By eight in the evening, when the sun was setting somewhere over Romney Marsh, most of Beulah seemed to have joined Marjorie Tyler in her interpretation of the ritual. The bar of the Green Man was heaving with locals and a ragged band of bohemian outsiders who had hitched a ride to the proceedings.
In essence, Alison gathered, this was a village fete. But Beulah, of course, had to have its variations. A local farmer, a fierce looking man with a bushy grey beard, had herded a flock of ducks across the Minnis using a couple of hungry looking sheepdogs. The long, white birds, with extended necks, like Masai women snatched from Africa and transformed by witchcraft, walked through tiny gates, up and down a miniature wooden bridge. A small crowd looked on mutely. They must have watched this year in and year out since the year dot, she guessed. Perhaps John Tyler was right and Burning Man had been here forever. The duckherd too. A thousand years before you could have stood on this very spot, yawning in half-drunk admiration at the same pointless ceremony.
Then the stalls were cleared away and the small, bustling crowd moved to the pub. The air had the delicious promise of autumn inside it, overlaid with the cruder smell of charcoal and burnt meat. Miles was inside. “Mixing,” he said. He was turning out to be a good mixer. During the week she hardly saw him. At the weekends, he could scarcely wait to get into the pub and let his hair down with the variegated locals.
She didn’t begrudge this. Making love in the afternoon was a ritual now, and one day the magic would work. He had even bought his own charms, the furtive collection of “sex aids” he kept hidden in a box in the cupboard. Velvet sashes, a blindfold, tie me up, tie me down stuff. Next time, she promised herself, the curtains would stay closed.
She could forgive his time in the pub. Back in London, Miles worked hard, harder than either of them could ever have contemplated. At the weekends the mantle of the city fell from his shoulders. He dressed like a country brute, got an enormous kick from charging round the garden on his new miniature tractor. He looked so young again, playing the country squire, and she loved that part of him. She loved Priory House more and more too. The three-storeyed pile was imposing without being grand. It demanded to be lived in. Sometimes she felt it quietly cursed her for failing to fill the spare bedrooms with kids and the noisy, sprawling detritus of a real family.
Even the pub had a positive effect. GPs and farmhands, lawyers and postmen, gamekeepers and the odd, stray accountant, the Green Man seemed to attract an extraordinary mix of men to its long, central bar. They stood there for hours, beneath the dried hop garlands talking about anything, absolutely anything, but business. Miles came back bright and sparkling, and only a touch pissed. He needed the break from the bank. They both did.
Alison watched the sun disappear behind the ridge of the Downs and finished her third glass of Beaujolais. Almost immediately another appeared in front of her face, carried by a long, slim arm encased in the loose folds of a rather dated cheesecloth shirt.
“Bottoms up,” Sara Harrison said and chinked their glasses together. “If the buggers in there can get arseholed, so can we.”
“Don’t thank me. This one’s on granny.”
The old bat was two tables away, peering at them through the crowd, holding up a half of bitter. “Chiz!” yelled a cracked voice through the hubbub.
They both returned the gesture. “Wow,” Alison gasped. “I hope to Christ I can still party like that at her age.”
“Granny’s a figurehead here. Has she invited you into the windmill yet?”
Sara shrugged. “Too early I suppose. When you go in for a cup of tea there, you really have arrived in Beulah.”
“Can’t wait.” Alison tried the wine. It tasted more bitter somehow.
“They’ve drunk the last bottle of the decent stuff,” Sara said, watching her. “Now we’re down to the cooking plonk I’m afraid. I’ll get you a gin if you want?”
She shook her head quickly, fearing that a second’s hesitation would send Sara back to the crowded bar, fighting for a double. “I think it may start coming out of my ears in a moment.”
“Moderation,” Sara agreed. “An excellent idea. You’re trying to conceive I imagine? Drink and fags reduce the chances awfully, they say. And if Miles’ little wrigglers do hit the spot, the chances are they won’t stick. Not if you don’t give up.”
Alison tried to think straight through the booze cloud. “He told you that?”
“Who?” She was puzzled. “Oh, you mean Miles. Good Lord no. Doesn’t have to. You don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to work it out. Either a bundle is on the way. Or you’re working at it. Fancy a burger? I do.”
Alison mumbled something that sounded like yes. Sara grabbed the passing Mitch Blamire by the shoulder and yelled, “Be a darling and get us a couple of burgers off the barbie, Mitch. Pint of Spit in it for you.”
“I didn’t realise it was that obvious,” Alison said. Harry Blamire returned swiftly with two charred lumps of unidentifiable meat stuffed inside a soft Tesco bun then shuffled back to the bar. The burger didn’t taste too bad. She hadn’t realised how hungry she was.
“Seasons. Everything in life comes down to seasons. Been trying long?”
You had to tell someone. The secret couldn’t stay locked in Manhattan forever. “Too long. I miscarried last year. Twelve weeks in.”
Sara stared at her, aghast, then put a soft hand on her shoulder. “Bugger. What a cretin I am.”
Sara was tall, almost six foot, and willowy thin. She always seemed to wear loose, shapeless clothes, on this occasion a long, flowing purple skirt that came to her ankles and a baggy cheesecloth top. Her hair was a mess, a big, bright orange tangle of curls that shot out of her head in all directions. An open, honest face, lightly covered with freckles, long, with high cheekbones. And bright blue eyes that always looked surprised, never ceasing to dart everywhere, looking for the next wonder in the world.
They seemed so different. Alison was the product of a standard, broken New England home. Skinny, smart, and scatty, she had fallen through life, tumbling from bad stage school into the black art of marketing, tumbling into beds, into marriage, all the while turning to her anxious, pale attractiveness to get her out of whatever mess happened to come along. Sara was probably her own age, no more than thirty three or four, but so exotic. She couldn’t begin to guess what made her like this. She only knew there was something about Sara she liked, admired even. There was no Home Counties reticence, none of the standard, middle class English deceit. What you saw — puzzling at it might be — was what you got.
“You don’t need to apologise,” Alison said, smiling. “Why do people always do that? These things happen all the time.”
“All the same, I was being forward. Me all over.” She stuffed the remains of the burger into her mouth and mumbled something utterly incomprehensible.
“I said…” she took a deep swig of wine, “I’m in the same boat too. On the conceiving front. Although you’re one step ahead of me. At least you know whose little wrigglers are supposed to be doing the job.”
Alison wondered how much she’d had to drink. Not that much, surely. She finished her wine, popped through the pub door, tapped Miles on the shoulder and asked him to get a couple of gin and tonics, doubles. He was part of a noisy gaggle of men, most of whom she didn’t recognise. He looked happy.
“Going for the big one?” Miles asked, a slight slur in his voice. He gazed behind her. Sara was inside now too. “Hope you’re not leading my little girl astray, Miss Harrison.”
Sara smiled icily. “I think your little girl is capable of making her own decisions, Miles.”
“Oh shit,” he barked to the grinning gaggle at the bar. “Foot in mouth again.”
Harry Blamire was looking at them. “Generally speaking, this is a men’s area,” he said. “When it’s Burning Man, anyway.”
“Oh,” Sara said, mock apologetically. “I am sorry. Back to your discourse, gents. What is it tonight? Wittgenstein? Kant?”
“Mind your language, gel,” Harry cautioned. He looked more like an upright bull terrier than ever. His glassy eyes glowered back at them, uncomprehending.
They backed out of the bar, both convulsed in hysterical laughter.
“‘Mind your language, gel!’” Sara roared.
It was dark now, the night seemed to have fallen on a sudden lurch of gravity. Granny Jukes was fast asleep on one of the pub benches, her back to the wall. She was snoring like an ancient walrus. Alison shivered. Someone was starting to work on the bonfire, spreading petrol around the base. She could smell the harshness of the fuel. The straw effigy was nowhere to be seen.
“At least that’s one set of little wrigglers you don’t need to worry about.”
“Harry?” Sara asked, suddenly serious. “Oh, I don’t know. He’s fit. And strong. And both the boys — God, why do we all call them that, they’re nearly fifty — both of them are a lot brighter than they act.”
“You could not, for one second, countenance…” Alison was lost for words.
“I’m thirty four. Not quite mutton dressed as lamb yet, but not far off. One reason I’m in this fix is I’ve been too choosy. Perhaps I should start lowering the entry barriers.”
“Not that much.”
Sara went quiet. Alison wondered if she had gone too far.
“We’re different,” Sara said eventually. “You want to have Miles’ baby because it’s for the two of you. I just want one for me. I don’t care what happens afterwards. He can bugger off to Mars if he wants. Or just fall off his perch.”
She wasn’t sure she liked this sudden serious turn in the conversation. “You could get it done. Artificial insemination. Whatever.”
“Hah!” Sara laughed, and her wild hair blocked out the faint but growing image of the moon for a moment. “I could give Harry Blamire an empty yoghurt pot and a copy of Playboy.”
If you were that desperate, Alison wondered, why not?
“Because,” said Sara, almost reading her mind, “it just wouldn’t be right. I want to conceive. Properly. With a man, grunting and sweating over me. I want to feel that happen. The way it’s supposed to be.”
Alison said nothing.
“I just haven’t found the right occasion,’ Sara went on. ‘Not yet. But I will. You too. Fate, darling. You found Priory House. Or it found you. Which was it by the way?”
The question echoed dully in her head. Miles had inherited the place from a dead, distant aunt while she was in the clinic, struggling to regain what equilibrium she might possess. The process that took them from the apartment in Manhattan to this slightly faded mansion in the wilds of England was still somewhat hazy. She no longer cared about the details. It was right. That was all that mattered.
“I don’t have a clue,” she replied. “And frankly, I don’t give a damn.”
Sara punched her lightly on the shoulder. “That’s the spirit. We’ll make you English yet. Lady of the manor. Queen of the May.”
Alison took a sip of the gin and tonic. It tasted warm and flat. She’d had too much to drink. Her head felt heavy. She didn’t feel like staying up to watch the Burning Man. It was just a bonfire after all.
“Maybe tonight,” Sara said quietly changing the subject. “Something in the air.”
Alison tried to work out what she was talking about. Finally, it came. “You mean, with someone here? Someone in the pub? Just anyone?”
The bright blue eyes were on her now, not letting go. “Why not? You and Miles should be thinking about it too. That’s what Burning Man is about, after all. I’m not exactly an expert on all these little folk customs — John Tyler’s the man for that. But I’ll bet you anything there’s a little legend that says this is a wonderful moment to conceive. That if you find the right man tonight, he can plant a seed inside you, and you’ll feel it grow, through the winter, through the long cold nights. And then, come — when would it be, June? — then, you bring some life into the world. If we get our little wrigglers tonight, Alison, we’d both be as big as hippos and ready to whelp by Midsummer’s Eve. What do you think?”
She stared into the pub and couldn’t help saying it. The beer was flowing. The men looked as if they’d never leave the bar. “I think, looking at the state Miles is getting himself in, I’ve fat chance tonight. And you’ve got even less.”
Sara Harrison turned to stare at the Minnis. The smell of petrol was becoming intense. There was still no sign of the straw man.
“Sorry,” Alison mumbled. “It’s the booze. It depresses me sometimes.”
“No offence taken,” Sara replied, a nice, warm, friendly smile on her face.
“Need to go.” Alison lurched off to the floodlit alley that led to the rear of the pub and the back door, praying it would still be unlocked. She didn’t want to press her way through the throng of smoking, bellowing men standing between the front door and the loos. Even if Miles was feeling frisky tonight, she wasn’t willing to oblige, not with all the blindfolds, all the wind-up gizmos in his toy box. They’d had their chance in the afternoon.
She wondered about Sara. She ought to get to know her better. Sara was like just about everyone in the village. Not quite what she seemed. Beneath the old hippie exterior she was smart, engaged, challenging to be with. She would become her friend. Maybe one day they would grow happily fat together, sit side by side on one of the benches that dotted the Minnis, waiting for deliverance.
Alison turned the corner and blinked, felt suddenly drunk. The floodlit alley led her into nothingness, a big black pool of darkness at the back of the pub. She couldn’t see a thing, but there was someone there. No. More than one person. They were rolling around the ground, grunting. She could hear the sound of bodies moving, falling, painfully. And then a man began to scream, an awful scream, loud and high and terrifying.
This was like the bad time, she thought.
An arm on her shoulder. A scent she recognised.
“Jesus Christ,” Sara yelled into the dark. “What the hell’s going on?”
A lone security light from the car park was triggered by someone running past them. For the brief instant it was on, Alison saw… what?
Men, on the ground. Fighting. Trying to contain something, someone. Both the Blamires were there. She could identify their compact, muscular shapes. But the rest were impossible to recognise. The light came on and then it was gone. Miles could not have been among them. It was impossible. Impossible, too, that the effigy was there as well. The light was deceptive. It flashed so briefly.
“Sodding animals,” Sara yelled, and took her arm firmly, turned her around and marched her back to the front of the pub.
“Another drink,” Sara ordered, and thrust a glass of whisky into her hand. “Down the hatch.”
It tasted like fire in her mouth.
“Probably the bloody antis again.”
Sara shook her head. “Oh. I keep forgetting. You’re so new. The antis. They had the beagles running at Wye today, and that always brings them out. They come here because they know Beulah won’t let the hunt come through. But that doesn’t mean we want a bunch of scruffy travellers on the doorstep either. Particularly not tonight.”
Alison looked inside the pub. The men were still at the bar, Miles among them. They looked tense. They weren’t speaking. The Blamires were nowhere to be seen. Alison felt a flame of tipsy anger sear through her head. She strode into the bar and stabbed Miles deliberately in the shoulder. “What the hell were you up to?”
The side of his head was grazed. His eyes looked wild. The rest of the crowd at the bar watched the two of them sullenly.
“There was a fight,” Miles muttered. “OK?”
“A fight?” She was outraged and she didn’t know why. “Jesus Christ! You were in a fight? What do you think you are? Eighteen years old all over again?”
He sighed, and very deliberately took a long, deep draught from his glass.
“I think,” she said, “that’s quite enough.”
“You’re making a scene,” he said calmly.
“I’m making a scene? You’re rolling around on the ground like some drunken animal, brawling, and I’m making a scene?”
“There was a fight,” he repeated. “We went to break it up.”
The crowd smirked silently, as if they were waiting for this dénouement all along.
“To break it up?” she repeated lamely.
“That’s right. To break it up.”
Norman, the landlord, leaned over the counter. “Folk sometimes get a touch excited here at Burning Man, Mrs Fenway. Nothing serious. Sorry and all, but that’s why we suggest the ladies watch the fun from outside. Just this one night.”
“Goddamn idiots,” she muttered, and hated the laughter in their eyes.
Miles reached over the bar and ordered a triple Scotch. His face looked a touch more conciliatory. “Take that dear. Calm down. Get yourself a grandstand position. The show’s about to start. And when it does I’ll be out there with you. Promise.”
She looked out of the arched windows of the pub. The Blamire boys were struggling past with the straw figure in their arms, heading for the bonfire, making a meal of their efforts. Flames were licking at the base of the wooden teepee on the Minnis. The moon was bright and full, a harvest moon, the colour of gold. It looked like the lesser cousin of the sun, an indolent yellow giant barely able to keep its glory above the horizon.
She took a deep gulp of the Scotch, made Miles buy another for safe keeping, and wandered unsteadily outside.
(C) David Hewson 2012