May Day was special. Beulah rose while the rest of East Kent slept. At three thirty in the morning, lights were on in the houses around the green. The bar of the Green Man, still fuggy from the previous night’s tobacco, had a steady stream of visitors, men and women in country green, sipping coffee and brandy, devouring the bacon sandwiches and kedgeree, devilled kidneys and angels on horseback, that sat atop the long oak bar.
Beulah, it seemed to her, surveying them, was oddly childless and, on the surface, almost seemed to enjoy this strange status. The perfect green of the Minnis was rarely littered with crisp packets. Only visiting townie yobs turned the signposts ninety degree in the wrong direction, sending stray visitors off to Folkestone when they hoped to arrive in Canterbury. Yet this was a pretence. All of them, from the Tylers to Frank Wethered, had a heightened sense of order and delineation. Without children, Beulah was in danger of becoming what it so closely resembled at first glance: an image on a picture postcard, artificial, two-dimensional, deprived of the continuity and energy of successive generations. The Cartwrights alone seemed to deliver the goods, and, the fragile Bella apart, their offspring seemed only too anxious to uproot themselves and head for the plains as soon as they could walk.
Bella was the youngest in the room, quietly sipping an orange juice in the corner, by an ancient collection of corn dollies nailed to the wall. Beulah’s one current hope for regeneration, Sara, was absent. Alison could hardly blame her. There were better places for a near-term woman to be on a cold, May morning. The pregnancy, too, had started to assume an urgency of its own, as if it possessed a singular, proprietary version of time itself, and could race forward or slow the pace of each passing minute at will. When they last spoke, the previous day, Sara had sounded down in the mouth, almost scared. It was still six weeks before the baby was due around Midsummer’s Day, but the event had now entered the fevered zone of uncertainty. Each twinge, each ache and physical discomfort would be analysed, examined, peered at for clues to its provenance. It was a time, she knew, when Sara needed her more than ever, and both Justin Liddle and the Beulah mystery would, when the great event came, have to take second place to greater, more pressing needs.
John Tyler’s long, pale face appeared, peering into her eyes. “Penny for them,” he said.
She watched Marjorie, who had been by his side, slink off to the far end of the bar and felt satisfied, childish as it was. Miles was there, listening to Barnes, the cricket captain with the giant, mutton chop sideburns, hold court.
“I was wondering,” she said casually, reaching for a small kidney speared with a cocktail stick, “what dumb British habit meant you had to crawl out of bed at this godforsaken hour. And why?”
“Tradition,” Tyler said with deliberate pomposity, mocking himself. “You Americans just don’t understand, do you?”
She thought about it. “This is some kind of ceremony designed to prove you’re all different. That everything out there…” She pointed to the darkness beyond the pub window. “… doesn’t really matter. Trains and boats and planes. TV and waiting in line at Tesco. All the things that happen to most people. What counts here is the ritual because that makes you special.”
“Hmmm. Tradition as snobbery. It’s a point of view, of course. I’d agree with a lot of it. All that stuff in London. The changing of the guard. Beefeaters, for God’s sake. The nonsense the tourists love so much. But there’s a difference here. Who’s to see? We don’t even invite the local rag along to take pictures. There’s nobody to impress but ourselves.”
“Worst sort of snobbery,” she observed. “So high and mighty you don’t even deign to share it with someone else.”
He eyed her slyly. “Ah. Now you are taking the piss. You don’t believe that for a moment.”
“I don’t know what to believe any more,” she replied without thinking.
“But you will.”
“So,” she said, asking the question she knew he expected, “if this isn’t about snobbery, what is it about?”
For a moment, John Tyler looked lost for an answer. “Literally? A good old pagan festival, of course. You remember?”
“Tut, tut. You really should pay more attention. Beltane — May Day if you like — is one of the four great points of the year. The birth of summer, and the diametric opposite of Halloween. The reign of the king of light begins, the lord of darkness retreats in defeat.”
“Of course,” she said, stifling a shudder. “But what’s that got to do with cricket? Or standing around in a bar at four in the morning drinking… God what is that?”
There was a glass of what looked like liquid mud in his hand. Tyler shrugged. “Norman’s house special for these occasions. Chilled miso soup with a large slug of vodka in it.”
“Good grief,” she gasped, wincing.
“Tastes better than it sounds. And never forget, the Japanese are the most long-lived folk on the planet. Still, back to your question. Some things are impossible to explain. But let me ask this: do you think there’s something special about Beulah?”
“Naturally. It’s…” The words refused to come when her mind whistled for them.
“Unspoilt?” he suggested.
“More than that,” she replied, wrestling with the idea. “It’s apart.”
“Good,” he said with a sudden smile. “I couldn’t have put it better myself. And we’d like to keep it that way. Now, shall we go?”
The crowd at the bar was moving, downing the dregs of coffee, grabbing the last morsels of food. They walked out onto the Minnis, pulling torches out of their pockets. It was still pitch dark. The air was fresh and invigorating. A beam flashed briefly in her face.
“Miles?” she asked.
“None other,” he replied in a lifeless monotone. The weekend had been punctuated by awkward silences. She had waited for him to ask about her assignation in the little police car but all he spoke about, on the rare occasions they conversed, was the forthcoming cricket match. She wound her arm through his, nudged his big, dark body and they headed off across the pitch, out towards the edge of the escarpment and the White Horse, tagging at the end of a crowd of no more than thirty.
“Want to talk?” she asked.
“Not particularly.” She wished she could see his face in the gloom. It was unlike Miles to sulk.
“Is this going to go on for long?”
“As long as it takes. You’re my wife, Alison. That means something.”
“I know,” she said, then unhooked her arm and felt like screaming at him, filling the air with everything she knew about Harry Blamire and the toy box in the cupboard. Trying to make sense of it all. But there was a time for everything.
“Give me some space,” she said, and strode to the front of the pack to walk alongside the Cartwrights. Bella grinned shyly at her. The girl looked different today, older, more worldly. She wore an ankle-length, flowing shift and her long hair was clean for a change, tied carefully into braids with narrow ribbons threaded through them.
“This your first, then?” the girl asked.
“Beltane, of course. Better than Christmas, if you ask me.”
“We get presents, Bella?”
“Some have had ours already. Might be getting a few more before the day’s out too.”
Alison didn’t need a history book to understand Bella’s drift. May Day had a reputation, she knew that already. Maidens in the woods, hands on the tall, upright maypole. But why was Bella so excited? The revellers were so small in number, and middle-aged almost to a man.
Then they came to the edge of the Minnis and passed through the rough scrub and the tangles of blackthorn and field maple. In the east, beyond Canterbury, a faint yellow corona announced the impending arrival of dawn. There was the sound of voices ahead, the scraping of a fiddle. Alison recognised the voice of the strange girl from Yule, the one with the witch jokes. In the darkness she made out costumes, men in Morris outfits, with bells on their arms and legs. They made a soft ringing sound as they walked through the chill morning air.
The sun rose slowly on the horizon, a sliver of golden fire, and a gasp ran through the people on the hill. Somewhere, another fiddle struck up a slow tune. Men began to dance, slow, dignified actions in the growing light. Torches were extinguished. An excited chatter rose through the ranks of people sitting on the damp, hillside grass.
She felt a hand on her shoulder, turned and found Mitch Blamire leering into her face. He was holding something in his hand: a trowel. “You’ll be needing that, Mrs Fenway. No spectators allowed here.”
“But I don’t know…” she objected.
“You cut, gel,” he said, and made a stabbing action towards the ground. “You know how to do that now, don’t you?”
There was a general movement along the hill, towards the pale outline of the White Horse. The music grew louder, accompanying the growing day. Morris men danced. Figures moved over the white edge of the gigantic chalk figure, all of them women, heading towards the long, priapic horns. She followed them and watched. Slowly, painstakingly, on all fours, they were renewing the edge, taking out the rye grass and weeds that had encroached over the previous year, revealing again the pristine white of the chalk.
“Come on,” Bella said, beaming, and the two of them got down on the ground and began to worry at the stubborn carpet of growth. The Horse, she realised, was huge. There must have been a good thirty or more women working at the job. Even so, they covered only a small part of the chalk outline’s perimeter. There was still a vast amount of spoiled edge to improve.
“This is going to take ages,” she groaned.
“That’s why you need a good breakfast inside you,” Bella replied, yanking at a dogged dandelion with her hands. “You just put your back into it now, Mrs Fenway…”
“Very well then, Alison. You work at it and then we’ll be done. Can’t expect the men to tire themselves out now, not with the game this afternoon.”
She did as she was told and, to her surprise, found some pride in the neat, white line in front of her. Bella took advantage of a lull in the music and started to sing, in a loud, clear, melodious voice, “I danced in the morning when the world was begun…”
The melody ran around the line of cutters, and soon the sound of song filled the hillside, rose up to drown the trilling of the skylarks hovering over the scene. She had never seen the girl look so happy, and like this, clean, delighted, prepared somehow, she was extraordinarily pretty.
“Magic!” Bella said excitedly, breaking from the chorus. “You not singing then, Alison?”
“Don’t know the words.”
“You’re learning now, aren’t you?” she said pleasantly.
“Perhaps. Bella? Why are we breaking our backs like this when the men are lounging around?”
“’Cos it’s our job, ain’t it? You see that handsome chap with the hurdy gurdy?”
She looked down the hill. A tall, dark-skinned youth with long, curly hair was turning a medieval-looking instrument, making a wheezing, only partly musical sound.
“I see him.”
“Reckon I’ll be stroking his pole before the day’s out. If you’ll pardon my language.”
“Pardoned,” she sighed.
“And mebbe you’ll be doing the same with your copper, eh? If your hubby doesn’t pull his finger out at that match. Don’t want to get bedded by losers now, do we?”
She stabbed her trowel in the loose chalk and closed her eyes. “Bella. Please.”
“Oops. Sorry. Gob running away with itself again.”
“It doesn’t matter. There are no secrets in Beulah, are there?”
“Only important ones,” she said, eyes twinkling.
“That’s for you to find out now, missus, ain’t it?”
Alison groaned and looked at the men lounging at the foot of the figure, their silhouettes wreathed in cigarette smoke, coarse, ribald laughter floating on the fresh morning air. The light haze was lifting. It was going to be a glorious day, a true portent of the coming summer. The bleached out hues of the winter sun were gone. In their place was the bold, confident radiance of summer. She realised, with a shock, that she had never really appreciated this change before. The seasons seemed so marked in Beulah. It was impossible to escape them.
“Who are all these people, Bella? Your chap with the hurdy gurdy thing and the rest?”
“Friends,” she said coyly.
“Places like ours. You don’t think Beulah’s on its own in the world, do you? We got friends in other villages. One in Sussex. Another down Winchester way. They help us out.”
She stopped digging at the dirt and stared at the girl. “And you need it, don’t you? That help? If they weren’t here, this wouldn’t be much of a celebration at all. There’d be nobody’s pole to stroke.”
Bella cast a long, deliberate glance down the hill in the direction of Miles, who was standing with the rest of the team, hands in pockets, chewing the fat. “Oh, I should cocoa. That husband of yours is a fine catch. And there’s no harm in a bit of variety, specially on holidays.”
Alison stared at her in silence.
Bella looked worried. “I haven’t offended you again now, have I? It was only a lark.”
“No,” she said, thinking. “Take him if you want. He’s not much interested in me right now.”
“Thanks but nah. Not my type really. Too posh.”
Alison wondered. She had never seen Miles as a philanderer. “Shall we change the subject?”
The girl nodded. “Probably for the best. Shagging’s such a little thing and it causes no end of trouble. That’s why Beltane’s so good. It don’t matter what you do. Tomorrow it’s all forgot. Just like that German beer festival thing.”
Alison caught her eye. “And just like Burning Man too?”
“How do you mean?”
“You can do anything you like. Swap partners. Whatever.”
Bella stopped digging and wiped her grubby hands on the nice clean dress. “You’re fishing now.”
“Just asking, Bella.”
“Well in that case all I can tell you is that it’s like Burning Man and it’s not like it.” She surveyed their work on the hillside. The long, rigid horns of the chalk figure were now pristine, a clean white line defining them against the verdant grass. “Beltane’s fun. And Burning Man’s serious. Dead serious. You get me? God, I wished you’d give in and join us. It’d be nice to get closer.”
The musicians had struck up again, a rowdy jig. The Morris Men danced, clashing long sticks, shouting as they met and re-met on isolated hillside.
“’Nuff talk, Alison,” Bella said firmly, and plunged the trowel back into the hard, white chalk.
(c) David Hewson 2012