Satan’s Rock

Part Fifteen

New Alliances

Peter watched Melanie’s retreating back as she walked quickly away.   Her last words to him:  “I don’t think we should see each other for a while,.” and the cold marble lump in his stomach prevented him calling after her. Did she hesitate, hoping that he would?  He wanted to see reluctance in her step, but in his heart he knew this was something she must resolve on her own.    For some time he remained there, on the St. Benedict road, churning over sorrowful thoughts in his head, before he too started unwillingly for home, with his emotions brimming.   He could not contemplate life without Mel.

#

In the days and weeks that followed, Peter saw little of Melanie.     She was neither waiting on the Esplanade in the morning, nor was she to be found at the Mall when he was there.  She even stayed away from college for a while: not yet strong enough, perhaps, to overcome those inevitable meetings; passing between lectures, in the library or the canteen during study time.  When she did come back she would barely return Peter’s greeting, which, in a way, saved pain for them both.   She made her desire to end their friendship so obvious that eventually Peter tired of attempts to make contact; wearied by unanswered emails and texts, he resigned himself to his loss.

The injustice, in Peter’s eyes, lay in Melanie’s reasons for their separation.   After all, he would have as gladly dropped the baton the Rock had passed to them as she, if he could believe it possible that the force which lurked there was so passive as to let him go.   But he well knew that this would not happen and he knew that Melanie, though she chose to deny it now, was no more immune than he.   He could be fearful, if he allowed himself, of the consequences for her when she faced this truth alone; but he could not change it.   He had to respect her choice.

Meanwhile, he was altering.   Others noticed this first: Lena, his mother, seeing him enter her studio one afternoon was struck, not just by how tall he had become, but by his developing physique:  “My word. Peter, how you have growed!  Are you doing weight training, or something?”

“It’s the steroids.”   Peter explained lamely.  “The little sods keep biting my legs.”

“Well, you slow down, Peter dear, or I shall have to accept you’re inheriting your father’s terrible sense of humour, and feel compelled to paint you.”

“Agh! No; not that!”

Then there was a small flame of self-confidence, which flickers inside everyone who knows that they are, for some reason, different from the crowd.   Peter had always been the quiet child, the loner, the unobtrusive intellect at the back of the class.  He had never exactly been troubled by bullying, but there were those who, back in his school days, he was content to avoid.   The redheaded Ross ‘Copper’ Copeland  had been one such.

Ross, completely and utterly ginger from his shock of untidy thatch to his toenails,   had densely-freckled skin  and  a fine, fluffy beard  which grew untamed around his features in the same angry hue.  His physique – a girth best described as ‘ample’ – arms and wrists tapered thickly down to short, stubby, carriage-bolt fingers; his walk the stamping stride of a Sumo and the  fight in every stare from his steely green eyes meant the world would step aside for Ross Copeland; it was easier that way.

At school, Copper had supplemented his income and his diet from the resources of his fellow students.  Because it pleased him to think of himself as a ‘businessman’ rather than a thief, he had a number of  ploys – ‘selling’ some trivial or useless item to his victim, or offering  protection ‘insurance’ to those with courage enough to resist.  

After school had ended Peter and Copper went their separate ways.  One a  college student, the other an apprentice highways engineer, their paths should never have crossed.   But Levenport was a small town, and Copper’s instinct for commerce flowered among the dark corners and fetid alleys where small white packets were stock in trade.

Peter was wandering through the Woolmarket, a system of narrow streets on the East Side, when Ross  caugh up with him: 

“Hello Worm.   Haven’t talked to you in a while, have I?”

Copper’s considerable form blocked Peter’s path; a little gaggle of hangers-on sniggering in his wake.

“Hello Ross.”  Peter was amazed at his own relaxed reply:  “So true.   We must catch up.  How are the guinea pigs?  Win any prizes?”

This brought a suspicious glance, because Ross did not generally let his hobby be known:  “They’re all right,” He said staunchly, looking very like a large guinea pig.  Then, with the light of ‘The Fancy’ glinting in his eyes, “Got a couple of ‘Thirds’ last week.”

Somebody behind him quickly stifled a giggle. “Look here now,”   Copper went on, hurriedly, “I’ve got something you’ll want.”   He began ferreting around in his trouser pocket, producing, at length, a tattered ‘Get Out of Gaol Free’ card from a Monopoly game.   “Useful, eh?”

Peter looked at the crumpled item: “And still warm, too.”

 “Only a score, to you Worm.   Special price.”

“Twenty pounds!   For that?”   Peter was incredulous.  “Sorry Ross, none on me.  Catch you later!”   And he walked away.

A hand fell heavily on his shoulder. “I’m sorry you don’t like my merchandise, Worm, really I am.   It’s a very good opportunity.   Maybe you needs some business education, do y’ think?”

“Seriously?”   Amazed by how rapidly his eyes could move and focus, Peter rounded upon Copper, who was totally unprepared for what came next.   “Would you like to begin teaching me now?”   Outfaced, Copper stepped back.  Somehow, Peter found he was able to detect the precise position of Copper’s feet, analyse his point of balance so as to know exactly when, where, and how hard to lunge.    In a breath, Ross Copeland was lying on his back on the pavement, with Peter standing over him, offering his hand:   “Geez, sorry Ross, must’ve tripped?  Here you go!”    And Copper, maybe slightly winded, allowed himself to be helped up.

It was a huge moment, one in which the reputations of both youths hung by a thread. 

“All right then, Cartwright….”   Copper began, his complexion boiling to a bright pink.

“Worm.”  Peter gently corrected him. In a low, confidential voice, he added:  “You used to call me ‘Worm’.  I miss that.” A gathering throng of onlookers tittered nervously.

Copper glared.   His anger rested upon Peter’s face, which was smiling, although his eyes were not. “We’re not at school anymore, Ross.  If you want to try and re-educate me, you’re going to have to do it the hard way.”    And he walked away again.   This time no heavy hand restrained him.

The importance of this re-balancing of strengths was not lost upon Melanie.   At the time of Peter’s confrontation with Ross she was elsewhere, but the buzz traveled quickly.   As is the way with rumor, the details had already changed.  Peter was accredited with having worsted Copper in battle.   She tried to fit this piece of the jigsaw into the image she kept of Peter; an image already visibly transformed.  It only added to her misery.

It was a time of trial.  The autumn of that year was punctuated by examinations, tests of many different kinds.   There were challenges for which there were simply not days enough, so that the weeks, the months, the seasons plunged into each other with unrecognised speed – autumn into winter, winter becoming spring. No summons came from the powers or the personalities that dwelt upon St. Benedict’s Rock, so Peter began to forget that visionary day in Toqus’ cave:  greater things occupied his mind.

As Peter grew strong, Melanie became beautiful, a melancholy, gentle girl with large, dark eyes and a soft smile which betrayed a wisdom beyond her years.   Neither found any relationship which matched the one they once shared: each dallied briefly with new love, then turned away.   It seemed that although they were not together anymore, they were never far apart.

Perhaps if Melanie’s home life had been happier, she might have sloughed the skin of Peter more readily:  her aversion to Howard was undying, though, and it looked unlikely he would go.  So she was left with reminiscences and might-have-beens, and a reputation with the local lads for being remote and cold.    She fell deeper into depression, and her mother Karen might have seen this, had she wished, and were she not already weary of the tightrope she walked between her lover and her daughter.   Howard tried; she could not blame Howard, but the gulf of Melanie’s mistrust was too wide for either of them to bridge.

Howard, in fact, remained something of an enigma.  A haze of mystery surrounded this large, ungainly man who, whenever questioned closely concerning his work  role at Catesby’s, the local heavy engineering Company, would be evasive, attributing his involvement ‘more to the sales side’.   And it was true he spent long periods away on business, with a predilection for suits with collars rather than suits for boilers.

There was something further that Karen might have seen:  did she not wonder why, when Melanie had declared the cessation of her friendship with Peter, Howard had seemed so concerned?  Why did Howard, normally not much exercised by Melanie’s affairs, earnestly entreat her to think again?   Then, when it was clear that the relationship had died, why did he go to such lengths to remain in contact with Peter?

To supplement his meagre finances, Peter had taken a job as car cleaner at Ensell Street Motors, a main dealer with showrooms in the town.  Howard transferred the servicing for Karen’s car from her local garage to this firm at some extra expense, apparently just in order to gain some conversation occasionally with ‘the Cartwright lad’.  Since Peter was only employed for two days in a week, around his college commitments, this was a fairly unrewarding means to keep in touch, but Howard seemed content with it.

Peter had, by now, got past his early dread of Howard, so that he was willing to engage in some discourse with him, although he never enquired after Melanie, or acceded to Howard’s persistent suggestions that they “get together over some computer stuff.”  Peter often considered that Howard might be stalking him:  the guy turned up at the oddest moments; around the corner from the café where he stopped for coffee, or on the Esplanade where, despite his commitments and the march of time, he often still walked.

Did Melanie notice these things?  Perhaps.  She noticed most that Howard was more and more a part of her life; that Karen took less care to keep them apart.  And as the seasons passed, their alienation grew.

Then, when it seemed that affairs were at their lowest point, there was Lesley.

Melanie was still socially gregarious enough to have a small, but much-treasured circle of friends.   Trisha, the eldest of three sisters and a serious student, her alter ego, Kate – who had never, to Melanie’s certain knowledge, been serious about anything – and Lesley.  ‘Trish and Kate were both local girls, they had grown up in the same town.   Lesley was an outsider who had moved to Levenport a year or so ago to stay with an aunt after a family break-up.  The four of them would communicate often through college, where they studied the same subjects, or on the Net, from time to time.  The most sacrosanct of their meetings took place each Saturday across the road from the Mall, at a café called Hennik’s.  Seated at one of the outside tables, they sipped latte and shared their news.

 “I just think it’s so the right thing,”   Kate was saying:  “I mean, this town’s, like, numb, isn’t it?”

They were discussing Trisha’s results, which made her certain of a place at St. Andrews for the coming year.

“I’m really looking forward to it.”  Trisha said:  “I couldn’t stay here for another three years, I‘d start biting my nails for a hobby.  It’s tragic already.   I‘ve only been off studies for three weeks and its s-o-o boring.”

“Get a job, girl!”  Kate urged: “A little currency might help, yeah?”  She added, to Melanie:  “Your Peter has, hasn’t he?  He looks so cool in those overalls.”

“He’d look cool in anything.”  Trisha’s voice betrayed just a hint of reverence.

There was then a drop in the conversation, because Kate had broken a taboo by mentioning Peter’s name and each of the companions knew this.  Melanie’s permanently ruptured heart was common knowledge among them, something which, though they thought it unnatural, they never broached as a subject.

“He isn’t my Peter.”   Melanie said carefully, after a moment or two.

Kate chuckled:    “Have you tried snapping your fingers?”

“It’s true, then?  You finally laid the ghost?”  Trisha touched her friend’s hand. “Does that mean you’re moving on at last?”

“I guess, I suppose    It isn’t like we were ever serious, or anything,   We were just friends.”  Melanie managed a weak smile.   “I’m a bit of a wuss, aren’t I?”

“Oh, get real!”  Kate came back:  “We know you two were joined at the hip for years.”

“And that was, like, years ago.  We aren’t ‘joined’ any more.”

“Big move!”  Kate was respectful.  “Mind you, we do all think you’re mental.”

“No, she isn’t.   He isn’t everybody’s idea of love walking, is he?”  Said Trisha.   “I mean, not long ago most of us thought he was a geek?”

“Not any more.”  Kate came back.  “You’re doing a good thing, Mel.  You really are.  It’s just that he’s, well….”

“…..He’s the silverback?  Don’t I know it?”   Melanie twisted her fingers in her hair.  And she said, with a detectable sadness:  “It’s not like we were ever married or anything…”

“Oh, bless!”  Kate sympathised.  There was a reflective pause.

“So you two are really, finally and definitely, over?”  Lesley had been listening to the conversation quietly.   Lesley, who was deep and intelligent and fun; who had an overt personality and so many qualities which boys, distracted by her long legs and melting curves, never really cared about.   Ash blonde Lesley, for whom it seemed all the most trending clothes had been specifically made, and whose weakness, undeniably, was anything to do with the male sex.

“I know that tone.”  Said Trisha.

“Well, that makes him a free agent, doesn’t it?”  Lesley said defensively.  “And he is, like, fanciable, yeah?”

“Alpha male!”  Kate agreed.

“Oh, Lesley!”  Trisha chided:   “You wouldn’t do that to Mel, would you?”

“NO!”   Lesley protested:  “No, of course not!”

“Serious, Mel?”   Trisha asked:   “There’s no way back?  Face it, he’s so hot right now?   Before we let Foxy loose on him?”

“Here!”  Protested Lesley: “As if I would!  And I’m not, like, a dog or something!”

Nevertheless, on Monday morning, when Peter took the seaside route to college, someone was clearly waiting for him, leaning with their back to the rail which warded the sea wall.  Someone tall and undeniably feminine, even while her long coat whipped about her and her blonde hair tangled in the breeze.

“See?”  Said Lesley,   “I knew you’d come this way!   Walk with me, Peter?”

            This was one of those dramatic mornings when the sky was heavy with cloud and spray fizzed off the sea; the sort of weather Peter relished, but not what he would have expected Lesley to enjoy.  In fact, she looked as if she was enjoying it hugely.

“It’s really blowing, yeah?”  She shouted above the noise of the foreshore.   “Isn’t it perfect?”

“I like it.”   Peter responded.

“Me too!”  Lesley snuggled her pretty chin into the collar of her coat.  “It’s real!”

#

Maud Reybath squinteded at the hooded figure who stood before her door, masked by darkness.  “Come in.  Were you seen?”

“I stayed in the undergrowth away from the road, then I followed the backs of the houses.  I do not think so.” 

Shepherding her visitor into her hallway, Maud peered past him, glancing anxiously up and down the village street.  Difficult though it was to tell under the cloak of night, she could discern no sign of life. She closed the door carefully, to find her visitor, whose habit was rank with the scent of damp bracken, shedding the sandals from his rugged little feet. She, motioned him to lower his hood and he did so, revealing sharp features arranged around a hairless cranium.  His stature and girth were small, his anxious grey eyes darted and switched hither and thither, as if he did not believe them to be alone.

“I  am commanded to bring you this,” he said,  “On pain of my life.”   He retrieved a sealed scroll from beneath his clothing, offering it to Maud.  She broke the seal without hesitation, “It was delivered to us by a  child.” 

“Her son?”  Maud responded, a little too quickly.

The man looked puzzled.  “Perhaps.”

She quickly scanned the neat handwriting the scroll revealed.  Its import was simple and direct;  

“My dear Maud,

 The man I encountered when last I visited with you at Bleanstead, one Arthur Herritt, Esquire, is undoubtedly The Pilgrim.   I presently enjoy his hospitality at Mountsell Park by the City of Mountchester, but I fear I may have to move ere long:  I am discovered, I think.

With Sincere Affection,

Francine

 Could she disguise the delight, or relief in her eyes?  Maud turned away so her face might not be seen.   “Very well.  You should take refreshment.  I have bread and some good fowl to restore your energy. You have many more miles to travel this night.  I will write a further message for you to deliver, which must be  for the eyes of the Brotherhood alone, do you understand?  For their eyes alone.”

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Hallbury Summer – Episode Eleven                     Grounds for Suspicion

The story so far:

Joseph Palliser has taken his friend Tom Peterkin into his confidence, so at last we know the strange circumstances and the drug-induced state affecting Marian Brubaeker at the time of her death.  In his turn, Tom hints at his suspicion that his wife Emma (née Blanchland) still has feelings for Joe.

Joe remembers his first date with Emma Blanchland a decade before, recalling how the demise of her dog Rollo provided the occasion that deepened their relationship into love.   

At the time Joe and Emma started dating, Tom Peterkin was so immersed in his love of cars and mechanics he had no space for a female relationship of his own.  Perhaps he did not even suspect the cause of Joe’s burgeoning happiness.  Devoid of jealousy, he was glad that his friend had a friend.

They had only a brief while in the sun, Emma and Joe, because no more than a couple of months later Joseph found himself involved in that final duel with Rodney Smith.  By then Rollo lay in the Blanchland’s garden beneath a freshly-planted rose and a new puppy pranced and yapped above his sleeping head.  Tender and soulful by nature, Emma had become more and more devoted to her quiet, introspective boyfriend, whose complications of mind she never suspected – or maybe chose to ignore, believing that her selfless love could overcome the reticence he sometimes failed to disguise; for deep in Joseph’s heart Sarah Halsey kept lit the tiniest glowing ember; and it was in his nature to dream that one day, somehow, her flame might re-ignite.   The more his memory of the real Sarah dwindled, the more a romantic illusion took its place.  He was no longer in love with Sarah the person, but an idealised Sarah – Sarah the angel.  She soared above him: unattainable, yet never far from his thoughts.

This is not to say Joseph was anything less than a dutiful, attentive partner.  Emma brought so much to his table:  she was spiritual, a life force.  She challenged him, probed at the roots of his ideas, his aims.  She illuminated him, and if he learned nothing else in those selfish, oafish days, he learned that love could be fun.

Then Rodney died.  When Emma saw Joseph’s distraught expression on the evening after the crash she knew the one thing she feared was destined to happen.  By then there was no news to break.  Her friend Pip had called just an hour after the Smith boy was pronounced dead.  Thereafter snippets of information bombarded her throughout the day:  the rumours began – they had always been enemies, hadn’t they?  And because Rodney was always the socially acceptable one, the one destined for success, it was not hard to predict which way those rumours would turn.  Joseph had hounded Rodney, he had run him off the road, he had deliberately this, coldly that…..rumours without foundation, but enough to hang Joe as far as the village was concerned.

Emma understood.  Joe was hanging himself from the inside.  He had seen death, and it was not just mourning he felt, or guilt, or even triumph. He was someone else; someone changed.

“Charker Smith’s looking for you.”  She repeated the news she had heard.  She might have reached out for him, comforted him, but she could not. A gulf existed:  something she could not cross.  “You’d best go away for a while, Joe.”

He had been thinking of it anyway, he said.  There wasn’t any future for him here.

“I could come with…”  her voice tailed away.

“I’ll get set up first, find somewhere to live.  Then I’ll write….”

It was their last conversation together – unfinished sentences; unspoken thoughts; the gentle click of closing doors.  She did not say the things she felt.  They did not touch, or meet each other’s eyes.  By morning Joe had gone.

#

 “Joseph, dear chap!” A hand withered by years extended towards Joe, “Whatever have you been doing with yourself?”

Joe, who had been mildly surprised to find that Carnaby and Pollack were still in business, was even more surprised to find that though a much younger Desmond Pollack had long since shuffled off his earthly brief, old Mr Carnaby was still at the helm, looking and talking exactly as Joe remembered him when he served his notice to the kindly solicitor ten years before.

Age, though it had not been merciful to Alistair Carnaby, seemed to have rested content with a single devastating attack.  Time could not diminish his stature because he was already small, or add lines to his countenance because there was simply no space.  His hair could not become scarcer because he had none.  He might have been older by as much as a decade, yet his bent little form was still as spry and agile as Joe remembered it, and his bright eyes still pierced the soul each time Joe met them.

“Come in, sit down!”

The office was the same, too.  The same groaning oak shelves stuffed with books, the partner’s desk stacked high with papers, those two brown leather upholstered chairs, into one of which  Joe sank, thoughtfully running his finger along the underside of the rail as he did so, and yes, it was still there:  hard and immovable as a limpet, the little wad of chewing gum he had surreptitiously transferred from his mouth when he had been summoned by his employer unexpectedly, all those years before.

“Well now:  I’ve managed to get a quick look at this:” Carnaby slapped a hand onto a sheaf of notes on the leather inlay before him.  You know the substance, I suppose?”

Joseph replied in the negative.  “I know very little.  I got a letter from a Mr Gooch.”  He reached into his jacket pocket, retrieving the letter he had concealed from Julia’s curious eyes, and passed it across the desk.  “It simply says that he represents Marian Brubaeker, and advises me to appoint a solicitor.  I thought of you, of course.”

“Kind of you, Joseph.  Kind of you.”   Carnaby murmured absently, glancing at the letter before placing it on top of the other notes on his desk where, for the rest of their conversation, he played with a corner of the paper, folding and unfolding it between his thumb and forefinger.   “Since you telephoned me, I have contacted Mr Gooch, who I must say is very helpful and cooperative.  He has advised me that Mrs Brubaeker is recently deceased, and you are heir to almost her entire estate.”

Joseph choked:  “Sorry – what?”

“Yes, dear boy.  At a stroke you could say that you may become one of my most valuable clients!  My information is sketchy at present, but I can assure you the assets of the estate are considerable.  A portfolio of property, a business which before Mrs Brubaeker’s death was on the verge of going public, and quite a few other things. There’s a villa in Alsace, for instance.  I expect you know about that.  What was the quote he gave me?  Ah yes.  ‘The villa where we stayed in the summer of ’62’.”

“Her entire estate?”

“Almost.  There are some leased flats in Earls Court, the property of her husband, so they will revert.  In all, in a realistic valuation, Mr Gooch estimates that you stand to inherit in the region of nine-and-a-half million pounds.   Dear boy!”  Carnaby cried, as the pallor drained from Joe’s face.  “Would you like some water; or something stronger, perhaps?”

Joe managed to breathe.  “No, I’ll be fine.  Mr Carnaby…”

“Alistair, please!  However,” Carnaby waved a finger in the air.  “There is a fly in this particular honeypot, I fear, Joseph:  Mr Brubaeker, Marian’s husband, is contesting the will.”

Morris Wayland Brubaeker.  Joseph had seen the man rarely and then only in peeks from behind a window curtain, watching him arrive outside the Earls Court building in his silver and maroon Rolls-Royce.  He had not been encouraged by what he saw – a rather fleshy dark, hair-creamed man in a mohair suit whose irritable frown made him look as if the whole world annoyed him.

“Apparently Mrs Brubaeker changed her will only days before she died, so you see why her husband might be displeased,” Carnaby continued.  “I haven’t seen a copy of the actual will yet, nevertheless I understand it is all properly signed and witnessed, so he has few reasonable grounds to contest his wife’s wishes.” The old man shrugged.  “I’ll be honest with you, estates of this size rarely pass without some form of challenge or other…”

Joseph nodded, striving to grasp the facts Carnaby had set before him.  “What would be ‘reasonable grounds’?”

“Well now.  Fulfilling a role as husband for fifteen years counts for very little, I’m afraid, and financial embarrassment resulting from the will won’t normally cut any ice either, especially as Mr Brubaeker possesses considerable wealth of his own: no, unless it can be proved that Mrs Brubaeker was of unsound mind when she wrote her will, or that she was under duress, he would seem to have little hope of succeeding.  However, Mr Brubaeker is very determined, I’m told.”  Alistair Carnaby glanced up at Joe, pinning him with one of his most incisive looks.  “I take it you weren’t with Mrs Brubaeker when she died?”

“No, why?” Joe responded too quickly, his blood rising, because suddenly half a generation had melted away and he was that office boy again, squirming beneath the examination of those keen eyes.

Carnaby pursed his lips.  “He has requested that the circumstances of Mrs Brubaeker’s death should be subject to a criminal investigation.  Very odd, but there you are.  The man has even asked for his wife’s body to be exhumed for an autopsy!  What do you think of that?”  Alistair Carnaby watched Joe minutely because Joe’s reaction would betray exactly what he thought of that.  “What you have, at least by implication, is a cheated husband who believes you may be responsible for his wife’s death.  You’ll have to forgive me for being so blunt, Joseph, but can he have any reason for such a suspicion?”

“No.  No certainly not.  I told you, I wasn’t with her when she died.”

Carnaby nodded.  “He believes a police investigation is warranted.  If you knew about this will you would undoubtedly have a motive, but still, personally, I think it’s despicable.”

‘Autopsy’.  The word rattled around in Joseph’s brain.  He was aware that the remainder of an interview was going ahead, that he was asking Alistair Carnaby to represent him, and that he would hear more in the next few days.  The business concluded, as he rose to leave, Joseph asked:  “Do we know what Mrs Brubaeker’s post mortem gave as the cause of death?”

“We don’t at this stage,”  Alistair replied.  “Would you like me to find out?”

After Joseph had left, Carnaby returned to his desk, taking from its right-hand top drawer a blackened hickory pipe that was almost as old and as chewed as he.   Packing tobacco into its charred bowl, he leaned back in his chair, staring up at a brown patch on the faded white of the ceiling which testified to over thirty years of this habit.

“Well now, Carnaby;” He said aloud to himself:  “I wonder where this may lead us?”

It took Joseph a while to collect his thoughts.  The news that his relationship with Marian might have brought him wealth dwindled in significance beside his recollections of Marian’s death. That menacing word ‘autopsy’ chipped continually at his mind.

He wandered, meantime, through streets he had walked often in his youth.  Succumbing finally to demands of appetite and courtesy of the Castle Snack Bar he regaled himself with a tasteless roast beef sandwich, forced down by milky fluid which hung somewhere in the hinterland between coffee and tea.   Then back onto the street, restless, afraid to stop and let his conscience catch up with him.  Time weighed heavily, so he was glad when the hour came for him to catch his ‘bus back to Hallbury.  Happy to sit back in his seat, he was settling for the journey when the ‘bus, in the very act of pulling away from the ‘bus stand, jerked to a halt.  The driver opened the doors.

They wheezed, they puffed, they levered themselves up the three steps onto the passenger deck.  The driver knew them.

“Come on, Martin!  Nearly missed ‘un this week!”

“’Tis ‘er!”  The old man accused.  “I can’t get her away from they penny bargain stalls no-how.”

.  “He’m too slow, that’s ‘is trouble,”  His elderly companion scoffed,  “We had plenty o’ time, silly old fool!”

They ferreted for change, they paid their fares, they struggled down the aisle to their usual seats while the driver waited kindly.  As they turned they saw Joe sitting five rows further back and the old woman’s eyes clouded.  Joe heard them mutter between themselves.   He knew them too, of course, just as he knew that on this day, exactly a week ago, Violet Parkin had died.  Just as he knew this ‘bus would arrive at Abbots Friscombe railway station at three-thirty, and just as he knew these two old people were the only other passengers on the ‘bus he had caught there the previous week.

Ned Barker looked up as the doors swung open.  He squinted into the light.  “They told me you’d comed back, Joe Palliser.”

In the early evening, anxious to evade questions from his aunt and uncle, Joseph had made his way to the King’s Arms.  He had told no-one of his good fortune, for fear the autopsy would bring reversal.  He had calculated that, this being Friday night,  Charker Smith and his cronies would be drinking elsewhere, probably in Braunston.

“How’re you, Ned.  Good fishing?”  He ordered a pint.  The bar was deserted apart from Aaron Pace, propped up in the corner and apparently oblivious to his presence.  “Pint, Aaron?”

Aaron grunted and pushed his pot a few inches down the bar top.  “Ah.”  He said.

Questions were brimming in Joseph’s head, but he knew better than to hurry.  He leaned on the bar rail as he shared a desultory discussion about fish.  The Ned Barker he remembered was the definitive landlord, a sounding board for complaint and a repository for local gossip – but tonight?  Did a guarded reserve add an edge to his deep country brogue?

He had been there half an hour, and a second pint was waiting for him.  It was time.

“Quiet tonight, Ned?”

Ned looked at him.  “Ah.  They all goes to town Fridays, see?”

Joe nodded thoughtfully.  “I saw Michael the other day.”

Ned Barker strained his eyes at the ceiling, as though he were trying to recollect the name.  Why, Joseph wondered?  The old publican must remember Michael well.  The onset of his illness had affected the whole village profoundly at the time.  Wasn’t it Ned’s cousin who had been on the end of the billhook incident which led to Michael being committed?

“Your brother, isn’it?”  Ned replied.

“We were talking about poor Violet, Ned.  Michael said I should come and see you.  Urgent, he said it was.”

Joseph was trying out Carnaby’s trick – watching Ned’s eyes fixedly:  not something that would endear him to the old man, but he wanted an answer, and he got it.

“Well, the poor lad ain’t quite ‘isself, is he?”  Ned murmured.  “Sorry Joe, but I can’t help you.  ‘Tis a shame, though, ‘bout Violet.  That old bastard never was ‘owt but trouble.”  Ned turned to Aaron, shifting the conversation.

“Good for the cricket this weekend, Aaron?”

They were still the only two in the bar, Aaron and Joe.  Aaron, who had suggested that things around Violet were not as straightforward as they seemed;  yet Joe was prepared to bide his time, so he drank slowly and solidly, making occasional conversation, waiting for a moment when he might get Aaron on his own.  To have followed him out to the toilet would have been too obvious in this quiet atmosphere, and anyway, Aaron’s iron bladder showed no sign of relenting.  Ned, however, was becoming restless.

Joe kept stoking the fire.

“One yourself, Ned?”  He offered as his next round was delivered.

Eventually nature took its course.  Ned disappeared through the communicating door which led back into the house.  Joe knew he would have little time for subtlety.  “Violet was a witch, wasn’t she, Aaron?”

Aaron grinned back at him:  a row of blackened pegs.  “Now I knowed you was dyin’ to ask me that.”  He slurred.

“You know about it, though, don’t you?”  Joe persisted, casting an anxious eye at the communicating door.  “Did she tell you?”

“’Er didn’t have to tell me!”  Aaron rejoined.  “I seen ‘er!   She were up there in Slater’s Copse, ‘er and ‘er covenses, an’ they was parncin’ around naked as you please!”  He shook his head, chuckling richly into his pot of ale.  “She were a big woman, that Violet, mind!  That were a sight and no mistake:  titties jigglin’ up and down!  Bugger me!”

“Who else is in the coven, then?”

Aaron leered at him.  “Wouldn’t you like to know, eh?  There’s folks round here I could tell on, see?  But I won’t, even though some of ‘em are arseholes as says they’m men an’ aren’t big enough to be.  An’ some of ‘em as got titties, too.  I likes they, mind!”

Approaching footsteps warned Joseph to pursue the subject no further.  Ned Barker had hastened back to his trade so fast two of his fly-buttons were still open.  His glance switched from Aaron to Joe, then back to Aaron again, so rapidly Joe feared he might detach a retina, but Aaron just grinned at him and Joe fixedly studied the wisps of sediment in his beer.

Shortly afterwards Mrs Higgs wandered through the door with her daughter in tow.  Joe drank up the remainder of his final pint.

“Beer’s good as ever, Ned.”  And he set himself to wander home.

 

© 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 Fourteen – A fractured Dream.

 

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On the street the temperature was dropping, and clouds from the east were threatening snow.  I hurried home, mindful of my mother’s words and the conversation that was beginning in my head.  Was she right?  Was it possible a girl with whom I once spent twenty minutes of inexpert passion on a river bank could still mean more to me than the one who loved me now and shared my bed?  Could I – would I – betray Angie so callously over nothing more than a fractured dream?

Indoors, I set up a fire and then began to cook, but my heart wasn’t in it, so I turned off the stove.  Five-thirty found me sitting in our bay window, watching a snowflake corps de ballet as it danced before the glass, and the steadier trickle of people coming home from their work.  My eyes picked out Angie as she appeared at the end of the road; head down against the wind, clicking along the wet and whitening pavement on busy feet. I responded to her jazz-hands wave as she ascended the steps to our door.

“Here’s a night!”  She stood in our little lobby, brushing snow from her coat.  “Feel them!”  She reached out for my hand, squeezing my fingers as she passed, heading towards the bathroom, and casually shedding clothes as she went.  Pipes juddered as the shower turned on.   I felt that completeness of Angie wrapping itself around me as it always did when we were together in the primacy of our private lives, and I was immediately rested and content.  No, I told myself, could be no-one else.

Back at the stove, I was throwing stir-fry stuff absently into a wok when she joined me, gently resting her hand on my wrist and sliding the pan aside.  She came close to invite a kiss, then draped herself against me, letting her towelling robe fall carelessly fell open.

“Are you hungry?”  Angie giggled deliciously.  “Why yes, I do believe you are…”

Later, as we sat before the fire, Angie asked:  “Did you see your Mam?”

“Aye.”  I relayed almost everything that had passed between my mother and me.  “She says she’s quite happy with the way things are, but I don’t entirely believe her.  She’s so edgy these days.  I was a bit worried about her.”

Angie nodded sagely.  “It’ll be the ‘H’, man.  It get’s t’you like that.”

I stared.   “’H’?”

“Oh, come on!  Ah thought you’d kna’ about that at least!  Smack; heroin, Chas!  She must ‘a been on it a year or two, I’d reckon.”

“No!  Oh, god, I didn’t know.  I mean, I didn’t see it.”

“Man!  Are you a divvy or what?  I saw it first time I met her!”

“Why didn’t you say?”

“Would that ha’ been polite, like?  You’re too innocent for this world, you!  Mind, it were another little stone wor Terry managed to drop into the conversation the other night when he were tryin’ to run you down.  He reckons they’re all on it, up Bertie’s.  Brasso’ll be keepin’ ‘em hooked up, I ‘spect.”

“Brasso?”

“Brasso Moziadski.   Tall, thin bloke, sharp threads.  Looks like he’s a lawyer, or sommat, but ‘e’s not.  He’s the biggest dealer round here.  Drives a dark blue BMW?  You must ‘a seen ‘im!”

“Aye.”  I acknowledged.  “I might have.”

After administering a new shock, Angie fell silent for a while, just gazing into the fire.  My mind played around with this explanation for my mother’s behavior, which ascribed the tension that gripped every fibre of her being to a simple need for to score.  Meanwhile, Angie seemed to be steeling herself.  And, at last, she spoke.

“I been thinkin’ about it all afternoon: about us, y’kna?  Chas, be honest wi’ us now; do you seriously want me to come with you when you go to Carlton?”

“Yes.” My answer came without hesitation.  “I’ve never been more serious.”

“Only it’s a big thing for me.  I’ve lived here all my life, y’kna?  All my friends and my relations are here.  I’d be leavin’ them all behind, if I did – if I came with you.  Y’see?”

“I do see.”  I told her.  “Can I say something now?”

Her eyes were uncertain.  “I s’pose.  But Chas, I’ve worked all this out…”

“Angie, I love you.  I’m not going to let you down, am I?”

“Mebbees.  Or mebbees I’d be the one to let you down. Promises we make at nineteen aren’t meant to be kept, Chas.  They really aren’t.” She shook her head impatiently.  “I cry too easy around you, y’kna?”

“Am I going to be allowed to make a case, here, like?”  I protested, “Or are you going to walk out on me without eating that bloody stir-fry?”

“Is it still there?  I’d forgotten about that.”  She smiled through her tears.

“It’s a waste of good vegetables.” My pathetic attempt at humour was designed to cover an awkward truth – I was panicking, because a pit of absolute despair had suddenly opened up beneath me, and the reason for it seemed unaccountable unless this was love?  This – something – that was completely new to me?  Love, or need?  Had I grown to need Angie so much I couldn’t bear the thought of losing her?

”No.  No, let’s not do this now.”  I said.  “Wherever you go you’ll find friends, Ange.  I’ll be joining a proper club, you know, and the other guys will have wives and girlfriends, and besides, you’re just – just so – well, people just like you.  They’re drawn to you.  I was.”  I ended rather lamely.

“I suppose.”  Angie rested her head on my shoulder.  “Chas, I love you.  I wish…oh, you don’t know how I wish…”

“I don’t want us to part.”  I said, trying to keep the desperation out of my voice.  “And we needn’t.  Let’s see how things turn out, Ange.  Give us that chance, will you?”  Angie was quietly tearful, my own heart was aching and there seemed no solution to our pain, no chance of escape.  The welcome warmth of the fire had become an oppressive heat, such that I was finding it difficult to breathe.  I had to escape.  “Sorry; I’m sorry, really – think about us a bit more, please, because I love you, Ange, and I can’t stand this.  I’m going out.”

The bubble of anger in my heart was not for Angie.  I tore myself away from her not because I felt she had betrayed me, but because I knew I had betrayed myself.   I slammed the door behind me not because I was turning my back on the home she had made, but because there was no home for me, anywhere.  My childhood, my whole miserable life had bred a fear of relationships in me and I knew it was a reserve that showed – that try as I might I could not give her the true and selfless devotion that would let her build her world in me, let her trust me.  She believed I would let her down, and perhaps she was right.

The snow fell fast enough to hide my tears, the cold air offered an alibi for my reddened face, my interrupted breath.  Nevertheless I avoided the town and its still-busy streets, choosing instead to take the alley which led from the far end of The Avenue past the blind ends of a trio of similar culs de sac and on in the direction of the park.  I walked briskly, ignoring the slips and slides of my inadequate shoes on the snow-slick pavement, kicking back at it with furious feet, slamming against walls and fences with aggrieved fists.  So preoccupied was I with my inner noise I was deaf to the lonely darkness and oblivious to the approach of running steps.

The first I felt was a sickening blow to my head, the first I saw was a galaxy of stars.

I was stretched out on the pavement.  A knee pinned my chest.  The thrust of a boot raked into my side with such murderous precision it may have made me scream.

“Too proud fer yer fans kidder, isn’ the’!  The great friggin footy star, yeah?”

Another voice.   “Friggin’ wanker!

Another:  “Mak’ ‘im nice an’ pretty fer ‘e’s girlfriend, like!  Frigging prick!”

The boots were heavy, the kicks vicious and well-aimed, but the surprise was over.  Kicking upward as hard as I could once, twice, three times I found the groin behind the knee, making its owner groan and shrink sufficiently to release me.   I rolled to my feet, counted three of them: balaclava’d heads snapping at me like dogs.

Remember the rules, the street fighting rules: which one looks like the leader?  Pick him out.  Don’t try and counter all three; go for him and him alone.  Don’t let up.  Never let up.

The one that was tallest, noisiest.  “Yer kna wha’ us ganna do ter the’, wanker?  Wor gan ter break yer legs, man!  Tha’s nivver gan ter play footy again, frigger!  Finished, man; finished!”

I sent him the best message of defiance I could muster.  I heard his nose crush.  Then I was straight after him, not letting him draw back, not giving him a second before I got in a perfect groin kick to bend him double.  But they were three, I was one.  Almost too late I saw the iron bar clenched in the smallest one’s hands, and though somehow I rode the first scything swing it scored across my calf, opening flesh.  Hands pinned me so thoroughly I knew I would not avoid the second.  They were intent upon crippling me, these darkly clad men.

“Stand still yer little frigger!  This is a message from one o’ yer fans, like!”

The bar was swinging, my eyes closed against the certainty of pain.  Heaven would have heard my involuntary shout – it was not heaven that answered.   There was a crack like an egg, but of bone.  The iron bar clattered to the ground, the bar wielder’s knees crumpled.  My hands were suddenly free to unleash a haymaker of a punch, the hardest I could muster into the ribs of the noisy one, while behind me my third assailant was being treated with savagery.  The grey shape that had materialized out of the snow had grounded him, subjecting him to a furious sequence of kicks.  Seeing I was out of danger, though, the shape desisted quickly, grabbing my arm.

“Come away, lad.  Ah think I might ‘a killed the stupid bugger!”

Even in my disoriented state (by this time I must have had several blows to my head) I could see the iron bar wielder was not in a good state.  Lying inert in the snow, a dark red halo was growing around his head.

“Police!  We should call the police.”  I managed to drool out.

“Frig it nah!  Ah’m gannin nowhere near the chatties, lad!  Coom on, run!”

I made no argument.  Run – or stagger – I did, supported by my savior’s arm as together we retraced my steps back to the apartment.  I wondered vaguely as we went why the grey shape had a voice I found familiar.

“Footsteps!”  I pointed behind us to our trail in the snow.

“Aye.  But this snow’s going to keep up all night.  Blowin’ a bit, too.  They’re coverin’ already.”

Angie emerged from the kitchen as we burst through the front door.  I could see from her expression I was not a pretty sight.   She moved instantly into caring mode.  “Come away, man, take off those clothes, I’ll get you some towels.  Who’s your friend, like?”

I think I already knew.  Watching as he unwrapped himself, taking his flat cap from his balding head and unwrapping the scarf from his face.  “Dad.”  I said.  “He’s my Da’.”

I was treated to the broad smile of a man at war with his teeth, and for once in my life I felt genuinely glad to see him.  “Recognized me, then. Hello, son.”

“Da’, this is Angie.”

“I kna’ lad,”  My father said,  “and a canny lass she is.  Make sure yer keep yer ‘ands on this one.”

“Pleased to meet you.”  By this time, Angie’s eyes had widened into saucers. “I thought…”

“I kna, Angie, pet, ah’m supposed to be the most absent of absent fathers.  But since ah’m ‘ere, ah’m wonderin’ if you’d mind washin’ this for us?”

From beneath his donkey jacket my father produced a brutish-looking adjustable spanner, its grips encrusted with blood.  Angie stared at it.  “Shouldn’t we get rid o’ that?”  I asked him.

“Nah, lad, no way!  That’s the only one big enough to fit wor bath taps at ‘ome.  It’ll clean up canny!”

Angie took the spanner between thumb and forefinger and nearly dropped it because it was heavier than she expected.  “Do you always carry a spanner when you go out?”

“Aye, lass.  Yer never kna’ when yer gan ter meet someone wi’ a loose bath tap.”

Angie nodded.  “Of course.”  She disappeared into the kitchen.

“I’m lucky you were passing by.”  I said, not really believing it.

“Luck had nowt tae do wi’ it.  Ah’ve been followin’ yer’ for days.  I were keepin’ an eye on they, too.  I kna’d they were workin’ ‘emselves up to have a go, like.  Ah’m stayin’ ower the Black Horse, where they drink, y’na?  The skinny one was lanterin’ about how you was too big fer yer boots an’ as how ‘e wanted ter fix yer, like?  But it were more than that.  They were plannin’ ter get yer anyways, Chas.  Ah follered them tonight ‘stead o’ you – for a change.  It were less damp.”

“It’s good for me that you did,” I said.  “But how did they know I’d be on the street?  I hadn’t planned to go out.”

“Ah don’t think they intended to get yer on the street, son.  Ah think they was comin’ ‘ere”

I had scarcely time to absorb that thought before Angie returned to bandage my leg, demanding we explain.  I described events leading up to my father’s appearance, omitting the reason he was able to intervene so quickly, and hoping she would not spot the fault in the logic.  “I could place one of the voices,” I told her, “It was that troll from Pellosi’s.  I thought he was just a bad accident, but looking back on it now I think he had meant to be there.”

“It’s likely.”  My father nodded.  “They was drinkin’ wi’ a friend o’ there’n, used ter be Town’s best player ‘til you showed ‘em as how it should be done.  Reckon it were him tryin’ to get ‘e’s own back tonight, like.  Guy Harrison – y’ kna’ ‘im?”

“Guy Harrison!  Way aye!  He’s still in the team.”  The more I thought about it, the less this information surprised me.  Guy had already tried to injure me once, in training at the beginning of the season.  Guy would not know of my intention to leave, and if I stayed the club wouldn’t renew his expensive contract; not just to be my understudy.

“We should tell the police,”  Angie said.

“Nah, no police.”  My father was emphatic.  “Me and the chatties round ‘ere, we go back a long way, Angie pet.”

“Don’t leave your bicycle around him.”  I advised Angie.  “He’s canny light-fingered, like.”

“Yeah?  He saved you, that makes him alright by me.  Anyways, I haven’t gorra bike.”

“What brings you back here, Da’?”  I asked.  “I didn’t think I’d be seeing you again.”

This brought a sigh from my Da’, and I thought that I saw the effort go right through him, as though his rib cage was a rack of iron he had scarcely strength to lift.  “Ah’m not stayin’, son.  I’ve been hearin’ about yer and yer football an’ yer made me proud, y’kna?  I wanted ter see yer again, an’ tell yer, I suppose.  Then I got ‘ere an’ I’d not the courage to approach yer, like.  Not affer leavin’ yer the way I did.  An’ I’ll be awa’ again, now, likely.  I’ve a good woman waitin’ fer me, where ah’m from.  But I wanted ter warn yer, ‘cause I thought yer might be in trouble, an’ I were right.  Nor about tonight, mind, that were just Harrison, but there’s summat in the wind, ah can smell it.  Watch yerself with Mack Crabtree and Marty Berry, Chas; they’re bad people, y’kna?”

“I think I already know about Mack Crabtree,” I said,  “But Martin Berry?  He seems canny to me.”

“Aye, he’s friend enough to yer face, but keep facin’ ‘im, lad.  Don’t turn yer back, awright?”   He raised himself to his feet.  “Now I’ll be on ma way.  You’ll be awreet now, and I’ve some sleepin’ to do.”

“Stay!”  I said.  “We can make you comfortable here.  There’s so much to be said, Da’.”

“True, there is.  I’m not goin’ back fer a day or so yet, so if tha’ wants some catchin’ up, we’ll do it tomorra, because you’ll not be training wi’ that leg. But meantime this young lass doesn’t kna me, so she’ll not be com’fable wi’ me in ‘er home.  Besides,” My father nudged me knowingly;  “I’ve a feelin’ you’ve got some bridges to mend, son.”

Angie saw him to our door, helped him slip his jacket around his shoulders and watched his back as he hunched against the snow.  Then she turned to me with her face a picture of concern.  “Oh, Chas, man!  Whar’ ever am I going to do wi’ you?  I can’t even trust you to go for a walk on your own, can  I?”

“Then you’ll have to stay with me, won’t you?”  I told her brightly.  “I need looking after.”

It was no night for righteous sleep.  We lay awake together, Angie and I, listening for the wail of sirens, half-expecting a heavy knocking on the door that might announce the presence of my father’s dreaded ‘chatties’.  Neither happened.  Did I wonder if two of my earlier attackers might return?  Honestly no.  I felt that our deterrent effect upon them would be sufficient to keep them busy with the accident and emergency department of Bedeport District Hospital at least until morning, by which time I would have had a meaningful discussion with Guy Harrison.  At the stroke of eight I limped along to the Town ground with exactly such an encounter in mind and was gratified by his pale mask of surprise when he saw me come through the doorway of the home dressing room unassisted by wheels.

If you have never entered a room in which, until the moment you thrust wide the door, you have been the occupants’ sole topic of conversation: if you have never been the object of dislike, maybe even hatred, of each one of those occupants; if you have never experienced a silence in that room of such toxicity the very air seems to be reaching for your throat, then it will be difficult for me to describe it for you.  Suffice it that no-one wanted to see me walk through the door, or had believed that I could; and from that I deduced that the plot to injure me had been shared, in some form or another, with everyone there.  It was a palpable moment, if a brief one.

“Yer late for training!”  Pascoe snapped.

“Injury, Joe.”  I told him.  “Flesh wound, nothing much but I’d better keep off it for a day or so.  I’ll be sorted by Saturday.”

“Sit in, then.  We’re going over tactics for Abberton.”

And that was that; but from it I saw, with refulgent clarity, the true undercurrent of resentment I caused in the first team at Casterley Town. I had offered friendship, without ever, as I can remember, dealing underhandedly with or deliberately offending any member of it, yet they disliked me with an obdurate resolve I would never break. If ever I wanted ratification of my decision to leave, it was given to me then.

In the meantime, I needed to keep Angie from becoming entangled in this thicket of plotting and to avoid further violence.  Where originally I had intended to confront Harrison with a direct threat, now it was simpler to channel my message through Pascoe.  As the other players walked coldly past me from the dressing room, I grabbed his arm.

“Can you tell them not to worry, Joe?  Between you and me, I won’t be here next season.  It’s not official yet, mind.  Can you, sort of, pass it around?”

Pascoe glowered at me.  “Ah don’t care if yer friggin’ leave or not.”

That was a bluntness typical of the man.  I didn’t mind;  I knew the message would get through.

With my mission completed, I returned to the apartment.  Our telephone was ringing.

“Chas?  Hi!  It’s Dave Corker, County Record; I hear you’re up for transfer.  What can you tell me, mate?”

“Unfounded speculation,”  I said.

 

© 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