In the six weeks between Lady Day and Beltane, bitter anger and despair fanned mutual flames in Justin Liddle’s troubled mind. The day after she was taken into hospital he had sat outside the ward at the William Harvey, pleading to see her, trying every excuse, even his uniform, to find a way to her bedside. It was useless. She refused to allow him one minute’s admittance. Then she was gone again, physically recovered but shipped — of her own volition? — to some distant nursing home to “recover”.
She left an aching, physical absence in his life. In its place, guilt wormed its inevitable path into his head, slyly offering to rationalise what would, he knew, always remain irrational. Nothing could explain the tragedy. Yet the idea that this was some kind of punishment was always there, for both of them he imagined. It was unfair, deeply wrong, and still it gnawed at him.
There was nothing to sate the pain but work. Alison wasn’t crazy, not completely anyway. There was something going on. He could smell as much in the sharp spring air of the village and the way the word “Beulah” brought knowing glances in odd corners of the police station. He had hung around the plain clothes people for a while, listening, gently probing. Rumour had it that once or twice in the past year they had taken an interest in the village. Not, he soon gathered, of their own volition. They were as reluctant to work their way up Vipers Hill as he was. Someone outside the station, perhaps even outside the county, had tipped them a wink. A few discreet inquiries had been made. And nothing had come of it, not even a whisper outside the tightly closed ranks of CID about what had prompted the activity in the first place.
Then a low key notice had come through from the Immigration people at Dover docks. It said that someone looking like one of the Blamire brothers had passed through the port twice, once just before Christmas, again in February. Typically, the individual was long gone by the time immigration had spotted his face on the security videos. On both occasions he had entered the country on a cheap overnight coach from Brussels. A long way from Bangkok, Justin thought. Was either of the Blamires sufficiently well versed in the ways of the world to indulge in this kind of globe-trotting without some assistance? He doubted it. Something was afoot in Beulah, and it was connected to the fire at Paternoster Farm, where both the Blamire boys had worked.
Spring blossomed. Hares danced on the Minnis. The first cuckoo sounded its duotone in the spinney of hawthorn beyond the cricket pitch. Bluebells shot through the newly coppiced areas of Sterning Wood and disappeared as quickly as they came. Barley rose from the ruddy clay earth that topped the chalk scarp. And Justin Liddle quietly went about his business, talking to people, asking casual questions, making notes, and, in the black, empty depths of the night, cursing the world for her absence.
When the time allowed he would drive around to the dismal, burnt-out site of the rendering plant, stare at the muddy, seared ground, trying to assemble the possibilities in his mind. But the pictures always returned: the two of them together in the wood, their frantic, desperate couplings in Priory House at Christmas. There was something about Alison, something strange and enticing, that was impossible to let go. It wasn’t just that she was beautiful, that her face came to haunt him in the oddest, most unexpected of moments. She was an electric mixture of toughness and fragility and that brought out a baffling fusion of emotions in him. One side of her was delicate, brittle, in need of protection, as much from herself as anything else. The other had strength, the power to put him under her spell, make him do whatever she asked, without questions. There were, he judged, two Alisons, and he loved them both, in equal measure.
And he loved the dead child too, spent restless hours at night trying to imagine what it would have looked like if some vicious, dark twist of fate had not conspired to take it from the world. The sense of duty he felt towards the unborn infant was, he knew, a living, seamless element in his love for her. This was their mutual loss and it grieved him that they could not share it with some mutual pain.
He had been off duty when the news about the “accident” came through, and cursed himself for the fact for weeks after. The story emerged fitfully. Alison had miscarried again, and the loss of the child had triggered a bout of self-destructive frenzy. She had taken a knife and cut herself. For reasons no-one understood she had, into the bargain, taken the blade to Thomas, the cat she loved so much, and savagely cut the hapless animal into pieces. In the bedroom, a place that still lived in his imagination.
John Tyler had found her on the doorstep of Priory House when he drove to work at eight the next morning. She was covered in blood and had already lost the child. Cataleptic schizophrenia was the grim phrase Tyler had casually used when Justin had caught up with him. Late that night, shocked, still in uniform but now off duty at his little flat in Ashford, he had looked it up and thought that, perhaps, he could begin to understand. Alison would say nothing to anyone for weeks, and was swiftly whisked to a new private hospital to recover. Yet this was an illness, not the reproachful, self-inflicted thing that the unthinking herd liked to label “madness”. There was a real, physical disorder involved, an excess of some strange, insidious chemical called dopamine in the brain. Alison had found her way to this personal version of hell through an unfortunate coincidence of alchemy inside her head.
In the middle of April, when she had turned him away, unseen, at the nursing home for the fourth time, he called on Sara Harrison. Her bulge was huge and made her walk with an awkward, burdened gait. Sara’s dress sense was as variegated as ever, but somehow she looked less the ageing hippie these days, and more the middle class mother-to-be. Her hair was more kempt, her face sadder, showing lines he hadn’t noticed before. Alison was more than a partner. She was a friend. It was only to be expected.
She listened to his tentative inquiries then asked, rather coldly, “Is this business or pleasure, Justin?”
He fumbled for the words. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Don’t you now?” She sat on the ancient, battered sofa and glared at him. “You leave her alone. She’s got enough on her plate without more complications.”
He wished he could be more frank with her. Somehow the uniform stood in the way. “I don’t want to make anything more complicated for her. Honestly. I just want her to be happy.”
“My, we are generous.”
“I don’t think you’re being fair.”
“She’s my friend. You’re not. Why should I be fair?”
Sara was smart, he thought. And resilient with it. “Point taken. I just wondered how she is. Whether she’d talked to you about what happened. Whether she’s…”
He couldn’t say it. The idea was unthinkable.
“Barking?” Sara offered. “Is that what you mean?”
“I don’t know what I mean.”
She grimaced and, for a moment, he wondered if she was going to cry. “What do you expect me to say? She lost her baby, Justin. That was all she wanted in the world.”
“I know. I care for her. I care for her sanity. All these stories she tells…”
“You leave her sanity to us. I can’t say you’ve helped much. If she’d just settled down we’d never have had this nonsense.”
The idea had occurred to him, repeatedly, and it was, he knew, utterly wrong. “You don’t know that,” he objected. “None of us knows why this happened.”
“Screwing around didn’t exactly help put her head back on. Not to put too fine a point on it.”
“It wasn’t like that.” He didn’t dare close his eyes. She would be there in an instant, in that familiar, heated embrace.
“Maybe not,” she said miserably.
“Does he know? Miles? About us?”
“Search me. What does it matter now anyway? I haven’t told him if that’s what you’re asking. But if you will make a habit of getting your kit off in the wood in the middle of the day I don’t think you can be surprised when people talk. How could you do that to her? Didn’t you know she was only just out of one breakdown?”
He shook his head. He hadn’t known that. Alison had, for the most part, seemed smart, on the ball. He remembered the first time they met, at the hospital after Sara’s car crash. There was nothing remotely crazy about her. Nothing obvious anyway.
“Men,” she said sourly. “You haven’t a bloody clue. You don’t even recognise what’s in here.” She stabbed a finger at her rotund belly. “It’s just some physical blemish until it pops out into the world and starts bawling. And then, if you’re lucky, one of you might take a peek at it and say: mine.”
“Of course,” he said dryly, “all men are bastards. Let’s take that as read. What I was asking was: is she sick again? Is that what’s going on?”
Sara’s mouth became a thin, bloodless line while she thought about her reply. Then she said, “She didn’t try to kill herself. I don’t care what John Tyler says. She lost the child and went mad for a while. Got the knife. Hurt herself a bit. Killed the poor sodding cat. It doesn’t mean she needs locking away.”
He still couldn’t make sense of it. “She told you that?”
“No. I’m guessing. She’s saying nothing. Just blanked it all out. ‘In denial’, as her compatriots across the pond would say. She won’t talk about it at all. Not to me. Not to Miles even.”
“But why didn’t she call someone?”
“I don’t know!”
“So that’s it?” he asked. “She lost the child. Did some stupid things with a knife? Then sat on the doorstep, in the freezing cold, waiting for the world to wake up? It doesn’t make sense.”
Sara was silent. Something stirred inside Justin Liddle, something, he realised with a twinge of guilt, that had to do with police work, not Alison Fenway.
“I don’t like telling tales,” Sara replied slowly. “Too many get told in this place as it is.”
“She had an argument,” Sara declared in the end.
“Old Mother Tyler.”
This puzzled him. Mrs Tyler was an oddball, but not, as far as he knew, someone prone to village spats. “I don’t understand the significance, Sara.”
“There isn’t one, of course. Forget I ever said it. I talk too much.”
Women could be so vague at times. “You mean she’s scared?”
Sara stared at him. He felt there was something he should have understood. “Don’t you know who Marjorie is, Justin? Don’t you know what she does around here?”
“Village eccentric who grows a little pot in her conservatory.”
“You know that?”
“Of course I do. And I’m not stirring up any hornet’s nest by bringing the drugs squad down on her either. Not so long as she keeps it to herself.” He tried to see all the links in his head. “I still don’t get it. What’s that got to do with Alison?” Sara was on the brink of some revelation. He could feel it. “Sara, she’s your friend. If this is more than some horrible personal tragedy, it needs to be looked into. You mean they rowed about Paternoster Farm?”
“Yes and No. Don’t ask me what because I don’t understand it all fully myself, nor do I want to. And even if I did I wouldn’t tell you because you’d be down there in a shot pumping Alison for information just when she least needs it.”
“Give me some credit, please. And anyway,” he added bitterly, “she won’t see me.”
Sara refused to meet his eyes. “I’ve told you everything I know. You’re the copper. You make what you will of it. If something did happen, my guess is Marjorie had something to do with it. And I repeat my earlier question: you do know who she is in the village?”
Justin Liddle’s brow furrowed in puzzlement. “Sort of the Queen of the May or something, I imagine. She always seems to be leading the charge when the dancing begins.”
Sara looked pale and downcast. “You’re going to hate this. Marjorie is the witch. The white witch, she’d say, I imagine. But the witch all the same.”
He laughed. He couldn’t help it. “You mean like broomsticks? And casting spells and stuff?”
“No,” she replied in a flat monotone. “I don’t mean that at all. You townies can be so bloody stupid sometimes.”
“Right,” he said, a flash of anger in his eyes. “I’m the one not talking about witches and I’m stupid. So what you’re saying is that Marjorie cast a spell. And Alison lost her baby, went mad with the knife. Went mad full stop.”
“A spell? Depends what you mean by a spell.”
“Mumbo jumbo. Pins in a piece of wax. That kind of thing.”
“Oh Justin,” she sighed. “You really can be clueless, can’t you? Marjorie’s the boss here. In Beulah. Our own little world. Where no-one talks to outsiders like you. She doesn’t need spells. Not to get poor old Mary Wethered out of the way. Or make sure Miles Fenway gets the top job instead of the sack just to get Alison on her side. And, when that goes wrong, she doesn’t need spells to get her revenge on poor old Alison either. She just goes out and does it, you dunderhead. Or gets it done, more likely.”
He suddenly felt cold in his thin, regulation police shirt. “Bullshit, Sara. People wouldn’t stand for that. Even here. And you shouldn’t be encouraging her to believe that kind of stuff.”
“You think so?” she said smartly. “And you’ve no suspicions of your own?”
He shuffled uncomfortably on the chair. “Suspicions — what the hell do they amount to?”
“Maybe nothing,” she answered. “Maybe a lot. Let me tell you one other thing. When I first met Alison — shortly after, to be precise — she thought someone had been inside the Burning Man last September. A person. Someone had died there, and maybe it was to do with Paternoster Farm, maybe not. Whatever… no-one said a thing. No-one saw. I thought she was crazy. Now, I’m not so sure.”
He felt as if he’d wandered into a madhouse. “Dead people in bonfires. It’s a load of bollocks. This isn’t another universe. The same rules still apply.”
Her eyes twinkled. “Really. So why is Marjorie Tyler growing pot under your nose and you daren’t do a thing about it? Isn’t that some kind of spell?”
“No,” he replied gruffly. “It’s just me being practical.”
She shrugged. “Same result. How do you think Marjorie sees it?”
He felt cross, insulted somehow. “Frankly I don’t give a bugger. The plain fact is, if you think something’s wrong here you should come out and say it.”
“And then move somewhere else? That’s what it would mean, Justin.”
He picked up his radio and his cap and rose from the chair. This conversation was going nowhere. “If it’s so bloody awful, what’s the problem?”
Through the window he could see it was a glorious day. The Minnis was glistening green under a bright spring sun. A pair of partridge flew low across the grass in perfect formation, their tiny wings were a fuzzy blur of feathers.
“The problem,” Sara said slowly, trying to explain this to him, “is I like it here. It’s my home. These rules of theirs, whatever they are, work. Provided you keep to them or just stay out of their way.”
“Well in that case, you’d better learn to live with it. You’ll give Alison my regards? If she wants to see me about anything — personal or otherwise — that’s fine. If not, I won’t bother her.”
“Liar,” she said immediately.
He decided he could learn to dislike Sara Harrison. She was too direct — and too perceptive — for her own good.
“I shouldn’t tell you this, Justin. But Alison really did have something going with you. If she wasn’t married. If she didn’t need to settle down right now… who knows?”
“Thanks,” he said bitterly. “That makes me feel so much better.”
He stormed out of the cottage door, breathed the clear, chill air. It was wasn’t the same in Beulah. There was no carbon monoxide at the back of the throat, no sense of soot entering the lungs. Everything seemed different sometimes. And it dared him to intervene. For one mad moment he even considered barging into Marjorie Tyler’s boring, modern middle-class house and calling in the drugs squad. As if that would make the world a better place.
The radio sounded. He picked it up and took the message. Marjorie Tyler could wait. Mitch Blamire had called the station asking for him. He wanted a meet at the Devil’s Kneading Trough at three. Justin Liddle went to his car, pulled out a pad, and tried to scribble down every last question he could imagine.
(c) David Hewson 2012