Continuum – Episode Twenty-Four: The Seer’s Lair

Newly elected as Seer to The City, Alanee finds she is the target of popular dislike.  Pursued, she takes refuge in a book store where she orders a very specific book to be made.

Lady Ellar advises her she must move to Cassix’s old apartment in the Upper City.  Accompanied by Sala, she arrives at the door of her new home…

Alanee looks about her with eyes ready to believe almost anything; open-mindedness, after all, is usually the key to understanding.  Somehow though, in this instance, it is not.  Whatever she had imagined Cassix’s chambers might be, the world which admits her by an unassuming blue door is in every way outside her experience and challenges her acceptance of Cassix’s sanity, because it is so out of character.  How could she have expected, for instance, that the cavernous reception room’s severe walls of dressed stone would be strewn with graffiti taking the apparent form of mathematical equations, or that these would be linked by arrows and speech-bubbles in a language she does not recognise?   How should she explain the overall suits in strange white fabric hanging each side of a window which does nothing to blunt the room’s austerity, albeit commanding a fine view of the Balna Valley?  What could prepare her for the grim wooden shed-like structure with its intricately carved strings of acanthus and frieze of demonic figures that occupies so much space to her left? Like a room within a room, she thinks, yet lacking, despite a maze of knobs and panels, a door by which it may be entered? 

To her right a triptych of mirrors, each higher than wide, focuses on the window.  An image projector and behind that a chair face the mirrors; and behind the chair, though less than one-eighth their size, three further mirrors reflect partially their larger brethren, partly the wall on their left.  This wall is dominated by a large, perfectly circular, black metallic plate.

In the centre of the room a polished silver orb rests upon a stand of very dark wood.  In diameter this orb is almost half Alanee’s height, and as perfectly reflective as the mirrors, so wherever anyone moves within the room it picks up and distorts their image.  Two chairs made from tubular steel with hard red plastic seats flank its either side.

There is nothing here consistent with the incisive, clearly-spoken man Alanee met so briefly in life.  There is evidence of the constraints of age: the flagstone floor is littered with discarded papers, the tiny kitchen with stale or half-eaten food, and a small cold-room reveals unnamed horrors.  A  light gauze of dust veils everything.

Alanee expresses her thoughts in terms she has learned from Sala:  “Oh my dear!  I believe a little remodelling will be necessary.” She enters the bedroom, instructing two melancholy-looking drabs who have brought her personal effects.  “After you’ve cleaned this, fetch the bed and bedding from my apartment,” and she waves towards jumbled grey sheets on Cassix’s Spartan pallet.  “Throw that out, please.”

Sala, her eyes completely lacking their usual iridescence, merely looks on.  She has spoken little since she collected Alanee from her guarded apartment and led her, together with substantial sentries and a sad little entourage of dejected porters, to the secure elevators that allow privileged access to the upper city.  The ride up, and the struggle through less familiar corridors, was conducted in silence.

As soon as they are alone, Alanee asks:  “Sala-ba, whatever is the matter?”  Her friend is visibly trembling.

The reply is strangely subdued.  “Why, nothing, Lady.”

Lady?  Oh, Sala!”  Alanee would hug her, but Sala steps away.  “Ba?  Don’t you turn against me!  You must tell me!  What’s wrong?”

Sala avoids her gaze, speaking slowly and carefully:  “It has been made clear to me.  I did not realise the true extent of your eminence. I was foolish, mistaken; I had no idea.”

“Eminent, me?  Sala, they think I slept with him.  The Council are convinced I’m Hasuga’s whore!  Everyone believes I seduced Cassix to get this job!  Hardly the stuff of eminence!”

“I am to serve you.”  Sala says as though she is repeating a mantra:  “I am to attend to your needs.”

“And?”  Alanee, suspicious, studies those austere stone walls with closer attention.  “Sala, my ba, who demands this of you?  Are we watched in here?”

“I am to watch you, and to report….”

“Ah, Ellar!  Not the more recognised form of servitude, then.”  Alanee casts about her forlornly.  “Are there any drinks in this tip?”

“I will see what I can find, Lady.”

“The ‘Lady’ stuff again!  Sala, stop this!  Just stop!

Expressionless, Sala goes to a cupboard that looks as though it might harbour alcohol.  Alanee goes on.  “I think I see; she dares not set up surveillance in a Seer’s chambers, so she wants you with me all the time, is that it?  And she’s prepared to reduce you to the status of a drab to do it?  What’s that?”

Sala holds up a bottle half-full of pink liquid.  She removes its stopper and sniffs.  “I believe it may be paia, Lady.  Drinkable.”

“Anything.  Are there glasses?  And enough of the ‘Lady’!”

“There are glasses,”   Sala holds aloft two small receptacles.  “But they are a little personalised.  I’ll wash them.”

“No you won’t.  Just bring the bottle.”

Sala brings it.  Alanee wipes the neck on a corner of her robe and says:  “You first.”

Sala demurs.

“I’m not drinking until you have.  You’re my food taster, if you like – if that’s what you want to be, ba.  Drink!”

But Sala hesitates even now.  She stands with the bottle at her chest, eyes downcast in utter discomfiture.  At last she drinks a very little of the paia, and passes the bottle to Alanee, who takes a huge swig which instantly chokes her.  She staggers back, laughing.  “Habbach!”  She exclaims when she can speak again:  “I think that may kill us both!”  A tear rolls down Sala’s cheek.  Oh, ba!”

Alanee can do no less than throw her arms about her friend, refusing to set her free and kissing her forehead and cheeks until at last she feels Sala’s rigid, trembling form relax just a little:  then she kisses her lips.

“You’ll never be servant to me, dearest Sala.  I wouldn’t let that happen to you.  I couldn’t!”

Sala says, between sobs:  “I’m so sorry; what am I to do?  You, I love; my work, I love.  Ellar has shown me how vital that work is, now you are Seer to the Consensual City!” 

“All Ellar wants is control,” Alanee growls.  “You are her eyes.  I am not the city’s most popular choice of Seer, from the evidence so far, and she wants to have a clear idea on which side of the fence she should land.  But it makes no difference to us, dear one.  We are friends, whatever our fortunes.  Now are you going to stop crying?  You’re embarrassing me!”

Laughing at herself, Sala wipes impatiently at her tears:  “I can be over-emotional, you see?”

“Darling, I never doubted it.”

 “But I am assigned to you as Mediator and governed by certain rules, especially about getting too involved with my project.  Ellar trusts me.”

“I know, ba.  I know.  And Lady Ellar does not trust me.  It is a field of brambles, isn’t it?  We can cut through them though, I’m certain.”

Together, the pair wash some glassware so they can drink together more elegantly.  Then, perched upon the two hard red chairs which are the only companionable seating in the room, they dispatch the remainder of the paia.  Alanee learns that, as part of her elevation to the status of Courtier, Sala has been moved from her apartment in the lower city.

“I have rooms next to you.”  She jabs a finger:  “That way.  They are a little more acceptable than these.”  And Alanee is immediately sympathetic, for she knows how much Sala loved her little nest.

“It doesn’t matter, I can soon get the new place into shape:  but poor you!”  Sala looks about her.  “What on earth?”

“I’m not meant to be comfortable here.  Although this…”  Alanee slides into the big leather armchair which faces the triptych of mirrors:  “Is homely, at least.  What do you think of the vanity set?  And the big metal disc; what’s that for?”

Sala studies the plate of dark metal.  “I don’t know.  It could be just hiding a hole in the wall?”  And she cannot resist a turn before the mirrors; a critical self-examination, an adjustment of hem, a pat at a rebellious curl, drawing a smile from her companion.

“Merciless, aren’t they?”

Then Alanee feels – sees – what?  Something else reflected there, something quite different.  For a few seconds she cannot speak, so unexpected is the image.  Then…

“Oh, Sala!”

“What?”  Sala thinks Alanee has seen something wrong with her appearance.

“Nothing.  It doesn’t matter.”  The reflection has gone.  “I’m tired:  it’s been the longest day.”

“Paia can be very tiring.”  Sala reminds her primly:  “If taken in excess.”

Alanee says nothing more; after all, she sees now only what Sala sees in those mirrors:  yet the image that came to her remains imprinted on her mind, for standing beside her friend was the figure of a military man, a leader of soldiers.  Not tall in stature, but great in presence, the man she saw was ill or in some kind of distress.  No matter: the moment has passed.

“ Sala-ba, I’m thinking.  Ellar wants you to spy on me, yes?  Well, that’s fine.  You can, but as my friend, not as my servant.  Tell her that.”

“She’s my patron.”

“And you have to do the work you are employed to do.  So I’m the one who has to be careful – I won’t divulge any of my discourses with Hasuga, or any other members of the Council.  That way there are no conflicts!”

Sala shakes her head.  “Lady Ellar is no-one’s fool.  If I can’t get some useful stuff….”

“All right then, let me think of some useful stuff you can give her!”

“Fictitious?”

“Well, maybe a little bit fictitious.”  Alanee frowns.  “I’ll think of something.”

Alanee does not reveal all of her thoughts to Sala, although she would, if the politics of The City were not already etched so deeply in her psyche.  She can see there are ways in which this channel for information can be useful; especially if she is selective in the titbits she allows to pass through.

The conversation ends there, as drabs return with fresh bedding from Alanee’s former home.  She instructs them to provide cleaners for Cassix’s chambers, which they promise to do immediately.

Sala takes her leave.  “Stay with me tonight, ba.  You can’t sleep in this mess.”

Alanee watches her depart in the certain knowledge she will report to Ellar, for Sala has made plain what Sala is and what Sala does.  Sala is firmly Ellar’s woman; has she, Alanee, any right to ask her to swerve from that loyalty?

In the cold stone loneliness after Sala’s departure she feels entombed, even a little panic-stricken.  The deep twilight of Cassix’s existence cloaks itself around her, so she imagines she can hear him pacing the floor in those sandaled feet, murmuring to her.

Breathy whispers: a draught, or something more?

Her summoner’s urgent buzz blares across the echoes like a trumpet call and she jumps so much she nearly falls over.

“Celeris!”  Just the sight of his face on the little screen makes her glad.  She asks, lamely:  “How are you?”

“You could find out.”

“How?”

“By opening your door.  I’m outside it.”

She is overjoyed to see him.  He has barely time to close the door behind him before she has thrown her arms around his neck, although her welcoming kiss is restrained, for she has learned his sensibilities;  and he rewards her with a gentle kiss of his own which might set her music playing, no matter how oppressed and uncomfortable she feels.

“You are Seer now, Alanee.  Do I congratulate you?”

“And you are a mystery.  How do you move so easily between the levels?  Oh, but don’t answer that:  I’m just so happy you’re here!  What do you think of my new abode?”

Does she expect a hint of bemusement in those black eyes?  There is none.  He almost shrugs off the contrast between this and her previous apartment.  “So this was Cassix’s home, was it?  I have never visited here.”

“It’s a nightmare!  It frightens me!  Look at it all – look at the writing all over the walls!  How will I ever live in this?”

“You are Seer now – you must learn the lessons your predecessor has left you.”  He almost glides across the room and Alanee is captivated by his grace:  a man – very much a man – with the felinity of a woman.  His attention has been drawn by the scrawling on the stone walls.

“Does it mean anything?”  Alanee asks.

“Of course!”  Is there a nuance of impatience in his tone?  Celeris points to a figure written in a bubble at the centre of a dressed stone.  “This is the weight of the block.  These arrows show the stresses it exerts upon the stones next to it and beneath it.  The calculation is the density of the stone.”

“Why would he go to all that trouble?”

“Cassix was an engineer.  Clearly he had a theory about how density of stone is affected by the weight placed upon it:  these values are just raw information; somewhere, no doubt, you will find the source calculations.  Those will probably lead to a conclusion concerning the stress placed upon The City’s foundations.”

“Those suits, then?”  Alanee nods to the white overalls hanging on the wall.

“Now they are interesting.”  Celeris says, as though the calculations really weren’t.  “There might be some form of headpiece somewhere.”

The door chimes toll.  Four drabs stand before the door in a listless semi-circle, cleaning implements arrayed about them.  She turns to Celeris helplessly.

“The place must be cleaned.”

“Certainly it must.  Do you wish me to leave?”

“Not if you don’t want to.”  Alanee feels like imploring him to stay, but she will not betray herself so completely.  “You can tell me about some more of this stuff.”

“If I may suggest…”  Celeris murmurs as if he does not want the drabs to hear him:  “Don’t let them throw any of these papers away.  They might be of use to you.”

Alanee notices the drabs each bear the insignia of Hasuga’s personal staff and are well chosen, because they set about their task efficiently.  One will pick up and tidy the strewn-about papers, the others dust and clean, change linen, virtually disinfect the kitchen and the rest-place.  Meanwhile Celeris explains:

“Cassix’s approach was concerned with logic and proportion.  The wooden room is the epicenter; the mirrors the key.  To get into the room you must first find the key.”

“It has a door then?”

“Without doubt.”

“What does the room contain?”

“That is for you to discover.  I cannot tell you.”

“And this?”  Alanee waves at the silver ball resting on its stand between the two chairs.

“Think of it as a sort of exercise machine for the psyche.  See how substantial that stand is?  Have you tried the weight of the ball?”

Together, they get a grip upon the ball and try to lift it, but it will not so much as move.

“It must be fastened down.”

“No, nothing is holding it.”

“Then it’s very, very heavy.”

Celeris says:  “Not for you.”

They pass the time together while the drabs perform their miracles.  Alanee studies the disc of dark metal and asks its purpose:  “An ornament, I suppose – some sort of wall decoration?  It’s in very poor taste, though.  Still, that would be no surprise, would it?”

Celeris smiles.  “Cassix was not a man given to ornaments.”  He takes up Sala’s discarded glass of paia and splashes the liquid at the centre of the disc.  Centrifugal force disperses it instantly.  “Something more than decoration.”

Alanee, wide-eyed, watches:  “How does it do that?”

“It spins.  It is spinning – very fast.  Yet it is so perfectly polished and balanced its movement is virtually undetectable – unless you lean your weight against it.”

The more Alanee sees of Cassix’s chambers the more she sees evidence of his madness.  What if he had accidentally tripped and touched the disc – what if she should?

Celeris makes a further examination.  “How is it driven, I wonder?  It is very heavy, certainly; a flywheel?   If so, for what?”

He appears to tire of unanswered questions, turning instead to Alanee’s welfare, reminding her she is hungry.  They send out for for food, and they dine together perched on the edge of her newly-installed bed.   Her new bedroom has an intimacy she would gather about her, the man is so near, so kind.  It is easy to share her fears.

“All this,” she gestures towards the open space of  the reception room,  “is distant to me, far beyond my horizon where I cannot ever hope to see it.  Why in Habbach’s name did Cassix want me to be Seer?”

Celeris replies seriously,  “Because you can see.  Cassix was wise:  he knew who he was choosing and he chose well.  Do not put yourself in his shadow.  He had his way of coming to prophecy:  you must find yours , if you haven’t already found it.”

“I wish we were alone.”  She finds herself saying.  His hand reaches out to hers.

“Aren’t we?  The drabs have finished and gone.”

She hadn’t noticed.  Inside her head that melody begins to play for her again and at last she understands the Music Man’s gift:  how it was not a one-time thing, a brief pleasure, but one that will always return to her when she has need.  And she is needy now.

A door-chime interrupts her song.  “Don’t move, Ba.”  She presses his thigh.  “I’ll be right back.”

The drabs have locked the door as they left.  Alanee opens it no more than a crack.  Sala is standing anxiously outside.  “Alanee, are you alright?  I was expecting you sooner.  I made food…”

“Sala, I’m sorry, ba.  I hope you can forgive me.  I won’t be coming tonight.”

Sala’s sixth sense is well primed.  “You’re not alone, are you?  You’ve got company.  Is it Celeris?”  Alanee’s silence is an affirmation.  Instantly Sala advances, makes to push past Alanee through the door:  “Can I meet him?  I’ve been dying to meet him!”

Although she does not entirely know why, Alanee resists.  “Not now, no.  I will introduce you, I promise, but not now.  He’s…”  By gesture she tries to suggest that Celeris is in some unfit state.  “Tomorrow, maybe?”

“Oh, Alanee!”

“Tomorrow.”  And Alanee closes and locks the door.

She returns through the museum of Cassix and his life to the man she knows will be waiting for her.  She takes his hands, raising him to his feet then helps him as he takes the clothes from her body in a way no man – no man at all – has ever done for her, then undresses him in her turn.

“Will you stay?”   She whispers, hoping.  He says that he will.

When she wakes the next morning he has gone.

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  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 Voter’s Dilemma

If you are resident in UK, you will probably be voting in a General Election tomorrow.

As, come rain, snow, hell or unacceptably high water, shall I.

I cannot add anything to the litany of high principle that has bombarded the people of Britain for the last eight weeks, or comment meaningfully on the scheming, conniving and legal wrangling of our Members of Parliament throughout the last three years.  You will have formed your own opinions.

So how can I contribute?  How can I, personally, decide which box to tick?

One thing I can offer is memory.  Not ‘nostalgia’, simply memory.  I was already an adult when UK decided to join the Common Market, then a tariff-free trading relationship with a half-dozen Western European nations as signatories.  I have voted in more General Elections than I care to count.

Here are some thoughts.   The day before UK linked arms with Europe, £5000 would buy a very reasonable house, a cup of coffee was the equivalent of 12.5 pence, and £6 to £7 would cover the weekly ‘shop’.  Make no mistake: the price/wage spiral started there, and it was led, of course, by prices.

In a few years, back there in the 1960s, the cost of living escalated by 100%.   In a very few more, UK had lost most of its industrial base and an entire fishing industry.  In a handful of decades, the German hegemony that likes to entitle itself the EU has asset-stripped UK mercilessly, while we, as the only other net contributor to the EU, paid them for the privilege.

We weren’t doing brilliantly before the EU, but we were doing all right.  Without us the whole Tower of Babel is likely to come crashing down, anyway.  I can’t think of one solid reason to stay locked in with them, nor can I imagine why we have to pay them even more to get out.

That single influence should dictate the destination of my vote.  The Conservatives are the only electable party with a determination to press forward.  The others are advocating one or another form of surrender to the Bergers of Brussels.  Well, let’s see.

The Labour Party is the only other real contender for government.  Putting aside its neo-Marxist leader’s extremely extreme views – his support of the Irish Republican Army, his reluctance to maintain a nuclear deterrent, and his past associations with Hezbollah, plus his party’s, if not his own, anti-Semite history – the party he would lead into power is to the left of left-wing Socialism.  I remember the Labour governments of the 1970s.

The Labour Party is, and has always been, led by the creaky democracy of ‘Conference’ in which the powerful trade unions have a disproportionate say.  In the current campaign their Chancellor-in-waiting, John McDonnell, has twice mentioned ‘collective bargaining’ as insurance that everyone should enjoy a decent standard of living.

I remember the true effect of ‘collective bargaining’.  I can shorten it to one word: strikes.  The threat of industrial action will have teeth again if Labour re-nationalizes such services as the railways.  ‘Collective bargaining’ means forcing up wages to a point where productivity is stifled and prices mushroom.  ‘Collective bargaining’ means one disaffected railway worker in Crewe can bring the whole national railway network to a halt.

So, not Labour then.   The other parties, Liberal, UKIP, the Greens – no, I’m afraid not.  I want my vote at least to have a chance of counting.

Which brings me back to the Conservatives, even knowing their only real interest is in perpetuating the worst aspects of the British tradition – class, unearned privilege and the preservation of wealth of a chosen few.  I am not, by instinct, a Conservative, especially at this junction in our history, but I accept they will generate business growth and get back at least some of the country we had and have lost to the EU.

Which is better for all of us, in the end.  So thereto I plight me my ‘X’, albeit, I think, for the last time.

Let’s see what happens…

Hallbury Summer – Episode Sixteen.   The Cuckoo’s Child

The story so far:

Joe’s experience at the hands of the ‘witches’ and the vandalism of the village church convince him that his brother Michael is involved.  When he tries to see Michael he is told he has been removed from Maddockgate hospital.  His aunt and uncle admit that Ian, his eldest brother, has been financing Michael’s care.

Emma visits Joe and it is clear that she is tormented by her feelings for him.  It shocks her to learn how openly he has been questioning the village matrons and she urges him once more to move away from Hallbury. 

After Emma’s departure Joe could not drive her from his thoughts.  He saw her face, heard her voice, even imagined he still held  the hand that had taken his.  It needed the telephone’s blare to bring him into focus.

“Joseph?”  His brother Ian’s voice was formal, “I need to talk to you.”

“And I to you.”  Joe said. “So who goes first?”

“Neither of us, right now.  Pay attention.  I’m staying at The Bull in Braunston.   There’s a car coming for you in half an hour.  Be ready.”

The receiver was replaced before Joe could protest.

Precisely thirty minutes later a black Bentley drew up to the Masefield’s’ front gate.  Alfred, Ian’s personal chauffeur, greeted Joe amiably and held the door for him to climb into the back, then wheezed himself into the driving seat.  As the limousine glided into silent motion, Joe treated neighbour Bess Andrews to a regal wave.    She made no attempt to disguise her curiosity.

“Is this supposed to be low profile, by any chance?”  He asked Alf; “Because if it is, it’s failing dismally.”

Watching the miles slip by, Joe recounted to himself all he knew of Ian’s meteoric rise to prominence, concerning which there were many unanswered questions.  How, for example, did Ian the graduate become successful in so short a time – little more than five years after leaving Oxford he was managing director of his own importing company, with a six-figure turnover and connections in the City.  Ian maintained a story which left certain very fundamental details out.  There were always questions about him, only ever answers to a select few.  Of all the things Joe had learned about London he knew the City did not like ‘upstarts’; it was inherently suspicious of anyone who rose quickly in the system.  Why was Ian so readily accepted?  Yes, he had the gift; everything about him made you want to trust him, to invest in him, to buy from him:  but Joe knew better.  The Ian he had grown up with was far from trustworthy, and he could not believe that those whose perspicuity had brought them wealth would have the wool pulled so easily over their eyes.

One aspect of Ian’s nature could not be questioned – especially now Joseph had learned how generously he financed Michael’s care.  Ian was supportive that night when Joe, suitcases in hand and with the memory of Marian’s dead body in his arms, had knocked upon his regal Hampstead door.

Caroline had answered.  “Joseph.  What do you want?”  (As if that was not obvious).

Caroline was tall – a reed of womanhood who had come to Ian’s bed by a process of very careful selection.  She was of good Home Counties stock, intelligent, and with the sort of fragile looks that transcend any social finesse.  She was also as hard as nails, and, when she chose, devastatingly rude.  That night, dressed carelessly in jeans and sloppy sweater, she still contrived to appear as though she had just completed a fashion shoot.  She looked disparagingly at Joe’s suitcases.

“I suppose you had better bring those inside.”

Ian’s house was a nineteen twenty’s villa in the ‘Deco’ style, its central hallway surrounded by doors to living and dining rooms, a study, games room and kitchen.  Stairs wound up to a mezzanine and bedrooms, then a further flight to a solarium, gymnasium, and roof.

Joe stood on the polished parquet, wondering if he was visibly shaking.   “I’m sorry, I know I’m not observing the proprieties….”

Caroline cut him short. “Joseph, where proprieties are concerned, I don’t think you have a clue.”  She opened the door of the study:  “Ian, that disgusting brother of yours is here.  What do you want to do with him?”

Ian had emerged, dark hair tightly brushed and looking as he always did – irritated.  He saw the suitcases.  “No.”  He said abruptly.

“Ian, I wouldn’t ask, but…”

“You’ve been evicted again.  Joe, I can’t just keep putting you up at a moment’s notice whenever you decide to stop paying your rent.”

“No, Ian, I haven’t been evicted.  But there are reasons I’ve nowhere to stay tonight…”

Ian glared.  “Oh, all right.”  Caroline gasped as if wounded.  “You can sleep in the solarium.  But tomorrow….”

“I’ll look for somewhere else.  I promise.” Joe said.

He had stayed for a month.

When his brother revealed he had reserved a room in The Bull, Joseph had been mildly surprised.  The Mansion House Hotel was Braunston’s finest, and he might have expected the status-conscious Ian to have put up there.  The Bull was a little old-fashioned, advertised as ‘homely and unpretentious’.  Caroline would have been more scathing.

Alf conducted him directly to Ian’s room on the second floor.

In sampling from the Palliser gene pool Ian, it was often said, had taken more than his fair share of his mother’s genes and very few of his father’s.  In looks, in manners, even in intellect, he was arguably superior to either of his siblings.  This is not to say that he was perfect, far from it; he was prone to petty dishonesty, was certainly inclined towards arrogance, and from the age of thirteen had done all he could to disassociate himself from what he perceived to be the dysfunctional Palliser clan.

The Ian Joe expected to greet him was the Ian whose hospitality he had abused just a few weeks before, but there were subtle differences.  He was as irascible as ever, yes – Ian had always been, in Joseph’s recollection, short-tempered; but he was tired, too; fractious, rather than strident.

“Drink?”  He was seated at a desk overloaded with documents.  He waved perfunctorily at the mini-bar.

“Yes, please.  Scotch would be good.”

“Help yourself,”  Ian grunted.  He slapped his pen down onto the desk – he had been writing something as Joseph entered the room, “This is for you, Joe.”

He spun a cheque-book across the room so that as Joe sat on the edge of the bed it almost landed in his lap.  Joe caught it before it fell to the floor.  “Throwing your money around, Ian?  That’s not like you.”

“Open and read.”

Joe did.  The freshly-written scrawl stared up at him from the page:  ‘Pay to the Order of Joseph Palliser the sum of Five Thousand Pounds’:  “What’s this?”

“It is part of a package.  A fairly minor part, actually:  other elements include a first-class ticket on Brittany Ferries to France, a little villa near Dinan (you’ll like it there), and a hire car for as long as you want.”

Had Joe’s jaw dropped open?  “My god, Ian, I know I deserve a holiday, but…..”

Ian gave a passable imitation of a smile:  “Brittany in summer: very beautiful, I assure you.”

“And the catch is…?”

“No catch.  Just remain silent.  Telephone no-one; write to no-one for a couple of months.   Then you can spill your heart out and you can come home, though I’d much prefer if you stayed away from London, for Caroline’s sake.”

In truth the penny had dropped two conversational exchanges ago, but Joe had wanted to run with it, see where it led.  He got to his feet, crossing to a window which overlooked the hotel courtyard, which was just busying up for the evening trade.

This made Ian edgy:  “Could you keep back from the window?”

“Someone’s onto you, aren’t they?  Found out about those depraved orgies in Pimlico?  You want me out of the way until the election is over.”

His brother sighed indulgently.  “There are no orgies, Joe; of course you know that, don’t you?  You always like to provoke me.  But you are right in one respect: I do want you somewhere you can’t readily be found.”

“Why, what have I done?”

“What you always do, Joe.  You stir up trouble:  you are trouble!  I seem to spend an inordinate proportion of my life covering your mistakes; first London and that nymphomaniac sugar-mummy of yours, and now a crusade to obstruct investigations around a murder at home.  I don’t need a Poirot in the family right now, or a gigolo.”

Joseph winced at having this sobriquet attributed to him a second time.  “Or a madman?”  He suggested.

“Yes, well:  I assume you refer to Michael, and that’s another issue.”

“It’s the issue I wanted to talk to you about.  I take it you’ve spirited him away for similar reasons?  We’re just closet skeletons to you, aren’t we?”  He had stopped beside the desk, standing over his brother.

Ian chose his words.  “If you hear from Michael, you’re to let me know as soon as you can.  Okay?”

“So he’s not completely incommunicado, then?  He can smuggle messages out through the bars?”

“He’s gone.”

“What?”

Ian shifted uncomfortably.  “I made arrangements for him to transfer to a very nice, comfortable home in South Wales where he could be, shall we say, closely supervised?  He never arrived.”

“Oh, my Lord!”  Joe unwittingly borrowed Emma’s favourite exclamation.  “Whatever will you do now, Ian?  An election imminent and an insane brother on the loose, ready to tell all!  I should say I’m the least of your troubles!”

Ian sighed.  “I knew this wouldn’t be pleasant.  See here, Joe; all I want is an easy ride into Parliament.  This country is about to get itself a new leader, I think a great leader, and he’s specially requesting that I be by his side.  He wants me for a very important job, Joe, and I want to do it!

“Now, Michael is something I will take care of:  please, just take that cheque – your tickets are waiting at the ferry port, Alfred will give you an envelope with the other details on the way home.  The boat sails tomorrow at ten.”

“Twenty-four hours, huh?”

“More like eighteen.  Go home.  Pack.”

Joe stared at the cheque.  It was tempting: he could leave the torture of Emma, the suspicions of the village, and the dread result of that autopsy behind for a while.  He could renew acquaintance with his beloved France.  But was he simply running away again; failing to confront his problems?  What would happen to Jack Parkin, if no-one was there to champion his cause?

A knock at the door of Ian’s room interrupted his thoughts.

“Mr Chapman?”  Enquired a voice from outside; “There’s a message for you, sir. from your London office.”

Ian hustled to the door, opening it a crack, and the porter passed an envelope through.  Ian glanced briefly at the note it contained.

“I must get back.”  He said.  Joe was regarding him with some amusement.  “What is it, Joe?”

“Mr Chapman?”

“Yes, an assumed name; something I often do.  What of it?”

“Five thousand pounds!  So much money, just to put your brother out of the way for a few weeks!”  Joe tossed the cheque book back onto the desk.  “No.”

Ian’s shoulders slumped. He sat down on the edge of his bed with a world-weary sigh:  “Why ever not?”

“Because I’m your brother, Ian.  Oh, I’m feeling guilty because you’ve been kind to me:  you gave me shelter – if a little grudgingly – and I’m unable to repay you.  But there’s a higher moral lesson here, because although you might be able to buy your way out of all kinds of problems, you should never try to buy off your own family!  Sorry.”

Joe slumped too.  He had just turned down a small fortune, something he did not know he was capable of doing.

Ian nodded, said at last:  “Very well.  I see that.  I’ll get Alfred to drive you home.”

Perplexed, Joe said, “A couple of days?  Let me think about it?”

“Afraid not.  It has to be now, or…”  Ian shrugged fatalistically.  “All right, the truth.  You’ll have to know, anyway.  You were correct; someone is ‘onto me’.  So far, the damage is limited to one reporter for one tabloid newspaper; unfortunately the one with the biggest circulation.  Head office is very good at detecting this kind of thing, and to a limited extent they can deal with any problems, but Michael?  I had to move him very quickly somewhere he couldn’t be found; otherwise who knows what he might have come up with?  He’s still as mad as a hatter, isn’t he?”

“He’s unwell,” Joe had to agree.  “And me?”  He asked.

“You.”  Ian got up, moving to the window, concealing himself by means of the curtain.  “Apparently, Joe, the same newshound has been chasing you all over London.”

“So that’s why I’m a problem?”

“I should say so.  Abysmal failure to make your own living, other than as a gi…”

“Don’t use that word again!”

“Alright, but how else do I describe someone who has spent the last several years being kept by a rich married woman?  A woman who dies, incidentally, in what her husband is claiming are suspicious circumstances. In other words, he thinks you murdered her.  You didn’t tell me about that, Joe, when you came asking for shelter that night.”

“I was desperate, Ian.  If I had you wouldn’t have let me in.  This reporter; why hasn’t he found me yet?  It isn’t as if I’ve been hiding.”

“Oh, he will,”  Ian assured him.  “You moved from London, so you dropped off his radar for a few days.  But he’s got your scent now, apparently.  I’m told he’s in this area.  Tomorrow, or the latest Wednesday, I should think.”  He turned back to his desk.  “He’s tied you to me, of course; hence the interest.”

“Hence twenty-four hours?  Sorry, eighteen.  So I’m escaping!  But did you seriously think a little old ditch like the English Channel would put him off?  Try Brazil!”

Joseph could not help but feel sympathy for his brother.  Ian’s air of resignation was foreign to his nature; a precursor, perhaps, of greater burdens to come.  This was a world-weary figure, tried by circumstances.  There was a haunted – no, a hunted look in his eyes and he, Joseph, was its miscreant cause.

“Let’s get our stories straight…”  He said.

Throughout his homeward journey Joseph had nothing to do but stare at Alf’s massive shoulders and dwell upon the matter of Michael’s whereabouts.   Somewhere out there was Ian’s real loose cannon, someone with the firepower to sink them all. Over these last few days and against his will Joe’s suspicions had been forming.  And the question that must follow was ‘Why?’

The day was not yet over.  One more shot remained to be fired.   At supper with his aunt and uncle he discovered why Dot Barker had not been among those gathered outside the church that morning.  Her husband Ned Barker, landlord of The King’s Head, had died the preceding night.

“How?”  Joe asked.

Owen raised an eyebrow:  “No idea, I’m afraid.  He was getting on a bit, wasn’t he?”

The King’s Head was closed until further notice.  The village’s social hub and the axis of its rumour mill was stilled.  Whatever secret Michael was so insistent Joe should elicit from Ned would go with the old publican to his grave.

On the following morning Joe kept an appointment to view the Lamb house.

He was unprepared for that house. Was it because he never had a roof of his own, but was always the cuckoo’s child, living where fortune next abandoned him, forever at risk from the night and the rain?  As he wandered through those empty rooms he felt as though he were turning handles to unopened doors in his life.  There was gladness, a warmth which reached out to embrace him.  In each bare room he already saw furniture placed as he would have it, carpets, colours of his choosing.  He saw a fire in the hearth and giving his fantasy wings, two people sitting before it.  He saw a bedroom he imagined she would like, a familiar smile of greeting, a dog stretched before the hearth.  It was a tour which might have stopped in the hallway, for in just that short acquaintance Joe knew he was born to be there.  All his reservations, all the petty hostilities and fears were cast aside.

“How much?”  He asked the agent.  The specification sheet quoted a price of four thousand pounds.

“As you see it.  Rather expensive, I’m afraid.  However, it is in a superior state of repair – really just ready to move into and I do believe the owner is looking for a quick sale, so…”

“So I’ll let you have an offer by tomorrow.”

At a ‘bus stand by St. Andrews’ desecrated church, Joe awaited the ‘bus that would take him, by a series of changes, to Wilton Bishop and his recently acquired car.  Aaron Pace was engrossed in the work of repairing the churchyard.

“Mind, I got some work to do ‘ere.”  He called over,  “Tidy this bugger up by tomorrow!  What do ‘ee think o’ that?”

Joe made sympathetic noises:  “Why tomorrow, Aaron?”

“Poor Violet!  We’m puttin’ ‘er under at last.  A’topsy, see?”

Joe wondered how appropriate it would be to lay Violet to rest in a Christian churchyard.  He concluded that Owen was right; that neither she nor her companion witches took their heathenism too seriously.  After all, hadn’t Violet customarily laundered ‘Vicar’s bliddy surplices’?

“Be you lookin’ at the Lamb’s ‘ouse?”  Aaron asked, drawing a cynical smile from Joe.  This village missed mothing.  Aaron stared down at his spade.  “See, you could be a brave man, or you could be a fool.  Not sure which.”

“Nor am I,”  Joe replied.

 

© 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.