They sat in the kitchen, opposite each other at the massive pine table, the Aga pumping out so much heat their voices seemed to hang ponderously in the air. She had made Irish coffee, black and thick with whisky. Justin didn’t object. It struck her again: in some ways he was very… submissive. And she wondered about the tiny bone in its bed of cotton wool deep within the matchbox by the Aga. In another phase of her Beulah existence — how long ago, how distant? — she had dreamed of showing this to him, watching his eyes light up with interest, initiating the endgame for whatever had begun on the night of Burning Man. But that, she remembered, was when the world seemed simpler. Harry Blamire and Paternoster Farm had intervened. Now the piece of bone was more than evidence; it seemed a presentiment.
“Harry and Bella?” she asked. “You weren’t making it up then?”
“Nah,” Justin sighed. “Although it was bloody stupid of me to blurt it out like that. God knows the Cartwrights went through enough trouble with Harry as it is. They may be a bunch of light-fingered toerags but they didn’t deserve him jumping on the girl every time their backs were turned.”
She sniffed the coffee. Neither of them slurred their words or seemed remotely affected by the dope any more. The scene in the clearing saw to that. She felt awake and nervy, sensing the night and his presence. The evening had an edgy kind of heightened reality that was a form of intoxication of its own. It was 11.30 and she felt she could sit up until morning, constantly alert, if she wanted. “What happened exactly?”
He groaned. “Why do I keep telling you things I shouldn’t?”
“Because you like me,” Alison said, knowing this was a tease.
“Hmmm. This was four years ago, when I first came to Ashford. There was an investigation into Harry for under age sex. Bella was fifteen. He was forty five. Nice one, eh?”
“Very Beulah,” she said, nodding.
“Are you sure it was true?”
He snorted. “Of course it was. Harry didn’t even try to hide it much. He had a lot worse than that he didn’t want us to know about.”
“Such as pretty much anything you care to think of. The one we always got calls about was sneaking around. Seems the Blamires don’t go much on the idea of private property. They’re always popping into people’s gardens, peering in through windows. Peeping Tom stuff, maybe. Beulah seems to put up with it. Then one night Harry tried it down in Wye and we had a real ruckus on our hands.”
Alison puzzled over this one. “You mean they just walked into people’s gardens? Stared into their homes?”
“Whenever they felt like it. And that’s only the half of it. We only ever got the boys once and that was for some minor handling offence that didn’t even put them inside. But the whisper was they were pretty much game for anything. Nicking. Fencing. Beating up someone you didn’t like. There was even word they were doing something with drugs at one stage, not that we ever got to the bottom of that. They were a smart pair, believe me. Which is why I still don’t get Harry’s disappearance. It just doesn’t fit. Maybe Mitch bumped him off. Maybe they offended one of the big fish, which wouldn’t be hard if they were messing with drugs. I just don’t have a clue.”
She didn’t understand. “Why did that stop you from nicking him for under age sex? That’s like rape, isn’t it?”
“That’s the point. Not with Bella it wasn’t. She was — how do I put this? — not exactly inexperienced. Been at it long before Harry came sniffing around.”
Men, Alison swore inwardly. “What the hell difference does that make?”
He looked depressed. “Oh dear. I’m going to get the lecture, aren’t I? Well, a big difference actually. Bella was a sexually active, sexually mature fifteen-year-old. Strictly speaking, that made it illegal. But it’s like everything with Beulah. You have to use your discretion. We can’t just come up here nicking everybody for every breach of the law we see. If I did that I’d never sleep. There’s planning regulations, uninsured cars, waste disposal issues and worse. Incest. The ancient rural tradition of sheep shagging. I can’t pull the book out every time I come across something like that. What good would it do? There’s a consensus here that things are all right provided they stay inside the village. If everything else goes smoothly — and the big issues, people killing other people, little kids getting beat up, major league nicking stay away — should we really be that bothered?”
“Bella Cartwright isn’t a sheep,” she said coldly.
“No. But I ask again. What good would it have done if we’d gone ahead? Harry would have got off with six months at the most. By the time he was out she’d have been sixteen anyway.”
“So you did nothing?”
“We talked to him. Had Harry into the station and read the riot act. Wasn’t my decision, by the way, it was the chief super’s. I wasn’t on the Beulah beat then. For what it’s worth I thought we ought to throw the book at him.”
“Good for you.”
“I was naïve back then,” he replied. “Don’t you see? What was going to happen did anyway? When she got older, she grew up a bit, realised what a nasty catch Harry was and gave him the elbow. End of story, until halfwit here blurted it out just now. And what do you think would have happened if we’d locked him up? Bella would have got some unrequited love thing about him, visited him in nick, and taken a lot longer to work out that Harry was no good. She would have blamed herself for what happened. Worse for everyone all round.”
He had a point, she thought.
“What you’ve got to remember, Alison, is that nothing’s ever black and white. Particularly in a place like this. I’m not Judge Dredd, riding in to punish everyone who steps over the line. I’m just the neighbourhood plod trying to make sure nothing gets too out of hand, and calm folks down when it looks like it might. To be honest, if most of the things that go on here end up in court I’ve probably failed. Because six months later, it’ll start all over again, ten times worse in all probability.”
Was this really how Justin saw himself? As some kind of social worker in a uniform? Perhaps, she thought. But there was ambition there too. Which must have made being lumbered with the Beulah beat doubly worse. Maybe he was just focussing on priorities. There was a lot to be said for that, she thought. For each birth, a death. It was Yule, the winter solstice. Half the village seemed to think there was magic in the air. Why should she the odd one out? Priorities made a difference. Harry and the hidden finger bone, Paternoster Farm and Burning Man, all these things were, to some extent, the creation of her own emptiness, kept alive by this nagging, gaping hole inside her. If she were pregnant, if the warmth of a new life lay nestled deep inside her belly, all these ugly, winged creatures flitting in the shadows would disappear forever.
She leaned over the table, laid her palm over the back of his hand, smiled and asked if he wanted more coffee. Justin was very pleasant looking. The spiky haircut was a mistake. He ought to grow it longer to soften the angularity of his face. Nevertheless, he was handsome. He was young and fit and athletic. And he was good. Not a shred of malice or deceit in his soul. There was a time when she would have said the same about Miles, but even then there was a difference. She needed Miles; the relationship was based upon that fact. With Justin the dependence might work the other way round. He was more fitted for her current role in any relationship. The idea had a sharp, enticing attraction to it.
These were fanciful thoughts. He was looking at his watch, shaking his head.
“So tell me about being a plod,” she demanded, almost too anxiously. “Do you still get to carry whistles? Don’t you have one of those nice old-fashioned helmets somewhere in the closet?”
He looked sheepish. “They went out years ago.”
“So…?” There was something he was hiding. Justin looked at her and realised this was not going to go away. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a regulation police whistle and held it in his palm.
Alison picked it up and blew it. A harsh, sharp sound resonated through the huge kitchen.
He winced. “Embarrassing, eh? It’s a lucky charm. They don’t issue them any more but my dad gave me it. As a joke. And because he was worried too. He thinks this is a dangerous job.”
Alison gave him back the whistle and watched, with amusement, the care with which he put it back in his jacket. “He doesn’t know Beulah, then? You take that thing everywhere?”
“Like I said. It’s a lucky charm. We all need a touch of luck.”
“What about the girlfriend? Does she come when you blow it?”
His shoulders bobbed up and down. “Not any more. Packed me in a couple of months back.”
“She couldn’t take the rigours of a coppers’ life, I suppose. All the odd hours and that.”
“Nah. She just thought I was a bit boring.”
She laughed. “And are you?”
“Depends on the company.” He was staring at his empty coffee mug. “Thing is, she was two years younger than me. She knew even less about what was going on than I did. I never learned anything.”
“Like anything.” He took his eyes off the dregs in the mug and stared her in the face. “And she hated the fact I knew that. She always accused me of fancying older women.”
Alison nodded. “And do you?”
“Yeah. But not for the reason she thought. Not the sex thing at all. It’s because they just… know more.”
“Hell of an assumption, Justin.”
“No it isn’t,” he said firmly. “When you get older, most people go out into the world and pick things up. Even if you don’t know it yourself. I just came out of school, went through college and then put on a uniform. The moment you do that, you put on a shell and lock out a lot of what’s out there. Half the people I nick have seen more of the world than I have. And I’m not talking about where they’ve been. Look at you. American, living here. Furthest I’ve ever been is Fuengirola.”
“You make me sound a lot more exotic than I really am.”
He stared at her, blushing gently. “I wouldn’t say that. Change of subject. What does your husband do?”
“Works. In the City. A lot. As you’ve probably gathered, he won’t be back tonight. He’s not around much at the moment.”
Justin didn’t look as if he was about to leave, not straight away. “Does that bother you?”
“Not very much,” she replied in an instant, a touch shocked by her own honesty. However much she hoped to hide it from herself, something had snapped invisibly between her and Miles on the night Harry Blamire blurted out his secret. She couldn’t tell Miles what it was. She certainly couldn’t tell Justin. There were practical considerations that made it sensible to give Miles a second chance. But they did not diminish the emotional ones. “Marriages go up and down. I guess we’re in a down patch right now. Does it bother you?”
Justin took in a deep intake of breath. She marvelled at her ability to make men look miserable. “Alison, I’ve got to be honest. I don’t like where this is going. I fancy you like mad. I did from the moment I first saw you. But…” He looked around the vast, sparkling kitchen. “… all this. It’s way out of my league. And you’re hitched too. I just get this horrible feeling it’s going to turn out bad.”
She was puzzled. “You don’t want to go to bed with me because of my furnishings, Justin? Isn’t that a little harsh? What about me?”
He kept his hands palm down on the table and stared at the flat pine surface. “You are… amazing.”
“Then be a good boy and run upstairs. Let’s have ourselves an early Christmas.”
He did look at her then. His eyes grew wide, like those of a child. “No.”
“Why not? You want to. I want to.”
“I didn’t imagine it like this.”
“Imagination’s a waste of time.” She got up from the table, walked round to the back of his chair, and started to knead his powerful, tense shoulders through the thin cotton of his shirt. “God, you’re uptight. Am I doing this to you?”
“Yes,” he said curtly.
“Much else besides?”
A little hesitation. Then, “yes…”
“Well,” she took her hands away, and went into the corner, started sorting through big box of Christmas things Sainsbury’s had delivered that morning. “If it’s not to bed…”
Alison took out the bunch of mistletoe, clasped it in her teeth, then walked back to the table. In one sudden, swift movement she cleared it of everything, sweeping mugs, tablemats, some spare cutlery and a wicker bowl with fruit in it clean onto the floor. Justin looked at her, terrified. She kicked off her shoes, pulled the mohair sweater over her head, undid her jeans and wriggled out of them. Then, wearing just a plain silk blouse and white, skimpy knickers, she climbed onto the table, reached up and carefully fastened the mistletoe into the fake chandelier with its candle bulbs and dusty wooden frame. She looked at the green cluster of leaves and milky white berries, nodded and said, “That’ll do the trick.”
She fell onto her bare knees on the table and pulled his face towards her, with firm, clawing hands at the nape of his neck. He came, not unwillingly, and for the first time in her married life, Alison Fenway kissed another man in passion, kissed him in a hard, hungry way that she’d never embraced Miles. Mistletoe and Yule, for each birth a death. Her tongue went deep into Justin’s throat, one hand was scrabbling at the front of his shirt, the other pulling at her knickers, fighting to get her own clothes off. She made room on the table, reached down, tugged at Justin’s belt, hoping he’d get the idea. He did too, just. He was up from his chair, finally taking off his shirt, dropping his trousers, letting her see something there that made her breathless.
She shrugged off her blouse, then her bra and found herself sweating already, for some reason acutely conscious of the way her breasts hung as she looked down at him. The kitchen was incredibly hot. Goddamn Aga.
“On the table,” Alison ordered. “Lie down and be a good boy.”
Justin slid onto the pine surface and lay there, putting his hands behind his head. His mouth was slightly open, short gasps of breath touched her skin when she leaned over to mount him. And his eyes… he was scared, somehow, she thought. Poor boy…
It wasn’t right. “You look as if you’re in for a massage,” she complained.
His hands waved awkwardly off the end of the table. “Sorry. Where am I supposed to put them?”
Alison thought for a moment then reached over the edge of the table, opened the big built-in drawer, felt inside and pulled out a handful of napkins. She slid onto the floor and moved quickly towards his top half, snatched at one hand, and tied it securely to the table leg. Then she pulled back behind his head, bent down, gave him a brief, tender upside down kiss on the lips, and swiftly moved to his other hand, tethering it just as tightly.
“Bloody hell,” Justin moaned.
“You wanted experience, sweetie.”
“All the same, what if…”
She looked at the napkins in her hand. They were fine white linen. A wedding present from Miles’ late mother if she recalled correctly. There were three left.
“Oh, shut up,” she said, more to herself than him, leaned down and, as gently as she could, tied the napkin into a gag over his gaping, protesting mouth. “What if what?”
He looked sweet, she thought. His bright green eyes were a little scared. But his lithe, powerful arms had relaxed into the game. Justin liked this, in spite of himself.
Then she walked the length of the table, noted his condition and gave it an affectionate stroke. “You, I’ll deal with later,” she said. With a rapid efficiency, she used the two remaining napkins to tie his ankles to the table legs, and pulled herself back onto the surface to survey her work. Something was still missing.
She walked over to the carrier bag of Christmas junk she had picked up at stationers in Wye. There were three sets of miniature felt deer antlers, a party joke for lunch the following day. She had pictured Miles and Arnold slipping them over their heads when the wine was starting to work. Alison took one and gently pushed it over Justin’s spiky hair. He mumbled some protest through the gag but she couldn’t comprehend it. Horizontal on the table, naked except for the bindings, the gag and the miniature antlers bobbing with the urgent movements of his head, Justin looked perfect.
Spatchcocked. That was the word. Trussed as tightly and as securely as a piece of meat waiting for the oven. He had, too, the same look of mute, fated acceptance one might see in animals heading for the slaughterhouse. What was going to happen would happen and Justin was relaxed and ready for the ride.
Alison wiped the sweat from her forehead, lifted her legs over him, felt down for his hardness, found it, then placed herself correctly, let the muscular apex sit there while she edged and angled herself over him. She didn’t need to see Justin right then. She closed her eyes and thought of herself, of this meeting of parts. It was so important that this ancient rite be performed correctly, with the right degree of ardour, all the right noises. Then, not knowing why, she looked up. The mistletoe sat over them like a green crown, full of pearls that looked like dainty drops of semen, poised in the air, ready to fall from the ceiling, seep through the pores of her skin and spark life in the dark bloody depths of her womb. She opened her legs a little more, held onto his chest, and thrust down. Justin’s maleness rose inside her in a delicious, anxious progress that went on and on, deeper and deeper.
There was, Alison thought later, when she replayed this scene in her head out of pure pleasure, a specific, precise point where it ceased to be a simple, physical act and became, instead, something elemental, something that rang like the rhythm of an ancient verse. Like the songs they had listened to on the Minnis that night. The change happened just after that first thrust, a moment after he parried with a rotating, pelvic gyration of his own. She had yelled (screamed?) for him to stop, and slapped down instantly, with a firm, hard blow across his cheek. Justin had to understand, if he could, that this was her ritual, her performance. She would milk the pearls out of him, she would make the universe alive in their heads. This was, some distant voice inside her said, her night. Yule.
At some point her memory became unreliable. All that followed was beyond logic, beyond purpose. Finally — how long? seconds? hours? — she felt a race of warmth inside her and knew — knew — the promise had been kept.
Gasping for breath, Alison fell down upon his chest, placed her face next to his, spoke to the wood, to the fabric of the napkin at his lips.
“My sweet boy,” she panted. “My dear, sweet boy.”
She looked up at the ceiling. A single berry of mistletoe detached itself from the distant green branch and fell, under a ponderous, magical gravity all of its own, down towards them.
Alison reached across his sweating skin and gripped it in her fingers. Then she crushed the tiny, milk white fruit, felt the juice on her skin, and thrust the charmed, pearly flesh inside her.
(C) David Hewson 2012