Simon Parke  
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A train in the distance

CHAPTER 14

In the last episode, Inky got lost in the big dark wood; Patricia found herself in Lord Jo’s bedroom and David contemplated his failed stay in the village. Deirdre Post and Alky drank and gossiped; Inky discovered a fire, while Lord Jo picked up a rolling pin and advanced upon the intruder.

Mrs Pump wasn’t a Satanist as such.

Yes, she’d been to the odd Black Mass in a country church at midnight, but then really – who hasn’t? That’s how we are, when young – curious, impetuous and obsessed with goat’s heads. And anyway, that was back when she was a nurse, and her strange little boyfriend Bertie had thought it gave him unusual powers: ‘When I walk into a room, people sense an enigmatic and intriguing presence,’ he said.

But Bertie and the Lord’s Prayer backwards lost their former shine, and Mrs Pump moved on.

‘In my book, Satan is much more cheered by simple malice,’ she said to herself on one ward round. ‘Better by far than a sacrificial chicken is a well-placed lie; the untruth thrown innocently into the mix. ‘Oops! How did that get there?!’‘ This was why she had just rung Lord Jo, to congratulate him on his engagement. Such good news!

‘What engagement?’ he had spluttered in fury.

‘Oh, I’m sorry – have I let a cat out of the bag? It was just something Patricia said.’

‘What did she say?’

‘No, perhaps I misunderstood. That’s probably what’s happened. Though she did seem fairly clear on the matter.’

‘What matter?’

‘Your forthcoming marriage. But I’m sure I’ve got the wrong end of the stick!’

‘My forthcoming marriage?! What are you talking about?’

‘Yes. She was telling me about her dress.’

Was it possible for Lord Jo’s mood to get any worse? It was then that the body-heat alarm had gone off. Somebody had entered the manor through a window in the hallway.

*

‘Does your bedroom overlook the front door?’ asked Jane, as Algernon took her coat.

‘A proposal both surprising and somewhat hasty, Jane!’ said Algernon. ‘Why such interest in my boudoir, you scarlet lady?!’

‘It’s the room’s furniture, which interests me. Shall we go there now?’

‘Indeed, indeed! But I must warn you: the main item of furniture, an 18th century four-poster bed! Should I ask Mrs Post to leave?’

‘She can join us.’

‘Join us?? Join us??!’

Was Algernon genuinely shocked – or just fooling around? For the outsider, it was hard to tell sometimes.

‘Yes,’ replied Jane. ‘She may be interested. I’m just returning some lost property; and perhaps solving a little mystery.’

‘Well, we all love a mystery solved.’

‘Mrs Post!’ called Jane. ‘You can come out now!’

Mrs Post, eyes popping at the dialogue so far, did not need a second bidding. On standing, however, the sweet sherry hit her hard, and her head swayed like a look-out on the stormy high seas. But focusing on one putting foot in front of the other; and then another foot in front of the other, and saying quietly to herself, ‘steady as she goes’ – Mrs Post made an orderly way to the hall. No one need know of her current state; not Algernon, and certainly not Jane.

‘You look a little querulous, Mrs Post,’ said Jane. ‘Are you sure you’re all right?’

‘A day in the post office can have that effect,’ said Mrs Post.

‘I imagine it must be very hard,’ said Jane. ‘Shall we all go upstairs?’

And so it was that the three of them climbed the creaky cottage stairs, gazed upon by a long line of Keys from ages past, framed forever in their wealth and sadness.

Jane invited her host to lead the way, as single file, they approached the room overlooking the front door – Algernon’s bedroom.

*

Across the village, Lord Jo also approached his bedroom.

His body-heat alarm system had revealed the intruder to be located there, which was hardly a surprise. It was where his safe was installed, behind the panelling. He had thought of calling the police, but rejected the idea. He preferred to do things himself; always had. He gave orders and others obeyed; that was the way it was. He ran his own company; he could run his own security. And the longer he stood there, outside the room, the more he believed this to be so.

Inside Lord Jo’s bedroom, Patricia was in something of a state. She had heard footsteps on the stairs, and then footsteps on the landing. Now the footsteps had stopped, and the silence was killing her. Why had she ever climbed through the window? What had possessed her to embark on this madness? The last time she had felt as fearful was the first date organised through the agency. She had arrived early at the restaurant and suffered terribly in the waiting.

Now here was a date of a very different kind. If it was an intruder outside that door, it was terrible; if it was Lord Jo, it was perhaps worse. Patricia was standing by the large window, wondering if she could jump, when she saw the door handle begin to turn. She climbed up onto the windowsill. But before she saw his face, she heard his voice:

‘Whatever you’re doing in there, Patricia, I hope there’s a good explanation.’

And then Lord Jo appeared, as Patricia clung in shock to the curtains. Lord Jo was carrying a rolling pin, and looking like a breaking storm.

*

Mrs Post felt very ill now, and would have fallen back down the stairs had not Jane steadied her, and guided her hands to the stair rail.

‘Perhaps you’d better stay here,’ said Jane. ‘A hard day in the Post Office has left you dangerously unsteady on your feet. Perhaps a sweet sherry would help you relax?’

The mention of a sweet sherry was not good news for the carpet, as Mrs Post promptly bent over double, and emptied her stomach over the floor.

‘Now, shall we go in, Algernon?’ said Jane, ignoring the vomit. ‘I think Mrs Post is otherwise engaged.’

‘This just gets more and more intriguing,’ said Algernon, always glad to be away from someone being sick. He pushed open the bedroom door to reveal a room of exceptional untidiness. Yes, sadly, even in the most beautiful village in England, there were one or two untidy bedrooms!

‘I’m afraid my cleaning lady left a few years ago, and really, it’s so difficult to find good staff these days.’

‘Quite,’ said Jane, scanning the room. Her nose was more offended than her eyes – a mix of old clothes and alcohol permeated all things. But she could now see what she came for.

‘That’s a lovely bedside lamp,’ said Jane.

‘A particular favourite of mine,’ said Algernon.

‘Though sadly, a little damaged, if I’m not mistaken?’

‘Wear and tear!’ said Algernon. ‘Knocks and scrapes! They afflict us all. With age comes disintegration. ‘Twas ever thus.’

‘Indeed so. How we disintegrate! Though in my book, Cadbury was a little young for all that.’

‘A little young for what?’ asked Algernon.

‘For all those – what was your phrase – knocks and scrapes?’

Jane then withdrew from her pocket a turquoise chard of china, which she fitted exactly into the cracked side of the lamp.

‘There! Returned at last to its rightful owner, and the mystery solved. I found it covered in dried blood, by your front door, remember?’

‘I’m not sure if I do.’

‘It all happened after Cadbury had come with that message from Mrs Post. Anything registering?’

Alky shook his head.

‘I remember nothing at all, dear Jane. I must have been asleep.’

‘Well, we do have a mystery then!’

‘The only mystery is your presence here, dear Jane. Truly, I enjoy your flights of fancy as much as the next man. A little self-important, perhaps, but then you always were, and with Christmas approaching, let us be generous!’

‘After the assault,’ said Jane, ‘where from – about here?’

She placed herself by the window.

‘Yes, it must have been here,’ she continued. ‘Cadbury then staggered down your path, bleeding, and fell in a ditch where she nearly died. A while later, she dragged herself semi-conscious across the road, and nearly got run over.’

‘You tell a most moving story, Jane.’

‘Thank you. But do not concern yourself for her safety, please. Dr Hafiz and I – we’re looking after her.’

At that moment, like a dead body falling out a cupboard, Mrs Post fell unconscious through the bedroom door. The smell of vomit hit them both.

‘Just as I’m sure you will look after Mrs Post,’ continued Jane. ‘I definitely think she’s over-working. I’ll show myself out.’

Jane took her coat from the hook, and stepped out into the wonderful evening chill. It was a mile back to Rose Cottage, but a happy mile, for no sooner is life’s glass smeared, but it is cleaned again by wonder. She passed by Buttercup Meadow, where in the summer, the village cricket team played. She then walked down Holly Berry lane, where a surprised fox ran for cover. She was soon crossing the old railway line, now a mossy path for afternoon walks to Deep Longings. Jane then paused, and decided on a small diversion which took her up onto the old station platform. There she stood for a while, looking down the line. To think that trains once stopped here, and people with large cases alighted; to think the capped station master then blew the whistle and sent them steaming on their way!

Times past yet strangely present now, as if bundled together by eternity.

The station sign behind her creaked a little in the wind, but still announced: ‘Misty Longings – arrivals and departures.’ And in the darkness, she fancied she could hear it, as the little girl had done – hear the train in the distance, chugging through England’s cowslip countryside. And a train in the distance is hope in the distance – hope making its way to this beautiful old village.

Toot, toot!

Jane turned happily for home.

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