Parfitt’s Island – a chronicle in four parts: Part Four.

Author’s note:  this episode contains some eroticism and political incorrectness, so it probably isn’t for everyone, but I did warn you about that, didn’t I?  All dun in fun (or done in fone).  I hope you enjoy.

In Julian Parfitt’s ‘Oval Office’, an agreement with the UK Government was finalised with almost indecent haste.  After everybody had expressed their admiration for everybody else, A.J. Poulson, on the ‘phone from the Ministry, wrapped the deal up.

“I’ll have the papers prepared.  If your legal people are happy we’ll be signed and sealed in a few days.  You keep your sovereignty, we pay your rate for the gas, and we rent the pipeline from the Republic of Aga.  Toodle-pip!”  He rang off.

“That was amazingly easy!”  Julian enthused.  “Willoughby, you’re a genius!”

Willoughby blushed.  “Now, Julian!  Come on.  Let’s get in that exercise I promised!”

Skaeflint’ae Beach was at its best that summer forenoon.  Very early in his explorations Willoughby had discovered the cove with its honeycomb of caves and tall cliffs, hidden away from the gas wells on the other side of the headland.  The little apron of sand was large enough to tempt bathers and private enough to be exclusive.  In their first days on the island – in those times Rowena remembered so wistfully – she and Julian had bathed uninhibitedly here.

Today it was Willoughby who accompanied Julian to the beach.  Rowena had to stay behind – a consultant and an Iranian cook had arrived on the early tide to help prepare for the Iranian delegation due that afternoon.  They had set up most of their equipment at the harbour, ready to transport to the house, which they began to do at around eleven am. They were nice people, and they brought with them some knowledge of a surprising nature.

“Your clocks;” said the consultant.  “You do realize they’re two hours adrift?”

“Are they?”  Rowena was at first disbelieving, then astounded.  “My watch, too.  How could that be?”

“I guess too long away from the mainland?”  the cook suggested.  “It is of no importance – we can finish our work in very little time.”

“Julian!”  Rowena exclaimed.  “He won’t know!  Can you find your own way around?  I must warn him!”

Even as she set off up the path to Ben Adderhochie, Rowena recognised the futility of her task.  The walk to Skaeflint’ae was at least forty minutes, and the Iranians would be with them within the hour.  However, as she hurried, a few dark corners began to open in her mind; a few vital tumblers began to click into place.  As the sinister import of these deliberations took shape, Rowena began to increase her pace.  She had not missed the faun-like conspiracy in her husband’s look that morning, or Willoughby’s devious smile…..

“Isn’t this truly beautiful?”  Cried Willoughby, standing at the water margin.  “Doesn’t it just fill your heart, Julian?”

Julian, staring at Willoughby’s back, admitted that it did.  As they had clambered down the steeper section of the cliff path, Willoughby had removed his shirt to expose that back and every rippling muscle in it.

“Let’s swim!”  The rest of Willoughby’s clothes seemed to magic from him, so all of a sudden Julian was plunged into his dream of the previous night:  these were not the tropics, but Willoughby’s virile nudity was all it promised to be, running towards the deeper sea.  Laughing at the ice-chill of the waves, Willoughby turned to offer a view that certainly filled Julian’s heart, and did much to stimulate other organs too:  “Come on, my little water-baby; get in here!” 

Julian tried a modest compromise, removing his shirt and trousers.  Willoughby was hysterical:  “Oh, what?  Underpants!  Get them off you, man!”

So Julian did.  The sea was so bollock-freezingly cold it precluded all innocent play.  Willoughby did not mind this – he saw it merely as the setting of a stage.   Swiftly back upon the beach both men laughed and stamped and shivered while Julian made the point that, in this wet condition, they had no hope of regaining their clothes.

“I’m going to catch pneumonia!”

“Lie down on the sand,”  commanded Willoughby.  “It’s warm in the sun.”

Side by side in the more yielding stuff above the tide-line they stretched themselves out to dry.  Gradually Julian’s shivering stopped, but he did not cease to complain of the cold.  Not, that is, until he felt Willoughby’s arm across his chest – then he began to experience a warmth which wasn’t quite rational.

“Not a bad body, you know, Julian,” said Willoughby; “for a City gent, hmm?”

Julian should have resisted, but he found himself quite liking that irrational warmth.  There was still time to step back, then; to turn away – before Willoughby slithered closer to him, so they were flank to flank, and certainly before Willoughby’s hands began to explore him in areas where even Rowena was reluctant to go, unless offered a bribe of fine vintage Bollinger.

“I’m afraid I’m not very…”  He heard himself stuttering.  “I’m not hung like a…well, not like you.”

“Like a donkey?”  Willoughby laughed.  “Don’t worry, I’ve heard it said.  But I think you’re rather sweet, dear Julian.  And size isn’t so important, is it?”

To be fair to Julian, he did tense up a little at this point:  he did recognise the Rubicon he was crossing, that this was an aspect of sexuality which had always made him feel uncomfortable in the past.  But he did not feel uncomfortable – not at all.  In fact, Willoughby’s attention was making him feel very comfortable indeed.

He would have been less relaxed if his ears had picked up the faint chug of a diesel motor, or if he had been looking out to sea at this particular moment; for a yacht was passing the open mouth of the cove with its complement of three Iranian diplomats lined up, like three wise men on a Christmas card,  upon its deck.  Unlike the three wise men, though, they each had binoculars.  Alas, he was not looking, and he did not see.  He did not see even when, five minutes later, the same yacht and the same three diplomats passed by again, travelling in the opposite direction.  This time only one diplomat was looking through binoculars – the other two had cameras.

“I know what we need.”  Willoughby murmured in Julian’s ear.  “I’ll be right back, love, Okay?”

“Oh, don’t go!”  Julian was nervously affected by the prospect of any interval in his further education, inasmuch as he feared a premature conclusion, exacerbated by the sight of Willoughby’s taut buttocks stalking away from him up the beach, to disappear into one of the caves. Fortunately, Willoughby’s return was almost immediate.  He held a packet of white powder in one hand while he twirled a drinking straw in the other.

“A little stash I set up yesterday, especially for us,”  he explained, as he plunged into the pockets of his discarded trousers to produce a small mirror.  Using that magnificent torso to shield them from any breeze, he nicked the corner of the packet, allowing a thin stream of powder to settle in a line upon the mirror.  “Here we are, darling boy.  Something else you haven’t tried.”

Now there was truly no turning back. The Rubicon was a distant memory; Julian was well into Italy and his feet had dried.  The white powder filled his world with little clicking sounds and flashing lights and unable to withstand any further delay he thrust himself awkwardly at Willoughby, who chuckled his indulgence:  “No, sweety – that works with women, not with us.”

Then he showed Julian exactly what to do, and Julian followed his instructions with alacrity, and Willoughby said a rather curious thing. 

 He said:  “All right boys – in for the close-up.  Not all at once, now!”

‘Close-up’?  Julian relished this strange terminology, knowing there would be many new words to learn.  It was a whole new world, one he had denied himself for so, so long.  As he let the waves of fulfilment roll over him he ruffled Willoughby’s hair and opened his eyes to ask its meaning.  He did not have to ask; nor did he need to ask about the clicks, or the flashing lights, because they were still happening.  They were coming from the ring of photographers standing around them.

“Julian old chap!”  Said Willoughby, disengaging himself.  “Let me introduce you to the gentlemen of the Press.”

The misery of the next ten minutes would remain with Julian all his life.  His struggle to get through the ranks of paparazzi to recover his clothes, the break into an undignified run with his trousers still down around his knees, the raucous cheer when he fell flat on his face in the sand.  Then there was the second raucous cheer when, halfway up the cliff path he met Rowena coming down – or, more correctly, ran onto her fist.

If the gentlemen of the fourth estate had lacked quotes to spice up their articles Rowena gave them plenty.  But Rowena was never a woman to be taken, or quoted, lightly – she also gave weight.  The one redeeming act of that whole mortifying afternoon was when she kicked Willoughby off the cliff.  The man who wrestled with crocodiles was no match for Rowena scorned, and Rowena was never one to leave an advantage without pressing it home.  She pursued Willoughby to where he had fallen, clutching a number of compound fractures, and jumped on him until four sturdy press men restrained her.  By that time she had ensured that Willoughby would trouble no-one of either sex for a very long time.

#

“He invited them in early that morning,” Julian explained miserably, after he and Rowena had negotiated an uneasy truce and they were browsing the websites of the national dailies in their kitchen the following day.  “They were hiding in the caves all the time we were there.  He set me up.  The coke, the whole thing.”

Dismally, they scanned pages full of pictures with little black squares all over them.  Rowena featured as much as Julian, for the camera Willoughby had set up on the grandfather clock had done its job well.

“I got a phone call from the Iranians;” She said.  “They don’t want your alliance.”

Julian nodded. “You should have heard Prince Fuisal.  Apparently what I was doing in those photographs is punishable by death in Al Flaberri.  Daddy’s told him never to speak to me again.  The tankers all sailed early this morning – there’s going to be no pipeline and no deal.  We’re just waiting for the landing craft.”

Rowena rested her chin on her hands:  “Or maybe not.”  She said. “No, maybe not.”

Julian gave her a quizzical look.  “Unless you know something I don’t…”

“Exactly.  Let me explain: last night while you were licking your wounds, so to speak, I made a few calls of my own.  Then, this morning while you were watching the tankers sail away, I called A.J.  It took me a long time to get through, and even longer before he stopped laughing.  Then I told him he had to negotiate with me now, and he did stop laughing.  The deal’s back on.”

“I don’t understand.”  Julian admitted, staring blankly at his wife.

“You don’t. Do you?  Oil is oil, my dear:  gas is gas.  That, and the opportunity to get one over on the British are incentives too great for the King of Al Flaberri to turn down.  And fortunately, the sweet old King has a more liberal attitude to dealing with women than his stuffy little squirt of a son.  We had a lovely chat – he’s going to come and visit me next summer; isn’t that nice?”

Rowena’s husband’s expression was changing rapidly from bewilderment to sheer open-mouthed admiration:  “You’ve struck a deal with the King!  You’re a genius!”

“It has been said.”

“And with reason!  But, wait, what about the Iranians?”

“I was never too keen on them.  We’re exchanging diplomats with Saudi Arabia instead.  Lots more ‘planes!”

“Diplomats!  But we haven’t got an embassy!”  Julian protested.

“I thought the woodshed, with a few alterations of course.  I did explain and the chappy’s quite prepared to rough it, as long as he has a garage for his two Ferraris and we promise to build a road for him to drive them on.  I mentioned the grouse moors, of course.”

“Oh, now why didn’t I think of that?  A sheik in the woodshed – an essential talking point for parties!  And who, pray, have you in mind as our ambassador?  I’m sure you’ve got somebody!”

“Yes!”  Rowena said brightly; “I have!  I believe a certain A.J. Poulson is going to apply for the job.  He seems to think his career at the Home Office is over.”

Julian was completely overawed.  “You bloody little miracle worker!”  He cried:  “It was a day of days when I married you, my love!”

“Ah.”  Rowena said heavily.  “There’s something I ought to tell you, Julian, my sweet.  Let me see, how does it go?….Yes.  I divorce thee, I divorce thee, I divorce thee.  There!  I can say that because I’ve changed the constitution.  And we’re Moslems, remember?”

Julian’s expression changed profoundly for a second time.  “You see;” Rowena said; “the King would only agree to revive our contract if you were completely out of the picture.  His family would never accept any association with – what was the charming term they have for it in their language? – I forget exactly, but I remember telling him you didn’t wear that type of shirt.  Anyway, I’ve staged a coup!”

“He’s made you take over the Presidency.”  Said Julian, staring in mystification at his ex-wife.  He shook his head in despair:  “I’m going for a walk.”  He made to rise from his chair.

“I’m awfully afraid you can’t.”  Rowena apologised.

“Why?”

“Well that’s the other part.  You’re under house arrest.”  She gave Julian one of her gentle, consoling smiles.

“What?”  Julian growled.  

Rowena repeated her words, in response to which Julian added a few thoughts of his own, largely in words that are unprintable, inducing Rowena to tut.  “Language dear!  You know, you’re dreadfully sexy when you’re angry.”

“You’re mad!”  Julian spat the words through gritted teeth.

“No, no; I’m perfectly calm.  You, however, are getting redder and redder.  It’s all completely civilised.  You know the portacabin the drilling crew used?  I’m having it moved this morning to the top of Ben Adderhochie:  there’s an oil heater inside so you’ll be quite warm – it’s a perfectly acceptable place to live until I can arrange to have you exiled.  I might come and visit from time to time, like I used to at your flat before we were married; won’t that be fun?  Or have your tastes changed?  Would you prefer someone more masculine?”

Julian exploded.  “Exiled?  I won’t do it!  You can’t make me do it!  All I have to do is call security, and we’ll see who gets the charming hilltop bungalow, you scheming, devious, blousy bitch!”

“Thank you.  I learned from the best, my darling.  Now, if by security you mean your half-dozen alcoholic Glaswegians they’ve sworn allegiance to the New Republic, because I’m paying them now – they’re waiting for you outside.  They’ll escort you to your new home.  I should go straight away, if I were you; we’re quite finished here.”

There was a moment Rowena genuinely feared; the critical few seconds when Julian was close to putting his thumbs to her windpipe and squeezing.  But his shoulders slumped and he stood up wearily.  At the door, he turned:  “One thing I don’t understand.  I wasn’t the only one Willoughby caught.  There are just as many photos of you with your knickers off – how come His Royal Majesty is prepared to overlook those?”

“Heterosexual love isn’t illegal in Al Flaberri.”  Said Rowena with an indulgent smile.  “In fact, they positively encourage it.  The old King was very impressed with the pictures – in fact, he’s asked if I have any more.  You recall the ones you took on our honeymoon?  You wouldn’t happen to know where they are, would you?”

The End

© 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.

Hallbury Summer – Episode Twelve         A Very Private Gathering

The Story so far:

Joe Palliser has taken a letter from Marian Brubaeker’s legal representatives to his old employer, local solicitor Alistair Carnaby.  By this means he learns that he is the principal benefactor in his deceased lover’s will.  However, Marian’s husband is challenging the will and demanding an enquiry into the manner of his wife’s death, to which end he has requested her body be exhumed for autopsy.

In the King’s Head pub that night Joe catches up with the landlord and questions him concerning Violet Parkin’s murder.  At the bar, Aaron Pace lets slip that Violet was a member of a local coven of villagers he believes to be witches.

After his evening at the King’s Head, with Ned Barker’s beer and his interrogation of Aaron Pace to regale him, Joseph Palliser should have had plenty to dream about when he retired for the night.  But other influences of the day, the conversation with Mr Carnaby and the dreaded word ‘autopsy’, proved too heavy a weight.  When he closed his eyes he found Marian waiting and he knew he would be forced to replay his memories of their final night together.

#

“I’d like you to find somewhere else to live.”  Marian had her back to him.  “I’ll give you money for a decent deposit.  You’d better start looking right away.”

That was what he had heard: that was what he thought she had said.  “I don’t understand!”  He protested. “Is it something I’ve done?”

She rounded on him, eyes set in a hard, professional stare:  “Look, Joe, don’t make this difficult.   I told you at the beginning this wasn’t going to be forever – remember?”

But that was then.  That was before he had learned to love her.

“Have you found somebody else?”  Joe tried to keep his tone calm, matter-of-fact, but he could not suppress the break in his voice.  “Is there someone else?”

“What if there were?  You have no claim on me.  I told you, Joe!”

“Yes, you told me.  A long time ago, you told me.”

Then he had lied to her, taken the money she gave him as a bond for a new apartment, told her he had found himself somewhere in North London.  “Finchley, as a matter of fact.”  The money languished in his account.  He could not bear to contemplate moving anywhere new.   Instead, he had struggled on, trying to please her, hoping to recover all he was about to lose.  He tried different things, new things:  as a lover she had always been experimental – willing to explore, ready to learn; but in bed now she was withdrawn, her look was somewhere far off.  Try though he might, he could not find a way back to her.  In her mind she was already elsewhere.

Then came that morning when, for whatever reason, he dared believe he might have a chance.

She had gone to work as normal.  She had not mentioned his departure for some days and he was going through the agony of wondering if she had changed her mind, so when she returned to their flat briefly, at lunchtime, he dared to hope.

Marian’s dark eyes were red, as though she had been crying.  How often had he seen her like this?  Work was frequently painful for her, the process of success was not something she enjoyed.  They were talking, just making small talk.  He wanted to make her laugh like he used to, he was trying – so very hard.  She suddenly grabbed him, turned him into her arms and kissed him with a depth of passion they had not shared for some time.

“Joey darling, stop torturing yourself.  Get on with your life, my love.  Move on!”

She was close, so close for a moment.  She pressed a small parcel into his hand.   “Get us some dope, and put these on before I get home, sweetie, will you?  Promise?”

Around four-thirty he returned from a meeting with a friend whose gear he trusted in  Fulham Market, and prepared dinner in their small kitchen:  Chicken Marengo, a Caesar salad; things he knew she liked.  Then he opened the parcel, and with a quiet chuckle to himself went into the bedroom to slip on the dark red posing pants he had found inside.  He donned a pair of blue slacks over the top and went back to his preparation of the meal.

This night she was early.  She came in at around six, looking pale and tired.

“Give me the stuff, Joe.”  She said.

“Do you want to eat first?”

“No.  I want the stuff,”  suddenly angry.  “Give me the fucking stuff!”

He gave it to her, watched her go into the bathroom to inject.  Minutes later she was back.

“You too.”  She said.

Half an hour, it took.  He was in the kitchen putting food onto plates, she was in the lounge.  The first he knew of her presence was the touch of her hand on his back.

Joseph faced her, seeing her wearing a long silk robe she favoured in her more passionate moods, a blue robe embroidered with red Chinese dragons.

“Don’t want me yet, Joe.  Not yet!”

The robe slithered from her shoulders: she came closer, teasing him, giggling girlishly; he was her pet, her dog.  If he reached out for her she stepped away, allowing him to see what she would not have him touch, wagging her finger in reproof.  “Mustn’t.  Bad boy! Naughty!”

With steely determination he tried to obey, to be the dispassionate spectator to her little game.  But this night was too special.  It promised their first act of love for so long, and he needed its reassurance too much.  His hands rebelled, clasping her shoulders, snatching her to him, and her expression altered instantly to one of fury.  Her eyes blazed.

“My neck, Joe Palliser!  My neck!”

So it was, on the night when everything changed.

#

Tom Peterkin turned up early in his Cortina car to drive Joe to Wilton Bishop, where a dealer who traded in the name of Maybury eked out a tenuous existence.  They flew through the lanes, the car’s wing brushing at the overgrown hedges, its wheels scrabbling for grip on the tight corners.

“Came up ‘ere the other day;”  Tom said.  “Met a Fergie pullin’ a wain.  Bugger did I ‘ave to stop!”

Joe found himself praying their path would be free of hay wains.  More than once they came face to face with other cars, Tom diving into the hedge like a bolting rabbit, somehow always emerging unscathed on the other side, leaving a shocked motorist staring back at them as they receded into the distance.  There were no tractors, however, and Tom’s beloved machine remained intact as they plummeted down the hill into Wilton Bishop.

Beneath Wilton Crown, a high ridge lined with conifers that loomed over the Turlbury road ‘Maybury’s Car Mart’ was a dejected line of ageing merchandise looking undeniably shady: Mr Maybury slid up to them, shadier still.  “Joe old lad!”  He had kept the Wolsey ‘out the back’, he said.  “Super little motor!”

They followed Maybury’s wobbling bottom through his oil-slick workshop to some rough ground where he ‘reserved’ cars for his special clients.  A grey Wolsey stood by the far fence.

“Beautiful, isn’t she?”  Enthused Maybury.  “Jowett designed they were, you  know?    Lovely leathers – come and see!”

They came and saw.  The old car glowered at them silently as they probed and prodded its more private parts.   They started it, they revved the engine, they put Maybury’s price through the mangle, and Joe bought it.

“I’ll have it ready for you in a few days,” Maybury assured them.

On the journey back, Tom said.  “You’re a tough bugger to deal with these days!  I remember when you wouldn’t say boo to a bloody goose, boy!”

Joe nodded.  Times had changed, he said.

#

The telephone rang for a long time before Caroline answered.

“Ian isn’t here.” She informed Joe icily.  As Ian’s wife, she was accustomed to defending him from Joe’s constant sallies.

“When’s he coming back?”

“For you to talk to?  Never.”

“Oh, come on, Caroline!  You can’t do that, he’s my brother for god’s sake!  Tell him to call me, will you?”

“He’s not your brother by any law that has to do with God!”  She clipped.  “Very well, I’ll tell him.”  And she replaced the receiver.

Joseph cooked himself a lunch, waited an hour.  When he was convinced that Ian wasn’t going to call back that afternoon, he slipped quietly out of the door so as not to excite Julia’s curiosity, and wandered up Church Lane in the direction of Charlie Lamb’s house with a vague idea in his head that he might make some enquiries concerning Charlie’s plans to sell.  In the event he did not need to do this, because a large ‘For Sale’ sign flapped before it in the breeze.  He fumbled in his pockets for a pen.

“Are you interested?”

The girl had come upon him quietly; so quietly he had not heard her. She was tall, almost as tall as he. A cascade of ash-blonde hair dropped to her shoulders, through which the sun danced, casting the clear flesh of her cheeks into deep shade so Joe could barely see how her eyes looked at him, or the pert perfection of her nose, or the delicate pout of her lips.  She wore a loose blouse over a long skirt of cream straw cloth, that draped over soft curves to small, elegant ankles and slippered feet.  She spoke confidently in a cultured yet not unmelodic tone and he should have recognised her at once.

“In the house?  I only ask, you see, because were you to purchase this property we would be neighbours.”  She waved airily towards the summit of the hill.  “Sophie Forbes-Pattinson.  How do you do?”

Joe realised immediately.  Of course!  He had met Sophie Forbes Pattinson just twice.  The first time that hair was tucked beneath a riding helmet; the second, he would have to admit, he had not been concentrating on her face.

“Joe Palliser,” He responded evenly.  “How do you do, Sophie?”

“There!  You see, Joe, we’re on first name terms already.  How neighbourly can one get?”  Sophie Forbes-Pattinson walked around him, keeping a small distance between them as she looked him up and down.  Joe imagined that if she were carrying her riding crop by now it would be tucking up under his chin.  “You look awfully frightened to me, Joe Palliser.  Why would that be?”

Joe smiled.  Now she was facing the sun he could see her face.  She had eyes of pale blue that squinted against the light.  Her mouth was on the small side, but a natural pout to her lips made them full enough to be inviting;  though if he had to describe her then, ‘inviting’ would not be a term he would use.  “I prefer ‘wary’,”  He said.  “Would you like to examine my teeth?”

Sophie scowled. “Are you trying to make fun of me, Joe?”

Joe didn’t answer.  She stood watching him for a moment, shifting lightly from foot to foot, a finger raised to her little chin and a thoughtful look in her eyes.

“Well, I must go now.  No doubt we shall meet again, if you do decide to buy this house.  I hope you will come and visit us.  We hold a garden party for the villagers every year.”

Joseph watched her as she walked away.  She drifted, as though she were not carried by human feet at all, but washed along by some invisible current.  When she was almost at the top of the road, she turned to look back at him and raised a dainty hand in a wave.

‘Very good!’  Joseph thought to himself.  ‘You knew I’d still be watching you.’  His next thought was less complimentary.

Sunday dawned hot and sultry.  At ten-thirty the telephone finally rang.

“What do you want, Joe?”  Ian’s voice carried that undertone of barely restrained impatience he specially reserved for his brother.

“How are you, Ian?  Caroline wasn’t exactly forthcoming.”

“Get on with it.”

“Did you know that Violet Parkin had died?”

There was a pause.  Eventually Ian said:  “How on earth would I know that?  It hasn’t made the ‘nationals’ as far as I’m aware.  Anyway, I hardly remember the woman.  Is that all you called me for?”

“I’m sorry, Ian – I’m sure you must be very busy.”

“I have a church service to attend in twenty minutes, so is that all?”

“She was murdered, Ian.”

“Really?  So?”

“I didn’t know it but apparently she was a witch – at least, what they would call a witch around these parts – do you remember when Michael was into witchcraft and mysticism?”

Ian’s voice had calmed.  “Mikey was into a lot of things, as I recall.  Once he believed root vegetables were a means of communicating with a subterranean race.  Some of them lived under the house, he told me.  I spent hours in the garden with him while he tried to get an intelligent answer from a parsnip.  Why are you so interested, Joe?”

“Connections – I’m pretty certain Violet was ritually killed.  I wondered if Mikey ever tried to get into her circle – her coven, so to speak?  I thought you’d be the one to know; he was closest to you, after all.”

“No, nothing here, I’m afraid.”  Ian’s tone was resuming its peremptory edge:  “Try asking around the village.”

“I am, but they are closing up like clams.”

“I imagine they would.  Look, Joe….”

“Yes, I know, you’re busy.  Keep well, Ian.”

That morning, for the first time in many years, Joseph emulated his brother and went to church.

Summoned by a single steeple-bell, a trickle of humanity converged upon St. Andrews, the little sandstone church which was symbolic of God to all who came to Hallbury.  They brought, fermenting beneath the sheaths of their ‘Sunday Best’, all the prejudices, quirks and crimes they kept within their breasts, clotted into alliances, woven and spun into family groups.  At the lych-gate they dispersed in solemn file, passing by ones and twos along the margin of the graveyard where their sins lay buried and into the cool embrace of the West Door.

They were all there; Tom and Emma, Emma avoiding Joe’s gaze, Tom smiling awkwardly, sweating into a shirt collar around which he wore his tie like a noose.   Emily and Sophie Forbes-Pattinson, mother and daughter in their Sunday dresses in the company of a harassed-looking man Joe took to be Emily’s husband.  The Forbes-Pattinsons were fulfilling their role as feudal chiefs; despite, Joseph thought with amusement, Emily’s obviously more egalitarian nature.  She was not, by instinct, a baroness.  Others were equally ungainly – Dot Barker, Hettie Locke and Ben, Janice Regan and her son, Mary and Paul Gayle with their two children, Margaret and Patrick Farrier, the Pardins; the list went on.  Aaron Pace, limping up the road in a suit that had seen better decades.

Each found their way to time-allotted pews.  They sat in family huddles, islands of consanguinity with empty oaken seas between.

Joe sat with Owen and Julia.  In his childhood, the Pallisers had come to this place infrequently; Owen, who declared himself an agnostic and Michael, Joe’s younger brother were averse to any notion of religion.  Towards his last days in the village, Michael began cursing and ‘speaking in tongues’ whenever he went near St. Andrews, so if Joseph attended church at all, he would wander there in Julia’s and Ian’s company.  Owen remained at home to restrain Michael, who was always ready to address the congregation with sermons of his own.

Ah, but how the years had mellowed the Masefields!  As their own appointments with God drew nearer, so their desire to appease Him increased.  With quiet amusement Joseph watched them while the vicar breezed through his service, joining in the prayers, bellowing out the hymns.  Yet the days when Joe would sneer at such shallow devotion were gone.  Religion was a personal commitment, a private affair.  He would leave it to those who possessed it, even if he did not himself believe.

A strange hour.  Scrooping chairs, wailing children, a cracked old organ beaten into submission by Mrs Higgs’ less than expressive hands.  At one point, mercifully the last hymn, Joe was certain she began to play ‘Knees up Mother Brown’ for a few bars before coming to herself; but the strains were lost beneath another agony of discordant singing. Almost before he knew it, the whole painful ordeal was over.

After the service Joe wandered away on pretence of studying some of the more readable gravestones.  From the churchyard he was free to survey the emerging congregation, and reaped his reward, for although most drifted away there were some who stayed – Dot Barker, Hettie Locke, Janice Regan and Margaret Farrier: it was a strange, very private gathering.  While the Forbes-Pattinsons monopolised attention, this four, like Joseph, stood to one side among the gravestones at the far side of the churchyard; and an earnest conversation was going on.

“There’ll be some wicked spells cast tonight then!”  Tom Peterkin took Joseph by surprise.  “What are you doin’ lurkin’ out here, then, you pervert – spyin.’ on young Sophie, are you?”

Joe smiled,  “I wouldn’t mind the body, Tom, if it supported a different head.  What do you mean, ‘spells’ – are they witches, those four?”

Tom grinned,  “I’d say ‘tis likely.  What do you reckon to our Sophie, then?  D’you think she looks lost without ‘er ‘orse?”

“I met her yesterday.  She has a clear understanding of her place in the world.  How old is she?”

Tom pondered this:  “Must be twenty-three or twenty-four now.”

“She’s grown.”

“Everyone has, Joe.  Trouble bein’ in her case, she’m grown into a snobbish little bitch.  Ah, I’d say so.  But then, she could be fun, playin’ the bit of rough for a while.  Do you fancy a go, then?”

Joe knew whatever response he made would be reported to Emma.  There was an edge of desperation in Tom’s voice:  he was looking for crumbs, anything that might divert the friends from the collision course they were on.

“Perhaps not.” He said carefully. “I think life is complicated enough.”

Tom nodded.  “I must catch Emma up – she’m gone ahead.”

Joe chose to forget the Peterkins lived just three houses away from the Church.  He knew why Emma had ‘gone ahead’.  He, too, was ready to leave, deliberately passing close to the quartet of secretive females as he went.  They stopped talking as he drew near, and their eyes followed him all the way to the lych-gate.

 

© 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.

 

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