Nature made the Blamires boys identical; temperament undid the trick. They were born forty nine years before, two screaming bundles brought into the world in the tiny front room of 3 Arden Cottages, a hundred yards down the lane from the Green Man. Harry Blamire senior was propping up the bar at the time. He’d finished the day on the Marley estate, walked to the door of his tied cottage, then turned round when he heard the commotion inside.
“You’re early,” the landlord said.
“Whelpin’ going on,” Harry senior grunted, and stuck his face into the first of several pints of Bishop’s Finger. It was one of the longer sentences he uttered in a relatively short life. When the twins were six years old, and all too familiar with the Blamire boot, belt and fist, Harry senior, worse for wear, walked into an oncoming threshing machine on the long Marley field, close to the chalk horse. The graphic, visual description of his demise was now a part of village folk lore, something to repeat on a slow, long night in the public bar when there was an over-enthusiastic incomer who was simply pleading for a touch of damping down.
Up to the age of fifteen, even Agnes Blamire found it hard to tell the twins apart. Then along came Burning Man and solved the problem. The boys liked to drink by then, and she never did ask where they got the money. Old man Marley had promised them a job on the estate starting the following spring, when the planting season began. That meant they could keep the tied cottage, and it ought to bring in the cash too. Things were looking up, and that always did make Agnes feel uncomfortable.
It was the Ashford boys, visiting for the fire and unwanted too, that started it. Taunting. Shouting. Calling names. Oik. Sheep-shagger. Numpty. The twins were short. They had compact, round faces, with narrow, squinty eyes. If you didn’t look too hard it was easy to think they were just stupid country layabouts, incapable of stringing a sentence together. But Agnes knew her boys better than that. They were smart. They could be cunning. Somewhere, in the invisible space between them, was that mysterious, binding mechanism twins had, the one that sometimes made them seem like the same person, alive in two separate bodies. Agnes could be scared of the boys now and then. If she felt that way, strangers ought to as well.
Not that the Ashford gang understood any of this. They’d had their fill of warm, strong Spitfire bitter in the pub. Dutch courage coursed its insidious fire through their veins. They were bigger on the ground as well. There were only two Blamire boys. The Ashford gang ran to six and a couple of unsavoury looking girls. No-one knew what started the fight. All anyone could remember was the sudden, swift ferocity of the boys. Arms flailing, screaming incomprehensibly, they turned on their attackers and beat them to the ground, might have killed them too if a couple of the local men hadn’t gingerly intervened.
Then one of the Ashford kids pulled out a knife, metal glinted in the bright afternoon sun, and Agnes Blamire’s twins were no longer identical. The blade gave Harry what he liked to call his lightning streak. The zigzag wound down his left cheek required 52 stitches at the William Harvey hospital. It was so deep that stubble never grew in the scar, making the mark even more noticeable because of its paleness against the reddish coarseness of the rest of Harry’s face.
The youth who wielded the knife saw fit, after listening to local chatter, to move to a bedsit in Gravesend, thirty miles away, get a job in the docks, and forget about Ashford altogether. Two years after scarring Harry he went out one night on his moped and never returned. Agnes was dead by then, gone in her sleep. The boys occupied 3 Arden Cottage in a state of perpetual near-squalor, living off baked beans and TV dinners in a house strewn with pornographic magazines, odd trophies they picked up from following the hunt — a pair of stag horns, a fox brush. They mellowed over the years. Old man Marley even sold them the cottage for a knockdown price before he died. But the Blamire spirit was always there. Harry’s lightning streak never darkened.
Alison and Miles Fenway, knowing only a little of this tale, walked slowly over the Minnis towards the bonfire. He had held her hand when they walked through the big double gate set in the hedge of copper beech at the front of the house. Alison, not knowing why, shook free when she saw the twins. The cricketers had left the pitch and were taking tea in the little white-painted pavilion at the perimeter of the ground. Beyond the perfect grass, which the Blamires tended daily, one of their several sources of local income, the rest of the Minnis stretched over the top of the Downs towards Folkestone, a tangle of low shrubs and bracken where you could get lost for hours. Spinneys of blackthorn ran through the common, all the way to Sterning Wood. The sloes were now ripening fast. The previous day she had picked a few. They looked so beautiful: tiny wild blue plums with a handsome powdery sheen. She’d tasted one and spat it out, the fruit was so bitter. Sara Harrison, who was close by with her small, noisy dog, had noticed and promised to show her how to make sloe brandy. “So much better than the gin.” She liked Sara, though they had hardly spoken. Soon she would take up the offer.
Miles was distracted talking to the local doctor Tyler. Harry Blamire openly leered at her, sniffing the air. “You smell lovely, Mrs Fenway. Like you was made of flowers.”
“Chanel, Harry. What else can a girl wear?”
“You got nice tits too,” he said, and winked.
Alison beamed at him, unfazed. “And — what is you guys call it? — the box?”
Harry’s piggy eyes narrowed. “Oh, nice box. Yeah. Not that we saw as much as we would have liked. Now did we, Mitchy boy?”
The other one didn’t smile often. Or talk so much either. “Box is a box,” he said finally. “Seen one, seen ’em all. Tits are different. Tits vary.”
Harry shrugged his big, powerful shoulders. The twins were built like bull terriers. “That’s Mitch for you. The philosophical sort. Me, I’ll gawp at whatever comes my way.”
“Darling?” Miles had his hand lightly on her shoulder. He looked puzzled. Had he heard? Or was Doctor Tyler so riveting?
“Mitch here was saying that my tits are fine but my box — no, all boxes — are the same. Harry, on the other hand, likes both. What do you think, Miles?”
Miles Fenway looked as if he’d swallowed a fish. “I, er, I…”
He was a good six inches bigger than both. She’d seen Miles in a fight too, long ago in a smoke-filled downtown bar. He’d been transformed into a dark, muscular shape gripped by a sudden burst of violent fury. Miles could look after himself if the occasion arose. “I think we should close the curtains a little more often in future.”
“These Yanks,” Harry said beaming. “They’re all hippies, you ask me. Can’t blame a man for looking.” He punched his twin on the shoulder, quite hard it seemed to her, and they went back to heaving wood onto the pile.
The straw man was beside the bonfire now. She couldn’t help looking at it. Granny Jukes and a couple of women from the short line of council houses at the edge of the village were fiddling with the construction. Sara Harrison was helping in the background. The creature had a flimsy wooden skeleton which could have been wicker or willow whips. Its skin was dry, brittle straw of the kind that seemed to litter every narrow lane leading onto the common this last week. The carcass was hollow. Two large gaps had been left in the head. When the bonfire was ablaze, she guessed, they would look like burning eyes, staring straight out at you.
“It’s a harmless sacrifice.” John Tyler’s voice made her jump. The doctor had walked up to stand beside her and she hadn’t even noticed. “I’m sorry. Did I scare you?”
“No, I…” Miles was watching her like a hawk. It seemed so important to him that these people were impressed. “I was thinking of something else. A sacrifice?”
John Tyler reminded her of an old, inquisitive, bald-headed eagle. His face was pinched and almost bloodless. A pair of gold-rimmed spectacles perched on a long, bony nose. Two pale grey eyes watched her, always. Most doctors she knew hated being reminded of their profession off duty. Tyler was one of the rare, opposite kind who’d walk up to complete strangers at parties and advise them to go for a thyroid check-up. He looked in his late fifties, quite fit in a cadaverous way. As usual, he wore a thin wool jumper, this time in bright red with the name ‘Pringle’ embroidered upon it. His wife, Marjorie stood by his side, smiling silently, in a proprietorial fashion. Marjorie was a huge woman with a flabby red face and a booming, bossy voice. It wasn’t hard to work out who was in charge of the Tyler household.
“Purely symbolic. Nothing but straw,” Tyler continued. “It marks the end of summer, the end of the harvest. The ritual sacrifice of this year’s corn guarantees the next. The Christian church couldn’t stomach that idea, of course, so instead we have Michaelmas, the feast of the Archangel Michael. Who was a pretty fearsome chap in his own right, but that’s another story.”
Alison watched Marjorie Tyler listening patiently. She must have heard it a million times, judging by the bored look on her face. “Anthropology was always beyond me, Dr Tyler. Why do you need a sacrifice to guarantee anything?”
He shrugged. “You’re from New England, Mrs Fenway. An old family?”
“On my mother’s side, yes. She was true Boston brahmin, and earlier than that too.”
Marjorie suddenly looked interested. “Much earlier my dear?”
“Right back to the pilgrim fathers. The Parkers were on the Mayflower. We even had someone at Salem when all that witch nonsense was happening. Rosalind Parker. Rosalind was…”
She stared at the huge, skeleton taking shape on the grass and went silent.
“Burned, I imagine?” Tyler offered.
“Yes,” she replied quietly. The Tylers exchanged impenetrable glances.
“Primitive people hold primitive beliefs,” John Tyler continued, “Why do we need Christmas? Why do we drink the blood of Christ? Human beings like rituals. Still do. Although our distant, pre-Christian ancestors weren’t as primitive as many think. The timing is quite deliberate. The autumnal equinox, the point at which day ceases to be longer than night, when the god of darkness moves into supremacy over the god of light. There are a million stories — the Welsh Blodeuwedd, John Barleycorn— but they all tend to the same view. Renewal through a token sacrifice guarantees the return of light. And with it prosperity, the fecundity of the land. Not a lot on your side of the pond except for the native American Corn God cycle. The Puritans saw to that. I do so think America would have been more interesting if the red man had won, don’t you?”
“I guess that’s what they teach in class these days.”
Tyler peered intently into her face. “Oh yes. And you need fire too. A cleansing fire. That seems to be a common thread.”
Dammit, Miles. You told him. You probably told the lot of them.
Which was, she knew, quite ridiculous. She turned her back on the Burning Man. “So that’s it? This weird cricket stuff you do? A bonfire?”
Marjorie Tyler giggled. “Not quite, darling,” she said, in a thick, ginny Home Counties drawl. She made a little dance around them, singing in a wavering, high-pitched voice.
“Little Sir John of the nut brown bowl
And the brandy in his glass
Aye, little Sir John of the nut brown bowl
Proved the strongest man at last
For the huntsman he can’t hurt the fox
Nor loudly blow his horn
And the tinker can’t mend either kettle or pots
Wi’out a little John Barleycorn.”
John Tyler watched her icily. “Traditionally one gets as pissed as a parrot on Burning Man day. And my wife, as you may have gathered, is a great stickler for tradition.”
(c) David Hewson 2012