To a Friend

It was a yard, a concrete yard, nine years, ten years ago.  The people, the back-paw walkers, they will tell you my memory is not that long, but I remember.  High walls, a shelter against the rain and Ben, my companion.

We shared so many dreams, Ben and I – of the wild things whose scent we could test as it floated past us in the wind, but never see.  We talked of how we might chase them together one day, and what sort of world it could be, on the Great Outside.

The back-paws came to us with food, sometimes spoke or petted us, but mostly we were alone and afraid.  We had each other.  We were friends.

I remember the day the stranger came, and how he talked to us as back-paws will, and how I could not fear him, even when he put me in the metal  Box-That-Roared.  I saw the panic in Ben’s eyes as I was taken away, and I cried out for him, somehow knowing I would never see him again.

And then it was there!  The Box-That-Roared showed me what the Great Outside was like – flashed through it, scene after scene before I had time to smell its secrets.  I was alone and so frightened, with no idea what was happening to me, but then the Box-That-Roared brought me here.

All that was long, long ago, when I was young.  I live in the Great Outside now, and it is much as we imagined, Ben and I: my mistress, the female back-paws takes me daily to update my favourite scents, and for that generosity I guard her.  I have concrete to lie on when I am hot, although most of the time I favour the back-paws’ big shelter with its thick walls, warm places, and my allowance of three soft beds! My master, who is older and unsure, looks after me with food, some scratching when I need it, as well as giving his voice to break my silence.   For those services, I must guard him, too.

Let me warn you, guarding two back-paws is complicated because they will not behave properly, like a pack!  They are virtually helpless; they have no sense of smell and precious little hearing, yet they keep separating!  Sometimes my master takes the Box-That-Roars away for hours to places I can only learn about when it returns by sniffing the fat rubber rings on its feet.   Now and then my master and mistress both go away to those places and leave ME behind!  I fret because I cannot protect them then, or persuade them of the peril they are in.   All I can do is pull the kitchen towel off its rail.  I believe they understand. 

When they are here in our shelter I do my best to keep them safe. Guarding them both, making sure I constantly position myself so I can rush to the aid of either of them, is a full-time task and a very stressful one, but I think I manage, by and large.

And there it is – my life!   I am old now and less inclined to run and be foolish, but now and again when the silence threatens I remember my friend Ben, and I think of all the tales I might tell him of riding in the Box-That-Roars to wild places, and the new scents I discovered there.  Sometimes when the air is like crystal I imagine I hear him calling me, whether from that yard we shared or, as I hope, some better place.

My name is Honey.   There is much I wished for, but never found.  All-in-all, I think I am happy.

Blackpool Rock

This is another short story from my archives, one I particularly like because although the story is not my own, it contains one or two personal references, an indulgence I rarely claim. I hope you will like it (or possibly remember it)!

Had he expected it?  The open fields poppy-red where he had played, half a century ago, unchanged?  The lake in the disused quarry, the village hall at Benton crossroads, with flagstone roof and walls of Victorian brick, still standing?   Looking rejuvenated, if anything, in the bright afternoon sun.

He drew up beside the wooden notice board nailed to its double doors, grey-pasted with faded parish notices, and still hanging at that slightly misjudged angle, almost exactly as he remembered it the summer before university.  He let his mind take him back, through those peeling doors that were just as he had thrust them open one Tuesday night, so many years before, and he remembered his dread as he sidled into the old brick building, oozing the furtive reluctance of youth, feeling the embarrassment of his tight, badly-cut jeans.  Village hall melees were not for him, not then.  Saturday night dancing was for him; local tribute Eddy Cochran (Ronnie Blass, baker’s assistant) tying himself in agonized knots on a creaking wooden stage.  Three-four time – not always on time, but loud.  Primal and wild.

Not the Women’s Institute.

They were all so old.  Portly ladies in portly clothes; teacups and nudges, secret buzz.  Contralto bees.

“What d’you want, love?”   Annie Riley, her enormousness bulged beneath rose-print on white.  “Did your mum send you?”

“Leaflets.”   He had muttered unintelligibly.

“You what, dear?”  Sherry Harbottle, as thin as Annie was fat.  Shrunk shank beneath a black frock that hung about her like a shroud.  “Oh, bless him!  He’s shy!”

Beetroot soldiers shinning up  their siege ladders.  He could not stop them.

“Oh, he’s blushing now!  Bless him!”  

“I want the leaflets.”  He said, oozing defiance.  “My ma says I’m to deliver them tonight.”

“Oh, them!”  Annie was already turning away.  “I left ’em in the kitchen.  Out there.”   She waved at the door of a tiny room from which trays of tea were known, periodically, to erupt. 

His path to the kitchen was long and circuitous because, like Kipling’s dormouse, he followed the wall, afraid to step into the middle of the room.  He plunged through its closed door like a mariner abandoning a stricken submarine.   Eyes glued to the floor, he took a moment to realise he was not alone.

“Oh goodness!   Excuse me!”  The owner of an exposed thigh hurriedly brushed her dress down to cover a refastened suspender.  A young woman; a plain blue dress.  She glared at him.  “Couldn’t you knock, or something?”

“Sorry!  Sorry!”  He spluttered, vermillion rising.  “I didn’t know… I got to take the leaflets, see?”

Severe eyes pinned him for long enough to be satisfied of his mortification.  “That’s them.”  She nodded towards a neat pile on a shelf.

“Thanks.”  He made to take possession of the leaflets.  

“I was making the tea.”  She gestured towards a huffing industrial-sized urn.  “Don’t drink it, whatever you do.”

“No, I won’t.  I can smell it.”  He glanced at her face, his skin alive with embarrassment.  He looked long enough to see a strong jaw, a wide, rather thin mouth, and pale cheeks.  Horn-rimmed spectacles disguised frank but nervous eyes.

“I got to deliver them, see?”

“What, the teas?”  Her voice was edgy, quite deep.

“No, them.”  He waved the leaflets.  Then, in a moment of bravery:  “What’s your name then?”

“Me?”   She seemed genuinely unsure if there was someone else in the room;  “I’m Mary.   I make the tea.”

“Yeah?  Hello Mary!”  He felt suddenly confident.  “Are you one of them, then?”  He nodded at the door.

“Yes, I joined.  The Women’s Institute’s a good way to get to know people.”  She recited.

“I’m Malcolm.”  He introduced himself.  “I don’t remember seeing you around the village.”

“I don’t get out, much.”  How old was she?  She might be twenty-five or six; but she had the naiveté of a seventeen year old, and she was painfully shy.  Two little pink blots had appeared on her cheeks.  But then she had cause, he supposed.  He had seen more of her underwear than was polite.

“You’re staring!”  She accused.

“Sorry, Mary.  So, how are you getting on with the old….with the ladies of the WI?”

“They asked me to make the tea. This is my third meeting and I’ve made the tea each time. That’s all they seem to want me to do.   I think you’re leaning against the biscuits.”

“Oh sorry!”  He said again, blenching at his oft-repeated apology.  “Custard creams, eh?”

“They’re allowed one each.”

“Would you come out with me Thursday?”

She was waiting outside the little whitewashed cottage when he had called for her, blinking through those thick glasses, mousey brown hair drawn back in a modest bun, champagne-coloured frock and little brown handbag clasped before her.   He spent the last of his weekly pay on a movie.  Afterwards, as they walked back the mile from the late night bus, he had ventured to put an arm around her shoulder. She neither resisted nor broke her stride.   At her door their eyes shared a silent moment.

“Well, thank you very much.”  She said. 

“Can I see you again?”

She seemed a little astonished.  “If you like.”

Mary almost ran, slipping indoors by the doorjamb as if she was frightened to fully open it.  The lock clicked behind her.

And this was the place.  That was the door.  As he had driven from the village hall another four hundred yards to her home the sky clouded over and rain began quietly.  Wind-blown, it flecked the windscreen like tiny splinters.   Malcolm tapped the wiper switch impatiently, as though to lose sight of those white cottage walls with their solemn brown front door even for a second would be too important.   In his head he recounted each detail as if he defied it to be altered.  It was not.

Sighing, he repeated a question he had asked himself so often down the years: why had he  persisted in his pursuit of Mary, that summer when he was seventeen?   And why had he never forgotten her?  Was it the sight of a graceful leg that began an obsession in him?  No, despite the gaucheness of his tender years, that was not the image of her that dominated his mind.  It was the memory of a day, and a look.

They dated sporadically at first.  His friends teased him.

“Did I see you out with your mum again last night, Malc?  I can let you have a paper bag if you want one.”

At each meeting he learned a little more about her.  She lived with her father, she spoke of her home life often.  She told him about her cat, of the flowers she loved to grow.   Were it not for the wooden set of her expression and a hint of cynicism in her voice he might have thought her happy in her world, but something nagging at his brain had persuaded him otherwise.

One hot sunny afternoon as they sat on a grass bank above the lake he turned his head to kiss her.  She did not resist, nor did she respond.

“Why did you do that?”

“Because I wanted to.   I still want to.”

Mary stared at her knees.  “How old are you?”

“I’m – nineteen.  How old are you?”

“You shouldn’t ask a lady her age.”

Thereafter a kiss became part of their ritual which they observed, routinely, whenever there was a private moment.  As summer passed Malcolm became bolder until once, on the evening bus, he ventured to put his hand on that familiar leg.  She seemed unmoved by his gentle grip, yet she allowed it.  They walked the final mile to her home.

“My Dad’s going away on Wednesday.”  She said suddenly.  “Do you want to come round?”

By the Wednesday afternoon his hand was shaking so much he could hardly press her doorbell.  She answered in her dressing gown, taking his hand to draw him into the subdued light of a living room heavily decorated in green patterned wallpaper and bluntly furnished.  A fat, comatose cat stretched out on the windowsill, head against the nets.

“I don’t really know much about this.”  She confessed, as if she was addressing a task – a challenge she had set herself.

In her tiny upstairs room with afternoon sun beating on the coverlet he taught her the little he knew.   They were students in a shared experience, inexpert and mercifully brief; yet afterwards she clung to him as if he were life itself.

The rain on the car roof became a rhythm, a cascade of memories in heavy drops splashing, a milky mist rising from the warm road.  Malcolm’s car’s wipers swept the windscreen in regular gestures.   That had been the first time.  Up there.  The casement window above the brown front door.  After so long, could those curtains really be the same?

When, as now, his imagination took him back to that summer he remembered it as a time of joyful nakedness and entanglement, of thirst and gratification.  Only in times of sadness could he regret how few were those bejewelled afternoons when Mary’s father, a man he never got to meet, was away.   And when their physical union happened it was frequently awkward, mannerly and restrained, but reflection had persuaded himself otherwise.  He had always been ruled by passion, so the lie was important to him.

“Why do you like me so much?”  Mary asked him once, on one of those glittering days.

“Because – because you’re beautiful.” He let his eyes feast on the slenderness lying beside him, because it was a question he had to answer in himself.  “You’re just – beautiful.”

She reached for her spectacles from the bedside table, so she could see him better. She would squint without them.  “I’m not beautiful.  I’m plain.  I’m ugly.”

The self-loathing behind the words shocked him.  “No!  No you’re not!  Not to me.”  He tried to kiss her, and she turned away.

“You’re seeing someone who isn’t there.”  She told him. 

“She’s there.”  He insisted.  “She’s buried deep, where maybe not everyone can see her.  But I can; and when she’s happy and she lets it show – then her eyes shine like raindrops in the sun, and all the beauty spills out.  Some people paint beauty on themselves each morning, but they’re really twisted and hideous underneath.  Not you.  You have loveliness written right through you.”

“Like a stick of Blackpool rock!”  She laughed a rare laugh, then kissed him with rare spontaneity.  “Remember you said that.  Even if you didn’t really mean it, don’t ever forget it, alright?”

Had he really meant it?  After summer was over and he had gone to his further education he frequently accused himself of using her, of blinding himself to truths she accepted only too easily.  At university he found love that gave itself more freely, that possessed greater beauty, yet was never so profound.  As other memories were made and afterwards faded, hers was constant.  And with the years, yes, even through the married years, it survived.

So here he was, forty-two years later, parked on the road opposite her door.  There, just there by the hollyhocks, they had said their goodbyes.   There, on that precise spot, his heart had filled with sorrow at their parting and he had said the three words.  One of a very few times in his life he had said them.

Mary had stared into his eyes with an earnest darkness that made his heart stop.   “We’ll love a memory then.  Keep it precious for us, yes?”

“I’ll write to you.”

“No, you won’t.”  She would have turned away without so much as a farewell kiss had he not insisted.  And he saw her reasons, saw the bitterness, the self-disgust – saw tears behind those heavy lenses.    He felt the sob in her throat.

Malcom eased himself to a more comfortable position in his car seat.  Rain thrashed the roof now.  Accusation.  A flagellation; a penance.  She was right, of course.  He never wrote to her, even when the nights were their longest and his loneliness at its most intense.  Oh, how fresh were the images in his mind – of that look, of those tears!  In all the time he had known her, she had been unable to give herself entirely to him.   Only when it was too late had those magic words breached  her defences enough to show how she had hoped, and striven, perhaps, to return his love. 

He had no family now; here, or anywhere close.  He thought of his wife, and the sad, lonely stone that was her final home.  He thought of his children in their nests at the far corners of the big world, and then he thought of Mary, and how much of life he had missed.  With a great sense of destiny, he opened his car door.

“Who the hell are you?”   The man on the threshold stared at Malcolm as if he somehow recognised that face, but with the darkness and the rain he could not place a memory.  “Do I know you from somewhere?”

“I wondered if Mary Marshalsea still lived here?”  Malcolm said.

“Mary?”  The man pushed anxious fingers through a thinning head of hair.  “You…you’re looking for Mary?”  His eyes met Malcolm’s.  How old would he be – about forty, or forty-two, maybe?  “Yes, she still lives here.  She’s not home, though, I’m afraid. I’m Mr Marshalsea – can I help?”

A silence dropped like a curtain between the two men.  Facing each other, each confused, surprised, a little frightened, each at the dawn of a truth in the raining night.   Malcolm picked his words carefully.  “You’re Mary’s husband?”

The man bridled. “Look, chap, I don’t know where you got your information.  I’m her son. There’s no other Mister Marshalsea, unless you’re referring to my grandfather.  He died about twenty year ago.” Indignant, he dredged up a few ingots of aggression.  “See here, I ain’t going to stand in my door no longer.  If you want my mother you’ll find her at the village hall.  She goes up there early on Tuesday evenings.   It’s Women’s Institute tonight, see?  She makes the tea.”

His heart beating a little faster, his mind crowded with possibilities, Malcolm turned his car and retraced the road to Benton crossroads.   Outside the village hall he drew to a halt.  In his mind he saw her, as she had been in that distant time, busying herself among the cups and the custard creams.  He saw the heavily rimmed spectacles, those earnest eyebrows, that firm, slightly too prominent jaw.  And he remembered.

“We’ll love a memory then.  Keep it precious for us, yes?”

He saw the peeling paint on the closed doors, the old notice board with its bleached messages.  He might have heard or imagined the faint clink and rattle of crockery from within. 

He slipped his car back into gear, and drove on.

© Frederick Anderson 2016.  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: Philip Miles, from PIxabay

Hallbury Summer – Episode Thirteen. Treasure in the Rain

The story so far:

Joe Palliser’s mind should focus on the Parkin murder, but instead his dreams remind him of his last drug-intoxicated night with Marian, and the mystery obscuring her death.

He encounters Sophie Forbes-Pattinson for a third time, finding her snobbish and detached.  Later, recalling Tom Peterkin’s suggestion that Violet Parkin’s father was a witch, Joe ‘phones Ian to ask if their brother Michael could have had any association with the occult, but Ian discounts Michael’s ravings on the subject to be a symptom of his illness.

On Sunday Joe goes to church, hoping to see more evidence of a darker side to the villagers and is rewarded by the attention of a group of local women, one of whom is Janice Regan…

After church Joseph ate a light, appetite-less lunch, then defied the heat to go for a walk.

Albert Regan was in his garden.  He waved over his shoulder at an open side door.  “She’s in the kitchen,”  He said. “You’d better go on in.”

The Regans lived on the west side of Hallbury, in a ‘tied cottage’ which could only be their home for such time as Albert kept his job. The house was not in a good state of repair. Once-white paint around its sash windows had peeled, the grey render cladding its random-rubble walls cracked in several places, while the gable-end wall was split down its centre by a fissure like a scar that Albert had stuffed with mortar to keep weatherproof.  But it was a home, tidy and clean, with oil-cloth on the kitchen table and a fire burning forcefully in the range.

Janice Regan was busy.  “Oh ‘tis you, Joe Palliser.”   It was scarcely a greeting.  “What brings you to my door?”

Albert’s wife, a pinched-looking woman whose iron-grey hair clung to her head like sculpted plaster, had prominent veins at her temples, throbbing through barely enough opaque flesh to stretch over the razor-sharp bones beneath:  she had a fever-bright look of starvation about her, even though their garden suggested that she and her husband ate very well.

There was a time, Joe could recollect, when he would have been more welcome.  Janice had been a smiling, fulsome woman once, with flashing humour and a ready greeting for the rather shy child who called each Saturday to ask if “Teddy could come out?”

The Regans had tried for many years before Edward Regan came into their world, and there is no child so treasured as a child born to parents in their middle age.  Teddy was the delight of their lives and they lavished their love upon him with ice-cream, chocolate, fish and chips, and his favourite spaghetti hoops.  So Teddy, though spoilt, of course, ample in girth, naturally, was nonetheless a popular playmate for the village boys; because when Teddy “came out” good things to eat came out with him; treats he would share among his friends.  A tractor rolled on Teddy, crushing the life from him, when he was just twelve years old.

Thereafter Janice Regan, changed.  She never mentioned Teddy: if anyone broached the subject of Teddy, she would walk away.  She began to withdraw from people, became dour, humourless – a narrow, unlovely woman whom life had dealt a shallow hand, and who had more than a single reason to resent Joe’s appearance at her door.

“Tea?”  She asked.  It was a formality, scarcely an invitation.

“No thank you Mrs Regan.  I won’t stay.”  Joseph felt awkward, out of place.  “I wanted to ask you about Violet.”

This earned a glance of arrows from Janice.  She had been washing something in the kitchen sink:  now she stopped, drying long, spidery hands on her apron.  “Oh aye.  What about ‘un?”

“You were the one who found her, Mrs Regan.  There’s been a lot of rumours and I just wanted the truth, if it isn’t too painful for you.  I was going to ask you how she died?”

Janice Regan’s laugh was harsh.  “Rumours!  Yes, there’s rumours!  There’s one rumour says you’m already party to a lot of the truth, Joseph.”  She stood opposite him, glaring across the table:  “So what you want to know for, eh?”

“I didn’t have anything do with it, Mrs Regan.  Why should I want Violet Parkin dead?  I don’t think Jack did, either.  I’m trying to find out what actually happened, that’s all.”

Janice thrust out a wrist.  “See that?”  She pointed with one tendril-like digit.  “Through there!  Through each wrist, driven straight through and into the bliddy timber behind her, they was – pitchforks!  Like that!”  She spread her arms outwards:  “Like she been cruesy-fied, or sommat!  And then….and then they went to work on ‘er.  Oh aye, they knowed how to make ‘er suffer, Joe Palliser!”

“They?”

“Can’t have been just one:  can’t have been.  Violet, she were a large woman and she’d have fought ‘em.  Too big for thee, Joseph.  That’s why I don’t believe that rumour, meself.  ‘Less you had help, that is.”

“Janice,”  Joseph collected himself.  “Was it a ritual killing?”

Janice Regan stared at him.  What was behind those eyes – anger?  Fear?

“What you sayin’?  What you trying to say?”

“Violet was a witch, Janice, wasn’t she?”

The expression he got back was blank, windowless.   “What?”

“A witch, like her father.  You know, spells and potions, the old religion, that stuff?  You were one of her closest friends, weren’t you?  I have to know, Janice.”

Janice rounded on him.  “There ain’t no bliddy rumour out there like that, and don’t you bliddy start one!  Violet weren’t no ‘arm to no-one.  There’s those didn’t get along with ‘er, but she never had a bad word to say about no-one, and don’t you!”  Her voice was rising.  “Violet weren’t no ‘arm to anyone, and to see her like that, all open and with her insides all over, and her poor blood soakin’ ever’thing…Violet weren’t no ‘arm!  She didn’t have to die like that!”

Albert’s large form filled the open doorway:  “Now, then, Janice!”

But Janice was fierce – her eyes were anything but expressionless now.  “Had to be a madman done that!  Had to be!  Alright I don’t think you done it, Joe Palliser, but I don’t think you’m so innocent, neither!  ‘Twas a bad day you come here, you Pallisers!  A bad day.”

Joe felt Albert’s hand on his shoulder.  “She’s upset.”  He said quietly.  “You better go now.”

Nodding, Joe turned to walk out of the door.  “I’m sorry to cause you pain, Janice.  I just had to know what you saw.”

“Yes, well, now you do.  Take my advice, Joseph and go back to Lon’on where you belongs!  We don’t want you ‘ere!”

Joe would have replied, but Albert stilled him.  “Just go.”  He said.

In the lane outside, Joseph let his true wretchedness overcome him for a minute – for long enough to let a tear roll down his cheek in sympathy for a woman he had never really known; for Violet Parkin’s undignified and ignominious end, about which he could do nothing, other than to prove somehow that it was not her husband, the man who in some fashion had been her lifetime companion, who had brought it upon her.

His aimless feet took him down Feather Lane with Janice Regan’s ‘We don’t want you ‘ere!’ ringing in his ears, towards the solitude of the Common and the places of his childhood – those he could recall without pain.  But it was pain, really.  Always the outsider, always playing to other people’s rules and getting nothing in return, and nothing had changed or would change.  Janice was right:  he should not have come back to Hallbury.

As if the heavens were attuned to his moods, as he turned the corner by the Parkin farm it began to rain:  not just in a light, balmy shower, but with vigour.  Thunder banged from nowhere; a hustling wind raked the fern, and drops like saucers spattered onto the tarmac road.  Facing the prospect of adding a drenching to his blackened circumstances, Joseph sought shelter, and the only place which offered was the hay-barn at the end of the Parkin’s yard.  He took a quick decision.

Although police tape surrounded the yard and its main buildings were locked, the open end of the hay barn could not be so secured.  Joseph simply lifted the tape and ducked beneath, wincing at multiple blows of rain on his t-shirted back.

In the protection of the barn roof he stripped off the wet shirt, spreading it across a hay-bale to dry.  Blinking in the half-light he could see the old place looked much as he remembered it; sweetly scented bales of hay six or seven deep, stacked high into rafters.   His head instantly filled with far-off childhood sounds – Ian’s irrepressible giggling, Michael’s shouts of command as he and his brothers clambered among the bales, which their imaginations arranged into dens and forts to attack or defend.

Lost in the tympanic din of rain, Joseph might scarcely have noticed a clatter of hooves from outside, but he could not possibly escape what followed;  a confusion of hoof beats punctuated by torrents of feminine abuse, then a rear view of an unseated rider as she stumbled backwards into the barn in her riding boots;  Sophie Forbes-Pattinson, clutching frantically at the reins of her big roan horse, the same horse that had shied upon meeting Joseph by the common some days before. The beast was white-eyed with fright, rearing and turning so quickly Sophie, helpless in its path, was thrown to the floor.   It was right above her, ready to pound her into the flagstones with its hooves, yet she would not release the reins: instead, uttering a further string of invective, she clung to the leather as though it was her last straw before drowning.  Without thinking Joe rushed to lend his own weight to the rein, trying to swing the animal’s head away from its erstwhile rider, making every steadying noise he could think of.

“What’s his name?  What’s his name?”  And when Sophie managed to gasp the name out he repeated it:  “Tumbler!  Steady, Tumbler!  There boy!”

For a few extremely anxious seconds Joe felt as though he were trying to placate a Brahma bull.  But then, as suddenly as his peace had been disturbed, reason prevailed.  Wooed, possibly, by the fragrance of hay the horse calmed, began to accept his reassurance. Blowing hard and shaking still, he allowed Joe to restrain his head as he stroked and patted, talking as much nonsense in a low voice as occurred to him until finally Tumbler consented to have a tangle of police tape removed from his legs.  Joe tethered him to one of the stanchions that reinforced the barn walls, and broke open a bale for him to eat.

A mortally embarrassed Sophie struggled to her feet, brushing dust and rain from herself as though she were under attack by angry wasps.  “Thank you.”  She avoided his eyes.  Her china-white skin was wet from the rain and pleasingly flushed.  Limping slightly, she walked across to the horse, petting him affectionately.  “He’s always been scared of storms, you see, and the lightning struck quite near to us.  I had to try and get him indoors.  I hope you aren’t hurt?”

“I’m fine.”  Said Joseph.  Lightning flared, illuminating the whole barn.  The horse snickered.  “I’m not so sure about him, though.”

“Oh, he’ll be alright now.”  Sophie assured him.  “No more rain on his back, some nice fodder.  I suppose it belongs to someone.  Who should I reimburse, do you think?”

“I’ve no idea.  You, are you hurt?”  Joe wondered at the concern his voice betrayed.

She caught his tone instantly and sought refuge in her strange little smile.  “Only my dignity.  You seem to have a penchant for catching me at a disadvantage.”

Joe raised an eyebrow.

“Mummy told me – when you brought some papers up for her the other day.  I have to be more careful, was how she put it.  You caught me sunbathing, didn’t you?”

Joe didn’t answer.  “You’re very wet.”  He pointed out.  “You’d better get that jacket off, I think.”

Thunder banged.  Sophie said:  “Anyway, I think you’re quite the knight in shining armour, Mr Palliser.  Thank you.”

“Joe, please.  Call me Joe?”

Sophie shrugged her hacking jacket from her shoulders.  The rain had penetrated it easily, soaking both shoulders of the white blouse she wore beneath.  It clung to her skin, informing Joe’s experienced eye.  She caught his glance with amusement.  “Too hot for excess clothing.”

“I’m sure.”  Joe was uneasy at being so quickly found out.

“Oh come on!  You must let me score some points!”  She spread the jacket over a bale.  “You’re a bit of an intrigue, Joe.  You didn’t tell me you had a home here already.”

“I’m staying with my aunt and uncle, I don’t really belong in the village.  Although I was thinking of buying a house here, I admit.  I would have acquainted you with more detail last time we met, but you didn’t allow me much opportunity.”

He seated himself on a hay-bale.  Sophie hesitated for a moment, then sat beside him.  Both stared out at the storm.  “Well!”  She said at last.  “Where do we go from here?”

“More small talk?”  Joe offered.

Sophie shook her head.  “Not my thing, really.  Mummy’s good at that.  She’s very smitten with you, you know.”

He laughed: she insisted.  “She is!  She was absolutely full of you after you left the other day.  Foolish me, I didn’t make the connection when I met you outside the Lamb House.  And why shouldn’t she?  You’re a very attractive man, Mr Palliser.”

Again, Joseph laughed. The malaise that overcame him at the Regan’s was lifting.   Sophie’s ice-cool frankness, so clinical at their last meeting, had an artless way with flattery.  Her eyes sparkled and in spite of himself, he was pleased.

“You have a gift with horses, and Tumbler’s an awfully good judge of character,” She went on.  “Nice face.  I think you could be kind.  Tall; a good, strong body….”

“What does your father do?”  He asked quickly.

“Daddy?  He’s a consultant surgeon.  He spends his week in London, so poor mummy gets most terribly lonely up there at the house.  What do you do, Joe?”

“Nothing at the moment.  If I do come to live back here, I shall have to find a job.  No skills, no prospects – future extremely uncertain.”

“Oh dear!”

“You needn’t sympathise.”

“I’m not.  ‘Oh dear, we’re making small talk’.”

“No,” said Joe, getting to his feet.  “We weren’t.”

On an impulse, he dug his fingers into the hay, hoisting himself up towards the top of the bale stack.  It was not vertical, so there were ledges, places to get a foothold.  “When my brothers and I were young;” he said as he climbed; “We used to play here.  We used to build ourselves hidey-holes and have battles and secret meetings and stuff.”

Sophie stood up.  “Would you give me a hand?”

Joe reached down for her, took her hand in his.  Together they scrambled to the top of the haystack, crawling between the bales and the rafters of the barn.

“Hope you don’t mind spiders.”  He offered, teasingly.

“Spiders completely fascinate me.”  She rejoined.

Joe was moving bales, stacking them to one side to create a hollow.  “You can go down two or three layers – with a child’s imagination, they can make anything you like.”

Sophie slipped into the space he had made.  Her riding boots made climbing difficult.

“Anything?”

“Yes.”  He moved a few more bales.  “A fort to defend – seats, you see? “  His words tailed off apologetically, “Alright, I know it seems feeble, but we were only kids.”

“A bed?”

She was behind him.  He looked around, to see her stretched out over the soft hay, looking up at him with mischief in her eyes.  “Mmm.”  Her appraisal was almost drowned by the sound of the rain.  “What should a poor damsel do if her noble rescuer insists upon his reward?  Such a quandary!”

“Perhaps,”  Joe replied, attuned to her thought and not a little surprised.  “But a rescuer of true nobility really could not insist.”

“Ah, Sir!  Imagine the damsel’s relief!”  Sophie chuckled.   “Oh my goodness!  Quite, quite excellent!”

Relaxing into the warm fragrance of the haystack, Joe allowed himself to stare – and Sophie luxuriated in his gaze; moving softly beneath her clothes, tantalising him gently.  But the moment the look in his eyes altered, she saw.

“What is it?”

His fingers, idly probing between the bales had discovered something pressed into the tight-packed hay.  He withdrew the object cautiously.

“Oh my!”  Sophie sat up.  “Whatever is that?”

“I’m not sure.”  Joe said.  “Somebody’s been doing a little whittling I expect.”

He turned the object over in his hand.  A crudely-carved effigy made from wood, with long arms and a stubby, short body; an effigy exactly like one concealed in his aunt and uncles’ garden wall.  As its significance dawned upon him he stiffened, clamping it in a grip so fierce it gave him pain. 

There are things I know.  Michael had said.  There are things I know.

Conscious he was shielding the effigy, for some reason, from Sophie’s gaze, Joe slipped it into his trousers pocket.  And seeing the gravity of its effect upon him, she did not inquire further.

Above their heads, the drum of rain ceased as suddenly as it had begun.  Unspeaking, they made their descent, Sophie falling the last four feet with a somewhat unconvincing girlish squeal, Joe catching her neatly around the waist to break her fall.  Their faces were only inches apart.

Sophie’s eyes brightened with challenge:  “You wouldn’t take advantage of me, would you, Joe?”

“The thought occurred,”  Joe said.  “Look, I suppose….would you like to go out sometime?”

“You mean, like a date?”  Sophie asked.

“I guess so, yes.”

“I’m sorry, Joe…..”

“Oh, no.  I’m the one who should apologise.”  He stumbled.  “Sorry I asked.”

She turned on her heel with a playful buck of her hips.  “I don’t steal my mother’s boyfriends.”

Her placated steed was waiting patiently.  He watched as she dried the saddle with her jacket and mounted.

“However, if you’re not doing anything on Thursday night?.”

“No, I’m not doing anything.”

“Seven o’clock, then.  No dressy dinners or anything like that, though.  I don’t do those.”

“I’ll think of something.”  He said

. © 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.