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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode Fifteen. Different Trains

 

 The story so far:

In a dream-state Joseph finds himself at the mercy of Hallbury’s ‘witches’ who condemn him to burn if he does not leave Hallbuury.  The following morning his aunt’s cat is impaled on her front door, and the church graveyard is desecrated.  Joe’s aunt and uncle regale him with the story of little Christian Matheson, a child abducted from the village many years before, citing this as a reason to believe darker forces are at work.

 Thinking his brother Michael must have something to do with these events, Joe decides to pay him a visit, but his telephone call to Michael’s erstwhile care home informs him that his brother has been removed from its care, and no information is available concerning his whereabouts…

Julia was in her kitchen with her back to the door, cleaning some brassware that hung on the wall by the range.  Joe noticed the tension in her shoulders as he entered and surmised that she must have overheard much of his call.

“Aunt Julia – did you know that Michael has been moved?”

She did not turn or look at him.  “Has he, dear?”

“From Maddockgate Manor.  Why, please?  I don’t understand.”

Julia started out:  “Well, I suppose we….”  The words wavered and drifted away.  “Oz!”  She called out.  “Come in here for a minute, will you?”

Joe’s Uncle Owen arrived bearing the armful of wood he had been collecting from the store in their yard.  “Oz, tell Joe why Michael has been moved to a different home, will you?”  She was looking directly at her husband in a desperate attempt at communication, but Joe was watching them both intently, and he did not miss the flicker of surprise on Owen’s face.  Furthermore, Owen was not quick enough on his feet:  he stammered at the beginnings of a reply, which Joseph cut across:

“You didn’t know, did you?”

Julia turned to look at him helplessly.  “All right Joe.  I think you’ve rather found us out.  No, we didn’t know.”  Then she said to Owen in what sounded like genuine mystification:  “And I can’t for the life of me think why…?”

“Nor I.”  Owen muttered.  “All seems a bit strange to me.”

Julia explained.  “I’m afraid I’ve been guilty of deception, Joe.  When Michael’s illness demanded full-time care and he was taken into the County Hospital your uncle and I looked around for some way of making life more agreeable for him.  Maddockgate Manor seemed pleasant and fairly inexpensive at the time, so we used all that remained of your parents’ estate to lodge him there.  I suppose we hoped he would get better, or that we would be able to muddle through, but although the fees kept getting higher poor Michael showed no signs of recovery.  Our retirement would mean we had little enough money of our own and your parents’ legacy was long gone.”  As Joseph opened his mouth to interrupt she lifted a placatory hand.  “Yes.  Yes, I know.  I led you to believe there was a large bequest, didn’t I?  Money left in trust for you, and so on.  There wasn’t, Joe.  Your parents left almost nothing:  just enough to raise you boys with, no more.”

Owen took up Julia’s thread.  “It was seven – maybe eight years ago?  The fees went up again, and we knew we had not the ability to pay.  We wanted to get in touch with you and tell you what would have to happen – Michael would have to go back into ‘County’, but we couldn’t find you at the time.  So we discussed it with Ian.”

“He was wonderful, Joe,”  Julia said.  “He didn’t hesitate.  He stepped in to pay the outstanding fees and absolutely demanded that all accounts were made over to him.  He’s been paying for Michael’s care ever since.  However, he insisted that no-one else should be told of the arrangement; including you, dear.  I’m sorry.”

What could he say or do?  Joseph felt unreasonably annoyed – cheated, although he could not have explained why he should react that way.  Ian’s long hand slipping unobtrusively out of the fog, quietly adjusting, subtly altering the things that he loved and valued.  Yet he was taking care of Michael, wasn’t he?  And wasn’t that altogether a commendable, brotherly act?  To do it secretly, to avoid attention to himself, was entirely laudable – or would be if it were not Ian’s hand on the tiller, Ian’s name on the cheque.  The word which kept creeping back into Joe’s mind was stealth.  Stealthy was a word that typically described his brother Ian.

Wanting time to himself to assimilate these new bullets of information Joseph retired to his room with some tea and a book he had no intention to read.  It did not take much deduction to see why Michael had been ‘moved’ – Ian was on the threshold of an election and did not want to have a mad brother within easy reach – but instructing those responsible to conceal his whereabouts from his own relatives suggested something more than mere political expediency:  it hinted at fear.  So was Ian privy to some of Joseph’s own thoughts, own concerns about Michael?

At two o’clock Julia and Owen went shopping.  The Monday Braunston trip was a regular expedition, influenced mainly by a pensioners’ discount day at the Savers’ Market, so the spectacle of Owen’s stuttering old Standard Vanguard scraping its way out of the lane was a well-established one, said to be as reliable as any clock.  Julia, ever the anxious passenger, sat on the back seat, hunched forward with her shopping bag on her knees, from whence she would acknowledge others abroad in the village with regal waves.  Owen slouched in the driver’s seat holding the wheel in one hand, his pipe in the other; a posture which only changed when the old car needed to negotiate a corner.  Then he became intensely active, jamming his pipe into his mouth and exerting his weight upon the steering wheel with Herculean effort.  On sharp curves he would throw everything at the necessary side of the road, often disappearing below the high windscreen altogether.

Joseph had several mundane matters to attend to: having telephoned Ian’s London home number and obtained no answer, he tried his constituency office with a similar result.  Then he telephoned the Agent responsible for selling the Lamb house and arranged a viewing.  Events of the last twenty-four hours had shaken his initial resolve to take up residence in Hallbury, but he reasoned that there would be no harm in viewing the property:  he had to move somewhere out of London after all, and it would help him to gauge a likely cost.

The knock on the front door was so soft and feminine he barely heard it, so he opened the door only half-believing he would find anyone outside.  He found Emma Peterkin.

“Joe, can I talk to you?”  She looked small and unhappy, with her pretty chin tucked down into the collar of her charcoal coat as she stared at some point low on the chipped paint of the doorjamb.  Her slender feet fidgeted uneasily and Joseph did not think he imagined that her hands, though plunged deep into her pockets, were trembling.  He remembered the first time she had called unexpectedly at this door, looking equally discomforted, though perhaps for different reasons.  His heart surged – not entirely with pity.

“Come in.”  He said quickly.

In the hall they stood facing one another;  two willow wands that might be stirred at the merest quiver of a breeze, inclining by a timid fraction together then shrinking back, never daring to meet each other’s eyes.

“Oh, Joe!”  She murmured.

There was such sadness, such repressed longing in her voice that every instinct within him wanted to reach out to her, to take her in his arms.  He felt as helpless in the intoxication of her beauty as a wood mouse caught in the eye of a snake.

“Owen and Julia are out.”  He said.  “I know we’re not kids, but is this wise?”

“Probably not.”  Still she would not look at him.  “I shouldn’t be here.  I won’t stay.”

“But now you are here…”  If he could just place one hand on her flushed cheek, cross that narrow gulf – so close now – so close he could catch the scent of musk on her breath; see the moistness of her lips, the yearning in her eyes.  “I miss you,” it was little more than a whisper; “I can’t help it.  Every minute I’m not with you.”

“Don’t do this, Emma.”  An immense effort of will was all that could rescue him from the primacy of that moment.  “There are – things – I want as much as you, if it weren’t for Tom.  We can’t betray him.”

“Do you think I don’t know that?  I came to talk, Joe, that’s all. Honour for your friend, all that. ‘T’is only right, I s’pose.  But you got two friends, Joe.  You was supposed to love one of them and you let her down.  Don’t you owe her something too?”

“Even if one of my friends is married to the other?”

“Fine talk of marriage!  You with a wife you’re not intending to see again!  You’re good at leaving, aren’t you Joe?”  So Tom had kept one secret, at least; and of course he would, because if Emma knew Joe was without ties he would present even more of a threat.

“See here,”  She said, and he felt the cool touch of her fingers on his hand “I’m not proud of how I’m sounding, and lord knows I’m ashamed of what I’m thinking, but here we are; different platforms, different trains.”

“It’s hard for me, too.”  He told her.

“Yeah?  Maybe you don’t feel like I feel.  Maybe it’s easier for a man.  Tom’s a good husband – he’s a decent man, if he don’t kill ‘imself in that car of his.   He wants a child – he wants a family.  I want that, too; we’ve tried, and there’s nothing wrong, nothing medical, I mean.”

“Then I’m sure it will happen,” he said.

The caress of her fingers became a grip.  “It won’t.  It won’t, Joe, because it isn’t natural, not to me.   You were the only man whose child I wanted…”

“Don’t talk like that!…”

“Why shouldn’t I?  We’re not in a public park, now.  Look at me!  I’ve got no pride – I’m between a wish and a hope, Joe.  What’s between us, it’s that deep, that strong.  I thought I had it all in hand, I did, really.  Then you walked into my house…”

He stopped her,  “Emma!”

“If we…” The clasp of her hand conveyed the words she could not bring herself to say; “Tom, he would never know. He doesn’t know…”

“I think he would; I think he does.  And you would always know.”

Quite suddenly her face crumpled and she dropped her head onto his shoulder.  He felt her nod of acceptance.  She spoke through her tears.  “You’re right, of course you are, I shouldn’t say nothing like that.  Oh lord, what’s the matter with me, Joe?  I’m making such a fool of myself!”

“You aren’t,”  He placated her.  “Come into the kitchen.  I’ll make us some coffee.”

“Oh, yes.  Very civilised!”  Emma managed a watery smile.  “No, thank you.  I’d better leave, I think.  You’ll be leaving too, then; moving on?   Now, or in a couple of days?”

“Yes, perhaps.”

“You should, Joe.  People are starting to talk…it doesn’t take much to spark off a rumour around here, you know that.  Most of ‘em can remember us when we were together.  Now you’ve come back…That  isn’t fair on Tom, neither.”

“Who’s been doing the talking?”

“Most of ‘em is, or will be soon.  Hettie Locke.”  Emma saw his quizzical look.  “She’s the biggest scandal-monger ever, our Hettie.  She’s putting it all over the village that Tom better watch his wife, and how I’m the reason you returned.  But that isn’t true, Joe, is it?   I’m not the reason.”

So, Tom had told her something.  Again, Joe could expect no less.  His friend would use any weapon to defend his marriage – friendship must always come second to that.  How much had he told her?  As for Emma’s question, he had returned.  Could she have been the reason?

“Hettie and Janice must have got their heads together.  Janice Regan is frightened.”  He said.   “I went to see her to find out more about Violet’s death.  I also wanted to find out about Violet’s dalliances with witchcraft.  I know about her father, you see?”

“Oh my lord!”  Exclaimed Emma.  “’Spose you know Janice is one of they, too – and Hettie?”

“I told Janice I knew.”

“You told ‘er – to ‘er face?  Joe, you don’t do that!  You just don’t do that!  No wonder they got it in for you – in for me, comes to it. It’s one of the village’s deepest secrets, the witch thing.”

“It’s a cartload of superstitious rubbish!”  Joe opined, mentally turning his back on his experience of the previous night.

“Mebbe’s, but they takes it serious.  Aaron caught them at it once, and look at the stories they spread around about him!”

“You mean all the ‘peeping tom’ stuff?  That wasn’t true, then?  From what I know of Aaron…”

“No, it wasn’t true.  Well, it might have been, I suppose.  I think I’d have been too young to be told.

“The day after he saw they women up there on the hill, doing…..what they were doing, Aaron was in the pub tellin’ the whole village about it.  He didn’t leave nothing out.  Two days after that, he had the accident: did you know how he got that limp?  He was loading hay on a lift and somehow his trouser leg got caught in the conveyor.  He was lucky to keep his leg at all, they say.  The rumours about him started around that time.”

“And so everybody believed the accident was caused by witchcraft…”  Joe deduced.

“And the rumours about him were true.”  Emma finished his thought neatly; as neatly as she had so often done in their time together.  The profundity of this did not escape either of them.

Emma brushed at her sleeve, said hurriedly,  “Anyhow, that’s the way things are.  The witch thing is a sort of secret ever’one knows about, but no-one speaks of.  Of course your Michael was something to do with it once, wasn’t he?” Joe’s expression must have given him away:  “I thought you knew?”

Joe shook his head.  “No, not for sure.  Although I might have – should have – guessed, I suppose.  Did he go to their meetings?”

“I’ve no idea.  He got very friendly with Margo Farrier though.  Mind, she always did have a way with young men.”

“Margaret Farrier – really?”  Joseph tried to paste his mental image of the woman into the role Emma seemed to be painting for her; an imposing, rather severe woman – it didn’t seem to fit.  The thought of Margaret Farrier as a sultry temptress made him want to laugh.  Emma read his mind effortlessly.

“Oh, Margo’d amaze you once she’s got a few gins inside her.  Besides, there’s not many Sirens on a bunch of rocks like these, are there?  Young Michael spent a bit of time round at Hatton Cottage – a whole afternoon once, I know for sure.  See, all this was before you and I…”  She checked herself, as though afraid.  “Look, I’d better leave now, yeah?”

Pulling her coat tightly about herself, Emma said:  “But you think carefully about what I’ve told you, you hear?  Charker, he’s still after you; Hettie and her lot, they’ll turn the whole village against you.  And Joe…”  She turned to face him, striving for sincerity within the moist emeralds of her eyes:  “Please, just go, lover, okay?  Go and don’t come back.”

He reached for her arm.  She flinched away.  “Better not.”

And she was gone, through the door, down the path half-running, her grey charcoal coat wrapped about her, and along the lane towards her home.

It was Abbey Walker she passed on that hasty retreat:  Abbey who looked into her tearful eyes and saw all she needed to see, all she needed to tell.  And Joseph’s story became that much more closely intertwined with Emma’s in spite of anything they could do to stop it.  For the village machine, as Owen so aptly described it, was inexorable.  No-one escaped its scrutiny.

Slamming her front door upon the world, Emma ran blindly for the stairs and the refuge of her bedroom.  Here and only here, in this safe cocoon, she could let the tears come as they would; in choking, hysterical sobs of her pain.  In this fury of hurt she ripped her coat from her shoulders to be thrown onto the floor, then, in the little red set of lingerie that was all she had on beneath it, she threw herself upon the bed.

“Stupid!”  She cried out to the unhearing walls.  “Stupid!  Stupid!  Stupid!”

Sadly though, for Emma, there was one who did hear – one who did see.  In the blindness of her passion she had not heard Tom in the kitchen.  He had come home early, and he stood now, leaning for support against the jamb of the bedroom door, watching as his wife of just a scattering of years wept herself into sleep.  When she had quietened he retreated to the solace of his living room chair, there to do some weeping of his own.

© 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: Eddie Howell on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

 

A Time for Change?

A report by the Hansard Society, the UK’s leading source of independent research and advice on Parliament and parliamentary affairs, should give everyone pause.

Interviews conducted with a representative sample of 1000 British citizens found 63% agreed that “Britain’s system of government is rigged to the advantage of the rich and powerful” and in response to the statement “Britain needs a strong ruler willing to break the rules”, 54% agreed and just 23% said no.

Only 25% of the public had any confidence in MPs’ handling of Brexit,  (see my post ‘Let’s Discuss Nationalism’) Fifty-six per cent of respondents said they believed Britain was in decline, while  47% felt they had no influence at all over the national direction.   The public feels strongly that the system of governing favours the rich and powerful and that political parties don’t care about the average person.

People are not confident that politicians act in the public interest.

When, in 2016, it was suggested a referendum concerning severance from the EU should be held, 77% of the population surveyed were in favour.  The current figure in favour of referenda has slumped to 55%.

Although many have chosen to do so, it is unfair to blame the Brexit issue for ‘breaking Democracy’ when all it has really done is shine a spotlight upon flaws that were already there.  Democracy, inasmuch as it is a recipe for governing which ‘carries out the will of the majority while having regard for the needs of the minority’ probably never existed at all.  Our much-vaunted ‘world’s oldest democracy’ was a sham from the start – Members of Parliament only started receiving an income for their services in 1912.  Prior to that, right back to 1721, the time of Sir Robert Walpole, only those of significant means could afford the honour of representing a constituency, being bought and paid for by the local landowners.

Twentieth and twenty-first century political history has no place here, although I am happy to trade blows with anyone who would vie with my observation that the Conservative and Unionist Party, or a close imitation of it, holds and has held the Golden Ticket in the UK for the best part of the last hundred years, at least.  That is too long – at least, that is too long.

Does the freedom of information the internet provides spell the death of Democracy?  The lies no longer convince – the truth is harder to hide.  Understandably, there are many who will see the proposition “Britain needs a strong ruler willing to break the rules” supported by 54% of a representative sample as dangerous. They will hold up the spectre of intervention by right-wing extremists, Marxists, anarchists, and any other ‘ists’ you care to name.  They will warn of the breakdown of law and order – little realising, perhaps, that it is their law and order, no longer the law of the people.

A strong ruler.  Maybe it is time; maybe Democracy has failed to withstand the test of truth, and maybe even dictatorship is better?  Does Churchill’s quote ‘Democracy seems a very bad system until you examine the alternatives’ hold good in 2019?  Personally, I cannot see myself casting another vote until radical changes have been made.  We are already stabbing each other in the streets; if we take no action now, when does the shooting start?