The old saw had it wrong: April was not a month of showers. A fair weather system sat over most of southern England, never much wanting to go. The days were bright and sunny, the nights, in the main, crystal clear, with a light scattering of ground frost, like icing sugar gently sprinkled upon the earth. With the weather, too, came the occasional fog and it was unlike any Alison had encountered.
In Beulah fog was white, a luminescent, glowing white through which the sun tried to peer inquisitively for hours on end until its heat managed to dispel the moisture and pour some radiance down from sky. The atmospheric effect was also purely local, dictated by the altitude of the village and a curious, complex meeting of local breezes, from the sea near Folkestone and the damp marshlands of the Medway to the north.
When it descended she knew that on the plain, in Ashford and Wye, where ordinary people were now yawning, getting out of bed, and slowly making their way to work, the sun was bright, the morning radiant with life. Justin Liddle, driving up Vipers Hill, would see the billowing cap of cloud on the top of the Downs as he approached the village. The police Peugeot would slow as it reached the summit and find itself engulfed by the opaque, close billow of vapour. Then, hidden from view, lights vainly trying to pierce the all-embracing whiteness, it would slowly work its way down the zig-zag, along the avenue of poplars that marked the entrance to Beulah, around the Minnis, and park in the covert lay-by to await her arrival.
In the fog, she thought, everyone was equal. Incomers and locals alike.
Miles had wandered off to the Minnis around ten. Through the thick cloud of white she could hear, from time to time, the now familiar sound of ball being played against a bat. She wondered at their enthusiasm. Even in the “nets” — one, to be precise — any kind of practice must have been hard. But this was a male ritual. After the warm-up, they would retire to the pub, for lunch and beer and, ostensibly, a heavy round of planning for the summer. She wondered what cricketers talked about. Strategy? Who got to wear the wicket-keeper’s gloves?
The captain of the team, Jim Barnes, who farmed a scruffy looking patch just behind the Devil’s Kneading Trough, was vaguely familiar from the pub. A big, ruddy-faced man in his late forties, he had a kind of authority about him. The rest of them, from what she remembered the previous year, were just half-recognised faces. Men from the surrounding villages. Even a couple from Ashford. Beulah was dying. The inability to field a truly local cricket team was just one of the symptoms of its slow demise.
But there was work to be done. The financial records of the partnership had been largely untouched for two months. She sifted through the sheaves of purchase orders and sales records and considered the financial health of their joint enterprise. It looked to be in its prime. While she had been “away”, Sara had gone into overdrive, selling like crazy to compensate, Alison guessed, for any slump that might occur due to the impending birth and the flaky state of her partner. According to the records, the two of them would turn over more than half a million pounds in the coming year: a lot of “crap” to shift.
A sudden guilty thought rose: perhaps that explained the new car. Perhaps there was no odd legacy from an unannounced aunt. Sara had her secrets too. Could one of them be that she was raiding her share of the partnership proceeds before they had got around to dividing them formally when the accounts were through? There would be nothing strictly wrong in that, although good manners would dictate that one half tell the other. Even if the second partner was trying to find her sanity in some nursing home outside Sevenoaks. She stared at the numbers on the page and wished they could speak. Feeling ashamed of herself, Alison flicked through the bank records, one by one, found nothing, and felt wretched about these treacherous thoughts. Sometimes it seemed as if she suspected everyone.
She glanced at her watch. There was still time before she went to meet Justin. No point in delaying it any longer. At some stage she had to face Mitch Blamire, the new Mitch, with a lightning-shaped scar on his cheek. The thick, enveloping fog proved as good an opportunity as any. She pulled on her green Barbour jacket and went outside.
The cold, white cloud obscured everything. The sound of the practice session, a leisurely thumping of leather against wood, was mangled by the weather in some mysterious way too. She knew how to get to the nets where Mitch, the eternal club hanger-on, would surely be lurking. You opened the front gate, walked across the narrow road, then ten yards to the clubhouse, and ten yards to the left. Today, she could not be so certain. The fog seemed to change the nature of sound, as if the general laws of physics had become fallible, temporary codes of behaviour, mutable at will. The sounds of the day — low, unintelligible voices, the occasional grunt of action, the hard ball smacking willow — lost their shape and sense of direction in the dense, impenetrable brume. The small, well-defined heart of the Minnis was engraved upon her memory. Yet now, this interior map was meaningless. She felt she could become lost in an instant if she veered from her chosen path.
Alison strode in a dead straight line, across the road from her front gate, onto the long grass at the edge of the green, then the shorter turf that led to the pitch. She felt in the pocket of the jacket and pulled out a small pen torch, flicked the switch, and saw a thin, useless beam of yellow disappear into the cloud in front of her. She walked on, and something became apparent through the fog. They had turned on the spotlights by the nets. The powerful shaft of artificial light cut through the mist just enough, she guessed, for the men to feign some semblance of action. Ghostly figures moved like slowly dancing shadows in the eerie light. Their cries came to her, muffled and incomprehensible, across the green. Then a strong hand took the arm of her jacket, Alison swung the torch beam round, and found herself staring into the smiling face of Mitch Blamire. Scar and all.
“Morning, Mrs Fenway,” Mitch said.
She shook her arm free of him and tried to smile back. He’d come from the clubhouse and gripped a heavy shovel in his right hand. “Morning Mitch. Nice to see you again.”
It was impossible to look at him, with the scar now vivid on his cheek, and not see another image rise dutifully from her memory, of a figure at the window in Priory House and the glinting of a sharp blade in the spring moonlight.
“You too, Mrs Fenway. That’s for sure.”
It was hard to tell in the diminished light, but he seemed, she thought, older. And it wasn’t just the scar.
“You’re better now?” he asked.
“Never finer. In a way I wasn’t sick at all, was I?”
“I’m no doctor. What would I know?” Mitch said nodding. “Life don’t run on straight lines, do it? Everyone loses things along the way, then gets up and breathes the air again.”
The Blamires were never short of a bucolic cliché for the occasion. She stared into his eyes, marking the way he flinched from her. “I guess so,” she replied. “You lost Harry. I lost…” What? It was impossible to imagine.
“Yeah.” He’d pulled his face back from her. It could have been Harry now, she thought. The most visible part of him was the white outline of the scar.
She reached out and touched it. “How’d do you do that, Mitch?”
He came forward again, suspicious of the question. “How? Most of ’em ask why.”
“How?” she repeated.
He dropped the shovel, pulled something out of the pocket of his grubby brown trousers and held it in front of her face. The long, slim blade of the flick knife flashed out of nowhere.
She reached up and touched the straight, thin line on her own cheek. Then held his hand, pulled the knife closer to her face. He resisted. He looked scared.
“We’ve both got scars now, Mitch.”
“Yeah,” he grunted. “And we done ’em ourselves, eh? Guess the two of us is both mazed. You and me are the village idiots, Mrs Fenway. How’d you like that then?”
She took the shaft of the knife, pulled it from his hand and held the blade between the two of them, aiming the sharp, slender point at the mark on his cheek. “I don’t want to be scarred again, Mitch,” she said slowly. “Do you understand that?”
“Guess no-one does,” he replied, and he was nervous.
“Does she understand that?”
“And who might that be, Mrs Fenway?”
She nodded at the opposite side of the green. “Jardis, the White Witch over there. The Queen of the May. Old Mother Tyler.”
He grinned stupidly. “You know sometimes you clever folk just lose an old yokel like me.”
She tried to remember the book she had read in the great white room they gave her in the nursing home. “What was it Mr Tummus said? ‘Always winter and never Christmas’.”
Mitch shook his head. “We had lots of good Christmases here, Mrs Fenway. Not that I was around for the last one, but I heard that were a good ’un too. You and your husband’s loss notwithstanding. His father was a fine man, I gather.”
Alison was not about to be distracted by Mitch’s mysterious sympathy. She handed him the knife. “Make sure she understands, Mitch.”
He took it from her and carefully folded the long blade back into the body of the weapon. “Got work to do, thank you. Season starts at Beltane. Can’t have molehills and shite all over the wicket for that. Now can we?”
(c) David Hewson 2012