Hallbury Summer – Episode Thirteen. Treasure in the Rain

The story so far:

Joe Palliser’s mind should focus on the Parkin murder, but instead his dreams remind him of his last drug-intoxicated night with Marian, and the mystery obscuring her death.

He encounters Sophie Forbes-Pattinson for a third time, finding her snobbish and detached.  Later, recalling Tom Peterkin’s suggestion that Violet Parkin’s father was a witch, Joe ‘phones Ian to ask if their brother Michael could have had any association with the occult, but Ian discounts Michael’s ravings on the subject to be a symptom of his illness.

On Sunday Joe goes to church, hoping to see more evidence of a darker side to the villagers and is rewarded by the attention of a group of local women, one of whom is Janice Regan…

After church Joseph ate a light, appetite-less lunch, then defied the heat to go for a walk.

Albert Regan was in his garden.  He waved over his shoulder at an open side door.  “She’s in the kitchen,”  He said. “You’d better go on in.”

The Regans lived on the west side of Hallbury, in a ‘tied cottage’ which could only be their home for such time as Albert kept his job. The house was not in a good state of repair. Once-white paint around its sash windows had peeled, the grey render cladding its random-rubble walls cracked in several places, while the gable-end wall was split down its centre by a fissure like a scar that Albert had stuffed with mortar to keep weatherproof.  But it was a home, tidy and clean, with oil-cloth on the kitchen table and a fire burning forcefully in the range.

Janice Regan was busy.  “Oh ‘tis you, Joe Palliser.”   It was scarcely a greeting.  “What brings you to my door?”

Albert’s wife, a pinched-looking woman whose iron-grey hair clung to her head like sculpted plaster, had prominent veins at her temples, throbbing through barely enough opaque flesh to stretch over the razor-sharp bones beneath:  she had a fever-bright look of starvation about her, even though their garden suggested that she and her husband ate very well.

There was a time, Joe could recollect, when he would have been more welcome.  Janice had been a smiling, fulsome woman once, with flashing humour and a ready greeting for the rather shy child who called each Saturday to ask if “Teddy could come out?”

The Regans had tried for many years before Edward Regan came into their world, and there is no child so treasured as a child born to parents in their middle age.  Teddy was the delight of their lives and they lavished their love upon him with ice-cream, chocolate, fish and chips, and his favourite spaghetti hoops.  So Teddy, though spoilt, of course, ample in girth, naturally, was nonetheless a popular playmate for the village boys; because when Teddy “came out” good things to eat came out with him; treats he would share among his friends.  A tractor rolled on Teddy, crushing the life from him, when he was just twelve years old.

Thereafter Janice Regan, changed.  She never mentioned Teddy: if anyone broached the subject of Teddy, she would walk away.  She began to withdraw from people, became dour, humourless – a narrow, unlovely woman whom life had dealt a shallow hand, and who had more than a single reason to resent Joe’s appearance at her door.

“Tea?”  She asked.  It was a formality, scarcely an invitation.

“No thank you Mrs Regan.  I won’t stay.”  Joseph felt awkward, out of place.  “I wanted to ask you about Violet.”

This earned a glance of arrows from Janice.  She had been washing something in the kitchen sink:  now she stopped, drying long, spidery hands on her apron.  “Oh aye.  What about ‘un?”

“You were the one who found her, Mrs Regan.  There’s been a lot of rumours and I just wanted the truth, if it isn’t too painful for you.  I was going to ask you how she died?”

Janice Regan’s laugh was harsh.  “Rumours!  Yes, there’s rumours!  There’s one rumour says you’m already party to a lot of the truth, Joseph.”  She stood opposite him, glaring across the table:  “So what you want to know for, eh?”

“I didn’t have anything do with it, Mrs Regan.  Why should I want Violet Parkin dead?  I don’t think Jack did, either.  I’m trying to find out what actually happened, that’s all.”

Janice thrust out a wrist.  “See that?”  She pointed with one tendril-like digit.  “Through there!  Through each wrist, driven straight through and into the bliddy timber behind her, they was – pitchforks!  Like that!”  She spread her arms outwards:  “Like she been cruesy-fied, or sommat!  And then….and then they went to work on ‘er.  Oh aye, they knowed how to make ‘er suffer, Joe Palliser!”

“They?”

“Can’t have been just one:  can’t have been.  Violet, she were a large woman and she’d have fought ‘em.  Too big for thee, Joseph.  That’s why I don’t believe that rumour, meself.  ‘Less you had help, that is.”

“Janice,”  Joseph collected himself.  “Was it a ritual killing?”

Janice Regan stared at him.  What was behind those eyes – anger?  Fear?

“What you sayin’?  What you trying to say?”

“Violet was a witch, Janice, wasn’t she?”

The expression he got back was blank, windowless.   “What?”

“A witch, like her father.  You know, spells and potions, the old religion, that stuff?  You were one of her closest friends, weren’t you?  I have to know, Janice.”

Janice rounded on him.  “There ain’t no bliddy rumour out there like that, and don’t you bliddy start one!  Violet weren’t no ‘arm to no-one.  There’s those didn’t get along with ‘er, but she never had a bad word to say about no-one, and don’t you!”  Her voice was rising.  “Violet weren’t no ‘arm to anyone, and to see her like that, all open and with her insides all over, and her poor blood soakin’ ever’thing…Violet weren’t no ‘arm!  She didn’t have to die like that!”

Albert’s large form filled the open doorway:  “Now, then, Janice!”

But Janice was fierce – her eyes were anything but expressionless now.  “Had to be a madman done that!  Had to be!  Alright I don’t think you done it, Joe Palliser, but I don’t think you’m so innocent, neither!  ‘Twas a bad day you come here, you Pallisers!  A bad day.”

Joe felt Albert’s hand on his shoulder.  “She’s upset.”  He said quietly.  “You better go now.”

Nodding, Joe turned to walk out of the door.  “I’m sorry to cause you pain, Janice.  I just had to know what you saw.”

“Yes, well, now you do.  Take my advice, Joseph and go back to Lon’on where you belongs!  We don’t want you ‘ere!”

Joe would have replied, but Albert stilled him.  “Just go.”  He said.

In the lane outside, Joseph let his true wretchedness overcome him for a minute – for long enough to let a tear roll down his cheek in sympathy for a woman he had never really known; for Violet Parkin’s undignified and ignominious end, about which he could do nothing, other than to prove somehow that it was not her husband, the man who in some fashion had been her lifetime companion, who had brought it upon her.

His aimless feet took him down Feather Lane with Janice Regan’s ‘We don’t want you ‘ere!’ ringing in his ears, towards the solitude of the Common and the places of his childhood – those he could recall without pain.  But it was pain, really.  Always the outsider, always playing to other people’s rules and getting nothing in return, and nothing had changed or would change.  Janice was right:  he should not have come back to Hallbury.

As if the heavens were attuned to his moods, as he turned the corner by the Parkin farm it began to rain:  not just in a light, balmy shower, but with vigour.  Thunder banged from nowhere; a hustling wind raked the fern, and drops like saucers spattered onto the tarmac road.  Facing the prospect of adding a drenching to his blackened circumstances, Joseph sought shelter, and the only place which offered was the hay-barn at the end of the Parkin’s yard.  He took a quick decision.

Although police tape surrounded the yard and its main buildings were locked, the open end of the hay barn could not be so secured.  Joseph simply lifted the tape and ducked beneath, wincing at multiple blows of rain on his t-shirted back.

In the protection of the barn roof he stripped off the wet shirt, spreading it across a hay-bale to dry.  Blinking in the half-light he could see the old place looked much as he remembered it; sweetly scented bales of hay six or seven deep, stacked high into rafters.   His head instantly filled with far-off childhood sounds – Ian’s irrepressible giggling, Michael’s shouts of command as he and his brothers clambered among the bales, which their imaginations arranged into dens and forts to attack or defend.

Lost in the tympanic din of rain, Joseph might scarcely have noticed a clatter of hooves from outside, but he could not possibly escape what followed;  a confusion of hoof beats punctuated by torrents of feminine abuse, then a rear view of an unseated rider as she stumbled backwards into the barn in her riding boots;  Sophie Forbes-Pattinson, clutching frantically at the reins of her big roan horse, the same horse that had shied upon meeting Joseph by the common some days before. The beast was white-eyed with fright, rearing and turning so quickly Sophie, helpless in its path, was thrown to the floor.   It was right above her, ready to pound her into the flagstones with its hooves, yet she would not release the reins: instead, uttering a further string of invective, she clung to the leather as though it was her last straw before drowning.  Without thinking Joe rushed to lend his own weight to the rein, trying to swing the animal’s head away from its erstwhile rider, making every steadying noise he could think of.

“What’s his name?  What’s his name?”  And when Sophie managed to gasp the name out he repeated it:  “Tumbler!  Steady, Tumbler!  There boy!”

For a few extremely anxious seconds Joe felt as though he were trying to placate a Brahma bull.  But then, as suddenly as his peace had been disturbed, reason prevailed.  Wooed, possibly, by the fragrance of hay the horse calmed, began to accept his reassurance. Blowing hard and shaking still, he allowed Joe to restrain his head as he stroked and patted, talking as much nonsense in a low voice as occurred to him until finally Tumbler consented to have a tangle of police tape removed from his legs.  Joe tethered him to one of the stanchions that reinforced the barn walls, and broke open a bale for him to eat.

A mortally embarrassed Sophie struggled to her feet, brushing dust and rain from herself as though she were under attack by angry wasps.  “Thank you.”  She avoided his eyes.  Her china-white skin was wet from the rain and pleasingly flushed.  Limping slightly, she walked across to the horse, petting him affectionately.  “He’s always been scared of storms, you see, and the lightning struck quite near to us.  I had to try and get him indoors.  I hope you aren’t hurt?”

“I’m fine.”  Said Joseph.  Lightning flared, illuminating the whole barn.  The horse snickered.  “I’m not so sure about him, though.”

“Oh, he’ll be alright now.”  Sophie assured him.  “No more rain on his back, some nice fodder.  I suppose it belongs to someone.  Who should I reimburse, do you think?”

“I’ve no idea.  You, are you hurt?”  Joe wondered at the concern his voice betrayed.

She caught his tone instantly and sought refuge in her strange little smile.  “Only my dignity.  You seem to have a penchant for catching me at a disadvantage.”

Joe raised an eyebrow.

“Mummy told me – when you brought some papers up for her the other day.  I have to be more careful, was how she put it.  You caught me sunbathing, didn’t you?”

Joe didn’t answer.  “You’re very wet.”  He pointed out.  “You’d better get that jacket off, I think.”

Thunder banged.  Sophie said:  “Anyway, I think you’re quite the knight in shining armour, Mr Palliser.  Thank you.”

“Joe, please.  Call me Joe?”

Sophie shrugged her hacking jacket from her shoulders.  The rain had penetrated it easily, soaking both shoulders of the white blouse she wore beneath.  It clung to her skin, informing Joe’s experienced eye.  She caught his glance with amusement.  “Too hot for excess clothing.”

“I’m sure.”  Joe was uneasy at being so quickly found out.

“Oh come on!  You must let me score some points!”  She spread the jacket over a bale.  “You’re a bit of an intrigue, Joe.  You didn’t tell me you had a home here already.”

“I’m staying with my aunt and uncle, I don’t really belong in the village.  Although I was thinking of buying a house here, I admit.  I would have acquainted you with more detail last time we met, but you didn’t allow me much opportunity.”

He seated himself on a hay-bale.  Sophie hesitated for a moment, then sat beside him.  Both stared out at the storm.  “Well!”  She said at last.  “Where do we go from here?”

“More small talk?”  Joe offered.

Sophie shook her head.  “Not my thing, really.  Mummy’s good at that.  She’s very smitten with you, you know.”

He laughed: she insisted.  “She is!  She was absolutely full of you after you left the other day.  Foolish me, I didn’t make the connection when I met you outside the Lamb House.  And why shouldn’t she?  You’re a very attractive man, Mr Palliser.”

Again, Joseph laughed. The malaise that overcame him at the Regan’s was lifting.   Sophie’s ice-cool frankness, so clinical at their last meeting, had an artless way with flattery.  Her eyes sparkled and in spite of himself, he was pleased.

“You have a gift with horses, and Tumbler’s an awfully good judge of character,” She went on.  “Nice face.  I think you could be kind.  Tall; a good, strong body….”

“What does your father do?”  He asked quickly.

“Daddy?  He’s a consultant surgeon.  He spends his week in London, so poor mummy gets most terribly lonely up there at the house.  What do you do, Joe?”

“Nothing at the moment.  If I do come to live back here, I shall have to find a job.  No skills, no prospects – future extremely uncertain.”

“Oh dear!”

“You needn’t sympathise.”

“I’m not.  ‘Oh dear, we’re making small talk’.”

“No,” said Joe, getting to his feet.  “We weren’t.”

On an impulse, he dug his fingers into the hay, hoisting himself up towards the top of the bale stack.  It was not vertical, so there were ledges, places to get a foothold.  “When my brothers and I were young;” he said as he climbed; “We used to play here.  We used to build ourselves hidey-holes and have battles and secret meetings and stuff.”

Sophie stood up.  “Would you give me a hand?”

Joe reached down for her, took her hand in his.  Together they scrambled to the top of the haystack, crawling between the bales and the rafters of the barn.

“Hope you don’t mind spiders.”  He offered, teasingly.

“Spiders completely fascinate me.”  She rejoined.

Joe was moving bales, stacking them to one side to create a hollow.  “You can go down two or three layers – with a child’s imagination, they can make anything you like.”

Sophie slipped into the space he had made.  Her riding boots made climbing difficult.

“Anything?”

“Yes.”  He moved a few more bales.  “A fort to defend – seats, you see? “  His words tailed off apologetically, “Alright, I know it seems feeble, but we were only kids.”

“A bed?”

She was behind him.  He looked around, to see her stretched out over the soft hay, looking up at him with mischief in her eyes.  “Mmm.”  Her appraisal was almost drowned by the sound of the rain.  “What should a poor damsel do if her noble rescuer insists upon his reward?  Such a quandary!”

“Perhaps,”  Joe replied, attuned to her thought and not a little surprised.  “But a rescuer of true nobility really could not insist.”

“Ah, Sir!  Imagine the damsel’s relief!”  Sophie chuckled.   “Oh my goodness!  Quite, quite excellent!”

Relaxing into the warm fragrance of the haystack, Joe allowed himself to stare – and Sophie luxuriated in his gaze; moving softly beneath her clothes, tantalising him gently.  But the moment the look in his eyes altered, she saw.

“What is it?”

His fingers, idly probing between the bales had discovered something pressed into the tight-packed hay.  He withdrew the object cautiously.

“Oh my!”  Sophie sat up.  “Whatever is that?”

“I’m not sure.”  Joe said.  “Somebody’s been doing a little whittling I expect.”

He turned the object over in his hand.  A crudely-carved effigy made from wood, with long arms and a stubby, short body; an effigy exactly like one concealed in his aunt and uncles’ garden wall.  As its significance dawned upon him he stiffened, clamping it in a grip so fierce it gave him pain. 

There are things I know.  Michael had said.  There are things I know.

Conscious he was shielding the effigy, for some reason, from Sophie’s gaze, Joe slipped it into his trousers pocket.  And seeing the gravity of its effect upon him, she did not inquire further.

Above their heads, the drum of rain ceased as suddenly as it had begun.  Unspeaking, they made their descent, Sophie falling the last four feet with a somewhat unconvincing girlish squeal, Joe catching her neatly around the waist to break her fall.  Their faces were only inches apart.

Sophie’s eyes brightened with challenge:  “You wouldn’t take advantage of me, would you, Joe?”

“The thought occurred,”  Joe said.  “Look, I suppose….would you like to go out sometime?”

“You mean, like a date?”  Sophie asked.

“I guess so, yes.”

“I’m sorry, Joe…..”

“Oh, no.  I’m the one who should apologise.”  He stumbled.  “Sorry I asked.”

She turned on her heel with a playful buck of her hips.  “I don’t steal my mother’s boyfriends.”

Her placated steed was waiting patiently.  He watched as she dried the saddle with her jacket and mounted.

“However, if you’re not doing anything on Thursday night?.”

“No, I’m not doing anything.”

“Seven o’clock, then.  No dressy dinners or anything like that, though.  I don’t do those.”

“I’ll think of something.”  He said

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

 

 

 

 

Hallbury Summer – Episode 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. 

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