On the second Monday of June, Alison Fenway stood in the front room of Crabtree Lodge, beaming into the plump, rosy face of Jamie Harrison, new-born of the parish of Beulah. Mother and son were in the very peak of health. Sara seemed set to shrug off the excess weight in record time. The child was simply perfect, a tiny bundle of pink-cheeked life, with Sara’s pale skin, a random fuzz of unexpectedly dark hair and a face that teased her. Was Harry Blamire in there somewhere? She dismissed the thought. It was wrong even to admit it into her head, though there was a resemblance, perhaps. And with it came dark, subterranean possibilities, the memory that, if this was the case, she had, unwittingly perhaps, despatched young Jamie’s father to a fiery, agonising end. They had lived in Beulah for just a year now, yet the place seemed thick with dark, encircling memories.
She held Jamie in her arms, feeling the natural curve of his tiny body against her breast, wondering what it would be like to cradle a child of her own. Sara watched her, thoughtful, uncertain.
“I’m sorry,” Sara said quietly.
“That it’s just me. I hoped we could do this together.”
“You don’t need to worry about me. I’m a survivor.”
Those penetrating blue eyes peered at her again. “Yes,” Sara said finally. “I think you are, really. You’d have to be, all the wars you go through.”
“Ah,” Alison said, nodding. “The wars. There are a lot, aren’t there?”
“Too many. Do you think we can have a year off, please? You and Miles might settle down again, get you in the family way and breed a playmate for little Jamie there.”
Alison looked into the child’s bright eyes and passed him back to his mother. He was wriggling, hungry. Sara opened up her blouse in an instant and Jamie fixed himself to the offered breast. The sight of it made Alison wince inwardly with pain.
“Alison,” Sara continued, pressing. “You and Miles will be all right, won’t you? This nonsense with Justin won’t come to anything.”
She resented being pressed. “I don’t want to talk about it. Not now.”
Sara’s eyes flashed with barely-repressed fury. “Well I do. So you’re saying it’s not over?”
She felt a headache coming on. This was not the time for an argument. “I’m not saying anything. Can we change the subject, please?”
“Not until I’ve had my say. Will you think about this for a moment, please? Are you really prepared to wreck your marriage, wreck your place in the village, just for some good-looking plod?”
“Dammit, Sara,” Alison barked back instantly. “Don’t sit in judgement on me. I’ve got two men in my life. You’ve got none. Maybe it’s easier for you.”
She backed down a little then, Alison thought. The point was a sound one. “I’m still worried about you and Miles, love. I think you need to be careful.”
That was good advice and she knew it. “To be frank,” Alison admitted, thinking out loud, “I’m no longer absolutely sure what Miles thinks. After that goddamn cricket match he sort of went to pieces. He spends more time in London than he did before, even though he promised he’d be there less. And, I don’t know how to put it, he’s just given up somehow. As if he’s waiting for something to happen. For his time to come round again. I’m sorry I shouted at you.”
“Men,” Sara exclaimed firmly, back on the women’s side again. “It’s hard to work out whether they’re impenetrable sometimes. Or just plain thick. But at least he’s waiting. Not many would do that.”
“Miles isn’t thick,” Alison objected. “He’s off balance. Upset somehow, and it’s not just about me. Hell, I don’t know.”
“You could ask.”
“I could. But I don’t think it would do any good. Miles is terribly English. We don’t have that kind of soul-searching conversation.”
Sara took her by the arm. “Then try, love. Don’t just drift apart. You’ll regret it. Miles is the one, you know. Not Justin.”
She looked at the two of them, mother and child, wondering what gave Sara, a woman who had chosen such a strange route to motherhood, the right to make this kind of pronouncement. “Don’t worry about us,” Alison replied. “One way or another it’ll work out. I spent too much damned time working to make things happen these last couple of years. Now I’m just going to sit back and ride the wave for a while.”
Sara eyed her suspiciously. “Meaning you won’t do anything silly?”
“Hope not. You know what’s most odd? That this should happen here, of all places. I lived in Manhattan for more than ten years, most of them married to Miles. We thought we had such sophisticated lives. Out on the town. Watching our friends fall in and out of affairs. And we never got caught up in that, not once. And then he inherits a funny, old house and we come to Beulah. One year later it’s like I’ve lived my life ten times over.”
“Yes,” Sara said quite seriously, “but you see the difference? Manhattan is just a city. Beulah’s a entire world.”
“Of course.” And she was right too. People didn’t get ceremonially incinerated in New York, not in her experience at least. The city was wild by design and intent; Beulah merely incorporated savagery into the exotic richness of its own identity.
“You must make it up, Alison. You must put the past behind you — the rest of us did — and get on with your lives. There’s really no alternative.”
“There is,” Alison replied grimly. “But I’ve been there twice already, and I don’t want to go back.” It was necessary to get this straight in her own head too. “And I won’t, either. I…”
She stopped speaking. A deafening noise had built up from nowhere outside the cottage, roared over them, with a force that rattled the crockery on the cottage’s flimsy sideboard, then disappeared as quickly as it came.
“Bloody RAF,” Sara complained. “Seems like the low flying season has started early this year. Why do they always pick on us? Why can’t they go and pretend bomb Ashford or somewhere?”
“I guess even paradise can’t keep out the armed forces. Perhaps they’re envious.” Alison watched the tiny shape in amazement. Jamie hadn’t even stirred. “God. He’s such a poppet.”
Sara unfastened the baby from her breast. He was fast asleep and snoring, blowing tiny white bubbles out of his mouth. “Amazing, aren’t they? You were saying?”
It seemed unimportant somehow. Alison wanted to lose this fixation with herself, if she were allowed. “When I came to Beulah I knew this was the place. Home. I never had anywhere like that before. Home was just a roof and four walls. Beulah’s more than that. I can’t explain.”
“You don’t need to, love. It was the same for me. A perfect paradise. Except perfection isn’t quite what you expect, not when you meet it face to face.”
“No.” Alison picked up the sheaf of papers they had been discussing. The partnership was going from strength to strength. The profit and loss account was steadily rising in the black. No mention had been made of the mysterious aunt again. The bright, shiny new car that stood outside Crabtree Lodge still disturbed her, but this was not a time for further complications. Economically, if not emotionally, the future seemed secure. Beulah protected those it embraced. “But what’s the price?”
“Pardon?” Sara looked pale and tired all of a sudden.
“I couldn’t help wondering. If we get so much from Beulah, don’t we have to put something back?”
The baby woke up and gave a sharp, piercing squeal. Yappy joined in from the hearth with a pathetic howl. “Bugger,” Sara cursed. “Nappy time and I bet it’s a gruesome one.”
“Sorry. I was just babbling.”
“That’s true,” Sara replied, working on Jamie’s all-in-one suit.
“I’d best be going. You’ve got your hands full. Don’t feel the need to rush back to work. I’m doing fine. I just wanted to keep you up-to-date with the figures.”
Sara struggled with a forest of writhing arms and legs, “God, you’re an angel. One day soon, when he’s behaving, we’ll pop over to the Green Man and down a few.”
“Done,” Alison said, and with one last, lingering look, was out of the door, out into the fresh air of the Minnis. Summer was racing fast to the Downs now. Swifts and swallows danced in the air above her head. The hedgerows were alive with sparrows, chaffinches and the darting shapes of robins. Balsam grew rampant near the blackthorn thickets, thick lush stems bearing the promise of a torrent of pink blossoms. Down on the distant plain by the main road to Canterbury the fields of rape made brilliant yellow patches in the hazy blue fug of traffic fumes. Here, high up on the Minnis, it was impossible to smell either the pollution or the harsh, cloying scent of the distant crop. None of the hill farmers grew the damned stuff. For them, the crops were traditional: wheat and barley, pasture for the flocks of tubby sheep that grazed idly on the rolling meadows.
Puffs of cumulus sat in the blue sky looking like cotton wool. Beulah was immaculate, impregnable in her isolation. Alison strode out, back towards the empty cricket pitch. It was nearly noon. The first cars had arrived at the Green Man, incomers looking for lunch. She breathed deep of the clean, sharp air, feeling how it cut through the cobwebs in her head. Then her eyes settled on the tall white shape of the windmill, set back from the common, down its own gravel track. May Day was a confused jumble of memories, some good, some uncertain. Among them was the wrinkled, perky face of Granny Jukes issuing an invitation, for the first time.
She changed tack, veered away from the path by the perimeter of the pitch that led to Priory House, crossed the road, strode quickly past the Tyler’s house then turned down the pitted gravel lane that ran to the windmill. Close up it seemed much smarter than she had expected. The woodwork was in fine condition, recently painted a brilliant white. The downstairs windows were edged in glossy black. A small extension had been added at the rear so that the living space was now more sensible; without it, the mill would, she guessed, have been no more than forty feet in diameter. Above her the arms of the sails were still intact, but bare, wooden stumps, devoid of fabric. On the big, primitive gearbox that joined the contraption to the body of the mill someone had affixed a vast metal circlet, locking the turning mechanism in place. It was now rusty, orange and disfigured. Many years had passed since the Beulah mill had ground the tough, gritty local barley.
Alison raised her hand to the large, brass knocker in the shape of a horned imp, then withdrew it. The door was opening already and behind, in a wheelchair, all smiles, revealing rickety, yellow teeth, was Granny Jukes looking rather smart in a clean white cardigan and floral print dress.
“Been expecting yer, gel. Come in, come in.”
“You’re a witch, granny,” Alison said, bemused, and was further amazed when she stepped inside the mill. She had been expecting something close to squalor and the dank, close smell of a home that rarely benefited from fresh air. In fact, the room was delightful: spotless, well aired and, just like Sara’s cottage, packed to the gills with furniture and bric-a-brac, so much of it that it made the place seem twice its real size.
“A witch?” the old woman cackled. “You daft ha’porth. I saw you coming down the track. I may be eighty nine and scratching at the casket but my eyesight’s as good as when I were seventeen. Now you go get that kettle on and we’ll have a cup of char.”
She did as she was told, watched all the time from the wheelchair. The kitchen was in the extension, with all the mod cons including a microwave. Everything about Granny Jukes’ windmill seemed impeccable.
“Old Marjorie does it.”
“The cleaning, of course. That’s what you was wondering. How come an old crone like me keeps everything spick and span? Marjorie, that’s how. She can be quite sweet when she feels like it, though I hear you think contrary. And to be frank with you, there’s things I find less than satisfactory about her. We all do.”
Alison poured the milk into two teacups and placed the pot on the table, waiting for it to brew. The great Beulah tea ceremony… all the proper rituals had to be followed.
“What do you hear, exactly?”
“Like I said. You two’s mortal enemies. Which makes no sense to me at all. Not unless you’re planning on becoming the cat that gets the cream yourself. Well, are you?”
She couldn’t help laughing. “Granny, I don’t even know what you’re talking about. And even if I did, the answer’s no. I’m quite happy just being in the background.”
“Can’t do that in Beulah. You’re either in or you’re out. No half-way houses here. Thought that townie friend of yours would have told you that. How she doing then, her and the young ’un?”
“I just came from there. They are… in tip-top condition.”
The old woman picked up the teapot, poured and said with a grin, “Well ain’t that dandy? Got digestives in the kitchen if you be wanting them.”
“Not for me… but if you’d like some?”
“Nah. You lose your appetite when you get older. Nothing tastes of much. Like eating straw. You mind that. One day you’ll wake up and see it’s all gone, just in a flash, and you’ll be left wondering at what you missed.”
Alison sighed. “Thank you, Granny. That piece of advice always sounds sensible every time I hear it.”
“You bet. So what do you think of my little home?”
Alison gazed around the smart, circular room, with its planked walls, full of old photographs and chinaware. A set of steps led up the far side to what she guessed were two further floors above.
“Not much use to me now,” Granny Jukes said. “Can’t make them stairs any more, so the social paid for me extension. Now I got a little bedroom right next to the kitchen over there. Right handy. I get around on me frame, make a cup of tea when I want it.”
Alison couldn’t help but be impressed. By the mill, and its owner. “It’s beautiful,” she said. “How long have you owned the place?”
The old woman shook her head. “How long? What you talking about, gel? Jukes has always owned it. Lord knows how long it’s been in the family.”
“I should have guessed. You must have seen a lot of changes around here I imagine?”
Granny Jukes wrinkled her ancient nose. “Changes? Not more than you could count on a hand. Motor cars mainly, blasted things. Me Dad had it when it still was a mill, of course, and we lived in one of them tenants’ cottages by the boozer. Money went out of that between the wars, of course. He went to work casual, on the farms, and we moved in here.”
“And after…” It came out so easily until Alison checked herself.
“After?” The old woman’s eyes twinkled. “You mean when I’m gone? No need to be shy about that. Everyone pegs it in the end, don’t they? When I go, I go, and they’ll have all the fun in the world reading out Beth Jukes’ will and finding out I leave it all to the dog’s home in Canterbury. That’s our secret, by the way. No regrets. I may look like a shrivelled old prune now, but I had my time here. Was Queen of the May long before Marjorie Tyler, or that poor cow Mary Wethered come to that. You just see this skinny, old body now, but these bones have seen their share of life, believe me. Just ’cos I never thought a man worthy of marrying don’t mean I never got the best thing they got to give a girl, do it?”
Alison smiled, not indulgently. Granny Jukes was as sharp as a razor. “Queen of the May?”
“Or whatever you choose to call it. Not the name that matters, is it? What it stands for.”
“And,” Alison asked, a little excited, “that is?”
“Respect. Keeping the village together, from generation to generation. You don’t get places like Beulah these days, and you know why that is? They forgot the ways.”
Granny Jukes waved her into silence. “Questions, questions. Stop asking, start listening. And feeling too.” She glanced down the path. “Old Ma Tyler on the way here, gel. Why don’t you pop up them stairs and take a look around the top floor. The view from the window’s best in the village they say. You can peer right at the Froggies on a clear day. And you can give old Marjorie the shock of her life when you come back down.”
“Who am I to argue?” Alison replied, and walked across the neat, circular room then started to climb the curving staircase. Judging by the amount of dust, it was scarcely used these days. The steps ran around the walls, through the empty middle floor of the mill, then opened out into the topmost part, a small, round room where the gear machinery of the sail mechanism stood at the centre like the silent, shrivelled corpse of a deformed giant. A long, narrow window replaced the opening where the original beam of the sails entered the mill. She stood on the metal box of the gears and peered out through the glass, out beyond the village looking south. Sure enough the distant curve of Dymchurch Bay lay in the mid-distance, a glorious blue under the summer sky. On the horizon, the distant outcrop of France was clearly visible through the haze. Alison stood at the window, feeling she could launch herself into the warm air from where she stood, open her arms and fly. Downstairs, the front door thunked and Marjorie Tyler’s loud voice drifted into the room.
The top of the mill was a kind of attic, full of junk. Alison stepped down from the window and walked around the great mechanical hub, noting a ramshackle collection of old cupboards, tables, boxes of photographs, plates, papers and albums. The place seemed a physical representation of Beulah’s memory. If she could peer through every box, examine every photograph, read each word, she might, perhaps, begin to understand.
She dodged underneath an ancient, battered grandfather clock, stood up and was, for a moment, terrified. Something had enveloped her, a ghost, white and feathery, that came out of nowhere and descended on her face. It smelled of dust and flowers, its long arms flapped against her cheek, feeling like dead skin, and she would have screamed, as loud as she could, if something at the back of her head hadn’t checked the sound, argued for reason, ordered her eyes to look again.
What had scared her was, when she regained her senses, nothing more than a dress. Long and white, with ancient flowers attached to the chest and shoulders, it was made out of soft, thin silk, almost transparent with age. It fell from a hanger attached to a beam, shifting in the light wind that came through the patchy tiles of the mill. And Alison knew, on the instant, what it was, knew with a certainty that defied explanation. Once, years ago, a younger Beth Jukes had become Queen of the May, before Marjorie Tyler, before Mary Wethered. This was the dress she wore on the day she was transformed. She touched the fabric. It felt deliciously soft and sensuous in her fingers, as if some power remained from across the years, a charge that had deserted its owner who now sat old and wrinkled in a wheelchair downstairs. The attic was full of gewgaws and baubles, books and memorabilia, that could speak more directly. But nothing, it seemed to her, had the power of this single, delicate piece of ancient clothing.
She walked down the rickety stairs, hand carefully on the rail lest she stumble. Granny Jukes was in her wheelchair, sipping at another cup of tea, looking beatific as Marjorie bustled around the room, dusting with a cloth, whistling an unrecognisable tune.
“You was a while,” the old woman said triumphantly. “Enjoying the view?”
Marjorie turned and went bright red.
“It’s a lovely view, Granny,” Alison replied. “It’s a lovely home.”
Marjorie stared at her, stony-faced. “I wasn’t aware…”
“Half deaf as well as half daft,” Granny Jukes interrupted. “I heard her clumping about like she had boots on. Fair intake of breath at something up there too, if I’m not mistaken.”
The old girl was cunning. She never missed a trick. “The dress scared me, I’m afraid,” Alison explained. “Bumped straight into it.”
“Ah, the dress.” The ancient eyes twinkled with the same bright merriment she had seen in those of Jamie Harrison, just a while before. “Stories that could tell if it could talk, eh?”
Granny Jukes looked her up and down, smiling broadly. “Reckon that’d fit you, young ’un. You want to go fetch it?”
Alison scampered up the stairs without thinking. Behind her she could hear voices rising, Marjorie beginning to complain bitterly. The dress lifted easily off the hanger. A shower of thin dust came with it. The thing couldn’t have been moved in years. She walked downstairs with it over her arm and stood in front of the wheelchair, feeling like a girl again.
Granny Jukes was in mid-lecture with Marjorie. “Don’t you be going on at me about gratitude, woman,” she yelled with glee. “You do it ’cos you have to. I passed everything on to Mary Wethered good and proper. Bet you reckon that Cartwright gel ought to be doing the same for you too one day. If that ever comes to pass.”
Marjorie’s face was redder than ever. “But it’s a village heirloom,” she complained, half stuttering. “Not yours.”
“Arseholes!” The old girl was loving it. “Me mam made it, I christened it. So to speak. You see them blossoms?”
Alison touched the shrivelled flowers on the dress, felt the crisp dry texture of the petals crumbling in her fingers.
“Picked them meself. Blackthorn and dog rose, summer of 1940 when those bleeding Germans was up in the sky getting knocked about good and proper by our boys. Don’t need the likes of you, Marjorie Tyler, to come telling me what’s mine and what ain’t.”
“All the same…” Marjorie whined.
“Splendid!” The old woman’s face was rent by an enormous, gap-toothed grin. Unconsciously, Alison had let the dress fall in front of her, as if she were trying it for size in a store. It was a perfect fit. “Wear it. Just for me.”
There was a battle going on, Alison thought, and it was not one that concerned her. “I couldn’t, Granny. It’s yours and it’s precious to you.”
“All the more reason why I gets to say where it goes. Do as you’re told. Indulge an old woman.”
Alison took off her jacket, then her blouse and jeans. She stood in her underwear, undoing the old, covered buttons at the back of the dress.
“Look at her!” Granny Jukes crowed. “You think you’d get your fat frame in there, eh, Marjorie?”
“This is wrong,” Marjorie Tyler said firmly, the colour rising in her face. “This is wrong and you know it. You can clean your own damn sty if you go on like this.”
“I’ll help,” Alison said immediately. “If it’s a burden to you, Marjorie. I’ll do it.” Then she slipped the dress over her head. The smell of old dust and ancient flowers was overpowering. Yet the fabric felt delicious against her skin. It shifted, clinging to her like gossamer woven from wispy spider webs, as she took a few steps in her stockinged feet up and down the room.
“Look at her!” Granny Jukes bellowed. “Now there’s a Queen of the May.”
Marjorie swore vilely and swept her hand along the sideboard, sending an old blue and white Delft plate, kept carefully on a stand, to the floor. It shattered noisily into a thousand pieces.
“Ignorant cow,” the old woman yelled at her. “You pick that up or all the world’ll be hearing about your thieving ways.”
“I’ll do it,” Alison said immediately, and went into the kitchen for a brush and pan. There were words behind her, harsh words on both sides.
When she returned, Marjorie was in the doorway, glaring at both of them. “What I got, I got by way of right,” she said, quite calmly.
“Stolen,” the old woman repeated. “Like some toerag from down the hill, and look where that got us. What one person thieves, another can take back. You remember that, Marjorie Tyler.”
The door slammed with a deafening noise. Alison took off the dress, folded it carefully then put it on a chair.
“You take it, gel,” Granny Jukes said. “I meant every word of that. You’d make a finer Queen of the May than that old cow, any time.”
“I don’t want to be Queen of the May, Granny. I don’t want to be anything but me.”
Granny Jukes nodded. “Well in that case you just take that frock as a gift then. From an old woman who’s grateful for all the help you’re going to be giving her from now on. Marjorie means that, you know. She won’t be back, and I’m not having those buggers from the social in Ashford poking around my home when they feel like it.”
She felt the lovely fabric, the warmth of the silk. “Thank you. I’ll cherish it.”
“You bet you will. Now get your clothes on and be gone. I’m watching Countdown in a couple of minutes and I like doing that on me own.”
Alison picked up her clothes from the floor and slowly put them on. Granny was right about one thing. She was in good shape. Whether it was the spell in the nursing home or Beulah, her body felt tauter, fitter than it had done in years. Without thinking, she bent down and gave the old woman a light kiss on the cheek, said goodbye, and, with the dress over her arm, was headed for the door.
“You’re too kind,” she said with a smile.
“Nonsense. That thing was made for the likes of you.”
(c) David Hewson 2012