By the time she left the warm, empty comfort of Priory House the light was beginning to fail. A hint of afternoon haze sat over the Minnis like a grey, wispy veil. There was a sharp, wintry nip to the air. At most, Paternoster was three miles from the village green. She could walk there and back in under an hour and still have time for a short, exterior examination of the place.
Would this solve anything? She doubted it. But it was Sunday. Halloween. The day was empty. She had seen her plans destroyed by Miles’ stupid business engagements. She had watched Sara in the hospital bed, clearly afraid of something she didn’t want to talk about. And she had thought about what it must have been like, in the old tin can of the 2CV, to have some monster in a giant four by four come up behind you, roaring and pushing, until the road disappeared beneath your wheels and there was nothing but that short, agonised journey through thin air before you bounced, rudely, painfully, back to earth.
Just one quick look at the place from the outside. That was all she needed.
The route took her across the green, through the lazy scrub at its perimeter, on to the ancient chalk outline of the White Horse. The grass was damp and skeined with cobwebs. Fairy rings of unidentifiable toadstools patterned the slumbering cricket pitch. The longer meadow at its edge was trampled in a random, lazy fashion, as if hundreds of eager lovers had lain down in it to couple. Badgers, she said to herself. She was gaining a country eye. She’d seen the same effect in the pasture behind Priory House, and once, early in the morning, watched a delightful squat figure with a black and white face capering, like a swaying barrel, across the lawn. She could handle this country life; it wasn’t so hard.
Soon the going became heavier. Grass gave way to bracken and muddy tracks churned by the hooves of the occasional horse. The last hawthorn berries stood in the bare bushes like fairy lights that had lost their power. A tangle of high grass and fern closed around her for a moment, then she was free, on the grass plateau at the very peak of the Downs. It was clearer here. Perhaps a light wind dispelled some of the persistent mist. A thin wash of fast fading blue broke through from the cloud. The air seemed fresher too. At her feet lay the great swath of the other countryside, the other England, seven hundred feet below, wrapped entirely in a deep, impenetrable fog. Somewhere, in the distance, shoppers were crawling around the centre of Ashford, cars were queuing for petrol, lives were passing, in misery, in joy. Standing on the great headland of the Downs it felt as if she were at the very end of some prominent foreland, overlooking a great, unknown stretch of hidden sea. The locals had a word for this other place, down below. They called it, only half-jokingly she thought, “civilisation”.
The path was on the far side of the chalk horse, just as Sara had said. She looked at the figure carved into the hillside. What had struck her as odd, even the first time she saw it, was the primitive cunning of the design. Most chalk figures were meant to be viewed from afar or, just to encourage the UFO cultists, from above. The Beulah White Horse was different. It was a slim, elegant figurative image of a leaping, prancing horse that was immediately identifiable from the ground, and close up too. The horse was a good two hundred feet across and composed entirely of swirls, arcs and curves, not a single straight line among them. Someone had told her it was Palaeolithic in origin. Once a year (and this would, she was sure, fall on one of those special days Tyler seemed so interested in), the locals walked to the hill at sunrise and cut the chalk edges to preserve the figure for the coming twelve months.
Rituals. There were so many in life, most of them unseen, unrecognised.
She looked up the slope to the point where the two horns stood sharply erect. Horses don’t have horns, she knew that, of course. And yet they still seemed apposite. Perhaps they were exaggerated ears. Perhaps the entire figure was not a horse at all but an ancient, mythical beast, an over-endowed unicorn, some natural, forceful spirit of fertility.
“To hell with this,” Alison mumbled. She checked the torch and headed off towards the priapic points above the figure’s head. It was getting late. The light was starting to fade. She marched past the nearest erect horn and spotted the narrow entrance into the wood. It looked like a tunnel; what lay beyond was pitch darkness.
Alison took a deep breath and plunged into the coppice. Immediately, she reached for the torch. This was a different world. The sweet chestnut trees that formed the forest around her had shed their coverlet of leaves which lay now as a soft, brown, rotting carpet at her feet. Spiked fruit cases littered the ground. A diffused scattering of light made its way through the thick, tangled canopy of slender branches that wove above her. From somewhere came a sound: chak, chak, chak. She knew this: magpie. Then a harsh, metallic laugh told her that somewhere a green woodpecker had burst into wing, cackling its warning to the rest of the wood. She thought about the bird: he deserved to be terrified by the sound of a human footfall. This was some of the last forest in the area. The rest had been slashed and burned, replaced by flat farmland, running for miles, without a hedgerow in site. Or turned into housing. Or rendering plants.
Through the darkness, astonishingly close, came a bloodcurdling screech and the flapping of giant, airy wings.
“Owl,” she said into the black space in front of her. And, as if in answer, from somewhere behind, came the more familiar hoot, then the sudden, urgent rustling of the hunt. Something squealed, a high-pitched, terrified scream, and was silent. A mouse? A shrew? Nature red in tooth and claw, she thought. You didn’t need to ride with the hunt to know how close it all was.
Alison stomped her green wellies hard and cleared her throat noisily. The wood became quiet. They are, she said confidently to herself, just creatures: animals, birds, small things that hold the two-legged beast in awe. A little noise, the odour of humanity on the breeze, and they fled in horror. Then she walked on and she realised the silence was not solely due to her own, clumsy footsteps.
There was a stench in the air. It was growing, like something alive, and it was quite unlike anything she had ever encountered in her life. When the day was over, when she lay in bed alone in Priory House, her head awhirl with images and memories, she would try to remember her first impressions of the smell that Paternoster Farm possessed. It was, first and foremost, nothing whatsoever farmy. But then the name was a hoax, a ruse. Paternoster was a clearing deep inside the remote coppice, in an area no-one would ever find by accident, close to no bridle paths or public rights of way, a little island of dread in the impenetrable thickets of Sterning Wood. And it stank, of nothing on earth.
To begin with she wasn’t at all sure it was unpleasant. There was something of the aroma of scented carbolic soap or the smell that waved in your face if you stood too close to a newly lighted candle. Then, as she got closer, these impressions disappeared to be replaced by a single, all-encompassing notion that stamped itself on her consciousness. It carried with it a single word: Meat. Not blood, not sustenance, nothing that could be compared with the familiar process of the kitchen in any sense. Paternoster stood in a miasma that was the very essence of flesh that had been cooked and compressed, cooked and compressed, over and over again, until it tainted everything around it. She gasped and held her breath, hoping this was just a temporary sensation, a bad smell on the breeze. But it wasn’t. When she opened her mouth again the stench entered her, became a taste that coated itself on every pore of her tongue, worked its way, snaking into her lungs, squeezing out the oxygen, replacing it with a dark, choking foulness that felt as if it would seep into her veins.
It would be so easy to turn back. There were so many reasons. It was late. The day was almost gone. Her confused stomach rumbled. Then the moon emerged from behind a long, dark cloud, and lit the wood more effectively than an army of rechargeable torches. She stopped breathing. Paternoster stood no more than fifteen feet in front of her. Or, to be more precise, its outer wall was that close. It rose, as high as the coppice itself, a solid barrier of wood with a picket top, hiding its secret from the world. It reminded her of Treasure Island and the fort in the forest. And, said the rational voice, still working away, they probably put up something like this around Dachau too. With guards.
Alison thought about that for a moment. It was fast approaching early evening on a Sunday afternoon. The last day of October. She understood the work ethic hereabouts, and it did not entail any great degree of enthusiasm. There was no sound from beyond the fence, no light either. This was an opportunity that could only be avoided on a single premise: cowardice. Not a quality she cared to affect.
By the light of the moon she worked her way to the perimeter of the fence and put her ear to the damp wood. The place was silent, empty, occupied by nothing but the ghosts of the thousands of carcasses that had passed through its doors over God knew how many years. Dead cows didn’t frighten her.
She worked her way around the fence, looking for a gap, a foothold, anything that would let her see inside. But there was nothing, not so much as a loose knot through which she could peer. The enclosure was circular. That much, at least, seemed obvious. It had no corners, just a gentle curve around the perimeter, so slight she guessed the interior must be vast, like a circular football pitch. If she worked her way around the wooden wall, she would, eventually, come to some kind of entrance, and the inevitable track that led out of the wood, back to the road.
It seemed to take hours. Then the tree line around her thinned. A narrow gravel roadway appeared, glinting silver beneath the moon, deep ruts in its surface, so big they could only be caused by trucks. The solid wall gave way to a pair of double gates, as high as the fence itself and topped by a roll of barbed wire. There was a chain and a padlock threaded through one door, trailing on the ground. She pushed the free side. Silently, on well-oiled hinges, it fell backwards, moving under its own weight.
Far enough, she thought. Then stood in the gateway and tried to make sense of the scene that lay in front of her. There were rough buildings, giant machines, all silent, and that same, ever-present stench. It was sufficient. Tomorrow, when the sun was up and she had washed the smell of Paternoster Farm out of her hair, out of every cell of her body, she could begin to think, begin to look at the random selection of facts she possessed and start to make sense of them.
“Evidence,” she said softly into the stinking night and, without knowing why, took a single step forward into the compound.
From out of nowhere came the sudden sound of laboured breathing. An enormous, powerful hand fell heavily on her right arm. Harry Blamire leaned into her body from behind, pushing himself against her backside, then peered around her shoulder, and said, “Mrs Fenway. Now to what do we owe this pleasure?”
Alison screamed at the bright, uncaring moon. Far off, in the wild, untended coppice of the wood, giant wings rose in a sea of shrieks, then disappeared into the vast, engulfing darkness of the wood.
(C) David Hewson 2012