Authors: Graham Adams
Tags: #Mystery, #Suspense, #Thriller, #Europe, #France
‘Ask for Magda. The entire circus knows me; they will show you the way. Now go!’ she shouted after him, as he ran back to the circus big top and disappeared down the tunnel.
‘Where have you been Lou? I was getting worried, thought you might have been eaten by a lion or something!’ Danny had to shout, as the band struck up suddenly, hailing the procession of the acts that were going to entertain them.
Louis felt good on two counts. He knew he didn’t have to explain to his friend what he had done, and he was quietly very glad that he had succeeded in helping the old lady in her time of need.
Of course, the show was action from start to finish. Trapeze, high wire, elephants, lions and tigers, horse riding, and last, but certainly not least, the clowns. Because they were on the front row, the clowns pulled the boys out of their seats to join in a fast and furious comedy routine, and at the conclusion they were told to take a bow to the audience, which ‘brought the house down’. At the end of their performance Danny ran back to his seat, but Louis was struggling a little with his leg and he was limping heavily, so two midget clowns lifted him up and gently settled him back in his seat. The crowd thought it was part of the show, and roared in appreciation.
With all the excitement, the friends sat and waited whilst the bulk of the audience filed out of the tent to make their way home. They decided to wait until the Big Top was virtually empty. They enjoyed watching the circus hands as they cleared away the debris left by the clowns. The boys were among the few spectators who remained, looking up and recalling the awesome sights they had witnessed during the performance, almost as if they were re-creating them in their mind’s eye.
Louis’s eyes were suddenly drawn to the far side of the show ring, and he gripped his friends arm and pointed. Pirouetting on one toe was the little ballerina, arms in the air, just as he had seen her in the caravan window before the show. Running circles around her in the opposite direction was the small poodle, also dressed in a little tutu. She stopped and gazed at them with a sweet smile, although Louis, for some reason, felt that it was not a real smile, and he instantly remembered that mask of hate he had seen in the caravan earlier. The thought of it made him shiver so he pushed his friend towards the exit. He didn’t look back until they were outside, but by then she was gone.
The balmy night was drawing in; looking towards the west the sun had gone down, leaving a fiery red afterglow across the sky. Suddenly Louis felt a little worried about the time, especially as they had hung back so long. He imagined that the rest of the audience had probably arrived at their homes by then.
Danny sensed the concern on his friends face and said reassuringly, ‘Don’t worry Lou; dad says I can walk you home first’.
Home for Louis was a tiny two up two down terraced house on the middle of a Victorian row, probably built in the mid 1800’s with outside ‘privy’, black leaded fire grate, and old wooden sash windows. Probably little had changed in the house since it had been built.
Just the boy and his father lived there; his mother had sadly died in childbirth twelve years before. Life had been no picnic for Henry and his son. He loved his wife, Rochelle deeply, having only married her a year before. Together they had great plans, especially with Louis on the way.
They had met during the war. Rochelle and her mother and father had escaped the Nazi purges of Jews in France, and after a spell in Southampton with her great Aunt Ruth and Uncle Moshe, the little refugee family had settled in Nottingham. Henry’s duties in the home guard made their path’s cross in the city.
It was a meeting of like minded people, he was a local journalist and writer, she taught and played the violin, and was grateful to be safe from the certain Nazi treatment of Jews. Henry quickly fell deeply in love and her parents had no objection to the relationship.
One November morning in 1940 her parents suddenly decided to ‘up sticks’ and move to Coventry There were promises of work for both of them in the war effort. Both had been in engineering in France and the offer included good accommodation, jobs, and an opportunity to get back at the Nazis. Their daughter decided to stay with Henry and not go, what a decision this turned out to be.
Disaster! Only one week after her parents departed, on the 15
of November, Coventry suffered the worst bombing raid by the Germans in the history of the war. Many thousands were injured, whole streets were obliterated. After escaping the regime in France, sadly they could not escape the power of the Reich. They must have suffered a direct hit on where they lived; their poor bodies were never found. So at this point poor Rochelle was orphaned, all she now had was Henry. In those dark times even the extreme circumstances of Rochelle’s parents’ death, had quickly to be put into perspective, and life simply had to go on. Whilst they had each other, Henry had to reassure her that she too would have suffered the same fate, had she agreed to go with her parents. At that time it was the only consolation they had.
After two years of growing together, the anticipation of having a child had spurred them on, but that final, sad twist was to break Henry’s heart. All that was left of his beautiful, delicate wife after such a short time was this tiny child Louis, who had become totally dependent on his father, with no mother to help them.
During the war, circumstances forced people to do heroic things. In Henry’s case it was to get a new job which came as a vacancy at Scattergood’s, the town’s gents outfitters. There he had been, ever since. Old Mr Scattergood had encouraged him to train as a tailor and he soon grew to be the ‘old man’s’ right-hand man.
A Rare Sighting
The white stag
A year had passed since Edmund moved into his isolated cottage deep in the New Forest. It was 2001, and this year was a good time for him to realise a new self discovery. Yes of course there had been times when it was difficult to adjust to a totally uncluttered life, but the benefits were now starting to appear. He had had quite an eventful life, not all of it happy. Many times he reflected how disastrous it had been, and the painful memories still remained when he considered the situation of his partner Eloise.
Over ten years before, his new wife had visited Africa, and after suffering an insect bite, had been flown back to England. However, it was too late to save her from a debilitating virus that attacked her, causing a massive brain injury. Since then she had been in intensive care in a private hospital in Edinburgh; stable, but unaware of her surroundings.
He had arranged for all of the expenses in such a way that he knew she was well cared for, thanks to his friend Brian in Southbourne who managed all that for him. He also had a top lawyer in Edinburgh who would keep him posted in the unlikely event of change in Eloise’s condition. Although he had not visited Edinburgh in the past year, he rested in the knowledge that all expenses were covered in respect of Eloise’s treatment and this allowed him to continue with his life.
The cottage was isolated in the truest sense of the word. No power connected and no running water. This could be a major problem for most people, especially now, at the turn of the millennium. Yes, it took special skills even to do the smallest things, but a resourceful Edmund still, he felt, in his prime in his early fifties enjoyed the challenge. The small difficulties paled into insignificance when compared to the benefits of living a detached sort of life. The cottage was so deep in the forest that all sights and sounds were magnified all around him, and it seemed that the wildlife had accepted his presence.
Often he would open the door quietly and slowly, and in doing so, soon got used to seeing a small herd of deer just lift their heads for a moment and then carry on grazing. All sorts of animals and birds shared his accommodation, especially in the thatched roof. After the first alarming night in the upstairs bedroom, he realised that all his ‘neighbours’ were quite harmless. In fact, without their scratching and chirpings he probably would not now sleep.
One sunny morning he felt the impulse to fire up the little Morgan and head eastward toward Burley, a village he had heard of, but up to then had never been to. It felt good to come out of his well hidden lane and drive towards Sway, a typical New Forest village, down the steep hill, bypass Brockenhurst and follow the signpost towards his goal, Burley. Most of the forest in this area was open land with small sections of yellow heather and stands of short trees, very often used by the ponies for shade in the hottest times or shelter in the downpours.
At one point, he sped along a small tree line road, unusually straight and flat. This was quite refreshing from the narrow hilly winding lanes that were the norm. As he reached the end of the straight, he realised what he had driven on. There was a building at the end that was still signposted as the Burley Station, now replaced as a café. It gave him the clue that it was in fact the old railway line and had been converted into a road. As he went past the building he then drove onto Station Road that led to the Burley village centre. Station Road reverted back to a forest lane, twisting in blind corners, dipping and rising severely. At one point the road was so narrow; he had to drive almost at walking pace for safety. At the top of the next hill he could see a small spire but before he accelerated on the final leg he looked to the left on a grassy knoll and saw a wonderful sight.
A full-grown red deer stag was standing looking at him right on the brow of the hill. He had to stop and pull over on the grass verge for a moment as this stag was the largest he had seen and was also pure white!
Amazingly it was no more than fifty yards from the Morgan and even though they were only looking at each other for a few seconds, it had seemed an age to Edmund. Suddenly the spell was broken as an old horsebox van came clattering towards them. The white stag took a long last look, and then it seemed in no hurry at all as it turned, lifted its head and sauntered off in the opposite direction, out of sight.
‘What a great start to the day’ he thought to himself.
Station Road ended at a junction with Chapel lane to the right, and Pound Lane to the left. Opposite the road junction stood the celebrated pub, ‘The Queen’s Head’.
Its fame as a great New Forest pub was well deserved as it received the ‘pub of the year’ award in the Festival of Britain. A plaque to that day was proudly displayed on its wall. Edmund turned the car left, skirted the War Memorial and headed slowly down the lane, weaving slowly through a herd of ponies and donkeys that walked in the middle of the road and seemed to be oblivious of the car. Just a few hundred yards down the lane he saw a welcome sight, a sign for Burley tea rooms.
He sat at a vacant table after ordering a granary bread sandwich with local ham and salad and of course a pot of tea. The wonderful vista of the white stag was still clearly in his mind as he looked around at the other customers. A young mother and her daughter were discussing a very fine framed tapestry which looked quite old it was very clear what it depicted: a white stag on a green hill. The daughter was describing it to her mother who looked at it intently. As she looked around at Edmund she noticed that he too was looking at the tapestry.
‘So sorry to be rude, but I couldn’t help looking at your fine tapestry. Would you believe it, just outside the village there was a real white stag exactly like that one pictured, it was beautiful. I had never seen one before’
‘Have you been to the craft fare today?’ the mother asked. ‘We picked this up there, and there are some lovely paintings there too’
‘Is that the one just across the road?’ Edmund asked. They nodded in agreement as he rose from his table, settled his bill and made his way out.
The small community hall was just a short walk from the tea rooms so he left the little Morgan where it was parked, and walked toward the sign ‘Craft Fair today 12 till 2’ His watch said just five to two so he hurried to the door hoping to catch a little before they closed. An old man sat at the table inside the entrance, took his twenty pence fee and followed him into the small wooden hall. As he expected, the room was empty except for the exhibitors and volunteers who were dismantling their tables and packing away. Three of the walls however were still hung with paintings, and as he neared them he noticed a similarity between them enough to guess that they were possibly from the same artist. Most of them depicted fine houses, and as he looked more closely, the detail of the properties was outstanding. Every tile on the roof, every brick on the wall was absolutely clear, even to the weathering on the front doors. Quite simply they were the best depiction of rural houses that he had ever seen.
‘Do you like them young man?’ a voice sounded behind.
Edmund turned around to see a small and quite elderly man standing quite close, the same man that had taken his entrance fee. ‘How do you get such detail on the houses?’ Edmund asked him.
‘I don’t know young sir, I just look at the house, and I paint it as I see it.’
‘Surely the owners of this house would pay a great deal for a picture such as this one’ said Edmund pointing at a picture of a large manor house in sumptuous grounds.
‘That’s the Burley Manor Hotel, I did ask permission to paint this one but I never thought it was good enough to offer it to them.’
Edmund was speechless after that remark and he continued around the room admiring the other work. Each work bore the name of the artist ‘Harry Norman’ and the date on it. The old man followed Edmund around as he scrutinised them.
‘You are Harry Norman?’ Edmund asked. The old man nodded and smiled at him. Finally they reached the last painting, this was not of a house, and it depicted a foggy heath land. The mist was low lying and in the foreground a dark figure could be made out with a dog by his side. In the distance a line of dark hills were merging into the cloud filled sky. It was full of atmosphere and it carried an aura and depth that kept Edmund standing in front of it, riveted to the floor. Slowly and softly an arm threaded through his and to his side appeared an elderly lady.
‘This is a very special painting for Harry and me, and it’s not for sale. We thought that we would just put it on show and then take it back home again.’ She said quietly.
Edmund noticed that Harry had tears in his eyes and Edmund compulsively put his arm around the old man’s shoulder in an attempt to comfort him. Seeing an empty chair nearby he guided him to it and looked around to his wife who was struggling to take down the paintings from the walls. He insisted that he take them all down for her and placed them in the empty boxes that she indicated. When all the pictures were down she told him that they only lived in the cottage two doors away, so it was no effort for Edmund to carry them home for them. They indicated that the pictures were stored in the studio upstairs and Edmund gladly carried the boxes upstairs to a converted back bedroom. For a moment he looked through the bedroom window at the heath and hills beyond. There was no mist on the heath, and no mistaking the exact scene portrayed in the atmospheric painting that, sadly, was not for sale.
‘Are you all right up there?’ Mrs Norman asked.
‘Oh yes thanks I was just enjoying the view of the heath.’ He answered, and started to descend the narrow staircase.
‘We were talking whilst you were in the studio, and wondered if you would join us for tea as a thank you for helping?’ Mrs Norman asked.
Edmund nodded. ‘I’ll just bring the car over from the tea shop; can I park it outside your house? What about the hall? Would you like me to lock up for you?’ Harry nodded and passed the heavy keys to Edmund.
‘Leave the books on the table and I will sort them out tomorrow. Most of them are so old I think that they are only fit for the rubbish collection. Before you lock up though, if you see anything you like please take it with my blessing.’
The old wooden Community Hall seemed quite large when all the craft items were out, empty except for a small trestle table with a dozen or so books on it. Edmund took a cursory look at the books; casually he moved a few of them and inadvertently dropped one on the floor, a very small book with thick leather binding. Its gold edged leaves were still in good condition, and as he picked it up he noticed, embossed on the front cover the title ‘Ghosts and myths from the Steppes’.
He showed Harry the book he had chosen and Harry nodded approval. The book had a 50p sticker on it so he gave Harry a £1 coin and tossed the leather bound book onto the Morgan passenger seat. In this short time, Mrs Norman had prepared a sumptuous tea for the three of them, and Edmund, not used to this sort of treat tucked in voraciously!
‘I do apologise Mrs Norman, but living on my own, this sort of tea is a rare and wonderful event for me.’
‘Please Edmund dear, my name is Phaedra, but will you call me Fay?’ she smiled as he could only nod with a mouth full of smoked salmon. ‘After tea, I will explain about Harry’s special painting and its significance to us.’
Away from the tea table he balanced his third cup of china tea in one of Fay’s best cups while she told the story that the painting portrayed their son Victor and his dog Sally on an early morning walk seen from the studio window. The most painful part was that, that particular morning was the last time they ever saw their son. Victor had returned home after losing his job in Paris. He had changed from a happy outgoing personality, to an introverted and non-communicative state, and nothing they did could get their son out of it.
Edmund was going to ask what Victor had done in Paris, but it didn’t seem right to probe too deeply. ‘You mean he went out on a walk with his dog one day and never returned?’
Harry answered. ‘Yes that’s right, his clothes are still here in his room, even his wallet and passport are still here, it is as if he just vanished into thin air.’
‘What about the dog, did she disappear too?’ Edmund asked perplexed.
‘No, Sally was found wandering in the village, dragging her lead. The police were informed, but nothing has turned up since that day, several months ago now. We are both so shocked we have no idea what to do.’ Fay said as they both held hands and looked so sorrowfully at their visitor.
Edmund realised how difficult the situation was for them. No wonder they couldn’t part with the painting, it was the only reminder of their disappeared son.