The third week of March saw the first tantalising promise of spring. The rains lifted, the sky became a piercing blue coverlet over the slowly waking earth. Then came the heart-stopping phone call. Miles rang from the office one Thursday morning with the news. Ron Atkins was out of the game. The Germans had been forced to reconsider their entire strategy.
The choice of Atkins had been a deliberate attempt to take Mersons out of the world of the old school tie. Now they felt they had made a dreadful mistake. The old order had to take charge anew, but not quite with the same faces at the helm. Andy Moorside, Miles’ old boss, was reluctantly persuaded to take early retirement in favour of the ascension of Miles to the helm. Every dream Alison and Miles had ever had about the future seemed to be on the verge of coming true. It seemed uncanny.
“But why?” she asked. “Why did he quit?”
“It’s a mystery to me. He walked into the office this morning with a beaut of a black eye and told them he wanted his old job back. Just cracked, it seems. I’ve never seen the man look so nervous. Looks like he had some kind of bundle on the way home. It gets to people like that sometimes, you know. One minute they’re in control. The next they’re blabbing for mummy.”
“Darling,” Miles reminded her tactfully. “Could you sound a little more pleased? I’m in. Atkins is out. Entirely — the idea he could just return to Forex was ridiculous, of course. I can’t believe he thought it was even possible.”
There was now a distinct note of exasperation in his voiced. “Good God, Alison. Who cares?”
Walking on the edge of the Minnis later, having finally convinced herself her suspicions were insane, Alison was abruptly engulfed in a sea of swirling white. The blackthorn bushes that had been so full of sloes the previous winter were now in blossom. On bare, black branches stood a foaming froth of lovely flowers, alive and flourishing in the dead post-winter landscape. She looked at them for a while, found the small penknife in the pocket of her jacket, and began to cut a few.
There was a noise behind her. Alison turned and saw, close up for the first time since Christmas, Bella Cartwright. The girl looked younger in daylight. Her skin, pale, without make-up, had a raw winter roughness to it. Her sharp brown eyes shone, half curious, half suspicious.
Bella eyed the branches and said, “You don’t want to be taking them in the house, missus. Bad luck. Everyone knows that.”
“Not me, Bella. Just a townie, remember?”
“Yeah.” She was walking a small, scruffy mongrel. Its lead was a piece of old rope. Alison looked at the dog. It seemed harmless enough.
“Why don’t you let him run around?”
“It’s a bitch,” Bella replied. “Bleeding thing just goes bonkers if it’s off the lead. Digging crap up. No end of trouble.”
“You mean it never gets to run around?”
“Don’t know what it might dig up, do you?” Bella said sharply. “Not around here?”
They were on the village side of the White Horse. The wood, with its mysterious clearing and, beyond, the remains of Paternoster Farm, was only a few hundred yards away.
“You getting a dog, then, missus? With a kid coming along, that would be nice. Have this one if you want.”
“I think a baby’s going to be enough to cope with, don’t you?”
“No idea,” Bella said somewhat sourly. “No use asking me.”
“Perhaps one day.”
The girl was examining her; she could see that. And making no attempt to hide the fact. Finally, Bella asked, “Didn’t they say you was loony tunes once? Just like me?”
Alison took a deep breath and found herself smiling; another example of the fine spirit of Beulah frankness. “I had a breakdown. Before we moved here. It’s all over now, thank goodness.”
“A breakdown? You mean like it was here one moment, gone the next?”
She seemed disappointed. “Well, that’s not like me at all. My mam says it’s ’cos I was born funny. Old quacky Tyler reckons it’s a gift.”
Alison found herself feeling sorry for the girl. Whatever the affliction was, it made her stand out, and that was something no-one in Beulah wanted. “What do you think it is, Bella?”
“A pain in the arse!” the girl replied with a grin, and then turned serious again. “You aren’t going to pick them flowers, are you missus? It’s dead bad luck having ’em in the house. Honest.”
Alison threw the branches down. “I’ll take your word on that. Fancy a walk to the end?”
They ambled off to the escarpment with the bold chalk figure on it. A light breeze rose up the hill as they approached the edge. There was warmth in it, the prospect of summer in a breath of air.
“So,” Alison asked, remembering Christmas, “what is this illness? Or gift if you like?”
“Seeing things. Or dreaming things more like. It’s not like they’re true now, is it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Oh no? What about that time at Yule when I went barmy. I had this picture of Harry and you together. Shagging. And then worse. And that wasn’t true now, was it?”
Don’t pick at scabs, she thought, Sara had said this so forcefully. Easy advice to give, hard to follow. “What was the worse part?”
Bella shuddered. “Blood and things. And fire. It was horrible.”
“But what happened?”
“You killed him. In my dream.”
Alison exhaled a brittle laugh, briefly closed her eyes and saw a vast metallic monster, belching fire, devouring bodies.
“You OK, missus?”
“Perfect,” she replied. They stopped at the edge of the Downs and stared at the flat, long sweep of the Stour valley, with its distant hamlets, the busy main road of the A28 cutting through the view and, in the east, the sprawl of Canterbury.
“Why do you think you dreamed that, Bella?”
“I asked a couple of people.” Alison felt suddenly chill. “They said it were obvious. First there was the fire. Then there was Harry gone. And you being a foreigner. New and all. Old Tyler said it was my subconscious putting all them three things together, mixing ’em up and coming out all in one go. He said you could deconstruct — or something like that — everybody’s dreams, and the only difference with mine was that they happened while I was awake.”
“Who else did you ask?”
Bella cast her a querulous glance. “Couple. Don’t remember exactly. Why’s that important?”
Alison took her by the shoulders and stared into her face. “People misread gossip, Bella. Even when it comes from dreams. People like the police, for example.”
She threw back her head and laughed. Her hair splayed out behind her. It was grubby brown and too long. Shame, Alison thought. She could be a pretty kid. “You don’t think I’d go telling the law, do you? Bloody Nora! My Dad’d kill me if he found out I’d been speaking to the likes of them.”
Alison tried not to look too relieved. “Good.”
“And anyway. It’s bollocks, isn’t it? Your copper wouldn’t be interested in tittle-tattle like that. He’s looking for evidence. Looking everywhere from what I hear. Looking for that and a few other things too.”
She said in a steely voice, “He isn’t my copper.”
Bella dug an elbow gently into her ribs. “Naw, course not. Nothing wrong with a bit on the side though, is there? All them get up to it.”
Alison remained silent, conscious she was being judged.
“You’re a one, aren’t you?” Bella said, looking sly. “All posh and stuff on the outside. But inside… you’re just like us, aren’t you? You get the dreams too?”
“Just the odd nightmare,” Alison whispered.
“I’ll bet. Still waters run deep and all that. Old Mother Tyler knows, that’s why she’s got her eye on you. Says you’re one of us all right.”
She knew so much, or appeared to. “Meaning what, Bella?”
“She’s after you to join in. She’s been doing it all on her own ever since Mary Wethered popped her clogs. That’s not supposed to happen for long, and she’s not that smart at some things either. Sal won’t do it. I’m bonkers and too young anyway. Can’t go getting some Ashford slag in, seeing as whoever does it probably gets to take over when Marjorie goes her way. Unless…” Bella checked herself.
“Unless something… happens.”
Alison felt exasperated. “Please say what you mean, Bella. These mysteries become a little impenetrable after a while.”
She looked uncomfortable. “Can’t now, can I? You ain’t even joined yet and that’s part of the deal. You don’t get to read the book before you go into the Masons, do you? Why should we be any different?”
“You mean this is supposed to be like the Masons?”
“Mebbe. Except from what I hear our ceremonies are a bit more interesting. And we can do each other favours from time to time. Which they ain’t supposed to any more.”
The conversation on the train reared back into her head and with it a surge of dread and anger. “Favours?”
“You bet,” Bella replied firmly. “We’re an endangered species out here, missus. All them townies wanting our homes. Building everywhere. Stopping us farming like we want, doing what we want. How’d you expect us to get along without knowing who’s a friend and who ain’t?”
“And who, in particular, was good at doing favours around here?”
Bella shrugged. “There’s the other problem. Mitch and Harry. And neither of them’s about now, are they?”
“So in that case…”
“No!” Bella interrupted crossly. “I’m not saying no more. Not till you come in. It’s not fair you should be asking either. Old Mother Tyler thinks you could be one of us, that’s fine. It’s her decision. Your choice. But don’t get me wrong, missus. I like you. We all do. That’s why you got invited. It don’t just happen, you know?”
Alison tried to calm down. “I’m sorry, Bella. It’s very flattering I’m sure. It’s just that I would like to know what I’m taking on. And what the price is.”
“Huh.” For a moment the girl looked distinctly unpleasant. “That’s a real townie thing, innit? I bet come Christmas you want to know exactly what’s inside that box before you open it. Otherwise you’d be scared to rip the paper off in case you didn’t like what was there.”
Alison was silent. It was a remarkably accurate observation.
“You want my advice, missus. You should go and talk this out with Marjorie. Ask her your questions. Not me. She’s expecting you Monday, that being Lady Day. We got work to do with the year starting up again.”
Bella waved a hand. “Now I don’t wish to be rude. But I’ve said my piece. One day, who knows? Maybe you’ll be making the same invitation to me. Passing things on peaceful like, generation to generation. Or whichever way turns out best.”
“Bella, you can have it now for all I care.”
“Too young. Like I said. And don’t you treat this like it’s something worthless.”
“I’m sorry,” Alison said. “I didn’t want to offend anyone. But I don’t like getting pushed into things without being asked first.”
Bella grinned. “No problem. You got spunk all right. You’ll be good when it comes to the favours. Marjorie was right there. Maybe you did do old Harry in, eh?”
“Oh yes,” Alison said without thinking. “I am one vicious bitch when you get on the wrong side of me, Bella. You’d best make sure everyone understands that.”
The girl blanched. “I will. Didn’t mean to get you going. Honest.”
Alison glowered at her and stomped off back to the Minnis, a tiny worm of ire wriggling through her head.
Ten minutes later, after a futile effort to calm herself seated on a bench overlooking the green, she walked over to the Tyler’s house and rang the bell. Marjorie beamed when she opened the door. “Come in. Tea and biscotti. Nothing narcotic, promise. I know you’ll be thinking of the little one.”
Alison stood in the plain modern hall, with its naff paintings and ridiculous bric-a-brac and folded her arms. “I don’t want a goddamn cup of tea, Marjorie. I’m mad. I want an explanation.”
Marjorie blinked. “Of anything in particular, dear?”
“Of why Miles is now winding up running Mersons instead of getting kicked out with a pay-off in three weeks time? Of how the guy who was supposed to get the job is suddenly too terrified to take it? Favours, Marjorie. Have you been doing a few behind my back?”
She looked puzzled. “Good news then, is it?”
“You ought to think about the possible consequences of your little games sometimes. That poor bastard Atkins could go to the police.”
Marjorie looked at her blankly. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Alison.”
“No. Of course not. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Who did you get to send to do your dirty work now the Blamire boys are gone? And now, I suppose, you think I’m coming along to your little naked Morris dancing festival or whatever it is you’re doing on Monday?”
“We don’t do Morris dancing,” she replied icily. “But you’re welcome, of course, particularly if you think you’ve got something to give thanks for.”
“Thanks? Are you serious?”
“I said some prayers for you. I wished, fervently, for your problem to go away. That’s all. It has. Be grateful. It’s not for either of us to ask the who or why of it all.”
Alison was furious. The woman was clearly going to bluff this out with a display of brass-necked innocence. “Listen, Marjorie, I know this was you.”
She looked intrigued. “Do you? We go through life knowing so many things that turn out to be poppycock. Back at Yule, Bella Cartwright knew you did something wicked to poor Harry Blamire. So much for that.”
“That is not the point. I want you to understand this and understand it well. You do not interfere in our lives. You do not work your favours for me again.”
Marjorie looked offended. “We had a deal, Alison. I don’t think you quite understand what you’re saying.”
“We had no goddamn deal! Don’t you ever listen? Miles and I just want a nice, quiet life here. Raising kids. Earning a living. We don’t want to join in your games.”
“Too late for that, dear,” Marjorie replied opaquely. A dim light of anger flared in her eyes. “And besides. Don’t be so stupid. It’s because of the child we want you. To an extent. Don’t you see?”
She couldn’t even begin to peer through this. “What?”
“Beulah’s dying on its feet. They go to the towns. They go to the cities. The only way we can survive is to bring people back and make them part of us. This year looks so promising. A child for Sara at Midsummer. A child for you at Burning Man. We did play a part, you know. If you hadn’t listened to John, you’d still be as barren as Lapland right now.”
“Dammit, Marjorie. This is my child.”
“Of course. What’s paternity anyway? Only a beginning. One day we’ll have children at all four points of the star. And then we start to heal again.”
Her mind performed cartwheels. “What are you saying, Marjorie? That all that stupid bullshit your husband gave me is part of some plan?”
Marjorie sighed. “How do you think it was in the old days? A child at each cycle of the seasons. Harmony with the earth. You don’t think we invented this, do you? You can be very dense at times.”
Alison felt her mind focus in on itself, become absorbed entirely on making a single point to this strange, obsessed woman. “Marjorie, listen to me and listen very carefully. We’re not part of your game. Whatever you thought was agreed, wasn’t. And in future you keep your prying fingers out of our business. Understood?”
Marjorie raised herself up on her heels. This almost brought them eye to eye. There was fury in her florid, shaking face. “Oh yes. I understand. I marked you wrong, my girl. You really are just another townie out for what you can get. You don’t give a damn about us, do you? It’s just I give and you take. And to hell with the village. To hell with centuries of tradition. Or is it…?” The red cheeks paled a touch. “Have you been listening to the gossip, dear? Is this what it’s about? Think you can do the job better yourself?”
The woman was insane. There could, she thought, be no other explanation.
Alison Fenway turned on her heels and walked out of the dreary modern house, out onto the green, hearing Marjorie’s furious voice rising to a bellow behind her. It was odd, but somehow she felt as if she had chalked up a victory, albeit one that, the more she thought about it, left her feeling shaky and scared.
(c) David Hewson 2012