The next day she was disturbed, at eight thirty in the morning, by a commotion coming down the path. Harry and Mitch Blamire were scrunching over the gravel, Harry pushing a large wheelbarrow with a rotovator balanced delicately over it. Mitch was behind the handles of a very large and rusty green lawnmower.
“Morning, Mrs Fenway,” Harry bellowed through the drawing room window. His breath made a fog in the morning air. Winter was knocking at autumn’s door. The Minnis was beginning to look bare, preparing for the long, slow sleep until spring.
The twins disappeared around the side of Priory House. Alison dashed to the back door of the kitchen, a tiny flame of anger growing in her head. Sara was coming for tea, an important conversation needed to take place. The last thing she needed was the distraction of the Blamires sniffing around. She put on a pair of sheepskin slippers and went outside onto the patio, only becoming conscious that she was still in her short, silk dressing gown when she felt the chill breeze whipping round her bare legs.
The twins stopped and stared. Never mind the lightning streak, Alison thought. There was one other clear way you could tell the twins apart. Harry always had that insolent smirk on his face while Mitch peered at you unsmiling, trying to look behind your eyes.
“Explanations boys,” she said, trying to keep some friendliness in her voice. “What’s going on?”
“He didn’t tell you then?” Harry asked.
“Mr Fenway. Other night in pub. He asked us to look after the garden for you. Said he didn’t have the time nor you the inclination.”
Damn you Miles, she thought. He was spending the Saturday morning in the office. Running the war room, as he put it, and planning to drive back late in the afternoon. “No. He didn’t tell me.”
“Well,” Mitch butted in. “He told us.” The other twin seemed a mite more reasonable. His voice was less brash than Harry’s. One could, she thought, hold out some hope of reasoning with Mitch. “To be honest, Mrs Fenway, drink was took, on both sides. But Mr Fenway, he was adamant. And a contract’s a contract. Even if he was rat-arsed when he made it.”
She sighed and looked at the garden. The grass was now a good four or five inches high. The ornate flower borders were riddled with rampant thistles. Bindweed was twining its way up and over the rose bed. It was true. Miles didn’t have the time. And she viewed gardening as a logical extension of architecture; it was all very nice to be involved in the design, but the last thing she wanted to do was start laying the bricks.
Alison looked at the Blamire’s battered machinery. “Miles spent a fortune on a ride-on tractor. I can’t believe he’s paying you for cutting the grass.”
“Ride-on tractors are made for ride-on wankers if you ask me,” Harry replied, grinning at his own wit. “You townies are all the same. Buy one of the things, play with it for three weeks, then stick it in a garage and ask us to do the job. You ever think how much real gardening you could get done for the price of one of them things?”
“Harry,” she answered, and understood there was some defensiveness now in her voice, “as you may realise, I know nothing of this. Let me call Miles.”
“If you like. We’ll just get on anyway. We’re not just cutting the grass, you know.”
Mitch came forward with a plastic bag in his hand. It was full of something like brown pellets. “Mr Fenway said you got moles. This ’ere will see off any damn topers, you bet.”
“What is it?”
He opened the bag and a vile, intense stench filled her nostrils. “Ferret dung. Scares the living daylights out of them. Just sends ’em next door, of course, but since you ain’t got no-one next door, this place being big and what, that don’t really matter. An’ if they come back we’ll try the strychnine worms.”
“Provided,” Harry added, “you don’t tell no-one. They’re supposed to be for farms only. Also, you want to be getting out them foreign weeds you got everywhere. Sycamore and balsam and the like. Some Japanese knotweed too unless I’m mistaken. Not native, none of it.”
“Me neither,” Alison noted.
Harry came back in a flash, grinning. “Ah. But you’re too lovely for words, Mrs Fenway. No-one would want to uproot you now, would they?”
She silently cursed herself. Harry had been offered that opportunity on a plate. “You’re too kind. Hope that gets reflected in the bill.”
He evaded the question. “Got an entire free day if you like. We can tidy up nice and good.”
She was feeling cold. She wanted to get inside and get dressed. The argument with Miles could wait until he came home. “How much?”
“Ten quid an hour,” Mitch chipped in. His eyes became remarkably focussed when she talked money. Alison felt she was beginning to get an inkling of how the responsibilities were divided in the Blamire clan.
“For both of you,” she said.
“Each,” Mitch insisted. “And that’s less than we get for shovelling the meat down Paternoster Farm.”
It was like a flash of electricity in the mind. She had regretted, more than once, failing to pick up the stray rag that had accompanied Yappy’s mysterious bone. But she remembered the letters on it well and, until this moment, hadn’t a clue what they meant. “Where?”
Harry glowered at Mitch who fell into a sullen silence. “Never you mind my daft brother. Ten quid an hour it is.”
“I could get a landscape designer for that.”
“Yeah,” Harry replied. “But he’d only be some poof who’d baffle you with science then leave the likes of us to do the job anyway. Not that many decent labouring gardeners hereabouts, you know.”
“The basis of all commercial pricing,” Mitch interrupted, “If the punters aren’t whinging, they’re paying too little. Ask your husband.”
“Shit.” It was cold. “Will you take a cheque?”
The twins looked at each other and didn’t say a word.
“I don’t carry that kind of cash around with me, guys. Nobody does.”
“Let us have it when you do,” Mitch said grudgingly. “You want us to start on the lawn? Or the flower beds?”
Her teeth were chattering. “You decide. I am not involved in this.”
Harry doffed an imaginary cap. “Right you are, ma’am. Servants going out to the fields now, if it be all right with you.”
She notched her accent up a peg or two. “That will be absolutely spiffing, my man. On with it now! The meter’s not running yet.”
The two bull terriers made their way up the garden, grumbling indecipherably. Alison went back into the house, put on snug warm clothes, made a hot chocolate and immersed herself in the pages of The Times. When she looked out at the back garden again she felt lost for words. The work the Blamires had achieved in the space of ninety minutes was astonishing. Most of the lawn was now a trim, tidy, level green. Thistles and burdock were fast disappearing from the flower borders. In the far corner of the plot, by the stand of young silver birches that broke the prevailing breeze that came all the way up the hill from Romney Marsh, Harry was uprooting a three foot tall sycamore sapling using his bare hands. It came out in an instant. She wondered if occasionally he didn’t do the job with his teeth, just to relieve the tedium.
Ten minutes later, as arranged, Sara arrived. Over tea, Alison held the bone out in front of her face and let her examine it. “No clues,” she said. “I just want you to guess what it is.”
Sara looked puzzled. “A bone. Obviously. And it looks as if it’s been burned somehow.”
She waited. “And?”
Sara sighed and sipped at her tea. “I don’t know what this game’s about. What do you want me to say?”
“Just tell me what you think it looks like.”
“I’m no doctor. A neck vertebrae from a small animal perhaps. Or…” Sara stared at it again. “A finger bone. Possibly. I don’t know. Ask someone who does.”
Alison put the bone back in its matchbox. “I did. I asked Tyler and he said it might be the aftermath of a barbecue. Or part of a finger. Helpful or what?”
“Oh dear.” She sounded concerned. “This is the bonfire thing again, isn’t it?”
Alison didn’t like the way that came out. She was not behaving irrationally. “Yappy found that, the day after Burning Man. The day after I saw something inside the fire.”
“Did you see him find it?”
“You sound like Tyler. No. He just came up to me with it. But his face was covered in ash. So was the bone. It was obvious where it was from.”
Sara looked terribly worried. Alison started to curse herself for bringing up the subject.
“It could have come from anywhere, Alison. Yappy picks up all sorts of stuff. Buries it. Retrieves it later. I had the corpse of a decomposing rabbit on the back doorstep the other day. How do you know it isn’t a rabbit bone?”
“Does it look like a rabbit bone?”
“I don’t know,” she said curtly. “And neither do you. I don’t like the sound of this. At all.”
Alison took her by the hand. “Neither do I. But think about it. I see something strange inside the bonfire. The next morning there’s this bone. Covered in ash. And Tyler had been talking about sacrifice the night before. What if there really was something inside the straw man? You helped make it. There was room, wasn’t there?”
“Of course there was room.” She sounded exasperated. “The thing’s hollow. But think about what you’re saying. I didn’t see anything in the bonfire. Nobody else mentioned seeing anything. If you’re right, we’re either blind or all part of some conspiracy. Do you think the entire village turned out to watch some poor soul burned alive? Oh Alison, I know why you might get obsessed about this…”
She had told her about the miscarriage weeks before. The fire did shape her life still, she knew that. Sometimes there were nightmares too. But this was different. “It’s not that, Sara. I am not hallucinating. And I saw it all from a different side to you, where there weren’t any flames to begin with.”
“What about before the bonfire? What did they do with him then?”
“Thought of that too. The effigy only went on at the last moment. It was behind the pub. Some men took it out, put it on the top, and before you knew it they were splashing petrol around all over the place. It was dark, you couldn’t see a thing. And then it was just pure fire.”
“All the same…” She was thinking about it. Alison felt pleased. She wasn’t crazy. She might have got some of the details wrong, but something macabre had occurred on the Minnis that night.
“Remember what happened immediately before that?” Alison continued. “There was a fight. Or what looked like one. Between who? Not the Antis. They were never there. We never found out. What if that’s when they were putting whoever it was into the straw man? Binding him, gagging him so he couldn’t shout for help?”
“But who would do such a thing? And why?”
“I don’t have any answers right now,” Alison admitted. “It could have been just a couple of people. After the fight. They could have bound and gagged someone, knocked him unconscious maybe. Then, in the darkness, they could have carried the effigy out, put it quickly on the fire, and the rest of you wouldn’t have noticed.”
She didn’t look convinced. “But if they wanted to do someone in, there must be easier ways than in front of a crowd of fifty people.”
“I said, I don’t know. But if, you remember, it did turn dark around then. I distinctly remember there being a bright moon earlier in the evening. It wasn’t there when I saw the Burning Man. It was dark. Pitch black by that stage.”
Sara thought about it. “That’s true,” she conceded. “But still… it’s a hell of a conspiracy to build out of one unidentified piece of burned bone.”
“And what I saw. What I saw.”
Sara he folded her arms across her stomach. “Hmmm.”
Alison felt breathless. Sara was hovering on the edge of belief.
“I still don’t understand why anyone would want to incinerate a complete stranger at a public bonfire on our village green.” She shivered again and screwed up her face in disgust.
Alison shrugged. “I don’t pretend to know everything. Just that something weird went on.”
Sara fixed her with an intent gaze. “Perhaps. Perhaps not. But, seriously Alison. Even if you’re right. What business is it of ours?”
“I can’t believe you said that. If I’m right, someone has been murdered. Here. On the Minnis. Right in front of our eyes.”
Sara glowered at the mysterious bone, sitting in its nest of cotton wool in the matchbox on the table. “It seems an awful lot to glean from that one little piece of burnt stuff.”
But that wasn’t right, and Alison knew it. She thought about the sash around her wrist the following morning, the gag mark on her mouth, and the utter lack of any memory whatsoever on her part about what occurred in the bedroom of Priory House after she was carried home.
Sara stared glumly at her. “I’m not going to shake you out of this, am I? This may be just some odd hallucinatory by-product of the accident. God knows, if that happened to me I’d be having them three times a day, in between meals.”
Alison picked up the bone. “That is not a hallucination.”
“Bugger,” Sara groaned. “So what are you going to do?”
“Talk to the police. There’s no harm in checking. And also…”
Their friendship had reached a crossroads, unnaturally, and solely through her own pushiness.
“Tell me about Paternoster Farm,” she said, and felt instantly ashamed. Sara didn’t want to talk about this, any of it. And most of all, she realised instantly from the pained expression on her face, Paternoster Farm.
“Why do you want to know about that place?”
She thought of the way Harry had glowered at Mitch and the rag that Yappy had found, wrapped around the bone. The missing rag, best kept secret, since even with evidence it was hard to sound credible. “Just curious.”
“It’s in Sterning Wood,” she said. “There’s a path runs from the top horn of the White Horse. Not easy to find without it. I’m surprised you haven’t noticed the stench from time to time. They render meat or something. The Blamires work there part time.”
“Rendering? Isn’t that dirty, town business or something?”
“Dirty all right,” Sara said sourly. “And money in it too. Why do you think the boys are involved?”
“But…” It wasn’t something you killed someone one for. That was what she was thinking, though she didn’t dare voice the words. They seemed too crazy.
“There’s more to it, of course,” Sara continued. “And don’t ask me, I don’t know. This is a village, Alison, and a village is a like a family. It has its secrets and you don’t profit from picking at them.”
“Shush.” Sara was staring out of the big, wide kitchen window, out at the garden where the Blamire boys were toiling away around the fruit trees. “That’s enough,” she said, firmly, and turned to face her. There was no mistaking. Her eyes were moist. “I don’t like this. Not one little bit. You’re getting obsessed with something, something’s that probably nothing if you want my honest opinion. But nothings, bad nothings, can hurt you if you let them. Please drop this. It may be my stupid hormones kicking but I have a nasty feeling about the whole thing.”
Alison took her hand. It was cold. Sara was scared. And all the time she’d just carried on, hunting, probing, looking, not thinking about what effect any of this had on her. “I’m sorry. I’m a jerk.”
“Yes,” Sara clung to her now and her voice was cracked. “You bloody well are. But listen to me. None of what you think you see here is true. There was no-one in the Burning Man that night. Drop it now.”
She nodded. “But maybe I’ll take a look at this Paternoster Farm place just once…”
“Buggeration!” Sara was instantly furious, so mad Alison, for a moment, could scarcely recognise her. In a flurry of swirling clothes she stood up, swearing like a trooper, then took a badly-aimed kick at the table. “Leave it, Alison. For God’s sake leave it!”
Then she stormed out of the kitchen, slamming the door behind her. The guilt was, for a short while, all-consuming. And the practical implications too. She had one true friend in the village, and now she was watching her leave, in a bitter rage, over nothing more than a handful of ridiculous suspicions and a single piece of unidentified bone.
Alison sat in misery for a while, then rose and stood by the window. To her surprise, Sara was still there, talking to the Blamire brothers by the jumble of low apple trees between the cottage and the house. It didn’t look like a friendly conversation. She heard raised voices, and then Sara was off again, marching down the path to the gate.
Alison Fenway could barely remember a time when she felt so wretched. Except the one time.
When she was sure Sara was well and truly gone, she ventured out into the cold day. The Blamires were on her in a moment, eyes blazing.
“’Ere,” Harry bellowed. “What’s that friend of yours up to?”
“Asking questions. Sticking her sharp little nose into things that don’t concern her.”
“I don’t know what…”
“Paternoster Farm’s what I mean. We got good casual work there. Don’t need the likes of her poking around asking stupid questions.”
But, she was about to say, it wasn’t Sara who was being over-inquisitive, it was me. Best friends, she thought. Why did Sara want to protect her? And from what?
Mitch Blamire stuck his broad, red face in front of her. “Farm’s got a job to do, Mrs Fenway,” he grunted. “Not a pretty one nor a nice one. But someone’s got to do it. You tell her to leave us alone and get on with it. She’s not country and nor’s you. Some things you don’t understand.”
“Yes,” she answered lamely. Then dashed for the house, trying not to burst into tears. She stood in the kitchen, listening to the Aga grumble like a cantankerous metal beast, her mind a blank. The light was flashing on the answering machine. She pressed the button and Miles’ voice boomed out of the tinny speaker.
“A million apologies, Ali, but this is all going pear-shaped. We’re having to work through the weekend on some data in from Hamburg. Back Sunday, hopefully. You can get me after five. Meetings till then.”
Goddamn meetings, she swore. Goddamn Miles. The entire day stood empty in front of her, no husband, no friends. Alison took down the bottle of Glenfiddich, poured herself a large one, and curled into a tight, foetal ball in the big leather armchair in the living room, staring out of the huge Georgian windows onto the mist-strewn front garden where the brothers were now at work. An odd cocktail of misery and anger rippled through her bloodstream. She closed her eyes and fell into a dead, dreamless sleep. When she woke it was towards the end of the afternoon. The garden was empty.
The phone was ringing.
“Mrs Fenway?” a remote female voice asked.
“It’s the William Harvey Hospital here. Now there’s no real need to be worried…”
(c) David Hewson 2012