Justin Liddle’s shift began at six the next morning. An hour later he was climbing up Viper’s Hill, through wisps of ragged mist. This was the fifth time in seven days he had driven directly to Beulah, wondering if he could pluck up the courage to walk into her life again. The Minnis was so open and busier than he expected. He couldn’t bear to embarrass her further by being seen. Equally, he needed to be near to her, to drink in her presence, be close to her torn, fragile beauty. In one sense Christmas seemed years away in his memory, and her absence over this vast expanse of time left him in constant despair. Yet there was a strange, elemental nearness in his head too; from time to time, unbidden, unsought, the images of them together, naked, writhing on the table, on the floor, in the great bedroom of Priory House, replayed themselves in his imagination with a shocking, vivid accuracy.
He parked the car close to the pub and, to provide an excuse, posted a leaflet about the neighbourhood watch scheme on the village notice board. Miles’ car was gone from the drive. One morning Justin had arrived early and seen him reversing out onto the common at six thirty, heading off for the long commute into London.
Today, Justin was able to watch Beulah come slowly to life, at its own, measured pace. At just past eight the draymen arrived at the Green Man and began to heave barrels into the cellar at the front of the pub. A couple of minutes later John Tyler came out and walked the few short steps to his Daihatsu. Marjorie watched him from the door, waving as he went, an odd, touching gesture, Justin thought, in such a strange, distant couple. Vic, the local roundsman, delivered newspapers and milk at eight thirty, driving his old white van at a steady fifteen miles per hour everywhere. A solitary horse rider crossed the edge of the green leaving muddy footprints in the outfield of the cricket pitch.
The day had a sullen, leaden feel to it. The sky was a monotonous grey, the ground damp with overnight dew. There was no wind, nothing on the air but the faint, sweet smell of decay, of rotting leaves and weak vegetation wondering whether to give up the ghost. He could walk up to the door of Priory House, he knew. There were excuses galore. Still, something prevented him, and Justin tried hard to analyse exactly what it was. Not fear, that was certain. Over the weeks since Christmas he had come to understand that he and Alison shared some linked destiny, even if she fought hard to reject the idea. They would be one. Some ceremony of fire might have to be negotiated to reach this state of bliss, but that would be welcome. He was about to break up a marriage. He deserved to suffer. Most important of all, she had to be protected from the pain. There was enough of that already in Alison’s life, and its effects were, on occasion, all too obvious. The obsession about Sara’s mysterious accident. Her nervous, feverish interest in the queer rituals of the village. Alison was a woman on the edge, and he bore much of the blame. It was important for her sanity to tread with care.
Then there was Priory House. The place was so grand, so foreign to everything he had known in life. It was like walking into one of the smaller stately homes. And such memories too. When they met — and meet they would — it needed to be on neutral territory.
A shape appeared in the front window of the house on the far side of the green. Justin started the patrol car and drove, very slowly, around the common, parking briefly outside Priory House. Her face, pale and lovely, met his briefly from the window. Then he drove again, just as slowly, onto the dead end single track that came to a halt just short of the White Horse, glancing back just once to see her upright form in the window.
He parked on the verge close to the end of the lane. The Downs were deserted. In the distance lay the flat, grey sprawl of Canterbury. Even the magnificent structure of the Cathedral seemed pale, drained of splendour, under the drab February sky. Lone crows squawked half-heartedly through the low coppice brush that formed the woodland edge. He remembered Christmas Eve and the scene in the clearing. Sterning Wood was dormant now, stripped of greenery. The sweet chestnut trees seemed small and insignificant without leaves, random clumps of timber made to be cropped. Only the occasional standard, tall and majestic, with mature, wrinkled bark and a presence that spoke of age, made any impact on the landscape. The wood seemed to have shrunk into itself for the winter. All that grew out of the ground was the epitome of decay: fungi, the colour of dead flesh, everywhere, the monotony leavened only occasionally by the bright, flecked red skin of the fatal fly agaric, poised at a jaunty angle, as if it inviting the nearest goblin to jump on its livid back.
He looked for the path to the circle. Even that was hard to locate in the wood’s new winter guise. Eventually, by following the lines of denuded grass, he came across it. Not more than three feet across, it led, in a meandering line, into the living forest beyond the bare, scalped coppice at the perimeter, with its tree stumps and thick, spent foliage.
Inside, the wood was alive, but in the most infuriating of ways. Small bodies moved through the leaf mould, warned by his footsteps. Elusive birds flitted from tree to tree, making sounds he couldn’t begin to recognise. Justin Liddle felt he would never really be at home in the country. In a very short period of time — in the light, he realised, these were not great distances at all — the clearing where Marjorie Tyler had danced naked appeared to his left. Something moved there. On the bare, dormant grass a young roe deer was trying to gain some nourishment from the bark of a small stool of chestnut. The animal was aware of his presence, even from twenty feet, with no wind to carry the human smell. Its head jerked from side to side, the beast’s slender legs stamped once and it was gone.
He sat on the stump of a felled sycamore and lit a cigarette. This was a cowardly way to proceed, he thought. Wasting time in a dead, distant forest clearing when he was supposed to be earning his pay. Justin thought about Harry Blamire and his mysterious disappearance. He’d spent hours hanging around Paternoster Farm, wondering about what might have happened. The site of the vile plant could not, he realised, be far away. He pushed on further into the wood. Soon there were the familiar sounds, of engines and men and work under way. The site was a mess. A couple of diggers were busying away, flattening the timber walls that once kept out the curious. The big gates, black from the fire, lay on the ground, shattered in most parts, serving as planks to give access over the swamp of mud Paternoster had become.
The workmen, with their helmets and ear protectors, looked up, gave him the sour, cursory glances that went with the job. Nothing would escape the demolition team’s attention. Very little of the plant’s buildings had been left intact by the explosion. What remained was now either dismantled, and piled in a growing heap at the far side of the clearing, or gone altogether, along with everything mechanical, even the giant furnace itself which was blamed for the catastrophe. The place looked like the aftermath of a gypsy encampment which had upped sticks in the middle of a very damp and muddy night.
He turned to go and found her staring at him from the track that led from the clearing. She wore a flowing, dark green coat, big at the front, ready to accommodate the swelling child. Justin still couldn’t pin down his feelings about the pregnancy. Without knowing hers, it was probably impossible. He stood in front of her, saw the extra colour in her cheeks, how well she seemed.
“You look great,” he said.
“What are you doing, Justin?”
“Fishing. Hoping. Praying.”
“I don’t like it here. Can’t we go some place else?”
They walked back to the clearing, back to the sycamore stumped, and she watched him smoke another cigarette, both of them avoiding the obvious subject.
“Why are you wasting your time here?” she asked. “ It’s just a building site.”
“I might ask you the same thing. I am the copper, you know.”
“I was invited, wasn’t I?”
And she came. That meant something.
He shrugged. “Terrible at this, aren’t I?”
“No.” She looked lost. There was nothing he wanted more in the world than to hold her, to touch her. To rekindle that fire. “But you needn’t have bothered. I heard you’d been hanging round here anyway.”
“It’s bloody Harry Blamire, of course. Mitch is still AWOL, though my bet is he either back here now or likely to be swiftish. I know how much money those boys had in the bank, and it wasn’t enough for a lifetime swanning around the world from strumpet to strumpet.”
“Harry’s dead,” he said flatly. “OK, OK, I know I said he wasn’t. But I was wrong. Forensic pulled some bits of bone and stuff out of the quagmire there. Quite a lot actually. No proof it’s Harry, of course, but who else could it be? Not that they’ll waste money on DNA testing to prove it.”
“So,” she said firmly. “There’s your mystery resolved. A nasty industrial accident. And Mitch just took off out of grief or an impulse to spend the contents of their joint account.”
“Yes.” He knew he looked dubious, it was impossible to hard.
“You mean it didn’t happen like that?”
“Probably. But there’s just weird things about all this, Alison. Like these bits of bone. Forensic couldn’t work out what was going on. They weren’t just burned, they’d been cooked or something. And compressed. And they were all mixed up with bits of animal too. How’d you explain that?”
“It was a big bang. Everyone in the village heard it.”
“Yeah.” He was still sceptical. “Except you. But you’re not Beulah, are you? Not yet at any rate?”
“I’m me. You of all people ought to realise that.”
“Oh, I do. Can I show you something? Just between the two of us for now?”
Her response surprised him. This idle, pointless chatter about Harry meant nothing. It was their way of working round to the real subject. Yet there was something close to fear in her face.
“Only if you want me to,” he offered.
She followed him back towards the site of the farm. He pointed to the remains of the plant. “You live at Priory House right?”
“So there must have been a prior or something at some stage. Where’s the church? Have you ever wondered?”
“The church is in Elmleigh. Four miles away. I asked John Tyler that very question. I was curious too. These are big country parishes. The god squad must have had to cover miles. It makes more sense for them to be central rather than stuck next to the church.”
They strode out of the blackened area and into the low brush of the wood.
“Yes,” Justin answered. “John Tyler told me that as well. Only one problem. Elmleigh already has a rectory. The vicar still lives there. And Elmleigh and Beulah have only been one parish for five hundred years or so.”
“Only?” She sounded amazed. Sometimes he forgot she was American and possessed a different sense of scale about history.
“Five hundred years is a long period of time.”
“Not for Beulah it isn’t. You can find out an awful lot from the history books over in the Canterbury Cathedral library, you know. Spend a few hours over there and five hundred years seems nothing at all.”
They stopped by an ancient oak tree. Rotting acorns, gnawed by squirrels, littered the ground. “Why,” she asked, “are you spending your time reading ancient ecclesiastical records? What does that tell you about Beulah?”
“That’s the point. Bugger all. Your house clearly was religious property at one stage. I looked up the Grade I listing. The foundations go back to the 13th century. The Georgian and Victorian bits were added on, obviously. The trouble is most of the records are incomplete or just plain missing, and no-one knows why. But it wasn’t attached to a church. It was part of a small monastery, the place where the big boss lived, in all probability.”
She looked at him amazed. “A monastery? Here?”
“Why so surprised? Priory House is where the prior lives. And think of the name of this place. Paternoster Farm. It means ‘Our Father’. And Beulah itself. Do you know what the word means?”
He could tell from her face it rang a faint bell. “It’s just an old name. There are places called Beulah back home. One in New England, I think.”
“It means married to God. Favoured and blessed. It means a kind of paradise on earth. So where is the priory? There aren’t any records, or much in the way of surviving buildings, but it was here all right. Until around 1525 when there’s just a brief reference in the records to it being ‘abrogated’, to use their word.”
She racked her brains. “Ah! I have it. Just because I’m a Yank you think I don’t know history. Henry VIII and the dissolution of the monasteries. Plenty of places got pillaged then.”
“And you,” he said, wagging a gloved finger, “think that, just because I’m a village plod, I don’t know history. I’ve got a 2.1 in medieval history from Warwick as it happens.”
She looked amazed. “What? Medieval history? Why the hell are you a cop, then?”
Justin felt a touch offended. She really had seen him as a complete ingénue. “It was either that or teach. And kids scare the life out of me frankly. Is it that hard to believe?”
Alison seemed lost for words for a moment. “No. Sorry, that sounded terrible. But why are you doing this? What’s your point?”
He grinned. They were back on track. “All in good time. I know a little about this period of history and I can say with all confidence you are out by a good decade. Whatever happened here took place in 1525. Henry didn’t even break with the Catholic Church until 1533. So it pre-dated the dissolution. Henry was still a good Catholic. Whatever his reason for taking against the Beulah monks, they were good Catholic ones.”
Justin kicked at a spot of earth until it exposed what looked like ancient brickwork. He moved his boot again, and, with the soil out of the way it was clearer to see.
“Let me show you more,” he said. They walked into the tangle of coppice, Justin carefully bending back the supple branches so she could get through safely. After a good hundred yards he stopped. There was an excavation here. It had revealed, a good three feet beneath the surface, some kind of foundation work, of a substantial size.
“I started poking around when they found bits of stone and plasterwork after the accident. I’m no archaeologist. If the blast hadn’t exposed something in the first place I’d never have got here.”
“I don’t understand,” she said. “Where does all this lead?”
He looked a little lost. “I don’t know. What I do know is that this place is not just some thirty-year-old rendering plant in the middle of nondescript woodland. There was an entire medieval community here until 1525 and then, for reasons unknown, it was destroyed.”
“Justin,” she said, “this is a wood.”
“Now it is. But all of Sterning Wood is no more than four hundred years old. This is man-made forest, not ancient woodland. I checked that too. And remember something else. This is where they dance.”
She remembered that, he thought. Perhaps, in her own head, that night was still just as vivid as it remained for him.
“I don’t see what this has got to do with Harry Blamire. Or anything else for that matter, except a little local gossip and folklore.”
Justin shrugged. “Me neither, really. I just get curious sometimes. And when I get curious, I dig. I look for things.”
She wanted to be home, he guessed. It was in her face. She wanted to be comfy in front of the fire, with a cup of tea and some decent music drifting through her head, thinking about anything on earth but some obsessive plod who thought one night of frenzied sex entitled him to a portion of her future.
He shuffled, looking uncomfortable. “I only found one hard piece of evidence about the dissolution of Beulah and that, interestingly enough, was in London, in the British Library, not Canterbury. Maybe the medieval shredders never quite made it there.”
She waited. “You went to London. For this? For God’s sake, why?”
“You tell me. They tried the prior. The man who lived in your house as it was then. They convicted him of a whole string of things… murder, licentiousness, heresy, apostasy, treason. They made him out as a real rogue. A kind of pagan Robin Hood, stealing from the Church, keeping a string of mistresses, exercising droit du seigneur, which I think translates as screwing whoever he felt like. There was bastard offspring everywhere, if you believe the evidence.”
She didn’t seem surprised. “Sounds like Beulah through and through. What happened to him?”
“Hanged, drawn and quartered on Tower Hill in 1527, along with the squire who shopped him, doubtless under torture of course. They put the heads on a pike at Traitor’s Gate. And it was all really queer. I looked at the other executions at the time. Henry wasn’t topping the clergy just then. He was definitely a special case.”
Alison looked at her watch, tried to smile then said, “This is an interesting fairy tale, Justin. But I have to go.”
“His name was Prior William Fenway. And the squire was one Robert Blamire. Five hundred years ago, Alison. The same line.”
She went pale. “Coincidence.”
“Perhaps. I don’t know.”
Alison came up to him, put her hands on the front of his jacket, looked him directly in the face. “Why are you telling me this? To make some bigger mystery out of it all? To make me need you?”
“You do need me, love. Even if you don’t realise it yet. You need me because I love you. You need me because there’s something queer going on here and I think you know that as well as I do.”
“No,” she said firmly. She’d looked at him the same way that night in the kitchen he recalled. There was always a moment of refusal before the inevitable happened. “I’m sorry, Justin. It was a mistake. I was drunk. We both were. I can understand if you hate me. All I can do is apologise.”
He laughed and saw some light of interest and amusement in her eyes. “I don’t hate you. Whatever made you think that?”
“I led you on. That was wrong.”
“Oh.” He looked back at the clearing, trying to remember something. “I thought we led each other on. That’s how I recall it.”
“Either way. It was a mistake. And…”
“It meant nothing?” he suggested.
“It meant something at the time.”
He had to ask. “And now you’re pregnant. What if it’s mine?”
She took a deep breath and he knew. “Trust me, Justin. This is not your child.”
He gave her a copper’s look. The one that said: really? “It’s funny, you know,” he said. “If you’d told me before that I could, just for one day, one hour, have something I wanted so badly, and then never touch it again, I’d have leaped at the idea. Like getting one minute in heaven, and being able to survive on that memory for the rest of your life. But it doesn’t work like that. You just become aware of what you might lose, and it’s worse because you know what it is. You know that’s what was supposed to happen.”
She put a cold, soft hand to his face. “Believe me, Justin. It isn’t. Miles and I are meant to happen.”
“Because you love him?”
It was an unfair question. He had no real experience of love. And for her, who’d seen so much more of the world, the word had to possess such flexible, elusive meanings. You could turn them round to embrace almost anything you liked. “No. Because it’s right. And we’re not. Sometimes things fall into place, and not always how you expect them. Or want them even. But they’re right. Beulah’s like that somehow. There are times it feels mad to be there. Yet I wouldn’t leave it for all the world. I can’t explain it. I can’t say sorry enough for making you think it might be otherwise. But that’s how it is and you’ve got to live with it.”
He stared at the bare forest, thinking. Then, purposefully, but with no force, no aggression, bent down, put one hand to the back of her head and kissed her, feeling the tiny mote of resistance disappear the moment their mouths met. In this heightened state, bodies locked together, eyes closed, blood pulsing, the forest seemed part of their embrace. The wings of some giant bird beat close overhead.
Softly, with no real conviction he thought, she pushed him away. “I can’t do this, Justin. I’m pregnant, for God’s sake. Life’s complex enough as it is.”
He knew from her face that Miles never looked at her like this. He offered something she had never experienced before. He eased his hand beneath her coat, felt the gentle round shape of her stomach, moved upwards and cupped her breast.
“I won’t,” he said softly, and withdrew his fingers, watching the way her lips opened as he let go, hearing the gentle whisper of her involuntary sigh. “Not until you ask.”
(c) David Hewson 2012