By eleven, after a breakfast of orange juice, two large mugs of coffee and a small bowl of Special K, Alison was out of the door. There’d been not a sound from Miles. She knew what the routine would be. He would surface at one, cook an enormous fried breakfast, and be as sweet as pie to her for the rest of the day. It worked. Usually.
Alison walked out of the front gate and strode onto the green, setting a fair pace, hoping to blow away the cobwebs of booze, smoke and anything else that might be lurking inside. She felt old, tired and not a little betrayed. She could live with Miles’ games. If they made him happy, that was fine. All men were boys. Boys with money. Her mother had drilled that into her in the beginning. But there had to be lines, and spatchcocking your wife with a gag and blindfold while she was, to all intents and purposes, dead to the world represented one of them.
Nor, for the life of her, could she understand what Miles got out of it. Was that all she meant to him? A doll to jump on? No, she didn’t believe that for one minute. Miles loved her, deeply, irrevocably. She could just about remember his drunken testament to this fact the previous night. Perhaps the sashes, the gag and the blindfold were some booze-fuelled attempt at intimacy. Perhaps she ought to be grateful. At least Miles’ little game pushed the horrid, deathly image of the bonfire to the back of her head. Next to the very real hallucination that a trapped human being was being burned alive in front of a village gathering in south east England, Miles’ odd little attempts at a form of necrophilia seemed mere peccadilloes.
“Penny for them.” Sara Harrison seemed to appear out of nowhere. Alison had walked from one side of the cricket pitch to the other, undisturbed, unknowing. She looked around. Harry Blamire was off his tractor now, doing something around the remains of last night’s fire.
“Pipedreams,” Alison said. “I was praying for a total blood change and the permanent erasure of some less than pleasant memories.”
“Ah.” Sara was beaming, full of life. Not a trace of a hangover, and that was remarkable, Alison thought. She was sure they’d been matching each other, drink for drink, during the evening. “Stop that, Yappy.”
The dog, a tense little Jack Russell, was digging away at one of the patchworks of molehills that covered the Minnis.
“Let me guess,” Sara continued, “you had some of Marjorie’s cakes.”
“And just about everything Norman happens to sell over the bar of the Green Man. As, I might say, did you.” She felt quite offended that Sara didn’t look hung over. It was against the laws of nature. Perhaps this was just one of Beulah’s many gifts.
“Yes, but I didn’t have any of Marjorie’s cakes. Come on, Alison. ’Fess up. How many?”
“God knows. Three? I can’t really remember.”
Alison sighed and watched Yappy dive into another molehill. “This is all getting much too weird for me. What’s wrong with Marjorie’s cakes?”
Sara shrugged. Her eyes weren’t in the slightest bloodshot. “Hard as this may be to believe, Marjorie is one of your original hippies. She has, how shall I put it, a chemical constitution. Not just gin and illicit hooch. If you take a look in her greenhouse you’ll see what I’m getting at. Toms and lettuce ain’t growing there. Not at all.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s an open secret. Third Saturday of each month John and Marjorie catch the BA shuttle to Amsterdam from Gatwick. He — well, God knows what John gets up to there. I really wouldn’t like to imagine. But Marjorie has a lot of friends in the pharmaceuticals business. She comes back with a few packets of seeds and grows them out back. Nothing for sale, mind you. If you ask, she’ll just give you the stuff. Powerful weed. But then you seem to know that already.”
Alison felt drained. She simply loathed the idea of people doing something to her body without her knowing. “You mean last night I wasn’t only dead drunk but high on home grown pot cakes served by the wife of our friendly local GP?”
“About sums it up.”
“Burning Man, Alison. Gets a bit wild around here.” Sara was working so hard to be sympathetic.
“You might have told me.”
“About Marjorie? I didn’t notice, honestly. I just thought you’d sloped off home pissed so I watched the bonfire. Next thing I know you’re crawling on all fours screaming bloody murder about there being somebody inside.”
“Oh Jesus… what a way to introduce yourself to the village.”
Sara patted her heartily on the back. “Don’t worry. Most people were so far gone they didn’t even notice. And as I keep saying to you, it was Burning Man. It’s like the Oktoberfest. Whatever you do it’s forgotten the day after. If we had a few more Catholics, we’d probably have automatic forgiveness, available on demand, just like they do in Munich.”
“That would come in useful.” She was thinking of the sash.
“Enough about you,” Sara said, beaming. “Let’s talk about me for a moment. Let’s talk about me and the wrigglers. Remember?”
It was amazing how the brain could bury a memory underneath half a gallon of alcohol and retrieve it in a millisecond. “You’re not serious. You didn’t. Who?”
“Who cares? And that would be telling. Burning Man is supposed to be a shagfest. It would be impolite to rat. All that matters is it worked. Put your hand here.” She took Alison by the fingers and placed them gently on her flat, trim stomach. “Can you feel it?”
Alison did her best to smile. “Not exactly. But then I can’t feel much at the moment.”
“It worked, Alison. It worked. Four weeks from now I’ll be peering at the little jar of pee, watching it go blue, and then it’s down to dirty John Tyler for confirmation. I know it.”
“Then,” she said, “you must be right.” And thought: the woman is crazier than me. At least I know what it feels like.
“I’m not mad you know. Just because I don’t want to broadcast the father’s name to the world.” That unnerving prescience again.
Alison took Sara’s hand and placed it on her own stomach. “What do you feel?”
She looked uncomfortable. “Something happened? Last night? I thought someone would tell Miles.”
Tell him what?
“Something happened,” Alison agreed. “Don’t ask me what because I don’t think I was quite conscious.”
“Now that is spooky.”
“Quite.” She wasn’t going to say anything. Not unless she was pushed. “So what do you feel, Sara?”
She took her hand away. “I don’t think it works with other people. Sorry.”
Alison shrugged. “Never mind. The state Miles was in he probably didn’t get there anyway. We will do it, you know.”
“That’s the spirit and… oh God, that damned dog.” Yappy was digging up more of the cricket pitch. “He’s got so much energy. And I need to go home and make some calls.”
“I’ll take him. I feel like a walk.”
“You’re a real love. And when you get back I’ll make you some apple tea. Guaranteed to cure all hangovers.”
Sara marched off back to her little cottage at the southern end of the Minnis. There was going to be a friendship there. Alison could sense it with the same certainty that Sara felt about her little wrigglers. And she needed that bond. Miles was not enough. Sometimes there was too much of the child in him.
The dog looked up at her as if to say, “Let’s go.” There was the hint of autumn on the green. The sky had lost some of its summer fire. It was now a pale, eggshell blue, striped with wisps of cirrus. Alison clapped her hands and watched the dog turn tail and race around the perimeter of the pitch, its rear end bobbing up and down like a fluffy white child’s toy. She laughed: it was a ridiculous sight. Then she followed it, feeling happier. Everyone gets drunk from time to time, everyone gets embarrassing. Even without Marjorie Tyler’s unasked for additional assistance.
Soon she was opposite Priory House. She stopped and looked at the place that was now home, thanks to the odd legacy of an distant relative who, as far she understood it, Miles scarcely knew in any case. It was, the more she looked at it, rather magnificent. They’d swapped a two bedroom apartment in midtown Manhattan for this vast, imposing pile that stood over the Minnis like a feudal lord with a crusty countenance that was part Georgian, part Elizabethan or even earlier. The upstairs curtains were open. The smell of frying bacon was doubtless drifting from the Aga already. Miles on apology duty. It didn’t happen often but when it did there was always a certain fun to be had. Perhaps she’d send him in to Whitstable for a fresh lobster or oysters. No. There was a sexual connotation there and she did not feel like facing it, today at least.
“Why do we need them at all?” Alison asked herself. “Why can’t you just press a button and have done with it. Instead of… all this humping.”
Although it was quite enjoyable usually. When you were awake.
She was close to the scene of the bonfire now. In the daylight it looked small, pathetic even. It was hard to recreate the image that had been so vivid in her head the previous evening: crouched on all fours, staring up from the forest of legs, seeing this roaring mountain of flame and something living inside, suffering an agonising, fiery death.
“That goddamn Tyler woman’s a menace,” Alison muttered, and toyed, only briefly, with the idea of shopping her to the local law. But this nice, new local copper they talked about probably knew about it too. Society hereabouts was so different to the city. It was as if they made up their own rules, outside everyone else. Then expected you to conform without even telling you what the boundaries were.
One of the Blamires — it was Harry, she could see the pale lightning streak on his cheek —was raking away the dusty grey embers of the fire. Bull terrier number two was behind the wheel of the tractor, racing around the pitch at speed, sending up a translucent green haze of cuttings from the grass. Harry gave her a genial smile and said, “Morning, Mrs Fenway. And how are you today?”
Then mumbled something she didn’t quite catch. It was cold, her head wasn’t working properly. He couldn’t really have whispered “nice box” under his breath. It just wasn’t possible.
“I feel like shit,” she admitted.
“Don’t look it. You’ll recover,” Harry said, eyeing her in a way she didn’t like one bit. She thought about Sara. It was meant to be a shagfest. Perhaps the ever-horny Harry had provided her little wrigglers.
“Did you have a nice night, Harry?”
“Smashing, Mrs Fenway. And you?”
“Memorable,” she lied.
“Must be hard, being a Yank and that.”
“I’m doing my best.”
“Yeah,” he grinned. “Don’t mind me. I’m just plain stupid. London folk are outsiders here until they fit in. Why’s it going to be different for the likes of you?”
She’d assumed they were all locals. That Beulah was like this, a perfect piece of rural England, the moment she arrived. “So we’re not the only… what’s the word?”
“Incomers. Only ones in a while. Need some more, Mrs Fenway. Need kids here, not another little village dying on its feet.”
That was true, she thought. There didn’t seem to be a child of school age in the place. “I’ll do what I can.”
“There’s no doubt about it, now. None at all.” He was the picture of health. His ruddy face glowed in the chill breeze. He heaved a half burnt tree trunk out of the way with one swift movement. It was ridiculous, she knew, but there was something about Harry Blamire she mistrusted. And it wasn’t just this bright perkiness in the face of her hangover.
“You want some gardening doing? I took the liberty of taking a look out back yesterday. We done it for the Miss Emily before she went and hit the bottle down in Spain. We know that garden better than anyone. It could be a real treat.”
“Talk to my husband.”
He stabbed his fork hard into the black, scarred earth. “Reckon I will. But you’ll have to excuse me now. This is thirsty work. Don’t suppose you fancy a beer?”
Just the thought made her feel queasy. “Thanks but no.”
Harry Blamire nodded, and walked off purposefully to the pub. The tractor stopped and Mitch did the same. As far as she could see the twins didn’t even look at each other, let alone speak.
Yappy came back from a good couple of minutes spent scrabbling in the cold ashes of the bonfire. His white fur was now dappled with charcoal, his face almost pitch black.
She examined him in dismay. “Oh, Yappy. What will the boss say?”
The dog was seated but could scarcely contain himself. He had a little grin of pride on his face. His paintbrush tail wagged furiously from side to side, and his eyes wouldn’t leave her face. Something, a piece of fabric, scorched and ragged, dangled from his mouth.
“OK, pooch, give,” Alison said, putting her hand down to his mouth.
The rag had been only partly consumed by the blaze. It unravelled as the dog let go to reveal itself as a torn piece from a hessian sack, with the fragments of two printed words on it: “Patern…” And “Fa…”. Caught up on the loose fibres of the matted fibre was something that must have become entangled in it as Yappy rooted around the burnt earth. This thing had seen the very heart of the fire. It was about two inches long, pale grey and covered in drool and ash.
Alison stared at the object. Then she put it in her pocket and started back over the green towards Sara’s house, Yappy in tow, forcing her mind to go blank, refusing to think about this for a single millisecond or countenance sharing the discovery with another person until she understood, fully, what it meant.
Yappy’s discovery was the bone from a human finger. There was nothing else in the world it could be.
(c) David Hewson 2012