Authors: Peter Robinson
‘I know,’ said Banks. But nobody had asked at the railway station whether Bert Atherton actually
met his son there, and now it was too late. He sipped some tea; it tasted
as if the teabag had been used before. ‘I don’t suppose you remember seeing a red Volkswagen in the area around that time, do you?’
‘No. They asked us that when it first happened. I didn’t know owt about it then, and I don’t know owt now.’
‘Was there anyone else in the house when the accident occurred?’
‘No, of course there weren’t. Do you think I wouldn’t have said if there were? Look, young man, what are you getting at? Do you have summat to tell me, summat I should
Banks sighed and took another sip of weak tea. It didn’t wash away the taste of decay that permeated the kitchen. He signalled to Susan and stood up. ‘No,’ he said. ‘No,
I’ve nothing new to tell you, Mrs Atherton. Just chasing will o’ the wisps, that’s all.’
‘Well, I’m sorry, but you’ll have to go chase ’em somewhere else, lad. I’ve got work to do.’
The Queen’s Arms
was quiet late that afternoon. Rain had kept the tourists away, and at four o’clock most of the locals were still at work in the
offices and shops around the market square. Banks ordered a pork pie, then he and Jenny Fuller took their drinks to an isolated corner table and settled down. The first long draught of
Theakston’s bitter washed the archive dust and the taste of decay from Banks’s throat.
‘Well,’ said Jenny, raising her glass of lager in a toast. ‘To what do I owe the honour?’
She looked radiant, Banks thought: thick red hair tumbling over her shoulders, emerald green eyes full of humour and vitality, a fresh scent that cut through the atmosphere of stale smoke and
made him think of childhood apple orchards. Though Banks was married, he and Jenny had once come very close to getting involved, and every now and then he felt a pang of regret for the road not
‘Reincarnation,’ said Banks, clinking glasses.
Jenny raised her eyebrows. ‘You know I’ll drink to most things,’ she said, ‘but really, Alan, isn’t this going a bit far?’
Banks explained what had happened so far that day. By the time he had finished, the barman delivered his pork pie, along with a large pickled onion. As Jenny mulled over what he had said, he
sliced the pie into quarters and shook a dollop of HP Sauce onto his plate to dip them in.
‘Fantasy,’ she said finally.
‘Would you care to elaborate?’
‘If you don’t believe in reincarnation, then there are an awful lot of strange phenomena you have to explain in more rational ways. Now, I’m no expert on parapsychology, but
most people who claim to have lived past lifetimes generally become convinced through hypnosis, dreams and déjà vu experiences, like the ones you mentioned, or by spontaneous
‘Exactly what it sounds like. Remembering past lifetimes out of the blue. Children playing the piano without lessons, people suddenly speaking foreign languages, that kind of thing. Or any
memory you have but can’t explain, something that seems to have come from beyond your experience.’
‘You mean if I’m walking down the street and I suddenly think of a Roman soldier and remember some sort of Latin phrase, then I’m recalling a previous lifetime?’
Jenny gave him a withering look. ‘Don’t be so silly, Alan. Of course
don’t think that. Some people might, though. People are limitlessly gullible, it seems to me,
especially when it comes to life after death. No, what I mean is that this is the kind of thing believers try to put forward as proof of reincarnation.’
‘And how would a rational psychologist explain it?’
‘She might argue that what a person recalls under hypnosis, in dreams, or wherever, is simply a web of fantasy woven from things that person has already seen or heard and maybe
‘But he says he’s never been here before.’
‘There’s television, books, films.’
Banks finished his pork pie, took a swig of Theakston’s and lit a Silk Cut. ‘So you’re saying that maybe our Mr Singer has watched one too many episodes of
Great and Small
Jenny tossed back her hair and laughed, ‘It wouldn’t surprise me.’ She looked at her watch, then drained her glass. ‘Look, I’m sorry, but I must dash.’ And
with that, she jumped up, pecked him on the cheek and left. Jenny was always dashing, it seemed. Sometimes he wondered where.
Banks thought over what she had said. It made sense. More sense than Singer’s reincarnation theory and more sense than suspecting Joseph Atherton’s parents of covering up their
But there remained the unsubstantiated story of the letter and the anonymous note about the red Volkswagen. If somebody else
driven Joseph Atherton to the farm, then his parents had
been lying about the letter. Why? And who could it have been?
Two days later,
sorting through his post, Banks found a letter addressed to him in longhand. It stood out like a sore thumb among the usual bundle of circulars and
official communications. He spread it open on his desk in front of him and read.
Dear Mr Banks,
I’m not much of a one for letter writing so you must forgive me any mistakes. I didn’t get much schooling due to me being a sickly child but my father always
told us it was important to read and write. Your visit last week upset me by raking up the past I’d rather forget. I don’t know what made you come and ask those questions but they
made me think it is time to make my peace with God and tell the truth after all these years.
What we told the police was not true. Our Joseph didn’t write to say he was coming and Bert didn’t pick him up at the station. Joseph just turned up out of the blue one afternoon
in that red car. I don’t know who told the police about the car but I think it might have been Len Grimond in the farm down the road because he had fallen out with Bert over paying for
repairs to a wall.
Anyway, it wasn’t our Joseph’s car. There was an American lass with him called Annie and she was driving. They had a baby with them that they said was theirs. I suppose that made
him our grandson but it was the first time we ever heard about him. Our Joseph hadn’t written or visited us for four years and we didn’t know if he was alive or dead. He was a bonny
little lad about two or three with the most solemn look on his face.
Well it was plain from the start that something was wrong. We tried to behave like good loving parents and welcome them into our home but the girl was moody and she didn’t want to
stay. The baby cried a lot and I don’t think he had been looked after properly, though it’s not my place to say. And Joseph was behaving very peculiar. His eyes looked all glassy
with tiny pupils. We didn’t know what was the matter. I think from what he said that he just wanted money.
They wouldn’t eat much though I cooked a good roast for them, and Yorkshire puddings too, but our Joseph just picked at his food and the girl sat there all sulky holding the baby and
wanting to go. She said she was a vegetarian. After we’d finished the dinner Joseph got very upset and said he had to go to the toilet. By then Bert was wondering what was going on and
also a bit angry at how they treated our hospitality even if Joseph was our son.
Joseph was a long time in the toilet. Bert called up to him but he didn’t answer. The girl said something about leaving him alone and laughed, but it wasn’t a nice laugh. We
thought something might be wrong with him so Bert went up and found Joseph with a piece of string tied around his arm heating something in a spoon with a match. It was one of our silver
anniversary spoons he had taken from the kitchen without asking. We were just ignorant farmers and didn’t know what was happening in crime and drugs and everything like you do, Mr Banks,
but we knew our Joseph was doing something bad.
Bert lost his temper and pulled Joseph out of the toilet. When they were at the top of the stairs, Joseph started swearing at his father, using such words I’ve never heard before and
would blush to repeat. That’s when Bert lost his temper and hit him. On God’s honour, he didn’t mean to hurt him. Joseph was our only son and we loved him even though he was
breaking my heart. But when Bert hit him Joseph fell down the stairs and when he got to the bottom his head was at such a funny angle I knew he must have broken his neck.
The girl started screaming then took the baby and ran outside and drove away. We have never seen her again or our grandson and don’t know what has become of him. There was such a
silence like you have never heard when the sound of the car engine vanished in the distance and Joseph was laying at the bottom of the stairs all twisted and broken. We tried to feel his pulse
and Bert even put a mirror to his mouth to see if his breath would mist it but there was nothing.
I know we should have told the truth and we have regretted it for all those years. We were always brought up to be decent honest folk respecting our parents and God and the law. Bert was
ashamed that his son was a drug addict and didn’t want it in the papers. I didn’t want him to go to jail for what he had done because it was really an accident and it wasn’t
fair. He was suffering more than enough anyway because he had killed his only son.
So I said we must throw away all the drugs and needle and things and take our Joseph’s shoes off and say he slipped coming down the stairs. We knew that the police would believe us
because we were good people and we had no reason to lie. That was the hardest part. The laces got tied in knots and I broke my fingernails and in the end I was shaking so much I had to use the
And that is God’s honest truth, Mr Banks. I know we did wrong but Bert was never the same after. Not a day went by when he didn’t cry about what he’d done and I never saw
him smile ever again. To this day we still do not know what has become of our grandson but whatever it is we hope he is healthy and happy and not as foolish as his father.
By the time you read this letter I’ll be gone to my resting place too. For two years now I have had cancer and no matter what operations they do it is eating me away. I have saved my
tablets. Now that I have taken the weight off my conscience I can only hope that the good Lord sees fit to forgive me my sins and take me unto his bosom.
Banks put the letter aside and rubbed his left eye with the back of his hand. Outside, the rain was still falling, providing a gentle background for Finzi’s Clarinet Concerto on the
portable cassette. Banks stared at the sheets of blue vellum covered in Betty Atherton’s crabbed hand, then he cursed, slammed his fist on the desk, went to the door and shouted for Susan
‘Her name is
Catherine Anne Singer,’ said Susan the next afternoon. ‘And she was relieved to talk to me as soon as I told her we weren’t
after her for leaving the scene of a crime. She comes from somewhere called Garden Grove, California. Like a lot of young Americans, she came over to “do” Europe in the
The three of them – Banks, Susan and Jenny Fuller – sat over drinks at a dimpled, copper-topped table in the Queen’s Arms listening to the summer rain tap against the diamonds
of coloured glass.
‘And she’s Jerry Singer’s mother?’ Banks asked.
Susan nodded. ‘Yes. I just asked him for her telephone number. I didn’t tell him why I wanted it.’
Banks nodded. ‘Good. Go on.’
‘Well, she ended up living in London. It was easy enough to get jobs that paid under the counter, places where nobody asked too many questions. Eventually, she hooked up with Joseph
Atherton and they lived together in a bedsit in Notting Hill. Joseph fancied himself as a musician then—’
‘Who didn’t?’ said Banks. He remembered taking a few abortive guitar lessons himself. ‘Sorry. Go on.’
‘There’s not a lot to add, sir. She got pregnant, wouldn’t agree to an abortion, though apparently Joseph tried to persuade her. She named the child Jerry, after some guitarist
Joseph liked called Jerry Garcia. Luckily for Jerry, Annie wasn’t on heroin. She drew the line at hash and LSD. Anyway, they were off to join some Buddhist commune in the wilds of Scotland
when Joseph said they should drop in on his parents on the way and try to get some money. She didn’t like the idea, but she went along with it anyway.
‘Everything happened exactly as Mrs Atherton described it. Annie got scared and ran away. When she got back to London, she decided it was time to go home. She sold the car and took out all
her savings from the bank, then she got the first flight she could and settled back in California. She went to university and ended up working as a marine biologist in San Diego. She never married,
and she never mentioned her time in England, or that night at the Atherton farm, to Jerry. She told him his father had left them when Jerry was still a baby. He was only two and a half at the time
of Atherton’s death, and as far as he was concerned he had spent his entire life in southern California.’
Banks drained his pint and looked at Jenny.
‘Cryptomnesia,’ she said.
‘Cryptomnesia. It means memories you’re not consciously aware of, a memory of an incident in your own life that you’ve forgotten. Jerry Singer was present when his grandfather
knocked his father down the stairs, but as far as he was concerned
, he’d never been to Swainsdale before, so how could he remember it? When he got mixed up in the New Age
scene, these memories he didn’t know he had started to seem like some sort of proof of reincarnation.’
Sometimes, Banks thought to himself, things are better left alone. The thought surprised him because it went against the grain of both his job and his innate curiosity. But what good had come
from Jerry Singer presenting himself at the station three days ago? None at all. Perhaps the only blessing in the whole affair was that Betty Atherton had passed away peacefully, as she had
intended, in her pill-induced sleep. Now she wouldn’t suffer any more in this world. And if there were a God, Banks thought, he surely couldn’t be such a bastard as to let her suffer in
the next one, either.