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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2. The New Boy

Thursday, October 5th, 1925

 

            The whole lecture- theatre smelled of old varnish and chalk dust, and it was so much like being back in school again that he instinctively looked around for the Master of Discipline before he chose a seat. But of course there was nobody to look out for discipline, so he slid along a bench high at the back to sit midway between the end and a towering six-foot-something lad in a Harrow blazer. He felt the flannel of his trousers catch twice on the uneven surface, and suspected that his glorious new suit would not remain so very glorious for long.

            It didn’t matter. They were all beyond him, with their soft silk and Egyptian cotton; their blazers and ties from places which were expensive enough and famous enough that the very act of being there let you set yourself on a level with every other human being who had walked their halls, no matter how august; and with their wool coats and their extraordinarily glossy and equally flimsy shoes which surely had been soaked through four times already this morning and yet continued to look perfect.

            And they all knew each other; had played cricket with each other or dined together at the house of a relative of one (or both) parties; or had met on their Grand Tour – if they were old-fashioned enough still to take one whilst being modern enough to take one before coming up to Cambridge rather than afterwards. For them, the wait for their first lecture seemed to be one endless string of happy reunions, the bawling and back-slapping and raucous laughter so very targeted in its inclusion that it shut him out absolutely.

            For a moment he wondered, with a queasy feeling, whether this had been a wrong step. It was distant from his former life by three hundred miles and unending layers of social distinction. How had he devoted six years to coming here, where he felt like a servant who had stumbled upstairs by mischance?

            But Robert, he remembered - Robert thought he belonged. He fixed his memory on the fallen-angel features and illuminated them like an icon in his mind’s eye. He could trace them in detail, after only four days in his company. Perhaps in part because he was trying to set them in stone, in case his sudden friend disappeared out of his life as quickly as he had entered it.

 

            Robert had already caught him memorising, on the third of the four days, while they sat in his rooms after a dinner far too rich for the country-boy. He had drunk a little too much, which was probably why he hadn’t felt ashamed at staring so openly. And Robert had been looking away into the air, lost in the coiling shapes of the smoke from his cigarillo and apparently unaware.

            But after some minutes of this scrutiny – maybe as many as five - he had cut his eyes across and the country-boy had found himself pinned by an ironic gaze in return. “I’m not going to waft away, you know. I may as well be a statue, I’m that firmly set on this earth. Chiselled out of the very rocks of it, Joel.” A half laugh, and a glance at nothing whilst he appreciated his own words. “Chiselled.”

            Joel knew that he blushed, but also that Robert was miraculously lacking in the cruelty that made him point it out or even appear to notice. It kept surprising him, that kindness. It didn’t seem to sit with his vigour or his ranting condemnation of various students, professors and groups.

            “Statues move a little less, I think,” he answered, considering, and Robert laughed gently.

            “Yes, they do, but by God they endure.” His eyes lost in the smoke again. “Maybe I should have myself cast in stone now, as I am. Or just set myself up on a pedestal and let them all come to me.”

            “You’d go stark mad within the first half hour,” Joel told him and felt flushed with his own courage, as he so often felt around Robert. “Your feet are never still for two moments together.”

            “Oh, I could grow in indolence, Cornish.” The gaze flicked his way, testing, assessing. It was like this every time he called him that. He liked to baptise everyone with his own titles, it seemed, but then looked to see that no offence was being taken. Joel, the one who had always gone unnoticed, had never had a nickname and was nothing short of delighted by it. The craven truth was that Robert could have called him whatever he wanted and it would have made him feel worth something.

            A small silence grew, while Joel remembered that only a day stood between him and the terror of his Law Degree. The large blank that was his student existence to come defied all of his efforts at filling it in. He tried to envisage supervisions and essays and reading law books in the library, but it was all too alien and his childhood imaginings of himself in a gown and a mortar-board were so laughably naive that he couldn’t take sanctuary in them.

            “What are you thinking on behind your eyes, Cornish?” Robert asked him after a while.

            “Nothing much.” He remembered as he said it how much Robert hated being fobbed off, and how much he seemed to want to know the innermost workings of his newest friend’s thoughts, and added, “Just about this whole – place. I keep trying to imagine how it will be to live as a student, and to apply myself to learning the law, but I just don’t know. I’m worryingly ignorant about it all.”

            “You shouldn’t waste your mind growing anxious about knowing,” Robert told him with all the wisdom of his four additional months and infinitely wider experience in the world. “They always say it’s who you know here, but actually, it’s who you don’t know that helps you. Failing to recollect an awkward story you’d heard about someone, or happening not to know someone you encountered in a corner with your father’s maidservant. Those things are quite the most important things and ignorance is your friend.”

“But what about the course?” Joel persisted, giving voice to a fear he hadn’t shared with anyone. “What if I simply don’t understand it?”

“You will,” Robert said firmly, with absolute faith, and instead of resenting his certainty Joel was buoyed up by it. “No bloody question. Do you have any idea how stupid most of these boys are? How tramlined in their thinking? The opinions they hold now are the same opinions their fathers held in nine out of ten cases, and they will hang onto those opinions with their little eyes squeezed shut because thinking about anything else is too terrifying and too hard for their tiny heads.”

A warm bubble of laughter made its way up from Joel’s throat, and he leaned back into the chair with Robert’s vision arming him against them all.

“You know, I used to worry like that,” Robert went on, musing. “If something unknown came up, I’d make myself sick with anxiety trying to envisage how it would be, and whether my life would change. And then I eventually realised that it was the trying to guess which gave me all the anxiety. When it comes to it, you have no idea how a new thing is going to be and there’s no point exhausting yourself trying to imagine. Just mark it down as something new and stop thinking about it, that’s my advice.” He gave a small smile. “And if you do, then it turns out that most things tend to fit themselves around you instead of the other way around.”

            “I think that experience may be unique to you.”

            Robert turned and fixed him with a gaze which was earnest and intent enough to make Joel feel uncomfortable. “It’s unique to anyone who is worth more than the rest of the rabble. A little self-belief please, Cornish. You’re going to make a dent in this world large enough that nobody will be able to fill it in. I wouldn’t be sitting here with you if you weren’t.”

           

            It made him smile, that faith of Robert’s, even while it gave him a pang of anxiety. If the days and weeks unrolled and Joel failed to make some kind of mark, did it mean (as he suspected it might) that Robert would find someone more worthy to pass his time with? Or would he just grow more and more disappointed in this friend of his and change his way of speaking?           

Joel was inwardly terrified of losing his new – and in reality, his only  - friend and had to fight hourly an urge to cling onto him and never let him out of his sight. He had never known anyone else like him, and was unshakeably certain that he would never meet another. But he also knew instinctively that Robert liked to feel that he was drawing Joel out of a diffident or preoccupied world and firmly into a more sociable one, ideally with some reluctance so that he felt it was something of a challenge. Once in that world, Joel was free to choose his reaction, but his recently-acquired social tour-guide liked it best when he mocked it and shook his head at the collection of oddities who populated it.

            It was easy to look beyond everyone’s carefully worn mask when he was with Robert. Easy to feel the mood of enlightenment which let him make witty observations instead of feeling unworthy.

 

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