She was making her way through the station, glad to be ahead of the early evening homeward rush, when two familiar figures sidled up beside her. Alison’s heart sank. John and Marjorie Tyler looked exactly like rurals making a pilgrimage to the city. He was in a dark overcoat of indefinite age, with a patina of ancient cupboard dust at the cuffs. His face was even more bloodless than usual. Marjorie wore a shiny fake Burberry, a vast billowing tent of waxed green that seemed big enough to engulf the whole of platform six. Both carried shopping bags that betrayed an outing to Oxford Street. Alison found herself grateful the contents were out of sight. The taste of Beulah’s odd couple was something she preferred to encounter on a dark night, and preferably after a few drinks.
“Bloody hell!” Marjorie bellowed. “Another one about to make it over the wire.”
She grinned weakly. Tyler had a sheaf of magazines under his arm and looked as if he couldn’t wait to get his long, pale nose inside them. “Just up on a little business,” she offered.
“Ah, that nice little gaudy baubles empire you run with our Miss Harrison,” Marjorie beamed. “Glad to see a little enterprise in the village. You travelling first or second dear?”
“Second. Pennies tight at the moment.”
John Tyler gave her a baleful stare. “Join the club. Never mind, Marjorie will sort it out.”
“Of course I will,” she said. “Mark this well. Your first lesson in the art of assertive train travel.”
A lone city type bearing an umbrella and a battered leather case was about to claim a long, empty bench seat, the fabric mended with tape after an obvious slash with a knife. With astonishing speed Marjorie launched her entire shopping pile in front of him and yelled, “Incoming!”
She pushed her way past the man, collapsed into a good half of the three person bench opposite her bags, and splayed her legs to get more room. Alison sat next to her. Marjorie ordered her husband to “park his bum” then said, in a very loud voice, “Bloody hell, John. Next time I come up for aerobics will you kindly ensure I remember the anti-pong, will you?” She flapped her vast arms; the movement of the fake Burberry made her look like some giant bat that would never escape the pull of gravity. “I stink worse than a brickie’s arse, thank you very much. Did you get some drinkies by the way?”
The city type fled silently and a group of gossiping women in the adjoining seats upped bags and walked to the end of the carriage. Tyler looked at his wife, reached into his pocket and threw a can of ready-made gin and tonic across to her. He pulled four more out and looked at Alison. “Fancy one? I’ve got G and T, whisky and dry ginger, voddie tonnie or a coconut daiquiri.”
She shook her head. “No alcohol for the duration thanks.”
“Your decision,” he said in a flat monotone. Alison could feel her blood begin to boil in that familiar, Tyler-induced way.
“I thought you might approve of that,” she observed.
He looked astonished. “I’m a village quack, not the guardian of the Pearly Gates. A little alcohol never harmed anyone.”
Marjorie popped her drink with a fizz. Tyler mused over the collection on his lap, chose the coconut daiquiri, and opened it. Then the two of them clinked cans and said, in a very doleful fashion, “Cheers.” After which Tyler pulled out a magazine and buried his head in it. Alison looked at the cover. It was Caravan Monthly. She closed her eyes and wondered whether she really dared get up and sit somewhere else. But it simply wasn’t possible. They would doubtless just follow her around like hungry stray dogs.
Marjorie peered inside her bags. One contained clothing of a colour so livid it seemed to radiate beyond the top of the carrier. “Not a bad haul. And I got to see my sister Lorna in Barnsbury too. Poor cow has got some bloody French kids on a school exchange trip. What an idea. Foreign exchange. They ought to call it ‘Tadpoles To Go’ if you ask me. That’s what you get when you start breeding.”
“I imagine I have that to look forward to,” Alison said, trying to sound sweet.
A handful of commuters who had boarded at Waterloo East drifted towards the front of the train. “Townies!” Marjorie barked vehemently, the froth of the drink on her top lip. “What do you make of it, eh? No spunk, not one of them. Like little mice. Clambering on the train each morning, clambering back at night. Squeak, squeak, squeak!”
They pulled in to London Bridge. An inoffensive-looking pair in city suits came through the nearest door and eyed the shopping. Marjorie glowered until they went away.
“Wankers,’” she said out loud.
“Including my husband, presumably,” Alison noted sharply.
“Not at all,” Marjorie replied unfazed. “Miles drives. He’s his own man. Not a creature of Connex Sodding South East. And he’s going places. Unlike these drones.”
Alison said nothing. Marjorie gave her a penetrating stare, then a look that said the penny had dropped. “Oh God, dear. I forgot. Sara told me there was some problem at work. Job going belly up. That right?”
“Just about,” Alison replied, and wondered how she might cure Sara of her penchant for gossip. It was a village trait, true, but not an attractive one.
“What was the bastard’s name? Something common, Sara mentioned it.”
“Ron Atkins. Known as the Chelmsford kid or something.”
Marjorie whistled. “Ooh. Sounds nasty. Why don’t you fix him?”
Alison sighed. The Beulah attitude seemed to be to treat problems like chickens; when the time was right you just had their necks wrung. “Fix him?”
“One way or another,” Marjorie shrugged.
John Tyler looked up from the pages of Caravan Monthly. “Just send him to me. I’ve got a million ways of dealing with awkward buggers. You know people never think about it, but a GP has a unique role in British life. We can knock off whoever we like, when we like. Fast or slow, it doesn’t matter. And you need to be a real nincompoop to get found out. Bloody right anyone who gets caught winds up in front of the General Medical Council. Incompetent shits like that shouldn’t be allowed to practise in the first place.”
“Now there’s a comforting thought,” Alison replied, trying to smile.
“Oh,” Tyler said wearily. “I get it. You’re offended. Tell me, my dear. Do you believe in euthanasia?”
“Of course. Any rational person does. In the right circumstances it’s the kindest thing to do.”
“Ah, kind. Now there’s a word. So if it’s OK for me to knock off the physically infirm, why shouldn’t I delete a few socially infirm ones along the way? God knows they’re more annoying by far.”
“No,” he interrupted. “Let me guess. That would be murder. And ‘euthanasia’ isn’t. I’m just a country quack. Too stupid to see the difference.”
Marjorie touched her arm. “Not a good subject for him, I’m afraid. He hates the whole idea.”
“It’s just another way that people expect someone else to make their decisions for them,” Tyler opined, and rattled the pages of the magazine as if that somehow hammered home his point. “And there’s the linguistic issue too. Killing people is killing people. It’s insulting to dress it up in fancy names.”
Alison watched Bromley go past outside the window and wondered if she would ever second guess one of John Tyler’s opinions correctly.
“Subject closed,” Tyler said, and was immediately back inside the covers of the magazine.
“All the same,” Marjorie continued. “There are littler things you can do. Of rather I could do. In return for a favour.”
Alison’s head was in a whirl. “Do what? A Favour?”
Marjorie actually looked around to see if anyone was close enough to listen. Alison wondered what information she might have to import that required such discretion. If murder by medical practitioners could be discussed at the volume of a Dungeness foghorn it had to be pretty tasty.
“I know we had that funny turn with Bella Cartwright at Yule,” Marjorie confided in something approaching a whisper. “But you do fit in with us, don’t you? You do belong. We all feel that in the village.”
“We’re very happy in Beulah,” Alison replied cautiously. “I hope we manage to stay there.”
“Of course you will,” Marjorie said quickly. “The thing is, it would be so much nicer if you were a part of the village. Everything. I’m inviting you, if you like.”
“Inviting me to what?”
“Our little get-togethers. It’s not just Yule. We have fun all year round. Quietly. Harming no-one. It’s like a tie that binds us. And most of us plan to live and die in that village, you know. You need bonds like that over the years.”
She was both curious and alarmed. This was Marjorie opening up a little, with some kind of offer on the table. And she had no idea what to make of it. “Marjorie, I don’t know what you’re talking about. All these things… the Burning Man, Yule. It’s witchcraft or something?”
“Oh God,” John Tyler groaned from the bench seat opposite. “I knew that word would come up sooner or later. Yes, dear lady, you’re right. We all sit around sticking pins into wax dolls of the people we hate. Marjorie has a broomstick and a pointed hat somewhere too, don’t you my sweet? Let me summon up some pleasurable succubus right now.”
He puffed up his chest and, in a loud theatrical voice recited, “By Bes-na-Maut my breast I beat; By wise Ta-Nech I weave my spell.” Then he pulled the can of whisky and ginger out of his coat pocket, popped it open and threw the spare gin to Marjorie. “There,” he said with a sudden, bright smile. “That worked!”
“Shut up John,” Marjorie snarled. “You can’t expect her to understand. She’s only been with us two minutes.”
“I’m not really a joiner,” Alison noted lamely.
Tyler looked up from his magazine. “It’s not about joining. It’s about belonging.”
“Well… I still don’t get it. And I’ve got plenty else on my plate.”
Marjorie gave her a canny look. “I was offering a deal, dear. You do something for me. I’ll do something for you.”
They were, she knew, mad. Crazy as a van full of badgers, to use one of Justin’s favourite phrases. “I don’t have much time, Marjorie.”
“You don’t need much time. We just have our little meetings at the important points of the year.”
“Told her all that,” Tyler said behind the pages. “Don’t think it went in.”
Marjorie tried to find the words. “It’s just folklore. A social thing. Hard to explain in words. Why don’t you just come along? Suck it and see?”
“When? No promises.”
Tyler put down the magazine. “March the 21st is the Vernal Equinox. Astronomically, this is the point where day and night are of equal length. From this point on, light begins to reclaim the world. After that, it’s straight to Beltane — May Day, as you doubtless know it.”
“And that is fun,” Marjorie interjected, a broad grin on her face.
“The mythological point about the Vernal Equinox,” Tyler continued, “is this issue of light defeating darkness. The Mabinogion, which is Welsh, in case you didn’t know, is particularly interesting here. One way of interpreting the yearly ritual is that the god of darkness, in this case Goronwy, kills Llew, the god of light, each year at the autumnal equinox. With a little help from Llew’s faithless wife Blodeuwedd, of course, since she is the only one who knows the weakness, the Celtic Achilles heel, by which he may be slain. She betrays her husband in order to expose him to her lover. Then, after a season in hell, the husband returns and wreaks his revenge. There’s the same atavistic notion in our night of the Burning Man, as you may recall. And the seasons change. In turn, the god of light is reborn each Yule and rises to murder his brother at the vernal equinox.”
“Brother?” she asked, trying to absorb all this.
“Oh yes,” Marjorie said, suddenly very serious. “The Mother is the Great Goddess. She’s above them all. Which is why…” She suddenly blushed. Alison was astonished. It made her look unexpectedly vulnerable.
“You’re the Mother,” Alison said. “That’s what all that dancing was about?”
Marjorie nodded. “Symbolically. Nothing actually happens, you understand. All that nonsense with the Cartwrights boffing in the bushes… that was just the Cartwrights being themselves.”
Alison thought about all this. “Isn’t March the 23rd Easter Monday?”
“A happy coincidence this year,” Tyler agreed. “The vernal equinox is an astronomical date. Easter is a moveable feast because of church bureaucracy, nothing more. Incidentally, some of the pre-Christian pagan texts have the god of light descending into the underworld for three days before he rises on the equinox. Sound familiar?”
They were back in the country now. She recognised the deer park outside Maidstone. It felt comforting to be heading home. “Of course it does,” she replied. “But where do I fit? I’m just a townie. An outsider myself.”
“No,” Marjorie said and wagged a fat finger in the air. “You’re an extraordinary woman, Alison. You have empathy. You have a sense for these things. I’ve seen that all along. So has John, not that he’ll let on.”
“I’m really not sure this is me.”
“Alison. I need a helpmate. Someone who can watch me. Learn from me. One day, perhaps, take my place. Being Mother isn’t easy. Bit like being a football manager. When you’re winning, everyone loves you. When you stumble, the hounds are chomping at your throat. And we haven’t had many good seasons recently to be honest.”
“There must be someone better. Someone from Beulah.”
“Who? The village has lost half its population over the last twenty years. Young people move out, go to London, never come back. So what we have left is the likes of Bella Cartwright, a fine girl, in her way, but too daffy upstairs to be of use to me.”
“What about Sara?” Alison felt horribly guilty for even suggesting her friend, but she was desperate.
Marjorie gave her an incisive look. “We never speak about who we invite. It’s sort of a rule. But let me just say, I talked to her. It didn’t work out.”
“So you want me to be the sorcerer’s apprentice?”
“No sorcery,” Tyler said without looking up from the page. “There’s no such thing.”
Marjorie looked close to pleading. “It’s just some old native rites, my dear. They mean nothing to anyone else. We’re probably soft in the head even to keep them alive. But they have been around for a long time. Centuries and centuries. And we don’t want to lose them.”
“It’s like Christianity,” Tyler said, and now he was looking at her. “It may sound like poppycock now, but when you’re facing death’s door a spot of insurance might seem very attractive just in case there is someone with a check-in register sitting on the other side. After all, on one level, we know our little rituals do work. The world’s still turning. Isn’t it?”
“The world,” Alison said very deliberately, “is absolute bloody chaos.”
“Not in Beulah it isn’t,” Tyler replied. “We may have our eccentricities. But we’re immune to the nonsense out there.” He waved at the outskirts of Ashford now coming into view, almost as dirty and as drab as London.
And that much, she knew, was true.
“Is it a deal?” Marjorie asked.
“I’ll think about it.”
“Yes!” Marjorie Tyler looked positively beatific.
“I said I’ll think about it.”
“Of course you will.” John Tyler was expressionless, staring out of the window at the dying day.
“Marjorie?” she asked. “How did you get the job?”
Marjorie Tyler was staring out of the window, ignoring the question. “Look,” she exclaimed. “Wye at last. We could pop into the Tickled Trout for a quickie on the way home if you like.”
(C) David Hewson 2012