Night in the village was a revelation. Some time soon she would sit out in the garden and do nothing but stare at the jewelled glory of the stars. Beulah was close to seven hundred feet above sea level, one of the highest points in south east England. Here you could forget about pollution, from artificial light or the internal combustion engine. The Minnis had only a scattering of sodium lamps around the perimeter. Even with the combined illumination of every one of the thirty or so houses that made up the village, the sky was still dominant. The air was so clean it felt as if it scoured the lungs. There was nothing between you and the universe, nothing at all.
She kept her back to the bonfire, trying to ignore the drunken yelps and screams, and let the sky fill her head. It had been a standing joke at school that you could always tell when someone was really wasted or stoned. They just stood outside, mouth wide open, gawping up at the heavens, trying to remember what the Plough looked like, how to tell the difference between a star and a planet, where to find Andromeda. And she never could remember. It didn’t take away the sense of wonder, not one bit.
Alison fixed her attention on the rolling depth of space above her, the dark, velvety folds of the night. Then the fireworks began, and Beulah came back into her head once more.
“Drink and a bun, dear?” It was Marjorie Tyler, holding in one hand, quite steadily, a mug of something, steam rising out of rim and in the other a plate of cakes. She looked almost sober. Perhaps, Alison thought to herself, she had simply drunk right through the intoxication phase straight back to some semblance of sobriety. She wished she knew the trick.
“What is it?”
“Kent apple punch. Good local cider. Spices. And a touch of our local apple brandy too. Not that you’ll be telling that nice new copper of ours about that, I assume. Villages must have their secrets. And a cake. You need a little ballast too.”
She took a swig from the mug. The aroma of fresh apples and cinnamon raced through her head, with an afterburn of raw spirit. Then she devoured two of the buns in short order. They tasted like apple muffins with an odd herby kick.
“Good, eh?” Marjorie beamed. “I know how to make a cocktail. You should try my whisky sour some time.”
“Not before breakfast, thanks.” She could hear the fire crackling behind her. One more minute and she’d take a look. “Have the antis gone?”
Marjorie looked baffled. “Were they here?”
“Apparently. There was a fight.”
“Oh, dear. Men and drink do not mix. In love with the world one moment. Itching to kick the living shit out of it the next. Then they blame it on testosterone when really we all know it’s nothing but Johnnie Walker and umpteen pints of Shepherd Neame. Hypocrites. Every last one of them.”
“Quite.” The reviving effect of the punch didn’t last long. She was starting to feel giddy again.
Marjorie peered at her. It made Alison feel awkward.
“You are going to watch, aren’t you?”
“Bonfires aren’t really my scene.”
“It’s not as if they’re burning Rosalind Parker for a witch all over again, is it?”
She wished the woman would go away. Her head felt terrible. The cakes had an odd, earthy aftertaste. “What do you mean?”
“It’s about us. The ceremony. Burning Man goes back centuries.”
“Yonks even, as you guys say.”
Marjorie Tyler took one puzzled look at her then disappeared into the night. Alison breathed deeply, hoping for a miracle, and turned around. Or rather tried to. Some odd kind of disconnection occurred when her brain issued the “move” command to her feet. It took too long to arrive, with the result that the rest of her body gyrated while her toes stayed exactly where they were. This was, she realised, as the night turned turtle and horizontal moved to vertical in front of her eyes, a classic drunk fall. One that ought to have been filmed for posterity, placed in the Hollywood Hall of Drunk Fall Fame for all time to see. Starring Alison Fenway, née Parker, thirty four years old, eight stone, nine pounds, five feet five, dressed in Guess jeans, a little tight around the butt, a cotton Armani blouse and a heavyweight LL Bean jumper.
Gasp as she takes a tango with the great god gravity. Wonder as she fails the audition, tumbles to the damp, soft grass in a very deliberate slow motion, frame by frame, wondering whether to laugh or cry. Marvel when the earth comes up to say hello and she falls, quite painlessly, and feels the warm, scented splash of spilt punch on her cheeks. This was a masterly performance and it pissed her off no end that there was no-one — no-one! — around to watch it. Alison was conscious of the need to say something.
Did the words come out? Or just drift lazily inside her head, falling from one ear to the other and then rebounding when they hit the inner lining of her skull?
Rolling giddily to the ground she was aware she was making a noise of some kind, but not one she could identify. Then on all fours thinking, deep down in the subterranean turmoil of what passed just then as consciousness, I hope to God I don’t crawl into some dogshit. It could be a dream, of course. It could be like that old, old story she read one time, where they hanged a man and, in between them setting the trap of his gallows and the noose snapping his neck, there was an entire, credible episode of life, full of incident, as real as anything could be.
She crawled, slowly, towards the forest of legs by the blaze, listening to the unintelligible low mumble come out of her mouth… Miles, Miles, wherethefugareyew?
Then she looked into the flames and there was nothing else in her head. Fire. She wasn’t dreaming. Not even the best of her nightmares had this kind of clarity. Alison could feel the heat prickling her cheeks, smell the great golden beast devouring itself, smacking its flaming, acrid chops. The burning wood sang and hissed, the air was thick with soot and embers.
Not a dream, too uncomfortable for that. Her elbows hurt from dragging her body along the grass. The stench of the blaze was so real it stole the oxygen from her lungs. And she felt sick too, ready to barf everything from the last six hours on the grass (and just the thought of spewing made a stomach contents list run straight through her head, like a report from an autopsy, burgers and crisps, beer and wine, whisky, gin, Marjorie Tyler’s odd little cakes, the apple punch, and the thought of that made a cinnamon burp rise deep from her guts).
Alison retched pathetically, saw a gap in the forest of legs where there were no flames behind, tried to grab one of the dark, tall tree trunks around her, failed, then pushed herself up into a crouch. This was a precious space: the heat had not yet reached her. From this odd position on the ground she could peer up through the unburned timbers to see the night untouched by flame.
And see the Burning Man.
It stood atop the bonfire, still intact. The flames played around its lower quarters for maximum theatrical effect. The gigantic straw figure seemed to her a mile high, tall enough to let you climb to the moon through its wispy, golden hair which danced maniacally on the updraft. There was a commotion in the crowd, voices (the Blamire boys, the Blamire boys, you can always rely on the Blamire boys). Someone, a dark, stocky figure wreathed in smoke, walked up to the fire, jerked a can and petrol flew through the night air. A wall of flame shot skywards, bit into the Burning Man’s legs, raced across his vast, golden torso, sent coursing rivers of fire through his head, his hair.
Two deep, empty holes in the straw head. Alison looked into Burning Man’s eyes.
They looked back.
Inside the huge straw effigy something moved, struggling. She shook her head, felt a thin stream of bile fall from the corner of her mouth, struggled to make some real kind of sound, to drag herself to her feet.
She lurched at the nearest figure, tried to hold onto its clothes. Someone moved away. Someone laughed.
And looked at the Burning Man again. Now he was truly ablaze. The flames raced through the straw structure, a long, huge finger of fire pointing at the sky. Behind the orange and yellow inferno, something… she shook her head again, trying to clear it. A dark shape moving.
She wished she were sober. “Mi..”
Two hands came down and pulled her roughly to her feet. The familiar face of her husband looked down at her. He wore a puzzled smile.
“Oh my,” Miles said, sounding very sober. “You did go for the big one, didn’t you?”
Alison felt small and stupid and terribly grateful for his presence. Miles always did come to rescue her in the end. “In the fire… Didn’t you see?”
He laughed. “See what?”
Miles put his big, powerful arms around her, held her tight, humming nothing in particular.
“I asked a question,” she mumbled into the folds of his jacket. He peered into her face, calm, in control. She knew that expression. Oh so well. It was the Fenway version of consolation.
“You still get spooked by it, don’t you?”
“Miles, I saw…”
“Shush,” he put a big, fat finger to her lips. It tasted of smoke and burnt food. “It’s my fault. I should have seen this was wrong. I thought…”
“I thought,” he continued, interrupting her, “you might be ready to face things. God I can be so stupid at times.”
She didn’t say anything. It was pointless. He hugged her tight into his jacket. The smell of smoke was overwhelming. She couldn’t get it out of her head. There was another smell there. Like meat, burning.
“I love you, Alison.” There were tears in his eyes. She didn’t have the heart to tell him it was the drink talking, that he was wearing the biggest pair of beer goggles ever made. The world was spinning again. The fire seemed to be getting bigger all the time. Its stench hung over everything. “I’ll do anything to make you happy. I’ll move heaven and earth. You’re so beautiful. It breaks me up seeing you like this.”
It was all going again. Marjorie Tyler’s cakes seemed to be growing inside her gut, getting so big they felt like a false pregnancy (and I know what the real one’s like, Alison thought, I know).
In the bonfire something exploded, with a sound like gunfire. She closed her eyes and the image was still there: blackened flesh, flames licking over its leathery surface, eyes popping out of their sockets, the last scraps of hair on fire. Then she fell, into a sea of arms, all waiting to cushion her, carry her, out of the heat, out of the night. To somewhere safe and familiar where they would wash the smell of smoke from her hair, from her skin, wash it clean out of her life.
(C) David Hewson 2012