The White Horse was the colour of the moon, a pale, silvery shape on the curving downland hillside. In the clear, starlit night it had a magical luminescence, as if it glowed in response to their presence, and the music and the laughter they supplied.
Alison felt fine. Justin was there and they were standing at the back of the crowd. She’d be OK. And, on a deeper level, she didn’t want to arouse his suspicions. He was there to watch, to detect. There were plenty around who deserved his attention, she thought, and one day, perhaps not so far away, he’d find out who they were. She wasn’t the only murderer Beulah had ever seen. Alison knew that instinctively. It sat like a piece of undigested meat in her stomach.
She watched them dance around the figure cut into the chalk, trying to think through the boozy fug that sat between her ears. It was hard. The night and the presence of the nearby wood were too real, too large inside her head. She felt scared, on one level, but oddly elated too. There was a wildness to the gathering she found stimulating, exciting.
The nature of the evening seemed to change when they reached the White Horse. The village was a good half mile distant now, a faint glow behind them. To the east, miles away in the clear night sky, she could see the electric expanse of Canterbury, with the great cathedral at its heart, illuminated by floodlights. From this distance it could have been any ancient, primitive monument: a misshapen pyramid from Egypt, some primeval stone temple from Atlantis. It had a power and a dignity that were missing during the day, when it was hemmed in by tourists and traffic.
Justin followed her gaze. “It’s beautiful up here,” he said.
“Yes.” She clung to his arm. So many feelings, so many conflicting emotions welling up inside her. Then he sniffed the air, a conscious, exploratory gesture, she thought, one very like a policeman.
“Oh no,” he groaned. “How can they do this to me?”
“What?” she asked puzzled, and took a deep breath through her nose. “Ooh!”
Someone in the throng had lit a joint. No, more than one. Alison took a good look at them, Marjorie Tyler first of all, of course, and the roll-ups were appearing everywhere. The spicy exotic smell of marijuana began to percolate the sharp, chill night. People were starting to move from the booze-fuelled thrum of the wassailing into a new, more relaxed, more — hypnotic? perhaps that was the word — phase.
“Tell me it’s just the one individual,” Justin pleaded. “Personal use or something.”
Alison stared at them and stifled a laugh. The music and dancing had stopped, temporarily no doubt, to make way for the dope course. Marjorie and John Tyler were toking away on big ones. The Cartwrights were huddled around each other trying to roll something in the draught-free space created by their bodies. Even Frank Wethered was smoking. The end of the joint stood like a small red traffic light beneath his moustache. The only individual who didn’t seem to be joining in was Granny Jukes, still in her wheelchair, cackling away, a bottle in her lap.
“Sorry. This is a drug den, I’m afraid. Have you got undercover men disguised as sheep? Or are you going to arrest the lot of them all on your own?”
“Sod it, Alison. This isn’t funny.”
She clapped him on the arm, harder than she intended. “Oh don’t be so stuffy. How old are you? Twenty four? Twenty five?”
“Twenty six actually,” he objected.
“Hell, Justin. Loosen up a little. Next thing you know you’ll be sitting in a wheelchair, checking your birthday cards and discovering you’re eighty five and about to croak. And you know something? You won’t be kicking yourself for the things you’ve done in life. You’ll be apoplectic over the things you haven’t done.”
That sounded rather good, Alison thought. And wondered who it was really aimed at.
Justin was unmoved. “Of course I don’t want to nick anyone. I’d just rather not be here. I am a policeman. It is illegal.”
“And that counts for a lot. I don’t think. What about Sara’s road rage moron?”
“I’d nick him. Like a shot. If he exists.”
“What do you mean?”
He looked shamefaced. “I couldn’t find any tracks. It’s the first thing women say when they go off the road: a man made me do it.”
She was outraged. “Sara almost died in that accident. She nearly lost her child. You think she was in any state of mind to make up ridiculous stories like that?”
“Forfeit, Justin,” she said, prodding him hard in the chest. “You owe me for that.”
“OK. I’m sorry.”
“To hell with sorry.” Alison stomped over to Marjorie Tyler who was doling out joints now as if they were meals on wheels. “Two please. Don’t hold back on the sauce.”
“Oh,” Marjorie said, beaming, “Lily Law wants one want too, does she?”
“No, but he’s damn well going to smoke it.”
“That’s the spirit…”
She took them back, put them both in her mouth, inhaled deeply. When they were well alight — and the thick, black narcotic smoke was already working its way down her throat — she gently took one out and placed it in Justin’s lips.
He snatched it out instantly. “This is rapidly turning into one of the worst nights of my life.”
“Patience, honey. It might improve,” she said, then swayed, not too noticeably she hoped, as the drink and the dope said hello to one another somewhere at the back of her head. She looked at Justin. He was pale and unhappy, toying with the joint. “Inhale, Justin. No cheating. You don’t need to make President of the United States.”
He obeyed. Justin rather liked being told what to do, Alison thought. There was the sound of something whirring at their side and Granny Jukes appeared, working the wheelchair like a frantic elf.
She winked and gave them a toothless grin. “You’re a lovely couple, and there’s no mistaking.”
“Thanks, Granny,” Alison said, with a smile. The old woman was utterly charming in a batty sort of way. “But we’re not a couple, actually.”
“And that’s a load of doo-dah, I must say,” the old woman barked back. “Plain as anything. Young man here won you, fair and square.”
She couldn’t help laughing. “Won me? And when exactly did that happen, Granny?”
“May Day, most like.”
Justin gave her his sweetest smile, which was, she thought, very sweet indeed, and said, “Memory must be playing tricks, Gran. I wasn’t here on May Day. Hadn’t even met Mrs Fenway or the rest of you lot then.”
“Ah!” she clucked. “There you go, thinking in straight lines again. Young ’uns today.”
“Right,” he said pleasantly and, behind the wheelchair, made a turning gesture against his ear as if to say: barmy.
“You’ll see,” she said, and hit the button by her hand. The wheelchair lurched over the grass, back to the gaggle. Then the group was moving again, beyond the White Horse, and into the wood. Not, Alison was deeply grateful to note, by the narrow path that led, eventually, to Paternoster Farm. They went further along the ridge, towards Canterbury, still glowing in the night, and then turned right, onto a broad bridleway now crunchy with frost.
“Mad as a van full of badgers,” Justin said, shaking his head.
They marched for a good ten minutes, in silence, in tune with the new, more sombre, reflective mood of the night. Then another bridleway appeared to their left. They took it for ten yards, stumbled up a shallow, grassy bank, through a narrow path surrounded by trees, and stopped.
Alison was, for the moment, speechless. They had found a perfect circle in the woods, very like fresh coppice at first glance. Then she noticed there were no stumpy boles where the stools of the felled sweet chestnut ought to be. The clearing was permanent, a hidden ring in the dense, thriving forest that could only be maintained by constant attention.
“More secrets,” she said, as much to herself as the silent, pale Justin by her side. The words were too loud. Someone shushed her. The wassailers stood at the perimeter of the circle. Frank Wethered walked to the centre. He had discarded the joint now. He took off his trilby hat to disclose a long mane of silver hair that tumbled out from beneath it, fell down below his ears, and onto the collar of his gabardine coat. It made him look, she thought, like a defrocked priest.
“Sermon time,” Alison whispered, nudging Justin, and only just managing to stifle a dope-driven giggle. Someone said “shush” very loudly nearby.
The curious knight cleared his throat and began to speak. “Friends, old and new,” he said, in a cracked, wavering voice. “We celebrate Yule as the turn of the year. When darkness starts to turn to light. When the Mother gives birth to the Child. And we remember what the law states too — for each coming, there must be a going. For each birth, a death. May the circle be unbroken.”
The crowd repeated after him, “For each birth, a death.”
Alison looked at Justin. He was following their every move. She wondered how far it was from this queer little clearing to Paternoster Farm. A few hundred yards, a quarter of a mile at the most, probably. Somewhere in the mud there, beneath the thin covering of snow, were the scattered ashes of Harry Blamire, dust in the dirt, tiny nuggets of carbon indistinguishable from any other flesh that passed through the place’s portals. Some drunken, druggy thread of reasoning rose within her consciousness: For each birth, a death. Then surely the converse applied too? Otherwise the circle would most surely be broken.
The witch with the fiddle struck up a slow tune, not quite a dirge, but not a merry jig either. Marjorie Tyler appeared from behind a chestnut stand and danced into the middle of the circle. Alison felt the breath disappear completely from her lungs in a single exhalation.
Marjorie was stark naked, a fat, flouncing figure the colour of the moon. Her face wore a rictus of ecstasy, her dark hair had been released from its customary captive bun and now flowed free over her pale, fleshy shoulders. She appeared to be dancing some odd kind of pas de deux with an invisible partner. Marjorie smiled at him, blew kisses, took his arms, pranced around the ring, flew through the air, legs scissoring akimbo. Frank Wethered stood at the centre of the circle, rigid, staring up at the sky, holding his walking stick up to the stars, eyes popping out on their stalks.
Alison clutched Justin’s arm and the two of them leaned on each for support. There was some extraordinary beauty to Marjorie’s performance. It reminded her of the prancing hippos in Fantasia, although Disney had thoughtfully seen fit to dress them in tutus. Marjorie had the same, large-limbed grace as she slipped naked through the velvet December night with a speed and ease that seemed to defy the laws of physics.
Someone in the ring started to clap. The rest of the mass soon took it up, and began to sing, a slow, harmonious tune that, to Alison, sounded vaguely familiar. Then she remembered. This was The Holly and the Ivy, but the cadences, the meter were different. And the words too. They slipped through her head, eluding her, although she found herself trying to sing along with the rest of them, like an awkward, novice mummer.
Justin nudged her and, discreetly, pointed to the far side of the ring. A couple had detached themselves from the circle and were now removing their clothes by a huge oak tree at the edge of the clearing. She recognised Angie Cartwright. It was too dark to be sure, but it looked as if her partner was the eldest son. Angie took off her bra and knickers, and walked backwards to lean against the yew. The youth — and it was the son now, she was sure — marched slowly towards her. Then they melted together, a writhing marriage of pale flesh against the dark bark, and a taut white bottom began to oscillate to and fro.
Justin groaned again, stared at her and mouthed, “How can they do this to me?”
“Goddamn prude,” Alison mumbled. She half expected the entire circle to break down into some kind of orgy. And half hoped it would too. If this was the sum of Beulah’s mysteries — a few odd seasonal cavortings in the night — she could live with it, quite happily, even if she were not about to join in.
But that wasn’t the nature of the evening. The couple, making love against the ancient yew, were alone, an emblem, a symbol somehow. Just like Marjorie Tyler, whirling like a dervish around the circle, beneath the bright, cold light of the moon. This was not an orgy. It was a ceremony. She nodded. The word was right, even though she had no idea what the ceremony might be, or how she might interpret this long, strange descant they kept repeating endlessly, as if waiting for something to happen.
With a startling abruptness, the song ended. She watched the circle, waiting for what came next. Marjorie had slumped, exhausted to the chill ground. Beyond, at the yew tree, Angie Cartwright and her son were coming noisily to a climax, Angie moaning like a woman in some cheap porn movie, a rhythmic, anguished cry, not the sort real people uttered, Alison thought. Not in her world anyway.
Someone screamed. No, she corrected herself. Three voices screamed: Angie and her mate, and someone inside her circle. She searched the sea of faces and finally saw. Bella Cartwright was rolling her head from side to side, tongue lolling out of her mouth, eyes staring wildly at the sky. Drool fell from her lips and peculiar guttural noises, like the grunts of an unknown animal, issued from her throat. Alison scanned the wassailers for John Tyler immediately. Goddamn doctors, she thought. He was no more than four or five places away from Bella in the circle and, instead of trying to work out how to deal with this obvious epileptic seizure, watched the stricken girl with undisguised fascination.
“For Christ’s sake…” Alison mumbled, and tried to move forward.
Justin held her back, with a single firm, strong arm. “Don’t get involved. Trust me. If it gets out of hand, I’ll deal with it. If you go marching in, they’ll never forgive you.”
Damned if I do, damned if I don’t, she thought. Bella moaned, her eyes rolled back into her head, and she slumped forward onto all fours and began howling and babbling, gibberish to begin with, although it wasn’t long before words, real words appeared, and they sent a chill up Alison’s spine.
“Let’s go,” she said, tugging at Justin’s sleeve. The night temperature had suddenly dropped several degrees. Alison felt alone and exposed in the middle of these people.
Justin put a huge, protective arm around her and whispered, “It’s OK.”
The moon seemed brighter. It illuminated the scene in the circle like an ancient, icy floodlight, exposing the detail, making the shadows hard and black and depthless. Bella rolled on her back, rolled again, gibbering, and the words were becoming half intelligible, “Muddah, muddah, muddah, bury me, bury me, BURY ME!”
“She’s sick, Justin,” Alison muttered through gritted teeth, knowing it was pointless. And closed her eyes. Harry was there. There. She could feel his presence in the circle, dark and evil, everywhere.
She opened her eyes, about to go crazy (Harry is dead, her inner voice bellowed). Bella was howling, silver spittle flying in the night air, “Muddah, mudda, murdah, MURDER.”
The girl rose up from the snow like a harpy, fists flying, eyes rolling, a savage mask of primal fury, screaming a torrent of epithets, hands windmilling, nails fighting to scratch.
She was no more than three feet from them now and something silver flashed in the moonlight. Justin took one look at it, stepped in front of Alison, raised his arm with a sudden, athletic swiftness, turned the girl and disarmed her in a rapid, twisting movement. Abruptly, she was tight in his arms, gasping for air, staring back at the circle as if she had no idea how she had got there. Alison looked up. In Justin’s hand, unmistakable against the moon, was a long kitchen knife. The blade reflected the sky, glinting silver back at the stars.
A short, squat figure moved across the circle, came up to them.
“She’s ours,” Dickie Cartwright yelled. “You don’t have nothing to do with her.”
He held out his arms and the sobbing girl fell in them, buried her face in his neck.
Justin extended his arm and showed him the knife. “You shouldn’t be letting her out with knives, Dickie. We’ll be getting a nasty accident one of these days.”
Alison watched the rest of the circle. They were all still, silent, but not missing a word.
“She didn’t have it,” Cartwright cried, holding her head. “We don’t ever let her out of the house with something like that.”
Alison looked at the knife. It was a Sabatier, or something similar. Something expensive. The Cartwrights wouldn’t have something so expensive, not unless they stole it.
“Mr Cartwright,” she said, trying to calm things. “It’s all right. It’s not Bella’s fault.” She glared at John Tyler. “She just had a turn, that’s all.”
“Some turn,” Cartwright grumbled. “You know what that was about?” His weasel face glowered at her in the dark.
“No,” she said flatly. “I don’t.”
“Harry, that’s what. Harry being dead and not buried. How do you expect him to rest like that? He’s haunting her, that’s what.”
“First time I ever heard it called that,” Justin blurted out.
“Damn you!” Dickie Cartwright screamed, and for one moment Alison thought the little man had lost it, that he really would come at Justin fists flying. Instead he shook with rage, holding Bella to him, tighter and tighter, like a man about to lose touch with the world.
A large, dark figure came over to them. It was Marjorie Tyler, her nakedness covered by a huge, ankle length jacket. She looked sober and miserable.
“I’m sorry,” she said to both of them. “Bella’s not well. People are still upset by Harry’s loss. These things come out on nights like this. It might be best if you went now. It’s not a police matter really, is it, Justin?”
“Course not, Mrs Tyler,” he said. “You get her looked after, Dickie. We’ll leave you to it.”
They withdrew from the circle and went back to the narrow bridleway, silent, waiting for the other to speak. By the time they got to the crest of the ridge and Canterbury was once again visible, its vast orange glow polluting the sky, the lone wail of a violin was wafting over Sterning Wood again. Voices drifted out of the distant trees.
“What the hell was going on there?” Alison asked eventually.
“Dunno,” Justin replied. “Was it for my benefit do you think?”
Alison felt as if she were walking over a treacherous bog. One false step could lead to her downfall. “In what way?”
“They want me to think he’s dead. They even seem to want me to think he was murdered. Very convenient for Mitch, wherever he is. Thick as thieves these village people.”
“Occam’s Razor, Justin.”
“The ancient principle which says the simplest answer is usually the best. Dope, drink, drugs and epilepsy do not mix.”
“I thought Tyler said she wasn’t epileptic?”
God, he could be sharp when he wanted, too. “He said he couldn’t detectit.”
“All the same,” Justin insisted. “Remember what I said when we first met? This place is weird. Weirder than anywhere else I’ve ever known.”
“I wouldn’t argue with that.”
She wished the nagging rhyme would go away. For each birth, a death. Sara had become pregnant on the night of the Burning Man. When, unless she was mistaken, someone had died inside the fire. So what evened the balance when Harry slipped inside the rendering vat of Paternoster’s Farm? Was this some universal rule? People were dying and being born all the time. Did the cry of a new-born child in Argentina equate with the last gasp of a peasant in China? And where did Malthus fit into the equation? The maths were all wrong.
“Don’t be so literal,” Alison muttered to herself.
They were almost at the green now, passing Crabtree Lodge where, she was glad to see, the lights were out. Sara was sensibly growing the tiny tangle of cells in her womb, not dancing naked in the snow and wondering whether there really could be such things as ghosts.
“Nothing. Musing to myself.”
Priory House stood huge and dark on the other side of the green. She thought it looked cold and lonely. These moments were always awkward, she remembered that, even though it was decade or more since one had occurred. They came to a halt in the middle of what was, and would be again, the Beulah Village Cricket Club wicket: hard, taut grass now slumbering beneath a thin covering of white. The sky was starting to lose some of its luminescence. She looked up. Clouds that seemed suspiciously pregnant with heavy snow were scuttering towards the moon.
“My car’s over by the Green Man,” Justin said, a touch of nerves ringing unmistakably through his words.
“You’ll come in for a coffee, first,” she declared, and it wasn’t a question.
(C) David Hewson 2012