The story so far:
Shaken badly by his discovery of his brother Michael, bloodied and in possession of a knife, then further upset by having to watch as Michael is taken into care, Joe Palliser arrives upon his erstwhile friend Tom’s doorstep, seeking help. The door is opened, however, not by Tom but by his wife, Emma, and he learns Tom, aware of her love for Joe, has left her. Passions flare and Joe makes love to Emma.
Joe does not return to his aunt and uncle’s house until late afternoon, in the lea of a storm. He finds the pantry roof has leaked, and looking at the ruined food provides him with a spark of inspiration.
Joe clasped Julia’s shoulder so fiercely she squealed in alarm. “Joe, dear!”
“Aunt – telephone the police. Get Constable Hallett to meet me at the Parkin house as soon as he can. Tell him it’s vital he comes quickly, yes?”
Gripped by an urgency he had neither time nor ability to explain, Joe barely acknowledged Julia’s dumb expression. “Do it for me – please?” He nearly collided with Owen as he ran from the door.
In the garage, he hurriedly assembled those tools that had accompanied him on his and Sophie’s raid the previous week. The bag was where he had left it, most of the equipment easily to hand. He rushed out into the lane, packing the bag into the back of his Wolsey, acting in such haste that it was not until he had turned the car and headed towards the road that he saw Tom’s Cortina parked at the end of the lane, blocking his path.
As he juddered to a halt, Emma’s husband swung from the driver’s seat, striding towards him.
Oh, god, not now! His heart palpitating, Joe climbed from the Wolsey, stood in the lane – ready to face Tom, to take whatever he chose to hand out.
“No, it’s alright; I aren’t come to hit you, though f**k knows I should!” Needles of torture were shooting through Tom’s face – agonies Joe could imagine, but never share. “We was friends once, Palliser – that’s why I’m here. You got to go! You got to go now!”
Joe was speechless.
“Take Emma with yer. I don’ want ‘er. I told her. She’s waitin’ for yer – I seen to that! You got to leave now.”
“I can’t leave, Tom. There’s something I must do.”
Tom shook his head. “No. Nothin’ you must do, boy. Charker Smith’s after yer. Someone’s been stirrin’ ‘im up. He’s been drinkin’ hard all af’noon, an’ ‘e’s sworn he’s goin’ to send yer to meet his brother tonight. He’s on his way from Friscombe now, and he’s got his twelve-bore with ‘un. You got to be out of ‘ere, ‘fore it’s too late.”
What did Joe feel? Fear, certainly: he had no wish for a showdown with Charker – especially now. He searched frantically for inspiration. “Then help me, Tom! Oh, I’m so, so sorry about Emma and everything that’s happened between us, but Tom, I have to do this before I settle anything with Charker. I must!”
Tom’s expression was one of complete disbelief: “Settle with ‘im? Boy, he’s goin’ to kill yer! You don’t ‘settle’ with folks like Charker! What’s the matter with the’? See here: Emma, she deserves to be ‘appy. If she can’t be ‘appy with me, then it’s you she must have. You aren’t no good to her in a bag, Joe!”
Overwhelmed by Tom’s generosity of spirit, Joe stumbled over his words, but his resolve was absolute. “There’s been two deaths already in this village – have you forgotten that? If I don’t act there’ll be at least one, maybe two more. I think I know what’s been going on Tom and I have to finish it. I have to get inside the Parkins’ house tonight – now! The answer’s there, I’m sure of it. Let me through, please?!”
It was more of a plea than anything else, but it seemed to weigh with Tom. Those who had died, after all, had been his neighbours too. Tom was ever a man of action.
“You mad? All right, if you want to get yerself shot – I’m comin’ with yer, though. We’ll take mine.”
“You don’t have to, Tom, you’re not part of this…”
“F**k you, Palliser, shut up boy! Get in – this ‘un’s faster’n your’n!”
Joe grabbed the tools from his own car, ran to join Tom in his. They were in motion before he could even shut his door.
The Cortina flew. It flew as though Tom had no desire to live, did not care whether he had a destination or none. He aimed the vehicle at the bend which led their lane out into Wednesday Common, passing in a flicker the hedge where Joe and Emma had first kissed, where Joe and Sophie had said goodbye.
“See, Joe; I know‘t weren’t all you. I knows that. Emma and I, we aren’t been right fer a while. ‘T would have been alright if we’d had kids, see. ‘Twould have been alright then.” He threw the car around the junction at The Point, tail-sliding past the telephone box and missing it by a whisker. “Then you come’d back, you bastard, and I knew. I knew.”
The Parkin house was ahead of them now, crouching beyond the bracken in the dusk like some maleficent insect. Was there – did Joe see – a figure, just for an instant? Someone half-walking, half-running, around the corner into Feather Lane? They were there themselves seconds after, scraping to a halt beside the hay barn.
“Now let’s get on with this, whatever ‘tis, and get you both out of ‘ere!” Tom urged him.
“There’s a window open round the back.” Joe grabbed the bag of tools.
“No need.” Tom rejoined. “Front door’s open – look!”
Someone had been there! Upon a sudden presentiment and with Tom close behind him, Joe set off for the house door at what amounted to a run. The smell of smoke hit him immediately – behind it, just as pungent, another tell-tale scent.
“Petrol! Somebody’s torched the place!” He shouted. “Come on, quickly!”
Inside the dim hallway a brown-paper crackle of burning timber added to their exigency. Smoke crept along the ceiling like a black arachnid, reaching everywhere, probing for release. Through the wide-flung living room door an orange muzzle of flame snapped and snarled, bubbling the dark varnish of the architrave. “In there?” Tom asked.
“No, this way.” Joe thrust a shoulder against the kitchen door: it dragged open. “How do you know Charker’s intent on shooting me?”
The smoke followed them, filling the space above their heads.
“I’m drinkin’ down there now. I was in the pub as he was workin’ hisself up to it. He’s pissed silly. He’d do anythin’ when he’s like that.” Tom said, closing the door behind them as best he could. “What the ‘ell are we lookin’ fer?”
“It didn’t strike me until today,” Joe replied, “I broke in here a few nights ago, trying to find something I’ve known was here all along. But I didn’t work it out, the first time.” Behind them, the fire was growing, wood splitting and groaning in the heat. “Look at the ceiling!”
“What of it?”
“It’s dry – well, almost. There’s a room upstairs on this end of the house, where a lot of the roof’s gone. Rain from there must soak through, but it hasn’t, not in here. So behind this …” He grabbed at a high welsh dresser which dominated the far wall: “Give me a hand, will you?”
Tom jumped forward, lending his weight. Showered by a minor cascade of Violet’s best plates the pair slid the heavy wooden edifice aside and instantly a rush of stale, fetid air assailed their nostrils.
“…Is an extra room!” Joe’s voice betrayed more trepidation than triumph.
The big cupboard had concealed a doorway. In the day’s fading light there was little to illuminate the small room beyond it save for thin, vertical cracks permeating a rectangular area in the far wall, evidence of wooden screening over what once might have been a window.
“This here’s a hatch!” Tom raised his voice above the growing roar behind them. “Us’ll have to get out this way now, boy. There’s no goin’ back through there!” He shook his head in bewilderment. “How come I never noticed this afore? You must be able to see ‘un from outside! ‘T would ‘ave been the buttery once, I reckon. That bolt holds ‘un – you got a wreckin’ bar?” Joe produced the gemmy he had previously used to force entry to the house, and Tom wasted no time in setting about the bolt, which was seized up by rust. He worked methodically with a born mechanic’s hands, accustomed to stubborn fastenings in obscure places.
“There she goes!” Tom cried.
The hatch split into two wooden shutters which snapped back with a bang to admit what was left of the daylight. Their surrender, though, also whipped the fire beyond the kitchen to a fury. The door from the passage burst open, inducing a gale of heat and smoke from the body of the house, which was now well alight.
“Good glory!” Tom’s choking gasp was spontaneous. Joe, too, took a sharp breath, taking acrid smoke into his throat. Whether he had expected it or not, the sight that greeted them was grim.
Even given its new source of illumination this little room, in size barely more than a cupboard, remained wreathed in gloom. The threatening glow of the fire did more, highlighting features of the wall to the right of the hatch, against which there stood a small table embellished by two pewter candlesticks and an altar cloth fallen into shredded decay. On the wall behind the table was a large and quite exquisitely carved crucifix, suspended upside down within a crudely painted pentangle.
The plaster-less walls, saturated by a constant intrusion from water,: were already steaming in the fire’s heat. A live and very active fungal growth filled one corner, tendrils from it reaching squid-like right and left, its main shoot climbing upwards in delicate white steps. Fungal stench intensified the oppressive atmosphere.
“Who’s there?” Tom’s cry was instinctive, “There’s someone in ‘ere!”
Joe snatched a torch from his bag. There was no-one. The beam, flashed about him at eye-level, discovered only Tom. “It’s the humidity,” he tried to explain. “The fire’s vaporizing the damp in here. The place is wringing wet!”
But superstition was a part of Tom’s nature. “I don’t like this ‘ere, boy! Gives me the creeps, this!”
His disquiet was so palpable he seemed to have all but forgotten the rapidly encroaching peril of the fire. Coughing smoke from his lungs, Joe martialled all his concentration, forcing himself to keep exploring this hellish little space. Upon the floor, strewn everywhere, his torchlight revealed the bones of small creatures, animals and birds, to which fragments of feathers or pelt still clung.
“This aren’t witchcraft. This ‘ere’s paganism.” Tom voice wavered..
“Right now the distinction’s too fine to matter!” Joe retorted, inhaling more smoke.
Snatching up one of the tiny skeletons, Tom pointed out a sliver of metal – a hat pin or a large needle, possibly, that had pierced its heart. All were like this, small sacrifices to a very different god.
“See that? Black arts, boy. Devil worship!”
But Joe’s eyes were drawn elsewhere, for in the room’s left-hand corner, partly wrapped in shreds of blanket, and not at first easy to identify, was a larger sacrifice.
Tom saw it too. “Oh, Jesus!” He said.
Curled up, the body lay as it had probably died. There was little more than a collection of bones, but as Tom’s and Joe’s eyes accustomed themselves to the light, neither could mistake the skull, or the pathetic human form it took: a child, no more than five or six years old. Tom’s expression asked: who? Why? Joe could only shake his head as an answer, although the explanation was all too clear. As the fire flowered and prospered behind them, there was no time to reply.
Guided by flickers of angry orange Joseph hastily gathered the remains, wrapped them in the rotted blanket, then carried all he could save carefully to the newly forced window.
“He’s here!” Suddenly, inexplicably, Tom blurted out the words; “Stop ‘un! Lord God, stop ‘un!”
Joe froze, the terror in his friend’s eyes turning him to stone. Choking on smoke he tried to respond; “Who, Tom? Who can you see?” Tom’s expression was wild. It became clear in the space of seconds that the sad collection of bones Joe cradled in his arms was somehow maddening him, but there was no time to discover why, for the fumes in his lungs prohibited further speech and the clothing on Tom’s back was smoking from the heat. Gesturing to him that he should climb out through the window, Joe shoulder-barged him enough to remove any element of choice. Although a change in him was clearly taking place, Tom seemed to need no second bidding, and once he was through, he accepted the tiny burden Joe passed to him.
Joe made to follow, himself fighting an oppressive sense of fear and baseless anger, casting his torchlight one last time around that evil room. He knew something must still be missing and he almost failed to see it, for the smoke was obscuring everything now, as though a cleansing spirit was intent upon obliterating a memory, removing a past. The one last thing it may not have was there, on the table, hidden beneath that ragged altar cloth – an incongruously clean cardboard folder sealed with tape. Grabbing it, Joe slipped it beneath his tee shirt, then, feeling his flesh sear in the coming inferno, he dived for the window and safety.
Strong hands thrust him back.
Tom, barring his way. Tom, as though possessed, his features contorted with hate. “You did it with ‘er, didn’t you, you bastard? In my bed, was it? Was it?”
The smell of scorching – the realisation that his clothes were beginning to smoulder, ready to ignite. “No Tom, not in your bed.” Joe gulped in the fresh outside air “What do you want me to do, apologise for loving her? I can’t do that.”
Tom spat on the ground, his face convulsed. “Love ‘er – you? You, you fornicatin’ arsehole?”
Joe felt he could stand the assault of the flames no longer. Smoke rushed past him, stifling him. He could feel his flesh burning, his consciousness beginning to fade.
Words in his head: ‘Make his guilt his funeral pyre.’
Reality whirled about him; through it the women, those middle-aged respectable country women with their fingers jabbing an accusation:
“Mould him, bind him, make him BURN!”
“Burn he will, die, he shall…”
Summoning up a last ounce of strength Joe made a despairing attempt to get past Tom, to escape from the witchery, to dive for the window; only to have Tom’s big hand grip his throat, pinning him back.
“You? You didn’t never love nobody, Palliser. I loves ‘er, see? An’ I can have her now can’t I? ‘Cause you’re goin’ to bloody fry, boy!”
So shall it be. In stillness and calm – in acceptance: through the gateway of pain is a better place, so shall it be.
Sarah, half-naked, lying on a grassy bank playing with a caterpillar on a leaf; Marian between sheets of silk laughing at him gently, teaching him tenderly; two horses grazing in a summer glade; a cottage with empty rooms he would never fill, where someone so precious as to defy expression was waiting…
No! No, not yet. Not here, not now. Too much to live for – for the first time in a long life, too much to live for!! Joe gasped out the truth he had denied to himself. “She loves you, Tom. She was always yours.”
And then – from where – somewhere in his delusional mind, perhaps? – the priestess came to Tom, a woman tall and strong in robes of fire-silver, as brilliant as the source of all light; and she laid her hand so softly on Tom’s shoulder he might scarcely have felt her touch; but Joe saw it. For she had said to him: “I shall try to smooth your path…..” and she was true to her word.
Tom’s face creased. “It’s not true. ‘Tis not true!” But his demon had left him. Utter misery and despair etched every line; tears welled in pink runnels down his smoke-blackened cheeks. His throttling grasp changed into a grip around Joe’s collar, his resistance into a pull.
“F**k it, Joe!” Joe, only half-conscious with his clothes on fire, allowed himself to be hoisted bodily out into the cool air.
“Roll!” Tom yelled at him, swore at him, kicked him. “Roll, you bastard!”
Joe and Tom were standing in the lane beside the Parkin barn, watching P.C. Hallet’s blue panda car as it drove around the point at the end of the road. Behind them, the Parkin house flared as though the devil himself had lit it, engulfed in flame, a red, sparking pyre of malevolence ascending to light the heavens. Joe’s burnt jacket lay discarded; his ruined T-shirt soaked by the water Tom had thrown over him. Between them on the stony ground lay a pathetic bundle of blanket with the bones of a child wrapped within.
“Have you forgotten Charker?” Tom asked.
© 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.