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Hallbury Summer – Episode Twenty. Night Moves

The story so far: 

After failing in his attempts to discover the whereabouts of his brother Michael, Joe Palliser has to deal with an aggressive journalist, and we learn that Jennifer Allthorpe, the journalist’s associate is to remain in the locality dig up some further dirt on Joe.

Meanwhile, Joe honours his commitment to Sophie Forbes-Pattinson, and takes her to a small café in a little harbour town for an evening meal.  The date gives them the opportunity to learn more about each other, and provides evidence, if any were needed, that they share a mutual attraction…

By the time Sophie and Joseph began their drive back to Hallbury the hour was late and the roads almost free of traffic:  on their way Joseph asked Sophie how much she knew of the Violet Parkin story.

“Only what I’ve read in the local ‘paper.  Village gossip tends to get filtered out before it reaches us.”

And Joe said that was good because he needed to confide in someone who could weigh the facts impartially.

“I am she!”  Sophie volunteered brightly.  “Prattle on!”

So he told her the story – about the murder and how Violet’s body was found, how evidence had placed Jack Parkin near the scene sometime on the fatal afternoon.  Then he retold Aaron’s account of the coven, and his concerns about Michael.  He resurrected little Christian Matheson, together with the stories that surrounded his disappearance; concluding with the slaughtered crows and the sad demise of Benjy the cat.

“All rather grisly, Joe.  I heard about the graves – that happened the other day, didn’t it?  Before Mrs. Parkin was buried?”

Joseph had half-expected Sophie to suggest he was falling victim to parochial superstition; even to ask why he really cared anyway.  But she didn’t.  She fell silent for a while, as the final miles passed.

“It all ties together, doesn’t it,” She said at last, “but witchcraft, Joe?  I’ve read about so-called witches who were just herbalists, or odd-looking octogenarians who managed to offend the wrong people.  There were a few bad apples, I suppose; who cursed people for a fee, brewed up nasty poisons, tried to invoke the devil, that sort of stuff.  Mostly rubbish, I should have thought, though the thing that strikes me is the probability that Mrs. Parkin counted herself as a witch.   Would one witch really murder another – black against white, maybe?”

Joe replied, grinning, that if Annie Parkin was a witch of any colour it would be black.  He was secretly pleased by Sophie’s interest.

Their last mile was covered and they were driving the lane through the centre of Wednesday Common when Joe slowed the car, bumping off the metalled road onto a grassy track.  After a hundred yards or so, where a clump of small trees offered concealment, he stopped, cutting the engine.

The inflection in Sophie’s tone was unmistakeable.  “Now I wonder why we’ve stopped here, Joe?”

He chuckled:  “It’s my surprise.  Time for adventure.  Come on!”

After opening the passenger door to let Sophie out, Joe extracted a canvas bag from the car boot.  Then, taking her hand for reassurance he led her, not back along the track towards the road, but further into the depths of the Common.  Sophie kept pace, refraining from complaint, though bracken scratched her legs and she could barely see in the darkness.  “Where are we going?”

“For a walk.”

“Oh, absolutely!  For a walk with a bag that clanks.”  Sophie’s voice shook a little.  “What have you got in there; tools to cut me up with?”

She seemed so capable and confident; it hadn’t occurred to Joe that he might frighten her, that he was still a comparative stranger who she might not completely trust.  “I’m sorry,” he said.  Emboldened, he found her in the darkness, gently taking her shoulders. She was breathing quickly. “I could never do you harm, Sophie.”

“It’s Okay,” She whispered:  “I didn’t really think you would….”And she turned into him, pressing her cheek to his.  “You’re sort of scary.”  She said; “And that’s sort of nice.”

He asked:  “You enjoy being scared?”

“Mmmm, sort of.  I enjoy being scared by you.”

Her cheek was cool, very soft. Joe knew he must kiss her then and he did, though it was not in his plan; and the taste of Sophie, her warmth against him gave him an unfamiliar sense of self-worth, of companionship.  It was a long kiss, sweetly comforting, that invited more.

“Down to business!”  He exclaimed, breaking away with difficulty and the feeling that, if fate should provide him with a dragon now, he would be able to slay it easily.  “Not far!”

The lights of the village were clear.  House windows, an occasional street lamp offered sanctuary, but Joe seemed intent upon avoiding them.

Sophie restrained him.  “No, we don’t.  Not until you tell me where we’re going, Joe Palliser.”

“Why, Sophie!  We’re going housebreaking!”

“Oh!”  Sophie cried, a world of doubt lifted from her shoulders.  “Excellent!  Why didn’t you say?”

The Parkin farm was in darkness when they stole through the gate, keeping in the shadow of the wall as they worked their way around to the back of the house.

“I want you to know;” Sophie whispered:  “I rather liked kissing you.”

“I liked it too.”

“If we’re arrested, do you think they’d let us share a cell?”

“I doubt it.  Please stop, this is very bad for my concentration!”  Joe begged.  Now hidden from view behind the farmhouse, he ferreted as quietly as he could in the bag of tools he had borrowed from Owen’s garage that afternoon (without Owen’s permission, of course); they rattled disturbingly in the silence.

“What’s that?”  Sophie asked, as he produced something metallic and heavy from the bag.

“I think housebreakers would call it a gemmy.”

A kitchen window, half-rotten, yielded to Joe’s assault with little resistance.  He pulled it wide open.

“You first.”  He joked.

“Certainly not!  You’ll get a perfect view of my bum. After you, Raffles!”

“I told you to wear jeans.”

It was an easy climb.  Joe made his way in, to find himself standing in what he assumed to be the kitchen sink.  Sophie passed him the bag of tools then focused upon retaining her dignity as she managed her short skirt through the window.

“Don’t stare!” She chided.

“It’s too dark!”  He complained.

“Such gallantry!”

What had Joe expected?  The smell of fungal damp was oppressive, but otherwise the limited light of his carefully-shielded torch flicked around a typical farmhouse kitchen; picking out an immaculately blacked range in a wide chimney breast, cupboards and a sideboard of polished wood, a scrubbed table, a couple of functional wooden chairs.  The red flagstone floor seemed to be clean; a mat (over which he almost tripped) protected an area around the sink.  It was a frozen moment:  there were two plates on the table, remnants of food on one from which Jack had probably eaten when he returned for his tea: had he thought his wife was out somewhere, possibly visiting in the village?  A cup with dregs on the sideboard – tea, probably; probably Violet’s:  Joe could not imagine Jack Parkin drinking tea.

Producing an extra torch from his bag, Joe passed it to Sophie so she might scan the room for herself.  “My Goodness!”  She exclaimed under her breath:  “Didn’t they bother to search this place at all?”

There was certainly no sign of disturbance:  everything was neatly arranged – too neatly, was Joe’s immediate thought.  He cringed at the creak of the kitchen door, casting his light back and forth along the narrow passage which sufficed for a hall. A besom was propped by the front door.  Sophie gestured meaningfully.

“Probably just to sweep the step?”

A panelled door on the opposite side of the hallway revealed a living room so pungent with the aroma of dry rot it almost choked them.  Joe’s torch hurriedly scanned shelves of bric-a-brac lining one wall: an armchair, its colourless upholstery worn into holes, a settee in such an advanced state of dilapidation it looked as if it might swallow its next unwary visitor, a rocker that quivered eerily as he stepped across the sagging floor.  Sophie held both torches while he searched through drawers and cupboards for anything that might reveal a clue to what happened the afternoon Violet died.  All he found, though, was the paraphernalia of everyday living.  A damp-damaged photo of Jack Parkin peered from a wooden frame on the mantelshelf; otherwise there seemed to be no personal effects at all.  What was he looking for?

“What are we looking for?”  Asked Sophie. “An edition of ‘Witches Weekly, or something?”

“I don’t know.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful!  So good to have a plan!””

They inched their way up threateningly unsteady stairs to a small landing that became a passage running the length of the house.  Two doors admitted them to rooms ostensibly above the kitchen, the furthest a tiny space at the end of the house crammed with enamel bowls, wooden chests, stacks of newspapers, what looked like a trouser press, a folding frame from a chair, even a Union Jack.  There was also an almost uninterrupted view of the stars where roof tiles were missing and the ceiling had collapsed.   Nothing that anyone prized could be concealed in this space.

The nearer door was a bedroom – or was it?   More the scrape of a wild hare than a room:  a single iron bed, its springs sagging, made up with a rag-bag of blankets, sheets and an old bolster pillow.  There were men’s unwashed clothes strewn neglectfully on the floor.  Cider bottles were everywhere:  some filled, some refilled and corked, mostly empty.

Joe heard Sophie trying to restrain a retching in her throat.  He felt for her.  It was unlikely she had ever seen squalor like this.  “Is this what he comes back to if he’s freed?  He’s better off in jail!”

Across the landing the other bedroom, over that damp lounge, was larger: here there were feminine touches.  There was a hint of boudoir, conflicting somewhat with Joseph’s recollection of Violet and her masculine stamp.  As they searched amidst the frills and favors they found more and more of Violet Parkin in this room.

“Photographs?”  Sophie pulled an album from a drawer in the bedside table.  She flicked through old sepia pictures titled in neat handwriting, depicting a younger if not much slighter Violet in her teenage years.  There were family groups in Edwardian dress with Violet the little girl in the company of a plumply optimistic woman and a wiry dry stick of a man not half her size.

“That must be Ben Wortsall,” Joe commented.  “He doesn’t look exactly fearsome, does he?”

A charabanc-load of posing faces followed (outing to Marsden, summer 1924), and some seaside snaps.  As Sophie neared the back of the book a small flat package, tied with some coarse thread fell from between pages and dropped to the floor.  It was just large enough to fill the palm of her hand.

“Oh, how tiny!”  She tried to undo the knot securing the wrapping.  “I believe it must have been sealed with something:  I might break it.”

“We’ll look at it later,” Joes said, slipping it into his pocket.

They left nothing unturned – took such clothes as there were from Violet’s ancient wardrobe, turned the bedclothes and the mattress from the bed.  They even looked beneath the carpet, but found nothing untoward.  No clue that would unlock the mystery of Violet’s death, certainly; in fact, apart from a few photographs, very little about Violet at all.

Defeated, Joe gave Sophie’s arm the gentle tug that indicated they should leave.  “I’m sorry,” he said,  “it’s been a wasted evening.”

“Not entirely wasted, Joe darling.”  Sophie gave his hand a squeeze.  “Although it would help if you told me what the bloody hell you hoped to find!”

“Something.  I can’t explain, Sophie, but I know it’s here.  Whatever it is that made Violet into a real person; that made her the way she was.  This house has a secret, I’m sure of that.”

They were descending the creaking stairway, careful in the torch’s limited light, when they heard the scrape of a key in the front door.

“Oh god!  Someone’s coming in!”  Sophie hissed.  “What now, Raffles?”

“Now?”  Joe whispered.  “Run!”

He grabbed her hand.  Throwing caution to the winds, they stumbled down the remaining stairs, bolting for the kitchen.  Their flight must have been heard, for the turning of the door-key paused.

“Who’s there?”  A man’s voice demanded.  “Who’s that?”

Now the front door was opening with some urgency – a heavy shoulder crashed against it to force it to yield, and swift footsteps advanced into the hall.

In the kitchen, Joe collided with the table, shooting a javelin of pain into his groin.  Cursing incoherently, he jammed the table against the door then, in the few precious moments thus gained he limped to help Sophie, who was struggling through the window, lifting her quickly by her hips. She scrambled, squealing her indignation, before disappearing into the darkness outside. As Joe grabbed his bag of tools the table shot out into the room and the kitchen door burst wide   His feet followed him in a headfirst dive through the window and he landed shoulder first on the cobbles.

“This way!”  He was back on his feet in an instant, grabbing Sophie’s hand as together they ran for the back of the yard – for the field gate that hung, half-open there; and the shielding darkness of the meadow beyond.

“Don’t look back!”  He warned.  “Don’t let him see your face!”

Sophie hopping to remove her heels, Joe wincing at the latent ache in his groin; both ran, and sheltered finally under a cloak of night, they chanced a peek behind them to see a man’s head in the window they had forced, silhouetted by the light of a hurricane lamp.  It was difficult to identify the figure, although something about him seemed familiar.

Crouched low, tool bag tucked beneath Joe’s arm to silence it, and with Sophie laughing so hysterically as to make any attempt at stealth futile, the pair struck out across the grass.  Joe deliberately avoided the most obvious route, allowing his memory to direct him to a gap in the hedgerow which he knew would lead out onto Church Lane.

“Through there?”  Sophie complained; “I hope you’re going to recompense me for this hair-do, Joey Palliser.”

From the lane they doubled back, eventually arriving undetected – or so they believed – at Joseph’s parked car.  Guided by what he hoped was inbuilt radar, supplemented by large helpings of luck, Joe manoeuvred the unlit Wolsey back to the road.  He drove the best part of half a mile before he felt confident enough to switch on the lights.

Although confident they were not followed, still Joe did not want his car’s headlights to be seen, or give away either his or Sophie’s connection with the village.  So he drove, not back into Hallbury, but towards Walcotter Bridge, the next large village.  He sought out a lay-by shielded from the road and pulled over; slumping back into his seat.

“That was close.”

Sophie had said nothing throughout this journey.  She was engaged in meticulous preening, pulling large amounts of green stuff from her fine, long hair and collecting it, thoughtfully, in the car’s ashtray.  Now she accorded him a cool look.

“Well, it was interesting.”  She said dryly.  “See the state I’ve got myself into?  I’m an absolute scarecrow!”

“A very beautiful one.  I’m really sorry.  Shall I take you home?”

“No.”  She shook her head, staring down at herself, “Although I suppose we will have to soon.  I’m all scratched!”  She raised her right leg, placing her bare foot on the car dashboard so Joey could verify in the dim interior light that her pale flesh was indeed a mass of minor scratches.

“How am I going to explain this away?  How?  Look!”

She laid the abraded leg across Joe’s lap.  He took her foot gently in his hand and she giggled girlishly at his touch.  Very tenderly, he stroked the wounded skin of her calf.  He was of a mood to explore further.

She flexed sinuously, “Oh, you are good!  You really are!  But it is awfully late.”  She disengaged herself gently, sinking back into her seat.  “I can’t quite make you out, Joe Palliser – are you someone really special, or just the sad old Lothario they say you are?  I saw someone different tonight – I see someone different every time we meet.”

“I thought you were supposed to be the chameleon?”

“True.  But I think perhaps I pale to insignificance beside you.  My camouflage might not be able to keep up, you see.  If I weren’t careful, I should become prey.  That much vulnerability isn’t something I’m used to.”

“No, I guess not.”  Together, they stared out into the night.  Finally, he said:  “I don’t think I like being a chameleon:  disguise isn’t me, Sophie; it really isn’t.  It’s nice to be vulnerable sometimes…take it from someone who’s vulnerable all the time.  Anyway, who are ‘they’?”

Sophie was lost in thought.  “They?”

“The ‘they’ who say I’m – what was it – an ‘ageing Lothario’?”

“Jennifer Allthorpe, for one; she seemed very interested in you.  Knew you were staying in the village, knew about your brother.  She told me quite a lot about you, Joe, quite a lot.”

Joseph asked, in a dead voice:  “So you heard about my life in London?”

“Some.  I don’t know how much there is to tell.”

“Yet you still wanted to come out with me?”

She nodded;  “Of course!”  Then:  “Because you’re interesting, Joe!  Because the world is full of two-dimensional men and you’re certainly not one of them!  Tonight’s been fun – different, but fun!”

“It lived up to expectations, then?”

Sophie reached for his hand and grasped it.  “I’ve enjoyed it, I really have.  Thank you.”

He slipped the Wolsey into gear. “Then we can do this again?”

She laughed: “Breaking and entering, you mean?” She studied him carefully.  “I don’t know; should I?”

Highlands House was in darkness when the Wolsey crunched up to its doors.  Sophie turned Joe’s head to her for a goodbye kiss which lingered, just a little, before she broke away.  “I’ll call you.”  She said, “Promise!”  And she was gone.  Joe watched her pause in the porch to tidy herself, then returned her wave.

© 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:  Brandon Morgan on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode Nineteen. Chameleons

The story so far:

Still vying with his conscience Joe has made an offer to buy the Lamb house in Hallbury.  He traces his brother Michael’s steps on the day of Violet Parkin’s murder by visiting the Marsden-on-Sea house that was his regular haunt when the care home allowed, and he finds that Michael managed to escape supervision and was missing for several hours on that day.  He also learns of a mysterious smartly dressed man who met with him at a café he frequented in the town.  Meanwhile, Joe’s every move is being followed…

 

Joe returned to his Aunt and Uncle’s house to find they had gone out for the evening.  A note on the hall table advised him that his offer for the Lamb house had been accepted so he tried the estate agent’s business number; there was no reply.  Resigning himself to yet another visit to Braunston the next morning, he raided Julia’s cupboards for cold beef and threw together a sandwich before retiring to his room, plate of food in one hand and large Bacardi in the other.  There, called by the temptation of a warm bed and lulled by the steady lash of rain against his window, he slept.

The penalty for sleep was harsh:  sleep brought dreams; dreams brought the past, vivid and real, back to life.  The lips which smothered his face in kisses this time were Marian’s; kisses that were fierce, urgent, the teeth behind the lips teasing, nipping, demanding him.  They had made love so many times yet still it seemed she needed more.    What was it?  What was so wrong about that night?  After months when he had thought he was losing her, when she had seemed uninterested in sex or even just bored, there she was, an animal in his bed, so desperately wanting he thought her almost insane.

Then the words she had never said, suddenly spoken, sweetly – so sweetly; “I love you, Joey.  I love you.”

Dreams do not reason: they do not ask why.  Questions are reserved for waking.  Yet one terrifying moment returned; repeated itself night upon night:  Marian, cold with the chill of death.  Marian, draped naked over him like a blanket or a pall and he trapped beneath – as though she were a slab that covered his tomb, while he, still living, struggled to rise.  Had he replied?  Had he told her that he, in his way, had loved her too?  At this, a hideous peal of laughter, his genie above him where her poor body had been, leering in his face.

“Love?”  Sneered the genie:  “What is love to you?”

Then a renewal – a hand, small and cool to his touch, clasping his, pulling him back to wakefulness.

The house was dark; there was no sound but the wind and the rain.  This day Violet Parkin had been laid to rest: laid deep beneath the sodden mud, but she would not mind the damp or the rain. She was waiting.  Jack was soon to come to her, and only he, Joseph, the guiltiest of three guilty brothers, would stand in his way.  Should he?  Sometimes death for the wronged could be a merciful sister, no matter whose hand clasped the axe.

When Joe parted his curtains next morning to see the Austin Princess parked in the road he thought Jennifer’s was the strident fist knocking at the door.   He got to answer it before Julia and Owen were disturbed:  he had heard their late return, listened to their muted conversation as they settled for bed and bed was where they were still, having an uncharacteristic lie-in.

“Palliser.”  This was not Jennifer.  The man on the porch cut a greying figure, dressed against the morning chill in a navy overcoat and deerstalker hat.  He had a full, quite distinctive face, cool, glittering eyes and an immaculately trimmed goatee beard.  “Come on, inside.”

No invitation was sought:  permitting Joe no  time to dissent, this was a hand-on-arm hustle with the authority of a schoolmaster, or a policeman.  “This your drawing room?  Sit down.  You’re extremely lucky, Palliser.  I think we’ll be in time.”

“Who the hell are you?”  Joe demanded, recovering himself.

“That you’ll get to know in the next few minutes.  First, I want everything you’ve found out so far.  Everything – leave nothing out.”

“About what?”  The stranger’s attitude was far too nettlesome for eight o’clock in the morning.

“You’ve been a bad boy, haven’t you?  They’re all on your track, Joe, you have to understand that.  You should be grateful I got here first.”  He matched Joe’s angry stare with disturbing intensity.  “Now it’s time to stump up.  Where is Michael?  We have to find him urgently. Is he in Marsden?”

“Not that I know of.”  Joe repeated more emphatically.  “Who are you?”

“How did Marian die, Joe?”  The quick-fire switch of subject was clearly meant to catch Joe off balance, but it merely infuriated him further.

“Either identify yourself or get out!”

“I’m someone who’s on your side, man.  Be sensible! You know Marian’s old man will never let you get your hands on her money.  The police are involved.  Are they looking for you?  You’re in deep, deep trouble, my friend.  I’m your only hope, you see?”

Initially Joe might have been caught off guard, but now he recognised the newspaper man Ian had warned him about, and remembered Ian’s advice:  ‘Give them nothing they can use as a confirmation – they’ll pretend to know a lot more than they do, and they’ll try to catch you.’

Joe took the offensive.  “Which ‘paper?  ‘Courier’? ‘Today’?  ‘Chronicle’?  Since you refuse to introduce yourself, I’ll give you a name.  Let me see – Eddie?  Which muck rag, Eddie?”

“That’s a very good guess.  My middle name is Edward, actually.  Douglas Lynd – that’s my by-line, Joe.  The ‘Courier’.”  Discovered, Eddie tried another tack:  “Now, tell me about Marian, Joe.”

“Tell you what?”  Ian’s second piece of advice: ‘Never throw them out; they’ll just print what they like, then.  Only give answers they’ll have to disprove if they want to publish.’  “That she was my landlady?  That she used the flat upstairs when she was in town?”

“You were sleeping with her.”

Contriving to return Lynd’s smirk with a steady glare, Joe said:  “I deny that.”  After all, it would not be the first time he had lied in Ian’s cause.

“Oh come on!”  Lynd scoffed.  “You had a relationship with her which lasted for years!  You travelled with her on her business trips:  she called you her ‘secretary’.  You can’t even bloody type!”

‘The office has managed to cover all but a couple of your trips,’ Ian had said.  ‘The two you made to the Scottish Trade Exhibitions in ’63 and ‘64.  Too many connections to track down, I’m afraid.’

“Untrue.”  Joe snapped.  “I was out of a job in ’63 and needed work. Mrs Brubaeker hired me for one trip. I was useful, so when the same trip came up the following year she took me with her again.  That’s all.  Separate rooms booked on each occasion, nothing untoward.  Your information is wrong.”

Lynd’s lip curled:  “Really?  Is that the best you can come up with?  If this relationship was platonic, how do you explain the will, Joe?  All that money?”

“Ah,” Joe nodded.  “Something someone like you wouldn’t understand Lynd.  Marian Brubaeker was a nice, very charitable person:  she led a separate life from the rest of her family, and as my solicitor explains it, she didn’t think her husband should have her fortune.  He has considerable wealth of his own, doesn’t he?”

“So she hauled you out like a present from a bran tub?”

“I don’t think she had anyone else to give her money to.  I think she was a lonely woman.”

“She was keeping you, wasn’t she?”

“No.”

“How else did you earn a living for what – ten years?”

“A job here, a job there: none of them lasted very long.  Some work for my brother.  I can live very cheaply.”

“A job here, a job where, exactly?”

“Why should I help you with details I can’t remember myself?”

Sighing, Lynd looked down at his feet, and the brown brogues which shod them.  “So that’s your story, is it?  Would it surprise you to know we have evidence you and Mrs Brubaeker were living together for a decade?”

“It would be a calumny, and therefore also libellous.  Mrs Brubaeker and I did not cohabit in any sense.  I had the flat downstairs, she was my landlady; no more than that.  Say otherwise and I’ll sue you for a figure with more noughts on the end than you can count.”

“You killed her, didn’t you?”

Had Joe half-expected the question?  Expected or no, he had to swallow before he answered:  “That’s disgusting!  No, of course I didn’t!”

“A tacky little fortune-hunter like you, twisting a lonely older woman around your finger to get her to leave you her money – of course you killed her!  Just as soon as she changed that will you had your grubby hands around her throat!  The cops will find out, Joe; it’s just a matter of time, son.  I’d start thinking about running, if I were you.”

He had to remain calm!  “That’s completely untrue.”

“We’ll see.  The investigation’s nearly complete, I’m told.  Michael’s mad, isn’t he?  You keep him restrained in a home.”

“I don’t keep Michael anywhere.”  Joe kept pace with the change.  “And he’s not restrained, as far as I know.  He’s my brother – wasn’t there some quote or other – ‘I am not my brother’s keeper’?”

“Here we go again.”  The newspaper man sighed.

“No,” was Joe’s rejoinder.  “No, we don’t.  It’s time you left, Mr Lynd.  Now!”

At the front door, Douglas Lynd asked, over his shoulder:  “Which mental home is Michael in, Palliser?”

“Michael is not in any ‘home’,” Joe responded.  “He’s free to come and go as he pleases.  Get out!”

Lynd nodded:  “This story is worth a lot of money, Joe.  My ‘paper pays well.  If you change your mind…”  He pulled a card from his pocket.  For some reason, Joe took it and placed it in a pocket of his own.

Watching the journalist drive away, Joe wondered at himself and his ability to lie.  From their earliest days, he and Ian had covered for one another, in their half-remembered infancy when their parents were alive, then through youth because Owen and Julia were strangers, the substitute parents who must be kept away from the secrets of the brothers’ world.

Jennifer was in the hotel bar, studying the day’s ‘Courier’ in one hand, picking at a cold chicken salad with the other.

Lynd nodded at the newspaper:  “Anything?”

“Not for us.”  Jennifer said.  “Did you get anything?”

“No, nothing worthwhile.  He’ll have briefed his people by now, so there’s no sense wasting time on him.  When the Party closes ranks…..”  He sipped thoughtfully from his whisky.  “You got plans?”

“Nothing that won’t wait.  Why?”

“There’s a loose end.  For some reason, he seems excessively interested in the Parkin case.”  Jennifer cast him a quizzical look.  “Local murder: look it up if you like.  See, I don’t know why a bloke like him would take the trouble, unless…”

“Unless what?”

“Well, unless there’s some personal connection.  And why did he bugger off to the seaside yesterday, questioning the people who looked after his brother?  Put the ends together, see what you get.  You can get closer to the bloke than I can.”

Jennifer pursed her lips.  “I’ll try.  Get closer to him? I don’t know.  He’s a strange one.”

Lynd made a face.  “He’s not…?”

“A confirmed bachelor?  No, I’d have seen that straight away.  I’ll work on it.  There might be a love interest for you.”

“Now that,” said Douglas Edward Lynd, “Would definitely help!”

 

That afternoon, the Masefields’ telephone rang.  Joe answered it.

“What are we doing tonight?”  Sophie’s telephone voice was bright, companionable:  “Don’t say you’ve forgotten!”

“Of course not.  I can’t tell you.”   Joe had not forgotten.

“Why?”

“You wouldn’t come.”

Silence for a moment at the other end – then, cautiously:  “How do I know what to wear?”

“Oh.  Dress down – right down.  Old jeans or something.”

“Absolutely.  A girl has to look her best…”

Joseph drove up to the imposing front doors of Highlands House that evening as confidently as any fugitive, sensible that his mere presence could lower the property’s rateable value.  This was hardly a novel feeling:  in London, whether he was behind the curtains watching Marian’s husband leave, or accompanying her on one of her sorties into the north, or to France, or Italy;  when everyone knew, though it was not discussed, exactly what role he fulfilled, the same burden applied.  Guilt was endemic to his nature now.  Wherever he was, he retained the uncomfortable feeling that he had no right to be there.

Sophie bounced from the opened door with a young horsewoman’s determination; an oddly gauche contrast to the languid, self-assured squire’s daughter who had flirted with him in the hay barn.  Was she nervous?  A burgundy coat folded over one arm, tote bag in the other hand, she was certainly not ‘dressed down’: an angora sweater in light sky blue, a denim mini-skirt which emphasised the length of her elegant legs and heeled red sandals  with toenails painted to compliment them.  She slipped into the seat beside him, tugging her skirt into modesty without giving him time to climb out and hold the door for her.

“Super car!”

“It’s old.”

“I so prefer the old ones.  The latest models are cheap and plasticky, don’t you think?  This has style, Joe.”

“You look very nice.”  He stopped short of the word ‘ravishing’, although that was exactly what he thought.

“Why, thank you, kind sir!”  Sophie gave him a smile which told him she knew exactly the word he was thinking of.

“That is not a pair of old jeans.”

“It’s denim.  It’s last year’s at least, and this old thing…”  She pulled at the sweater disparagingly.  “I wear this all the time.  Where are we going?”

“To the seaside.”

“Super.”

The drive to the coast was filled mostly with small talk, question and answer, seeking common ground.  Did Joe know Kellie-so-and-so, who would have been at Braunston School at such a time?  Did Sophie remember Jimmy-what-was-his-name, the boy who left the village around the time when..?  These discussions bore no satisfactory fruit, except perhaps to prove they had no friends in common, and few memories to share.  Yes, she had played with the village children sometimes, but mostly her friends were from Braunston, or further off.

“I know you have a brother in politics.”

“I know your father’s a distinguished consultant surgeon.”

“Daddy works awfully hard.”

“Ian pretends to.  Sometimes he almost brings it off.”

Then Joseph said:  “I met one of your friends the other day; she’d just been to see you, apparently – someone called Jennifer?”

Sophie pulled a face.  “Jennifer Althorpe you mean?  I was at school with her, but I wouldn’t really call her a friend.  She looked me up, though, that’s true.  Careful, Joe – Jenny’s a bit of a man-eater.  She’s also a journalist; quite dangerous all round, really.”

 

Their road served a succession of fishing villages strewn along the Channel’s stony shore.  Most sported no more than a few inshore smacks drawn up on the beach, and the odd lobster pot or two.  One little harbour town however – or village, because three or four shops in themselves make no more than the sum of their parts – had a humble charm all its own.  One street led in and led out in the space of a precipitous half-mile between sandstone headlands, past stone cottages, dark romantic alleys, a cobbled quay where a couple of coastal trawlers and a sorry-looking pleasure craft oscillated and bumped against the tide.  The evening sun low over the western cliff turned its opposite from blushing pink to glowering vermillion, casting black shadowed mystery after mystery – a cave perhaps, a depthless fissure, or hidden wreck?

One small café, unimaginatively named ‘The Lobster Pot’ stood on the quayside.  Upon first acquaintance it promised nothing very much:  a hand-written menu in the window, oil-cloth on the tables, a Martini bottle with a candle jammed into its neck as a centre-piece for each.

“You said you didn’t do dinners.”  Joe reminded Sophie, reading the dismay in her face.  “But if you can ignore the peeling paint and the slightly less than wonderful washrooms, the seafood is to die for.”

“Or to die of.”  Sophie said gravely.  “Aren’t we a little new for this degree of trust?”

“Nonetheless, trust me.”  He replied.

So they ordered crab, and Joe paid corkage on a bottle of wine he had carefully chosen from a Braunston vintner that afternoon, and they sat on bentwood chairs by a window that overlooked the quayside, while the sun worked its evening magic.  The food was all Joe had promised, for the crab had no journey to make in reaching here; it was delicately sweet and as fresh as the sea which yielded it.

When the sun had long set and their meal was over, Sophie sat back to look at Joe as though she was assessing him for some high purpose.  “You know, Joseph Palliser, there are depths to you I didn’t expect.”

He stared into his wine.  “You’re a little different, too.”

“Oh, Sophie Forbes-Pattinson, the squire’s daughter?  I can’t keep that up all the time.”  She said reflectively.  “I hope I don’t disappoint you. I’m a bit of a chameleon, actually, Joe.  Different faces, different requirements.  Like the horsewoman, eh?”  She slapped herself on the thigh.  “Good seat, what?”

“Like Eve White?”

“The film?  Sort of, I suppose.  She was a professional, though:  I do it for a hobby.”

“So long as the real Sophie’s in there somewhere.”  He said.

The hour was already late.  While Sophie braved the facilities Joe paid for their meal and wandered out onto the waterfront.  Somewhere beyond his eyes surf beat out a lazy rhythm.  The boats at their moorings grunted and murmured, deep in secretive conversation.   Sophie found him standing by his car.  She waited this time while he opened the door for her, briefly clasping his hand.

“Thank you Joe, that was nice.”  Her voice was soft.  She was very near.

“Now for the cabaret!”  Joe 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.

 

 

 

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode Eight   A Question of Belonging

 

The Story so far:

 

Joseph Palliser returns to his home village on the day a respected villager, Violet Parkin is murdered.  Whilst Jack, Violet’s husband, is arrested for her murder Joe also attracts attention from the police.  In the decade of Joe’s absence his ex-girlfriend, Emma, has married Tom Peterkin, who was his friend throughout his youth.  When they meet Joe discovers that Emma still has feelings for him.

Joe visits his mentally unwell brother Michael, who, despite his confinement in a nursing home, inexplicably knows about Violet Parkin’s murder.  He discovers his brother’s expensive residential care is being paid for, but no-one will disclose the source of the funds.  Back in Hallbury he is confronted by a police detective who raises doubts about his movements on the day Violet was killed…

The Detective was clearly waiting for an answer.  Joseph took a deep breath:  “This is relying on the word of two elderly people who probably don’t remember which ‘bus they were on.  As to the Abbots Friscombe train, I’m not surprised if no-one remembers me: there was no-one in my compartment.”  He decided upon attack:  “Anyhow, does it matter?  Are you suggesting I leapt from the ‘bus, ran down to the other end of the common, stabbed Violet Parkin to death and then came back here to greet my uncle and aunt?  Ask them what time I arrived.  And what possible reason would I have to attack Violet Parkin?”

The young constable was staring fixedly out into the garden.  His superior gave Joseph a piercing look.  “The time of Mrs Parkin’s death was approximate, sir; so maybe you wouldn’t have had to rush.”  He leant forward a little:  “How did you know Mrs Parkin was stabbed, Mr Palliser?”

“Shall we say I have inside knowledge?”  Joe asked, glancing meaningfully at the young constable and gratified to see his shoulders stiffen.  “Detective, do I honestly strike you as someone who sharpens pitchforks?”

The detective sergeant sighed.  “Pitchforks, now?  No sir.  No, you don’t.  But you do strike me as someone who knows a lot too much about Mrs Parkin’s death.”

“I’ve been away for several years, Sergeant.  I didn’t even know Violet Parkin was still alive.”

“True, but you have associations with this village, don’t you?  I wonder if you arrived earlier than you claim, and if you did, you might have seen something, or done something you would prefer not to talk about here.  Please think carefully; if you remember anything new and you want to talk to me….”

They left then, the one middle-aged, bearing the weary cynicism of someone accustomed to lies, the other a fresh young puppy-dog with waggy tail, pleased to have discovered something of value to his master.  The word they left behind, the one that dwelt with Joseph for a long time that evening, was ‘associations’:  did he still have those?  And if so, who in the village would have given that information to the police?

In spite of Michael’s plea for urgency, some days would elapse before Joseph could catch up with Ned Barker, the landlord of the King’s Head.

Dot explained.  “He’m gone fishin’, lover.”

In village parlance she might have meant he was camping out by a stream somewhere, although he was more likely to be on some other mission entirely.  It was no-one’s business but Ned’s, and Joe lacked the persistence to enquire further.

He filled his time by taking the train to Braunston for a visit to the Labour Exchange.  The day was warm and sunny so he bought a local newspaper and sat on a bench in the park to browse through the ‘vacancies’ column.  Employers seemed to be so discriminating; the qualifications they demanded followed more and more precise lines –  ‘Qualified Administrator:  HNC or higher’; or maybe ‘Trained Supervisory Assistant – must have at least five year’s experience’.  At thirty-one Joseph was, he had to admit to himself, qualified for precisely nothing.

Despondent, he turned to the front page, where the Parkin murder was splashed in giant headlines.  Their ‘Suspicious Death Shocks Hallbury’ was less than inspirational, and the report lacked substance, but it brought Joseph face to face with Violet Parkin, for the ‘paper had managed to obtain a photograph of her.  A head and broad shoulders glaring awkwardly at the camera, she frowned directly at him, as though she had never forgiven him for disturbing her ducks.

If asked, he would be unable to say how long he had been there when he heard the brush of clothing as someone settled on the bench beside him.  He did not look round, or acknowledge the newcomer:  his mind was too busy.

“I keep running into you, don’t I?”  Said Emma Peterkin.

She sat primly with coppery hair riffling gently in the wind, hands clasped on a small brown handbag in her lap, staring before her; a young married woman in her ‘town best’ – her pale green blouse loosely tucked into the waistband of a hounds-tooth checked skirt which finished just above her knees.  Sheer tights or stockings over legs too well-proportioned to go unnoticed, white heels on narrow feet.  Undeniably respectable, entrancingly pretty, Joe thought; and utterly miserable.

She turned her face towards him.  It was so close to being the perfect face; it was, still, so close to being Sarah’s face: wide set, soulful eyes, a strong nose, broad, sensuous mouth;  those two little pink patches on her upper cheeks which flushed furiously whenever she was embarrassed or aroused.  Small wonder then, that he had found his way to her when Sarah had gone – small wonder that she still tugged at his heartstrings dangerously, despite the passing of the years.

“I should have just walked past.  I’m sorry,” She said.  “But I couldn’t.  You looked so….”  Her voice tailed away.

“Emma.”  Joe began.

“How are you, Joe?”  She had determined upon a greeting; a normal conversation.  They were friends, reunited after a long absence.  They had much to share.  “I come to town each Tuesday to shop, when it’s quiet.  I works the other days of the week and Tom never likes it if I break into our Saturday together.  People say the shops should start opening on Sundays and I don’t know if I don’t agree with them – what do you think?”

“I really don’t have an opinion.”

“Really?  Really, you don’t?”  Emma’s eyes sought about her frantically:  “Well, I think it would be a blessing, I do.  I…I can’t sleep, Joe!  For thinking about you, I can’t…”

“Emma, please?”  He reached out for her, covered her hand with his; and simple gesture of compassion as that was, her flesh trembled at his touch.

“Not since you come back!  Why the fuck did you come back?”

The word was never more startling in its impact than when it came from Emma.  It passed through Joseph like an electric shock – a surge of anger, and pain, and – yes, a stab of intense longing too.

“Emma, I…”

“No!  No, you tell me!  Not a word from you, Joe Palliser; though I waited.  Yes, I did.  Because you promised, didn’t you?  I’ll write you soon as I get settled, Emma?  Remember?”  She clasped her hands about her knees, leaning forward, half-hunched, eyes filling with tears.  “So why are you here?  So you can…”  Emma spat out the word…  “use me again, to forget your precious bloody Sarah?  Because that’s what you did, Joe.  That’s what you did!”

“Stop it!”  He went to her then, because he was unable to bear her fury; because she was hurting too much.  He put his arm about her shoulders and stilled her, took her hand in his and held it there.  “Stop, Emma, please?”

“Oh, god!”  It was a suppressed wail.  “Why’d you have to come back?”

“Emm, you know why I left?”

“Yes, I know.  Because Charker was after you.  I got news for you, boy.  He’m still after you.  Charker don’t forget.”

“If it hadn’t been for that…”

Emma glared at him.  “Don’t give me ‘ifs’!”  Her face was too close to his.  Realising, she quickly turned her head aside.

He said:  “All this was a lot of years ago.  It was more than just Charker, it was Owen and Julia, it was my brothers; the whole thing.  But it wasn’t you.  All right, perhaps at first I might have been getting over Sarah, I admit it; but all that changed.  Believe me, I didn’t just use you.  It was far more than that.”

“Oh, the lies we want to hear!”

“No, not lies.”  Joe sighed, unashamed that his own breath should give him away:  she would sense it, he knew.

“Why didn’t you call me?” Her voice was calmer.

“Emm, I made a mess of London.  If I’d managed to find a job I could keep or a home that was more than a bedroom, I would have called, but it wasn’t like that.  It wasn’t the answer for me.  I did a lot of things I can’t talk about. In the end, this was the only place to come.”

“Oh!  Oh, enough of an answer to find yourself a wife, Joe!”  Emma snapped back. “Where does she come into all of this?  Or are you just goin’ to drop her as well?  What must she be thinkin’?”

“She understands.  I needed to get away – she knows that.”   Why did he choose to be evasive?  Did he think the symbolic defence of a wedding ring would be sufficient to deny the temptation sitting beside him?

Emma made no reply.  For a long time, nothing was said.  People walking by, idling in the sun, would make up their own versions of the story of a man and an unhappy woman huddled together on a park bench.

At length, Joe said:  “Look, I’d better go.”

“What are you going to do now?  You going back to London, or what?”  She muttered.

“No, that’s all over.  Wherever I go, I can’t go there.”

“Over?”  Emma turned to look at him, red-eyed.  The pink spots on her cheeks were afire, her lips were slack.  “Then you are droppin’ her! You be careful, Joe.  Soon the world’s going to be full of places you can’t go.”

“I thought I’d stay:  try and do something with my life.”  He could not deny the need to kiss her or, despite her misgivings, how much she wanted that too.  Her thigh was pressed to his, sending him arrows of its warmth, and there were so many words that needed to be said – so many things that could never be said.

I want you, Joe!  I’m so ready for you, right now.  You could take me, here, in front of everybody and I wouldn’t care!

“It’s a good job this is a public park.”  She said.

“This is wrong, Emma.”  He said.

“I know it.”  She shook her head sadly.  “And if you stay, we’re going to meet time after time like this, and just pass each other by, I suppose.   Oh, I can’t, Joe!  I can’t!”

She got up then, thinking she might begin to cry again, and brushed her hand down the back of her skirt.

“Oh, Lord!”  She said, and walked away.

Joseph watched her go.  It was pointless to deny the way he felt for her, although it surprised him by its intensity:  there had been times, after all, when months had gone by without his sparing her a second thought.  But then, there had been not just months, but years of denial, of truths unacknowledged.  Doing what he had to do – surviving as he had to survive.

Now, seeing her again, hearing the soft invitation in her voice, being close to the heat of her – he shook himself physically.  Emma was married:  what was more, she was married to the only person in Hallbury he had ever been able to call a true friend.  And life was complicated enough.

For a few days Joseph stayed at home, helping Owen with his beloved garden as he gradually melted the old man’s distaste for his ‘gigolo’ ward.  In his turn he gained new respect for Owen, an always distant figure in his past.  This stern, disinterested father substitute seemed more comfortable with Joseph the man than with the child he and his wife had so selflessly agreed to raise.  Once he had learnt to adjust to Owen’s slow, exacting logic, Joseph found depths he had not believed could exist.

There were also moments of startling acuity.

Half-way up the garden Owen had grown two rows of tomato plants.  It promised to be a good year, and abundant trusses were already set.  Any new shoots had to be picked out, and the pair were engaged in this chore when the older man observed:  “You’re behaving like someone who wants to return to the village.”

Joseph grinned:  “Really?”

“Is it true?”

“I don’t know.”  Joe straightened himself to ease his back for a moment.  “I think there may be too many issues, Uncle; I’m not sure Little Hallbury would exactly clasp me to its bosom right now.”

“I won’t deny you’ve got some problems.  Funny thing, acceptance.”  Ferreting in the depths of his gardening corduroys, Owen retrieved his pipe; pulling a half-used pack of fragrant Amsterdamer tobacco from the same source.  He tapped out the pipe on a stone.

“Outsiders see our community as being inbred, insular, positively hostile.  It isn’t true, of course – Hallbury is really a well-oiled social machine.  It has perfect balance; it consumes and produces on a steady plane, settles its own feuds and petty crime, and so on.”

He turned away from the breeze, cupping his hands around his pipe to light it ,  then he resumed, speaking between puffs as he coaxed the smouldering bowl into life.

“If you’re born into it, you’re a member.  If you aren’t there’s nothing you can do.  You won’t know, for instance, because no-one will openly speak of it, that old Josiah Regan, Janice’s grandfather, went completely mad and got caught trying to eat one of Hal Turker’s ducks raw back in ‘46 – you won’t be acquainted with an unfortunate habit of Aaron Pace in his younger years:  there’s scarcely a bedroom window in the village he hasn’t peeked through.

“You see, the rural idyll is nothing of the sort.  This place has more secrets, more closeted skeletons, more social crime than you can possibly imagine.  It seethes below the surface.  Unless you’re a part of it the true natives will never be that comfortable with you.  You’ll never ‘belong’ in that way.”

Owen wagged a finger.  “That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  For instance, you can leave your door unlocked without fear that someone will just walk in for a cup of tea and a conversation.  And it doesn’t mean that the village will ostracize you.  They just won’t treat you as a part of their machine.

“You’re closer to acceptance than most incomers would get.  You came to Hallbury as a child, your best friend lives here, and you’ve made enemies as well, so you’re interesting.  You could do worse than settle here.  I believe the Lamb family’s cottage on Church Hill might be up for sale soon.  Charley Lamb works in Hurley Walter now and I know he’s looking to move.”

Joseph shook his head.  “You know, Uncle, you are surprising me.  I always thought you wanted me as far away from you as possible.”

The old man ruminated upon this for a moment.  “I’ve never been confident around children.  Julia and I agreed a long time ago not to have any of our own, so taking on the three of you was a big demand on us.  I don’t want you living in this house forever, but I admit I like you better now you’re full-sized.”

“Even though I’m a gigolo?”  Joseph reminded him.

“Nobody’s perfect.”  Owen allowed himself a secret smile:  “There was a time in Cairo, during the war…”

On Thursday the weather broke. The garden being unworkable, Joe retired to his room to work on his curriculum vitae.  Only after tea did the rain ease enough to allow him to venture out.

He set off for the King’s Head by the route around Wednesday Common which would take him past the Parkin farm.  He strode ahead, enjoying the steady rhythm of drips from waterlogged hedges, dodging larger showers stirred from trees by a freshening wind.  Violet Parkin’s house festooned with police tape.  Nearly a week had passed and Jack Parkin languished in a cell somewhere, accused, a Timothy Evans figure too confused to plead his cause.

A police car squatted next to the front gate.

“Evening!”  PC Hallett clambered stiff-limbed from the driver’s seat.  “Is that Joey Palliser, by any chance?”

“It is, Davy,”  Joe replied, recalling this avuncular figure from his youth.  “How are you these days?”

“Oh, much the same.  I have to watch the place, case somebody tries to get in, see?”

Joe acknowledged it was a bad business.

“Oh, ‘twas, ‘twas.”  Davy Hallett looked Joseph up and down.  “Now you’ve growed, lad.  Went to London, didn’t you?  You just visitin’ us, then?”

Joe summarised his less detailed version of his London story, “Did you know Violet well, Davy?”

“No, not many did.  Although,””  PC Hallett added darkly, “there were a few as knew her very well.  Very well indeed.”

“Strange.  Somebody said something similar to me the other day.  I didn’t know what he meant by it, though.  Am I going to get you to tell me?”

Davy shook his head.  “No lad.  These are police matters, see?  Not that they’re going to do much. They reckon they got it all sewed up.”

“Really?  Do you think they’re right?”  Joe asked.

“Murders, see?  We don’t get many, and there’s the truth.  When we do, they’d usually be acts of drunken rage.”  The policeman was studying him.  “How come you’re so interested, Joe?  Like you said, you didn’t exactly know her, did you?”

“I just don’t want to see Jack go down for something he didn’t do, that’s all.  I don’t think he did it, Davy.  I don’t think you do, either.”

Jack Parkin; the police were content to consign him to a gallows; the village seemed to have turned its back.  Jack was not the easiest of people to like.

Davy Hallett shook his head.  “I don’t know.  Jack’s drinkin’s got a lot worse, of late years.  Some might say he’s a little bit mad.”

With a few brief words of parting, Joseph left the constable easing his ample proportions back into the relative comfort of his little car, and lost in thought, wandered up Feather Lane towards the King’s Head.  It was going to be difficult to verify even the simplest details concerning Violet’s last moments, he told himself: but that made his task all the more challenging.

“Don’t like the police.”  Growled a deep voice behind him; “You doesn’t want to be seen consortin’ with they, Palliser.”

© 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:  Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash