This is episode eight of 'Paternity' in which journalist Pip Holmes takes a reckless step that leads her into trouble on a dark night. But will it lead to the answer of her chilling question - was her father a rapist?
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Pip felt as though a sledge hammer was at work on her chest, and her breath was coming fast. She had just got used to the conundrum of trying to sort out the three rapists — attempting to arrange them in her mind as prospective fathers. That job had been difficult enough, but this!
Wimpole was ringing his delicate hands and looking everywhere else but at Pip.
‘We were all young … and easily pressured. It’s so very difficult in a small town.’
‘All right.’ The words exploded from deep within her, ‘but who was the fourth man that night?’
‘It was his idea you know. Oh yes Gazza and Pug were only too pleased to be in it, but Robson pulled the strings. They abducted your mother and Robson turned up afterwards to share the spoils.’
‘Robson?’ Pip was finding it difficult to absorb all of this …
‘His father was a solicitor and a big name around here. When it all came out they made threats. They insisted that he be left out of it. Out of the police investigations. I must also admit that some money changed hands …’
Wimpole’s eyes were red and puffed, and the words tumbled from his mouth now as though they were hot coals.
‘This has been a burden Miss Holmes, and I am pleased I have told you. But I cannot make this official in any way. You must understand that. I must live here. I cannot dredge up the past. My entire lifestyle would change. A teacher of small children … I’ve kept it quiet so far.
‘I was so lucky that I was not stopped from teaching after the trial. I probably would have been except that the judge made some kind comments after they were sentenced …’
He had become an automaton: programmed to tell his story despite the consequences.
Frank was clattering away on an ancient Underwood typewriter when Pip walked into the Guardian office.
The place was officially closed on Saturday afternoons, but Frank had said he’d had some catching up to do …
‘Didn’t ever have the heart to throw out this old thing,’ he said, patting the metal ringed keys.
‘Hey look, I’ve got some news …’
Pip’s tone of voice must have signalled her tension, because Frank immediately twirled on his chair to look straight at her.
‘What do you know about a guy called Robson?’
Frank’s face furrowed into a grimace of disgust. ‘Con Robson. He’s the low life who swindled half the town’s oldies out of their retirement savings. Current generation of a family of crooked legal eagles.’
‘Who did he rip off?’
‘Every cashed up old woman for miles around. Robson invested their funds in shonky deals until the law caught up with him. Must have got away with a couple of million. And left a lot of people destitute.’
Sitting there on the edge of the heavy old desk, Pip delivered a potted version of Wimpole’s story. Frank began pacing the small space in the middle of the cluttered room, and then stopped to face her.
‘Are you ready for this kiddo?’
‘Mmmm. What’s to be ready for?’
‘He got out of gaol only a few months back. Did six years.’
Pip picked up a pen and began tapping it absentmindedly on the desk. This was something to get your head around.
It seemed the sunlight had dimmed a little before either of them spoke again.
‘I met him the other night Frank — at the football meeting. He was with Gazza.’
‘That would be right. Birds of a feather.’
‘But they don’t seem at all alike …’
‘Not physically, but they’ve got things in common. A low cunning, for one.’
‘Staunch had no time for him, but he didn’t tell me Robson had been in gaol. And neither did George.’
‘Some sort of town loyalty I suppose.’
By six-thirty that evening, after a questionable and early meal in the dining room, Pip lay at full length on the faded pink chenille bedspread, eyes following the swirling pattern of English-style roses embossed on the fake plaster ceiling.
So … Con Robson. The fourth man. Frank had said he was repulsive: tiny, quiet and secretive and with a handshake like a wet fish. He had dark brown hair and a limp left over from a speeding accident. That jelled with the character she’d seen with Gazza at the footy meeting.
Her father? Was he her father?
Frank reckoned Robson treated his attractive red-haired wife and three skinny children as though they were his possessions more than anything. He said the family liked to present a façade of high respectability in the town.
Only after the arrest did people break the silence surrounding hideous deals and illegal schemes woven for years by the solicitor and his austere father. The old man died years before, and Con had proved a worthy successor, carrying on the fraudulent business for some time without discovery.
Just what had she uncovered? Pip dragged herself off the bed and poured a glass of water from the jug. She couldn’t have hoped to find a decent, fitting father among a pack of rapists. But this lot had turned out to be a pretty deranged bunch.
Was Con Robson her father? Without clear evidence yet, she still felt that Gazza and Wimpole were not. And Pug Raven really did seem unlikely. But how could she get to prove anything? How?
Pip realised she couldn’t just march up to Robson and demand that he get a DNA test. Apart from Wimpole’s story, there was nothing to pin the rape on him. Wimpole wouldn’t speak openly, and there was no way Robson would walk into the dock himself.
She took a headache tablet, crawled between the sheets, and woke up an hour later.
Staunch had drawn her a mud map of the route to take to the Rouse farm, and Pip found it after only one false alarm. Not bad in the dark, she told herself, given the intricate twists and turns of the unmade roads and the lack of signs.
She felt uneasy about the reception awaiting her after the treatment Jesse Rouse meted out in the Greek café, but Harold Staunch had undertaken to arrive early and smooth her path, and he was a formidable ally.
A smile on the face of Mrs Irene Rouse confirmed that Staunch had done his job, even though Jesse himself remained aloof and unco-operative but, thankfully, polite enough. They gathered around a long table in the kitchen that seemed to be the centre of the household and everyday family life. The two children were already in bed in a sleep-out she’d noticed on the way in.
The kitchen was a large shabby room scattered with sundry uncomfortable straight backed chairs and warmed by a wood stove at one end. One of those 1940s kitchen dressers with doors decorated in tinted glass stood in a corner. There was a discoloured porcelain sink and several pieces of damp washing hung limp on a piece of rope suspended from two of the walls.
Everything wooden was painted a sickly pale green, all of it chipped, and the linoleum floor was cracked and faded. The Rouse family was doing it hard.
Irene Rouse used the corner of a kitchen towel to wipe away her tears as she told the city reporter the story of the day her son died. She looked more attractive without her squashed felt hat. Her mousy coloured long hair was caught back with a comb, and this showed off her high cheekbones. In her sorrow, sitting in her kitchen and dredging her memories in an obliging way for a stranger, there was something quite noble about her.
Pip adjusted the volume control on her tape recorder to counter the softness of the woman’s voice.
‘There couldn’t be anything more horrible, Miss Holmes. Jimmy lay there so still and white, and I couldn’t do anything. That long ride to the hospital was a nightmare. It went on and on and when it finally ended it was too late …’
In her anguish Irene Rouse screwed the towel into a knot. Her eyes were liquid pain.
‘It is madness to close down our little hospital when other help is so far away … We must do something to make it safe for our kids. They say helicopters … Anything, so long as not one more child dies.’
‘Politicians do take note of publicity Mrs Rouse. The paper will do what it can. Tell me about Jimmy … what sort of a boy was he?’
Mrs Rouse took a deep breath and looked at her husband. Jesse was standing, his back to the wood stove, supporting himself on the railing of one of the chairs. His knuckles were white, ringing support from the wood. Harold Staunch rose from his own chair and walked three steps to place a reassuring hand on the farmer’s broad shoulders.
At that moment Pip became aware that another person had entered through the door behind her. She twisted and oddly felt no surprise to see that a man was standing silently in the darkened doorway. The fellow had let himself in, and there was no warning of his approach.
It was Con Robson.
‘Mr. Robson, you’re here …’ Jesse Rouse offered Robson the chair closest to the stove. It seemed the solicitor was expected.
Pip calmly leaned over and put a new tape in her machine. The small click she made as the tiny cassette went home was thunderous in the quiet room.
Irene Rouse broke the silence again. ‘Umm, Miss Holmes, this is our solicitor, Mr. Con Robson.’
‘Oh, Mr. Robson and I have met.’ Pip hoped her touch of irony got through. At the time she felt that Robson approved of Gazza’s little scalding effort at the football meeting. He’d stood beside the mechanic, impervious to her discomfort.
‘Mr. Robson is here to look after our interests. He is advising us in our dealings with the insurance company …’ Jesse Rouse had an edge to his voice.
Con Robson sat there in the chair, sullen and avoiding visual contact, making no effort to acknowledge her presence.
Pip decided to ignore him, and continued the interview.
‘So young Jim was good at football Mrs Rouse?’
‘He was very good Miss Holmes. One of the best in the team. He was a popular boy …’
‘I understand he hit his head on the post on his way to scoring a goal …’
‘That’s enough Miss Holmes!’ Robson’s voice boomed across the room at her. It was a strong, deep voice; articulate — a complete contrast to his appearance.
‘What do you mean by that?’ she countered.
‘Talk about how the accident occurred might very well compromise my clients. I don’t want you to take this path.’ He turned to Jesse Rouse: ‘In fact I can’t see anything positive in this. I’ve been against any dealings with the media right from the beginning …’
‘But Miss Holmes’ newspaper wants to help with our community health problems. It’s for the good of the town.’ Irene seemed stronger since talking about her troubles, but Pip didn’t like the mother’s chances of changing the attitude of this man.
‘Come on Robson. Let’s have a bit of co-operation.’ Staunch’s nose had become quite red. ‘Look at the wider picture man.’ At least he was on her side.
‘I see your point, but I’ll be very careful. There are ways and means …’ Inside, Pip was losing patience. She leant forward on her chair. ‘I’d really like to help. It’s personal in a way too. A sort of act of forgiveness to the town — on behalf of my mother.’
Staunch looked startled. ‘Your mother?’
‘It was a long time ago. Before I was born in fact. My mother was raped here when she was a young woman. Raped by a number of men in bush a few miles away.’
Pip made sure she looked straight at Robson as she said this. He remained absolutely without emotion.
She knew she’d been reckless, but what the hell.
‘How awful,’ Irene Rouse’s eyes were wide.
Staunch was looking thoughtful. ‘What year was this Miss Holmes?’
‘July 1975 Harold.’
‘Yes, I remember the case.’
Two of the men were sentenced to gaol for it …’ Pip’s gaze remained on Robson, gauging his reactions. There were still none. He was as unreadable as a blank page.
Not long afterwards Pip took her leave of the Rouse household and its guests. Robson got his way and halted the interview, but she judged there was enough material on the tape for her purposes.
She arranged to call Staunch the next day, and watched his old Mercedes Benz disappear down the road south before climbing into her own car to head north to the town and a good sleep.
Pip set off in second gear, picking slowly between occasional rocks that appeared in the badly maintained dirt track.
Thick scrub and occasional large gums crowded in on her vehicle, often blotting out her view of the way ahead. She found the turn left on Staunch’s mud map and began peering through the darkness for a T intersection that signalled the road into town.
Two headlights on high beam pierced the night behind her. Everything ahead disappeared — the road, the trees, the rocks — as the sudden intense glare robbed her of sight.
Instinctively she braked as the vehicle swept past in a deafening engine roar and cut in immediately in front of her own headlights. It was a large car. A large black Mercedes. The driver propped, triggering a bank of dazzling red brake lights within a metre of her bonnet.
Pip swerved to the left towards oblivion, and smashed into a tree. The mystery driver gunned the powerful engine and howled into the darkness.
Pip’s car had rammed a small paperbark. She lay half stunned against the steering wheel for a few minutes, and gingerly felt a painful spot on her face. She rattled around the rubbish in her glove box to find a torch, and shaking, got out of the car. The tree had punched a neat half circle in her bumper.
Pip moved around the car, shining the torch under it and at the tyres but could find no more damage. It was lucky she had been travelling slowly when that idiot did his work.
It was Robson of course. His road rage had to be some sort of threat to get her to back away from looking into the rape case. Pip was beginning to understand how the solicitor operated.
Standing there in the dark, dizziness came at her in a wave, and she threw out an arm against the car door to stop herself falling. She dropped the torch and its beam played on a heap of dead leaves at the side of the track.
Her glance left the comfort of the shaft of light and attempted to pierce the darkness. Anyone could be there watching her …
As rapidly as she could, Pip stepped into the car and slammed the door shut, locking it. Carefully, she reversed and made it to the road into town.
What now, she wondered ...
©June Saville 2008. Not to be reproduced without express written permission of the author.
GO TO EPISODE NINE
Pip's recklessness stirred up the crooked solicitor Con Robson - would you have taken such a risk in her situation? Tell me in a comment and please let me know if you are enjoying the story ...