Encounter

“If you were to pin me down on this, I’d say it has all to do with names.”  His eyes drawn to the row of beech trees beyond his friend’s rain-sodden garden, Kevin was in a reflective mood.

“What are you saying now?”  Christian asked.   “Names?  I thought we were discussing relationships?”

“Listen to that rain!”  Kevin exclaimed, as the wind thrashed a tattoo against the window.  “It is. Names strike at the very fabric of a relationship.  I mean, ‘Kevin’, you know?  The hard ‘K’?  Women just don’t value a Kevin.  And it isn’t exactly a superhero’s name, either, is it?”

“Oh, I don’t know. You’ve got a Clark batting for your team.”  Christian adjusted position in his armchair,perching his glass of whisky on the arm whilst reaching for a poker from the hearth.  He stoked the fire that burned brightly there into a profusion of sparks.  “Take my name.  I’m living a lie.  I’m agnostic at best.  You can’t seriously hope to convince me that these misfortunes of yours are attributable to your parents’ dismissive choice of name!”

Kevin turned away from the window and the depression of greys crowding his view.   “Dismissive.  You couldn’t know how accurately that describes my parents, could you?  Did you ever meet my father?”

“Once or twice.”

“Which was about as often as my mother met him.”

“Oh, come on!  But still, I believe your mother was his third wife?  Not strong on the whole bonding for life thing, was he?”

“Like father like son, is that your inference?”  Kevin shook his head.  “I thought I’d laid that ghost long ago.”

“They say the luck runs.”

 “No.”  I don’t believe that.  I mustn’t.  After all, we’re much the same, you and I;  I don’t see myself as particularly ill-favoured, or you, forgive me, as particularly handsome.  We’re roughly the same height, the same weight; our personalities are similar, even if I get a little more fired up at times – yet here I stand, left on the runway of yet another failed relationship, without the faintest idea where I went wrong.  And here are you, in this immaculately kept house with Svetlana who is, you have to admit, exquisite…”

“You could add clever – daunting insightful, formidably intelligent.  Yes, she is certainly visually pleasing, although she can be a little – shall we say – eccentric at times.”

“I will stick to exquisite.  After fifteen years she still looks as beautiful as the day you introduced me to her.  And you still dote on her, I can see that.  Fifteen years!  Can I tell you my experiences of those fifteen years?”

Christian chuckled sympathetically.  “There was Melissa.  She was a lovely girl!”

“With some lovely friends.  Lots of lovely friends, mostly male!  Then Claire, and Michelle…”

“Six months later.”

“Alright; that was brief even by my standards.  But Alicia…”

“Ah  Alicia!  She tore shreds, didn’t she?”

Kevin gave a grim nod.  “Literally.  I couldn’t go out, sometimes, with the scars and all.  And now…”

“Now Sophie.”

“Yes, Sophie.  Absolutely Sophie.”  Feeling his eyes smart from a revisited sadness, Kevin crossed to his friend’s sideboard, responding to the call of a whiskey glass that awaited him there.  “What’s the secret, Chris?  What do you have that I have not?  Where in the universe is there a Svetlana waiting for me?”

Christian’s finger traced an imaginary picture on the arm of his chair as he tried to frame an answer for his friend.  “I don’t know, Kev.  I could say there’s someone waiting for you out there, someone you’ve never met; but that wouldn’t hack, would it?  I think it’s just fate – no more and no less.”

“Fate!  That fickle digit!  No, I have no belief in luck, my friend.”

“Alright, let us say a ‘conjunction of circumstances’, then.  Will you settle for that?”

“Ah!  I suspected as much.  You have a secret, and it’s one I should share.  It’s time you publicized!  I want answers, before age and bachelorhood place my assets beyond recall.  Come on, give!”

” I have no treasures to impart!  Svetty and I were one of life’s chance encounters, no more, no less.”

“You met her on the Internet.  She posted on a dating site.  Or, wait – YOU posted on a dating site!”

Christian laughed.  “I did not!”

“I used to believe she was a mail order bride.  For years I was convinced you were holding out on me, in spite of her perfect English.”

“Oh really; you know that isn’t true.  She came to this country when she was ten.  Her parents live here.  He’s a ‘something’ with Debrette Cooper – the bankers?   Okay, I never told you how we met, did I? So I will.  It was pure chance.  I was in the middle of an aisle in the middle of a supermarket in the middle of an evening, trying to discover the location of the Cornflakes so I could replace an unwanted packet when this glorious woman just walked up to me and said: ‘Hi’.

“Amazing! “

“Amazed was I!  What could I do?”

“I suppose you could have hidden behind the Cornflakes.  But obviously you didn’t.  What did you do?”

“I said ‘Hi’ right back at her.  I wasn’t going to be intimidated, you see.”

“Heavens no, why should you be?  And?”

“And.  Ah yes, and!  She gave me the first of those quirky smiles she does, then she took this little blue card from her purse.  She came right up close to me, slipped it into my shirt pocket – bold as you like – and just walked away.  But oh, the quick touch of those fingers slipping into my pocket; and what a walk!”

“Stop it, you’re embarrassing yourself!  So let me guess, her ‘phone number was on the card?”

“A soft blue colour, that card.  It was nothing special – I mean, she hadn’t had fifty printed, or anything like that.  I think it was a business card for a hair salon, or something.  Point is – you’re right – she’d written her number on the corner.  And her name.  We both know her name.”

“That was how it all began?  Yes, of course it was.  You called, you dated, you lasted.”

“It was the way we all like to think it should be.  We matched perfectly.  Over a dinner table, at a bar, walking beside the river, it was like we read each other’s thoughts without ever really needing to speak.  We were married within a month, we’re still together.  We still – love – each other.  And I never told her.”

“Oh, my god!  Intriguing.  There’s a secret between you?”

“I didn’t say it, did I?  I never have.  When she told me her side of the story I could have reacted, I suppose, but  when you have everything in life you ever wanted, why break the spell?  Svetty knew.  She knew on Tuesday nights in that supermarket, on that particular aisle, if you carried a hand basket containing just two items it said you were looking for a companion.  It was a code, but the point is Svetty only knew because her friend had put her up to it that very evening.  She was feeling low after breaking up with someone so this friend persuaded her to give the supermarket ‘Singles Night’ a try.  And on that one night, the only night, possibly, she would ever do it I happened to be there.  I stumbled into it.  Fate, you see?  Apparently she was carrying the two significant items, but I didn’t even think about that.  How could I have known?”

Kevin  frowned.  “But that’s not a secret, not now.  Although it is likely to guide my feet towards that particular supermarket next Tuesday, it’s information you both share.  What’s the story?  What’s the big, humongous confidence you have kept to yourself for fifteen years?  How are you – even as we speak – deceiving your beloved Svetlana?”

“Well, it isn’t a deception, exactly….”

“What, then?”

“Just one small detail – in that supermarket, all those years ago – which means nothing now, of course…”

“Oh, no!  Of course not.   But you never told her…”

“I was  shopping with my aunt.  My amazing aunt.”

“This would be your Aunt Babs, would it?   A grainy old soul, God bless her.”

“Of sacred memory, yes, the same.  You see, after Uncle Henry had his stroke, I used to go shopping with her, to help her carry the weekly haul and to drive her, because she was getting on a bit herself, even then.  Anyway, dear old Aunty Babs knew all about Tuesday Singles Night – she heard about it at her Bridge Club, probably; most of the Singles Night clientele were of the card-playing persuasion.  We were in the adjoining aisle, Aunt Babs leaning heavily on her cart, me with my little hand-basket so I could pick up a few odd things for myself, when she suddenly snatched my few bits and pieces from my basket!

“I’ll look after these for you, dear,”  She told me,  “I’ve changed my mind about this cheese and these Cornflakes, so could you put them back for me?  They were just in the next row!”  She thrust said cheese and breakfast cereal product into my little basket, then gave me a brisk push on my shoulder to send me on my way.  Which was how I came to be in the same row as Svetty at the auspicious moment.  I wouldn’t have been there otherwise.  I would never have met her.”

“I see,” acknowledged Kevin, sagely.  “As accidents of fate go, that has to be an absolute corker!”  

“On the face of it, yes,absolutely.  Aunt Babs confessed much later (at our wedding, in fact) that while we were shopping she’d spotted this tall, statuesque woman navigating towards the Singles aisle.  She said that the moment she saw this woman she just knew we were meant to meet.  And she was right, you see.  She was absolutely right.  Dear old Babs, I really miss her.”

“So,”  Kevin said, giving Christian one of his most censorious looks,  “To return to my original premise, your meeting was not entirely fate.  Other forces were at work, there.”

“Well, you may say so, yet no trick or sleight of hand on my part was involved, unless you think I had Aunt Babs concealed in my hat like a white rabbit.  She acted without my corroboration.  Even fate needs a helping hand, once in a while. The truth is a succession of random events put two complete strangers, with neither background nor history in common, in the same place at the same time.   I don’t know about you, but in a land of sixty-odd million people, that speaks to me of something beyond yours, mine or anyone’s control.  We’re merely the pieces on the board.  The game, the strategy, if you like, belongs to someone, or something, higher than us.  Which is what I mean when I use the word ‘Fate’.”

Kevin smiled, staring deep into the red embers of the fire.  “If that’s agnosticism,”  he murmured,  “I’ll take it.”

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

Feature Image credit: Marco Pomella from Pixabay

The Kingfisher

The white house on the corner had been the village inn, as Ariel remembered it.  Now it was someone’s home. There were flowers on the forecourt where benches and tables once stood – that same someone had built a low wall around the flowers and lavished it with white render, butter-thick.  The old inn sign with its painting of a barge was gone; its bracket, carelessly daubed with splashes of white paint still clung to the front of the house, naked and neglected.  Reluctantly, as it seemed, the new owners had permitted one sign to remain, hanging from their pristine gable end. ‘The Marina’ it said, and waved a wind-stirred finger into Basin Lane.  Ariel followed it, her hand sweeping lazily over the steering wheel, for she knew this turning well.

 Leaving the village street behind, she felt herself plunging, almost tumbling, back into her past.  In this hired car she was driving along a country lane she had walked very many times; amid choirs of humming bees, hedges rich with white flumes of cow parsley, garlands of campion and wild rose.  A short mile with sun on her face, or sun in her heart?

A bow-wave of memories washed before her, threatening tears as hired metal savaged the overgrowth, wheels bucked over wrinkled tarmac, around narrow bend after narrow bend.  

And one final bend.

 As the curve unwound high hedges like drapes were suddenly swept apart to reveal the old weathered gate, as always, hanging open; inviting access to that rough dolomite rectangle Abel could never be persuaded to finally lay to concrete.    There was no sign:  the visitor might as well turn here – Basin Lane led nowhere beyond this.  Customers’ cars strewn, rather than parked, in woeful disorder: fewer than she remembered.  And the path which was the final part of her journey, carving a way down through tangles of columbine and nettle to the boatyard and the canal.

Ariel parked up alongside a gaunt blue Range Rover of uncertain years. She drew a deep breath, seeking inside herself for the same vitality that once had filled her lungs on her every visit here without need for invitation.  The intoxication was not as it had been.  She felt its loss acutely – what had happened here?  Not the neglect; the charisma of Abel’s touch had never reached as far from the water as this, but the sadness!  There was no other word to describe it, she thought.  What once had seemed carefree was now heavy with care – the wild hedge and sedge that once danced and rustled in a mischievous breeze now huddled for shelter from raking gusts of air that were hostile and chill.  The day was warm enough, so why did Ariel shudder before that wind; was there something deeper in her soul than mere apprehension at seeing him again?  Was the wrong she had done to him here, hanging on the air of this place like a pall – hanging over her head like a judgement?  ‘Abel, I’m sorry, I should have stayed with you.’  She rehearsed the speech in her head, the words she would never really say.  She finished aloud:

 “I should never have left.” 

Standing to stretch cramped muscles, she glimpsed the high roof of the boat house peeping above a weed forest.  Its presence reassured her, gave her courage, even eagerness, to descend the path.  

Twenty yards, no more; careful to avoid wasps milling around a discarded carton oozing something red and sweet, wondering with every step what changes, if any, she would find and hoping her foreboding was wrong and there would be none; the grey concrete with the wooden boat house that stood in defiance of change at its head, the veranda with its ancient steamer chair that had been her source of comfort on many a hot summer noon, the little row of jetties with maybe a narrow boat or two tethered between, the reflective calm of the old canal sleeping darkly beyond?   So short was the path she could not be kept waiting long.  In a few tentative paces that familiar vista was spread before her and yes, all that was old seemed substantially the same, if a little more weed-bestrewn and somewhat smaller than matched her recollection.  But it did not stand alone.

So he had built it at last!  Her heart rejoiced!

The house was new – single-storey, low and sleek.  Sliding windows open to their vista of the canal, newly painted frames and doors glistened faultlessly in the glare of sun.   It was not large, as houses go:  its green tiled roof, its modest glazing, even the rise of three steps which aligned it with the boathouse, spoke of modest practicality that was so unmistakably Abel.

And here too, when at last she could tear her eyes away from this most surprising of additions to the boatyard and cast about her, was Abel!  She started; unprepared, though heaven knew she should have been, to see him straightaway.  She had envisaged seeking him out, entering the cool dark of the boathouse, or checking the cabin of a solitary narrow boat tethered to one of the jetties.  But no, he was here, in open view.

Clad in once-white overalls he was painting antifouling onto a hauled-up river cruiser of a kind she knew he hated and she had no doubt it was he, though his back was turned, by the square set of his shoulders, by the firm plant of his feet upon the ground.  Why had she travelled so far, not really believing she might find him so easily, or find him at all?  

Approaching him, taking these last few steps, might be the most difficult of her life.   He straightened as she drew near, sensing her presence, but he did not turn around.

“It took you long enough.”   Abel said.  Those softly-spoken vowels, that imperturbable drawl.

She could not imagine he would recognise her step after so long, so had he mistaken her for someone else?  “I know.”  Ariel dug deeply to discover her voice.   “I had…things to do.”

She moved to stand beside him – to his left, as she always had, which suddenly seemed so natural to her, as if in a few steps she could make the years vanish, slip back into the envelope of her past.  “You built the house,”  She said.

“Ten years.”  He replied, inducing a flutter in her heart.  Without so much as a glance, head  known it was she?  The years, the months, the days: had he been counting them too? 

“Is it that?”  She struggled again to find words.  “Yes, I suppose it is.”  She said.

“I thought you were coming back after lunch.”

Ariel smiled a smile that expressed the breeze of contentment she felt; and she turned tear-filled eyes to feast upon Abel’s remembered face, praying she would see her happiness reflected there.  What had she hoped; that he would be exactly as she remembered – that same humour, that same tacit, complacent grin?  Her imagination danced!  He had missed her when she did not return, missed her so badly that he had taken time to consider those things which, whilst once they drew her to him, had finally sent her away.   And he had built the house!  In her heart she wished, she hoped, she prayed.  Had he built it for her, prepared with that eternal patience of his to wait forever if necessary, in case she returned to him?

Then she looked deeper and saw there was more than hope in his face – there was pain..  She saw the change in him.

He was older, of course; his wind-harrowed skin etched and stretched by winters of frost and summer heat, but it was no fierce attack upon his featuress, this weathering, for compared to some the canals were a gentle mistress.   No, it was not a history of seasons that she could trace in his lean features.  It was a ghost.   He read her concern.   “Lot of things different.”  He said.

The relaxed, easy drawl of his younger voice was the same, but there was a tension, even a bitterness behind those eyes.  She bit a lip that threatened to quiver.  “What happened, Abel?”  She nodded to the glass fibre boat he was working on.  “What are you doing with this?  You used to despise these things.”

“Steel boats are expensive now, and there’s some can’t afford the tariff.”   Abel slapped a brushful of paint at the exposed hull.  “It wasn’t a good investment, believe me.  The bloody thing cracks like an egg if it gets in a collision.  I’m forever repairing it.”

“You haven’t answered me.  What happened?”

He made no immediate reply but continued with his painting, as if he were searching for an answer that would satisfy, and yet keep his private truth concealed.   At last he said:   “Dad died, seven years ago.  I had to close his yard, it was too expensive and there was no way I could keep two running.  He had debts, you see.  We sold two of the boats to shoulder that, and then a couple of winters ago we got more rain than Noah could have coped with.   The river burst its banks up at Chalferton and overflowed into the canal system.   It did a lot of damage.  The navigation’s still closed up at Handyard’s Lock, so we’re just on a branch, for a while.” He smiled, but only with his lips.  “A few misfortunes, really.”

She said gently:  “It’s good to see you, Abe.”

“And you.”  He nodded tersely.  “You married, I heard it said.  To a rich American, was the word about.  What brings you back here?”

“Yes, I was married, for a while.”  Ever since her flight had left New York she had wondered how she would answer just this question.  She could claim she needed to visit her parents, anxious for her father in his advancing years – or maybe she needed to put distance between her and the man she was leaving.  There was some truth in that. New York had crowded her, the rush and hustle of city streets made her frightened and the pace of each day tore her inner peace – that precious peace she knew with Abel – into shreds.  Could she tell him the truth she had denied to herself; that her journey was really to find him: how much she had missed him, thought of him, worried for him every day for ten years?  And now she was standing at his side, how could she tell him all she wanted was to fall into his arms? 

“I’m not married now.” Ariel murmured, half to herself.  “Or I won’t be, in another three weeks.”   She forced herself to meet Abel’s eyes.  “We both have sad stories, don’t we?”

“Looks like it.”  He matched her stare.  “It didn’t work out, then?”

“It isn’t his fault.  His work takes him away for weeks at a time.  But me and the big city?  I’ve been on my own a lot, these last ten years.”

He grunted. “Seems like you should have stayed, then maybe things would have turned out better.”  

“You never asked me to.  That was all you had to do – ask.  I would have stayed.”  It was all she could manage to keep the tremor from her voice.  Why hadn’t he asked?  For all the years they had spent together they had been fast friends, and he must have known how much she loved him, yet he had never given her cause to hope he cared for her in return.  She drew a breath, saying;  “I’m sorry about your Dad.  I always liked him.”

“Yes, he was a miserable old bugger, but he had his ways.  It’s a pity one of them wasn’t writing cheques.”  Abel frowned, avoiding her gaze.  “It really is good to see you.”  He repeated, as if he was striving for sincerity.  He had thought her his friend, believed they would always have that closeness, and he wanted so badly to say how he had missed her, and tell her of the betrayal he felt when she left without warning, left when he needed her most.  All these things he might say, but could never say, now or then.  “Are you staying in the village?”

“No.  Mum and Dad moved to Frebsham five years back; but then you’ll know about that.”

“I did hear.   Forty miles.  That’s a long way.”

Like another universe to you’, Ariel thought.  “I’ll maybe stay in town for a couple of days.”  She said; and then, when he made no reply, but was still, and remote, lost inside himself:  “Look, you’re busy…”

“What will you do now – stay in England?   I mean, if you’re divorced…”

She smiled faintly.  “Not quite.  Not yet.  I’ll have to fly back, to finalise things, you know?  I’ll maybe look for a job up Frebsham way;  I don’t know.”

“Well, while you’re here you must stay for lunch.  I’ll get cleaned up…”

“No!”  She said it too quickly, bit back on the word.  “I mean, no, thank you.  I ought to get back to town, get booked in somewhere.  It’s the high season…”

“We were friends!”  He blurted out.   “We were friends most of our lives, you and I!”

“Yes, I know; and we’re strangers now.  My fault – all my fault.   I should have been there when you needed… I just wanted something – I don’t know; something more, I suppose.”

How had she believed a reunion could succeed where the past had failed?  Yet she was sure that love was there, and still she hoped – hoped to hear the staccato fracture of ice; to have him reach for her, take her in his arms and make the world come right!  For all her pride, she could not conceal the plea in her eyes, or dare to speak, lest her voice should give her away.  

“Lunch in twenty minutes!”  It was a call from the boathouse.  “Abey you demon, you’ve got company!   Why didn’t you say?  Shall I lay for three?”

A figure stood, fresh-faced and smiling, in the door of the boathouse, with one hand against the jamb.

“No, she isn’t staying!”  Abel called back.   And to her:   “It’s a pity, though.  Peter’s a lovely chap.  We’ve been together three years now.  I’m sure you’d like him.”

At that instant, Ariel’s eyes were drawn towards the cool waters of the canal.  For a second, no more, sunlight flickered on the blue iridescent flight of a kingfisher.

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

Hallbury Summer – Prologue and Chapter One

Prologue

When I remember the summer days of my childhood I think of hot sun and warm rain.  I recall standing by a dairy door to gaze in wonder at rows of steaming bovine flanks as Alfa Laval milking machines hissed and sucked and a heavy lactose aroma hung on the air.  Or sitting on a field gate to watch elephantine combine harvesters clumber to and fro, or playing on Wednesday Common, making secret pathways through the bracken, dens among the blackthorn.  I remember wars and jealousies and fights, the sense of living – the light of morning.  And it seems to me the sun was younger then.

The village where I grew up was a placid beast, a mother protective of her young.  She made our lives a special thing – to come home to her from the battle of a day was to return to faces that smiled, sounds which comforted, food and rest.  It was a place that was mine, a box for all my memories:  a place of warmth, of peace, and of love.

How does the saying go?  We always hurt the ones we love?  I was neglectful, I know.  As I came to manhood her nurture bored me, my Hallbury, my mother of the Earth.  She hemmed me in, kept me by her isolation from meeting friends, going out, exploring the greater world; until I, like my father before me, would want to leap her fences – to venture into lands beyond.

This my father taught me – that only when I left her would I understand: only when I was miles away in time and space would I wish I could return.  There would be no going back, of course – I might travel the miles, walk up the village street, tap on the same doors – but never pick up the threads I lost, or find again those delicate flowers of friendship I plucked when I went away.  They would be gone, like the times, forever.

So here is the lesson I was given, by way of a tale told to me by my father once when we spoke of these things; when he heard me speak of leaving.   It is a tale of my village, and a story of innocence lost.  It is his account: the scene he describes, of Little Hallbury asleep in the heat of an afternoon, is a picture in my memory too:  but the mother of my memory is not the mother of his: and his story is very different to my own.

Chapter One.

Upon this day Little Hallbury slumbered beneath a solemn sun.  Wednesday Common robed in the bracken-green of summer was motionless and silent.  Around the old, cold stone of barnyard eaves martens twittered, while above them in azure-blue stillness rooks wheeled lazily, carking guttural orders.  A solitary dove warbled from St. Andrews’ steeple.  The service ‘bus’s slow drone as it wheezed and coughed up the hill from Abbots Friscombe stirred verges of frazzled grass to reluctant movement, sending the tiny secret creatures that live there scurrying into deeper shadow.

She would have, must have screamed.  Did she recognise the one who hurt her so, who drove spikes through her wrists – who hung her, like a great doll crucified – upon a wooden wall?  She was still living; still conscious when the prongs struck home: she knew and saw and felt the worst excess of death.  She must have screamed:  how she must have screamed!  But though the stone walls heard and the still air heard, no-one else in the sleeping heat of afternoon heard her. Her last entreaty to the world went unnoticed.

Joseph Palliser, my father, arriving at Braunston on the train from Waterloo had missed his connection, condemning him to an hour on a platform bench.  The little branch line tank engine which finally puffed to his rescue (and which had a certain brassy charm, it was true) struggled with a train lacking any form of charisma.  Its carriages were a sooty, no-corridor horror story – musty compartment after musty compartment of vandalised cushions, each with their own history of graffiti and stains. Joseph perched unwillingly for a jolting half-hour as they groaned and ground their way along the old single-track branch line to Abbots Friscombe.

When his bus grumbled past the military line of poplars on Gypsy Lane it was afternoon and my father had been travelling for nearly seven hours.  He had read “The Andromeda Strain” from cover to cover; he was tired, he was hot.  If ever he needed reminding of his reasons for re-visiting his childhood home so rarely he would recall this day, he told himself, and thereby absolve any guilt he might feel.

There were those evocative sounds, however.  On the station platform at Abbots Friscombe:  the steamy whistle of the little tank engine, the Station Master’s warning:  “Mind the doors now!” followed by clattering closure,  guard’s whistle and screech of heavy wheels, metal on metal.  Then the ‘bus, empty but for himself and a pair of pensioners sitting at the front:  “Af’noon young fella!”  whose low plainsong of conversation was punctuated by a kettle-drum rhythm from a sturdy engine: and now, alighting outside his one-time home in early evening sun, that characteristically noisy rural peace – sweet, pungent harmony of sound and scent – wood pigeon in the trees, raucous rooks, lap and slap of the little brook which ran between road and garden wall.  Melodies unforgettable – so poignant they threatened tears.

Joseph remained by the roadside for a little to collect himself, as the ‘bus struggled off in a black haze of exhaust up Church Hill, past the Andrews’ house where he had played as a young child; past the Walker farm, with all its rumours and romance.  There were so many things to recollect and he could not do justice to them all, so he told himself he was tired and over-emotional, which he quite possibly was, shrugged off the cloak of nostalgia and picked up his suitcase.

A peeling wooden gate, a garden full of the industry of summer:  buzzing among hollyhocks, throaty defending of nests, noisy squabbling over tiny trophies of food.   A front door still painted black, the same black it had been the day he left:  very possibly the same paint.

“Hello Aunt.”

“Good heavens, Joe, you are late!  Let me look at you.  You poor dear, you must have had a nightmare journey!”

Aunt Julia – with another of her infernal cats cradled lovingly in her arms – somehow smaller than his recollection of her, and a little more lined perhaps, but still Aunt Julia.  A smoky voice, large, frank eyes, blue cardigan as ancient as the door-paint.

“Say hello to Benjy.  What do you think of this dreadful election, Joe?  Are we going to get a decent government at last?  Your uncle’s in the kitchen.  Come and get settled in, we’re about to have tea.”

Poking his head into the kitchen, Joseph grunted a greeting.  The figure that was Uncle Owen grunted back.  He was bent over the kitchen table, painstakingly separating seeds with a razor blade.  Several small brown paper bags seemed to be intrinsic to this process.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake Oz, will you get that stuff off the table?  I want to lay it, dear!”

Uncle Owen glared over angry half-lenses.  An old man now, indisputably, his white hair thin, eyes clouded by life – not quite the formidable force of nature Joseph remembered.

Julia said:  “I’ve put you in your old room, Joe.  I thought you’d like that.  Can you find your way?”

Yes, the third stair still creaked.

And here it was, the room of his childhood, his youth, the greater share of a short past.  Like Aunt Julia, a little smaller than he remembered – did houses, like people shrink with age?  Plain green curtains in a sort of straw weave – they were different, but not the window they revealed; that was the same.  Cream paint, cream wallpaper much treated by drawing pin acupuncture:  Presley would have been there, above the oak chest of drawers, smouldering defiantly at Bill Haley’s amused disdain on the opposite wall.  The door to the wall cupboard which served as a wardrobe, where Little Richard’s dark menace once lurked – Johnny Mathis cow-eyed over a table laden with comic book imagination.

They were all gone now.  Or were they?

Joseph swung the cupboard door open.  An odd array of empty hangers on a wooden rail played host to a well-worn pair of gardening trousers he assumed must be his Uncle’s.  And there, behind them, on the cupboard’s rough plaster wall, was his montage – a winter’s day of artistic endeavour and glue when he was just twelve years old.  Presley again – always there – united by paste down the years with The Platters, Doris Day, Bobby Darin, Chuck Berry…..and…..

Faces he had already forgotten, names he could no longer place – once so important in his life that some had seemed more than life itself, all so easily erased.

Voices from below the stair:  Aunt Julia and his uncle arguing.  A somehow comforting sound because they had always argued, and it was good to know this at least had not changed.

It was half-past seven that night before Jack Parkin was told that his wife was dead.  Janice Regan, who cleaned the church, had walked into Violet Parkin’s kitchen the way she usually did at half past five.  Violet always spent her Friday morning washing “Vicar’s bloody surplices” and, given a good drying day, they would be ready for Janice to collect, so she could take them “Up St. Andrew’s” when she cleaned in the church the next morning.  Surprised to see the dry vestments still dangling idly from Violet’s washing line, she had called out:  first, she called up the stairs of the dilapidated cottage.  Receiving no reply from there, she went out into the yard that had once been the yard of the Parkin farm and called again.  Apart from an anxious clucking of hungry hens, Janice heard nothing:  and then she became concerned.  Violet had never “been out” – never in thirty years, and precious little in the twenty-five years before that – the years before she married Jack.  Oh, there was the Sunday trip to Church, and there were stories, of course, of other outings; but never on a Friday afternoon.  Across the sun-fissured mud of the yard, the broken door of the old dairy hung half-open: unsure why her fingers had started to tremble, Janice walked towards it.

Jack was in the little village of Fettsham, two miles away.  He was at his usual place at the bar of the Black Horse, with his usual pint of cider clamped in his earth-blackened fingers.

“Need to talk to ‘ee Jack.”  P.C. Hallett studied the labourer’s face closely.  It was never possible to tell if Jack was drunk, but the likelihood of his being sober was fairly remote.  Those who knew him well claimed he never was.

“Ha’ a pint Davy?”  Jack Parkin: man of few words, fewer expressions.  Those who wanted to be unkind said ‘man of few thoughts’.  Jack stared.

“Come an’ sit down over ‘ere.”  Davy Hallett coaxed.  He knew better than to insist.   “Give ‘un a shove?”  He requested the two companion bar-proppers at Jack’s side.  Persuasive hands guided Jack to a settle.  Aggravated grunts issued from Jack.  Someone thoughtfully provided a full glass.  Jack’s hand moved to embrace it.

“’Tis Violet, Jack: ‘tis Violet.”  Hallett saw the old man’s eyes had moved.  There was a rheumy depth to them, a pool of silted emotions.  “She’m been ‘urt, Jack.  She’m been ‘urt bad.”

“Violet?”  Hallett wasn’t sure if Jack had recognised the name.

“Violet your wife.  She’m been taken, Jack.  She’s died, old chap.”

“Violet.  Ah.”  Parkin’s hand lifted the pint glass to his fat lips.  “She’m what?”

#

“Passed on.”  Uncle Owen fiddled irritably with a piece of butter as it skittered before his knife.  “Gone to his Maker about five years ago, now.”  He pinned a slice of bread to his plate as though he feared it might also escape him, reached for a second slice.  The business of bringing bread and butter together so all edges and crusts exactly matched was an elaborate one, taking immense concentration.  “He was mad as a hatter for two years at least before that.  Used to wander around the village knocking on doors.  We’d know about that, wouldn’t we?”  He fixed Joseph with a stare.

“Poor old man must have called here a dozen times, Joe dear.”  Julia explained.  “Asking about war-time comrades, you know?  All dead, of course.”

“He wasn’t that old, that’s the thing; still completely ga-ga though.  Should have been in a home.”  Uncle Owen opined.  His battle with his bread and butter was entering its final phase, the invasion of the jam.

Joseph tried to balance this image with his own of Aleph Parkin:  of the handlebar moustachioed man in his waistcoat and cap whose permanence he had never doubted;  an amiable figure with two beloved terriers milling about his ankles who walked the village lanes on a never-ending journey, always ready to stop and talk, always with a tale to tell.  Aleph was gone!  Jack Parkin’s older brother, the pair of them as unlike as scrumpy and ale – Aleph who was never drunk and Jack who always was – yet Jack who was the worker: whereas Aleph, to the knowledge of those in the village with long enough memories, had never worked a day in his life.

“A war wound, young ‘un;” Aleph explained one day to a garrulous young Palliser with courage enough to ask:  “can’t work, see?  I was at Wipers, boy. Shrappel.”

But if Joseph tried to pin him down as to the exact nature of the injury from the battlefields of Ypres that had so afflicted his life, Aleph would be less specific.

“I has to sit down a lot, see?”

So Joseph sought the truth from Mrs Martin, a solitary old pensioner who lived in a stuffy little cottage by St. Andrew’s Church.  “Oh yes, dear,” She confirmed:  “it was a shrapnel wound.  I remember when Beth  Parkin got the letter. there was weepin’ and wailin’ and all sorts that day, my lord!  Beth,you see, she always favoured Aleph.  He was her first.  She never wanted a second son and when Jack came along a dozen year later he was a bit of a surprise, I can tell you!  And there was some of us wondered but that’s not for me to say.

“Anyways, she never set Aleph to work as a child, though she had Jack out working when he was ten summers old.  Then Aleph went to war at sixteen, and then there was the wound.  He comes home on crutches and Beth she has a hero’s welcome waitin’ for him – she made half the village turn out with flags and that.  He hasn’t worked since, and he didn’t work afore.  I suppose that’s why he and his brother doesn’t get on so well.  That and the other thing.”

Mrs Martin wouldn’t be drawn upon the subject of ‘the other thing’ but it was common knowledge the pair of brothers had little time for each other.  Joseph had seen at first hand how Jack might take a different road rather than pass his brother upon it.  If they should unavoidably meet they would pass with no more than a grunted acknowledgement, and Jack would take a swipe at one of Aleph’s dogs with his boot.

Leaning on the bar at the King’s Head in the days when he was still welcome there, Jack was also scathing concerning Aleph’s wound.

“War wound?  War wound be buggered!  He didn’t get no shrappel at Wipers.  When I finally got ‘un to ‘elp unload the hay-cart down our yard he dropped a bale on my head so I shoved a fork handle up his arse. In ‘thirty-six that was and he’s never forgotten ‘un. that’s the only wound he got!”

Joseph remembered the mouth organ Aunt Julia had given him for his thirteenth birthday – something then treasured, for somehow he had always believed he had a future in music.  Breathing idle chords upon it one afternoon on his way back from school he had come upon Aleph sitting on the wall outside Polkcombe Farm, his two Jack Russell terriers milling impatiently around his feet.

“Armonicky is ‘ut?”  Aleph said.  “Can I ‘ave a go, young ‘un?”

Joseph had lent his precious instrument reluctantly, then watched horrified as Aleph plucked a complete set of porcelain teeth from his mouth and placed them on the wall beside him.   The vaguely recognisable sea-shanty a toothless Aleph wheezed out was the last tune the instrument ever played.  When the old man had finished and Joseph politely retrieved it he put it in his pocket and walked away, not waiting to see the teeth replaced.  In his room that evening he put the mouth organ in his drawer, unable to countenance the thought of raising it to his own lips.  For all he knew, it was still there.

“Well!”  Julia folded her hands in her lap.  “I think we’ve accounted for the local population for now.  So what about you, Joe?  We didn’t expect you to come visiting.”

It was a rebuke, and Joseph knew it.  Somehow he had to explain how this place, which had been an irrelevance for so long, had suddenly become so important to him.  He had always insisted that to look back, to retreat into the past was wrong – a mistake.  What had changed?  He muttered an apology, said something about the business in London keeping him away.

“I just wanted to see you, I suppose; and to stay for a few days.  I hope it isn’t too inconvenient?”

“It’s bloody inconvenient!”  Uncle Owen spluttered, consuming his victory.  “Should have changed the locks.”

Julia smiled.  “Take no notice of your uncle, dear.  It’s his peculiar sense of humour.”

Joseph was not entirely certain his uncle was joking.  Much later, when he finally managed to extricate himself from his hosts’ gently persistent interrogation and retire to his old room, he pulled open that drawer.  The mouth organ was gone.

In the gathering evening, blue lights of police vehicles flickered from around Violet Parkin’s cottage with increasing brilliance, while rumours flickered around the village, building upon themselves.

Hettie Locke, Ben Locke’s wife was first to break the news.  “She was dead in the dairy, stuck up against the stall!  Janice ‘twas found ‘er!  Er ‘adn’t even ironed vicar’s surplices!”

“There were poor Violet’s blood ever’where!”  Abbey Walker’s eyes grew wider as she passed the story on.

“Pinned against the wall with pitchforks, she were, poor soul.”  Mary Gayle relayed the information to Paul over dinner; adding as an afterthought: “I ‘spect vicar ‘ll be askin’ me to do ‘is surplices now.”

“Nailed to thic wall with pitchforks!”  Paul Gayle told a rapt gathering at the King’s Head.  “Er were hangin’ upside down be all accounts!”

Word of Jack’s arrest followed.

“Jack?”  Cried Rob Pardin.  “’E’d never do that to ‘er, wouldn’t Jack!”

“Wouldn’t ‘urt a fly, wouldn’t Jack.”  Agreed Aaron Pace.  “But they got ‘un!”

 

© Copyright 2019 Frederick Anderson

No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

This book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.