It snowed that night. The world was enveloped in a vast, soft blanket of white. When the day dawned, so bright it hurt the eyes, Alison realised she had been aware of the blizzard while she slept. The lines of snowflakes danced their way to earth in her dreams. She watched them swirling in the light, icy wind, stuck out her dream tongue and tasted their delicious dream dampness, cold and sharp.
Awake, alone, she looked at the foreign shape Justin had left in the sheets beside her. He’d gone while she slept. All that remained was this strange, long indentation in the white cotton sheets, now rumpled and, if she cared to look closely, she guessed, stained too. The table was only the beginning. How many times? She had no idea. The room smelled of bodies and sex. She shook her head, trying to make it work, and stared at the bedside clock. It was nine. A good three hours before Miles was due to arrive with Arnold. Plenty of time to change the sheets, to throw open the windows, sweep this odd, yet somehow perfectly apposite, episode out of her life.
Alison pulled on a nightgown left stuffed beneath the bed, was aware that she felt slightly stiff, then stood up and looked out of the window. A line of footsteps ran from the side of the house to the gate. The snow, still coming down in a constant, thick sweep, had half-filled them. Hiding the evidence. A habit that was becoming rather too familiar. A scientist or a detective, she guessed, could have counted the flakes in the hollow of each heel, stuck his finger in the air and estimated, to the precise second, when Justin had passed this way, his big, ploddy feet making soft indentations in the snow. Before daylight too, he was sensible enough for that. As they both knew, Beulah was a village. People talked. By the time Miles arrived home the footsteps would be gone, long buried beneath the deep whiteness that was covering the world.
She placed her hand gently beneath the silk gown and felt the lower part of her stomach. It was warm and pleasant to touch. Once she would have remembered the physical facts. How long between sex and fertilisation? Did the little wrigglers, as Sara called them, hang around for a couple of days, like men waffling at a bar, then decide to do their stuff? Or was it all in place already? A tiny, squirming organism drilling its way through the leathery shell of a minuscule egg. Genesis. Joy. And all though the intervention of a half-stranger. Justin’s face and his strong, lithe body rose in her memory, and it provoked a conflicting mix of emotions. Guilt was in there somewhere, but it was muddied with an overwhelming sense of pleasure. Alison enjoyed Justin, physically and emotionally too. If what she expected truly had occurred, she owed him a debt. How that might be repaid was impossible to judge. Events were running under their own momentum. The best she could do was to roll with the punches and keep her secrets tightly wrapped inside. Like Miles. The thought came unbidden, and it made her strangely sympathetic towards her distant husband. A single act of transgression was a small event in the lifetime of a marriage. It was only natural that, once committed, the culprit fought to keep it hidden, perhaps even from his or her own consciousness.
She stared at the thickening clouds of snowflakes milling over the flat, white Minnis and realised this was unimportant. Sometimes events followed each other with an incomprehensible, mystic certainty. Night after day. The footsteps of your brief, necessary lover standing like a scarlet letter in front of your house, then filling, mysteriously with snow. And the transcendental act: fertilisation. Unseen, undetectable at this stage. Yet she knew. Justin’s seed was working its ancient magic inside her body. Alison had no doubts. If she closed her eyes, tried to imagine the strange, complex workings of flesh and cell and blood beneath the taut skin of her abdomen, she would, she felt sure, be able to pinpoint the exact moment of conception. When sperm penetrated egg and made life. It was uncanny. The beastly Tyler would doubtless have some explanation. A therapist would call it wish fulfilment. And it was real, as real as the snow falling outside the window or the crumpled sheets on the bed with their tell-tale stains screaming at the four walls of the room.
Alison groaned. She felt both elated and depressed. Then something moved in the sea of whiteness outside. A shape, familiar at once, in a dark red, hooded winter overcoat, stumbled down the path, arms full of packages.
“Shit,” she mumbled. Sara had picked the wrong moment. She threw open the window, felt the wet, blast of snow in her face and yelled down into the blizzard. “Back door open. Let yourself in!”
The red hood nodded, then was gone, and Alison dashed into the shower, mind racing. In her head the house seemed to have “infidelity” written all over it. She couldn’t begin to remember all the places she and Justin had found themselves during the night. “Goddamn mistletoe,” she muttered, and shoved her head under the cleansing water.
Two minutes later, as she was pulling on a pair of jeans and an old sweater, there was a knock on the bedroom door and Sara, without waiting, bounced in, all smiles.
“Made you some coffee, love. And toast. Thought you might need it.” She looked at the room, a taut smile fixed on her face. “Late night?”
Alison pulled her head through the neck of the sweater and tried to grin. Sara was gawping openly at the tangle of sheets on the bed. “Sort of. Um. Shall we go downstairs?”
They marched down the broad Georgian staircase. A pile of presents, damp with snow, stood at the bottom. Alison blinked at the mess. There was mistletoe strewn everywhere… on the stairs, on the carpet, on the furniture in the hall. Sara daintily stepped around the more obvious piles and made her way into the kitchen. That, at least, wasn’t as bad as Alison had feared. The floor was clean and swept now. The things from the table were back in place.
Sara stared at the kitchen and shrugged. “This is one hell of a house you know, Alison. I envy you like mad. But sorry, I couldn’t reach that.” She pointed at the crown of mistletoe still attached to the kitchen light. “Don’t want to be climbing things right now.”
“No. You are a sweet,” Alison said, and clutched for the precious mug of coffee. Then she took a deep breath, looked Sara in the face and mumbled lamely, “It’s not what it seems. Honest.”
“Things rarely are,” Sara replied, eyes wide open. “Don’t tell me. It’s none of my business. I just wanted to drop off the presents. I wasn’t trying to pry. Do you want any help clearing up?”
“God, you’re an angel.” Alison put down the coffee mug, came over, hugged her gently and wondered why she suddenly felt like sobbing. Sara smelled of summer flowers. There was now a distinct bulge in her lower stomach. It stood between them, a small, immovable obstacle, as they embraced. She did wipe away a tear, not knowing why, then said, “Sorry. Everything seems to happen at once in my life at the moment.”
“Sure.” Sara stood back and looked at her oddly.
“Nothing, I…” She stepped forward and they hugged again. Sara pulled back and left her hand gently on Alison’s stomach.
Alison felt cold all of a sudden. “What is it?”
“Nothing. I just… Oh. This is mad.”
“What is it?”
“You’re up the spout, aren’t you? I felt it. Just like I felt it inside me, that day after Burning Man.”
“You are! Don’t deny it. Oh bloody brilliant.”
Sara performed a brief tap dance on the kitchen floor, the enthusiasm only somewhat tempered somewhat by her condition. Then she twirled round twice, threw herself into Alison’s arms, squealing like a child.
“You’re bloody pregnant. It’s so wonderful. And I… oh, will it come out with little PC Plod boots on? No. Sorry. None of my business. I shouldn’t have asked that. What about Miles?”
“Sara, calm down. I don’t know a thing.”
“If you and Miles haven’t been at it recently, you’d best hit the rumpy pumpy button tonight, dear girl. Men are useless at most things but they sure as hell can count.”
“So that’s what? Three months apart? I’m an equinox girl, and you’re a solstice. Who says old Tyler is talking bullshit?”
Alison grabbed her shoulders and made her stop jiggling up and down like a lunatic. “Please! I don’t know a thing.”
“Bollocks,” Sara replied, and gave her that look of insight that sometimes came right out of the blue. “In a few weeks’ time you’ll be down the hill to Wye Surgery to do the paperwork. Don’t fool yourself, love. It’s happened.”
“Oh…” she groaned.
“I’ll take that as confirmation. Can I be there? For the birth? You’re welcome to mine.”
“Jesus, Sara. I’m trying to think about Christmas and you’re talking about what may or may not happen nine months from now.”
“Oh cut the crap. You know. I know.”
Alison gulped at her coffee.
“Last mug of that you’re having this side of September too,” Sara said. “And you can cut out the booze and fags too.”
“You’re starting to make me feel better already.”
“Wait till the upchucking starts. And I haven’t even come close to the really painful bit yet. My cousin Rosie said it felt like someone was pulling a red-hot poker out of your…”
“Whoa! Enough. I’m still acclimatising to the idea it might all be true.”
Sara beamed at her. “Oh, it’s true. It’s written all over your guilty face.”
“I thought you weren’t prying. That sounds judgmental to me.”
“Apologies. It’s hard not to let these things slip out some times. Can I ask just one question before we let this go?”
“You can ask. It doesn’t mean I’ll answer.”
“Fair enough. Was it fun?”
Alison thought of the night. Of Marjorie Tyler flying naked through the circle in the wood. Of mistletoe descending magically from the sky. And of Justin, sweet, strong Justin, who always did as he was told.
“Oh yes,” she said. “It was fun.”
“Then that’s all that matters. A child conceived in those circumstances is bound to prosper.”
“It was fun… for once. I don’t think philandering is really my scene. I don’t have the courage for it.”
“Hell, Alison. Once is all you need.”
“I know.” She wished she could remember more clearly what she’d said to him. “I may have to convince Justin of that.” Herself too, perhaps.
“He’s only a man,” Sara said very seriously. “You can do it. And talking of men…”
She looked at her watch. It was crawling towards ten. “Hadn’t we better finish the cleaning up around here?”
Alison gulped the dregs of her coffee, went to the broom cupboard and started to wade between the dusty implements. Within the hour the house was spotless. She could never have done it without Sara’s help. Too many thoughts, too many possibilities would have floated to the front of her consciousness. When they were finished, Sara they took a break at the kitchen table. Alison stared at the polished pine surface, grateful that wood couldn’t speak.
“Sara?” she asked, wondering. “What are you doing about Christmas lunch?”
“Nothing much. Some sarnies in front of the fire in all probability. The forecast is bloody awful, you know. We’ll probably be cut off by tomorrow. God knows when the hill will be open again.”
“Come to us. We’ve got loads of food. It does mean you’ll have to meet Miles’ old man, who can be the devil incarnate. I apologise for that in advance.”
Sara grinned. She really hadn’t been expecting it. “I don’t want to impose.”
“To hell with imposing. You’d be doing me a favour.”
“Are you sure?”
“Absolutely. Otherwise I have listen to them farting all on my own.”
“In that case, I’d love to. Normally I go to the Green Man and get a bit squiffy but not this year.”
“Point taken. No drinking. No smoking. God knows how I explain it to Miles.”
“A glass of wine won’t do any harm, I suppose.”
Alison patted her on the hand. “I’ll join you on that. Tomorrow.”
“Oh bugger, I nearly forgot. Old Mother Tyler wants to invite us all round for drinks at five o’clock too. She told you I presume?”
Alison’s face fell.
“You two fall out or something?” Sara wondered.
“Did she say that?”
Sara shook her head. “No. I just thought she looked a bit odd.”
“We didn’t argue exactly. There was a bit of trouble at the dancing. More Justin than me, really,” she lied.
“So I heard. It was my kitchen knife that nice little Bella Cartwright nicked when she came at you. Right while I was dishing out the mince pies too. That’s why the rural middle class are here, you know. To give the lower orders something to thieve.”
“Hell,” Alison muttered.
“Marjorie doubtless wants to make up. I wouldn’t worry about it.”
Alison was puzzled. “But why should she need to make up? It was the Cartwright girl who went bonkers.”
“Good point. Perhaps she feels responsible, embarrassed.”
Some parts of the night was a blur for Alison. It was hard to work out which one of them, she or Marjorie Tyler, deserved to feel the most embarrassment.
“Sara? You’ve been to that thing before?”
“Yes. Like I said. Interesting once.”
“What’s it about?”
Sara shrugged. “Another little local ritual, my dear. Nothing more. Nothing less. I suspect we all have them, you know. But we just call them love, hate, lust, greed, whatever. Whereas in Beulah they dress it all up in different clothes and make a little game out of it. That’s what I think. It’s important to these people, love. Don’t ever make the mistake of thinking otherwise.”
“Oh no. I am absolutely convinced of that.”
“Good. Because if there’s one thing people around here don’t like, it’s the idea someone is taking the piss out of them.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it.” The image of the naked, flabby body flying through the night ran through her head and failed to prompt any inward merriment. “Why did you call her that? Old Mother Tyler?”
“Like Old Mother Shipton. She’s head honcho witch. Leader of the coven.”
“Witch? You mean that?”
Sara looked uncomfortable. “This isn’t that conspiracy thing again, is it? Your finger bone?”
“No,” Alison replied, and tried to convince herself it wasn’t a lie. “I just wondered.”
Sara was too serious all of a sudden. “Just drop it. Now please.”
“I have. All I was asking was what function Marjorie Tyler fulfils here. She’s the wife of the weirdest GP on the planet. She grows pot in her conservatory. And last night she was leaping through Sterning Wood stark naked dancing like a creature possessed.”
“Oh God,” Sara groaned. She toyed with a ball of tinsel on the table, staring into nowhere. Then eventually she said, very slowly, “If I tell you this, you promise you’ll never repeat it. To anyone. And that this subject is now dead and buried. Deal?”
Sara struggled for the words. “There’s some sort of village… organisation. I suppose that’s what you’d call it.”
“Organisation? You mean a coven?”
“I didn’t use the word. I’m not sure it’s even the right one.”
“But it’s witchcraft? All these ceremonies?”
“No.” She was uncomfortable, Alison could see that. But if this was the one and only chance there would be to get to the bottom of this question, it had to be pursued.
“I think,” Sara said eventually, “they’d call it the Old Religion. Sort of like Wicca, although I don’t think even that’s quite right. I’ve got a couple of pals in Oxfordshire who are Wiccans. Nice but barmy. It’s not the same, not at all.”
“What hypocrites. They go to church!”
“Some of them do. That’s not the point. It’s like a club or something, not a religion exactly. What interests them is continuity. From generation to generation. And they don’t stick pins and needles in wax dolls. Mostly I think it’s just harmless, like making corn dollies and stuff.”
Sara sighed. This was clearly getting more involved than she’d planned. “Marjorie — and she told me this herself, when she was pissed once — is the Mother. With a capital M. Don’t ask me the significance, I don’t know. I’m an outsider, like you. Remember?”
“Nice work. Dancing stark naked in the middle of December. How do you get it?”
“You mean how was she chosen?” Sara was starting to look thoroughly miserable.
“Yes. Who was it before?”
“She was pissed when she told me this, love. Maybe it doesn’t mean a thing.”
“We made a deal.”
Sara continued with obvious reluctance. “The Mother before Marjorie was Frank Wethered’s wife. Who was, as you may imagine, old.”
“So it’s just handed on at death?”
“Not exactly. As I understand it, there are two ways. The outgoing Mother can arrange a successor. It has to be someone who’s been initiated, even if the poor cow doesn’t know it yet. Meaning shagged, of course. After that, she’s gradually introduced into the Beulah ways.”
Alison felt chill and baffled. She wondered why she kept pulling at this particular thread. “And the other?”
“It’s something like natural selection,” Sara said flatly. “By which I mean brutally efficient. The Mother can be challenged. Overturned, by someone who’s stronger or smarter than her. And that’s the part that scares me.”
She had to ask. Somehow Sara expected it. “Why?”
“Five years ago the Wethereds and the Tyler went on holiday together to Madeira. Molly Wethered never came back. She fell down a cliff. Stone dead. And Beulah got a new Mother. Marjorie. Just like that.”
Alison tried to take this in. “You’re not saying…?”
“That Marjorie pushed her? I don’t know. The gossip was Molly wouldn’t let go, even though she’d been passed the mantle peacefully by no less than Granny Jukes. If I read the rules correctly, that gave Marjorie the right to intervene. I may be just mad, of course. Frank and Marjorie seem to get along fine. On the other hand…”
Sara fell silent.
“On the other hand what?” Alison pressed her.
“It’s for Beulah. We’re all smaller than the whole. That’s part of what they believe I think. In those circumstances, Frank would have to go along with it, wouldn’t he? The greater good and all that?”
Alison wondered, for a moment, if she might faint. The implications of what Sara were saying seemed to spread their icy fingers everywhere.
Sara reached over, took her hand, and stared, very seriously, into her eyes. “These are just my suspicions. No, not even that. Idle bar gossip. Don’t read anything into them. But it doesn’t make sense to upturn too many stones. This is a wonderful place. These are, by and large, wonderful, if slightly weird, people. But things happen in Beulah. Only to those involved, usually, though I’m not convinced that’s a fixed rule in whatever passes for their Bible. All I know is that if you look the other way and don’t start to pry, they’ll leave you alone. Your little finger bone. Paternoster Farm. All that stuff. It scares me. You’re asking questions, and that is not a good idea. We’re all just supposed to wait until we’re ready to be told.”
She nodded, her head awhirl with a tangle of ideas. There was a noise above their heads. The mistletoe rustled for no apparent reason, and a delicate shower of pearly berries fell on the table, dropped gently onto their hair.
“You’ve got what you wanted, Alison. How doesn’t matter. Just think about the future, and let the past go.”
“Done,” she said. “It’s dead and buried. As dead and buried as Harry Blamire.”
Sara peered at her. “I didn’t realise anyone was sure Harry was dead. Justin talking between bouts, I suppose.”
Alison blushed and put a finger to her lips. “Oops.”
“Hmm. So no more pursuit of the mysteries?”
“Cross my heart and hope to die,” Alison said and tried to smile.
(C) David Hewson 2012