This was, they all knew, the poisonous summer. After the killing of Beth Jukes, Beulah and its people lost their mutual sense of balance. The season and the earth seemed out of order, waiting for something that would bring concord back to their realm on the hill.
The contagion spread into the physical fabric itself. In the fields, by the hedgerows, in the lawns of the village houses, the earth seemed to fester, become dissolute, destroyed from beneath by rampaging armies of tunnelling moles, attacked from above by badgers and the frantic, destructive assaults of green woodpeckers, stabbing at the ground with their sharp beaks, fleeing in a caw of neurotic laughter the moment a human being approached. The gorgeous landscape was scarred. The livestock looked scrawny and feeble in the fields. The barley grew short and mean, deprived of rain, starved of some precious nutrient it had come to expect.
And over everything hung a close, enervating heat, trapped between the parched earth and the low, flat summer sky. The still, airless high pressure system drifted in at the beginning of July and refused to budge. Capping the high ground like an invisible seal, it trapped Beulah in a parched, atmospheric amber, forcing the carbon monoxide and chemical stench of the plains into the sweeter, purer upper air to make a cocktail that choked the lungs and left a dank, metallic stain in the mouth. Nothing prospered, save for racking coughs, relentless headaches and attacks of breathless, aching asthma. Few birds sang. Even the migrant swallows and swifts seemed to have deserted the village for fairer prospects, though the miasmic air was rank with food. Aphids and blackfly, winged beetles and vile, insistent bluebottles thronged the day. Thirsty mosquitoes and biting bugs disturbed the night, droning noisily out of view.
Yet no-one moved. No-one fled the village, even for a week of holiday. This was the waiting time, and it took its toll on all. Miles Fenway threw himself into his work with a vengeance, spending more time than he liked in the City, solidifying his position at the very pinnacle of the newly-merged Mersons, thrusting the memory of the fateful cricket match out of his mind. While Sara moved slowly into the daily drudge of motherhood, Alison Fenway continued to master the conduct of their business, ensuring bills were paid on time, tax accounts filed, the revenues kept on a steady growth curve. Between the chores, between the nagging, new mother worries, Sara still found time to work her particular magic: a consignment of Moroccan rugs bought here, a container of hessian wall hangings there. But all this happened down the discrete, disjointed medium of a phone line; nothing passed between their hands except pieces of paper. To Sara, who seemed the very mistress of the entrepot concept, this was nothing odd. Yet there were times when Alison felt so distant from the process — never seeing these wares, never knowing whether they were, in truth, as lousy as Sara made out — that the very cycle itself, of supply and sale and the endless round of money, became quite unreal. This was a time, Alison thought, when they needed the tangible touch of labour, of life, and all that arrived were numbers on paper.
Dickie Cartwright became a man possessed, leaving for the barren, desiccated fields at five in the morning, hitting the bar of the Green Man at the end of the day. Drunk, mute and inconsolable, he would return home most evenings around ten, physically awash with beer, incapable of speech. Angie took on cleaning work from miles around, even though they had no real need of the extra money. For day after day she would drive miles, out to Woodchurch, Chartham Hatch and beyond, to scrub someone’s toilet or vacuum a dusty carpet, anything but to be in the village, with its nervous air of anticipation. Bella stayed in her room, playing Invicta Radio at full volume, thirteen hours a day. Frank Wethered took to walking his dog across the bare, yellow grass of the Minnis for hours on end, stomping blindly through the dead bracken, doffing his summer canvas hat to all-comers, saying nothing, thinking nothing. The cricket team performed miserably. Jim Barnes announced he’d be giving up playing the next season, and no-one made a move to take his place. July ran through all their fingers like sand. Lammas passed at the beginning of August, and there was no dancing in Sterning Wood, no lone couples entwined beneath the dank, yellow moon that leaked through the stagnant night sky.
Beulah was counting the days to Burning Man. In their plain, modern house on the Minnis Marjorie and John Tyler tried to maintain appearances. Each day, he would drive to the surgery. Each weekend, he would attend the cricket match to watch Beulah lose. Few spoke to him. The Tyler’s reign was in jeopardy. Marjorie knew it too. She was scarcely seen outside the house, except for the one time, the single occasion when the village got a welcome morsel of gossip to break the hot, tense monotony of the season. It was a Thursday. Anyone close enough to the Tyler’s conservatory would have recognised the pungent odour of marijuana, overlaid with the oily fumes of gin. A storm was breaking inside their lives, between them, spilling out into the world. Fierce words, bitter recrimination, and, in the last event, some physical encounter which, Beulah rumour had it, only Marjorie could possibly win.
That night, drunk and unsteady with drugs, she had wandered out onto the deserted Minnis, stood beneath the waxy moon and bayed imprecations at the world, at everyone in Beulah and beyond who had set in train the cycle of events that was now working its way towards the pivotal point of the season, Michaelmas, the night of Harvest Home.
No-one came. No-one called the police. The next morning, Dickie Cartwright saw her vast, unconscious body slumped face down on the damp grass by one of the bench seats just outside the boundary of the cricket pitch. He swore and pumped the pedals of his bicycle harder, heading off towards Vipers Hill and a day on the combine. Come breakfast time, Marjorie was indoors, back in her lair. John Tyler went to work with a black eye. “Walked into a door”, he told Norman when he drank a large Scotch, ignored at the bar of the Green Man that evening. No-one said a word. The poison was extant in the village, in all of them. And beyond.
One week after Beth Jukes died the police in Folkestone had arrested those responsible: two youths on a spree, high on cheap cocaine, full of fury against the world. They knew nothing about Beulah. Only the chance turn of events, the cruel god of circumstance, sent them and their can of petrol to the odd, unfamiliar windmill on the Minnis. In the plain light of day, Marjorie was innocent, as innocent as any of them. Yet innocence seemed to be an absent concept that year, and not just for Marjorie Tyler.
Down on the plain, where the choke of traffic smog never really went away, Justin Liddle went about his daily business like a man trapped inside some permanent, ever-tightening nightmare of the soul. The source of his poison was different to the rest of them, more personal, more painful. It was the guilt of complicity, running, breeding, racing through his blood, like a virus without an antidote, a fever without a cure. It carried the scent, the fleeting, holy fragrance of Alison Fenway in the very cells that coursed his veins.
(c) David Hewson 2012