“Justin.” Alison wished she could stop crying. He was in uniform, watching some more senior colleagues from Ashford walk through the rubble of the mill, turning blackened objects over with the toes of their shoes. “This isn’t what it seems. I told you. Granny had this terrible argument with Marjorie Tyler yesterday. You can’t ignore that.”
He looked at the rest of the villagers, standing in a mute, angry gaggle by the ambulance. Marjorie Tyler was among them, looking uncertain, maybe even scared. Voices were raised. The little crowd was shocked and angry, and some of it seemed to be going in Marjorie’s direction. John Tyler was nowhere to be seen.
Justin took out a neatly folded handkerchief and gave it to her. “You shouldn’t jump to conclusions. Whoever did this seems to have left a string of nastiness behind them. We’ve got reports of stuff outside Folkestone. We’ve found the Land Rover they nicked burned out on one of the industrial estates in town. They were just a bunch of joyriders out for what they consider fun. Maybe it all got out of hand. Maybe they didn’t even know someone was inside the mill. It doesn’t look like a house, after all. Particularly in the dark.”
“That’s what they want you to believe. Trust me. Marjorie’s losing her grip here and Granny was helping twist it from her. She takes her revenge. I told you.”
“Possibly,” he sighed. “But where’s the proof? If we catch the louts who did this and they finger Marjorie, all well and good. But without that, it’s just guesswork.”
He was right, she knew it, but that didn’t make things any easier. “You could search their house.”
“Why? We’d need a warrant. I’d have to go to a magistrate and ask for one. On what grounds? That she’s a vengeful witch? That’s going to work, isn’t it?”
She stared at the tragic remains of the mill and said, simply, “Shit.”
“Look. I know how you feel. But we need to take this one step at a time. We need information. So why don’t you go over there with the rest of them and listen to what’s going on? There’s something up, believe me. It may be just what we need.”
Alison walked over to the small crowd by the ambulance, went straight to Sara, who was holding Jamie to her tear-stained face, and hugged the two of them. The baby, wide-eyed and baffled, seemed to be the only individual in the vicinity who hadn’t been crying.
“This is wrong,” Sara said, very firmly. “This is completely wrong. Things like this don’t happen in Beulah.”
Dickie Cartwright, looking half mad, heard her and bellowed, “Bloody right there, missus. Not ever.”
The crowd gave a mutual murmur of support. Justin was right, Alison thought. The mood was ugly, and it was not just directed at the anonymous thugs who torched the mill.
Frank Wethered, his eyes pink and watery beneath the ever-present trilby, pointed an accusing finger at the wrecked shell of the building. “It was different when Mary was alive,” he said in an indignant, high-pitched voice. “And when Beth was in charge, not that most of you can remember that.”
Alison peered at Sara. “Beth?”
“Granny Jukes, beforehand. Funny to think of it now, but she never was a granny, was she? Not strictly speaking. And yet…” The tears welled up again. “Oh, bugger.”
“Moreover, Marjorie,” Frank Wethered continued, “this is not a unique occasion. Beulah has been tainted too many times in recent years. I suspect…”
“Oh, shut up, Frank!” Marjorie Tyler yelled at him. She was red in the face, a bright, florid red, but her eyes were white and sharp and piercing. “Stop talking such absolute bollocks. Are you saying I’m responsible for this?”
Wethered looked daunted by the vehemence of her response. “I… I didn’t say that. All I’m saying is something’s wrong here. We should not have to put up with this kind of thing.”
“So what am I supposed to do?” Marjorie demanded. “Erect a border around the place? Issue us all with passports? We live in the modern world, Frank. We can’t avoid it. The horrible little bastards who did this pinch cars, cause havoc. They hate us because we have something they envy. And now and again they come in and get their revenge. We keep to the old ways. We do our best. It keeps us safer than most. It doesn’t make us impregnable, Frank. What do you think this is? Magic?”
Alison listened to her rant and the lacuna in her logic was so obvious, it had to be challenged. “But it is a kind of magic, isn’t it? At least it ought to be. If it isn’t, what’s the point?”
They looked at her in silence, interested. Bella Cartwright gave her a secret, knowing wink.
“And you can shut your fucking gob too,” Marjorie bellowed. “What does some Yank incomer know about us? Huh?”
Alison left Sara and the child and walked over to stand directly in front of Marjorie, not cowed by her vast physical presence. “Enough to understand when something’s wrong. To know that the Queen of the May, or whatever you are, doesn’t tell her people to shut their fucking gobs or stride around like some tinpot South American dictator.”
“Hah!” When Marjorie laughed, she looked half deranged. “You know these things, do you? All you know, girl, is how to nip into the woods with your tame Mr Plod.”
Alison extended a hand and, very deliberately, prodded her index finger into the flab of Marjorie’s shoulder. “My business is my business. What I do, concerns me alone. You shouldn’t judge things you can’t understand, Marjorie. I’m no saint. I don’t think Beth Jukes was either. Are you judging her too?”
Frank Wethered gave out with a laugh that sounded like an old mare whinnying. “Beth was no saint at all, dear girl. She picked plenty of cherries hereabouts when she was younger, mine included. More’s the pity none of us was good enough to wed.”
Marjorie glowered at him. “Be quiet old man. Your time’s past.”
“But,” Alison interjected, “everyone’s time passes, Marjorie. Beth’s. Frank’s. Yours. Mine. The question is what do we do with the time when we have it. And Beulah’s bleeding, isn’t it? You’re right. I’m just an incomer. A Yank. I don’t understand the half of what goes on here. But I can see when something’s wrong. I can feel it.” There was a loud murmur of assent from the crowd. “Why can’t you? Or are you just going through the motions? Putting fake skin on the old ceremony?”
Alison felt a hand on her shoulder. It was Sara, trying to hold her back. She shook herself free, and the old saw — in for a penny, in for a pound — rose in her head. “I think you are responsible, Marjorie. I don’t understand how. There are people here who probably know that better. But you led us here somehow, and Beth Jukes knew that too.”
Marjorie’s eyes narrowed. “She had her innings. She was a senile old woman. Not worth the time I spent on her.”
“Are any of us, Ma?” Bella asked cheekily from behind Marjorie’s vast bulk. A whisper of rebellious laughter ran around the crowd.
“Know your bloody place, Bella,” Marjorie spat back at her. “And as for you…”
It came so quickly and she wasn’t expecting it. Marjorie Tyler moved her vast bulk with an extraordinary turn of speed, pulled one arm back and punched Alison hard and low in the stomach. “Any of your Plod’s seed up there we’ll soon have it out,” she hissed, then stood gloating, hands on vast hips.
Alison had stumbled to the ground, desperately short of breath, vision disappearing behind a tumbling wall of blackness. The vast shape of Marjorie Tyler now loomed over her. A stiff boot kicked at her midriff, came back and stabbed at her cheek. There was the salty, iron taste of blood in her mouth, and voices, rising, crying, screaming.
Marjorie’s presence retreated, a male voice, familiar through the hubbub, railed at her attacker, a harsh, admonitory tone of aggression behind it. Gasping for breath, racked with pain, Alison was too shocked, too confused to put a face to it. She rolled herself upright, sat on the ground, trying to think straight. Uniforms were coming to her, policemen and firemen, and someone was holding Marjorie tightly by the arms, yelling at her, holding off the violence.
Alison felt grateful and looked at the man. It was Miles, loyal, faithful, predictable Miles. He must have heard something on the radio in London, she imagined. Heard of the trouble, understood the pain it would cause, and simply abandoned his desk, driven home where he belonged. To his faithless wife, to a cold, empty house.
“Miles,” she said, beginning to weep again. “Miles.”
His familiar hand came down and patted her head. “It’s OK, darling. This nonsense is done.”
The policemen were with them now. She didn’t even want to see Justin’s face there.
Alison Fenway mustered all her dignity, and stood up. On cue, the tiny Jamie Harrison let out an exultant yell, registered her presence, and held out his arms, demanding to be taken. Alison laughed, and tasted again the blood in her mouth. Sara offered up the child. He came willingly, gurgling, and nestled in Alison’s arms.
“From the mouths of babes,” Dickie Cartwright said quietly. “You all see that, then?”
The crowd was silent, even Marjorie, who stood, speechless, red cheeks glistening with sweat, a hint of apprehension in her eyes.
It was, she thought later, as if a gauntlet had been thrown, straight onto the verdant grass of the common. But by whom? Alison leaned on Miles for support, never once turning back to see the charred stump of the windmill or wonder what Justin was doing just then. Events had shifted into some new, unforeseen conjunction. And there was mourning to be done. For Beth Jukes, and for Beulah itself.
(c) David Hewson 2012