She walked up to the crowded bar of the Green Man and ordered a glass of mulled wine. Justin Liddle was at her side in a flash, out of uniform now, wearing a thick winter jacket and jeans. He smiled pleasantly at her and looked relieved. “Glad there’s someone I know here. Let me buy that.”
The drink was hot and spicy, full of gorgeous exotic flavours. She couldn’t help but wonder whether Marjorie Tyler was involved in the recipe.
“Your friend not coming then? Or hubby?” he asked.
She had phoned Sara before setting out, mainly to get the low-down on whatever wassailing might be. Sara had groaned. “Oh, that. It’s nice to do it the once, but no more. And certainly not in my condition. A lot of walking and songs you’ve never heard of. Plus the drink flows. So what’s new?”
“Miles is in London. I think Sara’s better off at home,” Alison told him. “She’s done it before. And you?”
Justin shook his head. With his close cropped blonde hair and open face he looked oddly young in the pub. No more than twenty five, she guessed. “I’m a virgin too. They only made me community policeman for this area back in July, and that’s a part-time thing anyway. But we’re supposed to participate. Your friend’s OK?”
“On top of the world.”
“That’s great. She really scared me after that accident,” he said, and she thought she might have to revise the age estimate: sometimes he seemed barely out of his teens, there was such an air of enthused, intelligent innocence about him. He was so different to Miles. “I wish I’d caught whoever did it, you know. I tried. There wasn’t a thing to go on.”
“All forgotten now,” Alison said. “Sara has her mind on other things.”
“Glad to hear it,” Justin beamed, and was abruptly jostled at the shoulder by Marjorie Tyler shoving her way through the crowd, a small gaggle of strangers in her wake.
“Ah, PC Plod! You’ll never take me alive, copper.” She looked, Alison thought, half cut already. A tumbler full of gin and tonic sloshed in her right hand. Her eyes gawped wildly around the crowded bar, never quite staying on one point long enough to focus.
“Good evening, Mrs Tyler,” Justin replied amiably. “Festivities always do start early here in Beulah, don’t they?”
“Never bloody well stop if I can help it, Justie. You and Mrs Fenway make a nice couple, I must say. Serve that stupid husband of hers right, staying in London all the time.”
Justin blushed and looked at Alison apologetically. She smiled back at him as if to say: never mind. Not that she did.
“’Nuff prattle and gossip,” Marjorie declared. “People for you to meet. Frank!”
A distinguished looking chap who must have been pushing seventy came forward and shook their hands. He was dressed in an old-fashioned knee-length gabardine raincoat and a trilby hat. His face was that of an old Army officer, even down to the silver and black moustache. Bright, incisive grey eyes twinkled at her from behind horn-rimmed glasses.
“Frank lives in that whacking old pile down the Wye Road. Sir Frank Wethered, if you wish to be precise.”
“No need for the honorifics, Marjorie,” the man said in a cracked, upper class voice. “Plain Frank will do.”
Marjorie leaned forward, pretending to be conspiratorial. “You should look him up on your computers, Justie. Frank was an absolute devil in the Cold War. Killed Russkies with his bare hands and got a knighthood for it.”
“Balls,” Frank said. “I was a humble civil servant in the Ministry of Defence, and don’t you believe otherwise.”
“Of course,” Marjorie said and, to Alison’s amazement, actually patted the top of his trilby. “They knight every pen-pusher in Whitehall, don’t they, dear?”
“Hmmpph. Mrs Fenway?” Alison took the chilly tan leather glove extended in front of her. “Welcome to Beulah. Better late than never. And as for you, my boy, I have some suggestions about the neighbourhood watch scheme I really would like to discuss.”
“My pleasure, sir,” Justin replied in a precise, polite fashion. “May I call to make an appointment?”
“Splendid.” Sir Frank radiated pleasure. Alison liked the way Justin dealt with him. She had heard of Frank already: the old diplomat who lived down the hill. Alone now, since his wife died a few years back. She guessed he could be a real pain to the authorities, and Justin doubtless knew that full well. More glasses of steaming wine came across the bar in a waving forest of anonymous hands. She snatched one, leaned close in to Justin’s ear and whispered, “You’ll make Chief Constable one day. No doubt about it.”
He smiled at her, and leaned close into her hair, so close she could feel the warmth of his breath. “I think you need a little more than just good manners for that, Alison.”
“Meaning?” It was odd how the conversation was so private, so intimate in the swaying, noisy crowd of the pub.
“Meaning the modern police force is driven by results. Not who you know. I need…”
She put a finger to his lips, quite deliberately, and felt a flush of excitement, something she hadn’t known for years. “You need to solve a mystery,” Alison said, and took the finger away instantly, worried she was going too far.
“Precisely,” Justin said. He looked a little pink on the cheeks. The pub was hot, she thought. Of course.
“Welcome to the club,” Alison mumbled.
But then Marjorie was pushing forward another bunch of people, some she half knew by sight, others complete strangers. They were a mixed bunch, she said to herself, shocked by some sudden, rising snobbishness. There was a middle-aged couple from the tenanted cottages out on the lower Minnis road: a blowsy looking woman with, long dyed blonde hair, too much make-up, overlarge earrings and a downtrodden looking husband, shorter than her, muscular, like all the farm workers she’d met, but with watery, lost eyes. Too much booze. Too much nagging in all probability. With the couple, and clearly part of the family, though she’d never seen them before, were two youths who looked barely twenty and a girl of about eighteen, again with straggling dyed blonde hair and a face that spelled trouble.
“You’ve seen Dickie and Angie Cartwright on their rounds I imagine,” Marjorie said, pushing them forward. Hands were proffered, to her and Justin. He took the man’s and looked embarrassed: Dickie wouldn’t look him in the eye. The three children — they could be nothing else — nodded in their direction. The boys seemed standard, sullen, teenage fare. The girl was about eighteen, pretty, with wild blonde hair, a little unkempt.
“Pleasetameetcha,” Angie Cartwright chanted, lifting her glass. “You want cleaning done or anything, Mrs Fenway, you just let me know.”
“Should take a look at her house afore you let her clean yours,” one of the youths said, grinning to show a mouth of ill-formed yellow teeth. “Mum’s a dirty old slag, eh?” Then he planted a slobbery kiss on her cheek.
“Up yours, Gordon,” Angie Cartwright complained. “That’s a nice thing to say in front of Mrs Fenway, I’m sure.”
“Yeah.” The youth gave her a big squeeze. “But we still love yer, don’t we? Come all the way back from Ashford just to see her. Even though the old cow kicked us out the house.”
Angie shook her head. “Too small for families, these little tenants cottages, Mrs Fenway. We just couldn’t manage with this handful.”
“Need more beer,” Dickie Cartwright grunted. He pushed his way through the crowd to the end of the bar. The three youngsters followed him, but not before the girl gave Alison a long, searching glance. She was trying to work out why when Justin leaned down and whispered in her ear this time.
“If there’s one thing I hate it’s meeting customers on the job.”
“Him?” she whispered back.
“Both of them. Let’s just say, I wouldn’t have her in to do the cleaning. You might find you end up with a lot less to clean before long.”
“Now that,” she said softly into his cheek, “is what I call community policing.”
Justin laughed and said, “Oh, oh. It’s the creepy neighbourhood quack.”
John Tyler came and stood next to them, looking tired. “So what do you think of Bella?” he asked her.
“Bella. The Cartwrights’ girl. She was giving you the once over.”
Alison didn’t know what to say. Tyler didn’t seem to miss a thing. “We never even spoke. I don’t know why that should be.”
“Fascinating child,” Tyler continued, and Alison steeled herself for another riveting breach of the General Medical Council’s guidelines on patient privacy. “The conventional diagnosis really ought to be epilepsy. Bella gets the most amazing auras. Sees other dimensions, becomes convinced she knows people she’s never met before. Hallucinations. Ringing in the ears. Bizarre tastes and smells. Classic symptoms followed by a classic seizure. And you know what? I spent a fortune on electroencephalography and came up with nothing. The Greeks used to call epilepsy the ‘sacred disease’. Hippocrates said this was all a load of balls, but then, what did he know? Small-minded little materialist, which was remarkable for its time, of course. Life’s so much more complex than that. Sacred disease… I rather like that. Neurologically there’s precious little to distinguish between certain kinds of seizure, a sneeze, say, or an orgasm.”
“I know which I’d rather have,” Alison said bluntly.
“Ah,” John Tyler said, waving a finger just to emphasise the point. “But you have a choice. Or rather you think you have.”
Justin was now distinctly bright pink. There was movement towards the door. Perhaps it could save him. “Carol singing now, Dr Tyler?” he asked.
Frank Wethered stuck his sharp, foxy face in between them. He looked quite cross. “Carol singing? I should say not. Don’t get me wrong, dear boy. We’re all good church-goers here. But tonight’s Yule. We wassail.”
“Of course,” Justin replied, looking blank.
“Luther and Calvin abhorred Christmas,” Tyler said confidently. “There was a time in Boston, back in Pilgrim Fathers’ days, when they actually banned it. Can you believe that?”
“No,” Alison replied firmly. “And I come from Boston.”
“Well it’s true, I assure you. Back around the time they were burning your relatives at Salem. The 23rd is the day that counts, believe me. The Winter Solstice. The point at which the days cease to get shorter. Light begins to reclaim the world. We start to see an end to the long dark night of our souls. All early societies with an astronomical bent marked the date. The Christians only moved in when they realised it was a feast people were unlikely to leave behind. There was a tradition that Jesus was born on the 25th of the month, so that was handily transferred to December.”
“It could be true,” Alison said, hackles rising. Tyler seemed such a know-it-all.
“What? The entire Christian tradition? No time for that tonight, but on a practical point the date can’t be right, not if the Bible is to be believed. Remember the shepherds. Do they tend their flock by night in December in Palestine, even today? Of course not. Ask any of the locals here. Sheep need tending during one time of the year only. When they are about to lamb. And when do they lamb in the Middle East? Spring. No, Yule is a ceremony with no Christian connotations whatsoever except those that have been tacked onto its hem. And the Church knows this full well. It wasn’t even celebrated in England until the seventh century. People had much more interesting things to do.”
Tyler stared knowingly at her. “Think about it. You know it’s true. Mistletoe. Do you imagine that’s a Christian tradition? Of course not. The Druidic priests cut it with a golden sickle. It was a symbol of fertility for the entire twelve days of the feast — yes, the Christians stole that too. They didn’t kiss beneath the mistletoe, my dear. It gave sexual power to anyone who held it over the head of another. It was a fertility ritual, pure and simple.”
Someone passed over a plastic lemonade bottle and thrust it in her hand. She wasn’t sure, but it might have been Marjorie Tyler.
“I knew that,” Alison said defensively.
“Good,” John Tyler said. “Then perhaps there’s hope yet. Shall we go?”
She clutched the plastic bottle. It felt warm and comforting. There was probably a half pint of mulled wine inside: spicy and strong. Burning Man wasn’t like this, she said. She was more country now, she could cope with these people.
Justin held open the door for her and smiled. “I hope I’m not making a big mistake here,” he said. There was a smell of paraffin and burnt wood. People were lighting old-fashioned brands made of twigs, like witches’ brooms, then holding the burning standards up above their heads. The crowd stood in a small, hot sea of light, then started to move across the green.
“Me too,” she said, and breathed the cold night air. Gently, meaning nothing, merely as a response to the dark, chilly evening, she slipped her arm inside his and they started to follow the throng.