She drove down the hill, past mountains of leaves shed by the overhanging trees. The forest that covered the lower levels of the Downs was now a deep, rich mix of autumn colours. Jackdaws and jays swept out of the branches cawing noisily. There had been a frost that night, the first of the winter. It left a light sheen, like sparkling, dewy talcum powder. The weather forecast said there was more to come. Around eight, after a lone breakfast, a curious and bold pheasant had appeared in the back garden, near the vegetable patch, begging for crumbs, its winter plumage a rich riot of orange, gold and red. Gingerly, she had walked towards it, throwing pieces of bread. The bird had cocked its head at her, stared with a bright, beady eye and pecked them eagerly off the ground. Alison had smiled at the creature, talking to it in a foolish way. She felt accepted somehow. It made a good start to the day.
Dr Tyler was wearing a neatly pressed white cotton shirt and a red silk tie. Alison couldn’t help but wonder if he did the ironing himself. Marjorie might have difficulty getting that kind of perfect finish while high as a kite on home-grown dope or dripping with gin.
“Well, Mrs Fenway,” he said with a professional smile. “Six weeks since we last had the pleasure of a visit from you I see. So is it good news?”
“No,” she said, and wished there wasn’t such an obvious note of accusation in her voice.
“Fine…” he continued. “So what’sthe problem?”
“You mean it’s not obvious?”
He grunted and looked at the file. “Remind me. You were pregnant last year, for the first time, and miscarried. We never spoke about this in any detail when you first came. Perhaps you could fill me in now.”
It came straight out of the blue, with a sudden, vicious immediacy. “Th… there was an fire,” she stuttered. “They said it was stress.”
“I don’t have your records. You’ll have to do better than that.”
Damn doctors, she swore beneath her breath.
“Where I worked. In New York. There was a fire.”
Just the words brought the taste of the smoke into her mouth. And the memory, vivid in her head, of what followed.
She closed her eyes, then quickly opened them again. It was astonishing how the images flickered into life out of nowhere when they felt like it.
“I worked in this cheap little office block. On the forty eighth floor. I was on my own. The elevators didn’t work. So I stood on the roof. It happened there. While I was waiting.”
“You were hurt?” Tyler’s bald head shone beneath the fluorescent light of the surgery.
“No, not really. Just smoke.”
He started to make notes on a pad. She couldn’t work out why.
“It must have been dreadful. Go on.”
She glowered at him. Of course it was dreadful you oaf. What do you expect? And this wasn’t all the story. Sure, she’d stood on the roof. Stood there yelling, screaming, watching the curious faces at the windows of the surrounding blocks. Wondering why they couldn’t help. But that wasn’t the whole thing. What the firemen found when they finally arrived was a crazed woman, ready to throw herself off the ledge. “They took one look at me and sent me off to hospital.”
“Do you remember that? What happened precisely?”
She closed her eyes, saw the nightmare start to replay on cue, then opened them quickly again. “Not precisely. The next thing I remember is Miles standing by the side of the bed looking as if I was about to die. The poor man was in floods of tears. The doctors told me I had a miscarriage. Like I hadn’t guessed.”
“Shock-induced, I imagine. No physical reason. Not uncommon.”
“No physical reason.” Tyler would never, she imagined, pass a sympathy course.
“But you still feel guilty?”
She sighed. Was it so obvious? “It goes around in my head from time to time. I try to remember what happened and it’s all a jumble. I think…”
“If only… If only you’d popped out for lunch. If only you’d tried the stairs. If only you hadn’t turned up for work that day at all.”
Tyler had a maddening insight sometimes. He made a passable effort at an understanding expression and said, “Everybody feels that way about accidents. It’s no use my telling you to think differently. One day it stops. Or not. Whatever. I see they put you into… what is the euphemism? Ah yes, ‘residential care’.”
“We have very expensive insurance,” she replied. “You’d be amazed what it pays for.”
“Hmm,” he grunted. “I have my own opinions about that.”
“I had a breakdown.”
“Hardly surprising,” he said briskly. “People get sick. People get well. The way of the world. You are well. Believe me. And since then you and Miles have been trying? Regularly?”
“Three times weekly. After meals.”
Tyler wrinkled his nose, ignoring the facetious remark. “Have you tried any special timings? Positions? Pregnancy is always a case of the happy accident, of course, although there are ways in which you can improve the odds. Technically human beings are fertile only two or three days each month but the body doesn’t read textbooks. If you get depressed, you get colds more easily. It makes sense to me to believe, therefore, that if you wish to conceive, a frame of mind that revolves, perhaps a touch obsessively, around rutting is more likely to produce the goods than a quick grind to order.”
She took a deep breath. “My husband leaves home at six thirty and gets back at nine or ten at night. The chances are that his hours are going to get even worse for the foreseeable future. Unless he can e-mail me his sperm special timings are out.”
“Ah yes. The Mersons situation. I read about that in the papers. The Germans will win, of course. When will people learn? We’re allEuropeans now, like it or not.”
“Thank you. As I was saying, the chances of our boffing to schedule are about on a par with Harry Blamire making the next Pope. I need something rather more efficacious than that.”
John Tyler leaned back in his big leather chair. His brow furrowed. The grey autumn light filtered through the rapidly balding beech saplings by the window. “There is no physical reason why you or your husband shouldn’t conceive. It’s much too early for any clinical intervention in my opinion. I could do that, but you’d regret it. Later.”
“I think that’s for me to judge.”
“Not at all. I’m the doctor here. You’re a perfectly fit young woman. A touch skinny, nothing wrong with that. Regular sex is all you need. Try a little variation. It stops the boredom creeping in. Doggie fashion is the most natural, of course. The way we were made to copulate.”
Alison felt her blood begin to boil. “What goddamn difference does that make? It’s all the same process, isn’t it?”
Tyler looked thoughtful. He brought up his hands up to his face and gently tapped his fingertips together. “No. It isn’t actually. We always like to think of ourselves as mere machines these days, just a complex set of chemical reactions. But it isn’t true. Or if it is, there are still large areas of the machine which are beyond our understanding. Two perfectly healthy, virile people may couple daily for an entire lifetime and never produce offspring. Two sickly, anaemic specimens may do it ten times in as many years and spawn a brat on every occasion. Do we know why? No. But time and mental state do matter. You had a traumatic experience last year. This year you moved house, moved to a different country. Psychically, these things still disturb you. When you lose that burden, you will, I assure you, be more likely to conceive. I could always arrange for more thera…”
“Don’t need it,” she spat at him quickly.
He smiled. “Good. That is a healthy reaction. But you don’t need clinical intervention either. Not yet anyway. Not until we see that the process is still failing when it gets a fair crack of the whip, so to speak. Have you thought of trying another partner?”
She couldn’t believe her ears. “What?”
“Only a suggestion. We have a taboo that says we shouldn’t talk about these things, but surrogate fathers have been used for centuries. For good reason too, and often at the suggestion of the man. If you need an heir, your wife seems healthy, and you suspect the problem lies in your own scrotum, why not bring in a friend to crank the starting handle?”
“I thought,” she intoned very slowly, “you said that Miles was in perfect working order.”
“Yes,” he sighed, as if she were being thick. “You must listen. You’re both in perfect working order. But something, the stars, the timing, whatever, didn’t work for you. That’s not to say it won’t work if you try someone else. You should talk to Miles about it. He seems a practical man. You may find him more receptive than you expect.”
Alison stared at him, astonished. “The stars? I thought I was in a GP’s surgery. Not Madame Foo Foo’s freaking astrology parlour.”
“A closed mind is not an attractive accessory for a beautiful woman, Mrs Fenway. More things in Heaven and Earth etcetera… You really shouldn’t put too much faith in modern medicine. We’re just the same old quacks with a few new potions. The only reason life expectancy has risen at all is because we now know how to make people die more slowly. Curing things… that’s still the absolute bugger it always was. Did you have a go on the night of Burning Man, by the way? I know that drink had been taken, but nevertheless.”
She blushed lightly. “Possibly… why?”
He picked up a notepad on the desk and started to draw on it. “Just superstition, of course. But sometimes superstition and science walk the same path. It’s just that we haven’t learned how to teach them to recognise them one another. You’re in the country now. It’s time to start learning our native rites.”
Tyler tore a sheet of paper off the pad and passed it across the table.
“One way or another, although most of us don’t appreciate it, just about everything society believes about the annual cycle of life comes down to this. Does it mean the slightest thing to you?”
She puzzled over the scribbles. “Nada.”
“As I thought,” he sighed. “This is a map of the year. The same map we’ve had since pre-Celtic times, in all probability. It’s based on the seasons. There are four major points. Halloween, which is on Sunday of course, is important because it’s the beginning of winter, the time when darkness comes to rule the northern hemisphere. It’s the exact opposite to Beltane, or May Day if you like. The start of summer, when light is the primary power. The other two important holidays are Candlemas, the birth of Spring, and Lammas, the end of summer. In between all these you see the lesser feasts — Yule, which is Christmas, of course. Lady Day is, technically, the Vernal Equinox. There’s some astronomical calculation behind most of these dates, naturally. Midsummer’s Day. Enough said. And Michaelmas. Our night of the Burning Man, or Harvest Home as you Americans would have it.”
“Fascinating,” she said blankly. “What has this got to do with me getting knocked up?”
Tyler harrumphed and continued as if she’d never spoken. “What I’ve given you here is a mish-mash of names, of course. The entire Christian church ripped off the pagan heritage mercilessly. So you will find that each of these feasts has an older, less familiar name. Sometimes the connections are quite illuminating. Midsummer Night is also known as St John’s Eve, after John the Baptist. Early paintings depict him with marked horns of light above his head. A few even go so far as to show him as a satyr, with an animal’s lower torso. The meaning is quite clear, of course. John the Baptist equals Pan, the wild man of the wood, the Oak King, the Green Man. The free spirit of fecundity in nature. Jesus, on the other hand, is identified as the Holly King, born at the Winter Solstice, sacrificed at the autumnal equinox to the rising power of winter. Like our Burning Man. The Christian thread borrows the tale again. ‘… and the holly wears the crown.’”
Alison wondered if he was just plain barking mad. “Dr Tyler…”
“Yes? You’re wondering what this has to do with getting ‘knocked up’? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps everything. People have believed for centuries that these points in the year have some significance. People still do, they’re just a touch more reluctant to admit it. Sometimes the propensity for fertility is stated. Sometimes it isn’t. We live in more muted times. Superstition, traditional superstition anyway, is frowned upon. Never mind that every stupid tabloid newspaper is full of so-called astrology columns that would have got their editors burned at the stake not more than three hundred years ago. All I’m suggesting is that you bear these ideas in mind. If they don’t work, then you’ll have had a jolly nice time trying. If they do, you still won’t believe a word of it. Either way, what’s there to lose?”
Alison wondered what Sara would have said, listening to this unexpected lesson in country mythology. And she knew. She grabbed his pen from the table. “Nothing ventured… dates?”
“Halloween you know, and Beltane too, which, as I said, is May Day, though I trust you’ll still be waiting by the time that comes round again. Don’t believe everything you find in the Church Calendar. And you need to check your cycle, of course. This isn’t magic. It can’t fertilise Scotch mist. Just offer a little loading of the dice perhaps. Yule ought to be the Winter Solstice, a few days before December the 25th to be accurate. Candlemas, let’s say February the sixth or so. Lady Day is March the 25th. May Day when you’d expect it. Midsummer, to be pedantic, should probably be June the 24th, and Lammas the first of August.”
She scribbled down the dates, wondering which of the two of them was crazier. Tyler looked across at her, satisfied. “I have to be honest,” he said. “I’m just a country doctor. I may be spouting dreadful rubbish.”
“I’ll try anything.”
“Good. And therapy?”
“Anything except that.”
He nodded. “Fair enough. I have a devil of a job trying to spend my therapy budget hereabouts. One day they’ll just take the damn thing away and you, good lady, will be responsible.”
“I don’t need therapy.”
A trace of a smile broke on Tyler’s thin-lipped mouth. “No. Probably not. But you do need to learn to relax a little. Have an open mind. Enjoy yourself. And go at it like rabbits, particularly when you see one of those dates looming. I promise, if you’re still in the same boat this time next year we’ll start to look at other options. But believe me, you and Miles will be much happier, and your future children too, if you let things happen naturally. We are, most of us anyway, blessed with perfectly efficient equipment for reproduction. Start messing around with insemination and all that pseudo-magic and all sorts of nastiness can come out of the woodwork. Guilt. Feelings of inadequacy. Suspicion. Not always, but sometimes. I’ve seen it. Trust me.”
Alison took his outstretched hand and shook it. She did trust John Tyler, after a fashion. She felt the bone in her pocket. Tyler was making noises that said the appointment was, most definitely, finished.
Too hastily she pulled the bone out of her pocket. “One more thing,” she stuttered.
Tyler was already staring at the small grey object in her hand. “I don’t do Antiques Roadshow,” he said.
“I… I found it. In the ashes of the bonfire. After Green Man.”
His eyebrows were crawling up his bald forehead like caterpillars squirming sideways. “You found it? Yourself?”
“Well, the dog actually.”
“You saw the dog find it?”
“No, I… the dog came up to me with it.” She felt deeply uncomfortable and stupid. “It’s burnt. It was covered in ash.”
Tyler took the thing out of her fingers and stared at it.
“Any idea?” she asked.
“They have barbecues on the Minnis. Damned annoying it is too. All that smoke.”
“It looks like… a finger?”
He wrinkled his nose. “A phalange? Possibly. There are 206 bones in the human skeleton. Damned if I can remember them all. Does look like the sort of thing you get left on the plate after a decent sucking pig though. You can get those from Coopers down in Brabourne, you know.”
He handed it back and she placed it gingerly in her pocket. “A nice memento of an unusual night,” Tyler said. “You had this hallucination at the bonfire, I seem to recall. As if it were a rerun of the fire in New York. You can see that link, can’t you?”
“Yes,” she stammered. “But…”
“But if there had been a body in the bonfire there would have been a lot more left than that little bone. You don’t think the crematorium trick is real, do you? An entire human corpse goes in one door and a nice, neat jar of ashes comes out of another?”
“Things could have been swept away,” she said lamely, dimly aware of how stupid she sounded.
“By whom? Why?”
She was felt angry. Deservedly so. “It didn’t help, your goddamn wife feeding me pot cakes.”
Tyler sighed, the sound of a man with a burden. “Ah. There you have me. Now if someone had put her on the bonfire that might have been understandable. But think about it. There is a direct line from the trauma you suffered last year to this. You know it’s true. Now just take that thing, whatever it is, throw it in the bin and get yourself pregnant.”
He glared purposefully at his watch. Alison muttered something and left. Outside the day was turning grey and chill. She wondered briefly about driving to the top of the Downs, by the White Horse, and throwing the mysterious bone through the misty air, watching it disappear entirely from her life, free her to reach for the future. Then she pushed it back into the depths of her pocket and walked to the car.
(C) David Hewson 2012