On the morning of the funeral she opened her wardrobe and stared at the clothes inside. The white silk dress was back from the cleaners. It seemed almost new now. The ancient flowers had been removed. The fabric felt fresh and sleek, not something spun into being more than half a century before. Granny Jukes — Beth, as she now thought of her — provoked more mysteries dead than she ever had alive, and that made her absence all the more frustrating. There were so many questions she could have asked the old woman. No-one in the village was better placed to answer them.
And, more. She missed her. In their all-too-brief friendship some bond had been forged, some recognition of kinship. Perhaps neither fully understood it, though Beth Jukes was a lot further down the road than she was. Her absence left an ache, and the manner of it made the pain a general one. Beulah had been shaken, harmed by this violent, murderous intrusion from outside. It was impossible for the village not to turn to Marjorie Tyler and ask the simple question: Why?
She chose a bright, patterned dress, sleeveless, modestly cut at the neckline. Beth would have hated being surrounded by black during her last journey on earth. Miles watched her in silence. She was still in the spare room, there was still this separateness between them. Yet a truce had been struck. In the inevitable comparisons her head made between the two men in her life, one truth had become unavoidable too. Miles, poor, loyal, dunderheaded Miles (except when it came to money), was more than a husband, more than a lover. He was a friend, constant and true. It was Miles who had seen the opportunity Beulah offered to put her life back together again. It was Miles who stood firm when she wavered. Gratitude could, she thought, be a more enduring emotion than love, and no less worthy either.
“Two funerals in six months,” he said. “God, we’re getting old.”
She remembered the day Arnold was cremated. Slushy rain in Godalming, a sanitised service in a crematorium that reeked of municipal efficiency. And thought, but did not mention it, that there were three deaths in the family this year. “What a way to go,” she said quietly.
Miles seemed thoughtful. “You can say the same for Arnold. But…” He fiddled with his black tie, reluctant to go on.
“What were you about to say?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know. These things happen and it makes you realise one day your own turn comes. And is it any stranger lying in a bed in some godforsaken nursing home counting the hours? I’ll be damned if I’m having that.”
“So what do you propose?”
“Perhaps I’ll take up hunting, jump the wrong fence and wind up in a combine harvester. Or get felled out there on the pitch by a stray yorker from your demon copper. Alive one moment, dead the next. It’s the only way, really.”
She walked over to face him, touched his cheek with her hand. “Try to avoid it for a while yet, Miles. We’ve a long way to go.”
Hope left a faint flush on his cheek. “You’d miss me?”
“Of course I’d miss you! What a thing to say.”
“I thought,” he added delicately, “that perhaps I’d passed my use by date.”
“Oh God.” She kissed him lightly on the lips. “Miles, you are married to a bitch.”
“A perfect bitch,” he corrected her.
“Very well then. A perfect bitch. I apologise. I’m not the faithless hussy you think. Really. It’s just that… things get complicated sometimes.”
And you, she thought, are the last person I can tell. Confessing to Justin was one thing; the complicity bound the two of them together. An admission of her guilt in Harry Blamire’s end was entirely different. It would unleash all manner of demons, on her side and on Miles’, and if that happened there could be no going back.
“You belong here, Ali,” he said firmly. “You belong with me. In Beulah. In this house.”
“Maybe.” This was, she felt, a time for caution.
“No. Absolutely. You just don’t know it yet. It’s not my time. But that’ll come. Why do you think I’m here? I’m waiting. I’ll wait as long as it takes.”
“I know.” And it might be easier if he wasn’t so patient, she thought. A touch more anger, a little more fight could at least clear the air. “That doesn’t mean it’ll happen, Miles.”
“But it will. Like night follows day. Everything here is part of your healing. Part of our healing. The pain. The joy. The discovery. Even you and Sara. Don’t you ever think about that? You left New York thinking you’d never work again. Now, between the two of you, there’s a business, a sizeable one too. You’ve got a role. Things are falling into place.”
Something about his optimism was deeply depressing. “I wish that child had fallen into place, Miles. I wish I’d woken up that morning and it had all been a dream.”
Miles took her face in his hands, chastely, to press home the point. “And I wish I hadn’t gone up to London that night. I spent weeks in agony over that. But don’t you see, love? It doesn’t matter. If it hadn’t happened then, it could have happened any time. That’s one of the things Beulah taught me. Life isn’t something we can just plan, write down on a sheet of piece of paper and wait for the events to unfold. You’ve got to live it, every day, because none of us knows what lies around the next corner.”
She tried not to laugh at the huge gap in his logic. “But I thought you did, Miles. I lie around the next corner. The loyal, faithful wife.”
“Now,” he said, not offended, “you are teasing me.”
“I’m sorry,” she replied meekly. “Let’s give it till the end of the year, shall we?”
“If you like, but it’s not going to take that long. And until then, until you come back to me, you’re your own woman. Do what you like. Find something inside yourself that you can hold onto. I can wait. It hurts, but when this is over, when we’re together again, it’s going to be the best thing we’ve ever known. Promise.”
Alison toyed with some jewellery on the dressing table, avoiding an answer. Perhaps she was pushing Miles too far. Perhaps he really believed what he said.
He looked at his watch. “We need to be going, love. It wouldn’t do to be late.”
And so, at eleven in the morning on Midsummer’s Day, in the tiny hilltop churchyard of Elmleigh, beneath the shadow of the boxy Anglo-Saxon steeple, Beth Jukes was laid to rest. Alison had never been there before. The churchyard was a narrow rectangle bordered on two sides by fields in which huge, ginger-coloured cows munched lazily, eyeing the mourners with a bored, familiar gaze. The patch was dotted with headstones, many cock-eyed and ancient. A ragged line of yew trees protected the northern side of the plot by the road. The coffin, unnaturally pale and shiny in the bright summer sun, came in through an ancient lych gate covered in algae and ivy. This must have been one of the highest points in southern England, higher even than Beulah itself which was now a distant, picture postcard image a couple of hundred feet and several miles beneath them. Yellowhammers danced through the yew branches, flashing the colour of gold between the dark green needles. A lone bird of prey, a buzzard perhaps, wheeled overhead, caught in a torpid thermal. A pair of larks broke the silence, dancing noisily in the blue, cloudless sky.
Almost the entire village had turned out for the funeral, a measure of the respect the old woman carried. Norman, now in an old, creased suit that showed its age, had closed the pub for lunchtime and invited all-comers to an afternoon-long wake behind closed doors. Frank Wethered wore a new, black trilby. John Tyler was similarly funereal and alone. The Cartwrights were out in force, Bella silent, thoughtful, in a flowery top and jeans, while Dickie Cartwright looked like a man lost, his eyes awash with tears, bawling uncontrollably as the wooden box was laid next to the neat, geometric cavity that had been dug into the bright red earth.
Alison Fenway stared at the grave they had dug for Granny Jukes’ tortured frame then turned her mind to the day: the bright blue sky, the animals, the birds and, most of all, the people of Beulah, so strange sometimes, yet so certain of their place too. There were worse spots to lie in the ground. She could imagine, when her own time approached, feeling some comfort at the thought there might be somewhere like this for her too. Beneath the grass, embraced by the shroud, the dead might sleep content and dream of resurrection. Then she closed her eyes and, out of nowhere, with a cruel suddenness, saw the alternative: fire, all-consuming, merciless.
She blinked awake again and forced her mind to wander, lazily taking in the churchyard, with its ancient stones, like loose teeth in a shaky jaw. Names and dates surrounded her, births and deaths, the brief narratives of existence, the celestial jester’s anecdotes that began in the womb and ended in the grave.
Yet even this peace was not inviolate. Out of nowhere the sky was brutally rent by a deafening roar, so loud it shook the entire earth. A gigantic, low-flying warplane thundered overhead, bucked and reared as it reached the hill, filling the world with its furious noise, raining the stench of kerosene down on them. The flowers around the grave tumbled across the grass, collided with the ancient headstones under the powerful wake of the aircraft. In the adjoining field the ginger cattle stampeded in a panic, their large, round eyes rolling in fear.
Dickie Cartwright waved an impotent fist at the plane as it veered off towards the Channel. Alison Fenway breathed in the fumes of the other world, thought about Beth Jukes and the shattered sanctity of Beulah and began to cry.
(c) David Hewson 2012