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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hallbury Summer –Episode Six                     The Road to Maddock Gate  

The story so far:

 

Joseph has admitted to his relationship with Marian, the wealthy married businesswoman by whose patronage he managed to survive through most of his years in London.  Yet, to his aunt and uncle, his explanation for leaving her seems unconvincing, and too much interrogation sends him on a walk through Wednesday Common, from where he can view the outside of the farm where Violet Parkin was murdered.  He meets his former girlfriend Emma there.  She warns him not to discuss their past relationship with her husband, Tom, once Joe’s best friend.

Joe is helping his uncle at home in his garden when his aunt announces that the police have arrived…

Owen Masefield could hardly have failed to notice his nephew’s reluctance as they joined the uniformed constable who stood in their front room, gazing out through the french windows at Julia’s summer garden.  He was a young man with bright, eager eyes and a narrow, slightly pallid face.  His domed helmet sat on the chaise longue like an obedient pet, waiting for him to sit beside it.  He immediately picked up on Joseph’s misgivings, though Joseph had thought to disguise them.

“Am I keeping you from something, sir?”  Joseph shook his head dumbly.

“Joe hasn’t been well,” Aunt Julia explained.

The constable studied Joseph for a moment before he went on; “We’re asking everyone in the village if they saw or heard something which might help us with our investigation into a suspicious death.  This was on Friday.  About four o’clock in the afternoon it would have been.”

No, Joe’s aunt and uncle declared, they hadn’t.  And the other routine questions the young constable asked received similar negatives.  He jotted down their answers in his notebook.  It seemed, he admitted when he had completed his list, that no-one saw and no-one heard.

“Mrs Parkin must have struggled – she did struggle.  There would have been some noise.”  The constable’s eyes kept returning to Joseph.  “You weren’t here, though, were you sir?   You didn’t get into the village until when?”

“About five o’clock.  I caught the four-forty-five bus from Friscombe.”

“An hour later.  Come down from London?”

“Yes.”

“What train?”

Joseph filled in the details for the constable, who dutifully recorded them all in his notebook.  He thanked everybody for their co-operation, made complimentary remarks about Julia’s garden, and left, wandering down the front path towards the road.  Joseph caught up with him.

“I wonder, officer, can you tell me?  How did she actually die?”

The young man frowned.  “Now why would we want to know that, sir?”

“There are wild rumours.  I had a bit of respect for the old lady, and I know some of her relatives.  It would be better to know the truth.”

The constable subjected Joseph to puzzled scrutiny.  “Well, I can’t tell you everything, but I can say whoever killed her must have really wanted to hurt her.”

“He must have been strong, too.”  Joseph prompted.

“He?  How do you mean?”

“The thing with the pitchforks?  It can’t be easy to drive one of those so deep into wood?  Oh, come on, sergeant, it’s all over the village!  Or is that just embroidery?”

Joseph could not tell whether his deliberate promotion of the policeman’s rank flattered him, or not.  The young man certainly made no effort to correct him.

“No, it’s not embroidery.  But it would be easier if the pitchforks were specially sharpened, wouldn’t it now?”  The policeman shook his head.  “I think I’ve said enough, if you don’t mind.”

He turned away.  Joseph called after him, without knowing why:  “If I can be any help?”

And the policeman replied, over his shoulder:  “But Mrs Parkin passed away before you arrived, sir – didn’t she?  Anyhow, I’m sure we’ll be in touch.”

The next morning Joseph confirmed his brother Michael’s whereabouts from Julia and announced his intention to pay him a visit.  Michael spent his days in a care home a little less than thirty miles distant, near Maddockgate village, a tiny hamlet on the road to Marsden-on-Sea.  The only drawback was rain, which began soon after Joseph alighted from his local ‘bus in Abbots Friscombe.  With half an hour to kill before the ‘bus to the coast arrived, he sought shelter in a café on the village square.  A short woman in a floral apron and flat shoes shuffled between her five deserted tables.

“What can I get you, dear?  Got some nice tea-cakes.”

Joseph ordered coffee.  The woman shuffled away.

Condensation ran down the window-glass.  Outside, the rain was becoming heavier, inducing shouts of panic from passing perms, the clack of running feet.  Traffic on the square splashed past, black and half-seen through runnels of moisture.  The café door burst open.

“Oh my lord, Bella!  It’s just pissin’ down out there!”

Bella was making Joseph’s coffee.  “Manners now, Mary.  We got comp’ny!”

“Oops, sorry!”  The new arrival, a woman in early middle age, encompassed Joseph in an unseeing glance; then she looked again.  “Good lord!  Joey?  Joey Palliser?  What are you doin’ ‘ere?”

Joseph smiled bleakly:  “Everyone asks me that.”

“It is a surprise, you’ll admit: ‘specially after…”  Setting Bella about the task of brewing a pot of tea, Mary came to his table, resting a suggestive hand on the opposite chair to Joseph.  “Mind?”

“No.  No, of course not.”

“Well, we got to catch up, haven’t we?  Why you come back?  You reckon ‘tis all forgotten now, then?”

“Clearly not,”  Joseph muttered.  Mary Harkus certainly wouldn’t have forgotten.  Tom Peterkin once referred to her, kindly, as ‘The Voice of the Community’.  It was a title she fully justified.  Her small grey eyes fixed steadily on his, rain dripping slowly from her blunt features onto the bare wooden table.  “It’s been more than ten years, Mary.”

Bella brought their drinks.

“Folks don’t forget Joey,”  Mary poured some milk from a small creamer into her cup, topped it up with tea.  “No, they got long memories, dear.”  She spooned three sugars.  “What’s our Charker got to say?  Have you met ‘un yet?”

“I’ve met him.”

“Ah, well….”  This, laden with emphasis:  “He don’t forget his brother.  Often talks ‘bout him, he does.”

Joseph nodded curtly.  “I’m sure he does.”  There was no other recourse than to leave, his coffee untouched.  He paid Bella, ignoring her sotto voce:  “What did you expect?” and resigned himself to the rain.  As he closed the café door, Mary Harkus called after him.

“You watch out for our Charker, mind, Joe Palliser.  You watch out, now!”

 

True to the country tradition, the ‘bus was late and grew later with every mile as it picked its way north to Maddockgate.  It was fairly well filled, in spite of the weather: optimistic trippers with hopeful smiles and determined expressions:

“It’ll clear up later.”

“Just a shower.”

Joseph settled into a corner, watching through the fog of spray and steam as the world went past.  How foolish he had been to even consider returning here!   Of course they would remember – he could never forget, how should they?  And it was this road, and in a minute it would be the precise place…

Rodney Smith – as lean as his brother was fat, as clever as his brother was slow-witted, with a long, hooked nose, and Dickensian pomposity:  imbued with a swift, sarcastic tongue.  The Smith family took pride in his intelligence, his diligence, his certainty of success – but to Joey Rodney Smith was a relentless tormentor.  To Rodney, Joe was a target for humiliation; a hapless, worthless adversary who seemed a little slow, a little shy.

“You, Joe Palliser?  You won’t ever amount to anything!”

Whenever Joseph voiced an ambition that taunt sapped his confidence, drawing spikes of laughter from all about him and snapping shut like an iron maiden on the meagre flesh of his self-esteem.  It followed him through school, this malignancy, and into adulthood.  Wherever Joseph was, whoever he was with, Rodney would always be somewhere near.  Talking with girls:

“Now there’s a surprise!  Are you turning straight, Joey?”

Rodney excelled at sports.  Not just one, but any sport.  He scored goals, he ran like a cheetah, his tennis game was accurate and vicious.  Whenever teams were selected, Rodney was always the first to be picked.  Even then, the barb:  “If I play for you, you have to promise not to pick Joe Palliser.  I want us to win.”

Once, reduced very nearly to tears, Joseph grabbed Rodney’s hard-muscled arm.  “Why do you keep doing this to me?  What did I ever do to you?”

“Do to me?  Whatever makes you think you could do anything to me?  I just don’t like you, Palliser.  You’re a worm.  You belong in the soil where I can tread on you.  I enjoy it!”

Joseph would have succumbed completely, were it not for Sarah.  She nick-named Rodney Smith ‘Achilles’. It irritated him visibly, the more so because Sarah was as widely admired by the girls’ half of the school as he.  Finally, he was driven to ask her:

“Why Achilles?”

“Too much muscle and too much pride – and because you’ve got a heel, mate.  You’ve got a heel.”

Nobody knew what Sarah saw in Joseph Palliser, least of all Joseph himself.  One morning when Rodney, who constantly attempted to add her to his list of trophies, put that question, she smiled at him kindly.

“He’s all the things you’re not, Achilles dear.  One day you’ll find out.”

Sarah had departed for London and her new life long before that day came.  Joseph had begun working for a firm of solicitors in Braunston, with the hope of eventually taking articles.  His employer, an amiable old solicitor called Carnaby, bore his immaturity with resigned patience as he coaxed the best from this spotty-fleshed youth with his large, soft eyes and downcast look.

By then Tom Peterkin was Joseph’s closest friend.  Tom was a mechanic by nature and birth, performing little tasks in his father’s garage from an age when Victorian pauper children would have been too young to climb chimneys, only happy if he was oily fingered and greasy-faced, attacking an obscure nut or a recalcitrant bearing.   So when in the summer of fifty-nine Joseph bought an old Ford Pilot car, he provided a catalyst for them both.

Tom’s grin split from ear to ear.  “Now then!”  He said ecstatically:  “What can’t we do with that?”

Thereafter, car modification filled their weekends:  Tom’s Sunbeam in one corner of his father’s workshop, Joe’s Pilot in the other.  Tom wanted a ‘rod’, a highly modified, brightly painted street car, while Joseph, typically for him, craved anonymity and disguise.  As Tom’s car gradually mutated into a squat, barrel-tyred, garishly painted speed machine, Joseph’s underwent far more subtle changes.  Under the senior Peterkin’s tutelage Joe transformed his Pilot’s eight cylinders, subtly widened its road wheels and replaced its suspension, all without any obvious alteration.  He revelled in secret pleasure, enjoying the efficiency of the machine he created:  an inward smirk, maybe – or another aspect of the tightly introverted person he had become?

All that changed one Saturday morning in February nineteen-sixty, when Joseph drove into the garage, to find Tom standing triumphantly amid a stack of boxes.

“All the way from America!”  He proclaimed proudly.  “Absolutely the fashion, this.  We got Nitro, boy!”

Nitrous oxide; laughing gas:  the dentists’ companion and the street racer’s fuel of choice.  A sleeping giant, in the disguise of one small cylinder, a few fittings and valves, all concealed from general view.  At the turn of a tap, a monstrous surge of raw power, which might turn the exhaust pipe into a cannon, overheat and destroy an engine in seconds if used unwisely – but what seconds!  Joseph was not immune to a boy’s addiction to speed.  Before a week had passed, his dignified old conveyance had developed a more sinister aspect.

Joseph was proud of his driving skills and his car was admired by the local girls, not for its undiscovered pace – it retained its innocent outward appearance – but for the sheer shiny care he lavished upon it.  He enjoyed their attention.  It was not for him to acknowledge that his popularity was for all the wrong reasons: he was, in so many ways, a child still.  But he was no longer an outsider.

This did not escape the notice of Rodney Smith, whose new stamping ground was Braunston.  Rodney was bound for Cambridge that autumn, so why he could not simply put the Palliser boy behind him and move on, no-one could understand: yet Joseph remained the object of his jibes, a butt for much of his humour.  Palliser’s emergence, his seeds of success seemed to gall Rodney particularly; especially when one of his girlfriends enthused about the gleaming black Ford Pilot.

The ‘bus slowed down, dropping a grating gear for the winding descent towards Maddock’s Teirny.  A bend to the left…..no, not here:  not this one.  Very near, now though…

Joe had been alone, driving his favourite route into the hills.  He was so relaxed he did not see the sleek MG convertible that swept up the road behind him:  with a blare of twin air-horns it thrashed past, a brief snapshot of Rodney’s grinning face and an obscene gesture as he cut in viciously, sending Joe’s Ford careering out of control into the verge.

For a few seconds Joseph’s precious machine teetered at the brink of a ditch which would surely have sent it to its grave before he managed to stabilise it.   Receding into distance, Rodney Smith drove with his left arm resting across the top of his passenger seat, chuckling as his mirrors revealed the drama behind him.

Rodney drove fast, laughing as he rotated the joke in his head.  That stupid Palliser!  So pretentious, so impertinently neglectful of his station!   The boy was working class, and utterly naive.  It may have passed muster with the village tarts, but he, Rodney, was not convinced by a cheap old banger larded with polish.

At length the event ceased to amuse Rodney.  He began planning his first date with  Josephine, who he had promised to pick up from her Marsden home by half-past-ten.  There was a champagne picnic – a new concept even for him – in the car boot.  It promised to be a very special weekend indeed.

A raucous shout from a car-horn gave him a moment of alarm, which redoubled when he glanced in his mirror and saw the low bull nose of the Ford Pilot right behind him.  Through its windscreen he could pick out Joseph Palliser’s face, set in a grim smile.

So he wanted to compete, did he?  Good god, hadn’t the repeated humiliations, the thrashings at every game he played, the constant ridicule been enough?  Very well then!  With a calculated skill which typified everything he did, Rodney dropped a gear, put his foot to the floor.  The MG answered him willingly, and he allowed himself a leer of triumph as the old Ford fell back.  A right-hand bend at speed, a little tail-end drift, neatly controlled while the wind rushed through his chestnut hair – why didn’t he do this more often?

The Ford was still there.  Now it was drawing closer, its headlights set on full beam, its horn repeating that demanding yell.  All right, then, Joey Palliser – a bit more; is that what you want?  Again, Rodney decked the pedal: pounding along the straight towards the summit of Tierney Hill, watching Joe’s car drop back.  Then, a crackle like distant gunfire and all at once it became larger; very much larger.  There was a hard-edged whine from the pursuing car’s engine, a throaty bellow from its exhaust.

No-one would know at what precise point Rodney’s perception of Joseph Palliser changed from one of sneering contempt to acknowledgement of imminent threat.  Later, Joseph explained to the police how Rodney succeeded in negotiating the first three bends of the hill before the MG’s front tyres lost their grip.

“He was just going too fast – much too fast.  The speed when he overtook me…well!  Coming down the hill, I knew I was going to find he’d left the road somewhere…”

The bus slowed significantly now, sought out yet another gear.  This was it – this next bend.  Joseph could not resist scrubbing at his cloudy window as the bus heeled sharply left.  Still there, the gap in the hedge, after all these years, closed by chestnut hurdles.  Beyond it the field which dropped sharply away into the valley:  the field where Rodney Smith’s glittering future ended.

Joseph could not wipe away those memories.  Although there was nothing he could do, it was a high price to pay and the first time he had ever seen someone die.

The police did not even investigate Joe’s car.  After all, as he explained, he was well away from the accident when it happened.  There was no reason to believe he was anything other than a witness.  The Ford looked like quite an ordinary vehicle, so they never sought out the cylinder of nitro in the boot, or checked it to find it was nearly empty.

Joseph was free from suspicion.  He took care to remove all trace of gas injection from his car the same afternoon, replacing the old parts in the carburettors.  But rumours began to spread in Abbots Friscombe, tales of how Joey Palliser had forced young Rodney Smith into a duel, and by some devious trick or another Rodney had lost.  Some alleged Joe Palliser had run the innocent Rodney from the road; people who would have treated that suggestion with incredulity a week before, but such is the way of rumour:  it makes heroes or villains wherever its appetite takes it.

Tom Peterkin gave him the warning:  “The Smiths are after you, boy.  Charker’s sworn to get even.  I’d lie low if I was you.”

Tom, of course, knew more than anyone.  But he was a true ally:  he kept his peace.

But where, you might ask, did Joseph’s brother Ian feature in all this?  How often was he called upon to leap to Joseph’s defence through those lonely, harassed years?  Well, the answer is nowhere.  Ian, you see, counted himself one of Rodney Smith’s best friends.

© 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nowhere Lane – Chapter Nineteen. A worm

The night had been merciful to Patrick.  Ravaged by all the tensions of the day and his imaginings (what danger might Karen be in, or the unthinkable – was it already too late?)  he had wanted to keep going; to keep up his search for her.  Even after he abandoned his vigil in Nowhere Lane his desperation drove him on, standing shaking and soaked to his skin before the night desk at Caleybridge Police Station, where the desk sergeant was made to listen to his account of events before, not unkindly, telling him to go home. Midnight was close before he drew the Daimler to a shuddering halt in the drive of Radley Court and his family were able to step in and advise – no, insist – he rest.

“Bath and bed for you, young man!”  Gwendoline instructed him in a tone she normally reserved for Amanda.

“It makes sense, Patsy dear,” Gabrielle soothed.  “There’s nothing to be achieved now, and you wouldn’t be a lot of use to Karen in this state.  Get some sleep.”

“You’re making a fool of yourself, boy,”  Jackson told him; though his tone was less censorious than before.  As he watched his son labouring up the big stairway there were etch-lines of concern on his normally placid features.

So Patrick acquiesced, and of course sleep came, the moment he laid his head on the pillow.  Sleep; dreamless, deep, and long.  It was near ten the next morning when he woke.

“Let me get this straight.”  The detective constable looked up from his report pad.  “You’re trying to tell me this Miss Eversley has been abducted – is that what you’re saying?”

Patrick nodded emphatically.  He had waited at the police station for nearly an hour to gain an interview with a member of CID.  He wasn’t about to see it wasted.  “How many times do I have to repeat myself?  She was following up an investigation.  The investigation took her to the old ruins at Boulter’s Green.  I followed her there.  She walked from her car to the ruins, and she did not walk back.  I waited for hours but she didn’t return.”

“You’re certain of this, are you?  Did you see anyone – anyone at all – during the time you spent there; any other persons acting suspiciously, any activity of any kind?”

“No, I didn’t.  I stayed until long after dark.”  Patrick paused, “No, wait – that isn’t quite true.  When I was down by the river there was someone, a woman, looking out of one of the windows of the Driscombe place.  Anyone in that house would have a clear view of Boulter’s Green, wouldn’t they?  Couldn’t we ask them?”

The detective frowned.  “I’m afraid we won’t be disturbing Lord Driscombe unless we have a lot more to go on, young man.  He is a Peer of the Realm, I’d advise you not to forget that.  Now, this was yesterday afternoon, after your father reported the theft of a vehicle.  You found that vehicle, didn’t you?”

“Yes; yes I did.”  Patrick felt that his concerns were being somehow turned against him.  “But yesterday morning we told your officer – my Dad told him – Karen had been abducted.  It wasn’t a theft.”

“’Karen’ would be Miss Eversley, yes?   You recovered your father’s car from outside her apartment.  Let me see, what were your words last night?”  The policeman studied the report in front of him.  “Ah, yes.  ‘She was being chased.  He was after her’.  Any idea who was after her?”

“No, I don’t know his name.  But he was large enough and strong enough to frighten her.  I had to defend her from him once; I reported it, and he’s been stalking her ever since, so I know the threat was real.”

“You certainly made a report, Mr Hallcroft.  We investigated that.  We found no evidence of an assault having taken place, or any witnesses who could describe this person.  A tall man with long hair and a leather overcoat – isn’t that your description?  A little theatrical, don’t you think?”

“Don’t believe me, if you choose not to. My sister and her boyfriend had to deal with him, they’ll tell you.  Karen also reported to you she was being followed, after he assaulted her.”

“True, true.  You might say in the few days of your acquaintanceship with Miss Eversley the pair of you drew quite a bit of police attention.”

“That’s so unfair!  I’ve known Karen longer than ‘a few days’.”  Patrick wished he had brought his mother to this interview.  “Look, it’s obvious Karen had no intention of stealing anything: my father’s car was parked on the street.  She’d left it there and swapped to her own car, once she’d got away.”

“Got away?  So she wasn’t abducted, was she?  In fact, there’s no evidence she didn’t simply ‘borrow’ your father’s vehicle to get back to town.   You see, Mr. er..”  The detective constable glanced up at Patrick with pedagogic disdain:  “Mr Woodcroft, Miss Eversley wasn’t exactly short of enemies, was she?  In her line of work, it’s entirely possible a disgruntled client might threaten violence against her, but they wouldn’t be interested in abducting her. If someone broke into your house, as appears to be the case and they were chasing her, she certainly got away; as to where she went after that, well, following your reasoning, somewhere out of reach, don’t you think?”

Patrick firmly refuted the policeman’s explanation.  “No constable, I’m reporting her missing.  I believe she may be in danger.  I’m asking you to follow that up.”

“You’re sure she’s not at home, or her place of business?”

“Certain.  I checked both.  Why?”

The constable studied his pad for a moment or two.  He pursed his lips.  “Well, we might as well get this out of the way.  You see, Mr Hallcroft, I’m having a little bit of trouble with this story of yours.”

Patrick stared.  “Why?”

“Last night you came in here unloading all this and you seemed, if the night-duty officer’s account is anything to go by, a little bit off-balance.  Nevertheless, we did send a car out to this lane you spoke of, and our constable investigated it thoroughly.  He walked the route you described to the ruins and he looked around as well as he could by torchlight.  He saw nothing unusual.”

“No, nor did I; that’s the point!  But her car is parked there…”

“That’s the thing Mr Hallcroft.  It isn’t.”

“What?”

“There was no sign of a car.  Nothing.”

Patrick regarded the detective constable blankly.  “It was there, and it was locked.  I don’t believe you.”

“To be honest, it’s immaterial whether you believe me or not.  We haven’t found the vehicle.  So as far as we’re concerned, if Miss Eversley is missing at all, the most likely explanation is that she has simply gone away for a few days.  She is an adult, and no-one from her family has reported her missing.  We might pursue her for theft and any part she played in the damage to your father’s property, but otherwise the police can’t be involved.  I’m sorry.”

 

Ah, we are only human, are we not?  Patrick’s conviction was total:  Karen already held an unassailable place in his heart.  She was his chosen; the one he would spend a lifetime beside if he could.  And only those who have loved and lost could ever understand his agony of fear for her.  Yet it would be wrong to assume that other counsels could not plant a tiny worm where such pure flowers grew.  Driving through the town after his visit to Caleybridge Police Station the detective’s explanation of the previous day’s events picked at the locks of his devotion.  He was not a fool.  In his imagination, he extrapolated upon their interview.

“Tell me, sir, how long have you known Miss Eversley?”

“A few weeks.”

“Really?  As long as that.  Were you intimate with her?”

“Well, yes.”

“Well yes.  And what do you know about Miss Eversley’s past?”

“She had a sister.”

Slowly, as if writing this down:  “She – had – a – sister.  What was her sister’s name?”

“I don’t know.”

“Where did Miss Eversley go to school?”

“I don’t know.”

“Has she any close friends?”

“I don’t know.”

 I don’t know.  I don’t know.

Now, when it counted, he was discovering how little he did know about the woman who had entered his life.  He had to believe what the policeman had told him.  The car had been removed.  After he left could Karen have returned in the night and driven away from that muddied lane?  If so, where?  Where would Karen, feeling afraid, seek shelter?  And if she had found refuge, why had she not called to tell him she was safe?  There was, of course, an alternative answer he did not want to contemplate; that she had winged her little car up the A38, so by now she could be with Tim Birchinall in London.  Birchinall, his rival!  He baulked at the thought, not really believing she could do that to him so coldly, but knowing she was in fear of her big, aggressive Mr Nasty, and that might be enough to make a renewed relationship with a rugby playing policeman a temptation she couldn’t resist.

Only Karen’s mother was at home when he pressed the doorbell that afternoon.  A matronly figure whose apron was wrapped about her by her personality, she greeted him effusively.

“So you’d be the young man our Karen’s been seeing?  Come in, dearie, come in!  You’ll catch your death out there!”

If Patrick had sought to raise concern in Bridget Eversley, though, he was to be disappointed.  She sympathized with his agony, but not the reasons for his concern.  When he told her how worried he was for her daughter, Bridget thought he was over-reacting.

“A dark man?  No, she hasn’t told me about any dark men, dearie.  You shouldn’t worry about Karen, you know, she’s strong-willed and she’s wily, that one; gets it from her sister Suzanne.  She knows how to look after herself.  She’s probably gone off on one of those Spiritualist retreats – she does, from time to time.”

Patrick was puzzled.  “Spiritualist?”

“Oh yes, dearie, she’s very much took up with that.  You didn’t know?  There’s monthly meetings she goes to; some woman at the Gaiety, can’t think of her name.  She took her dad last time.  Kept him quiet for a few days after, I can tell you.  Then again, if business has been a bit slow lately she might have gone to one of her friends, I suppose.  She does that sometimes, too.”

Patrick pressed her; did she know where he might find any of Karen’s friends?

“There’s one, Bea I think her name is, but I can’t say where she lives. I met her once, it was at the County Show.  Nice girl; dark, sort of flashy, but nice.”

When they put their heads together, Patrick and Bridget, they discovered their knowledge of Karen’s life and habits amounted to surprisingly little.  “She’s an independent minx.  If she’s lit off for a while, I shouldn’t be surprised, nor should you.  She’ll be back when she’s missing her Sunday dinner.”

#

The circumstances were not ideal for a first meeting with one of Karen’s parents, Patrick told himself, but at least he had learned something more about their enigmatic daughter,   Spiritualism!   He found the very thought of Karen attending a spiritualist meeting disturbing; it was inconsistent with the image he had built of her: it did not fit.  Nor would her mother’s description of Karen – ‘She’s strong-willed and she’s wily, that one’ – comply with his; the woman in his heart was gently loyal, grounded and dependable, the woman in his head was subtly altered now.  He could not avoid thinking about that.

Exhausted by small doubts Patrick was glad enough to break from his search for a brief while, and Jacqui, still abed at the hospital, was at least as glad of his visit.  She smiled delightedly when he walked in.

“You’re a sight for sore eyes!”  She crowed.  “Where did you go yesterday?””

Despite the turban of bandages around Jacqui’s head and the brace that kept her from moving her neck, her facial features had regained their refinement, so her obvious pleasure at seeing Pat made her look radiant.

“Doesn’t anyone else visit you?”  He asked.

Jacqui pouted.  “I told you once, but you probably didn’t listen properly.  My mum and dad live in Australia now, and when they went they took my brother Ade with them.  Not that Ade would have been a dutiful relative when it came to things like visiting.  He used to have trouble remembering where the door was, most of the time.  Still, our loss of a drug addict is Australia’s gain.  Aunt Vi came to see me this morning.  She thinks I’m too thin.  Do you think I’m too thin?”

Patrick said he thought she was just perfect, and they chatted on happily for a while; touching upon subjects like hospital food, beds, and matrons.

“The night matron on this ward’s a killer!  I swear she creeps around the beds in the early hours administering lethal doses to anyone who dares demand a bedpan.  They clear out the bodies in the morning.  Anyway, you haven’t told me yet.”

“Told you what?”

“Where you went yesterday.  How’s your little Miss Marlowe?”

So Patrick told her – about the large man who had been stalking Karen, about the connection between two dilapidated buildings on a regional map and a case she had been working on, and about her disappearance.

“My god, Pat, this is horrible!  Poor Karen!  Where can she have gone, I wonder?”

“I’m worried out of my wits.  I wonder if she might have gone back to Tim, you know?  London’s a good distance away, and he’s a copper, after all.”

Jacqui placed a comforting hand on Patrick’s arm.  “Scared you might lose her?  What, gone back to the rugby-playing lump, after having tasted you?  Don’t be silly!  I met – what was his name – Tim, once.  Dull as ditchwater, darling!  No contest!  You think they’re after you, too, don’t you?”

“I was warned off,”  Patrick said.  “Maybe I should have taken notice, and you wouldn’t be in here.”

“Really now?  You think my attacker mistook me for you?  Pat – do you?”

“Maybe: just maybe.”

“Wonderful!”  Jacqui groaned.  “Dear old Jacqui, getting in the line of fire, as usual.”

“Don’t say that.  I had no idea…”

“I know, Pat, I know.  Let me see, if she’s gone to ground somewhere, where could that be?  You’ve tried everything – parents, friends…?”

“That’s the thing.  She seems to have had only one best friend.  Someone called Bea?  I have to trace her.”

“Bea Ferguson?  Oh, I might be able to help you there.  See if you can find me a piece of paper and a pen and I’ll write the address down for you.  She had loads of friends, though, Pat:  loads!”

The rain had ceased before Patrick left the hospital, prompting him to lower the top on his car and driver faster than he should, relishing the fresh wind in his face as if it might blow any trace of mistrust from his heart.  It was no distance to Caleforth, the village where the young Fergusons had made their home.  Theirs was a small red door in a street of little cottages clustered together in terraced solidarity.

“Who are you looking for, dear?”  The next door was white and open.  An elderly head was peeping through it.  “They’re both at work.  They’ll be back about six o’clock, I expect.  Shall I tell them you called?”

#

At first, she had thought the colours flashing through her head would never clear, the pain of the blow would never ease:  which was why, perhaps, she kept her eyes closed against the world.  That was why?  No, fear was why.

Behind closed eyes she was safe:  the tall man would be unsure of her condition, giving her some time to assess.  She had no clue where she was, other than the detail of her immediate surroundings, a bare white room with the bed she lay upon, an upright chair and a stout wooden door.  There were no windows: the only illumination came from a strip light on the stale white ceiling.  All this she had seen before the big man’s hand sent her back into her nightmare.

He had gone, she was fairly certain.  Her screaming seemed to concern him; had he been afraid someone would hear?  She believed she was alone and the door was closed.  If she could be sure, absolutely sure of that, she might chance opening her eyes, but lacked the courage to put it to the test.  Better to feign unconsciousness or sleep.

She had slept, at some time.  She was stretched out upon the bed, and before she was hit she had been sitting up.  Gabrielle’s marl sweater and Lee Cooper jeans had been stripped from her body: In their stead, she seemed to be dressed in some form of shift.  Someone – she could only assume it to have been that tall grey vulture of a man – had undressed her, and this induced a shudder of loathing she could not suppress.

“You’re awake then.”  The voice was dull, toneless.  Not the voice of the grey man.

Reluctantly, because her head was still buzzing, she blinked her eyes open.  He was sitting on the upright chair, watching her.  She remembered.  “You’re Joshua.”  She said.  Her jaw was bruised, her mouth difficult to move.

“You can call me that if you like.  It’s of no consequence.”

She attempted an embittered smile as she recollected the phrase.  “Was it you put me in these clothes?”

“Yes.  It’s how he wants.  Oh, and don’t worry yourself.  I left your underclothes alone – and I’m a nurse, by the way.  I’m qualified.”

“Should that console me?  I seem to remember you pretending embarrassment at the sight of my legs, not long ago.  But here you are, in the end, just another dirty little pervert.”

Joshua grinned.  “Ah’m a good actor, aren’t I, lass?”

Her mouth wouldn’t cooperate because her lips were swollen.  She was drooling, and the drool was blood.  “And who is ‘he’?  The lunatic who hit me – who’s that, Joshua?  Are you his keeper?  He belongs in a zoo, doesn’t he?”

“His name is Edgar.  I’d worry about Edgar, if I were in your place.  He’s gone to a great deal of trouble to get you, and he’s not likely to waste his opportunities now he’s succeeded.”

She pulled herself erect, sending a thunderflash of pain rocketing through her neck and head.  When the red mist cleared she could look down at herself.  “A white shift.  Very clinical.”

“He likes white, does Edgar.”

Though every move brought a new flush of pain, she could certainly move.  Nothing was wrenched, or broken.  “What does Edgar want with me?”  It was a foolish question really.  The answer, though, was unexpected.

“He’s in love with you.”

What?

“Alright, he’s obsessed with you, if you like.  Whatever you want to call it, he thinks of it as love.  He believes, for the minute, that he loves you.  A bit like a child loves a toy, you know?  Until he gets tired of it and breaks it.”

“Jesus God!”  Ignoring the warning pain in her head Karen leapt to her feet, made the two strides to the door.  She had the advantage of surprise and she used it, throwing the door open, launching herself through it into she knew not what, only hoping there was some magic path leading back to the light.  But beyond the door was a corridor, a bare, dim space, lit by another fluorescent strip screwed to another low ceiling.  There were steps leading upward not more than a few paces away.  She raced for them, only to find they ended in a hatch that was secured by heavy bolts.  When she swung back again Joshua was standing in the middle of the corridor, smiling benignly.

“There’s no way out, I’m afraid.  No way at all.”

 

© 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