The Butterfly Catchers

The Butterfly Catchers is inspired by three brutal murders which took place in the Old Farmhouse on my street, in 1932. Those murders weren't solved - but in my story, they are...

Joel Tremethick is found cradling the bodies of Robert Herwood and his wife Antigone, his best friends since university. Their tiny newborn child lies with them.The justice system, along with Robert and Antigone's friends, are quick to assume that he is guilty. Only Elise, Robert's sister, realises that he isn't guilty of the murders, and sets out to find out what really happened.

The story plays in and out of Joel's memories and the present, and gradually unravels how he was caught and held in their obsessive, unhealthy relationship. Little by little, the horrifying truth emerges, and it isn't what any of them expected. Well, any of them except one...

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3. The Butterfly Girl

Thursday, 5th October, 1925

(continued)

Joel looked back over the lecture hall and chose to look at it through Robert’s eyes. It was strangely easy.

            “Stags, Cornish,” Robert would say, laughing at them, his mouth drawn into a curl of – what? Not jeering, and not mischief. Absurdity, perhaps, and gentle mockery, certainly. Whatever the mood, it was impossible not to laugh when he spoke like that. “A load of stags clashing their terribly well-polished horns to show their prowess, only with more braying. And look at the irony of it – mating season, and not a female in sight.”

            It was impossible to feel threatened by them with this voice ringing in his ears. It made Joel smile to the point where he had to suppress laughter, and it was this controlled mirth which was possessing him when a quite definitely female voice said near to his ear, “Quite marvellous, aren’t they?”

            She slid onto the bench next to him and brought with her a scent that reminded him of imagined countries he’d never seen. “They remind me of peacocks.”

            She was removing her coat as she spoke, and despite the unlikely elegance of the action her dress – an absurdly gauzy blue thing unfit for the cold outside – brushed his arm and left the hairs all standing up after it.

            It took him a moment to say, “Stags, I thought, but I imagine for similar reasons.”

            She smiled, at him and then at the room in front of her. “Do you think they’ll get to actual fighting soon? I might stay to the end if they do.”

            “Were you not planning on staying anyway?” he asked her, half his mind still on that touch.

            “Oh, I’m not planning on staying in any lectures which aren’t riveting. In fact, I’m only considering the subject of Law tentatively, and will immediately retract my interest if the first few lectures are as dull as drizzle. Call this something of a taster.”

            “So you don’t...” he hesitated, realising that he was on uncertain ground. He had no idea whether women were or weren’t part of the university. Certainly he’d never heard of there being female scholars, but that, he thought, was just the sort of thing the men who ran or attended the university would be loathe to talk about. “You don’t have to go to any?”

            “Of course not,” she said, a little surprised, and then leaned towards him a little, which made him aware that several rows around them had become a good deal quieter now that she was there. It also made him aware of exactly how slight she was and how pale and sheer her skin was, making him think that it might flake away if he touched her too suddenly, like a moth’s wings. “We’re here on sufferance, don’t you know, and since we aren’t really wanted at these things, nobody minds if we’re not where they think we’ll be. I like to think of it as using my rights appropriately. I have the right to be here, but given that I won’t have any recognition of my presence in the form of a degree or suchlike, I also have the right not to be here.”

            For a moment he was lost for something to say, and then it came to him that Robert would know exactly how to talk to her, and so he replied, imagining the sardonic voice in his head, “It must be liberating. I keep thinking that confining oneself to listen to one person for an hour at a time, given that the person concerned may have an acute inability to speak comprehensible English, is a fair old waste of a morning.”

            She shrugged lightly, laughter in little hints and creases around her mouth. “I quite agree, but I don’t see that it’s any more liberating than your position. You are, after all, free to leave at any time by virtue of being a gentleman who is unlikely to be thrown out when you are paying good money to be here.”

            There was an awkward moment when he could feel a hint of a blush on his face, but he covered it by nodding towards the dais, where a don with a suit which bagged off him at the shoulders and stretched tight over his abdomen had approached the lectern. As she turned to look, he murmured, “Actually, I’m not paying any money at all.”

            “Really?” she asked, with only a swift glance at him and he could tell that she thought this a game. “You must tell me how you work that. Mama would be delighted not to waste funds on an unfortunate education.”

            “It’s all about who you don’t know,” he told her, and tried as hard as he could to imitate Robert’s breezy certainty.

            The lecture was beginning, but she still gave a soft laugh and whispered, “And I suppose you can’t share with me the details of who you don’t know or what you don’t know about them, given that you don’t know?”

            “Naturally.”

            “Well, if you’re not paying to be here and you don’t know some terribly important people, perhaps you aren’t a gentleman after all.” He could feel her breath on his cheek as she whispered. “In which case you’ll have no qualms about doing exactly what you want when you want without worrying what everyone else thinks.”

“I haven’t decided whether or not to be a gentleman yet,”  he whispered in response, a little loudly because he couldn’t quite bring himself to lean any further towards her.

The lecturer raised his voice a little and looked in their direction. Joel felt like a child again as he suppressed a smile, and saw from the corner of his eye that she was doing the same. They both dutifully took out a notebook and his degree in the Law commenced with a great deal less ceremony and a great deal more distraction than he would have thought possible.

            It should have been fascinating: the foundation of the precedent-based legal system. It was what he was here for, one of the many things he wanted to know. Without her there, he would have heard all of it despite the dry and uninteresting delivery. But the contrast between her heart-speeding vitality and the honourable Professor Cairlingen’s... littleness, he supposed was what he would call it, made the monotone voice impossible to take hold of. He kept shooting little glances at her, watching the slim fingers (which were bare of any rings, and this relieved him more than it should have done) or the blonde hair falling over her face as she took a few notes in handwriting he couldn’t begin to read.

            Thirteen minutes in, she sat back, watched Cairlingen speak for a moment, and then leaned over to Joel and muttered, “I think we’ve given him ample time. He’s now been erased from my timetable and I’m in the mood for coffee.”

            He turned to her then and saw the enquiring eyes, a strange mixture of teasing, challenging and pleading. And he looked back at the dais, where there was only a sad little man in a suit worse than Joel’s own.

            But there he hung for a moment, caught and balanced between two draws of equal strength. There was that life he saw mapped out for himself, the start of a career in the law and the successful firm and the increasing income which meant that he would never have to be beholden again; and more importantly, never have to go without. It was what he had been working towards for six years, and to have grasped it and thrown it away was almost incomprehensible.

            And yet here, dragging at him, was a want he had never even known existed in him. It was like the desire to keep Robert’s friendship close, yet he could see all its differences. It was a softer, more invidious, more luscious want. 

            She waited, and he could see that her expression was already changing. She was beginning to be disappointed, and to put a mask in place to hide it. And with a tearing feeling the life of scholarly study seemed to release him from its hold and he was rising to his feet, lighter and giddier than he could remember being in his life.

            As the two of them climbed the stairs and slid out of the doors which let on to Free School Lane, there was a murmur amongst the students around them, and a good number of eyes followed them out, but Professor Cairlingen was deep in his notes and noticed nothing but a whispering he felt it time to quieten with a call to order.


 

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