”

While Nel was indisposed I called a taxi, settled the bill and provided three autographs, because the maître had recognized me and spread the word.  I prayed none of them had called a photographer. For the ten minutes before Nel re-emerged I was a sitting duck.

Somehow we made it to the pavement.   The taxi made it shortly after.

“Can you drop me at the West Dock,”  I told the driver, “and take this lady on to Casterley, please?”

“No, man – no way!  Ah can tak’ yer down the docks, like, bur Ah’m not gan ter Casterley this time o’ neet.”

Nel blinked owlishly at me.  “What time of ‘neet’ is it, might one enquire?”

“Half past twelve.”  I told her.  I started waving money:  “Not even if I…”

“Nah, nor even if tha’ waves the Croon Jools.  Ah’m not poor, an’ ah’m finished fer the neet affer this.”

“North Docks it is then.”  I said.

“Chas!  What am I going to do?  You aren’t going to drive me home, sweetie; not after the drinks you’ve had.”

“We’ll spend the night on the boat.”

“There’s a boat?” As our taxi turned onto the quayside the North Docks Marina came into view.   I nodded in the appropriate direction.  “That one?  Is that yours?”  Nel sounded impressed.  “Driver, you may take us to our yacht.  I did not know you possessed a boat, Chas.”  Then, drawing nearer to our destination:  “Not that it matters; I couldn’t get down there if I was stone-cold sober, darling.   Aren’t there stairs, or something?”

We managed the transition from shore to jetty by means of a ladder which really wasn’t very testing, although it brought forth a variety of girlish noises from my companion.

“Oh my god, is that one yours?” She padded along the jetty behind me, letting me carry her heels, swaying dangerously as I released the cover that allowed access to the well deck.  Shore to ship would prove our greatest challenge, extracting a series of squeals and a frankly undignified jump which culminated in a tangled heap on the deck.   Face to face we appraised each other.

“Oh, Charles, you are naughty!”

“No I’m not!”  I replied, firmly.  She smelled of Coco Chanel with essence of distillery.  I helped her to her feet.  “Would you like some coffee?”

“God, no!”

“Well then, it’s bed for you.”  I unlocked the hatch to the after stateroom.

“There you go again!  Control yourself, Charles!  You’re behaving like a dreadful animal, you know.”  I turned up the light.  “Oh, my lord, is that all bed?”

“Most of it.  The head –sorry, the bathroom – is right there. I know it looks like a cupboard but it contains all the facilities you want – including a shower.  Have fun!   I’ll put some heat on for you, and I’ll be in the forward berth if you want me.”

Nel picked up a dog-eared little book that was lying on the coverlet.  “What’s this?”

“Nothing important. Something I brought up with me to have a look at this afternoon.  Just pop it in one of the overhead cupboards if it’s in your way.  I hope you sleep well.”

It was close to ten am when Nel’s head appeared in the hatch that separated the well deck from the saloon.  I was at the table with coffee in my hand.  “Hi!  Want some?  It’s in the pot.”

“Yes, please.”

“You didn’t want any last night,” I challenged her.

“Oh, Chas, I was dreadfully drunk!  I’m really sorry.”  She gestured down to her black dress, “I’m ready for my walk of shame!”

“Don’t go yet.  Do you want something to eat?”

“You must be kidding, right?”

“I am, actually, yeah.  But don’t go.  Come sailing!   Two days off the coast; its beautiful out there this morning and the weather forecast’s great!  We’ll have fun!”

“Your favourite expression.  But no, I can’t Chas.  I’ve got to feed my poor cat…”

“You haven’t got a cat.”  I accused her.  “You admitted as much, last night.”

“I did?  All right then, I want to look after my dress; this isn’t exactly sportswear.”

“Wear these.”  I picked up a neatly folded outfit of grey slacks and a fleece, and tossed them to her.  “I even have a pair of rope soles about your size, I think, and a storm jacket.  It’s alright, they’re all perfectly clean, they were only ever worn once.”

Nel sighed.  “I’ll try them on,” she said.  “You can really sail this boat alone?”

“Of course.  It’s not that large, and it’s a motorsailer; it practically sails itself.  The trickiest bit is getting out of the marina.  You can crew for me if you like.”

“Or I could submit to the demands of my tortured body by stretching out on the cabin roof and going to sleep?  I should have brought my cossy.”

“No,”  I told her.  “This is the North Sea.  You shouldn’t.  You’ll come, then?”

“Yes, Charles.  Thank you for inviting me.”

So, for the next day and a half we sailed, and once her initial frailty had passed, Nel was an enthusiastic, very competent crew, meaning we were able to keep the boat under sail for much longer.  We made our way up the coast as far as a little abandoned fishing harbor I knew that was set into the granite cliffs, and we moored there for the night.  Nel was aglow, her eyes shining as we ate together in the galley.  I had never seen her like this.  It occurred to me, therefore, that I had never seen her truly happy.

“This is a wonderful experience.”  She said.

“For those who take to it,” I agreed, “There’s nothing better.  Maybe we might do it again sometime?”

“Yes.  Oh yes! They were really seals!  I’ve never seen so many in one place!”

Snugly clad against the sunset wind, we climbed worn-down stairs cut into the rock that fish wives had once used to carry boxes of their catch up from the tiny harbor to their village at the cliff-top.  They were steep and narrow, those stairs; in bygone days glazed with fish juice to a treacherously slippery sheen, now tamed by the sure-footedness of our rope soles.

We sat together at the headland on a ruined wall for an hour or more, watching the sea’s darkening mood as the sun set behind high hills at our backs.  Nel had snuggled against my shoulder and I moved to kiss her because it seemed so natural.  Because I had never kissed Nel before, no matter how much I’d wanted to.  She blocked me, her hands against my chest.

“Woa!  No, Chas!”

I drew back a few inches, stroking her cheek.  “You don’t like me so much now you’re sober, huh?”

“You know it isn’t that.  But I meant what I said last night (what I can remember of it); I’m too old for you, darling.  It won’t work!”

“I’m not asking for a lifetime’s commitment, Nel.  Just so you know, the difference in our ages matters not one jot to me.  Never mind, I’ll keep my distance if that’s what you want.”

Nel smiled, running her fingers through my hair.  “It’s what I want.”

Back at the boat, our wind-scorched lungs pleaded for rest.  Nel seemed especially fatigued, so we made our way to our berths, and searched in the wave-lapping darkness for a sleep that never quite arrived.  Time eddied and drifted, so I had no idea what hour it was when I heard my cabin door click gently off its latch.

“I’m cold,”  Nel said.

“Really?  Shall I turn the heating up higher?”

“No.”

“Do you want to…”

“Yes, please.”

I tried to discern her form as she stood beside me in the darkness; “What on earth are you wearing?”  I asked.

“Unless there’s something I’ve forgotten, nothing at all.”

The next morning the sun woke us through the window of the forward cabin.  Nel, rebuffing my refreshed enthusiasm, slipped from the bed and struck a pose with her back to me in the doorway.

“Venus De Milo?  What do you think?”

“Please, she was built like a tank!”

“Aphrodite at the bath?”

“No bath.  Anyway, she was another one with a small head.”

“Speaking of small heads…”

When Nel returned some minutes later, she was holding that little book – John’s diary – in her hand.

“I couldn’t sleep last night, thinking of – things – so I took a look at this.”

“It’s a diary,”  I told her.  “John Hargreave, my best friend, kept it before he died.  He went down the Bridge, you know?”

“I remember that, yes. Most of the writing in here is just fantasy stuff.  Key sequences for games and such.  It’s just these last two pages that puzzle me.  Lists of letters and numbers…do they mean anything to you?”

“I’m clueless, I’m afraid.”

“I think they follow the diary dates; for instance, all these figures in this block apply to the 12th of the month.  See this? LBEWHT727MB1812WE HCL19. What can that mean?”

“I have no idea;” I replied honestly.  “Have you any thoughts?”

“Maybe.  Look at the last entry:  WE1225MB1403, scrawled very quickly, I’d say, almost as if he was in a hurry.  Chas, I love this sort of detective work; may I…?”

“Of course.  Go for your life.  But I should warn you, this is all history.  John, bless him, was dead and buried a few years ago, now.”

“It’s probably nothing, but old secrets fester, and people get careless with the years.  I’ll see what I can discover.”

“We ought to set sail, I said.

We ran before the wind most of the day, using the time gained to navigate close to the Farrin Islands, sending Nel into transports of delight as ever-curious seals swam almost within reach.   When we finally made landfall at Bedeport it was early evening, but Nel politely rebuffed my invitation to dinner.  We said our goodbyes, awkwardly, on the quayside.

“Are you going straight back to Torley?”  Nel asked.

“No, I’m going to take the boat to be refuelled first.  Where’s your car?”

“Up in the town.   Can I send these back to you?”  She gestured to the clothes she had borrowed, never knowing they had been last worn by Angie.

“I can get back up here next week.  Shall we…?”

“I don’t know.”

“But you said you loved the sailing….”

“I did, before we – before I – slept with you.  Now, I’m less certain.”

“I’m that bad in bed?”

“No – oh, no.  Quite reverse.  I’m a little scared, to be honest.  Look, I’ll ‘phone you, Chas.  Thank you for a lovely time!”

Nel gave me a kiss that was a peck and just a little more.  Then she turned her back, putting a skip in her step as she walked away.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Place That Was Ours

“History,”  Jonna once said to me,  “Is all about Christmases.”   

I might have raised an eyebrow at that, but he insisted.  “Think back on it, Chas.  Like, nineteen-eighty-one:  what do you remember about that year?””

“I got a bike.”

“Aye, and when did you get it?”

“Christmas.”

“There y’are then!”  Said Jonna, his case proven.

“I’ll tell you about hist’ry.  Nineteen eighty-three was the goal I scored against St. Luke’s!  That’s hist’ry!”

“Aye, but what got you started with the football?”

I had to admit it.  “I got a ball for Christmas.”

“See?   Last year was the exams, but no-one wants to remember them!   The computer under the tree on Christmas morning – that’s what they want to remember.   History!”

“You getting a computer this year then?”

“Aye, likely.”

It was lunchtime, so we slid down from the wall at the corner of Ox Terrace, plodding homeward up the grey street which wound like a discarded snake-skin through the houses on the hill.    Perhaps I might have raised objections to Jonna’s simplistic reasoning, but I was only thirteen, and I was hungry.   He had a point.   There were many reasons to remember Christmases in our family; many more than that pine needle quilted pile of presents beneath the tree on the day itself.

The lines for battle would be drawn long before November’s foggy end.   It would be at the breakfast bar when I might first burble something over my bowl of Coco-Pops, like:    “Can I have an Amstrad for Christmas, Ma?”   Although I raised the subject as a request it was not a question.

My mother’s face would darken, and had I paid more attention I would have seen the slight droop of her shoulders, the way she had of becoming smaller as each blow struck.  She was smaller with the years – there had been a lot of blows.  “I dunno, Chas, they’re too expensive for us, pet.”

Five or six years earlier I might have thrown a sullen fit, or bashed my cereal into volcanic eruption with my spoon;  nowadays I was  a lot more subtle:    “Jonna’s Ma’s getting him one.   He says they’re really cheap down Argos.”

Of course I knew how envious my mother was of Jonna Sutley’s family.

“Well, I’ll have a look.”

“I need a new bike an’ all.  Mine’s too small now.”

That was the beginning of a process as irreversible as Advent.   Over the weeks that followed, always at breakfast, I would open another small door:  the Manchester United shirt, the puzzle game, fishing rod, Tonka truck.

“Jonna’s Ma’s getting him one.”

The list grew; my mother shrank; and though I knew the pain I was causing I could never desist.    My Da’  only learned about it in the evening, after each new demand had a day to settle.   If I thought he was going to shout I’d be well away, playing with Jonna down the recreation, or over at the halls with Sue and the girls. I’d hear them shout at night, though, he and Ma, and I’d hear Ma crying sometimes.

On Christmas morning that heap of gaily wrapped boxes harboured more guilt and despair than anything in Isaiah’s most desperate moments.

“Aye, give him his presents.”  There would be a bitter edge in Da’s voice, even though he’d started on the beer an hour earlier.

I opened each gift with savagery, and the only element of surprise was in guessing which demand each packet would satisfy, and the overwhelming disappointment at those which remained unmet.

“The bike’ll have to wait another year, son.  We can’t afford it, we really can’t.”

“What’s a lad need a bloody computer for, anyways?”

No thanks, no shining faces; by Christmas dinner our sitting room was Hiroshima after the bomb:   by five o’clock all but maybe one or two of the gifts would be forgotten.  Amid the snores of evening I would plot my appearance on the street the next day.  Which of these should I take out with me – which could I claim proudly:  what presents had the others, Jonna and the lads, been given that would outmatch mine?

The gifts of Christmas were good for a week – the boxes they came in often hung around the place much longer.   It took three days for me to get Da’ to set up the computer, and I played with it almost obsessively for five.  Ten days into the New Year a brand new bike stood waiting in the back shed when I got home from my football.  Ma was watching from the kitchen when I discovered it, so she heard my crow of delight.  Nor did she miss the crisp punch at the air – my expression of victory.

“I borrowed off the Provvy.”  She said.  She was wringing her hands together in a way I had not seen before.  Did I thank her?  I don’t remember.

That was the way the fire curtain dropped on Christmas nineteen eighty five.   The repercussions would last all year.

Da’ lost his car in the spring.   A repo. van came for it when he was down the Waggoner’s.    It wasn’t a very good car, Da’ said; which was right, because it was always breaking down, but I saw his face when Ma told him it had gone.  From then on he had to start for work even earlier in the morning, getting a lift from Jamie Hicks down the South Side.

It was the beginning of my fourteenth year, a year when meanings began to change for me and new emotions needed explanation.   As Spring sun bathed our grey slate roofs I found myself more frequently in the company of Dave Crabtree and the girls, and especially deepening my friendship with Sue Crabtree.   Just as Dave was a little older than me, his sister was a little younger, a sprightly girl whose raven curls bounced across her pale face as she ran, so that she was forever brushing them back:  the hand movement was habitual:  once when we were talking I sat in front of her, mimicking each pass and she stared at me for a full minute before she understood.    One afternoon, sitting by the river, she asked me:

“Do you want to be my boyfriend, then?”

“Nah, no time for that!”  I said it dismissively, but it still didn’t come out right.  Sue was not deceived.

Words like ‘boyfriend’ and ‘lover’ had been common parlance between us for years – they were without interpretation – just things we said because they existed everywhere in the world around us; we had no idea of their significance.  Now the curtains were drawing back.   Sarah Coldbatch, a stubby, hearty girl of my own age, always wore dresses of gingham.  She possessed knickers in as many colours as my socks, and since her speciality was handstands we knew Sarah’s knickers almost as familiarly as I knew my own socks, and  it never worried any of us.  Then one day the handstands stopped.   Suddenly, for no apparent reason I could see, even a brief revelation of those gaily coloured undergarments would bring a flush of embarrassment to Sarah’s apple cheeks.

“You can stop starin’, John Hargreave!”

Jonna, not to be outfaced, would counter with:  “I would if you’d stop  flashin’ em at me.  Same pair as last week, I see.”

We spent a lot of time by the river that year.  There was a place that was ours, down the wooden steps behind the Rugby Club – a wide, stony stretch of placid water that rattled with shiny black pebbles and accompanied our games and songs and conversations with an orchestral murmur to rival any piped music.   Here was a bend in the river, where it gently nosed its way around Burdlehope Hill, beneath the old brewery walls which still clung to the slope, though roof and windows were long gone; and once, before they dammed them up in the hills, the waters here would have been much deeper.  A concrete jetty, chewed by neglectful years, pointed out across the stream, in memory of times when boats would navigate all the way from the sea.    It stood eight feet above stony scree:  the shoreline did not even reach it anymore.

Beyond the jetty a patch of level grass rich with buttercups was wide enough for play, hidden enough to pretend secrecy.   There, upon a sunny afternoon in May, Sue and I shared our first kiss.   It was an inelegant affair, a mixture of nervous peck and film star tonsillectomy that brought none of the thrilling sensations my television-based sexual education promised.

“Do you want to kiss me, then?”  Sue had stumbled as we clambered down from the jetty.  I had caught her and our faces were suddenly inches apart.   I was taken completely by surprise; such a thing had never occurred to me – but I was a man, wasn’t I?  So I tried.   I snapped turtle-like at her lips:  they were cold and thin – our teeth banged together.  She grabbed my head and moved her mouth around mine, convulsively grinding until my own lips felt as though they had been minced.   I prayed for it to end.   At last she stepped back.

“You’re not a very good kisser, are you Chas?”

For the rest of the afternoon she and her companions kept catching me with covert glances, giggling conspiratorially as though I had something stuck on the end of my nose.    I was far too naïve to understand the rules of the game:  I was plunged into fathomless humiliation, a perpetual blush which stayed with me through all the hours to sunset.  By the time the others had begun to drift homewards I had resolved to restore my tattered reputation, and when Sue made to leave I grabbed her wrist:

“Stay a bit?”

I had expected Sarah Coldbatch’s disparaging laugh; been afraid Sue would do the same:  she didn’t.

“Alright then, Chas.”

We sat watching for fish in the water, catching the subliminal rubies of red sunset in the ripples.  We talked; about what I don’t know, now, but I know they were adult things:  how I worried for my Ma now Da’ was away at work all the time, and how Sue wanted to move to another desk at school, because Jess Abbott was a distraction.  She wanted to work, she said, so when she left school she could go to university and become a nurse, or a teacher – she couldn’t decide which.  There were other things, but, as I say, I can’t remember what they were.

Nor can I remember exactly when I put my arm around her shoulders, or when I drew her to me.  But her lips were warm, their touch soft.  I know we got it right that time, both of us, obeying rules neither of us understood.  We were learning though.  From then on, everything was changed.

It would have been the end of June:  rain had been falling for days; cold rain that got under my collar so that I ran home from school to be away from it – rain that kept me in my room after tea, wiling away the hours with comic books or my Amstrad.   It was a Wednesday.

The front door was open, yawning an invitation to the street.  Seeing this from several doors away, I thought I would find Ma and Mrs. Potter or someone inside out of the weather, wrapped in one of those conversations neighbours seem to have about nothing in particular; but the house was silent.

I took off my shoes as I always did, adding them to the scruffy little pile of footwear behind the door.   Then – I don’t know why because I was never this careful – I closed the street door behind me.  The doormat was soaking wet.    Maybe something – some quiet voice – was reminding me that this was my home and it was precious to me:  that same quiet voice told me something was different, something was wrong.

I went through to the kitchen.   We had blue plastic worktops in there that Da’ had bought from the Auctioneers one week when he was flush.  I helped him put them in:  I held his tools, I even drove in some of the screws, turning them so hard my hands were red raw and my fingers hurt for days afterwards.  Looking back, those tops were crudely assembled and probably not very strong, but at the time I was proud of them:  I had helped to make them – they were partly my own work.  So seeing how one of them had collapsed, breaking the spindly leg supporting it and tipping the toaster, a pot of the raspberry jam I liked and the last of a loaf of bread onto the lino floor affected me more profoundly than it should.  There were other things scattered about, too.  A saucepan from the stove by the door to the back yard, my Da’s weekend jacket ripped from its peg with a big tear in the sleeve, some recipes Ma had cut from her magazines in a heap at the end of the surviving worktop.

“Ma?”  I called out.  I was seriously worried now and half-way to tears.   “Ma?”

My Da’ should have been there then.  He should have led the way up the stairs to search each room and make things right.  But he worked away these days – he wouldn’t return until Friday night, or sometimes even Saturday.  There was only me:  I had to climb those narrow twilight stairs one by one, listening to my own breath as it followed me.   I wanted to go straight to my room; to hide there, to wait for whatever was baleful and angry in this cold place to leave; but I could not.  At the head of the stairs I turned the knob on the big bedroom door.

“Mam?”

She was lying on the bed.  At first I could barely recognise her because I was seeing another person in my mother’s body and her head was turned away from me towards the window.   I had seen her in a slip before, though never this slip:  never this lilac thing with purple lace.  Bras and knickers were not new to me either, they were the stuff of sniggers when she came down half-dressed to make breakfast, sometimes inadvertently letting the coat she wore as a dressing gown peep open to reveal the forbidden things beneath.  But they were never carelessly uncovered; never displayed  as openly to my sight as these.    She lay very still.

“Mam, wake up, please?”

For an age she didn’t move.  Then, so, so slowly my mother turned her head to me. A clown face of thick make-up and cheap mascara smeared by weeping said, in a stranger’s voice:

“What do you want?”

When I could find no words to answer her she repeated it in a shout:  “What do you want?”

Closing the door on her, I went to my bedroom and sat on my bed, staring at my wall with the picture of Mick Jagger on it, as if he might provide a solution.  I stared for an hour before I heard the light switch on the landing and her footsteps on the stair.  I cringed inside as her feet approached my door, shrank back as the latch turned.  And there she was, standing in front of me with a different, alien smell about her; her open dressing gown exposing that lilac slip, and a plate in her hand.

“Your bike’s gone.  I sold it. You’ll have to have this.  There’s no tea.”

She closed the door.  A moment after, I heard the door of her own room close.

I ate the bread and jam she had slapped together in a sandwich for me, carefully picking off the bits of dirt from the kitchen floor.   A shard of glass in the jam cut my gum.   It hurt for days.

This piece feels as if it should be the start of a book.  Maybe I’ll work on more episodes to feed into the blog, if anyone wants them.  It’s an idea to explore, anyway.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2017.  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.