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Hallbury Summer – Episode Nine      Silver’d in the Moon’s Eclipse

The story so far: 

While job-seeking in town Joe Palliser meets Emma, his best friend’s wife, and is reminded of his feelings for her.  When she abjures him to return to London he lets slip that he cannot, which Emma takes to mean he has separated from his wife, just as he – in her view – abandoned her, years ago.

Meanwhile, Joe is melting opposition from his Uncle, who, whilst advising him on village politics suggests he might set up home in Hallbury.  He is considering this when, on a walk past Violet Parkin’s farm, he is hailed by Davy, the local constable, who provides an insight into the complacency of the local force in pinning Violet’s husband Jack for her murder.  Heading up the lane to his local pub, his progress is interrupted…

“Don’t like the police.”  Growled a deep voice behind Joe; “You doesn’t want to be seen consortin’ with they, Palliser.”

Joe’s heart skipped several beats.  The voice was Charker Smith’s.  The presence was Charker’s.  He suppressed a desire to run, which was the one thing he was pretty certain he could do faster than the big labourer.

“It’s just Davy Hallett.”  He said as evenly as he could.  “I’ve known him for years.”

“All same – bastards.  You aren’t moved on, then?”

“Thinking of staying for a while, Charker.”  Joseph said, determined not to be intimidated.  “I grew up here, you know?  It is sort of my home.”

“Ah.  You and those brothers of your’n.  I had a brother once, Palliser.”

“I know.”  Joe responded solemnly.  The more he looked at Charker’s massive slab of a body, his small, almost conical head which rose from a neck that would not have disgraced a Hereford bull, the more he marvelled that this man could have been engendered from the same seed that created Rodney.  “I’m really sorry, Charker.  I still remember that day very well.  There was nothing I could have done – you must believe that.”

“So you said at the time.  ‘Tweren’t like ‘im to drive too fast, see?  He were a good driver, were Rod.”

Joe sighed.  “Look, I know I can never convince you, but I wasn’t responsible for Rodney’s death.  I happened to be the one who found him, that’s all.”

Charker was poised with his hands to his hips, legs astride.  His breath came in regular gusts, like a steam engine at rest – vast and immovable.  “You’re right.  I aren’t convinced.  ‘Tis daylight now, but it won’t allus be, so if I was you, I’d be movin’ on – you got that?”

There was no point in protest.  “I got that.”  Joe said.

Charker’s fierceness suddenly evaporated, though somehow the menace remained.  “That’s right, boy.  Now, you comin’ fer a drink?”

“In a minute, Charker.  I’ll come in a minute.”

“Collect yerself, eh?  Have a think about it.”  Charker nodded approvingly The steam engine puffed into gear and rumbled on, rolling up the lane towards The King’s Head.   Joe watched him, remarking that in spite of his size, Charker had hands that were quite small, with long, sensitive fingers.

He might have accepted the big man’s invitation, had he not caught a glimpse of a tall, slightly stooped figure making its way along the adjoining road.  The sight of Tom Peterkin also bound for the King’s Head jolted his resolve: Joe tucked his chin into his chest and turned quickly, retracing his steps. Whereas he knew he could not ignore Tom, neither could he face him this night.

An official-looking envelope arrived for Joseph in the post the next morning.  He drew it close to his chest as he read the contents before tucking it into his trouser pocket.  “It’s from London.”  He told his aunt and uncle by way of explanation.  “Can I use the ‘phone later?”

As she cleared the breakfast table, Julia said to Owen:  “That was a solicitor’s letter.  He was worried.  Did you see his face?”

Joe read the letter again in the privacy of his room.  He read it three times.  Then he went to the telephone.

“I have to go into Braunston tomorrow morning;” he announced at lunch. “Is there anything I can get for you?”

“No, darling.”  Julia appeared content to let her curiosity take a back seat for now.  “But there is something you can do for me this afternoon if you have time?”

Joe laughed at the gentle sarcasm.  “Nothing but time.  What was it you wanted, aunt?”

“Do you remember the Forbes-Pattinsons? “

“Up at the top of Church Lane?  The ‘nobs on the hill’?  Of course I do.”

“I have the minutes for the Parish Council meeting ready to be copied.  Emily Forbes-Pattinson normally calls down for them, but she’s a bit tied up today, apparently.  I would take them myself, but it’s such a struggle up that hill in this heat….”

“I’ll be happy to do it.”

“Oh, Joe, you’re such a dear!”

When they rose from lunch, Joseph accepted the package of Parish Council documents from his aunt without any hint that he had seen through her very transparent ploy.

“I’ll just change my shoes.”  He said.  And he climbed the stairs to his room where he made sure that the confidential letter would make his errand with him,  secure in his pocket.

He set out up the lowert part of the hill, a road strewn with memories bitter and sweet.  To his left after the Masterson farm was Staggers, the old house where the Honourable Mrs Palmerston once harangued him from her first-floor windows.

“Keep off my grass!”

“Don’t come in!  The dogs will savage you!”

On the right was Hallows Cottage.  How many times in childhood and youth had he knocked on that door, dragging Madge Peterkin from her comfortable chair?

“Can Tom come out?”

“’Tisn’t ‘Tom’, Joseph dear.  It’s ‘Thomas’.”

She died before he left for London.  Albert, her husband, found her when he returned from work, in the bath she had been taking when he left that morning.  Albert still lived there, and Tom was a dutiful son.

House after house, memory upon memory:  the Pollocks with their sad-eyed daughter –where was Stella now?  The Ravenscourts who never emerged beyond their front door; and on, climbing past St. Andrew’s Church into Church Lane, narrow and steep.

There were three houses on Joe’s left, two close together, whitewashed thatched affairs with split front doors and tiny windows.  Mary and Paul Gayle lived in one of these; he couldn’t remember who owned the other.  Then Charlie Lamb’s home, the house Owen had suggested he might buy.  Charlie had a young family when Joe left years before, and a sharp-nosed, vivacious wife with a penchant for the ridiculous.  When Charlie played the dame in Abbots Friscombe’s pantomime his wife dressed him for the part, in a costume which kept the village talking for years.  The cottage had a red sandstone facade, a good sound roof:  there was a garden at the back (the front door opened directly onto the lane), and yes, that door invited him.  He could see himself living there.

Thus preoccupied, Joe scarcely noticed the sun, though it beat down upon him remorselessly.  Perspiration was beading on his brow by the time he finally arrived at the iron gates of ‘Highlands House’, residence of the Forbes-Pattinsons, which stood at the top of the lane.

Behind a high brick wall, ‘Highlands’ was hidden from the road.  To those who applied a structure to village society, this was the ‘Squire’s Manor’, sufficient reason to open its gates with respectful care.  Beyond the gates, a driveway plunged through a screen of laurel which parted after twenty paces or so, revealing ‘Highlands’ to be a large nineteen-thirties’ construction, faced delicately in faded brick.  Everything about the place exuded permanence, from the mature oaks that bordered the acre of lawn to the Bentley Continental parked before its polished wooden front doors.

All this should have impacted profoundly upon Joseph, and would have, were there not a nearer view that was much more distracting.  For stretched upon the grass in the sun was a girl, her slender form clad only in a pair of brief green bikini pants.  She lay on her back with her head turned towards him, her face. framed by silken ash blonde hair and soothed by the perfect innocence of sleep, in which state she had rolled from her original position –  leaving her unclipped top lying uselessly beside her and exposing a pair of small, invitingly white breasts.

It took Joseph a full five seconds to realise that his eyes were devouring the girl whose horse he had frightened the previous week, and to rebuke himself for staring.  With exaggerated quietness he retraced his steps to the driveway gates which, whistling tunefully, he swung open and closed with an audible metallic clang.  A cry of alarm emitted from beyond the laurels, and by the time he ambled back into view the girl had disappeared.

“Oh, thank you.  So you must be Joe?”   Mrs Forbes-Pattinson greeted him, accepting Julia’s package with a glint in her eyes which suggested she had not entirely missed the drama his approach had caused.  She added with a touch of mischief:  “Did you happen to run into my daughter Sophie on your way in?”

“Almost,”  Joseph answered.  Mrs Forbes-Pattinson in a lemon-coloured summer dress was every bit as stunning as her daughter.  At times like these he could easily be persuaded that the very rich were, in truth, a race apart.

“You look awfully warm!  Would you like to come in and have something to drink?”

“That’s very kind, but I must be getting back.”  Joe stumbled over his reply, cursing his ineptitude.

He walked away, carrying with him in an entirely new compartment of his imagination a vivid picture of Emily Forbes-Pattinson and her lovely Sophie.  He was quite sure he wanted to meet them again.

That evening, as Joseph was once more browsing the ‘Situations Vacant’ columns, Tom Peterkin called.

“Yer been avoiding me, lad?”  He nodded towards the gate, beyond which a dark green Cortina saloon car stood waiting.  “I brought the car down, ah?  Thought we might go for one or two in Braunston?”

Joe threw on a coat.

“Nice!”  He approved.  “What did you do with your Sunbeam?”

“Sold it.  Emma made me see sense.  Family man, see?”

Joe was surprised and showed it.

“Oh, no; she’s not pregnant or nothing.  But we got plans, ah?  Been trying for a while, now.   I asked ‘er to come with us, but she aren’t feeling so well, ‘pparently.”  Tom grinned toothily.  “Women, ah?”

Emma had evidently not managed to prevail upon her husband to drive slowly.  The Cortina flew the back road to Abbots Friscombe in minutes.  Once clear of the village, Tom patted the steering wheel enthusiastically.  “Goes well, du’n ‘er?  So how come you’re not driving these days, then?”

Joseph explained that he had driven very little since Rodney Smith’s accident.

“Can’t let it put yer off, Joe.  Somethin’, mind, seein’ an accident like that.  You and ‘e never did get along, though, did yer?”  Tom asked.  It was a rhetorical question, because the conviction with which he threw his car into the next bend put Joe beyond speech.  The next time Joe trusted himself to open his mouth; the Cortina was drawing into a car park outside the Shire Tavern.

“As a matter of interest, Tom, why didn’t we just go to the King’s Head?”

“Ah, you might ‘ave problems at yon’.  I was up there last night, and Charker Smith were getting hisself drunk, and he were swearin’ ‘bout ‘ow he’s goin’ ter get you for Rodney?  I tried to calm ‘un, but you know what ‘eem like when ‘eem drunk?  Steer clear, that’s my rec’mendation.  Anyhow, didn’t I see you change yer mind ‘bout goin’ in there yourself, early on?  Could of sweared that was you in the lane.”

At the centre of Braunston was a square dominated by a mediaeval shire hall, one-time host to the Town Council, and now containing meeting rooms, offices for an insurance company, and the Shire Tavern.  Always crowded, ‘The Shire’ offered sufficient anonymity for self-conscious youth, and so had become a favourite watering place for Tom and Joseph in their teenage years.

The Wheelwright’s Bar on the first floor was unchanged from those days.  Creaking narrow stairs were packed with chattering girls and grunting, recalcitrant young men whose fashions might have altered – no more the long jackets with velvet collars, the flounces and back-combed hair – and the fake beams and cart-wheel tables might have looked a little tired now, yet it retained enough familiarity to make Joe feel at home.  He fought his way through smoke-haze to a crowded counter, emerging with pints of beer.

Tom said:  “We got to get you a car, boy.  There’s a nice Wolsey up Maybury’s – I’ll take yer to look at ‘un on Saturday if yer wants?”

This began an evening which, mainly spent in idle conversation, should have been pleasant and relaxed.  Faces Joe remembered came and went, a few stopping to say hello, like small, dependable eddies in the current of humanity.

Tom did his best to distract.  “That old Ford Pilot of yours?  That’s up Pettisham way.  Emma seen it there, t’other week.  Still looks alright, ‘pparently.”

But just the mention of Emma’s name felt like a poniard in Joe’s heart.  Although he disguised the pain he did not altogether deceive his friend.  Tom had known him for too long.

“Good car, ah?  Bet you wish you’d kept that ‘un.  Would have served yer well in London.”

Joe changed the subject hurriedly:  “Tom, do you know more about Violet Parkin than I do?”

“She’m dead, I know that.”  Tom pursed his lips.  “’Pends what you mean, I s’pose.”

“Well, the way I remember her, she never went anywhere much, did anything much.  All I remember her for was the day I disturbed her bloody ducks.”

Tom laughed.  “She were a queer bird ‘erself, mind.  There were always stories.  She were Ben Wortsall’s daughter, weren’t she?”

“Never heard of him.”

“What?  Been in the village all they years and never heard of Ben Wortsall?  You must ‘ave cloth in your ears, boy!  Ben was a witch, that’s what!”

“You mean…pointy hat, and stuff?”

“No!  No!  I mean mad old bugger used to go round cursin’ anybody he took ‘ception to.  Mind, folks swore by ‘e’s spells and potions.  No-one went near no doctors when Ben was around.  He died when I was still a nipper, but some say that Violet…..you ask Aaron Pace about Violet.  He’ll tell yer some tales.  Whether they’re true or not, though…”

There the conversation ended, for Tom was as obsessed with automobiles as ever.  He would always return to the subject; whether in the context of his activities for the week -“Called out to one of those old single-pot Fordson’s.  Wouldn’t start, no matter what.  Told ‘un he’d have to get a new tractor.  Seen them John Deeres?”  – or in his assessment of people:“That maid over there?  She’m a Mini owner – you can see that, can’t yer?  Not much room for it in they, eh boy?”

Joseph was glad when eleven o’clock struck and the evening was forced to draw to a close.  He had joined in the prattle, served his turn as he thought:  but on the way home Tom disabused him.

“Sommat wrong, ain’t there, Joe?  See, I thought if I took yer out, got a few pints past yer, you might loosen up a little, but no.  You got more cards in that ‘and than you’m showin, ‘aven’t yer?”

They had passed through Abbots Friscombe, driving up the narrower back road for the final mile towards Hallbury.  Wednesday Common lay dark and unfathomable on their left, laced with little trackways through the bracken that the farmers used to access the fields beyond.  Tom drove off the road into one of these, switching off his car’s engine.  The headlight beams probed into the darkness through a mass of tiny flying and floating things.

“Now, for sake of your conscience, boy, you’m goin’ to tell me what they are, see?  But first, I got to get shot of some of this bloody beer.”

He got out of the car, unzipped his jeans and urinated copiously into the long grass.  A car roared past on the road behind him and he waved to acknowledge the cheers of encouragement from its occupants.  Joe waited apprehensively for his return, uncertain what to say, uncertain how much Tom knew.  He, Joe, was certain of one thing he must not say:  that he suspected Emma was still in love with him; and of something he must not even think – that maybe he was still in love with Emma.

When at last Tom returned, with a “Well then?” that brooked no refusal, Joe told him the London story; the full London story he had confided to Owen and Julia.  He revealed all he could to his friend, aware even as the words spilled from his mouth that each one could be a word too many;  that although Tom and he were once the closest of allies he had no right to expect that same loyalty again – that he might be arming an enemy.

After he had concluded all that he dared to say he felt at one with those tiny bits of life out there in the headlights; adrift on the wind, rudderless, and lost.

“Well!”  Tom said, staring at his steering wheel.  “There’s a tale!”

Joe nodded.   That genie was with him again, its bottle shaking in its anger.

“So you aren’t married to this Marian, then?”  Tom said.

Why did it slip out?  Did he want it to?

“No.  She was married to someone else.”

For a second or so he thought Tom had not heard him, or noticed.  For a second, two, five, ten, Tom said nothing.  Then:

“‘Was’ Joe?”

The genie’s face became one enormous leer. “She’s dead.”  Joe muttered.  “Marian is dead.”

© 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:  Lucas Huter on Unsplash

 

 

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode Eight   A Question of Belonging

 

The Story so far:

 

Joseph Palliser returns to his home village on the day a respected villager, Violet Parkin is murdered.  Whilst Jack, Violet’s husband, is arrested for her murder Joe also attracts attention from the police.  In the decade of Joe’s absence his ex-girlfriend, Emma, has married Tom Peterkin, who was his friend throughout his youth.  When they meet Joe discovers that Emma still has feelings for him.

Joe visits his mentally unwell brother Michael, who, despite his confinement in a nursing home, inexplicably knows about Violet Parkin’s murder.  He discovers his brother’s expensive residential care is being paid for, but no-one will disclose the source of the funds.  Back in Hallbury he is confronted by a police detective who raises doubts about his movements on the day Violet was killed…

The Detective was clearly waiting for an answer.  Joseph took a deep breath:  “This is relying on the word of two elderly people who probably don’t remember which ‘bus they were on.  As to the Abbots Friscombe train, I’m not surprised if no-one remembers me: there was no-one in my compartment.”  He decided upon attack:  “Anyhow, does it matter?  Are you suggesting I leapt from the ‘bus, ran down to the other end of the common, stabbed Violet Parkin to death and then came back here to greet my uncle and aunt?  Ask them what time I arrived.  And what possible reason would I have to attack Violet Parkin?”

The young constable was staring fixedly out into the garden.  His superior gave Joseph a piercing look.  “The time of Mrs Parkin’s death was approximate, sir; so maybe you wouldn’t have had to rush.”  He leant forward a little:  “How did you know Mrs Parkin was stabbed, Mr Palliser?”

“Shall we say I have inside knowledge?”  Joe asked, glancing meaningfully at the young constable and gratified to see his shoulders stiffen.  “Detective, do I honestly strike you as someone who sharpens pitchforks?”

The detective sergeant sighed.  “Pitchforks, now?  No sir.  No, you don’t.  But you do strike me as someone who knows a lot too much about Mrs Parkin’s death.”

“I’ve been away for several years, Sergeant.  I didn’t even know Violet Parkin was still alive.”

“True, but you have associations with this village, don’t you?  I wonder if you arrived earlier than you claim, and if you did, you might have seen something, or done something you would prefer not to talk about here.  Please think carefully; if you remember anything new and you want to talk to me….”

They left then, the one middle-aged, bearing the weary cynicism of someone accustomed to lies, the other a fresh young puppy-dog with waggy tail, pleased to have discovered something of value to his master.  The word they left behind, the one that dwelt with Joseph for a long time that evening, was ‘associations’:  did he still have those?  And if so, who in the village would have given that information to the police?

In spite of Michael’s plea for urgency, some days would elapse before Joseph could catch up with Ned Barker, the landlord of the King’s Head.

Dot explained.  “He’m gone fishin’, lover.”

In village parlance she might have meant he was camping out by a stream somewhere, although he was more likely to be on some other mission entirely.  It was no-one’s business but Ned’s, and Joe lacked the persistence to enquire further.

He filled his time by taking the train to Braunston for a visit to the Labour Exchange.  The day was warm and sunny so he bought a local newspaper and sat on a bench in the park to browse through the ‘vacancies’ column.  Employers seemed to be so discriminating; the qualifications they demanded followed more and more precise lines –  ‘Qualified Administrator:  HNC or higher’; or maybe ‘Trained Supervisory Assistant – must have at least five year’s experience’.  At thirty-one Joseph was, he had to admit to himself, qualified for precisely nothing.

Despondent, he turned to the front page, where the Parkin murder was splashed in giant headlines.  Their ‘Suspicious Death Shocks Hallbury’ was less than inspirational, and the report lacked substance, but it brought Joseph face to face with Violet Parkin, for the ‘paper had managed to obtain a photograph of her.  A head and broad shoulders glaring awkwardly at the camera, she frowned directly at him, as though she had never forgiven him for disturbing her ducks.

If asked, he would be unable to say how long he had been there when he heard the brush of clothing as someone settled on the bench beside him.  He did not look round, or acknowledge the newcomer:  his mind was too busy.

“I keep running into you, don’t I?”  Said Emma Peterkin.

She sat primly with coppery hair riffling gently in the wind, hands clasped on a small brown handbag in her lap, staring before her; a young married woman in her ‘town best’ – her pale green blouse loosely tucked into the waistband of a hounds-tooth checked skirt which finished just above her knees.  Sheer tights or stockings over legs too well-proportioned to go unnoticed, white heels on narrow feet.  Undeniably respectable, entrancingly pretty, Joe thought; and utterly miserable.

She turned her face towards him.  It was so close to being the perfect face; it was, still, so close to being Sarah’s face: wide set, soulful eyes, a strong nose, broad, sensuous mouth;  those two little pink patches on her upper cheeks which flushed furiously whenever she was embarrassed or aroused.  Small wonder then, that he had found his way to her when Sarah had gone – small wonder that she still tugged at his heartstrings dangerously, despite the passing of the years.

“I should have just walked past.  I’m sorry,” She said.  “But I couldn’t.  You looked so….”  Her voice tailed away.

“Emma.”  Joe began.

“How are you, Joe?”  She had determined upon a greeting; a normal conversation.  They were friends, reunited after a long absence.  They had much to share.  “I come to town each Tuesday to shop, when it’s quiet.  I works the other days of the week and Tom never likes it if I break into our Saturday together.  People say the shops should start opening on Sundays and I don’t know if I don’t agree with them – what do you think?”

“I really don’t have an opinion.”

“Really?  Really, you don’t?”  Emma’s eyes sought about her frantically:  “Well, I think it would be a blessing, I do.  I…I can’t sleep, Joe!  For thinking about you, I can’t…”

“Emma, please?”  He reached out for her, covered her hand with his; and simple gesture of compassion as that was, her flesh trembled at his touch.

“Not since you come back!  Why the fuck did you come back?”

The word was never more startling in its impact than when it came from Emma.  It passed through Joseph like an electric shock – a surge of anger, and pain, and – yes, a stab of intense longing too.

“Emma, I…”

“No!  No, you tell me!  Not a word from you, Joe Palliser; though I waited.  Yes, I did.  Because you promised, didn’t you?  I’ll write you soon as I get settled, Emma?  Remember?”  She clasped her hands about her knees, leaning forward, half-hunched, eyes filling with tears.  “So why are you here?  So you can…”  Emma spat out the word…  “use me again, to forget your precious bloody Sarah?  Because that’s what you did, Joe.  That’s what you did!”

“Stop it!”  He went to her then, because he was unable to bear her fury; because she was hurting too much.  He put his arm about her shoulders and stilled her, took her hand in his and held it there.  “Stop, Emma, please?”

“Oh, god!”  It was a suppressed wail.  “Why’d you have to come back?”

“Emm, you know why I left?”

“Yes, I know.  Because Charker was after you.  I got news for you, boy.  He’m still after you.  Charker don’t forget.”

“If it hadn’t been for that…”

Emma glared at him.  “Don’t give me ‘ifs’!”  Her face was too close to his.  Realising, she quickly turned her head aside.

He said:  “All this was a lot of years ago.  It was more than just Charker, it was Owen and Julia, it was my brothers; the whole thing.  But it wasn’t you.  All right, perhaps at first I might have been getting over Sarah, I admit it; but all that changed.  Believe me, I didn’t just use you.  It was far more than that.”

“Oh, the lies we want to hear!”

“No, not lies.”  Joe sighed, unashamed that his own breath should give him away:  she would sense it, he knew.

“Why didn’t you call me?” Her voice was calmer.

“Emm, I made a mess of London.  If I’d managed to find a job I could keep or a home that was more than a bedroom, I would have called, but it wasn’t like that.  It wasn’t the answer for me.  I did a lot of things I can’t talk about. In the end, this was the only place to come.”

“Oh!  Oh, enough of an answer to find yourself a wife, Joe!”  Emma snapped back. “Where does she come into all of this?  Or are you just goin’ to drop her as well?  What must she be thinkin’?”

“She understands.  I needed to get away – she knows that.”   Why did he choose to be evasive?  Did he think the symbolic defence of a wedding ring would be sufficient to deny the temptation sitting beside him?

Emma made no reply.  For a long time, nothing was said.  People walking by, idling in the sun, would make up their own versions of the story of a man and an unhappy woman huddled together on a park bench.

At length, Joe said:  “Look, I’d better go.”

“What are you going to do now?  You going back to London, or what?”  She muttered.

“No, that’s all over.  Wherever I go, I can’t go there.”

“Over?”  Emma turned to look at him, red-eyed.  The pink spots on her cheeks were afire, her lips were slack.  “Then you are droppin’ her! You be careful, Joe.  Soon the world’s going to be full of places you can’t go.”

“I thought I’d stay:  try and do something with my life.”  He could not deny the need to kiss her or, despite her misgivings, how much she wanted that too.  Her thigh was pressed to his, sending him arrows of its warmth, and there were so many words that needed to be said – so many things that could never be said.

I want you, Joe!  I’m so ready for you, right now.  You could take me, here, in front of everybody and I wouldn’t care!

“It’s a good job this is a public park.”  She said.

“This is wrong, Emma.”  He said.

“I know it.”  She shook her head sadly.  “And if you stay, we’re going to meet time after time like this, and just pass each other by, I suppose.   Oh, I can’t, Joe!  I can’t!”

She got up then, thinking she might begin to cry again, and brushed her hand down the back of her skirt.

“Oh, Lord!”  She said, and walked away.

Joseph watched her go.  It was pointless to deny the way he felt for her, although it surprised him by its intensity:  there had been times, after all, when months had gone by without his sparing her a second thought.  But then, there had been not just months, but years of denial, of truths unacknowledged.  Doing what he had to do – surviving as he had to survive.

Now, seeing her again, hearing the soft invitation in her voice, being close to the heat of her – he shook himself physically.  Emma was married:  what was more, she was married to the only person in Hallbury he had ever been able to call a true friend.  And life was complicated enough.

For a few days Joseph stayed at home, helping Owen with his beloved garden as he gradually melted the old man’s distaste for his ‘gigolo’ ward.  In his turn he gained new respect for Owen, an always distant figure in his past.  This stern, disinterested father substitute seemed more comfortable with Joseph the man than with the child he and his wife had so selflessly agreed to raise.  Once he had learnt to adjust to Owen’s slow, exacting logic, Joseph found depths he had not believed could exist.

There were also moments of startling acuity.

Half-way up the garden Owen had grown two rows of tomato plants.  It promised to be a good year, and abundant trusses were already set.  Any new shoots had to be picked out, and the pair were engaged in this chore when the older man observed:  “You’re behaving like someone who wants to return to the village.”

Joseph grinned:  “Really?”

“Is it true?”

“I don’t know.”  Joe straightened himself to ease his back for a moment.  “I think there may be too many issues, Uncle; I’m not sure Little Hallbury would exactly clasp me to its bosom right now.”

“I won’t deny you’ve got some problems.  Funny thing, acceptance.”  Ferreting in the depths of his gardening corduroys, Owen retrieved his pipe; pulling a half-used pack of fragrant Amsterdamer tobacco from the same source.  He tapped out the pipe on a stone.

“Outsiders see our community as being inbred, insular, positively hostile.  It isn’t true, of course – Hallbury is really a well-oiled social machine.  It has perfect balance; it consumes and produces on a steady plane, settles its own feuds and petty crime, and so on.”

He turned away from the breeze, cupping his hands around his pipe to light it ,  then he resumed, speaking between puffs as he coaxed the smouldering bowl into life.

“If you’re born into it, you’re a member.  If you aren’t there’s nothing you can do.  You won’t know, for instance, because no-one will openly speak of it, that old Josiah Regan, Janice’s grandfather, went completely mad and got caught trying to eat one of Hal Turker’s ducks raw back in ‘46 – you won’t be acquainted with an unfortunate habit of Aaron Pace in his younger years:  there’s scarcely a bedroom window in the village he hasn’t peeked through.

“You see, the rural idyll is nothing of the sort.  This place has more secrets, more closeted skeletons, more social crime than you can possibly imagine.  It seethes below the surface.  Unless you’re a part of it the true natives will never be that comfortable with you.  You’ll never ‘belong’ in that way.”

Owen wagged a finger.  “That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  For instance, you can leave your door unlocked without fear that someone will just walk in for a cup of tea and a conversation.  And it doesn’t mean that the village will ostracize you.  They just won’t treat you as a part of their machine.

“You’re closer to acceptance than most incomers would get.  You came to Hallbury as a child, your best friend lives here, and you’ve made enemies as well, so you’re interesting.  You could do worse than settle here.  I believe the Lamb family’s cottage on Church Hill might be up for sale soon.  Charley Lamb works in Hurley Walter now and I know he’s looking to move.”

Joseph shook his head.  “You know, Uncle, you are surprising me.  I always thought you wanted me as far away from you as possible.”

The old man ruminated upon this for a moment.  “I’ve never been confident around children.  Julia and I agreed a long time ago not to have any of our own, so taking on the three of you was a big demand on us.  I don’t want you living in this house forever, but I admit I like you better now you’re full-sized.”

“Even though I’m a gigolo?”  Joseph reminded him.

“Nobody’s perfect.”  Owen allowed himself a secret smile:  “There was a time in Cairo, during the war…”

On Thursday the weather broke. The garden being unworkable, Joe retired to his room to work on his curriculum vitae.  Only after tea did the rain ease enough to allow him to venture out.

He set off for the King’s Head by the route around Wednesday Common which would take him past the Parkin farm.  He strode ahead, enjoying the steady rhythm of drips from waterlogged hedges, dodging larger showers stirred from trees by a freshening wind.  Violet Parkin’s house festooned with police tape.  Nearly a week had passed and Jack Parkin languished in a cell somewhere, accused, a Timothy Evans figure too confused to plead his cause.

A police car squatted next to the front gate.

“Evening!”  PC Hallett clambered stiff-limbed from the driver’s seat.  “Is that Joey Palliser, by any chance?”

“It is, Davy,”  Joe replied, recalling this avuncular figure from his youth.  “How are you these days?”

“Oh, much the same.  I have to watch the place, case somebody tries to get in, see?”

Joe acknowledged it was a bad business.

“Oh, ‘twas, ‘twas.”  Davy Hallett looked Joseph up and down.  “Now you’ve growed, lad.  Went to London, didn’t you?  You just visitin’ us, then?”

Joe summarised his less detailed version of his London story, “Did you know Violet well, Davy?”

“No, not many did.  Although,””  PC Hallett added darkly, “there were a few as knew her very well.  Very well indeed.”

“Strange.  Somebody said something similar to me the other day.  I didn’t know what he meant by it, though.  Am I going to get you to tell me?”

Davy shook his head.  “No lad.  These are police matters, see?  Not that they’re going to do much. They reckon they got it all sewed up.”

“Really?  Do you think they’re right?”  Joe asked.

“Murders, see?  We don’t get many, and there’s the truth.  When we do, they’d usually be acts of drunken rage.”  The policeman was studying him.  “How come you’re so interested, Joe?  Like you said, you didn’t exactly know her, did you?”

“I just don’t want to see Jack go down for something he didn’t do, that’s all.  I don’t think he did it, Davy.  I don’t think you do, either.”

Jack Parkin; the police were content to consign him to a gallows; the village seemed to have turned its back.  Jack was not the easiest of people to like.

Davy Hallett shook his head.  “I don’t know.  Jack’s drinkin’s got a lot worse, of late years.  Some might say he’s a little bit mad.”

With a few brief words of parting, Joseph left the constable easing his ample proportions back into the relative comfort of his little car, and lost in thought, wandered up Feather Lane towards the King’s Head.  It was going to be difficult to verify even the simplest details concerning Violet’s last moments, he told himself: but that made his task all the more challenging.

“Don’t like the police.”  Growled a deep voice behind him; “You doesn’t want to be seen consortin’ with they, Palliser.”

© 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:  Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nowhere Lane – Chapter Thirty-Two. Missing

Inga, who everyone regarded as Radley Court’s housekeeper,  discovered Jacqueline in the ‘snug’.  She was solicitous.  “You want I make some tea for us?  You should eat.”

Jacqueline Hallcroft inclined her head slightly, murmuring:  “Please,  Inga,”  without breaking her mood.  A reminder that the year was still young, a wood fire, hissing and snapping in the fire basket painted her white blouse with a whisper of rose  Her hands rested upon the back of the old leather sofa, her chin upon her hands, watching through the window as curtain-folds of rain swept the darkened vista of Radley Court’s green acres.  Inga, so sensitive to every nuance of her employer’s emotions, doubted she had even heard.

“You are worried, yes?”

“Yes.”  Jacqueline took a long breath.

“This rain is so heavy, I hear it on the news.  They are saying it will be floods soon.   The River Boult, it will not bust itself, Mr Jackson says.  He says it never does.”

Jacqui smiled absently, “You think I should be worried?”

“No, I think you are.”

“Look, Inga, he’s probably managed to get the car stuck somewhere, you know how he is.” Privately, she doubted.  She had never visited Boulter’s Green or driven down Nowhere Lane, but what could Patrick possibly find to do for seven hours in a muddy field with three piles of stones?  Or how might he pass the time, sheltering from this rain with a young, nubile journalist in tow?   In the car, or maybe already back at The Huntsman?  Seeing Inga beside her did not help.   Could the girl not stand for ten seconds without posing?  God, why was she everywhere surrounded by youth?  Long legs, short skirts…  Three days after her bloody honeymoon, why did she feel so dreadfully insecure?

A telephone ring came echoing from the hall.

Inga trotted cheekily away, leaving Jacqui freedom to repeat that question of herself.  Patrick had never been anything less than devoted to her, since those first London days.  It had been as if the fates had invented two new people, as if she had been reborn, yet sometimes it seemed as though there was nothing Patrick could do to convince her of his own rebirth.  There was a corner of his mind (or was it a corner of hers?), a not-so-often cast in his eye she saw – a reservation he could never hide.  And the more she tried to ignore it, the more it drew her, so there were times when she looked at Patrick and could see nothing else.

“It is for you, the call.”  Inga had returned, framed by the doorway.  “Is a Mister Leathers, I think.”  She giggled,  “He called me his ‘darling’.”

Jacqui found the receiver parked neatly across the main body of the ‘phone.   “Who is this?”

“Ah, Mrs Hallcroft, have I found you?  Leathers here, the ‘Record’.   I don’t suppose Miss Shelley is with you?”

“I’m afraid not, Mr Leathers.  She’s out with my husband.”  Had she let a trace of cynicism creep into her voice?  Leathers heard it.

“Ah, my dear, you have absolutely no need to worry, you know.  Our ‘Becca’s a consummate professional.  That’s one of the many things I hate her for.  No, she promised to call in at lunchtime, and it’s unlike her to be careless in matters of punctuality.  She asked me to chase up some information for her, and she’ll want to know the results, I think.   Did she mention anything to you?”

“No, I’m afraid…”

“No matter.  I called her hotel, she went out this morning and hasn’t returned yet.  She’ll call, I’m sure.  So sorry to have troubled you…”

Without wasting any further time, Jacqui dialled Jackson Hallcroft’s office.  “Jackson, can you get away?  I’ll pick you up in the Landrover.  Something’s wrong.”

#

Stafford Driscombe withered beneath Jacinta’s stare.  His wife was seated more or less as he had left her, eight hours before, by the front window of their apartment in Kensington.  The curtains were drawn, now, and a glass of gin had supplanted her lunchtime platter, but the look she was giving him was chillingly sober.  He could not avoid seeing the air ticket that lay defiantly displayed on the table.

“I think you had better level with me.”  She said, quietly.  “What’s going on, Staffy?  Who were those people?  Who was that woman?”

“I have not the faintest idea what you mean.”  He crossed to the cocktail cabinet to pour himself a whisky.  “I have had a hard day, can this not wait until tomorrow?”

“No.  I repeat, who were those people – the ones who accompanied you this morning?”

“Why do you feel you need to know?”

“Why?   Turn off the light.”  Jacinta’s voice was edged with steel.  “Go on, do it!”

“Good God, for what reason?”  Stafford blustered.  But he obeyed, nonetheless.

“Now come here.”  His wife beckoned him to the window, drawing the curtain aside just a little.  When he hesitated, she said stridently:  “Stafford, come on!”

“What am I looking for?”  He muttered, joining her.

“See the first floor display window over there?  Take a moment to adjust your eyes, then tell me what you see through that window, my precious darling.”

“All right, I see him.”

“He’s been there all day!  He has a camera!  Is he press?” Then, because Stafford did not seem to want to reply:  “Well, is he?   I’m going to ask you once more, Stafford, and if you don’t answer me I am out of that door!”

“Bloody hell, woman!”

“I’m leaving you.  I’ve packed a bag, and I’m going to put as much distance between us as I can in twenty-four hours.”  Jacinta picked up the air ticket and waved it in front of his nose.  “I‘m used to being kept in the dark, Stafford, but not when the consequences of your stupid actions are likely to implicate me!  Now, who were those people today?  Who was the woman?  Yes, the woman!  You weren’t going to tell me about her, were you?  And why is that odious little man with his camera so interested in taking my picture?  Did he get a clear shot of her, do you think?”

Stafford sighed a long sigh, then slaked his thirst with a generous slug of single malt.  “I don’t know, I imagine not.  Don’t leave me, Sweetie, please?  I don’t want to lose you, you know that.”

“And the timing couldn’t be worse, I know that, too.   So, explain, Staffy.  Explain now.”

“Very well.  Come away from the window.  I will tell all.”  Slumping into an easy chair by the far wall of the room, Stafford switched on a standard lamp that shone down upon his features, illuminating the flab of his advancing years; the balding scalp now grey, the heavy eyes, the slack, spoiled lips.  “There are times when I wish I had avoided politics altogether, you know.”  He said.  “So many things have to be looked into, so many ‘i’s dotted, ‘t’s crossed, and so on.  Those people today were specialists, my dear.  Their business is sweeping up the dust of a misspent life and disposing of it tidily.  They are really very good at what they do.  Today, I was just helping them do their job, that’s all.”

“And the woman?  Who was the woman?”

“Honestly, you really don’t need to know about her.”

Jacinta snorted,  “Yes, Stafford, I do.  I can’t watch over your carelessness if I don’t have the opportunity to question the suitability of these little dalliances of yours.  Remember Lucy Bedington-Carey?  Have I met this one?  Or is she part of your ‘dust’?”

“Possibly.”

“Is that all you have to say?”  Jacinta’s stare was unremitting.  “Do you expect to get away with that?  What kind of damned fool do you take me for?  I want to know details, Stafford.  I want to know why I am involved, and exactly what I am involved in.”

“Of course you do!  And I will explain, but it is complicated.  To be truthful, I am trying to pick upon a place to start.  You see, the mess is a minor issue; it isn’t as serious as you seem to believe.  And it isn’t  mine, not entirely…”

#

The rain had begun a little before noon, as Patrick and Rebecca were embarking upon their subterranean discovery.  It had become harder as the hours passed, until by evening it was a deluge of some substance.  In the open landscape of the Boult valley the river did its natural duty, which was to drain the onrush of surface water from the hills and offer a conduit to the sea.   It was a disciplined, partly engineered watercourse that would not ordinarily flood, but merely rise to its task.  There was an effect, however, that lay unseen.

Patrick and Rebecca, entombed beneath the turf of the riverside meadow, could only feel the creeping embrace of water in the old tunnel as, rendered invisible by darkness, it rose silently around them. At the foot of the steps which finally led up to their blocked means of escape the river came seeping, pooling around Rebecca’s ankles, her calves, her knees.   It was advancing steadily.  Neither of them knew how high it would rise, nor if it was possible the tunnel might become completely flooded.  That was a question left unasked.   In the meantime, they were left in no doubt of the severity of the deluge from above.  Although they could not see or hear it, it found every means of penetrating their tiny space.

Rebecca’s immediate danger of total immersion could be avoided by crowding up to the top of the steps where  Patrick knelt, working with hammer and chisel to try and cut around the flagstone that blocked their path.  He was chipping against impacted stone and clay, aggregate five centuries old, the fabric of a tunnel that was as stalwart as it was cunning, whilst becoming seriously concerned for Rebecca.  Her spare flesh was ill-suited to resist the onset of cold.  “’Becca, you can’t stay down there, you’ll freeze to death.  You’d better come up.”

“Yeah?”  She was shaking so hard she could barely talk.  “If I do you’ll have no room to work.”

“I’m not getting anywhere, as it happens.   I could use your ideas if you have any.  And we’ve got to get you warm.”

“I’m not goin’ to refuse.”  As once before, when they had first put their combined efforts into trying to raise the stone, Rebecca fed herself up into the space Patrick could provide for her.  “There, that’s nice.  Are you goin’ to cuddle me, then?”

“I can hardly help it.  It’s a bit like squeezing a wet sponge.”

“Funny!  Very funny!  Here’s me trying to spark a bit of romance…Patrick, there’s somethin’ I ought to tell you, somethin’ on my mind.  In case we don’t get out of this, you see?”

“We will get out of this.  Jacks knows where we are.”

“Yeah?  It’s been a long time, and she ain’t turned up so far.  I’m beginnin’ to doubt it, mate.  She might reach the ruins; after that I’m not sure there’d be anyone up there who’d know where to start looking.  Anyway, see – this mad bloke, it’s not much of a stretch to assume it was him lived in that room, and we’ve got to suppose he’s been responsible for a few missing persons, not just Karen.”

“Possibly.  I’m sad for the others, of course, but only Karen concerns me.”

“Yeah, well listen.  There were three bodies down there….”

“Do we have to talk about this?”

“Yes.  Because it’s very possible Karen wasn’t one of them.  Two were killed around the same time – that ties in with those two kids you told me about – Gasser something and Anna Parkin?”

“Gasser Gates and Anna Parkinson.  God, poor Gasser!  And I never thought I’d say that.”

It’s no surprise though, is it?  You thought they vanished around here, and it seems very likely they did.  The third body’s been down there a lot longer, Patrick.  Years longer – nothin’ left but the bones.  D’you remember tellin’ me about a red Riley parked with Karen’s car in that old boathouse?”

“I do.  It was a basket case.  Someone found a way to move it, though.”

“Fifteen years ago, a woman disappeared somewhere around Caleybridge.  It’s hard to find out much about her because most of the records have been lost, but we know she was called Rachel Priest.  We know that, and we know at the time she disappeared she was driving a red Riley Pathfinder.”

Patrick nodded, because at some level the information had reached him and been absorbed.  His mind was on the advancing water because at that precise moment it had reached his feet…

Above their heads what light the day afforded was melting slowly into night.   Close by, on the road to High Pegram, the headlights of Jackson Hallcroft’s Landrover lanced through failing visibility and ever-increasing rain, as Patrick’s new wife and his father searched for, but could not find, the lane to Boulter’s Green.

“It should be somewhere here.  He said it was here!”  Jacqui’s voice was brittle with desperation.  “An old signpost, a lane on the left.”

“There’s no signpost, honey. We’ve been this way three times and we haven’t found anything.  I reckon he meant the upper road, on the other side of Pegram.”

“Which is nowhere near the river!”

“Maybe; but maybe the lane he was talking about led down to the river.  The road might loop round.  Hell, it could go round in circles in this weather and we wouldn’t know.  Anyways, I can find nothing along here.  I’m going to try.”

Neither Jackson nor his daughter-in-law had ever visited Boulter’s Green.  Although Jacqui had worked in Patrick’s department for years she had never even seen the marking on the Council’s map that had first led Karen to the place.   Other than by Jacqui’s vague memories of Patrick’s description, upon the only occasion they had discussed the location of the old ruins in any detail, they had no clear idea of what they sought:  the signpost might have been the only thing to guide them, and the signpost was gone.

The headlights sped off into the twilight, probing fruitlessly for a sign that was not there.   Later, a despairing Jackson would visit the duty sergeant at Caleybridge Police Station to ask for directions to Boulter’s Green, and he would be met by a blank stare.

“Boulter’s Green, was it sir?  No, I’ve never heard of it, I’m afraid.”

“Are you new here?”

“No, no.  Been here thirty years.  I’ll be retiring soon.”

“Ask around.  Is there anyone else who can tell us where it is?”

“Well, no.  Everyone’s out, see?  A busy evening, the weather being the way it is.”

“Then radio them!”

The sergeant’s bland expression was unchanged.  “I don’t think we need to do that, sir.  Boulter’s Green – it doesn’t exist, now, does it?  Your little joke, isn’t it?  You know it’s an offence, wasting police time, don’t you?”

“Sergeant whoever-you-are, two people who went out this morning to visit this place you insist is a figment of my imagination have not returned.  They are missing:  just like Karen Eversley is missing, just like two other people before her were missing; all of whom disappeared after being seen near this non-existent place.  Doesn’t that at least get your attention?”

“Sir, there is nothing I can do for you tonight.  If you wish to file a missing persons report, you need to wait for twenty-four hours, sir.  Now take my advice and go home.  You’ll probably find them there.”

From beneath a stone slab, buried by rocks in Boulter’s Green, if you were standing close by, you might have heard two voices weakly calling, needing help.  No-one was close by.  In the world above those plaintive cries the hour was passing midnight, below and around them the water had risen until only a small chamber a few feet square remained, and now, though the stone that thwarted their freedom left gaps sufficient to admit a limited amount of air, there was little enough to breathe.

“This is f***ing ridiculous!”  Rebecca managed between short gasps.  “This is the coldest I’ve ever been, the longest I’ve been this close to a fanciable bloke without any nookie, and all I’m really interested in is keeping my bleedin’ camera dry!”

“Definitely a turn-off.”  Patrick conceded. “Especially stuck in my neck.  Keep quiet, and try to save your breath.”

“Patrick, mate, you know there’s no point, don’t you?  At best no-one’s going to come until morning, and I won’t last ‘til then.”

“Just don’t give up.  Keep breathing for me, will you?”

“Yeah.”

“Just keep breathing.”

“Yeah.”

And soon there was only that; the faint whimper of breathing to break the silence, while the rain beat steadily down.

#

Jacqui, waiting in the Landrover outside Caleybridge Police Station, could read the frustration in Jackson’s face as he clambered back into the driver’s seat.

“It’s down to us,”  he said wearily.  “I guess I knew that already.”

“Then one more try!”  She urged him, determination etched into every line of her face.  The Pegram road, and really slowly, this time.  I want to get to know every inch of that damned hedge!”

Another fifteen minutes, then, to reach the road, watch-hands tracking faster than motion as the rural miles crept by.  Time so substantial they could feel its passing, fence and hedge unremitting, no clue betraying the whereabouts of a tiny, wooded lane in the rain-drenched darkness.  Blasts of anger from those with simpler destinations, some dangerously late in picking out the little Landrover in their headlights, to remind them of their precarious state.

It was Jacqui who spotted it, finally; Jacqui who saw how the hedge disappeared for a moment into shadow – no more than an undulation, perhaps, but then…

“There!”

Jackson turned the wheel blindly, no signal – drawing blaring ire from one more frightened motorist who had seen those weak tail lights almost too late.   Her eyes closed tightly, Jacqui braced for the impact that must surely come, but no:  the Landrover thrust through brushwood that had been dragged across the entrance to Nowhere Lane and its two occupants crowed their victory as if this stony backwater was the gateway to Atlantis itself.

Backwater, certainly.  The downpour had turned their path into a minor river which better defined its course than the growth lining its either side.  Headlights blinded by brush were less an indication than the splashing onrush of floodwater beneath their wheels, which Jackson quickly learned to use to his advantage, steering to follow the sound.   In such fashion they arrived at the final sharp incline that marked the lane’s conclusion, and almost collided with Patrick’s car.

With an oath, Jacqui’s father-in-law managed to stop only fractionally late, slewing sideways as his wing nudged the stationary vehicle’s fender.  Jacqui was already primed to leap from her seat.

“There’s someone inside!  Patrick?”

The car’s driver door swung open, and the figure who emerged was not Patrick.  Caught in headlights, Jacqui saw the cadaverous features and owlish eyes of a much older man who did not seem disposed to stay around, but set off down the remaining yards of the lane like a hare, with Jackson in close pursuit.  Hunter and hunted got no further than an old gate which barred escape long enough for Jackson to grab an ankle and bring his quarry down.  Ancient though he may have appeared, this fugitive fought like a man possessed of demons, demanding the combined efforts of his pursuers to finally restrain him, with Jacqui’s foot firmly planted in his groin as insurance.

Jackson shouted above the rain.  “Listen, buddy, we don’t want to do you any harm, okay?  No harm! We need your help!”

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of 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.  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