The trail comprised ashes, blood and lives. It began at eleven in the evening when a Land Rover parked in a pub car park in Folkestone had been stolen. In the back were three cans of petrol used for farm machinery and a set of heavy duty tools: wire clippers, a forester’s saw, log spikes and mallets, scythes and hammers. It ended in Beulah, around four in the morning, after a zig-zag path of havoc and terror.
Near Shakespeare’s Cliff, at the southernmost tip of the Downs, where England met the Channel and a mythical Lear once leapt into nothingness, they had come across an ancient, high-beamed barn medieval barn, the wood like tinder, scarcely needing the petrol to feed the flames. The blaze killed a new-born litter of pigs inside. They had listened to the high-pitched squeals until the racket brought an irate farmer out of his bed, shotgun in hand, screaming vehement threats, carrying a useless bucket of water.
This was, Beulah came to judge, the city mentality and its hatred of everything country: calculating and heartless, unwilling to let go until the dread round of deeds was complete. Eight miles on, after a measured, calm drive through the narrow, serpentine lanes of the desolate hill country, they stopped in the flat, high valley of Elham, entered a field full of Romney sheep, ripped open the bellies of three that were too slow and stupid to run away from the bright, dashing beam of their torches. Five miles further on, close to the dead straight Roman road of Stone Street, they parked the vehicle close to a riding school, hopped the fence into the nearest paddock and, with the hammer and the log spikes, blinded a mare and its six-month-old foal.
Beulah was next and it was almost as if they knew the village. The Land Rover was parked in the lay-by close to Sterning Wood where, weeks before Alison Fenway and Justin Liddle had sat, awkwardly rekindling a relationship that both had believed dead. From there, they walked, can in hand, across the Minnis, to the windmill, pale in the night, the smell of fresh paint still on the white, wooden exterior. It was close to dawn now. The first presentiment of light was on the horizon, rising in the east, beyond the scattered lights of Canterbury. The petrol mingled with the paint, spreading the flames, eating into wood that was dry and dead after two centuries of braving the gales atop the Downs. While the old woman slept, the mill around her became an upright, blazing coffin, flames licking from its foot to the tip of the ancient blades in under a minute. By the time she was awake, choking, gagging on the fumes, unable to get out of the small, single bed by the kitchen, they were gone, back to the lay-by, heading for the plain, laughing uncontrollably, wondering how best to cover their tracks.
It was an hour before Dickie Cartwright, rode his back across the Minnis on the way to work. By that time the mill was a blackened stump, like an old decayed tooth, and the flames had precious little left to consume. He called the police and the fire brigade from the public phone box outside the Green Man. Fifty minutes later — it took so long for the engine to navigate the narrow lanes from Ashford and work its way up Vipers Hill — a disconsolate crew arrived and found the man who called them standing in the smouldering remains of Granny Jukes’ living room, weeping, babbling, incapable of rational speech. By what remained of the kitchen, on a twisted pile of charred metal and cloth which had once been a bed, was an unmistakable shape, grotesquely deformed, looking like an ancient mummy recovered from some distant pyramid. Dickie Cartwright stared at it and cried like a wild animal. The firemen quietly damped down what flames remained and waited for the police. The smell of burning, and something darker, more sinister behind it, lingered over the Minnis, staining the boughs of haw blossom. Flecks of soot and motes of carbon floated in the soft morning air and descended upon the ancient cricket pitch, like snowflakes from hell.
No birds sang, not a single lark. Beulah was tainted.
(c) David Hewson 2012