The snow had stopped while they were in the pub. The night was clear now and brilliant with stars. Free of clouds, the sky was working towards delivering a hard, crisp frost. Alison exhaled in a big puff and saw her breath hang in the air. She felt a touch drunk, but there was no mistaking the extraordinary beauty of the evening.
There were probably twenty five of them in the wassailing gang, and they sang the oddest songs. A long-haired, hippie looking girl with a fiddle would strike up something like an Irish jig. Then everyone would join in, with tunes and lyrics Alison had never heard, odd, folky stuff, all about nature and the seasons, and never once mentioning any element of Christmas, or Christianity for that matter. They sang the first outside the pub, and she tried to hum along (in much the same way she did in church, on the rare occasion a wedding took her there; she was, she remembered, just as heathen as the rest of them). Justin did the same, but tucked his plastic bottle into her pocket. No drinking on duty. So perhaps it wasn’t a social visit after all. Justin had a touch of ambition about him. Something in Beulah, beyond the everyday routine of being the local community copper, was floating his boat. She didn’t want to think what.
After the first song a grinning Norman came out from behind the bar and despatched even more mulled wine. Then the band moved on around the eastern half of the green, taking their plastic cups with them, past the run of modern, detached boxes, stopping at every house to sing, and getting copious amounts of free drink in return. Alison wondered what she was supposed to do about Priory House, which sat silent and in darkness, a huge, imposing pile. Someone had made sure they were well briefed; when they reached the last modern box, everyone turned to march across the cricket pitch and work the western half of the village. She felt relieved. Beulah had its own, precise form of bizarre etiquette and, without Sara to guide her, she had no idea how to follow it.
The hippie girl with the fiddle marched up to them, a broad, pleasant grin on her face. Alison was sure she had never seen her before. A good proportion of the revellers were, she thought, outsiders, and she wondered what their connection with the village could be.
“Star sign?” the girl demanded.
“Cancer,” Justin replied.
“Oh dear,” she said, grinning. “How many Cancers does it take to change a light bulb?”
“Just the one, provided he brings along his mum. And you?”
Alison hated star signs. “Scorpio.”
“Oh double dear. How many Scorpios does it take to change a light bulb?”
She tried to look interested.
“None,” the girl said, not laughing now. “They prefer the dark.”
“Incisive,” Alison said.
“I thought so.”
“And you?” There was a symmetry to this game, Alison thought. She had to play it through.
“I’m a witch.”
“How many witches does it take to change a light bulb?” Justin asked.
“Depends what you want it changed into, silly,” she said, and struck up a fast, racing tune on the fiddle. Marjorie Tyler gave a whoop and, with a surprisingly agile leap, started to dance. Others followed suit. In a matter of moments the gaggle was a throng of jostling bodies, catching each other under the arms as they wheeled, yelping in glee. To her amazement, old Granny Jukes was propelling herself across the grass in a motorised wheelchair, belting out the tune with gusto.
She stood on the periphery, with Justin, both of them looking amused and more than a shade embarrassed. After the pub, she had unhooked her arm from his. It would be impolite to send out the wrong signals.
“I told you they were all weird,” he said. Justin had very nice, bright eyes, she thought, and they never rested. He was watching every one of the revellers, as if he could commit their face to memory.
“Why are you here?” she asked, taking a swig from the lemonade bottle. “I mean, really here?”
“Community policeman. Alison. Doing my duty.”
“Crap. You’re fishing.”
“Damn,” he said, grinning. “I hope they’re not as smart as you.”
“Of course they are. Smarter in most ways.”
She watched the Cartwrights cavorting drunkenly, watched the mother give the eldest boy a long, distinctly sexual kiss, and added, “Most of them, at least.”
Justin took the bottle from her, downed a small mouthful, and handed it back. “I thought maybe Mitch would turn up. And I really would like to talk to him.”
He shook his head. “Can’t discuss force business.”
“Oh come on. Why?”
“Let’s just say, loose ends.” His voice had dropped, almost to whisper. Justin liked the idea of a touch of undercover investigation, she realised. It was another side to his childlike nature. “One brother disappears. Dead in all probability, not that we’ve firm evidence of that. And then the other one’s gone, with the insurance money. Thirty thousand quid, and the mortgage paid off. One week after the ‘accident’ and he’s on his toes.”
“It was an accident,” she said firmly. “I thought everyone knew that. And the boys… in some way they really loved one another. Mitch would never harm Harry. Ask anyone. Not that I knew them well but there was something creepy about the way they went around together. As if they could communicate without talking. Twins can be like that.”
“Maybe Harry’s communicating with Mitch now.”
She shivered and wondered when they’d get a decent drink. The gaggle was stumbling along the poorer periphery of the green. The largesse getting handed out at the door left something to be desired: at one house she had, she felt sure, consumed a small glass of sweet British sherry and the taste was still sticking to her teeth like glue.
“Don’t say that. It’s too… ugh!”
“All the same,” Justin continued, “I would dearly love to have a chat with Mitch Blamire. Both of them are customers of old. And I reckon we’ve got plenty to talk about.”
The group moved on, and Alison knew where the chaotic rabble was headed now. Someone lifted Granny Jukes’ wheelchair over a thicket of rye grass obstructing the way. She hoped Sara didn’t feel too tired to deal with such a crowd. She should have known better. Once they had roared through a long and distinctly atonal tune outside the front door of Crabtree Lodge Sara appeared in a long-flowing white dress, beaming in spite of the cold. She carried a tray that bore a couple of bottles of decent Scotch and several plates of hot mince pies.
Alison caught up with the gaggle, descended on the food and drink like a shot and gave her an affectionate peck on the cheek. “You get my vote as Beulah hostess of the year,” she said. “Also, as the wisest woman in the village. Why am I here? These people seem lunatics.”
“Yes,” Sara said, shivering a little now. “But it is Yule.”
“Of course. That excuses everything. You’re cold, my girl. I don’t want you standing outside.”
“No.” Sara took a flurry of proffered hands as the gang thanked her for the food and drink. “But next year I’ll be back. Provided I can get a baby sitter. Rituals have their attractions.”
“I’ll baby sit and you can scoff the mince pies,” Alison declared. “That’s a promise.”
Sara gave her a hug. “You’re a real brick. Enjoy yourself.” She looked at the back of the crowd. “Who’s the bloke?”
“Justin. The local copper. Don’t you remember him from the hospital?”
“Oh yes,” Sara said coldly. “I’m afraid I’ve never really warmed to the police. Bit of a hunk though.”
“He’s nice. You’d like him.”
Sara gave her a penetrating look. “Really?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Alison answered, aware of a sudden heat in her cheeks. “In you go now, off to bed.”
She sighed. “Thirty minutes more and then it’s back home. To put up the decorations.”
“Don’t forget the mistletoe.”
“But, Alison, ” she said, wide-eyed and all innocence, “it worked for me.”
Alison knocked back a spare glass of Scotch and said, “That’ll cost you.”
Then Justin came over, smiled at them both, and asked Sara how she was. “Fine, thanks,” she replied. “Even better if you track that bastard down.”
“Country drivers,” he grimaced. “But if you think of anything else…”
The gaggle was getting ready to move. The fiddling witch had struck up another tune now, and Alison rather liked it. The girl could play. The notes writhed their way around a lively jig that sounded the sort of tune an army could march to.
Justin listened approvingly. “She’s good. I gather the next bit is a bit of a haul.”
“What do you mean a haul?” Alison wondered. “Whose house is it next?”
Sara intervened. “Not a house. They go to the White Horse, and then on into the woods. For the dance.”
“Oh yes,” Sara said. “You should see it. Both of you. Once anyway.”
Alison hoped he wasn’t getting the wrong idea. “You game, Justin?”
“Absolutely, Mrs Fenway.”
Sara gave them both a knowing smile and watched them go. They were halfway along the path to the White Horse when it finally dawned. The woods. Alison stopped with a jolt. Justin took her arm.
“Are you all right?” He suddenly looked worried.
“Fine,” she said, and grabbed at the bottle in her pocket.
“You look like you just saw a ghost.”
She listened to the fiddle tune, snaking its way through her head. “No such thing, Justin.”
(c) David Hewson 2012