Norman had put the summer chairs and tables outside the pub. They grabbed the last spare set and set down their drinks and sandwiches. Sara patted her vast stomach and said, “Eat up, son. The time for drip feeds is fast disappearing.”
Alison watched Miles and Bella leave the house, not even looking at each other. He ambled over to the cricket nets and joined in the casual banter and half-hearted practice. She was away to the Morris Men and the musicians, clean, fair hair flowing in the wind, ribbons twined through the locks once more, wearing a long cream linen shift Alison had bought, during a different lifetime, from Banana Republic on Fifth Avenue. She looked ecstatic.
“You know the sex?” Alison asked, suddenly realising the import of Sara’s words.
“I couldn’t stop myself. Sorry, I’m not the patient sort.”
Alison sipped on a half of beer. The day was getting hot. “And what about dad?”
Sara looked disappointed. “Yellow card, darling. You know that subject is off limits.”
“Of course. I wasn’t asking you to nail him. Just whether he knew. Or cared.”
“I care,” Sara said firmly, and downed her orange juice. “And that’s all that counts. Bed stories are best kept behind closed doors. Yours certainly are, as far as I’m concerned.”
Alison laughed dryly. She couldn’t help it, though the memory of the bedroom remained deeply disturbing. “Jesus Christ, Sara. What’s happening? I’ve just had my first experience of lesbian sex, with a teenage girl at that. She then goes on to get screwed my husband. And it’s still not lunchtime. I never even used to think sex was such a big thing. All of a sudden my morals got turned upside down and I’m as crazy as the rest of you.”
Sara poured her second bottle of Britvic. “To hell with morals. This is May Day. Or Beltane to be precise. Don’t worry. It passes.”
“But I am worried!” She watched the team stroll over and take a leisurely look at the wicket. “No. Take that back. I’m not. Not that much. And I feel I should be.”
“Ah. You want to feel guilty, and it fills you with guilt that you’re not.”
Bang on target as usual. “That’s about it.”
“Poor Alison. You have such high standards. You expect so much of everyone. You don’t think you’re alone, do you? In messing around a bit once in a blue moon? Falling for Bella’s little lines?”
She was puzzled. “Little lines?”
“Don’t tell me.” Sara put on a passable impersonation of Bella’s Kentish inflections. “‘I done this at night school, missus. Just you lay back and relax’.”
“How the hell…?”
Sara just smiled wanly at her.
“Oh,” Alison gasped, as the idea began to dawn.
“Like I said. You’re not the only one. And Beltane does come round once a year.”
“Quite.” She felt like another drink. Something stronger.
“Did you enjoy it?” Sara asked frankly.
She thought about her answer. “I guess so. Hell, I was out of control. Enjoyment’s not the word. It happened. And I don’t think it should.”
Sara shook her head. “You do like to complicate things, love, don’t you? Just go along with the local view for once.”
“Darling, people here have appetites. When they’re hungry, they satisfy them. That’s it and that’s all of it. And besides, it won’t happen again.”
This was something else she failed to understand. “Why not?
“Because Bella’s done what she had to. As far as they’re concerned you’re on message. In the team. Part of the club. Could be worse. You could have got Frank Wethered instead. And Miles might have been lumbered with Mad Marjorie, though I find that a touch hard to imagine.”
“Too much for me,” Alison exclaimed and headed for the bar for refills. When she returned, John Tyler was at the table with a cheap white cotton hat over his bald pate, trying to keep off the sun. He and Sara were already deep in conversation. Alison listened with mounting horror.
“The one thing I don’t understand, John,” Sara was saying, “is the timing. It’s all very well people bonking like bunnies in the morning. But what about the Warriors of the Willow? We hate losing to Wye. What’s this going to do for their cricket?”
“Ah,” Tyler said, erecting a long, pale finger. “Medically speaking of course, sex before battle is distinctly bad news. The laws of physics naturally apply. Energy expended cannot be quickly replaced. But, as I frequently have to point out to you newbies, literal explanations do not always tell the whole story. That great fraud Aleister Crowley, for example, who died in Hastings by the way…”
“Excuse me,” Alison interrupted, glaring across the table, “to what does this conversation refer?”
Sara looked at her knowingly. “I was just asking the good doctor here whether, if it’s true the team likes a bonk on Beltane morning — no names, no pack drill — it doesn’t ruin their game. I happen to put a lot of store by village pride and I don’t see why a bunch of blokes should blow it just because they fancy getting their end away.”
“As I was saying,” Tyler continued, “Crowley, who was, of course, an utter mountebank, puts forward this theory in his Thelema garbage that the act of orgasm itself — male or female — has innate magic properties. That’s magick with a ‘k’ in his version, but still a load of balls. Nevertheless, this is not a new notion. The fashion for sex after military conquest…”
“You mean rape?” Alison interrupted.
“Normally, though not always,” Tyler replied, unabashed. “Post-victory intercourse, that’s a habit well documented. However, there are ancient cultures — in Greece, China, the Middle East — that practised a kind of religious, organised orgy before battle in the belief that it released some kind of mystical force from within the body. Reich had much the same idea as Crowley of course and called it orgone energy. But there’s also the Hindu prana, meaning the body’s vital airs, of course, as does the Taoist ch’i…”
“Just a minute,” Sara objected. “You’ve rattled through two complete shysters and a couple of world religions in one breath. It’s a bit much to swallow.”
Tyler looked impatient. “I am merely trying to answer the question to the best of my knowledge. Physically — in the world of Newton — it follows that they must have less energy to expend on victory. Metaphysically, there are those who believe the act of orgasm releases some other form of energy which may, or may not, more than compensate for this loss.”
Alison looked sceptical. She slapped her purse down on the table. “That is absolute bullshit. A fiver says Wye will win. I bet that lot haven’t been dancing the jig-a-jig all morning.”
“Ah,” he smiled, “a wager. You know my weakness. Done. For the remaining duration of the match, however, I advise abstinence from now on. Particularly,” he said, staring at Sara, “for you my dear.”
“Believe it or not,” she replied, aghast at the idea, “I had not been considering joining in with that little ceremony.”
“Good idea. You’d be amazed how many early deliveries are down to sex, even as late as eight, nine months into the game. And people still believe we do it just to reproduce. Ah well. You take care. I suspect the time draws near.”
Sara reached out and patted Alison affectionately on the arm. “Don’t worry. I have a friend. And a partner. Ali’s been a marvel.”
“Good,” Tyler murmured, and for once Alison felt she had done something that met with his approval.
There was a noise on the far side of the Minnis. A white coach drew up next to the cricket pavilion and disgorged a gaggle of men dressed in white. Next to the motley crew of Beulah they looked remarkably fit and organised. Justin was there, Alison saw, smart and upright in neatly creased whites. He positively shone under the bright May sun. By contrast, Miles, with his dark olive skin and duller clothing, seemed somehow a lesser man: older, weaker, more in doubt.
“Ah,” John Tyler said, beaming, “the sun kings arrive, looking fine and fair and wholesome. All ready to conquer. I don’t suppose you’d care to change that bet?”
“You mean now you’ve seen the cut of the Wye team’s jib you want to drop out?” Alison replied, with narrowed eyes.
“No. Let’s make it a tenner. Make it my little contribution of ch’i to the proceedings.”
She watched Justin limber up, long arms swinging lithely, looking strong and confident. “Done,” Alison said and looked around the green, feeling happy, relaxed, almost free of the nagging doubts and worries that had dogged her when she first left the house with Sara. Suspicion was a kind of disease, one that fed upon itself.
It was Beltane. The White Horse now stood pristine on the downland scarp. A small flock of disputatious swifts swung through the air overhead, chittering constantly, like tiny black scimitars carving their paths across a perfect blue canvas. White figures ambled around the flat, close-cropped grass of the pitch, casually stomping down the odd bump, picking up a stray twig, puzzling over the odd bare, brown patch of earth. There was a crowd too, a small one, as much musicians and dancers as locals. Perhaps, she thought, that was how they preferred it. This event was no village fete. There were no stalls, no raffle tickets. It existed for the game, and, above all, the day.
Alison Fenway tried to see the whole of the Minnis in one glance, to freeze it forever in her memory: the verdant common, the line of cottages by the pub, Priory House, large and grand, and, on the opposite side, well behind the perimeter road, the white outline of Granny Jukes’ windmill.
On the vast, green pitch the first ball of the day careened through the warm air. Winter’s grip was loosening. Summer, hot feverish summer, was coming out to play.
(c) David Hewson 2012