Catalogue of Shattered Dreams

When I was young I was designed to become a writer.   Of course in those days we knew nothing about DNA but in the sunshine of my bright ideal I saw myself:

Hunched over a typewriter,

in a dim room with a high window of nicotine-stained glass,

Chain-smoking myself into a coughing stupor,

Careless – utterly careless, of the greater world around me.  

Let the scripts pile up on the desk, on the floor, in the passageways and arbors; I would be oblivious to the chaos.  I would write.  Day, and night, write.

Why didn’t it work out like that?  Why didn’t it?   Well, to begin with, but also with annoying persistence, I could not perfect the art of typewriting.  Canute-like, I could not restrain the Tippex tide, nor the quasi-D’Artagnan-duelling clash of rival keys, the log flumes of paper jams, smudges, crumples, and mechanical accidents.   Who has not cried out in pain as they see their paper-carriage skip the return stop and fly across the room?  Why was the Japanese vase, the recuperating cat, the hapless hamster positioned there – just exactly there?

The day the Word Processor came into my life was like Richard III’s best bit:  ‘Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by these salesmen from Sharp’.  Differences between RIchard  and I are many – I for example, am unlikely to be exhumed from a car park, but I have to take his point:  I was liberated.

Life and Art, eh?

Unfortunately, there were storms in other seas.   Spouses unappreciative of piles of manuscripts in passageways or scattered upon disorderly desks, for whom creative chaos held no romance   The word ‘dust’ has been mentioned pretty frequently throughout my life, closely followed by the more nebulous  “Urgh – what’s that?!”   

Spouses are also prone to materialism.   ‘Putting bread on the table’ has dominated many a meaningful conversation, and rebuffs by taking the phrase literally treated with scorn.   I was compelled to accept that there had to be bacon, or beef, or vegetables lumped in.  As my self-addressed manuscripts to ‘1, The Garret’ cascaded back through my door and a wallpaper of rejection letters accumulated, I grudgingly accepted the need to do ‘work’.  

I had to find something that paid.  Writing was not the crock of gold it promised to be.  It was just a crock.

I won’t deny that I take pleasure in money; I am darkly suspicious of anyone who doesn’t, but to the bug of creativity it is pure insecticide.  Wherever you spray it, the Inspiration Aphids are consumed.   Why, after all, spend hours preparing a piece that will reward me with a pittance when I could be doing something more productive, more creative, more lucrative?  Except the ‘creative’ in this sentence refers only to creating money, and the productive in this sentence has to do with making more money, and the ‘lucrative’ in this sentence refers to the worship of MONEY.  Somehow, money always offers very good reasons to ignore the pleading noises Noble Poverty makes inside my head, where  Elizabeth Barrett argues strongly for distinguished starvation, and we even share a bad back, but no time for starving selflessly when there is always another conference to attend, a buying trip to make, a new range to review.  And when all those mundanities are finally overcome, home life has a catalogue of new ones, as in “When are you going to fix that drain?”

“I’m an artist, for God’s sake, my darling:  I DON’T DO DRAINS!”   

“Yes you do.”

You’re right.  This is the real world, and the real world has drainage.

To souls as torn and tortured as has been my own in my advancing years, retirement shone like a beacon.   In retirement I would find solace.   There would be nothing to fill my day!   I could sit in my corner, I could create magical images upon the page.  I WOULD HAVE NOTHING TO DO BUT WRITE!

Wrong!

It is an unwritten law, but it is ineluctably true:  if in life you were busy, in retirement you will be busier!  Once you make your diary aware the pressure is off it will fill itself with small, inconsequential things.   Your family will aid this process by demands for home improvements, shopping trips, ‘visits’ to nice country houses (the kind where your host will make you pay an entrance fee, then rebuke you for touching their furnishings or walking on their grass) and finally – the big one – Sitting.

In extreme cases Sitting may tie you up for several days:  

“Dad, can you take care of Bruce the Hellhound or Tibby the curtain-ripping cat while we go on a weekend break to Moscow?  Or a week in Bulgaria?  Or a round-the-world trip?”

More normally, it will be no more noxious a duty than care of The Precious for an evening, and no more exhausting than that ritual chase around the sofa you instituted last year and have been regretting ever since, with a bit of story-reading to initiate sleep.

If any diary spaces remain, there is always the National Health Service, and I’d like to conclude this blog with a personal message to them.

Dear NHS,

Yes, my body mass index figure is almost as far adrift as most of your overworked nursing staff,   You understand, as do I, that my body will inevitably deteriorate with the years, and I should be thrilled that you want to catalogue my demise and itemise each failing function so avidly…

But I’m not.    Okay?

Your obsession with type 2 diabetes drags me out to repeated Doctors’ Surgery and hospital visits to have my eye pupils stretched with painful chemicals, my blood sampled and my (forgive the word) piss taken with unnerving regularity.

Why unnerving?  Well, because the cleanliness of your premises is self-admittedly not always of the best, so each time I subject myself to them, with the health conditions you are so insistent I have, not to mention those that I ACTUALLY have and haven’t told you about, I run the very real risk that the infection I catch could be fatal.   Capiche?

Thank you, good readers, for tolerating my excess of bile this week: perhaps it’s because, to find a space to write this piece, I had to cancel an NHS appointment to ‘test my feet’.  Don’t worry girls, I have two; I tested them myself this morning by going for a walk.

A more normal posting, the latest episode of ‘Devil’s Rock’, follows shortly.

Image Credits for today:

Featured Image: Keyboard, by Alisonmiller1969 on Pixabay

Typerwriter Image: Devonath on Pixabay

Micah

Bear with me for a while; it has been so long and I forget so many things.   I forget, for example, exactly when I realised Micah was different to other boys I knew.  When the doubts began, or the first glimmer of enlightenment – I really cannot judge.  

Let me see – was it the spider?  Yes, I’ll tell you about the spider.

Micah and I, we had been friends as long as I could remember, because in Ollershaw – in the small village community where we grew up, every possible playmate was friend or enemy.  Naturally, age had a lot to do with this.  Matthew Carrell would be an example.  Matthew was two years older than me – therefore Matthew was my enemy.  So when Matthew tied me to the silver birch tree at the back of The Common, leaving me there in the rain, although I might have been frightened and vocal it was the least I had learned to expect.  It was Micah who broke those old, unwritten rules.  It was he who cut me loose with a penknife his stepfather gave him for his birthday, even though Matthew warned him to desist.  He braved Matthew’s wrath to save me.

We were children.  I was seven or eight, Micah’s birthday was a month before my own.  We all lived by a children’s code which was a part of our growing and as old as time itself, so Matthew was only acting in accordance with that code when he sought vengeance – something Micah surely anticipated.  In a quiet moment, in one of those places only children seem to know, Matthew took Micah’s knife from him, pinned him down while he went through his pockets and found it; then he took the knife along the mill path that leads down to the river (and is there still despite all the new development of houses on the riverbank), and he threw the knife into the water.   And Micah followed him, and Micah watched.

Micah did not cry.  Come to think of it, I can’t remember ever seeing Micah cry.

Now it was after school maybe the Wednesday or Thursday of the following week, when we were playing in the backyard of my house, that Micah and I came upon the spider.   There were empty apple boxes in a stack beside a brick lean-to shed my father always promised he would pull down, but never did.  We liked to fashion all kinds of fantasies from those boxes; they were made of thin wood and they were wide and flat, so we could stack them or arrange them in all sorts of ways to make pretend cars, or boats, or a secret den.  That evening I think we may have had it in mind to construct a spaceship, when, turning over one of the boxes from the bottom of the stack, Micah suddenly paused and gestured to me that I should be very still.

“What?”  I asked.

“Come and see,  Quietly, now.”

I came, I saw.  In one corner of the box my friend was holding, amidst a small nest of dead leaves, was the largest spider I had ever seen.   Wide eyed, I took in its long front legs, its thick grey body, the spread of its six remaining limbs.  I could clearly see the stalks that supported its eyes and two white stripes that ran either side of its thorax and abdomen.  It had no web.  We both understood that the small cluster of leaves was its home.

Micah whispered.  “Get me one of those Cocoa tins from the kitchen rubbish.”

“You’re never!”  I said.   Micah didn’t answer.

I brought the tin, removing its lid as I returned to the boxes.  

Perfectly calmly, as though it did not require as much as a second thought, Micah reached into the box, nipping the creature between thumb and forefinger as he plucked it into the open.   It curled up, tucking its legs so it resembled a ball, and I held the cocoa tin at arm’s length, closing my eyes as Micah dropped the spider inside it, and fastened the lid.

“We’ll have to make air holes.”  He said.

“Are you going to keep it?”  I asked.

“No.”

Micah regularly came home with me after school in those days, because both his parents worked full time and he was not considered old enough to be allowed home on his own.   We became close friends of necessity; two boys of similar age thrown together by circumstances will usually end up that way, even if there are differences.  I knew, right from the beginning, there were differences.

When you are young, with little experience of the world, there are a lot of important things that pass you by.  My mother and father were, I suppose, a satisfactory match:  My dad was an engineer whose work took him away for long periods, sometimes many weeks.  Letters from him would scatter on the doormat.  He always wrote letters when he was away, even if sometimes he arrived home before they did;  and my mother would sit at the kitchen table reading them, her face twitching with a mysterious smile I did not comprehend.   She kept them all.  Much later in life, when she was gone, I found the letters amongst her possessions;  I read only one, discovering with each successive word a side to my parents’ relationship that, as a child, I would have considered  profoundly shocking.  I burned the rest of the letters without reading them.  There was a privacy of language within them I did not want to expose.   At the time, they were just letters from my father with colourful foreign stamps upon them which I collected, in a desultory fashion.

“Does he mention me, Mummy?”

“Of course he does, darling.  He always remembers you.”

I would look forward to his return from those longer expeditions.  There would be a gift – a carving, a wooden toy or a doll, sometimes sweets.

“I’m not supposed to bring these into the country, Sprog.   But they’re delicious, you just have to try them!”  I felt so important then, because he had chanced capture as a smuggler, and he had done it for me!  I would imagine him on the run, fleeing across the windswept moor clutching my little bag of sweets, with police and dogs chasing him; although of course they were unable to prevent his heroic escape.  

As I said, in the innocence of childhood much about the lives of those close to you may pass unnoticed.  Nevertheless I knew that Micah’s home life was neither as happy or secure as my own.  Being ‘comfortably off’ for a child merely means food on your table, a warm bed and toys; Micah may have enjoyed these, but his family was not ‘comfortably off’.   My Dad’s car was new, large and almost silent, my Mum had a car of her own, so when the weather was bad I rode to school.  Micah’s step-dad drove his family’s only car, which was old and temperamental.  He never gave his stepson rides to school, so Micah and his mum would walk the mile from their home to the school gates, and they got wet:  a lot.

Once in a while, usually at weekends, I was invited to Micah’s home; on which rare occasions I was, of course, too polite to mention the paucity of furniture, or the absence of toys.  Micah’s mother would sit us on an aged sofa in their little sitting room, made fiery hot by a blazing coal fire, winter or summer.  We watched, sweating, through hours of cartoons on the ancient television before I could make excuses and leave.  I don’t think Mrs. Pallow (Micah’s surname was Pallow) resented my presence particularly; in all honesty, I sometimes wondered if she even noticed I was there, but neither did she make me feel welcome.  A nervous, shifting quicksand of a woman, I could see her mind churning its way through every waking moment – stabbing a poker at the fire she claimed was necessary to ‘heat the water’, fussing around the inexpensive china statuettes that were her hobby, or crashing and slamming in her kitchen.  Did I ever see her smile?  No, maybe I didn’t.

Personally, I never saw the spider again.  It left my home that Wednesday or Thursday evening in its new accommodation, tucked under Micah’s school blazer.   I believe it must have entered our school the next morning in similar fashion, though I have no specific memory of this.  I certainly remember when it turned up again, although I was not present.

Ours was the village school; albeit quite a smart one.  The uniforms were distinctive, the discipline strict, a burden upon Micah’s family which they must have found extortionate, yet they struggled to provide him with a new uniform each year, and finance the materials we needed.  So they obviously valued their son – something which seems quite curious, when I recall.  Atypical behaviour – not what my own upbringing was conditioning me to expect.   At school Micah and I were juniors: as yet more concerned with basic reading, writing and explorations in clay or cardboard.  Matthew Carrell was in the upper class, among those nine and ten-year-old children ascending the final upslope towards senior education.

We left our lessons at the school gates, Micah and I, whereas Matthew had ‘homework’.   Nothing very specific, though it did involve written exercises in school books, and handing work in to his teacher, the quite lovely Miss Comfort, whose name said everything about her that needs to be said – everything but one very specific thing.   

Quite when Matthew left his homework exercise book unguarded, or why, I cannot say.  Any more than I can explain how someone contrived to cut the centre out of all but the first and the last few pages of that book to make a rectangular space, lidded only by its cover page and a few leaves of carefully written essay.  And how our spider came to be occupying that space when Miss Comfort opened the book to peruse Matthew’s work I would rather not speculate.  I doubt anyone could have known Miss Comfort was an arachnophobe.  Micah and I, we were at music practice in another classroom, bells and triangles and a flat piano; yet we still heard the screams – all of the screams.

Mrs. Carrell collected Matthew that lunchtime.  She was very, very annoyed.  As they passed us by, as we stood in the playground, watching, Matthew turned his hung head to throw Micah a look – a look that was almost fearful.  It communicated an understanding which would spread amongst us all.  Micah did not live by the rules.

Then I remember distinctly how I shared a glance with Micah and saw his face twitch in a mysterious smile.  It was a smile that reminded me for one moment – just that one moment – of my mother.

 © 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

Featured Image Credit: Brett Hondow from Pixabay

Hallbury Summer – Episode Twenty. Night Moves

The story so far: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“For a walk.”

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

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

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

He asked:  “You enjoy being scared?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I liked it too.”

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

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

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

“I think housebreakers would call it a gemmy.”

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

“You first.”  He joked.

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

“I told you to wear jeans.”

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

“Don’t stare!” She chided.

“It’s too dark!”  He complained.

“Such gallantry!”

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

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

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

“Probably just to sweep the step?”

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now?”  Joe whispered.  “Run!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That was close.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sophie was lost in thought.  “They?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It lived up to expectations, then?”

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

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

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

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

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Photo Credit:  Brandon Morgan on Unsplash