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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4. Verdict Day

Thursday May 10th, 1932

 

            Hugo flicked his paper, watched her roll her eyes and then flicked it again with a smile. Folding it up until only the crossword was visible, he picked up a pen with his left hand and a spoon with his right and clunked the spoon absently against his coffee cup. His eyes were on the clues and the rhythm came and went as he read.

“Hugo, my darling,” she said after a moment.

He looked up, and then smiled once again and looked back at the paper. “Too early for my breakfast sonata in G?”

            “It’s always too early,” Elise told him, and eased back onto her elbows with her tea up to her face, inhaling the steam instead of drinking.

            “That is positively heart-breaking. Perhaps we oughtn’t to marry after all.” And as an addendum, “They’ve put ‘Gegs’ in again. Which I happen to think displays a marked lack of originality on the part of Mr. Xenophon.”

            “I’ve always said it was a bad idea,” she countered mildly, looking past him at the open door and the willows moving in the tiny breeze. She tried to breathe evenly, tried to sit quietly, while a part of her was convinced that none of this was real, that all the colours were wrong and that she needed to somehow wake up out of this life into something else.

            She could feel Hugo watching her now, and wondered whether he would mock her again and for a moment thought she might actually cry if he did, which would be awful for both of them. But his voice was warm as he said, “It’s going to be a tough one today, isn’t it?” and his hand as he reached out to take hers was steady enough to keep her still.

            The sympathy, she realised with surprise, was actually worse than the mockery. Without any thoughts having a chance to intervene, her eyes were already responding to it, and she turned away from him.

            She felt his arms fold around her.

            “Are you sure you don’t-”

            “I’m sure,” she told him, and tried to smile without looking at him.

            “Or if you don’t go, I’ll tell them I have typhoid and we’ll head into town. Or to the coast. Wherever makes it harder to think about.”

            She swallowed, and then glanced up at him and was disconcerted to see how serious his expression looked. So unlike him, and the way the two of them were with each other.

            “I’ll be fine, Mr. Mendiel,” she said, trying to bring back the lightness and flippancy. It was made easier by the disconnected feeling which was always ready to spring at her. “You have many great artistic pursuits to...”

            “Embody? Give life to? Run after, perhaps?” He smiled with a little wickedness, and with relief she smiled back, though not before throwing his hand back into his lap.

            “I believe the word I was searching for was ‘ruin,’” she told him, and drew away from him a little. “I would never stand in the way of the destruction of art.”

            “There there, darling,” he countered, putting his hand back on hers to pat it. “There’s no need to envy what you can’t imitate.”

            She made a noise of outrage and cuffed him over the side of the head, which Hugo somehow saw as a reason to grab her towards him and kiss her. Elise hit him again, but kissed him in return, finding in the kiss at least a sense that it was her being kissed and doing the kissing. She wondered if her kiss tasted like somebody who had been crying.

            She heard the steps behind her before Hugo hastily retreated back to his chair. Elise recognised the quick, soft tread. It was only Minchin and neither of her parents. She knew there would be a comment later, but Minchin was well-trained enough to leave his ribbing until their guest was on his way. Anyway, she couldn’t really bring herself to care about that today.

            Minchin deposited a plate of buttered toast onto the table and asked, “More coffee, Mr. Mendiel? Or anything else I can bring you of which you might be in want?” Which she supposed could be interpreted as a pointed comment if Hugo were of a sensitive disposition.

            Hugo being Hugo, he said instead, “I’m fine, thank you Minchin. I must be off before seven.”

            “That is a shame, sir. Mr. and Mrs. Herwood will be very sorry to have missed you this morning.”

            “Thank you, Minchin.”

            As the butler bowed his way out, Hugo made as if to take up where he left off, but Elise withdrew from him.

            “I’m not quite so confident that you will miss my parents if you stay around for that sort of thing,” she said, squeezing his hand briefly and then picking up her teacup again. “And as happy as they are to host you at their house in the modern manner, I suspect they would be less than thrilled at walking in on your carryings on.”

            “My carryings on?” he exclaimed. “When you practically jumped me the night-”

            “-or any of your inappropriate conversations, for that matter,” she interrupted him, blushing slightly in spite of herself.

            “I don’t say I mind being jumped,” he added, looking down at the crossword once again. “Any time you feel the need to do so again is fine by me.” A quick look at her and a cherubic smile.

            She sighed slightly and got halfway towards responding before giving up. After a moment or two of muttering to himself over various clues (which he always denied doing whenever she brought the subject up) he said more thoughtfully, “They don’t really like me, do they?”

            “My parents?” she asked, without really needing to. She saw the way his eyes rose to her, a little slyly, as they usually did when the topic came up. She was well aware that he enjoyed the idea of being disapproved of, but if she actually came out and told him that her parents disliked him, he would be absurdly hurt. So she soothed him as usual. “Dearest  Hugo. The fact that you’re invited here when there are no parties to show you off at is as close to displaying adoration as they’re likely to come. They’re just – sad. And not used to showing how they feel.”  She shrugged. “And possibly a little shocked by how quickly it’s all happened.”

            “They aren’t alone,” he told her, and then quickly lifted her hand and kissed it with that way he had of making it seem like a holy relic. “But I defy anyone not to see that it’s absolutely right, in spite of every other awful thing that’s happened.”

            “Maybe because of,” she replied, and squeezed his hand again in return, as much because being reminded about Robert was making her feel disconnected again, as because she wanted to show her affection in return. Which wasn’t the most adoring-wife-to-be thing to feel, she supposed. But she thought he’d probably understand if she got around to explaining it to him.

            The sound of a window opening on the floor above the sun-room was enough to eventually spur Hugo into action. Not before he had dragged her to her feet and kissed her and then tried unsuccessfully to tip her over backwards a la motion picture, which she couldn’t help laughing at in spite of coming into contact with the edge of the table quite sharply.

            And then he was gone, and she was not quite sure whether she had left with him, because surely this wasn’t really her, standing in her real home. If she looked hard enough, she must find find an incorrect detail, something to tell her that this was a dream, or an hallucination, or some extraordinary simulacrum caused by the wonders of science. Hadn’t they told her in that first philosophy lecture that it was possible? To set up such detailed projections that it was impossible to tell they were imitations?

            But then she wouldn’t be able to feel the texture of the cotton in her dress, and touch the raffia table, which her shaking right hand moved to repeatedly, and then away. The only other explanation was that she wasn’t here herself, and this was all real, but that she wasn’t. Somehow that was easier to believe than that this place existed in absence – forever – of Robert.

            Background noises from the house resolved into the sharp sound of her father’s shoes on the granite flooring in the hall and Elise quickly poured herself some more tea, trying not to let her hands shake and concentrating on the tea filling the cup. It was caused by her; it wouldn’t happen without her. She was there, herself, Elise, in the flesh.

Philip was orderly and immaculate this morning, except that it wasn’t just this morning. His careful grooming was a constant in a world that had changed.

 “Your mother isn’t going to be coming,” he told her with flat intonation. “She dreamed about him laughing in her face last night, and she tells me she just can’t face being there. I told her we’ll be as quick as we can to come back.”

            Elise could think of nothing to say, so she nodded. She couldn’t imagine missing this day but it was different for her. Robert hadn’t been her son.

            Her father cleared his throat. “And you’re – ah – you’re all right, are you?”

            Elise was. She had been all right for ten weeks whenever he asked. Today was the same, except that, in a moment of cruelty, she asked him, “And you?”

            He made four inarticulate sounds in a row. Eventually he managed, “You know me, my dear.” And when she continued to watch him, he added, half-heartedly, “Looking forward to seeing the bastard swing.”

            Elise nodded again, and spent a moment or two longer looking at his elderly face before she rose to leave the room, walking away from her pity for him before it eroded the rest of her. One of the most unexpected parts of her grief was how often she disliked herself now.

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